Fantastic Fest 2011 First Half Reviews

For those not in the know, Fantastic Fest is the largest genre festival in the United States, bringing the best Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Asian and generally bizarro cinema from all around the world to our small little hamlet of Austin, Texas.

Another October begins and, as always, it signifies my coming back to reality after another excellent Fantastic Fest.  For those not in the know, Fantastic Fest is the largest genre festival in the United States, bringing the best Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Asian and generally bizarro cinema from all around the world to our small little hamlet of Austin, Texas.  This year marked the seventh Fest and I have attended 6 with my VIP ticket secured for next year’s event.  I didn’t want my opening to sound like a recruitment but if you’re into cinema you should be attending this festival.  Eight days of movies that aren’t out yet (or, in some cases, will never be), drunken goodness, famous people being normal and some great times with good friends, plus all the parties, free Shiner in the Shiner theater and great parties every night.  I’m amazed my body and mind can handle it every year.  I’m pretty good at updating briefly on Facebook about what I did and saw but this forum also allows me to correlate my thoughts a little better and do a movie by movie update of things you’ll want to see this next year (or not, depending) so if you’ll all indulge me I’ll get right to it.

DAY 1: I began the first day tired due to our British friends James Kennett, James Sudlow and Claire Posen arriving the day before and deciding to join Magnificent Bastard, Lady Lacivious and I for drinks at Spider House coffee, as well as San Antonio stalwarts Robbie Sanders and Byron Kelly and local talent Devon Athens, Robert Lambert and Geoff Glass.  The less said about that the better.  Oh, and I turned 40.  Regardless, the first film of the day couldn’t have been better picked.  I was fortunate enough to see Let the Bullets Fly, a Hong Kong comedy/action film which marked the return to form of Chow Yun Fat.  Bandit leader Pocky Zhang and his band of merry men rob from the rich and have legitimate concern for the poor.  When they rob the Governor’s train and discover he’s a fraud, Pocky and crew decide to replace him and rob his town silly.  Upon arrival, they discover that Chow Yun Fat is the local crime boss and he really runs the show.  Of course, they run to loggerheads immediately and the film becomes an exercise in how to screw over your rival and come out on top.  Chow Yun Fat chews scenery like you’ve never seen and is truly hysterical as the crime boss and his double.  The dialogue is fast and funny, the characters well drawn out and totally likable, especially You Ge as Ma Bangle, the Governor’s advisor.  Totally worth a watch for top-notch comedy and some surprising belly laughs.

My second film, Haunters, turned out to be quite a surprise as well.  Described as “50% horror movie, 50% superhero film and 100% Korean thriller,” Haunters totally delivered more story than I expected from that slightly misleading description.  An out of work laborer takes a job at a pawn shop and discovers they’re being robbed and no one knows how it’s being done.  Turns out there’s a guy in Seoul that has the ability to take over people’s minds to do his bidding.  He comes into the pawn shop when our hero is there and quickly discovers he cannot control him with his powers.  Thus begins an excellent game of cat and mouse as everyone in the city can be controlled to stop our hero and his band of foreign friends, who must find a way to stop this evil psychic menace from doing whatever he wants.  The directorial debut by the screenwriter of The Good, The Bad and the Weird, Haunters delivers a super-powered thriller with much more story than expected and one of the best soundtracks of any film I saw this year.  Totally recommended and quite a thrill ride.

After going 2/2 in my selections, my next film, Polvora Negra, seemed a solid choice for those eschewing Human Centipede 2.  The story centers around a guy whose girlfriend is killed in front of him and he himself is shot in the eye and left for dead.  Years later he returns, hired by the same criminals who shot him to end some local dispute they’re having, without knowing he’s a revenge-driven threat to them.  Sounded good on paper but in practice felt like a short film someone got more funding for and just drug it out to a feature length film.  Confusing plot, wholly unremarkable characters (except the hit man, who’s ok), continuity errors abounding and overall unsatisfying.  To it’s credit, it also had a magnificent soundtrack but that’s not enough to save this film from the morass of average it’s mired in.  Which is a shame because I didn’t hate the film; I just didn’t like it much.  Kudos to Brazil for attempting a hit man movie and the action is very solid when it happens; it’s the interstitial bits that cause this movie to be merely average and you’ll not be sad by missing it.

