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I was so exhausted this day, I don’t know how I functioned. Turns out waking up at 9 a.m., then going to bed at 2 a.m. after a full day of writing and watching movies makes me more tired than I thought it would. Oh well, Saturday’s movies were at least interesting, the first being:
April and the Extraordinary World
Director: Christian Desmares and Frank Ekinci
Plot: A girl who lives in an alternate universe – where the world’s best scientists have mysteriously disappeared – tries to uncover the secrets her mother and father laid before they disappeared.
Review: This animated film makes a big change in history right from the beginning. It is a little convoluted unless you actually watch the movie, but all you need to know is that it takes place in the 1930’s, and for many decades, the top scientists in the world have been captured by ultra-intelligent lizards, so the world is deprived of their innovations. For example, electricity hasn’t been made for human use yet, so everything still runs on steam. April is the main character, whose family is comprised of genius scientists, and in an incident when she was young they all went missing. She tries to follow in their footsteps, with the help of her talking cat, and discovers things that would change the world.
This movie was one of the more light-hearted movies I saw at Fantastic Fest this year, which probably says more about the crop of movies there than it does about April. It is a rather funny movie, packed full of scientist in-jokes, and the animation is more classical than other animated movies I saw at Fantastic Fest, though it was beautiful to look at. There is definitely some sadness in the movie, along with dying, and it certainly seems to make a point about current society. The world seems much worse without the advent of many of the inventions, but it does make a point that we still have a long way to go currently.
The action scenes are well done, and the characters are very likable. Darwin, the talking cat (get it?) in particular stole the show for me. Also whenever the movie wanted to get grimy, or melodramatic, it pulled it off well. Perhaps the best thing about the movie, despite how awful the situation seems for most of the movie, is that there is constantly an air of hope around. The energy of this film kept it going through some of the stranger plot points.
Stand By for Tape Back-Up
Director: Ross Sutherland
Country: United Kingdom
Plot: asically it’s a mashup-edit of an old VHS tape that the director uses as a means to tell the story of his grandfather, how his death affected him, how the directors depression effected his life, and what the VHS tape means to him.
Review: Normally, this movie plays with a narration, however when I saw it at Fantastic Fest the director actually narrated over it live, with the microphone. So it wasn’t so much of a movie as it was nearly a performance art piece. However, it was absolutely amazing. I didn’t know what to expect when I went to see this, but I certainly didn’t expect an emotional hammer. The story goes that after his grandfather died, the filmmaker found this old videotape. Because of improper usage and too many times it recorded things, the VHS formed a nearly experimental montage of old movies and TV shows. Each little bit reminds the director of something about his life, and from all these various stories a narrative is created.
Sutherland said in the Q&A that he is a poet by trade, and it shows. He is talking for just about the entire runtime, and it is nearly as funny as it is soul-crushingly sad. He evokes nostalgia at every turn, then counters it with real-life situational depression. Not only does a story form, the ideas the director has about death, media and other topics are also revealed. And just when the weight of the situation seems too much to bear, the music of the VHS starts forming a beat, and Sutherland raps about whatever is happening in a hilarious, calming flow.
I have no idea if I would’ve liked this movie as much if I just saw the movie version of it, rather than Sutherland doing it live, but the material he put out was great. This is an incredibly unique movie, unlike anything else I saw at Fantastic Fest. I’m a big fan of experimental film, so perhaps this just hit me right, but I imagine most people could relate to at least something he says.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Country: United Kingdom
Plot: A man moves into a futuristic high-rise apartment building filled with eccentric residents, and watches as the entire place descends into madness.
Review: Ben Wheatley is an interesting filmmaker. Kill List and A Field in England, which was put out by Drafthouse Films, showcase a director whose ideas get so big that he seems on the verge of something uniquely great, but consistency could be seen as an issue. High-Rise has his largest and most star-studded cast yet, with Tom Hiddlestron in the lead and the likes of Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans and Sienna Miller in the supporting cast. As an ensemble, the cast is great. Even the child actors do very well. High-Rise also seems to have higher production values than Wheatley’s previous movies, and there are some absolutely amazing shots. However, despite everything this movie has going for it, I would shrug my shoulders if someone asked me if I liked it.
