Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fantastic Fest 2011: Short Takes - Melancholia (B+) and A Boy and His Samurai (A-)

This may be the most mismatched double bill of all time, so it figures it was my final post for Fantastic Fest 2011. My first thought upon exiting Lars Von Trier's latest film, Melancholia, was that it was easily the most depressing and perhaps nihilistic film of the year. The first half of the film takes place during a wedding reception where Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexaner Skarsgard) are being thrown the most expensive, extravagant wedding party ever by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland). While the night begins happily, when Justine's divorced parents begin openly fighting during toasts, the night is effectively ruined, and Justine slips further and further into depression, testing everyone's patience and putting a strain on her new marriage. thigns continue to get worse, and the inevitable happens. Part 2, of course, deals with her debiliating depression (she can barely physically stand or eat) as seen through Claire's eyes, as well as the basic pitch of the story: a planet roughly ten times the size of earth, formerly hidden behind the sun, is on a collision course with our world. While Justine falls deeper into nihilistic depression, accepting a fate of certain doom, Claire becomes anxious and frightened.

I'll admit, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about this one, and to some extent, I'm still not sure. I think in most ways, it's Lars Von Trier's most grounded, mature, moving film, and also his least flashy. It features some of the best performances of the year from Kirsten Dunst (who is a revelation here) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and some truly stunning direction and cinematography, and a powerful, moving script. Unfortunately, the first half of the film is the strongest part, and features some of the most natural, nuanced, truthful work I've seen in a film all year. But the second half is quite bloated, and had it been trimmed down, would have been a stronger section. That said, the film ends on an incredibly haunting note and a final shot that will stick with me for a very, VERY long time. Lars Von Trier is doing some of his most truthful, mature work here, yet it's a flawed whole. I'm looking forward to revisiting it later this year to get a better grip on how I feel about it. For now, I like or love about 90% of the film and could do with 10% of fat that needed trimming.

On the other side of the spectrum is the wonderful Japanese film, A Boy and His Samurai, which may be the most optimistic, uncynical film I've seen in ages. On the surface, it's a remake of Kate and Leopold & The Iron Giant, only with a much more genuine, funny, & moving film underneath (said as someone who enjoys both of those films).

The film is essentially a romantic comedy about a time-lost samurai who is found by a boy and his single mother, and taken under their wing. While not a particularly deep film, it is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. The relationship between the boy and the samurai is one of the most endearing, genuine friendships I've seen all year, and I have to assume you don't have a soul if you don't get choked up at some point near the end of the film. It's such a shame the film likely won't receive US distribution for some time, so I am very glad I was given the opportunity to see such a wonderful piece of cinema this year. If you ever get a chance to see it, please, please do. You will like it, I promise.

And with that, Fantastic Fest comes to a close for this year. It's been one hell of a great time, and I can't wait to come back next September, as always. Till then, look for more reviews of theatrical releases between now and late October when I head to Austin Film Festival. Sound off in the comments section, as always!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors."

One thing Fantastic Fest is known for is not only screening new films, but just films that the programmers and audience love, no matter how old they may be. This year in particular was special, as it marked the 30th anniversary of John Landis' landmark film, An American Werewolf in London. Mondo Tees, a local cinema art boutique partnered with the Alamo Drafthouse, wanted to do something special for the occasion, so founder Justin Ishamel contacted one of his star artists, Olly Moss, and asked him to create a brand new poster for the film. In addition, the screening was bookended by a Q&A session with none other than legendary makeup effects maestro, Rick Baker.

The film itself holds up as well as ever, being a definitive film of the 80s and also a classic of the genre. And it's heritage lives on. The film started the horror-comedy movement, and the ripples of that are still felt today in with films like Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block, and others. The audience was treated to a gorgeous 35mm print of the film, and played like gangbusters for the crowd. To me, it remains Landis' most tightly directed and edited film, walking the tightrope of balancing the terror and comedy perfectly (I still laugh hysterically every time I see David run through the zoo naked, and get shivers down my spine during the werewolf attacks). But everyone knows the real star of the film is the groundbreaking makeup effects by Rick Baker, and the now iconic transformation scene.