Well, 2/3 is an ok average but my night ended by a movie we all knew was going to be awesome and it was.  This year saw a Lucio Fulci mini-retrospective and it kicked off day 1 with a brand new digitally restored print of House By the Cemetery!  Fulci’s classic tale of a family moving into a creepy New England mansion formerly owned by the twisted Dr. Freudstein and the ghostly and bloody happenings that torment the family has never looked better.  Every blood splatter and gory goings-on caused audible gasps from an audience made up of mostly people who’d never seen this classic, which made it all the better.  The movie is funnier than you remember, the kid just as creepy, the parents just as dumb and the awesomeness compounded by being on the big screen and fully restored.  Turns out that this will be on Blu-Ray just in time for Halloween and, having just seen what it looks like, I can tell you it would be a great addition to your film shelf.  Quite a good time and totally recommended.

Day2: Oh, my!  Despite the tired and drunkenness, I wasn’t about to miss my first film of day 2.  One of the highlights from a few years ago was Korean thriller The Chaser, which was one of my favorite films.  Well, this year, the director and stars sent us their next effort, The Yellow Sea and it was all you could hope for from those guys.  Relentless is the best word to describe their films and this next effort lives up to all the hype.  To simplify, a guy in debt is forced to travel to Korea to assassinate someone to get out from under his debt.  While he’s there, he’s going to check in on his wife, who works there and he suspects is being unfaithful.  Things go wrong when he show up for the murder and it’s already being done by someone else.  What happens next is betrayal, running about, cop chases, more betrayal, stabbing, hatchet combat, more running and more betrayal, with some nice human moments along the way (aaw, who are we kidding – it’s about the hatchet work, running around, car chases and general bad-assery).  Totally one of my favorite films of the festival and should be added to everyone’s Must-See list.

Pink film.  Notorious in Japan for being soft-core exploitation films, the past several years have seen the genre turned on it’s head by directors who bring the truly bizarre to a genre more known for the sex.  This year’s entry was Underwater Love.  Described as the story of a woman who falls in love with a Kappa (Japanese water spirit) and shot by world-class cinematographer Christopher Doyle (and effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura), nothing actually prepares you for this unique viewing experience.  Underwater Love turned out to be a musical with 3 sex scenes (complete with huge kappa-member!) and a solid comedy.  Every song and dance routine looked so happy and fun (a complete dichotomy to the lyrics) and the story is as outrageous and bizarre as you’d expect it to be without going over the line or sacrificing the comedy inherent to the script.  Plus, you get to discover what an anal pearl is and it’s usage.  Totally fun and worth a view, except if you expect tons of sex.  This is just a screwed-up treat.

Nacho Vigalondo can do no wrong.  My first Festival was the year Timecrimes debuted and was hands-down one of the most mind-blowing films of the festival.  It was also my first encounter with Mr. Vigalondo himself and we became fast friends (indeed, when I asked him if I could get a picture with him in his Day of the Dead Elvis outfit at the Closing Party, he got mad because friends didn’t need to ask for that).  This year saw the return of Nacho Vigalondo and his brand new feature length epic Extraterrestrial, a high concept Science Fiction film with large amounts of Romantic Comedy thrown in.  Aliens have descended and parked themselves above major metropolitan cities – not leaving the ship or conquering anything, just parked.  Our heroes just woke up after a night of anonymous sex and have been alerted to the events of the past dozen hours by a neighbor, who also states the whole city of Barcelona has been abandoned.  It’s pretty obvious the neighbor is into star Michelle Jenner (Julia), as is her no-longer anonymous sexual paramour and star Julian Villagran (Julio), though it’s a case of unrequited love in the neighbor’s case and he suspects something more happened between our heroes (which it did and, for the record, by the end of the film every guy in the audience was into Michelle Jenner).  This wouldn’t be a problem if Julia’s boyfriend hadn’t trekked across the city to see if she was alright.  Herein lies the story of Julia and Julio and their adventures during the alien…parking?  I don’t watch Romantic Comedies as a rule but Nacho Vigalondo has made his career on defying expectations and absolutely destroying the competition with his tight scripts and brilliant dialogue.  The film is touching, hysterical, completely Science Fiction yet totally Romantic Comedy and some of the most fun I’ve had in the Cinema.  Anything this guy does is pure genius and I am honored to call him my friend.

