Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Things I Saw At Fantastic Fest (And You Should Too) Part 1

For the last week I've been at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States, soaking in the glory of skull-burstingly awesome cinema until my eyeballs hurt. I saw 24 movies in a single week and attended three parties, and lucky you, I'm going to share every bit of it without you having to lose any of the sleep I did.

A note before we start: In general, I declined to see movies that were opening soon. For example, I skipped Zombieland, and Paranormal Activity in exchange for either going to movies I'll never have a chance to see on the big screen, like Crazy Racer, or the ever-inticing Secret Screenings. If you heard that a movie played at Fantastic Fest and it isn't included here, it either means the show sold out before I could pick up my tickets (Ninja Assassin), it was a Secret Screening I didn't get into (Dr. Parnassus) or something I had a ticket to, but ditched because it was playing at an inconvenient time or I wasn't going to get a good seat (Paranormal Activity).

So strap yourselves in and prepare for your world to be totally changed...

SOLOMON KANE (UK, October 28, 2009)
Strongly Recommended

The next person who tells me Solomon Kane is a ripoff of Van Helsing gets punched in the throat. Sword-and-Sorcery king Robert E. Howard created Kane in 1929, and any character who hunts vampires, witches or werewolves while wearing a wide-brimmed Puritan hat is Kane's spiritual descendant, not the other way around. Jackman’s Van Helsing isn’t fit to clean Kane’s flintlocks.

Let's begin with me saying this: Solomon Kane contains hands-down the best and most badass R.E. Howard moment ever filmed—you’ll know it when you see it.

This film is the best example of balls-out Sword and Sorcery fantasy I’ve ever seen. Michael Basset draws good characters, the fights are brutal, the monsters are (for once) actually scary and the origin the filmmakers invented makes sense in the context of the original stories. Production designers crafted every frame of this movie to be dirty, smelly and filled with crows eating dead men, just like a Howard movie should be.

That aside, the best thing about this movie is James Purefoy himself. This man gets Kane on a visceral level. He’s managed to craft a dour character without making him gloomy, he’s got a bit of a mad glint in his eye, and the moment he steps onscreen he looks like he’s ready to beat the shit out of someone. The fact that Purefoy can totally inhabit a badass character will be nothing new to anyone who saw his growling performance as the violent, fratboy-like Marc Antony in HBO’s Rome, but watch anyone unfamiliar with him gasp as he launches into one of Kane’s famous Puritan rages.

You’ll see almost every plot twist coming, but who cares? Howard’s writing never carried itself on innovative and surprising story lines. The original stories pretty much boiled down to: Kane wanders down the road, finds a monster and/or oppressed peasants, stomps everyone’s faces, continues wandering down the road—roll credits. There’s something wonderfully retro about this film that way, it isn’t trying to prove that it’s somehow smarter or savvier than its source material, and as a result is much more fun. It also manages to reverse the recent trend of casting supernatural creatures as heroes and makes the magicians and creatures of the netherworld out-and-out bad. Having a hero that burns witches instead of dating them is a really refreshing throwback. Even though it's straightforward, it's very modern and aware, and much more dialogue-driven than you’d expect—and there’s always that subversive idea lurking beneath the surface that Kane likes punishing the wicked a little too much.

There is some burned crust on this tasty little confection though. A few of the monsters look a bit too much like they were borrowing wardrobe from Middle Earth, and I’m sure it’ll make the fanboys scream “rip off” at the top of their lungs. Further on the upside, during the Q&A with director Michael Bassett, he suggested that this would be the first film in a trilogy. Let's hope the second film finds Kane pimpin' around Africa, smiting zombies with his Juju Staff and wrestling Anacondas.


Man I love Solomon Kane.


You won’t find this movie in theaters, but write down its title right now. Done that? Good. Whenever this movie comes out on DVD, rent it, watch it online, I don’t care, but see this flick. But here’s the deal: you’re not allowed to read about it, watch any trailers or ask anyone about it. This movie is stupendous, but only if you go in totally cold. It’s without doubt the weirdest feel-good college comedy of all time, the kind of gonzo batshit insanity only the Japanese can dream up. I’m not exaggerating when I say I laughed through almost this entire film.

Two Freshmen at Kyoto University, Akira and Koichi, get recruited by a club called the Order of the Azure Dragon, “a normal social club, the kind you’d find anywhere.” If you don’t believe that, well, neither do our duo, but they go along. Sure, the initiation ceremonies are a little odd, but the seniors buy all the beer and the girls are cute, so what’s to complain about? A love triangle rapidly forms between Akira, the luscious Sawara, and the glasses-wearing, toolkit-toting physics student Fumi (Chiaki Kuriyama, who you know as Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill) and it looks like it’s going to be a by-the-numbers love comedy until everyone starts stripping off their clothes and dancing. After that, things start to get a little weird...

Kamogawa Harumo charmed the pants off me, but its comic power comes from the viewer finding out the secrets of the Azure Dragon at the same time as the protagonists. It's fairly kid-friendly and very girlfriend-friendly, so don't worry that you're going to see faces ripped off and lots of gratuitous nudity- this isn't Tokyo Gore Police.

Please, please, please watch this without searching for a trailer. You’ll thank me, I promise.

