Fantastic Fest 2012 First Half Reviews

Another Fantastic Fest has ended and I have slowly acclimated myself back into normal human affairs so once again you can be bored/delighted in my re-cap of the largest genre festival in the United States.

Another Fantastic Fest has ended and I have slowly acclimated myself back into normal human affairs so once again you can be bored/delighted in my re-cap of the largest genre festival in the United States.  Eight days, 36 movies, first-time attendees (Mike D and the Ziggler!), parties, events and guest-stars galore, Fantastic Fest every year exceeds expectations.  This year’s films were surprisingly solid, with bad flicks few and far between.

The first day began with an unprecedented 5 theaters showing the World Premier of Frankenweenie 3D with director Tim Burton and cast Winona Ryder, Charlie Tahan and Roland Hand himself, Martin Landau!  I, of course, eschewed that screening and attended Doomsday Book, a science-fiction anthology film about 3 different ways the world could end, directed by Yim Pil-sung and Kim Ji-woon (Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, The Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil).  The first part is an ill-thought-out zombie outbreak, the second bit a transcendental treatise about a robot gaining enlightenment and the third bit is a great short about a girl who wrecks a pool ball and orders another from a shady website before her dad finds out.  The first two bits are watchable but the third short really sings.  Overall, not my favorite film of the Fest but a solid effort well worth the watch.

The next film was on my “highly anticipated” list, especially since we got to see it a day earlier than the rest of the U.S. The film, of course, was Dredd 3D.  Now, many of you have already seen the movie by now so you know that it’s The Raid: Redemption with less kung-fu and more shooting.  Overall, I thought it was a solid action movie but was somewhat of a one-trick-pony with it’s “Slo-Mo” effect.  The Q+A unearthed the fact that the movie was not conceived in 3D so if you see it in 2D you won’t be missing all that much.  Judge Anderson pretty much carried the movie and I like the fact it was treated with more seriousness than I expected.  I certainly liked The Raid better but this was a pretty effective Dredd film that captured enough of the spirit of the old 2000AD issues.  Both Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby were in attendance and I was able to hang out with Judge Anderson a little after the film (I bothered the stunning Ms. Thirlby about the Anderson character, who is one of my favorites and complemented her on her performance, which was effective.  She is very cordial and just as attractive in real life).  No Anthrax song in the credits, which is a bummer.  Eagerly awaiting the Anderson spin-off.

I ended the first day with one of the few horror films I would be attending this year, the U.S. Premier of La Memoria Del Muerto, or Memory of the Dead.  This movie garnered mixed reviews but I enjoyed it fine.  The film centers around a woman who’s husband has died and her heavily satanic way of returning him to life.  The screenwriter jokingly referred to it as a “romantic comedy” which ends up being bloody as fuck.  It has a real Evil Dead 2 vibe in it’s low budget-big idea feel and, though the ending was rather transparent, was pretty effective in what it was trying to do.  The director/screenwriter wanted to make a “people terrified in house” movie and their only objective was “how to get them to the house and how to keep them there.”  Once again, well worth the watch and a decent way to end day 1.

Day 2 began with the U.S. Premier of a visual mind-trip out of Japan called Warped Forest.  The quasi-sequel to 2005’s The Funky Forest (which I sadly missed), this entirely self-funded cinema experience of weirdness packs so many bizarre ideas into 81 minutes it is almost impossible to lay out the narrative threads that make up this tremendous movie-going experience.  The movie is either about 3 salary-men who disappear from a local eating establishment to find themselves in a strange forest or it’s about people who inhabit a strange forest who somehow get transported into our dull reality….or is it?  A truly wonderful film.  My only notes are “just the kind of fucked-up that should be at Fantastic Fest” and “This made me very happy.”  10/10 for sure!

Next on the agenda was the World Premier of comedy maven Doug Benson’s new documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Rolled, about Mr. Benson going on a comedy tour to raise money to make a film about going on a comedy tour.  At first I was a little sad about this being at the Fest, seeing as it isn’t some weird genre film unless you see 4:20 as a niche genre.  The Fest sure did, making this screening one of the most enjoyable in-theater experiences I would ever have at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the film itself is packed with more laughs that I expected.  It also had an effect on films playing afterward as the theater had to be “aired out,” causing a slight delay in the next screenings.

After the Doug Benson screening, we needed something weird to keep the buzz going and the programmers had just the thing: a screening of the lost 1987 action classic Miami Connection.  To paraphrase the guide, Real life martial arts grandmaster Y.K. Kim only made one film in his career but without a doubt it is one of the most crowd-pleasing visual rampages ever to hit theater screens.  My note says “there are not enough words to describe the awesome.”  Watch in disbelief as Y.K. Kim and his non-actor band of black-belt students take the fight to the criminal element  in an effort to stop the flow of “stupid cocaine” while rocking you to the core with their hits “Against the Ninja” and “Friends Forever!”  To raise the bar even further, at the Asian Invasion party immediately following the showing (not as good this year, btw), Dragon Sound performed those hits not only for the first time since 1987 but in their FIRST EVER PUBLIC PERFORMANCE!  Drafthouse films will be putting this out on DVD this fall and I urge you to see this movie which had us all saying “how did I miss this in the 80’s?”  Don’t take my word for it;  Maurice from Dragon Sound said when he was contacted about this screening he was told “Your movie’s gonna be a big hit,”  to which he responded “Have you seen that movie?”  Enough said!