If there were ever anyone with stories to tell, it's Rick Baker. He's worked with so many influential figures in the industry, won 7 Oscars and been nominated 12 times, and yet remains one of the most humble people you'll ever meet. He refuses to take credit for his work being the reason the Academy created the Best Makeup category, and still gets nervous every time he attends the Oscars.

During the Q&A, Baker talked extensively about what attracted him to the project, how he looks at the film and even cringes at how crude the work he did in it looks compared to the things he can do now, 30 years later. He told funny stories about how when he was doing the gory makeup for Griffin Dunne, Griffin got really depressed when looking at himself in the mirror, so Baker let him control the corpse puppet at the end of the film and speak the dialogue on set; how he once had to dress up his then two year old daughter as Eddie Munster because there weren't three girls in the Munster family to fit the Halloween theme. He later migrated over the to Mondo shop inside the Drafthouse, with a herd of fans following him like a shepherd leading sheep, where he proceeded to autograph the exclusive poster audience members were given and take photos. I only wish I had the chance to sit down with him, however briefly, and do a real one-on-one interview.

The screening was a great success, and one can only hope Fantastic Fest programmers do something like this every year. And now, for your viewing pleasure, a high-res picture of the poster, courtesy of Mondo Tees, Fantastic Fest, and artist Olly Moss.

Fantastic Fest 2011: Apocalypse, Animation, and Horror, oh my!

I haven't had a free moment to sit down and write up the more minor things I've seen and done here at Fantastic Fest, but I figured I better do so before the festival ends this weekend. It's been a busy, hot week here in Austin, and I'm loving it. I figured I would do a short piece on the more minor events and films that I've seen and done here. (I'll do a more in-depth review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Melancholia, A Boy and His Samurai, and the American Werewolf in London screening later).

First off, my day on Saturday started with the Animated Shorts. It was a great way to start the morning off. None of them truly jumped out at me as truly phenomenal at first, and there were a few stinkers. But a few did stick with me. First, there's Path of Blood: Demon at the Crossroads of Destiny, a 3 minute short about a ronin who cuts down every enemy in his path mercilessly as he walks down the Path of Blood. Endearingly animated with colored construction paper, it's funny and charming. Also, there was a CGI short called The Lady Paranorma, about a woman who could hear the dead but not see them, so she felt very alone. Beautifully rendered and told like a Grimm's fairy tale, it was magical. In the humor department, there is a short called Lazarov, about Russian scientists trying to resurrect a dead rooster by Frankenstein means, only to have the rooster go nuts and attack the hapless assistant, before being killed once again. It's probably the funniest thing I've seen in a long time, and had the entire audience in stitches and sustained laughter long after the short had ended. Lastly, a claymation short called The Last Norwegian Troll played, and it is a real stunner. Beautifully animated, funny, sweet, and heart-warming, I seriously hope it is submitted for Oscar  consideration in the Best Animated Short Film category. A perfect little tale of feeling unwanted.

Afterwards, I also got to see the new blu-ray print of Lucio Fulci's camp cult classic; Zombie. The film is as hilariously trashy-B-movie as ever, and it was great seeing it with an audience. If you've never seen it, check it out. There is a scene where a zombie battles a shark underwater. What are you waiting for?

In addition I saw a new film called The Day, a post-apocalyptic action thriller (with Dominic Monaghan, Shannyn Sossamon, and Shawn Ashmore) that plays like every home invasion film ever, and is pretty by the numbers. It's not very good, but also not bad. Mostly serviceable. The actors all give strong efforts, and I admit I was engaged for a couple of hours. But it's not something I would have sought out outside of this festival. Admittedly, I was mostly taken with how much better the world it builds could be translated into a TV series, rather than a brief film. Hey, it can't be any worse than The Walking Dead right? Though I must say, the Q&A with the film's writer, producer, and Dominic Monaghan afterwards was far more entertaining than the film itself. At the end of the day, a harmless venture into a tried and true genre formula, that will inevitably just be a direct-to-video release relegated to Saturday afternoon cable.