KRABAT (Germany, No US Release Date)

It’s a movie about a Wizard School.

Wait! Wait! Don’t walk out; this one’s different, I promise. It involves people turning into crows and was based on a German children’s book called The Satanic Mill. Satisfied? I thought so. Moving on...

Krabat is an orphan during the Thirty Years’ War, whose hobbies are starving and shivering. One night, he’s called in a dream to an old mill across the hillside, where a grizzled one-eyed man called The Master takes him to be one of his twelve apprentices in the dark arts. While there are a lot of creepy things going on, he becomes caught up in the power of magic and neglects to wonder why his mentor, head journeyman Tonda (Daniel Brühl, the sniper from Inglourious Basterds) seems to be having a nervous breakdown. Krabat keeps from asking too many questions at first, content to be able to turn into a bird and defend the nearby village from roving bands of soldiers, but as soon as a blue-eyed girl enters the picture, all that starts to unravel...

Krabat is a callback to old fairy tales, the kind where magic was frightening and witches ate children instead of teaching them chemistry. If you want a break from Hogwarts, trust me, the Master’s Mill is miles and miles away.

GENTLEMAN BRONCOS (US, Late October 2009)
See It if You’re Interested

The latest offering from Jared Hess, the director of Napoleon Dynamite, which I did not like. Like that earlier film, these characters are funny in a quiet and quirky way, and the visual style is drab and detailed. Except for the fantasy sequences, Broncos retains the downbeat tone of Dynamite, and a sort of banal gloominess shrouds both films. Every time I watch a Jared Hess movie I spend most of the running time feeling sorry for the characters and wondering if their creator loves them. Somehow I keep picturing Hess as the Master of the Ant Farm, laughing as he tortures his poor creations in their bland, rural world.

In Broncos, melancholy teen writer Benjamin Purvis attends teen writing camp with his favorite Sci-Fi author, Ronald Chevalier, a kooky breast-and-Native-American-fashion-obsessed recluse who is in the middle of a career slump. Strapped for time on a deadline, Chevalier plagiarizes Ben’s novella, turns his hero into a transsexual, and makes it a hit. Meanwhile, Ben’s amateur filmmaker friends buy the rights to his novella and begin work on an epically terrible adaptation.

The movie often strains the bounds of believability, particularly when its more extreme characters play for laughs rather than approach the scene straight. The plot really starts popping seams in the middle, when Ben's Yeast Lords fanfilm premieres at a local theater and his friends are interviewed about it on the local news. Is there really that little going on in this town? Balancing that, Jermaine Clement gives a performance that involves some truly funny scenery-nibbling that makes the film a bit more palatable, and the sequences inside Ben's novel Yeast Lords that allow Sam Rockwell to ride on the back of rocket-propelled missile pod-laden deer break up the tedium. But the most fun parts of this movie contain Clement and Rockwell, who are both underused, and the whole never really adds up to anything. I'm also suspicious of any movie wherein the the plot claims a novel is a work of genius when it's so plainly stupid. The sequences with a shaggy Rockwell sewing his balls back on and shooting lasers at cyclopses are fun as they're happening, but as soon as publishers start freaking out over how good the book is, you can almost hear the audience thinking, Are you fucking kidding me? Hess claims to be a sci-fi fan, but instead of satirizing the genre and saying something interesting about it, he sets up an absurd straw man caricature to set alight. The message seems to be that sci-fi writers and fans are misanthropic loners who have something deeply wrong with them, which weirdly clashes with the loving credit sequence that showcases vintage sci-fi cover art, set to In the Year 2525.

And another thing... what the hell is it with Jared Hess and characters with accents? In Napoleon Dynamite it was a little more subdued, but here it's really broken the dyke. It works for some characters, but others have such grating voices I can barely stand when they come onscreen.

Every time I see a Jared Hess film, I walk out smelling mothballs. See this one for Sam Rockwell and Clement, but otherwise don't bother.

FIRST SQUAD (Russia/Japan, No US Release Date)
Not Recommended--or recommended to those who are interested

Can you imagine a Russian produced, written and acted movie drawn in anime style by 4C, one of the most reputable animation studios in Japan? Now picture that movie starring a group of telepathic Soviet agents trying to stop an undead army of Teutonic knights from ravaging the Eastern Front, and you’ve got the premise of one of the weirdest anime films on record. That’s right, it’s Nazi vs. Soviet supernatural ops, and if the movie lived up to the image that creates of supernatural knights kicking over T-34 tanks it might have been one of the most epic pieces of animation ever created. Sadly, the battle scenes are lackluster and the film is criminally short—and when you factor in how much of that time is spent describing alternate history back story, the thrills are woefully short lived. There are cool things to be seen here--a device for sending people to the netherworld that looks like a dentist chair crossed with an old diving suit particularly stands out—but the whole thing never works as a whole. There are also live-action interviews with (supposed) "veterans" and "historians" cut into the film, but most of it doesn't contribute to the story, at best padding the 75 minute runtime and at worst undercutting the action. Thankfully, they left it open for a sequel, so here's hoping they make the most of their idea next time around.

As a footnote: why do directors always feel they have to take the time to explain that the Nazis had secret occult programs? Isn’t this a staple of pop culture memory? Check this one out for the novelty, but otherwise don’t bother.


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