Day 3 I had a birthday so I wanted to make sure I had an action-packed day full of excellent films to celebrate.  We began with WWII epic Cold Steel, directed by long-time John Woo collaborator David Wu.  The story centers around a mountain boy hunter who saves an American GI from a downed plane.  As he is taking the GI to town for help, he is conscripted into the Chinese Army to help drive the invading Japanese out.  There is a sub-plot as well about the mountain boy falling in love with a tea-house girl but what this movie is really about is people getting shot in the face and boy, does that happen.  This was a solid action film chock full of gunfights and espionage and totally one of my highest rated films of the festival (9/10). This film continues to show that Asia has not lost a step in delivering some of the most engrossing action films ever put to celluloid.  Modern Warfare 3 players will also find out where quick-scoping came from.  Highly recommended.

Another horror film came next as I attended the U.S. Premier of Berberian Sound Studio, a bizarre atmospheric thriller about a British sound engineer who works on nature documentaries being hired to go to Italy and produce sound for a bloody giallo film.  When he gets there he must overcome his unease to make soundscapes unlike any he has made before while trying to maintain his sanity on an increasingly weird production.  The movie is quite effective and brilliant in it’s use of camera and sound, creating a very creepy and disturbing ambiance that carries through the whole movie.  It’s not enough to make up for the non-resolution of the ending but I found it to be a very watchable film regardless and should please people who were into the works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento.

I was super-excited about the next film, seeing as the last one played at the Fest 2 years ago and was very good, but for some reason Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning 3D turned out to be pretty rubbish.  Scott Adkins wakes up to a brutal home invasion where his family is murdered and he sets out on the path to bring the killer, Jean Claude Van Damme as his band of cutthroats to justice.  The movie purports to be a sci-fi/horror hybrid but turns out to be just plain boring.  Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme suffer from Expendables 2 syndrome of only being in the movie 15 minutes or so, spaced out so it looks like they’re in the whole thing.  The fights are few and far between:  Dolph vs.  Andrei Arlovski, Arlovski vs. Adkins (in the fight of the film), Adkins vs. Dolph and Adkins vs. Van Damme.  That’s it.  John Hyams, Scott Adkins and Mariah Bonner are in attendance and I find out that Hyams is tremendously long-winded and quite full of himself.  He totally thinks he’s David Cronenberg making a “third-person shooter” where “all the questions are answered in the movie,” yet he ended with the quote “did anyone even die?”  Well, that sounds like an unanswered question to me.  Positives?  The 3D was better than in Dredd with lots of exploding heads, the effects were mostly practical instead of CGI and Andrei Arlovski makes a wonderful foil, chock full of menace.  So is it worth a view?  Yes, but only if you rent it or see it for free.

Due to a schedule change, I was forced to switch my World Premier documentary choice of The Exorcist in the 21st Century to this slot.  It was a movie I was totally interested in yet seemed to fit better on another day rather than my action-packed birthday.  It wasn’t that I thought this would be a bad movie, I just felt that for Fantastic Fest that more people would be watching this for the exorcism stuff rather than the “sitting around talking about exorcism” stuff and I was right, seeing as the first 40 minutes were just talking about exorcism and what it means today before we got into the people freaking out bits.  The producer and director, both Norwegians, took the track of “exorcisms are still happening today and there is such a thing as ‘Superstar’ exorcists,” approved and monitored by the Vatican.  This true story centers around Father Jose Antonio Fortea, a Madrid-based ‘Superstar’ exorcist who travels the world speaking on the subject and Constanza, a University educated Colombian woman who believes she is possessed and is seeking the help of  Father Fortea.    I believe this would have worked better on the small screen, though it is a fascinating look at the belief of exorcism and totally picks up half-way through when Constanza completely freaks out (which the director said he never expected in a million years – “my first instinct was to lock her down, old-school redneck style”).  The director and producer also wondered “how do pagan Norwegians get to make this movie?”  Totally worth a view just to explore this belief in demonic possession.

Well, how to wind down my day 3 birthday celebration?  By viewing the U.S. Premier of the steampunk martial arts extravaganza Tai Chi 0!  Again, one of my favorite films of the festival and a solid 10/10, Tai Chi 0 is a modern, video-game infused re-imagining of the roots of Tai Chi.  Cursed with a demon horn growing out of his head, village idiot Yang Luchan follows the wishes of his dying mother to travel to the village of Chen to learn Tai Chi in an effort to stop his affliction from becoming life-threatening.  However, the people of Chen are very choosy about who learns their style of martial arts and block him at every turn, causing him to go through series of trials that leave Yang at the mercy of old woman and children with no hope of ever getting to study under famed Master Chen.  Trouble also hits the Chen village as a very Westernized member of the clan returns with plans to bring a railway through the village despite the elder’s reluctance.  Can Yang defeat this steampunk villain and learn Tai Chi from Master Chen or is he destined to die from his horned affliction?  Part 1 of a 3 part epic, Tai Chi 0 combines spectacular visuals with top-notch fight choreography by the legendary Sammo Hung to breathe new life into the martial-arts epic.  Totally recommended for a slam-bang good time in the theater!

