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Fantastic Fest 2015 Recap: Day 1

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Hello friendos! Fantastic Fest and MondoCon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve finally recovered. Like last year, I packed in as many screenings, parties, and events as possible and my plan is to cover them all. The movie lineup was a scorcher. Every slot was like Sophie’s Choice with an array of enticing options. Most films played twice during the fest, but even with multiple showings and additional press screenings there were a few anticipated movies I wasn’t able to see (sorry Victoria and Men and Chicken). In 8 days I watched 31 feature-length films, 13 shorts, the Fantastic Debates, Itchy-O, and several Q&As. I attended the opening and closing night parties, interviewed Too Late director Dennis Hauck, and graced The Highball stage in the Nerd Rap Throwdown. It was a super memorable festival and a glorious celebration of cinema.

Photo by Claudia Gonzalez

Day 1- Thursday 9/24

Ahh, the first day of camp. The buzz of Fantastic Fest can be felt from the moment you exit the car in the parking garage. People are more friendly than normal. Strangers have a shared enthusiasm for the week ahead. Even the employees and volunteers working long hours seem excited. Doesn’t matter if you’re a 10 year festival vet or a first-timer, if you’re at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar during Fantastic Fest, you’re gonna meet new friends, see a bunch of cool flicks, and have a good time.

photo by Waytao Shing

Photo by Waytao Shing

It’s sensory overload when you enter the Drafthouse lobby. The first thing you notice is the carpet with the famous pattern from the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Then there’s a vending machine selling Drafthouse Films on Blu-ray (picked up Borgman), a Nibbler arcade game, a full bar selling drinks and merch, the red carpet area, and a huge Fantastic Fest banner that changed throughout the week. The giant posters that normally align the Alamo hallway were replaced with colorful Turkish posters to match the theme of the fest.

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Photos by Claudia Gonzalez

This year, my wife Claudia (movie buddy #1) attended the fest. It was her first year and she had a blast. When I asked her to sum it up, she said (in a sexy Nicaraguan accent), “It’s all about the movies. You watch a movie you like and get super hyped up. Then you look at your schedule and get even more excited for the next movie. It’s crazy.” Yup, she’s hooked. The process is fun. Every day you rank your movies for the following day in preferential order. Then the computer works it’s magic and a couple hours later you receive an email with the following day’s itinerary. Unless you buy a highly sought-after Super Fan badge, there are no guarantees, but more often than not, we got our top choices.

Shaky face. A Fantastic Fest Tradition.

After picking up our badges and having a celebratory brew to kick off the fest, it was time to watch some movies!

With a few exceptions (The Assassin, Bone Tomahawk) most of these movies won’t be released until 2016. Some are still seeking distribution.

Film 1- The Assassin (titles link to trailers)
Director- Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Cast- Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yun Zhou

Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien won best director at Cannes and rightfully so. His wuxia film is exquisite; each scene is meticulously framed and beautifully shot. There are scenes in crisp black and white, but most are in sumptuous color, some impressively lit by candle and shot through layers of transparent fabric. The scenery includes a foggy lake, mountains, lavish interiors, and a sword fight in a silver birch forest surrounded by hundreds of trees. It’s the most gorgeous film at Fantastic Fest and one of the most slept-on. I didn’t hear anybody talking about it or run into many people that had seen it.

The Assassin feels like high art. It takes it’s time with each scene and moves at a controlled pace. General audiences will find it slow, and it is slow, but the film is like it’s lead character; it’s graceful and meditative, and when it strikes, it’s quick and deadly. It often employs a static camera, has plenty of long takes, and uses natural sounds like leaves blowing in the wind and buzzing insects to create atmosphere. The actors are draped in lush, expensive-looking costumes. Shu Qui plays Nie Yinniang, abducted at 10, trained in martial arts and transformed into a skilled assassin. She follows her master’s orders killing corrupt officials, until one day she shows a target mercy and fails her mission. The consequences lead Yinniang back to her homeland, where she must confront her past. Shu Qui plays the lead role with quiet intensity.

4 out of 5 Nerdskulls

The Assassin is now playing in limited-release in the US. It plays at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on November 27th/28th, and December 5th.

Excellent start to the festival!


 

february2

Film 2- February
Director- Oz Perkins
Cast- Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, James Remar, Lauren Holly, Lucy Boynton

Oz Perkins, son of Anthony, wrote the script and makes his directorial debut about two girls stranded at an all girl’s prep school over winter break. February is a cold movie, set in a cold world absent of all joy. Exactly how I felt after watching it. It isn’t terrible, but it didn’t wow me in any way. It isn’t creepy like The Witch, or clever like last year’s It Follows. It doesn’t create suspense or spark my interest like The Invitation, and the kills aren’t memorable like Bone Tomahawk. Ranked against the other films I saw during the week, this one’s near the bottom. James Remar was the highlight.

2 out of 5 Nerdskulls

February was picked up by A24 after screening at The Toronto International Film Festival.