High-Rise reminded me a bit of American Hustle. It took place in the ’70s, had a lot of sex, violence and drugs, had great acting, great directing, superb sound design and fantastic scenes. However, all those elements didn’t seem to really connect. A difference I suppose would be that American Hustle accidentally turned out that way, while High-Rise was meant to be confusing. So much goes on, then not a lot happens, then we jump a bit and end up in an entirely different place, and it’s a bit disorienting. I still don’t actually know if I liked High-Rise. I liked many elements of it, but I don’t know where that led me. Out of every movie I saw at Fantastic Fest, this is the one I need to see again to really get a feel for.
Rating: Shoulder Shrug/10
The Mind’s Eye
Director: Joe Begos
Country: United States
Plot: A man and a women who had telekinetic abilities try to escape the mad doctor, who abuses their kind in his search to gain powers like them.
Review: This was probably the campiest movie I saw at Fantastic Fest, and it was pretty cool for what it was. A guy can move stuff with his mind, and he’s powerful enough to even kill people. His lover, who he hasn’t seen in years, can do the same. A doctor opens up a facility for people like them, but he really wants to use their powers for his insidious intentions. Pretty cool, right? It plays like a slasher version of Scanners, and things get relatively bloody. This is really a quintessential midnight movie for Fantastic Fest.
Of course, this movie had a few problems. The production values weren’t super high, but that can be easily excused. The acting wasn’t great. In fact, for many of the cast members it seemed pretty bad, but hey, it is meant to be a campy movie. Bad acting comes with the territory. There were some cringe-worthy lines, particularly from the doctor when he starts really turning evil. He would say some Dragon Ball Z-level lines, like “I will soon become the most powerful telekinetic to ever walk this Earth!” and whatnot. Honestly, that might’ve been done on purpose. The filmmaker seemed intent on making a movie without any kind of pretentious, arty stuff.
This movie had it’s problems, it had things going for it, like the fantastic color palette and the willingness to kill the “good guys,” and overall you get exactly what you expect. And sometimes, a movie like this is exactly what a person wants. For the type of movie it is, it works.
Fantastic Fest’s system of selecting your movies normally gets you in the movies you want to see, but every now and then there are slip ups. If you don’t get into movies you want to, you can just wait to jump on a free ticket if someone releases it. I almost never have to do that, but this day I did. The two things I was most excited about were Short Fuse and The Witch, and I had to scrap by to switch into those. I mean, if I’m going to miss an entire day of the NFL, I’m going to at least watch the movies I really want to see.
Liza the Fox Fairy
Director: Károly Ujj-Mészáros
Plot: A naive woman whose only friend is the ghost of a Japanese pop star starts to look for love, only to find that every man who falls in love with her dies.
Review: This was perhaps the funnest movie that had the most deaths out of any movie I’ve seen in a long time. This is a comedy through and through, albeit a bit of a black comedy. But just about every person who dies does so in a funny way. It is a bit heartbreaking, since Liza is such a likable character, and every romantic interest she has dies, but it edges the line between black comedy and character emotions well.
One of the strengths of this film are the supporting characters. There’s the Japanese pop star ghost, who turns out to be the antagonist of the film, the one who kills all of Liza’s love interests in his jealous schemes. His scenes are nearly all hilarious, and the songs he sings are catchy as you-know-what. There’s also the rich, pompous, good-looking guy who Liza thinks is destined to be her love. His character faults are turned on their heads hilariously throughout. Then there’s the police detective who moves in with Liza, whose luck is just delightfully awful, though he has a heart of gold. There are plenty of other characters throughout this film, like the police chief, who are more one-note characters but still have their time to shine.
This movie was relatively light fare, which worked for the movie I thought. The special effects weren’t really anything to write home about, but this movie has great characters and acting, starting with the titular character. Solid all-around.
This wasn’t a movie, but rather a program made up of selected horror short films. I won’t go through every one, but the ones that stood out to me were Trust, Portal to Hell, El Gigante, and The Babysitter Murders. Those were pretty neat, if you have the chance check them out.