Later on, I caught an in-fucking-tense Colombian horror film by the name of The Squad. Ultimately a flawed but effective work, the film builds an incredibly suffocating atmosphere of dread and tension from the start and only in the last 20 minutes did I exhale. A bit light on character development across the ensemble cast, but I was scared out of my wits for 2 hours, and the film appealed to my sensibilities of what truly frightens me: my own terrified imagination. Taking cues from horror classics like Alien and The Blair Witch Project, the film plays on the audience's fear of what's out there, and shows the characters slowly going insane with fear. Weak character development hurts it a bit, but it's incredibly well directed and acted, and managed to freak me out for the run time. The final shot still gives me chills.

I'll have a more detailed write-up later today on the 30th Anniversary screening of An American Werewolf in London that included a Q&A with legendary Makeup effects maestro Rick Baker and an exclusive poster from Mondo Tees, as well as my reviews for three more films by Saturday. For now, back into the fold!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fantastic Fest: Snowtown (A-)

Once in a while a film you never saw coming sneaks up on you and blows you away. For me at Fantastic Fest, the first film to do so is Justin Kurzel's Snowtown, and Australian thriller based on the infamous John Bunting murders. An IFC acquisition out of Cannes, the film is a deeply disturbing, realistic, harrowing  of the worst serial killer in Australian history, and how he brainwashed a young 16 year old man into helping him. It is also an incredible directorial debut for Kurzel, who paints a grisly portrait of misguided anger and hatred turned to psychotic bigotry.

After being sexually assaulted by his mother's boyfriend, and later on, raped by his older brother, Jamie is a seriously damaged young man. Enter John Bunting, who cleverly inserts himself into the house as a charismatic father figure who promises to take care of him after learning of what has transpired. But of course, Bunting is not the caring man he appears to be. Beneath the surface is a homophobe who begins to slowly come unraveled, feeding fear and paranoia into Jamie and the neighborhood, convincing them that all homosexuals are child molesters (during the 90s, this was still a widespread misconception, as illustrated by the Boy Scouts of America controversy about whether or not homosexual adult leaders or boys would be allowed to be members). What follows are a series of grisly murders, on and off screen, of people Bunting suspected of being homosexuals, and even those known full well not to be.

The film is a bit on the slow side, with a few long takes of silent reaction shots that probably could have been cut down a bit, or at least inserted a few more cross-cutting edits. But the film builds such incredible tension with stunning direction and acting that I wouldn't have it any other way. Kurzel knows how to use  sound to his advantage, and the film is more stylishly directed that one would think. But the film really belongs to the two lead actors, Daniel Henshall (as John Bunting), and Lucas Pittaway (as Jamie Vlassakis). Daniel Henshall must have won a few poker championships in his life, because his face is the most unflinching thing on earth. One minute he goes from charismatic father figure to a man who very well may rip your throat out with his bare hands. The psychotic killer underneath the surface is only revealed when he wants it to be. Clearly a sociopath, he shows no feeling towards any killing. It becomes routine to him, and one gets the sense he might be getting some sick satisfaction out of it, if anything. But as the murders continue, he keeps killing people who are only suspected homosexuals, and even some known not to be. It's a riveting, lived-in portrayal of a killer slowly becoming more and more paranoid, and thus, more dangerous and unhinged.

On the other side, you have Lucas Pittaway, whose performance as Jamie is just as riveting and electric, but more clenched and emotionally open. He is a damaged young man, forever changed by what was done to him and what he went on to do. You see the rage and hatred boiling under the surface in him, but only when dealing with the two men who wronged him. Otherwise, you get the sense he's being slowly brainwashed, but fights constantly to retain his humanity.

