Fantastic Fest 2009, Day 1 – GENTLEMEN BRONCOS, SOLOMON KANE, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

     September 29, 2009

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I’ve finished up ingesting, digesting, and recovering from a half-week of Austin’s Fantastic Fest to inform about the films experienced on Day 1, which opened the festival with Jared Hess’ new film “Gentlemen Broncos”.  I’ll admit that the appeal of the big films each year gets me excited – such as this year’s portfolio of “Antichrist”, “Ninja Assassin”, and “Daybreakers” amongst others – it’s the small films that knock me out of my seat knowing little about them that keep me coming back year after year and Day 1 provided one right at the outset.

Continue to read for my Day 1 film experience, and keep checking back for more on the festival in regards to the films named above, as well as some relatively unknown titles that may deserve your attention, and some other potentially big titles that go unknown even to the attendees until the lights dim.

GENTLEMEN BRONCOS

gentleman_broncos_movie_poster_01.jpgThe new film from Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite, “Nacho Libre”) is about an aspiring teenage science-fiction novelist who, while attending a writers camp, gets the opportunity to meet his hero – the acclaimed sci-fi writer Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement).  Chevalier announces to the students that a competition will be held, and the writer with the best story submitted will get an official release of 1000 copies, and will get the pleasure of having Chevalier design the cover art for the novel.  Chevalier himself not having anything of substance to provide to his publishers decides to take the story submitted by our teenage protagonist and make it his own.

I didn’t give the character name of the teenage protagonist because I don’t remember it, and I’m deliberately choosing not to look it up.  Not because I think he’s a terrible character, he’s just made of little substance.  His only discernable feature is that he’s a relatively normal teenage writer of bad science-fiction living in a world of odd people who think bad science-fiction is good.  He doesn’t do much so much as stuff as done to him, and he reacts.  Napoleon Dynamite, the character, was interesting because we were just watching him, not interacting with him. Nacho was an obsessive fanboy, but lovable because his intentions were admirable.  The main character for “Gentlemen Broncos” is neither as interesting as Napoleon, nor as lovable as Nacho, but he’s surrounded by people that are one of the two.

This was Hess’ first foray into normality for his main character, and I don’t think he knew what to do with him so he compensated by making everyone else a typical representative of a Hess universe.  When in doubt go with what you know, and what Hess seems to know is weird, which he seems to equate with funny.  Now, in his third film, he seems to rely on (or obsess over) weird the same way M. Night Shyamalan relies on (or obsesses over) twist endings.

The film isn’t entirely unentertaining – Clement provides some amusement as the egotistic sci-fi master Chevalier, and some of the fantasy sequences involving Sam Rockwell are watchable, but get tiresome – and despite treading with a bored reaction throughout I did get a nice smile come the final few minutes.  However, it was a minor payoff to some massive displeasure.

SOLOMON KANE

solomon_kane_movie_poster_01.jpgAdapted from the stories of the fictional character created by Robert E. Howard, this film version is an origin story of the title character and how he became the Solomon Kane recognized from the source material.  Kane was a 16th century English warrior, and conqueror who successfully escaped the grasp of death and a trip to eternal hell.  Feeling bound to eventually be rediscovered by the devil Kane puts faith in the Christian church, and decides to leave behind his life of violence on his path to peace in the hope that leading a life without murdering will keep the evil spirits at bay.  When the church inexplicably banishes him he travels as a vagabond in search of his new destiny, and gets taken in by a family of religious drifters on their way to the new world.  When the group is attacked by minions of an evil sorceror called Malachi Kane is presented with the dilemma of risking his salvation by fighting, or watching his new family die.  His decision kickstarts a battle with the reclusive sorceror, and sets Kane on a new path of discovering God’s purpose for him.

“Solomon Kane” is to fantasy what “Constantine” is to horror.  It has some excellent production values, a decent cast, and better than average action sequences.  Not bad, but not awe inspiring.  They’re similar to the Aragorn vs. the Orcs battles, but never elevate to any of the good one-on-one fights of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  That probably wouldn’t be a criticism if the character wasn’t presented and spoken of within the film as some incredibly unbeatable swordsman.  He looks completely beatable, and the story doesn’t completely compensate for a lack of incredible fight sequences.

I figured that if the film was titled after its main character then it would be warranted by the character’s ability to just plow through bad guys with little effort.  Instead it’s more focused on Solomon’s arc from relentless killer to a noble defender, but even that never elevates to the level that you wished the fight sequences would.  Enough time wasn’t spent with the new family to attach emotionally with them when things go bad, and Kane’s journey to find Malachi never seems so treacherous or extensive that it’s such a grand feeling of satisfaction when he finally gets there.

The film is consistently above mediocre with visuals and production design that earn your attention more often than its content does.  It’s definitely a welcome addition to the sword and sorcery genre, but it’s far from being amongst the stars of the party.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

paranormal_activity_movie_poster_01.jpgA boyfriend and girlfriend are experiencing what they perceive to be hauntings inside their home.  The guy feels a bit overly carefree in regards to what’s occurring, and purchases a camera and some audio equipment to try and capture some of the events and have it on record.  From day 1 of the recordings through the final day of the hauntings is a steady climb of paranormal events that gradually get worse, and worse, and worse.

The entire film is told through the recordings, a la “The Blair Witch Project,” without giving any preconceptions that what you’re watching might be real.  It’s not, and the film doesn’t try and make you think it is, and that’s one of its greatest strengths.  The fact that it can affect you as well as it does even when you fully know that what you’re watching is not real is about as high a praise you can give a horror film that aims for scares, and “Paranormal Activity” aims to stick with you once you’ve left the theater and head home (God help you if you watch this at home).  In order to pull it off the actors have to be believable, and the events have to seem plausible, and “Paranormal Acitivity” succeeds on both accounts.  I’ve never had an experience anything like what the characters in the film have, but I feel like it could happen, and that terrifies me.

Like some of the greatest of horror films “Paranormal Activity” psychologically embeds itself in you like a serious sports injury.  You eventually recover from it, but you never forget it and trying to perform as you once did before the injury occurred is the toughest part of the recovery process.  It hits you as hard when you go home and lie in bed as it does to watch “Jaws” and decide to go for a swim.  Even though you know initially that you’re not watching something real you forget that you’re not, and then start to hope that you’re not.

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