Thursday, December 31, 2009

WHAT I SAW AT FANTASTIC FEST PART 4: THE WILD AND THE WARPED

As promised, here is the last of my spiel on Fantastic Fest. I already have my ticket for next year, and I hope that then it doesn't take me three months! Happy New Year everyone.

METROPIA (Sweden, shot in English, )
Strongly Recommended




Metropia should be seen by anyone who’s a fan of dystopian weirdness. The filmmakers have managed to create a unique and fascinating world of mad corporate conspiracies and human eccentricity. It’s a cerebral world, and it’s no accident that all the characters are animated with thin, doll-like bodies and giant heads.

Roger is a banal man living a banal existence, inhabiting a Kafkaesque near-future world where all the cities of Europe are connected by super-fast metro trains. You can get from Copenhagen to Rome in twenty minutes, which sounds great to international travelers like myself, but in this world you’d probably step out of the station to find that the Trevi Fountain has been paved over to make room for a shampoo plant. Roger marches through this world in a sort of well-mannered depression, with his only endearing quarks being that he has a crush on a shampoo model and harbors a general paranoia about sinister things going on in the metro. Because of his refusal to use the tube, he rides his bike to his unfulfilling job at a call center, passing shuttered shops that no one has visited since the metro began speeding under them. At first, Roger’s odd conspiracy theories seem only a shade or two from normal—then he starts to hear voices. They tell him his wife might be cheating, they tell him to buy things, they tell him to keep the cogs of capitalism going.

Then he sees her: Nina, the woman from the shampoo bottle. He knows her well, because he stares at every morning as the water rushes down over him and he rubs shampoo onto his head. We suspect that sometimes he does more than look. Roger is bald and doesn’t need shampoo, but he compulsively buys it anyway, maybe out of his infatuation, or perhaps because of something more sinister. In a moment of uncharacteristic passion he follows his blonde dream girl, meets her, and gets drawn into a conspiracy so bizarre you wouldn’t even believe me if I described it.

While the bleak paleness of the palette doesn’t work in Van Dieman’s Land (see below) here it reinforces the odd, half-lit quality of the underground world. If, like me, you have always had a certain horror of subways, this shadowy wan light will evoke the same feelings of paranoia and suspicion that Roger feels. The oppressive atmosphere and black humor are the best parts of the production, and make up for a plot that plods rather than races to its conclusion, and never totally gels. I didn’t feel the length personally, since I was drawn in by the oddity of the world, but some may become disinterested in its quiet humor.

What makes the film so interesting are its visuals and its ideas, which manage to pull the viewer along through a plot that is not particularly intriguing. I’d recommend it strongly, but know that you’re watching it for the ideas and surprising conspiracies, rather than an involving story.



VAN DIEMEN’S LAND (Australia, No US Release Date)
Strongly Recommended (Warning: Extremely Intense)



In 1822, Irishman Alexander Pearce and seven other convicts escaped the prison colony of Macquarie Harbour and made their way into the wilds of Van Diemen’s Land, present-day Tazmania. They escaped what was arguably the most brutal penal colony in the British Empire—a place where convicts slept in mud-filled lean-tos, and every morning were marched shoeless up a mountain under armed guard to cut Huron Pine trees for the British shipbuilding industries. Afterward, they would either have to drag the large trunks down the mountain or tie them together and ride them down the rivers as rafts. Often, convicts did all this in chains.

Unbeknownst to the escapees, they are headed for a fate far worse. Driven into the interior of the island by soldiers, they must contend with mountain ranges, icy rivers, snowstorms, and worst of all, the gnawing silence of hunger. After a few days without food, it’s clear what they have to do.

Most films about cannibalism dwell on the lurid aspects of the practice, but thankfully, Van Dieman’s Land takes a more cerebral approach. This isn’t a movie about murder, it’s a movie about food. It’s clear that Director Jonathan Auf Der Heide understands this from one of the first shots of the movie: a pair of hands pulling at a grisly piece of meat. We hear the crackle of the fat, the smack of chewing lips, see a pair of filthy fingers sopping up the grease with a piece of bread. The close, almost over-personal shot is unappetizing. Even when the camera pulls out to reveal that we are watching a British soldier eating a piece of beef, the message is clear: in this place, eating is not for pleasure, it’s for survival.

In the end, this sense of cannibalism actually makes the film more, rather than less terrifying. This film doesn’t really match the criteria above—it’s neither wild nor wonderful, unless you count the wildness of nature of display—it’s a horror flick through-and-through, one starring human monsters.

