by Andrew Nogay
Web Content Contributor
Wednesday was my designated Lee Sang-Woo day. I planned it out so I could watch both of the movies he had playing at Fantastic Fest this day, and I regret nothing. I was first introduced to Lee at last year’s Fantastic Fest, when I saw his movie I Am Trash. It was a visceral experience not quite like anything I’ve seen before. It’s about a fractured family of three adult brothers, one of whom is in the military and gets kicked out for raping another soldier, another who is showing signs of being a burgeoning pedophile, and lastly is the relatively normal brother who tries to keep them together and out of trouble. Then everything is turned on its head when their psychopathic father is released from prison for sexual assault. What happens in that movie is a drumming of the senses and a revisitation of your morals. But beyond the dirtiness of the plot, a real compelling drama comes to form. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had at Fantastic Fest.
It’s probably unrelated to what was happening on screen, but about halfway through I Am Trash, my nose started bleeding, and didn’t stop until after the movie. So the joke between me and my friend, Nick, was that I Am Trash was so disturbing that it made my noise bleed. The funniest thing about the whole situation is how awesome Lee was. His Q&A was the funniest of the entire festival. Most of the questions were about why the movie was so messed up, and he would respond with something along the lines of “I don’t know. I am really a nice guy. My movies just happen to be about messed up families. I make family movies!” After the movie we went up to him, I told him his movie made my nose bleed, which absolutely enthralled him. We started talking and he turned out to be a really cool guy. So I knew if he had anything playing at this year’s festival, I wasn’t going to miss it. However the first movie I saw this day wasn’t a Lee Sang-Woo movie, it was:
Director: Dennis Hauck
Country: United States
Plot: This is a neo-noir about a stripper who is murdered, and the private detective she knew who investigates her murder.
Review: In part one of this review I talked about Victoria, a 140-minute German film with no edits. Along a similar vein to that was Too Late, one of the movies at Fantastic Fest that had the most hype, and boy did it live up to it. Too Late is a 100-minute film that is made up of only five scenes, all of which take place in one shot each. The director said in the Q&A that the structure was meant to create a narrative just based on five moments in main character Sampson’s life. The story is incomplete, with plenty of information needed to fill in the blanks, but it plays into the structure so well I couldn’t imagine this film made a different way.
Technically, this movie is a wonderful mashup of elegance and grit. It was filmed, and shown, in 35 mm rather than digitally, making for a truly unique look; at least for movies made nowadays. Things are filmed grainy, uncompromising and dark. However, the elegance comes in with the camera movement, which is nothing short of beautiful. The way it bounces off characters in a scene is mesmerizing. It will follow a character, change focus to another, follow them, go to another, and so on. It’s not necessarily the characters themselves, but the plot. Not much is shown on screen that isn’t meaningful.
This is a hard-boiled noir in the truest sense. It’s the kind of movie I bet Robert Aldrich would’ve loved to have been able to make. Sampson, played amazingly by John Hawkes, is hard-drinking, tough-talking and extremely flawed individual. He could’ve fit right in with Kiss Me Deadly. There’s murder, mayhem and melancholia, all of which show the inner workings of characters we barely spend time with. This was easily one of the best movies I saw at Fantastic Fest.
Director: Lee Sang-Woo
Country: South Korea
Plot: Oh boy. Okay, I got this. Bare with me. So Dirty Romance is about an impoverished South Korean man who is the sole caretaker of his mentally and physically challenged sister. This is of course trimming a lot of what the movie is actually about, but that’s the best I can give in a sentence.
Review: This is a romance movie and despite the disgusting things that happen it is graphically heartwarming. Chul-joong, the main character, tries to manage the life of his sister, Mi-joong, and tries to make her happy through various means. He does things like trying to set her up with an acquaintance, who his sister is in love with, and ward off the advances of another local mentally-challenged person who is in love with Mi-joong. There is also a subplot of the acquaintance’s mother who has dementia that is perhaps more depressing than the main plot.
Lee Sang-Woo is sort of the South Korean Harmony Korine, but if Korine only made movies like Trash Humpers. The grit is real, and Lee’s guerrilla style shows through exceptionally here. There are several scenes that are very obviously filmed with no permits, and the budget of this movie is jaw-dropping low. Production values don’t mean much in a movie like this, it’s just about getting the shots and the actors doing their bit, both of which happen. There are some very cool handheld shots in here, and the performances are great all around.