Haunting, bleak, grisly, and deeply disturbing, I count Snowtown as one of the very best films of the year.  Controlled, nuanced direction and incredible acting make this one of the most fully realized directorial debuts in recent memory, and an altogether great piece of filmmaking. It's a hard film to watch, but what is there is a rewarding, harrowing experience.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Contagion

Steven Soderbergh is an enigma of a director. One minute he's making an experimental arthouse film (The Girlfriend Experience) or a independent, controversial historical biopic (Che), the next he's making a three-quel to his commercial Ocean's franchise. He's a director I can be in awe of his sheer raw talent with one film, then totally appalled at when he makes a total trainwreck. His latest film, Contagion, is definitely a success, and finds him at the marriage between his two aesthetics. A viral outbreak thriller, the film is flawless on a technical level, showcasing Soderbergh's directorial prowess, while also being a film that can and will make some big bucks at the box office. Stuffed to the brim with a huge ensemble cast full of Oscar nominees and winners, the film is a tight as a drum thriller that never misses a beat, except maybe in its last moments.

The film follows a large cast of characters as they are faced with a viral epidemic of which there is no treatment, cure, or vaccine, and it is killing people and adapting to whatever cells the scientists attempt to put it into to create a vaccine. If the summer's surprise hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes made the audience cheer for our own extinction, Contagion shows that imminent demise as a very real and very scary possibility. To echo Kris Tapley's thoughts over at, the film keeps the viewer at arm's length, and by design. Soderbergh isn't interested in making a film that tugs at the heartstrings, he's interested in freaking you out, and he and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns succeed in spades. You'll never look at public restrooms, transportation, restaurants, or travel the same way again.

Speaking of Scott Z. Burns, one of the film's better assets is how the script never once panders to the audience. It assumes they are smart enough to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, and keep up with all the smart talk. Aside from an ending (which I won't spoil here) that feels like a way too literal and hand-holding bit of visual exposition, especially compared to the smart script that comes before it, the film never once treats the audience like anything other than intelligent adults. It's an unusual take on the bio-thriller to not focus on one or two characters, but rather utilize an ensemble cast of great actors to gel together and create a real sense of global panic. The film is out to say something about the chaos caused by fear and misinformation, and it does so very well.

On a technical level, the film is refined, pristine, and elegant. Soderbergh's direction and cinematography is sharp, making excellent use of the depth of field the RED camera is capable of. The film pulses along with what I would consider the best film editing of the year, and a wonky electronic score by Cliff Martinez.

Contagion doesn't reinvent the viral outbreak genre, but it's a well-made, elegantly executed, thrilling entry, much like WB's heist hit last year, The Town. It's definitely not an awards play outside of some tech aspects,  but it's one of the best mainstream films you'll see this year.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On the Oscar hopes of Drive and The Tree of Life

Normally I don't start doing this kind of thing until October, after the fall film festival dust has settled, but I've received a lot of questions about the two biggest films released so far this year regarding Oscars, I figured I'd address it. First off, I'm not sure either The Tree of Life or Drive will be major Oscar players, the latter even less so than the former. Here's why.

  The Tree of  Life is with Fox Searchlight, which means they fully intend on launching a full-blown awards campaign for the film. The studio came to the rescue of Terrence Malick's 5th feature when no other studio would touch it with a ten foot pole, and have taken great care of it since. It premiered at Cannes, and Searchlight has been good about keeping the film in theatres all summer long, despite being the antithesis of summer film fare. The question is, will it be a hit with the Academy? My instincts tell me no, since really, the only Malick film that has been a hit at Oscar was his magnum opus, The Thin Red Line, back in 1997. Nominated for 7 oscars, including Picture, Director, Screenplay, and a bevy of craft awards, it took home none, competing with much more mainstream heavy hitters Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love. Days of Heaven won Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Costume Design, Sound, and Original Score. The New World was nominated for Best Cinematography, but losing to Memoirs of a Geisha.

