Time isn’t always on your side. While at Fantastic Fest this year, I dove in way more than last year and exposed myself to nearly every film I could. Through screeners and screenings, I managed to fit in over 30 films over the last 11 days. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to review every one of them so instead, I will provide a slew of bite-sized capsules to provide a general feel and idea of what these films do well and where they might fail. So, without any more fanfare, join me after the jump for my reviews of Aardvark, Clown, Carre Blanc, The Day, Smuggler, The Corridor, Livid, Let the Bullets Fly, and A Lonely Place to Die.
Aardvark plays as one of those Jekyll and Hyde films. The first portion, focusing on real-life inspiration Larry L. Lewis (played by himself) is about a blind, recovering alcoholic that takes up Gracie Jiu-Jitsu from Darren Branch (played by himself). Then the film takes a dramatic turn, becoming an often silly neo-noir that focuses on Larry tracking down bad guys with his unrelenting attitude. Everything comes to an odd conclusion that gives no reasoning and might leave a sour taste in your mouth. There are some flourishes, including numerous longshots that feature Larry figuring out his world as only a blind man can. Within 80 minutes you will be charmed by him, and then you might go along with the fun or be left behind.
Clown is a Danish road film about two friends aiming for a weekend getaway known as the ‘Tour de Pussy’ that goes laughably sideways when they are stuck with an 11-year-old. Frank is a bit out of touch, and when he finds out his girlfriend has been hiding her pregnancy from him because she fears he isn’t “father material,” he sets out to prove her wrong. With his nephew-in-law in tow, he joins his buddy Casper who wants nothing of it. In fact, he is so determined to go on his ‘Tour de Pussy’ that when his wife balks at him for not wanting to bring a child with them because she is suspicious they are up to no good, he relents. So they set off on their canoe for a vacation they won’t soon forget.
Along the way we learn that Frank is laughably dense and sometimes gullible, while he truly has good intentions. They’re just misguided…really misguided. Clown is vulgar and revels in the uncomfortable situations that make shows like The Office a hit. Instead of utilizing gross-out gags, they instead focus on humorous situations and the misdeeds of the protagonists. Some of the characters around Frank and Casper seem to be dense as well, and the smooth-talking nature of Casper can feel far fetched. Yet within 90 minutes, director Mikkel Norgaard and the hilarious cast back in a ton of laughs. This is one comedy not to be missed.
Carre Blanc is at times incomplete. Perhaps French debut-filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Leonetti meant for us to fill in the blanks and even provide our own narrative string that ties all of his wonderfully bleak and darkly humorous scenes together. This dystopian tale focuses on Phillipe, a man who is so lost in playing along with the overbearing corporate world that he has become one of the worker bees, unhappy but buzzing along none the less. His wife, Marie, is in a funk and wonders around the monochrome metropolis. Everyone drones on, and no one really questions what happens. There are implications that people that die of unnatural causes (like the torturous “think outside the box” experiments Phillipe has new employees endure) are zipped up and sent off to be ground up as food (no sign of cows anywhere), but the constant noise of the town speaker system never lets us in. Instead, new-borns are announced with glee, population counts are given like stock prices, and we are reminded that croquette is a great game. Constantly. The repeating announcements and cautions are given throughout the 74-minute film, and sometimes they provide comic relief for the audience. At times this feels like it breaks the fourth wall, but it also gives us a sense of the enduring repetition the characters go through. There seems to be no true antagonist unless you want to chalk up the corporate machine as the enemy. Ultimately, Carre Blanc succeeds in creating world filled with humor in the dark, despair in the norm, and not much else.
The Day gives me plenty of reasons to cheer. As writer Luke Passmore gleefully explained in a post-screening Q&A, he did away with many of the post-apocalyptic tropes so often seen. Shoulder pads? Gone. Rape scenes? No way. Yet for every aggravating cliché, he manages to either bring nothing new to the table or rehash tropes that are just as constant. Dominic Monaghan (Rick) leads his band of travelers through the desolate aftermath of some extreme event that occurred ten years ago. With one of the five gets sick, they decide to hole up in a house. Of course, with shelter comes salvation, which quickly turns to disaster. Cannibals are slowly homing in on their location and it is up to the survivors to make a stand. The crew are smart with their ammo and supplies, but are cliched in their dialogue. Ashley Bell (Mary) stands out in the group, yet even she is sacked with terrible dialogue and has to endure a sequence of torture that goes on far too long and has no result other than wasting time.