 

Film 3- The Lobster
Director- Yorgos Lanthimos
Cast- Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Wishaw, John C. Reilly

The Lobster was Fantastic Fest’s opening night film. It was preceded by a wild and crazy introduction complete with a performance by Austin’s #1 all-animal party band, the costumed maestros known as the Charles Edward Cheese Band. Eagle, Unicorn, and Dog were accompanied onstage with multiple Colonel Sanders, a legion of young martial artists, some inflatable creatures, and the king of Fantastic Fest, Tim League, undoubtedly dressed as a lobster. Always a class act, Tim apologized to director Yorgos Lanthimos for the ridiculous display of absurdity that had just been witnessed and gave a nice speech to kick off the fest.

Photos by Waytao Shing

Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, Dogtooth, is a super original oddity and the same thing can be said about The Lobster. Tim League and company saw it at Cannes and made it a top priority for this year’s fest. League said it’s the quintessential Fantastic Fest film. Like the crazy intro, The Lobster is absurd, but serious in it’s absurdity. Convention be damned, it’s Lanthimos’ world and he makes the rules as he sees fit. It’s challenging work, I feel like I’m still digesting it and I would like to see it again.

The Lobster takes place in a dystopian future where single people are admitted to The Hotel and given 45 days to find a companion or they will be killed and turned into the animal of their choice. (No, I’m not effin’ with you.) It’s an unconventional love story that is also a wicked satire and it’s damn funny. I wish I liked the second half as much as the first; once they hit the woods it loses a little steam. Colin Farrell is superb and there are some nice shots by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis.

3.75 out of 5 Nerdskulls

The Lobster was followed by a Q&A with Yorgos Lanthimos.


 

Film 4- The Wave
Director- Roar Uthaug
Cast- Kristoffer Joner, Thomas Bo Larsen, Ane Dahl Torp, Fridtjov Såheim

From Norway, The Wave is a standard disaster picture done the right way. The fjords provide an excellent backdrop for destruction and the leads do a fine job. I was invested in the characters. Kristian (Krostoffer Joner) is a geologist with a wife and 2 kids, finishing up his last days at a station that observes the Akneset mountain pass. A collapse or giant rockslide crashing into the water would create a tsunami big enough to wipe out the town. Of course the mountain starts acting up right when he’s about to leave and when he shows concern, people think he’s just suffering from separation anxiety.

The movie is totally predictable and implausible at times, but it’s a fun ride and it played great in a theater full of people. Ane Dal Torp kicks ass as Kristian’s wife, Idun, and has a powerful scene that made the audience cheer wildly. Momma’s gotta protect the youngins.

3.75 out of 5 Nerdskulls


 

Film 5- Belladonna of Sadness
Director- Eiichi Yamamoto
Cast- Tatsuya Nakadai, Aiko Nagayama, Chinatsu Nakayama, and Masaya Takahashi

Seeing Belladonna of Sadness in a theater is one of those experiences you come away from feeling lucky. It’s a dark and beautiful Japanese animated film with killer visuals and jammin’ music. It mixes still watercolor paintings and drawings with animation and voice-over narration, and the result is like someone is reading you an exceptionally well-illustrated story while you’re hallucinating on mushrooms. It features themes of eroticism, explicit sexuality, and witchcraft.

Upon it’s release in 1973, Belladonna was a commercial failure. It did not receive a US release and was never seen by a wide audience. It’s weird imagery is a cult favorite amongst musicians seeking trippy visuals to accompany their songs. Clips are available on youtube, but they’re low-quality. The movie was recently given a beautiful 4K restoration by Cinelicious, a Los Angeles-based post-production company. Their distribution company, Cinelicious Pics, is co-presenting the re-release along with The Cinefamily and Spectrevision. Cinelicious founder and CEO Paul Korver, and Hadrian Love, co-founder and Creative Director of The Cinefamily, were on hand to present the film and talk about the restoration.

Belladonna of Sadness will be hitting theaters and getting a proper Blu-ray release in the near future, but no dates are set. It’s immediately one of my favorite animated films and I can’t wait to see it again and add it to the collection. Those who attended the screening were given nifty enamel pins. (Best pins of the fest!)

5 out of 5 Nerdskulls

Check out the Cinelicious Belladonna of Sadness tumblr page . It’s full of beautiful stills and info about the restoration.With permission, I linked a few examples, along with a bunch of other pics they sent me. The new scan is a vast improvement and really brings out the colors.

*A few of the pics are NSFW. (click to enlarge and see full detail)

Gorgeous, huh? Wait ’til you see it on the big screen with the psychedelic music and killer story.


Before Belladonna, we hit up the Fantastic Fest Opening Night Christmas in February in September Party sponsored by Chiller. I’m not exactly sure how the theme related to the movie February, but as an avid Christmas junkie, I wasn’t about to question it. The party was fun! The Highball blasted Christmas music and snow fell from the sky. Santa and the helpers were there drinking beer and taking pictures with folks. There was plenty of holiday cheer, a decent spread with free grub, and yes, that’s Tim League in the frog suit.

It was a hell of a kickoff to the fest! Check out the photos from the party and more from Day 1:

Photos by Jack Plunkett

To be continued…

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Salty Winters once said, "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." He was quoting Audrey Hepburn.