This Is The Way The World Ends: Fantastic Fest Days 1, 2 & 3

So here are my notes from Fantastic Fest–more than a month after it happened. Sorry for the notes-style format, but I didn’t have time to write it all up proper. Enjoy!

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead opened the festival this year, and the theater was completely packed as Romero himself introduced it. I’d seen it at TIFF a couple weeks prior, so I just jumped in to watch the intro, then headed over to theatre #1 to catch the Japanese mystery / suspense / comedy Wicked Flowers. The film was described as “Lynchian”, though I don’t think that’s completely true–it certainly has some strange and startling imagery, but unlike the average Lynch film, it’s all tied up neatly at the end, pretty much eliminating my desire to reexamine it once the credits rolled. I liked it just fine though, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the sequel.

We (Austinist) had been running a “Bruce Lee Lookalike” contest with the folks at the Alamo, but the response was really, really weak. So I wasn’t completely surprised (but still kinda sad) to walk into theatre #3 and find that nobody had dressed as Bruce Lee for the Finishing the Game screening. But Alamo programmer Lars made the best of a bad situation by adapting the contest on the spot, and we still had a lot of fun (you can see the results here). The film itself was just okay. It’s a mockumentary about the search for a Bruce Lee lookalike after his sudden demise during production on Game of Death. Finishing the Game had its moments, but didn’t get much more than a few chuckles outta me.

I was excited about seeing End of the Line, partly because it’s a Canadian horror film, and partly because it just sounded really cool. It’s an apocalypse horror about a group of subway riders who find themselves trapped underground with a murderous doomsday cult. The first half hour was great…full-blast, straight-faced scares and a genuinely creepy tone. But after the actual cult members showed up, I felt like things got a bit too hammy to be scary. I heard a lot of people in the lobby say they loved it though, so maybe I was just in a bad mood.

The Entrance was a lot of fun. Another Canadian horror, it’s a kind of Exorcist / Seven / Saw mashup about a cop who’s kidnapped by Satan’s jester. Or something. In any event–it’s a fun watch, with some good scares and great performances. It runs too long, but not long enough to completely ruin it.

I ditched out early on Friday and headed to the Dobie to meet some friends for a screening of Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, which I completely loved, but wasn’t an FF screening, so I’ll stop talking about it.

Maiko Haaaan!!! is a nutty, over-the-top Japanese comedy about a man whose obsession with Geisha houses drives him to become a successful businessman in order to support his habit. Starring Japanese TV funny man Sadao Abe, Maiko Haaaan!!! is all kinds of weird–but in a hilariously Japanese way. It’s an off-the-rails comedy that Japanese film enthusiasts will definitely enjoy.

Alone is a Thai ghost story about a woman whose dead twin sister returns to creep her out. It’s pretty great at first–suitably gloomy and foreboding, with plenty of jump-scares. But after a while, the scares get a bit redundant, and the big twist becomes fairly obvious (and I’m not one of those “I sooo figured out the ending” guys either). Overall it’s not bad, but not great.

Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s long-awaited second film, was the first ultra-packed AICN secret screening. I remember not liking Donnie Darko all that much the first time I saw it, but then absolutely loving it on second viewing, so I was prepared to hate Southland Tales from the outset. But I actually found myself immediately liking it, and thinking I might like it even more the second time around.

Make no mistake–this thing will be roundly hated by popular audiences. It’s just too…out there. Too intentionally abstruse. There’s a scene where one Hummer humps another Hummer; a full-length Killers song lip-synced by Justin Timberlake; an evil Jon Lovitz; a flying ice cream truck. It’s just extremely difficult to parse, and it seems to be that way on purpose. It’s a string of “what the eff?” moments held very loosely together by a story about the impending apocalypse, and in a way it’s kind of insulting.

But then again, I don’t think Southland Tales was intended for a popular audience. In fact, it’s partly a dissection of popular culture–though I’ll admit that I’m not exactly sure what it reveals. The cast is culled from a deep cross-section of pop culture figures, not necessarily playing against-type, but certainly playing strange roles for their skill sets. At some points, the casting is actually distracting, with nearly every single character played by someone you recognize, but don’t expect. Justin Timberlake; The Rock; Sarah Michelle Gellar; John Larroquette; Jon Lovitz; Christopher Lambert; Wallace Shawn; Sean William Scott; Kevin Smith; Cheri Oteri; Mandy Moore; Cirtis Armstrong… the cast is so strange that its intrusiveness could be part of the point. I mean, these are all popular figures at varying ratios of success and respectability–but how much candy can you eat before you start to feel sick?

Again, I’ll admit to not understanding all of the allegory here–like Donnie Darko, the film involves time travel, an alternate universe and the end of the world. It also involves violence and war and technology, but I just wasn’t able to process enough of it to tell you much more than that. But Kelly himself sometimes seemed at a loss to explain things during the Q&A, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

In any event, I’m eager to see this a second time when it opens this week. If you’re a Donnie Darko fan, I’d recommend going…but don’t expect a DD2, because Southland Tales is definitely not it.

Offscreen was one of the festival’s biggest surprises for me. I wasn’t all that excited by the synopsis, but I’d already seen the other films screening during that slot, so it won out by default. And I’m glad it did. In a festival full of gory effects and gratuitous violence, this film (which is essentially the handheld video diary of one man’s descent into madness) emerged as the most disturbing.

Real life Danish actor Nicolas Bro plays himself in this tense thriller about a man who becomes intent on making a documentary about himself. But when his obsessive filming drives his wife and friends away, he quickly begins to lose his marbles and becomes unable to separate the viewfinder from the real world.

Frighteningly intimate (and brilliantly acted by Bro), Offscreen is both a slow-burning dramatic thriller and a terrifying comment on the ways in which technology is degrading natural human interaction. It’s tough to stick with it at some points, but it’s completely worth the effort.

Postal, a comedy based on the popular video game, is Uwe Boll’s frustrated middle finger to everyone who’s ever criticized his films. Starring Dave Foley and Zack Ward, Postal is a string of intentionally crude jokes string together by a story about a plot to steal a bunch of popular children’s toys. Boll has said that the entire film is intended to “piss people off”, and while I admire that reasoning, it turns out that the most offensive things aren’t always the funniest.

Despite a strong start, Postal just isn’t all that funny. Most of the time, the intentional crudity overshadows any potential comedy, and I got burnt out on all the forced offensiveness. I mean–gunning down a pack of schoolchildren could be very funny if it was part of a larger, smarter joke, but on it’s own it just feels like childish nose-thumbing. Boll doesn’t seem to understand that subversive, offensive and hilarious are not necessarily equal concepts, and ultimately I felt like Postal was a complete waste of time.

The best part of the screening–maybe even the most memorable part of the entire festival–was the Q&A with Boll and an extremely intoxicated, aggressive Zack Ward. Boll actually seemed like a very smart, likable guy, and again I admire his ideas about pushing the limits of social acceptability and destroying institutional censorship. But Ward was the star of the show; he was all kinds of belligerent, and his extended tirades were so embarrassingly funny that I couldn’t leave my seat, despite the fact that it was like 3am. This youtube clip (here) is just the tip of the insanity iceberg.

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