Strangely enough, the films kept right on being good, which is rare in any film festival because you’ll always see something you didn’t like or relate to but this was one of my strongest days.  Remember [Rec]?  I hadn’t seen one of those films until [Rec]2 premiered at Fantastic Fest 2009 and I enjoyed it immensely, tracking down the first film and enjoying that, too.  Well, this year, one half of the directing team decided not to do [Rec]3 and instead did a thriller about a concierge at an apartment building who stalks a hot woman who lives in his building, all under the guise of being a well-liked and nice man.  Totally creepy and awesome and hard to talk about without spoiling anything (though I will say I’ve been an advocate of Ether for years and it’s nice to see other people think so too).  All I’ve been telling people is if you ever wanted to see Star Wars done from Vader’s perspective and in the end Vader wins, this is the film for you.  Absolutely worth watching.

There was another Fulci film here this year, totally restored and looking brilliant.  It’s one that ran at my house last Halloween, almost everyone in the theater owned it, you’ve heard me talk about it ad nauseam but it was so brilliant I couldn’t pass up the chance to see it on the big screen.  Yup.  That movie.  Zombie.  The movie where the zombie battles the shark.  Underwater.  AWESOME!  Never looked better.  The eyeball scene get’s ‘em every time, even though you know it’s coming, and the whole audience goes “eeeewwwwww!” in unison.  Total fun, the shark gets cheered, tons of people die and it’s on Blu-Ray before Halloween.  Methinks you should get it.

Day 3:  Started with sleep.  I had been drinking every day since Wednesday the 21st and it was now Saturday the 24th and no end in sight so i wisely skipped Retreat, a thriller with Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy that I heard was alright that is going to get released so I figured ‘d see it later.  True to form, this happens during film festivals.  Something else is going on, you went to a party instead, something pressing at home, work (in some cases) or just lack of sleep (among other things.  Read on, my friends.  I skip films) cause you to miss stuff.  However, my first film of the day was one of my most anticipated.  Noboru Iguchi, director of Machine Girl and Robo Geisha, brought Karate Robo Zaborgar with him this year and, even though it’s played other festivals, looked like a great time in the theater.   Based on an obscure Japanese television series and treated very faithfully, yet updated with Iguchi’s unique sensibilities, Zaborgar was just as much fun as Takashi Miike’s outstanding Yatterman and could be viewed by the whole family, rather than just us hard-core Japanese gore guys.  Plain and simple fun with a super-cop and his robot brother (who served as the inspiration for the Transformers, FYI) battling the forces of evil.  Iguchi gets a real budget and goes to town with crazy monsters, awesome battle sequences and the story of friendship lost and forgotten heroes.  This movie is good for your soul and I encourage you to check it out.

Next up is How to Steal 2 Million, South Africa’s first crime thriller, billed as noir but I could do another 3000 words on why that isn’t so but do not let this philosophical debate steer you away from a solidly accomplished crime thriller that hits most of the right beats and proves rather engaging.  Jack, a career criminal gets out of prison and is determined to go straight and has a great idea for a business.  However, he can’t get a loan at all.  His only option is delivered by his ex-best friend and current husband to Jack’s old flame: come steal some stuff and you’ll have more than enough to do your legit thing.  One last score filled with betrayal and double crosses – turns out to make a darn fine first-effort.  Superb acting overcomes a “seen this movie” plot and, though the pacing is more deliberate than some people enjoy, the tapestry weaved is somewhat complex that you’d expect and turns out to be an eminently watchable crime drama.