The crew mad accuracy a goal of this project, from the costuming and dialogue to the use of Gaelic for the Irish characters. Most of that is spot-on, but what functions so well about this film is its visceral authenticity, the way can feel the bite when the convicts cross freezing rivers or smell the foulness of their greasy bodies. This realism stems from Auf Der Heide’s apparent philosophy that his actors should suffer as much as the original convicts did. He shot the movie in the Tasmanian wilderness, convincing the actors to forge rivers and walk through the snow while dressed in rags. All that abuse carries over to the screen, where every shiver and moan looks genuine.

That same eye for human misery makes the killings shockingly effective. Fantastic Fest audiences are infamous for cheering after a particularly violent death scene, especially in horror movies. Laughter and applause are not uncommon. By contrast, every murder in Van Dieman’s Land was greeted with silence. These murder scenes are horrifying in their realism, in their cruelty, in their sheer biological accuracy. In one particularly disturbing scene, a man who has had his skull split with an ax convulses, screaming, for nearly ninety seconds while the killers stand around him, unsure of what to do next. The product of their own violence frightens them into inaction.

The film’s color palette is less effective. Auf Der Heide uses a filter for most of the shots that drains much of the rich color from the lush Tasmanian forest, which makes the scenes seem more bleak, but one wonders, given the material, if he really needed any help in that regard. Washing out some of the color has become a well-used technique in historical film, made famous by Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, which seemed to say: see, this is authentic because it looks like old film. This (overused) technique looks alright in World War II movies, since we’re used to accessing the period through faded film prints and photos, but it makes little or no sense in the context of the 19th Century, where film had not yet been invented. It is possible that the color muting—which becomes more prominent throughout the film—serves as an indication that the men are coming closer and closer to starvation, but I’m not sure. Keeping track of how deadened the color palette gets can be a tricky thing, since once the audience has to mentally track the degree to which the color has washed out. It doesn’t help that the movie is a bit on the long side and drags in places, especially since it’s entirely made up of footage of men walking. If the Frodo sections of LotR pissed you off, you might want to skip this one.

I could keep writing about this movie for hours, talking about how the sound of musket shots were masterfully recreated, how the men carry their very British Politics of Empire with them into the wilderness, the prejudice against the Irish members of the group (the majority English always seem to vote to eat the Irishmen first), and the extremely tense final twenty minutes, but I’ll leave you to discover those things yourself.


STINGRAY SAM (US, Online Distribution at www.stringraysam.com ; showing at Alamo Drafthouse)
Recommended




If you’re a fan of social commentary, westerns, musical comedy, and Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide, I would strongly suggest you check out Stingray Sam.

Series creator/star Cory McAbee specifically designed Stingray Sam to work on all screen sizes, from iPod to a full theater, and has succeeded to a great degree. Each ten-minute episode has roughly the same elements, and features a comedy sketch, some animation, and a song and dance number. It’s a good format, though without doubt the most successful portions are the animation sequences, which evoke Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python days crossed with a Douglas Adams-style narration performed by David Hyde Pierce.

In brief, the plot follows galactic ne’er-do-wells Stingray Sam and the Quasar Kid, former inhabitants of a prison planet, as they pay their debt to society by rescuing a little girl from galactic despot Fredward. (Who was created in a scientific experiment combining he genes of two male scientists named Frederick and Edward.) To say more than that would spoil things, especially when you can see the first two episodes free at www.stingraysam.com

Follow that link and check it out (both episodes, since it really finds its stride in the second one), I almost guarantee you’ll like it. If you decide to Mount up with Sam and Quasar for the long haul, you’ll meet bored dancing girls, sadistic bureaucrats, genetic oddities, incredulous scientists, convicts in mascot costumes, badly-designed robot suits, and eventually meet and fall in love with the smooth and mellow flavor of Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco.

Just see if you don’t.


KENNY BEGINS (Sweden, No US Release Date)
Recommended




Fans of stupidity humor: I have met your new God. Easily my favorite of the “weird cinema” movies I saw, Kenny Begins is the Godfather of idiotic-but-lovable-leading-male movies. Kenny Starfighter has been a Galaxy Hero in Training for years, the sci-fi equivalent of that cousin you have who’s been in college for seven years. If he fails one more semester he’ll suffer a fate worse than death—being forced to work in his family’s hair salon (and when you see the flowing blonde mullets they have, you know what a terrible fate that is). Hoping to pull his grades up by making a clean arrest, Kenny follows ├╝ber-villain Rutger Oversmart through a black hole and crash-lands on Earth. Teaming up with a couple of high school kids (a geek who can barely believe his luck at developing superpowers from an ancient artifact and the girl he secretly pines for) Kenny races the clock to outsmart Oversmart, and finally graduate the academy! He’ll probably find some time to eat ice lollies too.