Director: Robert Eggers
Country: Canada/United States
Plot: After getting expelled by their town, a seventeenth-century colonial family moves into near isolation as they begin to be tormented by a witch living in the nearby forest.
Review: This was a slow burning horror film, but man when it started burning, the entire theater felt like it was on fire. The scene that kickstarts the movie is when the eldest daughter of the family is playing peek-a-boo with the youngest, an infant, in a clearing. She covers her eyes for a second, and then the baby is gone. Bewilderment is the first thing that crosses both her mind and the audience’s. However, the audience’s imagination isn’t allowed to run wild for that long, as the next scene is the witch sacrificing the infant. This sets up many things. First off, the family is just about helpless to the witch. Secondly, the children, five including the infant, are fair game to everything that happens in the film. Loss of innocence is a key theme in this movie, and there’s no way to lose that faster than having your infant sibling mysteriously disappear right in front of you. It was truly one of the more fascinating sequences in any film I’ve seen recently.
The dialect and story of this movie comes directly from journals and other artifacts of this time in American history, and the amount of research the director had to do shows with the details. They do speak English that is very different from how we speak, so that requires just a bit of adjusting. If you stay with the movie, and pay attention to everything, then the story forms as a rich tapestry that is rare in modern horror movies. Themes of isolation, religion, sex, gender roles and the aforementioned loss of innocence all come into play, mostly through interactions among the family.
The atmosphere of this movie is tense throughout, and it is never cut. There is almost no relief. It builds constantly, and doesn’t let up even after the climax. The fact that this is the first film by the director is unbelievable, as he seems just about fully-formed in his technique. This movie is a horror movie without any sort of jump scares, with a fair amount of colonial-era dialogue, an intense atmosphere, dense themes and a lot of disturbing content. If that sounds like a movie you’d watch, I highly recommend The Witch. If you give it time, you will be rewarded.
Director: Karyn Kusama
Country: United States
Plot: A man, Will, attends a dinner party put on by his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, years after a tragic death broke up their marriage. Surrounded by friends he hasn’t seen in a very long time, Will starts to believe that the hosts intentions are more sinister than they appear.
Review: One of my favorite types of movies are cult movies. I don’t mean the type of movies with a dedicated fan base. No, I’m talking about movies that are about cults. Although it doesn’t seem like it from the outset, The Invitation turns into a movie about a cult once the plot starts rolling. You see Will’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend are involved with some sort of self-help group whose method of suppressing emotion and accepting death seems odd to the dinner group at large, but is very suspicious to Will.
Although it is a thriller, this movie has more to do with grief and depression than with the possible cult that the dinner guests are being introduced to. Although he has a new girlfriend and seems to not care that his ex-wife has a new partner, Will hasn’t gotten over the death of their son. The fact that she seems totally over it is the main thing that eats at Will. He is a great character, played fantastically by Logan Marshall-Green, and the supporting cast is solid as well. The direction is spot-on and accentuates the characters, like showing Will more isolated than the others, or the more affable guests being in a shot with others.
A thing I appreciated about this movie was how it allowed the audience to figure out what happened by ourselves. We aren’t explicitly told at the beginning that Will’s son died, or even that he was once married. It would’ve been so easy to make the first scene the flashback of the son tragically dying, but it was given bit by bit and it worked. Now this was a special screening, so I don’t think this movie was completely finished. The audio was rather rough at parts, so I figure that is just about the last thing that will be perfected before this movie is ready to hit theaters. This movie seemed to have pretty high production values, and it’s director has done larger movies before, so that isn’t something I expect to see in the finished product.
I ended up having to go to class this day, and I headed right to Austin as soon as I got off. I still hadn’t gotten much rest, so I was especially exhausted today. That might’ve shown in how I felt about the movies I saw this day, starting with..
Director: Kyu-Dong Min
Country: South Korea
Plot: During the reign of an insane Korean king of the 1500s, his most trusted officials try to cater to his desires of having thousands of women as concubines, while using his madness for their own benefit.