The film is bleak to experience, and especially to watch. The entire movie is desaturated and gives off an indie feel (it is). That’s unfortunate, because it makes so many strides to be naturalistic and provide equal amounts of drama and action. The Day isn’t afraid to become violent, but a big showdown involving Mary is hampered by the all-too-familiar quick cuts and woozy camerawork that is a sign of the lack of fight choreography. Oh, and let’s not get started on my personal hangups with CG blood. The Day wants to be different, and wants to stand out in an overpopulated and similar looking wasteland of post-apocalyptic films. I applaud director Douglas Aarniokoski for the effort and strides the cast and crew took, but doing something different and doing something well are far from the same.
Smuggler is batshit crazy. An anime in live-action form that manages to provide the over-the-top hilarity of the bulging eyes and archetypes played to their max so many enjoy, without the dreadful, long-winded monologues and terrible acting. Director Katsuhito Ishii adapted a manga of the same name, tweaked the story for his own purposes, and gives us an action-filled story of a kid in over his head with quirky superhuman assassins tearing the world apart. Kinuta is in debt and in order to repay the loan shark he begins transporting items discretely. Along with a silent man-of-action and an overloud, hyper old-timer, they dispose of bodies. While it shouldn’t put them in too much danger (they are the cleanup crew, after all), they manage to end up on the wrong side of two deadly assassins, Vertebrae and Viscera. Things become increasingly complex and, at times, convoluted, but Kinuta’s journey remains straightforward.
Violence is extreme, and one sequence of torture definitely drags on for far too long. In fact, things nearly come to a screeching halt when the sequence begins. Ishii attempts to provide some levity by giving the hilarious-looking Mad Dog some absurd outfits (I don’t think a diaper and military jacket will ever become fashionable), but the camera lingers a bit too long. In fact, if the final 25 minutes of the 115-minute runtime could be condensed the fractured narrative might continue on its gleeful way. Even the end feels unsatisfying. Yet all of the absurdity, all of the slow-motion action, and the myriad jokes within Smuggler keep me from having ill feelings towards the film. Well done.
The Corridor leaves plenty to talk about. Sometimes it is good, like the fresh new science fiction idea central to the film. An ethereal corridor is out in the middle of the woods, and it may be good or bad. But it’s damn ominous. Then there are moments where the film feels like it is intentionally trying to annoy you. So often a film like this, that is low on action and heavy on drama, relies on the dialogue and actors voicing it. Naturalism is a running theme at Fantastic Fest, but it can lead to some terribly ham-fisted character interaction and left me without a care for the five protagonists in the film. That’s unfortunate because there is general strength to this debut of director Evan Kelly. He gives us confident sequences where violence is portrayed off-screen to terrorizing effect. Then he will bring it to us, front and center, releasing the carefully built tension like a spigot.
Tyler has had a mental breakdown years ago and when he gets out of the institution his four friends come out to his dead mother’s secluded cabin in the woods. While they have all grown up and apart, they slowly fall into their old habits around each other. That can tear open old wounds that never healed, and as they struggle to get along with each other Tyler fights to keep his sanity. When he stumbles across a mysterious corridor in the woods he thinks he is losing it, but his friends see it too. Are they all slowly going bonkers? Well, yes and no. As they decide what to do about this expanding geometric…thing, they begin to tear each other down and it leaves a bloody wake of destruction without many clear answers. That will frustrate some, but open up dialog for others.
Livid is a shattered experience that attempts to balance a standard haunted house introduction with bits and pieces of other sub-genres. The French horror film is at its best when it relies on the creepy setting and at its worst when it plays with unnecessary flashbacks that ruin the tension. Lucie is training to take care of patients in their homes when she is introduced to a comatose patient that lives in an enormous mansion. When her veteran trainer informs her that there might be treasure hidden within the home, it intrigues her. However, it gives her boyfriend just the risk versus reward to drag her and his best friend along to attempt to find it. Once inside they find the home has its own secrets. Treasure? Not likely. Creepy animal heads? Plenty.