This is a stomach-churning movie at times, but it’s only because the audience cares so much about the characters. And when hope comes in the film, everything that precedes it makes it sweeter. I will say that I ordered dinner during this movie, which was a mistake because I lost my appetite from about the first frame. You don’t necessarily care about eating food when the opening scene of a movie is a handicapped girl masturbating.
Rating: 8.5/10, but honestly this movie, and I felt the same way about I Am Trash, isn’t a movie you can really quantify.
Director: Lee Sang-Woo
Country: South Korea
Plot: Four high-school friends navigate early adulthood, often unsuccessfully.
Review: This is the movie that had Lee’s largest budget so far, and it shows. It has production values, more than six actors, and didn’t look like it was made with a sponge. Of course, I didn’t like this movie nearly as much as I Am Trash or Dirty Romance. The characters were well-defined, and the actors gave good performances, but this movie never really connected the characters to the plot I felt. In fact, there wasn’t really much of plot, which can work for a coming-of-age film. But this movie does try to get plot in there, at sometimes it was a jumbled mess.
I don’t want to be overly critical, because I did like this movie. It was different from Lee’s previous work, and I like that. However, as I said for Dirty Romance, I judge Lee Sang-Woo movies on things you can’t quite quantify, but with Speed you can. It’s just easier to point out the good and bad things in it.
This movie was arrestingly shot and photographs the four leads very well. Like any Lee Sang-Woo movie there’s some graphic and disturbing stuff, like a high school teacher who blackmails a student into sleeping with him, but it seemed more violent than his other movies, and laid off the sexuality. This might’ve been Lee’s best made film, but the individual parts didn’t seem to come together as well as his other movies, and it kills me to say that.
Director: Can Evrenol
Plot: Policemen investigate a mysterious call late one night, and get more than they bargained for in a dream-like and surrealistic way. And just like any other great movie, a satanist cult is involved.
Review: This was one of the grossest movies I saw at Fantastic Fest, which is saying A LOT. The movie starts out with the memory of Arda from when he was a child, one of complete fear and is a precursor to the awful things that will happen to him as a young policeman. Much of the movie stems from hallucinations, dreams and psychosis. The atmosphere is dense, but the content is nearly nihilistic in its graphicness. In the final act, things get so bloody that it could make the audience hallucinate, dream or go into psychosis.
A thing I loved about the direction is that as a first time director, Evrenol didn’t have a distinct style. By that, I mean Baskin had its own unique style. I couldn’t look at a shot and say “oh, that looked Kubrick-like” or “man, this is pretty lynchian.” It had vague suggestions of other influences, but Evrenol seemed to have a style upon himself, which is one of the best things a director can have.
This movie was based off a short that Evrenol made a few years ago of the same name, which also played at Fantastic Fest. It is certainly a inspired effort, and as with a lot of people who see it, I’ll be eagerly awaiting Evrenol’s next film. Hopefully it will be as uncompromising as Baskin.
The last day of Fantastic Fest is always bitter sweet. Knowing that you have to go back into the real world soon, where you can’t just sit in a theater and watch movies for 15 hours is the bitter part. The sweet part is knowing that you have at least one last day to sit in a theater for a day and watch a bunch of great movies. This was one of the best days of Fantastic Fest this year for me, starting off with:
Man vs Snake
Director: Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy
Country: United States/Canada/Italy/Japan
Plot: This documentary is about the quest to break the high score of Nibbler, an ’80s arcade game, focusing on the guy who originally broke a billion points on it and tries to reclaim his record years later.
Review:This might be the feel-good movie of Fantastic Fest for me. The people involved are likable, though a bit eccentric. The stakes aren’t life-threatening or anything but they’re high enough that the audience is very invested on whether the gamers reach their goal. And at the center of it is Tim, the ordinary guy who just happens to hold one of the landmark achievements in all of gaming: being the first guy to ever get a billion points on any video game. From him comes the central idea of the movie, that people find meaning and have extraordinary accomplishments through various means, Tim’s just happens to be video games.