Urban Explorers was a film that I was fairly excited about when I heard the director got arrested for breaking back onto location and continuing to shoot -aside: I heard rumor he was still in jail, hence his non-appearance at the Fest.  I had trouble working it into my schedule but managed to get it in, at great sacrifice.  Turns out I should have gone another way.  From the “didn’t hate it but didn’t like it” school of film, the story centers around some tourists that hire a guide to take them through the underground of Berlin to see a secret Nazi bunker.  Premise of Gold, right?  Well, execution is another matter.  First, the good:  this was one of the best settings for a movie in the last few years.  Underground Berlin is all bombed out and Industrial looking with tons of twisted wire and broken steel, reminiscent of the stark grittiness of Tetsuo the Iron Man and the main antagonist was a stellar actor.  The bad: everything else.  It was like The Stand where Stephen King forgets characters for hundreds of pages before going “oh, yeah, that guy” and jamming him back in.  This happens to every character besides the two main protagonists, who are barely likeable and once you’ve invested enough time in attempting to follow their story they turn out to be irrelevant and some character you’d forgotten about is the one you’re supposed to be following.  Not very clever at all and don’t even get me started on blown opportunities.  Why spend time foreshadowing something that’s never going to be followed up on?  It wasn’t wretched but it certainly wasn’t good.

The only way to recover from the crushing disappointment of Urban Explorers was to go right into my most anticipated film of the festival.  Once again, Noboru Iguchi chose to World Premier something at Fantastic Fest this year (the Japanese won’t even see this until March or so) and that is enough to make my year.  I love the Sushi Typhoon stuff and I knew it would take a lot to top Helldriver in terms of “what am I seeing on the screen right now?” but if any movie could do it, Zombie Ass was probably the one to do it.  First of all, the film is called Zombie Ass.  Secondly, I did a write-up before the Fest in the News section so you already know the plot is about a scientist who’s been experimenting on tapeworms and local villagers and the teens that run afoul of the outhouse zombies it spawns (especially “shit zombie” Demo Tanaka, who described himself as such all week long, which sounds great in limited English).  Chock full of ass rockets, brain smashing, farting, screaming and running about and is some of the most bizarre, totally awesome, mind-bending insanity to ever come out of the mind of Noboru Iguchi, who stated to me several times this was the movie he always wanted to make.  It’s well documented Iguchi is obsessed with ass and he manages to cram so much rear-end humor and craziness into the film that normal staid British pal Claire Posen literally had no words to describe this film’s power.  It frankly makes me run out of adjectives but it’s an Unbelievable good time in the theater and a true masterpiece of Japanese Cinema.

Day4:  Half way through the Fest and this is where the body and mind start to do goofy stuff.  Only so much alcohol and sleep deprivation can you take and I always feel worse on more sleep than less during the Fest so you need awesome movies to keep you going.  A few years ago I missed a bizarre Japanese comedy called Funky Forest and have regretted it since.  This year, the Funky Forest guy brought us a crime thriller called Smuggler and I would be damned if I missed it and I’m glad i didn’t.  Fun, stylish thriller about a failed actor who’s duped by the underworld into being a transporter of sorts to pay off his “debts.”  During the course of the body disposal, he runs across bad-ass killer Vertebrae, whose nunchucks  blaze a faster-than-the-eye-can-follow swath of destruction through everything he meets.  How will our actor survive?  Katsuhito Ishii is responsible for the animated sections of Kill Bill and his style translates brilliantly to live action and proves to be an excellent little thriller.

Secret Screening 1 was next on the list and, though usually a mixed bag, was the first year I hated both selections.  Ok, I know people love Pedro Almodovar and the film was beautifully shot.  People also dig Antonio Bandaras and it’s true he never looked better.  The Skin I Live In, however, totally sucks.  Get this, Antonio Bandaras comes from a dysfunctional family (his brother dresses as a tiger and rapes a lot), his wife died and his daughter is a social shut-in getting over her lameness.  They attend a party where she’s raped.   She sees Antonio, forever associating him with the incident and throws herself out a window.  Antonio decides to get revenge by kidnapping the rapist and, utilizing plastic surgery, turning him into his dead wife.  Whom he can rape.  Rape plays a big part in this film and, though this FF was less rapey than previous years, still brought us this boring, pretentious, stupid and ultimately pointless mess.  I gave it a 1.  Totally Not Recommended.