The Tree of Life will have a tough time for a number of reasons. First, it's Malick's most artsy, experimental film. Second, it's extremely divisive. While the overall reaction within the film community has been positive, it's very much a love it or hate it film. Many academy members respect and admire Malick, which many others refuse to take his work seriously. No doubt the film will land a nomination for Best Cinematography, but what else? My instincts tell me visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull will be nominated for his first work in 30 years for the incredible creation sequence, as it will likely appeal to voters' admiration for using all practical effects, and next to no CGI (sans the dinosaurs). I know for a fact Fox Searchlight intends to campaign Brad Pitt heavily for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the veteran actor has a much better shot with Moneyball, and while double nominees often don't go home empty handed (Jamie Foxx in 2007), I have a feeling the actor's branch will want to spread the love and will go for the more mainstream pick, despite which film he may or may not be better in. As far as Picture, Director, and Screenplay go, I'm betting on Picture, simply due to the passion votes it will receive. Detractors can put it at the bottom of their ballots as much as they want, but it's only the number one votes that matter, and Malick's film is sure to get plenty. I'd say Malick right now is sitting in 6th place for Best Director. Again, with more mainstream choices, the academy is likely to be satisfied with a couple of craft nominations and Best Picture. But if other, more likely candidates fall by the wayside, Malick could get in. Just don't expect him to show up at any event. Screenplay is a non-starter, since the film has so very little dialogue. But stranger things have happened, and writers might respect the way Malick writes through the silence. But that's a long shot.

Drive, likewise, doesn't feel at all like something in the Oscar wheelhouse. It's an ultra-violent, slow burner character study in neo-noir trappings. None of Michael Mann's films that inspired Refn's masterwork were ever nominated for any Oscars, and I don't imagine this will be a hit with them either. And that's really because it doesn't fit into any neat category that the AMPAS loves to marginalize films into. It's not a commercial action thriller, but it's also not a pure-arthouse granola piece either. I sense a vibe like I got with The American last year. Refn's film isn't an awards film, and it was never meant to be. It's too violent, too sparse, too restrained, too artsy, too subtle. The only player with any real hope is Albert Brooks, who I will in fact go on record to predict a Supporting Actor nomination for, since he's the most obvious choice, given the eccentric nature of the character. While I think Ryan Gosling yet again gives my favorite performance of the year (so far anyways), he's way too subtle and restrained to get attention. The Academy loves histrionics. Lately they've been getting it right, especially in the Supporting Actor category (since Javier Bardem 4 years ago), but Gosling has way better chances for his turn in The Ides of March. I could maybe see an Editing or Adapted Screenplay nomination happening, but that's it. The film just isn't in the Academy's wheelhouse, plain and simple.

I'd be surprised if either film gained any more traction than that, but stranger things have happened. For now, I'm going to stick with the safe bets until proven otherwise. Questions? Comments? Have at it in the comments section below.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Drive: To live and die in L.A.

Drive isn't a high octane action thriller, as its marketing team would have you believe. But I'm not here to talk about what it isn't, but rather, what it really is; a stylish, tension filled character study. It's a love letter to the 80s and 90s neon-noir films of Michael Mann, William Friedkin, and films like Bullit. It's an art-house take on a B-movie genre. Above all else, Drive is a near masterpiece of filmmaking.

The phrase I keep coming back to is "a breath of fresh air". The plot itself, which is nothing new, is adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name, and follows a stunt driver/car mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver for heists in Los Angeles. A loner, he's a a mix of The Man with No Name (he literally is never given a name in the film, just referred to as "kid" or "driver") and Steve McQueen, with all of the badass that comes with that. As he explains to each of his contracts with recited precision, he gives the people he drives a five minute window to get in, get out, and get in the car. One second more, and you're on your own. He doesn't sit in on the job, he doesn't carry a gun, he drives. Nothing less, nothing more. And he's the best at what he does. He lives alone, but his life begins to intersect with his neighbor and her son as she has car trouble & needs his assistance. His mentor introduces him to local mob boss, who is investing in him for a race, and things kick off from there.