This house has a bevy of horrific flair. Doors open upon demented tea-parties and the sheer size guarantees the trio will get separated. The tension is built as the group explores every nook and cranny of the mansion but it takes an odd shift that is kicked off by a stupefying action from the boyfriend. I can’t reinforce my opinion of that enough. He pulls one of the biggest no-nos you can ever do in a horror film that, while not cliché, is even more maddening. From there, it seems like the film slowly unravels. Flashbacks are inserted in the middle of intense sequences that break the mood and then throw you right back into it. Those flashbacks fill in a backstory that feel like they should exist in an entirely different film. Lasting 88 minutes, directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo created a movie that tries to be too many things at once. While Livid may rely on jump scares too often, the first half of the film shows incredible promise for their future.
Let The Bullets Fly manages to be convoluted yet entertaining. That’s a sad fact for this Chinese western that feels like an epic. A thief named Zhang and his band of thugs decide to rob a train they feel is loaded with money. While it may not contain treasure to make them immediately wealthy, the people inside give the leader inspiration. Set in the 1920s of war strewn China, this action comedy has so many twists and turns that you will be forgiven for wanting to pause things and have a refresher midway through. Zhang decides to pose as the new governor of a small town because no one knows what he looks like. That’s when he finds out that his captives, with the governor he is posing as among them, didn’t tell him the caveat: the governors in the area obey the mobster Master Huang (Chow Yun Fat). Zhang has no interest in sharing the wealth and it leads to a deadly battle of wits and gunpowder. Within that drama there is plenty of humor, and most of it is quick witted. That can spell disaster for a film in a language you do not speak, as the subtitles fly across the screen as characters would vocally spar with each other. They would also go through long discussions while ceremonies that aren’t fully explained occur.
I was left utterly confused after one of the major twists that occur during a dinner and yet I still remained intrigued by the premise and characters. One odd thing to note occurs within the opening sequence with the train robbery where some tremendously terrible CGI is utilized for a pointless action sequence. The scene left me with cold dread at the potentially cheap production values of the film. While most of this 132 minute journey has a high-quality feel, there are moments when CGI is utilized that looks preposterous. This also happens to be one of the highest grossing domestic Chinese films in history, and stars Chow Yun Fat. How the shoddy CG made its way into this film, and why it is there at all, adds to the oddity of the entire film. Let The Bullets Fly is an action comedy that manages to hurdle over its overlong and convoluted narrative and deliver a charming diversion.
A Lonely Place To Die is a lesson in reading a book by its cover. While it sounds like your standard hikers in the mountains that get caught up in something bad, director Julian Gilbey throws continual genre constraints out the window as it transitions from seclusion to populace with quiet confidence. Uniquely rewarding, and thankfully complex, this adventure goes down without a lot of the frills so often seen today. If you are going to set part of your film in the mountains, film it in the mountains. Gilbey seems to understand that, and if there are elements of CGI it is completely invisible. Five hikers in Scotland are out for a nice getaway, but when weather changes their plans they stumble upon a young, feral girl that doesn’t speak English hidden within a chamber underground. That chamber has a breathing tube, and the implication is obvious. Someone put her there, and intends to come back for her. Time out, this is not.
Without adequate reception in the wilderness, they split up to try and reach authorities with the best climbers climbing and the rest hiking on a longer trail. But splitting up is the least of their worries when the guys that put the little girl in the hole show up. What starts as a simple game of chase quickly turns into much more, as more players are introduced and the stakes rise. I found some of the final sequences to become burdened by complication, but for 90 of its 98 minute runtime, this thriller had me fully invested. The characters are diverse and have their own ideas that makes everything feel natural. Even the villains are given dimensionality not often afforded to them. Of course, Melissa George shines again as one of the hikers caught up in this bloody mess that spills over beautiful landscapes and into town.