Day 4 begins with a movie i was totally skeptical about: the U.S. Premier of Young Gun in the Time.  Done by the guy who made last year’s $5000 mess Invasion of the Alien Bikini, he won the Yubari Film Festival Grand Prize of $30,000 and turned it into this film which is co-incidentally 5X the film Alien Bikini was.  Basically a Magnum P.I. Time travel romp, detective Young Gun runs an agency always one step from bankruptcy.  He is approached by a museum researcher who begs him to find a certain watch and assassinate a certain professor.  He turns her down, as he is no hit man but is intrigued enough to follow her into the street where he witnesses her attempted kidnapping and subsequent death in the street.  However, when he visits the museum where she worked, Young Gun finds her alive and well with no recollection of ever seeing him.  It is then that Young Gun realizes that the version of the girl that came to hire him was from the future having traveled back in time to see him and thus begins not only the strangest case of Young Gun’s career but also one of the best films to hit Fantastic Fest this year.  Everything about this film is awesome, from the Magnum P.I.-infused Young Gun to the original idea to the score to the subtitles.   100% awesome and totally worth seeking out!  10/10!

The U.S. Premier of Henge and The Big Gun was next on the list as I enjoy experimental Japanese cinema and Henge definitely fits the bill.  I describe this film as Tetsuo meets Hellraiser meets Bonnie and Clyde meets GodzillaHenge begins with a marriage on the rocks as the husband believes he is being possessed by the consciousness of all living things and begins an odd physical transformation into something other than human.  His wife has no recourse other than to commit him for observation and tests, which turn out to be so invasive that he breaks out and returns home.  The wife comes to grips with his affliction and begins seducing people to bring home to her husband for food.  Once discovered, they flee until cornered by law enforcement.  That’s when things start to get very….kaiju.  The Big Gun is a short about a couple of manufacturers who’s business has failed and to make ends meet they commit to making gun copies for the mob.  Pretty soon it’s obvious that they’re not going to be paid in quite the way they had hoped and must extricate themselves from the deal.  Along the way, one of the manufacturers has an idea for another gun… a really BIG gun….  Not bad at all, with Henge being the better of the two films.

Following Henge was one of my most anticipated screenings of the entire festival, the World Premier of kitchy Australian spy series Danger 5!  All 6 parts, screened together to make one awesome anti-Hitler WWII laugh-spree.  International secret agents Danger 5 band together to stop the insidious plans of the Third Reich and, more importantly, “Kill Hitler!”  Everything about this series is laugh-out loud funny, from Hitler’s machinations (mind-controlled dinosaurs with machine guns mounted on their heads, Japanese killer robots, shark-headed henchmen, giant mechs made up of world monuments, etc) to the fact that everyone speaks their own native languages yet understand and communicate with the others at ease, Danger 5 is packed to the gills with bizarrely awesome scenes and scenarios that will leave you chortling with glee.  So damned good I saw it twice during the Fest and cannot urge you enough to check it out on youtube.  Saying any more would spoil so much but know this series is TOTALLY RECOMMENDED WITH HIGHEST HONORS.  Ilsa forever!

Next on day 4?  How about a film that didn’t make my initial radar until fellow Monkey Chris Everhart remarked “what about the movie about the guys who make Chinese Porno?”  What about it, indeed?  Vulgaria may be the comedy hit of the year and exceeds all base comparisons to Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  The movie centers around a producer in an Inside the Actor’s Studio setting explaining the trials and tribulations of making a Category III film, including but not limited to: mob run-ins, sexual harassment, mules, body doubles with pop rocks, likening producers to pubic hair and much, much more.  Truly hysterical and worth going to see if you like to laugh and aren’t afraid of some amazing situational comedy.  Totally recommended.

How to end day 4?  Maybe with the U.S. Premier of the British zombie comedy Cockneys vs. Zombies?  Sounded good to me until I actually saw it.  Not a terrible film but nothing terribly clever about it either.  Seemed very linear.  The local old folks home is being foreclosed on and some youths decide to rob a bank for the money.  The robbery is bungled and the teens flee right into a zombie horde created by a virus.  Now they must go to the old folks home and rescue the old people.  That’s basically it.  Maybe I was tried but I rather think the humor was.  I get the Cocoon bit being the crux of the comedy but this movie is filled with so much standard fare I cannot in good conscience recommend it.

Seems like a lot to process already, huh?  Well, you’re right and I’m only half-way through the festival.  Get yourself something to drink, use the restroom and we’ll see you right back here for my next 3000+ words on the second half of the festival!

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