Ranking Fantastic Fest 2016, Part 1
Between my brand-new day job and moving to a new house, fitting in Fantastic Fest screenings hasn’t been a cakewalk. Luckily, the fact that it’s all going down in the Alamo Drafthouse means I don’t have to scramble for meals between screenings — I eat while I watch, even when the movies are doing their best to ruin my appetite! But I promised in my preview that I would go without sleep if I had to, and sure enough, here I sit, red-eyed and sleep-deprived – but satisfied with what I’ve seen so far.
After three days of festing (and some relevant extracurricular work; see below), here is the first part of my Fantastic Fest ranking, counting down from least fantastic to fantastic-est.
6. The High Frontier
The High Frontier is a paint-by-numbers home invasion (well, cabin invasion) story in which the paint comes in two colors, blue and dark blue. Too plodding to be called a proper thriller, it presents us with a couple of feckless kids (the oldest one is clearly supposed to have an arc, but it’s not really there), a thinly-conceived dad, an even less distinctive villain, and a predictable plot that makes it an easy choice for the bottom of the chart. Only the score, a kind of droning howl suitable to the movie’s snowbound forest environment, feels original. This is the director’s first feature.
5. Jungle Trap
You know how some of the movies riffed on MST3K and elsewhere almost stand alone as charming (if imperfect) passion projects by enthusiastic (if resource-poor) auteurs and their hopeful (if decidedly amateur) actors? Believe me, I mean this as a compliment; I have friends whose movies I’d describe in the same terms. Jungle Trap put me in the mind of some of those infamous gems, things like Final Sacrifice and even, dare I say, The Room. It was shot on tape in 1990 under the direction of James Bryan (Don’t Go In the Woods) and starred his frequent collaborator Renee Harmon, who had gotten her start by organizing military wives into a community theater troupe. Harmon and Bryan came close to securing a release deal through Blockbuster Video before the video market suffered a downturn, and its release over 25 years later is thanks to a young team operating as Bleeding Skull! Video, who found and edited the master tapes with Bryan’s approval. The newly-recorded score is period-appropriate and completes this delightfully low-budget could-have-been cult classic. Oh, yeah, and it’s about ghosts and headhunters and cursed idols and stuff. That’s always fun!
There have been a lot of these lately: movies where aliens or space-based peril are a conduit for accessing elemental human emotions like grief, regret, distrust, and hope. Arrival is the Denis Villeneuve version of Interstellar, Gravity, District 9. . . it’s got a new shape for the spaceship and a new look for the aliens, but it’s fundamentally about family, loss, political disunity on planet Earth, and the importance of communicating and coexisting with each other and with other kinds of beings. Is there anything new to Villeneuve’s take — an adaptation of author Ted Chiang’s take — on these issues, anything we haven’t been prepared for by our exposure to Contact, 2001, Close Encounters, and even Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales? I don’t think so. It’s just another sermon for the sci-fi faithful, prettier than some, talkier than others, averagely mind-bending, and something to see if you like this sort of thing. Arrival reunites American Hustle costars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, with Forest Whitaker supporting.
3. The Greasy Strangler
Remember what Mark Wahlberg is packing at the end of Boogie Nights? Imagine it slightly larger and more misshapen and dangling from a scrawny old man with a face like Billy Bob Thornton and hair like Doc Brown. That gives you an idea of who The Greasy Strangler is — but exactly what his movie is, is harder to describe. The Greasy Strangler does share some of the comedic and emotional sensibilities of modern alt-cinema notables like Napoleon Dynamite and You, Me, and Everyone We Know, in which characters communicate in startlingly/amusingly simple terms exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. Yet Greasy Strangler rejects the unguarded sensitivity of those films, pursuing instead a hyper-grossness that sometimes rivals the Human Centipede franchise. Principal actors Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, and Elizabeth de Razzo nail the intended tone (campy and deadpan), and Toby Harvard and Jim Hoskin’s script is heavy with catch-phrases (my favorite is “Rooty Tooty Disco Cutie”), but The Greasy Strangler runs a little long for the elaborate dick and fart joke it is, and the shock value had mostly worn off for me by the final third. Luckily, an unexpected bit of abstraction at the very end recaptured my attention and revived my enthusiasm for this self-consciously, successfully disgusting project.
Consistently, documentaries are among my favorite films at festivals. And Morgan Spurlock, whose new film is Rats, is a consistently impressive documentarian. You could justly call Spurlock a sensationalist, and rat lovers (they exist) would have cause to feel outraged by his unsympathetic portrayal of the cute little plague-carriers, but a neutral observer has to admit that Rats is entertaining, eye-opening, cringe-inducing stuff. Morgan tracks down some of the world’s most fascinating individuals involved in rats: a cigar-smoking, grizzled veteran of the New York City extermination scene; an older Englishman with a pack of rat-killing terriers for hire; the caretaker of a Hindu temple that allows rats (reincarnated humans) to run free; scientists dissecting diseased rats in post-Katrina New Orleans; a Vietnamese woman who buys live rats by the kilo to serve in her restaurant. . . Spurlock’s doc intersperses the interviews with stylized, horror-like sequences that make ample use of jump scares, but if you call it manipulation you’re missing the point. Rats is an engaging, shocking, funny, unflinching movie that lets us experience from the safety of a theater things most of us wouldn’t dare risk in the flesh, so it’s right that it should give us a jolt.
Sidenote: Spurlock himself hosted an eating competition before the screening. The food was. . . actually, the Drafthouse asked us not to say!
1. The Handmaiden
It may look like an Asian Downton Abbey, but think twice before taking your mother! Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) has made a sumptuously-shot period film that is viscerally sensual, and he has made it three times over. The Handmaiden’s narrative is divided into three separate parts, each of which takes the viewpoint of one of the three main characters. What is at first a stately character study of a Korean maid involved in an imposter’s scheme to defraud an aristocrat soon becomes a fervid erotic thriller and then a violently twisted revenge caper. The illiterate handmaiden with her startlingly sharp laugh and rough manner, the lady with expressionless eyes and a macabre past, and the conniving man who plays one against the other are each multifaceted and interchangeable pieces in a baroque puzzle whose full shape remains unknown until the tidy, gratifying finale. Florid works of 19th-century Japanese erotica created for this film, as well as the decorative but always functional art direction of the film itself, will make The Handmaiden hard to beat as we continue to flesh out our Fantastic Fest chart. It’s my current favorite not only of the festival, but of 2016 – full-stop.
Sidenote: Park was in attendance, and gave a Q&A in which he admitted to preferring Texas BBQ over Korean. He did not admit to having seen Spike Lee’s Oldboy.
The Best Movie I Missed
Well, how do I know? But I heard a lot of buzz about The Invisible Guest on the first night of the fest. (I was watching Arrival instead.) Maybe I’ll have a chance to catch it later this week.
The Best Thing I Did Outside the Fest
I’m an Austin local, so I don’t do a lot of sightseeing during Austin festivals, but something happened on Friday night I couldn’t turn down. Austin’s beautiful historic theater The Paramount hosted WILLIAM SHATNER himself before a screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Though I’m a big Trekkie, I’d never seen Shatner in person, and I knew I would regret it for years to come if I didn’t take this particular chance. So, deciding that the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many, I played hooky from Fantastic Fest and indulged in my nerdiness with a thousand other like-minded nerds at the sold-out event. Shatner is 85 years old and gave without a doubt the best film Q&A I’ve personally witnessed. Some of his stories I’d heard and some I hadn’t, but all were delivered in classic Shatnerian fashion.
That does it for Part 1 of our Fantastic Fest coverage – come back soon for Part 2!