Review: This movie is a combination of a grand period piece and an exploitation film, and it’s pretty cool. There is graphic sexual content, but at the same time the photography could be very elegant. That kind of dichotomy could sink a movie, but for The Treacherous it was a boon. It creates a kind of energy that carries the movie. However, this is the best part of the film. It clocks in at 131 minutes, and it seems like it’s either 15 minutes too long or 15 minutes too short. There are certain parts of the movie that seem underdeveloped, and either could’ve been cut or expanded upon. Although the pacing is good, something just seemed off.
This movie wasn’t necessarily confusing, but I was confused about who was supposed to be the antagonist. Because for most of the movie, I thought the Emperor was the antagonist, but in the epilogue it was made clear that the main character and his father were. That doesn’t matter in the long run, but if I end up watching it again I will look for certain things and pay attention more.
Rating: 6.5/10, although honestly this could use another watch.
The Brand New Testament
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Plot: Okay, this is a bit convoluted. In this movie, as it turns out, God is a man who lives in an apartment in Brussels with his family. And he’s kind of a jerk. He created cities, animals, people, everything, but then created everything from minor annoyances to misery for his own amusement. At a certain point, his daughter gets sick of him, and sends everyone on Earth a message telling them how long they have to live, before escaping into the real world for the first time. Then she goes and tries to get some apostles for her…Brand New Testament!
Review: This movie is very absurd, right off the bat. Normally i go for weird things, but I could never really get into this movie. It creates a world that is the same as ours, but so different in it’s mechanics. God controls everything through his computer, which is pretty wacky idea, but despite this, nothing about the outside world seems to be different. It’s strange. God has absolutely no powers when he ventures into the outside world, but his daughter does. Now I know this movie isn’t meant to be completely serious, but there were just a few things that didn’t make sense to me that took me away from the film. At times, it seemed like it was being weird for the sake of being weird. Again, don’t get me wrong, I love weird movies, but there has to be some meaning there.
Considering that this is a movie about religion, you’d figure that there would be more religious commentary then there is. The lack of that is honestly a plus for me, I don’t know if I really wanted something preached at me. This movie picked up a lot of steam once Ea, God’s daughter, starts assembling her apostles, who turn out to be a eccentric bunch of characters. A common idea throughout the movie is that people feel released once they figure out when they die, and you see how it affects their lives through the apostles specifically. It is a very interesting idea, and this movie had a bunch of very interesting ideas. They didn’t seem to connect all the time though, but it was a fun movie nonetheless.
Belladonna of Sadness
Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
Plot: In medieval France, a poor young wife makes a deal with the devil to gain power, and effectively becomes a witch in this nearly-lost, recently remastered 1973 Japanese animated psychedelic masterpiece.
Review: I feel a little odd talking about this movie, because it should honestly be experienced rather than read about. I’ve never seen an animated movie quite like it. It is as lush and impressive as it is disturbing and hallucinatory. It might be the only movie that has an abstract rape scene that is equal parts soul-breaking and breathtaking.
About halfway through the movie, the Devil tells Jeanne, the main character, that she “is more beautiful than even God,” which is a sentiment that I feel reflects the animation well. Belladonna‘s animation is unique; it is mostly still paintings that it looks like the camera just sort of pans on, and the motion animation is sparse. You could take nearly any frame from Belladonna, and it would be worthy to be in an art museum. The music is fantastic as well, it’s totally ’70s psychedelic stuff and it works great.
However, this movie isn’t just style with no substance. The story itself is depressing, but chalked full of thematic elements that compliments the music and animation fantastically. It’s a fairy tale of sorts, just one with a lot of nudity and sadness. If this review doesn’t make any sense, I apologize, but it’s because this is a difficult movie to review without just saying “about everything in it is really good and it made me want to go into the fetal position.”
Rating: 9.9/10 (It gave Green Room a serious run for its money for the best movie I saw at Fantastic Fest).
The last part should be coming soon, covering the movies I saw the last two days, Wednesday and Thursday. I unfortunately couldn’t make it on Tuesday, between getting off class late in the afternoon and going on the radio at 10 p.m, I feel I made the right choice to have a rest day. Stay tuned…