I don’t want to say much about this movie, other than that it is great. It’s very well made, the people in it are fascinating, and like many great documentaries, it finds exceptional moments in mundane things. The animation they use for things they don’t have footage of, like Tim breaking the billion point barrier originally in the early ’80s, is great and funny. This is also a movie about the human will, what a person will go through to reach their goals. Does that sound lame because it’s about video games? Well don’t worry, Man vs Snake is surprisingly universal in my view.
The Devil’s Candy
Director: Sean Byrne
Country: United States
Plot: An artist moves into a house with his family, and they endure the demons that caused the son of the previous owners to kill them.
Review: Green Room was the most punk movie I saw at Fantastic Fest, and The Devil’s Candy was the most metal movie I saw there. The main character, played by Ethan Embry, is a artist who specializes in heavy metal-inspired work, and his daughter is just as into metal music as he is, to the chagrin of his wife. The interplay between the family is excellent, and they’re all likeable. Honestly, I could’ve watched a movie of just “heavy metal dad trying to make ends meet for his family.” However, this is a horror movie through and through.
The style of this movie shows through in many ways, but especially during scenes involving the crazy killer. The antagonist of this movie is the guy who murdered his parents, and to drown out the satanic voices he hears, he has to play his guitar loud. Little details like that were excellent, and kind of funny. However, this movie does get disturbing, as he is a child murderer. Almost as disturbing, whenever he murders someone, the father of the family gets possessed and creates an artistic representation of the murder. Of course, this is the best art he’s ever made, which leads to some conflict.
This movie was legitimately creepy, and there was some great symbolism here. The art that the father creates when he gets contacted by the evil spirits is disturbingly beautiful. They live out in rural Texas, and the blank landscape fits in well with what the movie goes for. There were also enough moments that were really enjoyable between the horrific stuff to keep the movie going.
Love and Peace
Director: Shion Sono
Plot: There’s no way I can describe the plot of Love and Peace in any way that’ll make sense, but here I go; a loser office worker in Tokyo becomes a famous rock star when his pet turtle gets magical powers and can grant his wishes.
Review: This is the newest movie from Japanese director Shion Sono, and it’s the second of his I’ve seen after I saw Tokyo Tribe at last years Fantastic Fest. I wasn’t as big a fan of Tokyo Tribe as other Fantastic Fest goers seemed to be, but I really enjoyed Love and Peace. It was consistently inconsistent, but always knew where it was going. However, I never knew where it was going, which was awesome. Seriously, about every ten or twenty minutes, Love and Peace turned into a totally different movie. It started off as a dramady about a hapless office worker who is constantly bullied, then a feel-good story when he gets a pet turtle, then it gets really sad when he flushes him down the toilet accidentally, then it becomes nearly like a children’s story when the turtle is adopted by a man living in the sewers who has magical powers, which he uses to have abandoned pets and toys talk. Then it becomes a music story as the turtle gets the powers to grant wishes, so his owner starts becoming a famous rock star with hit songs. All of this happens in the first third of the movie, by the way.
Somehow, despite all the shifts in story, the tone stays consistent throughout. That’s what makes this movie great, actually. Having an inconsistent tone or style can sink a movie, but that is consistent here, even as the story gets wilder and wilder. It’s so imaginative and luscious, it felt like the movie equivalent of a My Bloody Valentine song. At it’s heart, Love and Peace was a feel good movie, and that’s not something you find all that often at Fantastic Fest. Honestly, its values hold more in line with a children’s film than it does with any other kind of movie I saw at Fantastic Fest. It is definitely one I could recommend to most people. If I could describe it in a word, it would be comfy.
Rating: Comfy/10. This was a really comfy movie.
Really though, I would give it a 9/10.
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Country: United States
Plot: In this western, a group of men set out to find a tribe of strange, cannibalistic Indians after they kidnap the wife of one of the men.
Review: This was the closing night movie, a spot that seems to have a more high-profile movie play, as last year the closing movie was Nightcrawler, which ended up getting a lot of buzz and even various award nominations. Bone Tomahawk certainly had a high-profile cast, which included Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and David Arquette, and much like Nightcrawler it was the directorial debut of a Hollywood veteran, whose style is already fully-formed.
It’s director is experienced as both a theater director and as a cinematographer, and those two qualities show through well. The dialogue, characters and story are worthy of a quality play, and the cinematography is shot with a great eye. There is a physicality in how this movie was shot that could not be done in theater. It was also shot on location, in the desert, and the cinematography of the wilderness is fantastic.