Kenny Begins is the prequel to Swedish mini-series Kenny Starfighter which must have been outrageously funny if it was only half as hilarious as this. The heart of the comedy comes from Kenny’s vulnerability; he knows he’s a washout and a failure, but the kids don’t, and he tries to carry off his bumbling heroics with enough aplomb to keep his young companions in awe. Of course, these kids are in high school and know all about faking confidence, so they see right through him.

Hey Adult Swim generation? You’ve gotta see this movie. This is totally in your arena and will get you spouting Kenny’s nonsensical catch phrases (Ischlo Pischlo! Woolie Boolie!) for years to come.

ISCHLO PISCHLO!


UNDER THE MOUNTAIN (New Zealand, No US Release Date)
Recommended for Parents with Tweens




I always find it difficult to get into a movie like Under the Mountain. I sort of skipped the whole “teen horror” phase, and went directly from kids horror to Michael Crichton and Preston/Child. Let me tell ya: after you’ve seen velociraptors eat Henry Wu’s intestines while he’s still alive, Goosebumps just doesn’t do it for you anymore.

Even so, the movie is pretty likable. Two fraternal twins with parental problems (dead mother, grieving father) spend a summer at their cousin’s house while their dad cools off. Meanwhile, they get mixed up with some creepy neighbors in the house across the lake, who are shape-shifting aliens trying to raise the old ones from the depths of Auckland’s extinct volcanoes. If the twins want to stop them, they’ll have to pair with Sam Neill, the last of a race of galactic lawgivers who want the creepy Wilberforce family contained or eliminated. Saving the world takes a lot of sneaking around creepy houses, diving down gooey alien tunnels, and, in the movie’s best sequence, a short glimpse of the delightfully Lovecraftian horrors that stir in the bottom of the volcanic chambers. A lot of the fun comes from Neill chewing the scenery, spitting it out and chewing it again. It’s clear he had a blast on set.

It’s a damn fine movie for an early teen horror/thriller, and if you’ve got kids about this age, or even nephews and nieces, it’s a hell of a lot better than taking them to Disney’s latest failure to capture family-friendly action on film. It’s not a classic like Goonies or as frightening as the introduction to The Witches, but you could do a lot worse at the multiplex.


BURATINO, SON OF PINNOCHIO
See It If You’re Interested, But You’ll Never Get the Chance (Estonia/Russia, No Distribution Except Festival Circuit)




Apparently the Russian company that funded Buratino, Son of Pinnochio is never going to let it get released. My sympathies are with the director, Rasmus Marivoo. If you’re out there Mr. Marivoo, I just wanted to tell you that I really liked your movie. It was entertaining and made me laugh, and the songs stuck with me, particularly the villain, Karabas Barabas’s song and dance number.

For the curious: Buratino, Sun of Pinnochio is an Estonian rock opera about a young man who was born after his mother wished for a child. Little did she know that child would come about from a sentient splinter that flies up her skirts like Tinkerbell and knocks her up. Five minutes later, the doctors deliver a wooden child from her swollen belly, and (after his bark falls off) he looks pretty normal. At least, as normal as you can look in a world where Clockwork Orange-style youth gangs roam the streets in gas masks and spiked jackets. As a teenager, Buratano and his band/youth gang sally out from Badville on lowride bikes to hold up the residents of Goodville, including town honcho Karabas Barabas, who wants to catch the wooden boy for sinister experiments. The plot thickens, as plots are wont to do, when Buratino falls hard for Barabas’s cute blue-haired daughter.

Marivoo carries all this off with a great deal of fun, especially for something he struggled to put together on a small budget and under pressure from Russian backers. This world runs on Looney Tunes physics, with people looking long distances by shaping their hands like binoculars or brushing themselves off after an explosion hurls them hundreds of yards. Yes, it contains villains, and nasty police, and poverty, but all of these things are silly to the point of non-threatening. For example, though the police frequently shoot at poor Buratino, they do so with what can be only described as Zap Guns.

Rasmus Marivoo, your film may not get distribution, but I will always talk about “this insane Estonian rock opera” I saw once. I think you’re a great filmmaker, and I hope you have better luck next time.

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