Palate cleanser.  Sushi Typhoon unleashed a mass of awesome Japanese actors and directors upon Austin this year and Tak Sakaguchi’s Yakuza Weapon was sure to jog me back into the Fest, which it did.  Far from my favorite Sushi Typhoon film, Yakuza Weapon was still a leg-rocket good time in the theater.  After 4 years of being Rambo, Tak returns to find his father murdered and the family business taken over by a rival boss.  With the entire criminal element hyped up on a super drug, Tak has no choice but to modify his body with some state of the art weaponry to even the score.  Based on a manga by the Cutey Honey guy, Tak Sakaguchi delivers most of his dialogue by shouting and the plot is a little slow at times but the fight scenes are amazing, especially a 4 minute fight scene up up and down stairs with Tak actually breaking his neck at the end!  If you’re into crazy machine gun arms and rocket legs destroying legions of bad guys, check this out for sure.

In the early 80s, the 3D boom exploded again and studios were going crazy putting out 3D movies, just like now.  However, some film always sparks the interest and in the 80s, that movie was a Westernby Italian movie legends Ferdinando Baldi and Tony Anthony called Comin’ At Ya! Magnificent Bastard saw this in the theater the first go-round and he assured me I had to see this film, though I was agonizing about not attending the Secret Hong Kong Classic (Dreadnaught, by the way).  Turns out I did.  What a 3D experience!  As you may have guessed, from the opening credits to the close of the picture, things came at you.  Arrows, guns, bats, rats…anything that could be turned, shot, swung, poked, flung, careened, carried, thrust or jabbed came at you with a relentless awesomeness that was incredible to behold.  The story was about a guy who’s shot on his wedding day and his bride carried away by two brothers who seem to be keeping a collection of beauties.  Our hero, Tony Anthony, heals and goes for revenge.  What follows are things coming at you, not to imply things didn’t come at you during my description of the opening.  Because they did.  Relentlessly.  Totally deserving of the title “Classic,” Drafthouse Films picked up the North American rights and is planning a theatrical re-release tour.  More details available at fantasticfest.com in the News section but if it comes to your area I strongly suggest you go.  Aside:  I’m in this film alone and who do I see come in, also alone sans translator or handler, but Noboru Iguchi, who recognized me instantly and graced me with his presence during the opening 40 minutes until he had to go present something.  Quite the event.

My last film of the evening was another 3D treat called Julia X with Kevin Sorbo as a serial killer but everyone was leaving and my ride was Mexomorph so I left, knowing this was coming out (and, by reports I heard, was surprisingly good).  Good thing I did.  The Brits decided to stop real quick at the Highball for a drink, completely forgetting it was the Japan Night: Meet the Japanese Signing Party and Karaoke Apocalypse so we went for a spell and ran into Japanese actor (Zombie Ass, Robogeisha, Machine Girl) and singer (Hydrozombies) Demo Tanaka.  His English and my Japanese were slight but we became fast friends, so much so I was drug by an excited (yet very inebriated) Demo Tanaka over to their table, re-introduced to Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura and the next thing I know, it’s 3am and Mexomorph, Josh Emanuel and myself had been talking to Iguchi and Tanaka the whole time about our favorite Godzilla monster (Gidorah, baby!), ideas for upcoming monster projects, our festival likes, Demo as “shit zombie” and Iguchi’s penchant for ass, among other subjects.  Big thanks to translator Midori for working through the embarrassment and translating the stuff anyway because these guys are great. The Zombie Ass Q&A was hysterical, with Iguchi, Nishimura and Demo all in sumo diapers, all answering questions while trying to disrobe each other.  This meeting of the Japanese continued all week and will be discussed in the second half.

Magnificent Bastard hates it when I get wordy and I certainly have been so the next 4 days of the festival will be in a clever piece I like to call Part 2.  Thanks for bearing with my small taste of a festival that’s far more awesome than even that sounded.

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For those not in the know, Fantastic Fest is the largest genre festival in the United States, bringing the best Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Asian and generally bizarro cinema from all around the world to our small little hamlet of Austin, Texas.