The characters of Bone Tomahawk made the film for me. It is a little bit of slow burn at first, but once it got going, a majority of the movie is carried by the actors and their defined characters. There’s the sheriff of the small town the characters are from (Russell), the cowboy with a broken leg whose wife is kidnapped (Wilson), the old coot who is the deputy sheriff (Jenkins) and a bigoted, well-educated and highly capable gentleman who comes along for the ride (Fox). Their banter, while on the trail and setting up camp was delightfully funny, which was the most surprising part of the movie for me. Fox especially steals scenes with his wit.
What wasn’t surprising was how dark this movie got at the end. The Indians who kidnap the wife are spoken of in hushed tones by even other Native Americans, and they’re basically not even human. I don’t mean that in a racist way, and neither does the film. They’re just so separated from the world, and through generations of inbreeding and violence, that they’re nearly mystical in their mysteriousness. Of course, they’re also violent cannibals, so they are absolutely terrifying as well. In fact, one of the grossest, and best, things I saw at all of Fantastic Fest happens in this film, near the end. For a movie with relatively high production values and gloss, it does not shy away from getting dirty. It’s labeled as a horror/western, and it lives up to the horror aspect as much as it does the western.
Well, that concludes the films I saw at Fantastic Fest. I mostly enjoyed everything I saw there, some more than others. Just for the sake of it, I ranked the movies I saw this year.
1. Green Room
2. Belladonna of Sadness
4. Too Late
5. The Lobster
6. The Witch
7. Bone Tomahawk
9. The Invitation
10. Man vs Snake
11. Stand By for Tape Back-Up
12. Love and Peace
13. Dirty Romance
15. April and the Extraordinary World
16. Yakuza Apocalypse
18. Liza the Fox Fairy
19. The Devil’s Candy
21. The Treacherous
23. Hard to Get
24. The Mind’s Eye
25. The Brand New Testament
26. In Search of the Ultra-Sex
I really hope that’s consistent with how I rated the movies. Even though I saw about a third of all the movies at Fantastic Fest, I’ll put my input on the best of them. That’s right, here are my personal Fantastic Fest awards. Why? Well I do love awards. Too much, sometimes.
Best Film–Green Room, by Jeremy Saulnier
Honorable Mention: Belladonna of Sadness, Anomalisa, Too Late
Best Director-Dennis Hauck, Too Late
Honorable Mention: Sebastian Schipper for Victoria, Jeremy Saulnier for Green Room, Robert Eggers for The Witch
Best Screenplay (Original)-Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, The Lobster
Honorable Mention: Jeremy Saulnier for Green Room, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi for The Invitation, Shion Sono for Love and Peace
Best Screenplay (Adapted)-Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa
Honorable Mention: Amy Jump for High-Rise, Ogulcan Eren Akay, Can Evrenol, Cem Ozuduru and Ercin Sadikoglu for Baskin
Best Actor-John Hawkes, Too Late
Honorable Mention: Colin Farrell for The Lobster, Ethan Embry for The Devil’s Candy, Logan Marshall-Green for The Invitation
Best Actress-Laia Costa, Victoria
Honorable Mention: Mónika Balsai for Liza the Fox Fairy, Anya Taylor-Joy for The Witch, Tammy Blanchard for The Invitation
Best Supporting Actor-Luke Evans, High-Rise/Matthew Fox, Bone Tomahawk
Honorable Mention: Patrick Stewart for Green Room, Kurt Russell for Bone Tomahawk, Israel Makoe for Hard to Get
Best Supporting Actress-Imogen Poots, Green Room
Honorable Mention: Elisabeth Moss for High-Rise, Alia Shawkat for Green Room, Kiernan Shipka for February
Best Short–The World of Tomorrow, by Don Hertzfeldt
Honorable Mention: Copycat by Charlie Lyne, More than Four Hours by Brian Poyser, El Gigante by Gigi Saul Guerrero
Scariest Movie–The Witch
Honorable Mention: Baskin, Bone Tomahawk, February
Weirdest Movie–Dirty Romance
Honorable Mention–In Search of the Ultra-Sex, Yakuza Apocalypse, The Lobster
Honorable Mention–Green Room, Bone Tomahawk, The Mind’s Eye
I mean, what is Fantastic Fest if not a place to see weird, scary or bloody movies? Until next year…