What follows is nothing particularly new, but you've never seen it executed with such finesse, style, and elegance since the 80s and 90s heyday that director Nicolas Winding Refn is so clearly in love with. The soundtrack, filled with electronic songs and a throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez, really drive that feeling home. The film even has hot pink opening titles and credits! Refn is partying like it's 1989 and he's not ashamed. Clearly inspired by the likes of Thief, Heat, Bullit, and To Live and Die in L.A., the Refn films L.A. with an almost fetishistic love for the city. No director has ever equaled Michael Mann in the capturing the city, but Refn certainly comes close.

One might make the mistake of expecting tons of heists, car chases, and burly brawls from the film. But this is a character piece, first and foremost. And it takes an actor on the caliber of Ryan Gosling to pull it off. Having made the film his pet project, Gosling made sure Refn would be brought on as director, and had extensive discussions with him about the character, making conscientious choices, like limiting his spoken dialogue. What emerges is one of Gosling's most mature, nuanced performances to date, and certainly his most badass role yet. It's not his all time greatest performance, but there's a level of subtlety and restraint here that is most impressive, especially when his cool demeanor gives way to intense, terrifying bursts of violence. It's easily the most layered and fascinating character to grace the screen so far this year. He's a hard-boiled anti-hero, and Gosling is the perfect actor to breathe new life into the archetype and make him a real human being, instead of the caricature that kind of role has become.

The magic doesn't stop there. Drive features probably the best ensemble cast of the year so far. No one misses a beat, from Carey Mulligan's vulnerable Irene, to Byran Cranston's craggy old garage owner, to Ron Perlman's slimy gangster, to Oscar Isaac's convict looking for a second chance. Even Christina Hendricks makes use of her limited screentime. In a bit of meta casting, Refn and Cranston seem to be portraying his character as a future vision of his character in Breaking Bad, perhaps after having lost everything and being forced to start over from scratch as a car mechanic. But it's Albert Brooks who completely steals the show as mob boss Bernie Rose.

Playing completely against type in a performance that should net the veteran actor and Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor (think William Hurt in A History of Violence, but more screentime), Brooks injects a smarmy sense of "Great, ANOTHER mess I have to clean up." into the role, and is a riot throughout. If there were ever a foil for Gosling's cool, hard boiled anti-hero, Brooks plays it deliciously as he constantly makes wisecracks and snarky remarks.

The true triumph of the film, however, is that as perfect the cast is, no one is ever trying to make the film about them. This is a brilliant directorial achievement, and Refn has certainly won a skeptic like me over. Having never seen his Pusher Trilogy, I had to go by Bronson (which I'm a big fan of) and Valhalla Rising (not so much) as a frame of reference. But what Refn does here is in a class of its own. The way he films the proceedings with long takes, never once giving in to the temptation of modern MTV Michael Bay editing with its 8 million cuts, is nothing short of genius. Especially when the audience is treated to short, visceral, intense bursts of disturbing violence. In a perfectly blocked and executed sequence, soon to be known as "the elevator scene", Refn shows the driver's two worlds smashing together like two cars colliding as he gruesomely dispatches a hired gun, and how Irene is both horrified and aroused while witnessing it.

I mentioned in the opening of my review that Drive felt like a breath of fresh air, and I stand by that. That's because the film feels so adult, so mature, so subversive. This is a film for grown-ups, not for teens, not for kids, but adults. And it's so refreshing to see a film that not only refuses to pander to the audience, but constantly subverts their expectations. The plot itself may appear to be nothing new at first, but you've never seen it done like this. A staggering achievement on all fronts, Drive is a brilliantly directed and acted film. See it if you like the films it is influenced by. See it if you like hard-boiled neo-noir. See if you like great films.