‘Arrival’ is the year’s best sci-fi film, bar none

"Arrival"
“Arrival”

Let’s get one thing clear: It takes nothing away from “Arrival” — as powerful as it is — to note that director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer were working with extraordinary raw material.

“Arrival,” which screened Sept. 21 as part of Fantastic Fest and will open wide in November, is based on “Story of Your Life” by the amazing Ted Chiang. It is perhaps the single best sci-fi novella of the past 25 years.

(Chiang, it should be noted, releases no wine before its time — of his 15 *total* short stories, novelettes and novellas, seven have won a total of 14 awards; dude’s batting average is insane).

Now, that said, “Story of Your Life” is a deeply internal work, and it is a tiny miracle that Villeneuve and Heisserer figured out a way to translate this tale to film in the first place, let alone make it so touching and smart.

It’s a movie about the day the world metaphorically shifted on its axis, but it is mostly the story of one woman.  Like the very best science fiction, “Arrival” is hopeful and a bit implausible and slightly corny and mind-bending and a little bit sad. It fills a where-do-we-go-from-here shaped hole in the heart and manages to be a canny look at the nature of grief and time at the same time.

We first see Lousie Banks (Amy Adams, as good as she gets without having a scene-chewy part) mourning the loss of her daughter, whom we see, in a montage, from her joyful birth to too-early death. Then, we see the aliens arrive — 12 smooth, black ovals, hovering over various points on the globe.

Banks, a brilliant linguist, is brought in by the military (represented by Forest Whitaker) and the CIA (represented by Michael Stuhlbarg) to attempt to communicate with the aliens — massive, seven-legged creatures that humans come to call “heptapods.” Their speech is impenetrable but, working with physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner), Banks starts communicating with the heptapods, whose written language may or may not be the key to their presence on Earth.

While Banks holds off the U.S.’s military, the rest of the world (by which I mean the Chinese and Russians, mostly) is starting to freak out at this stuff. Paranoia soon takes over, and suddenly nobody is sharing information with anyone else. The question hangs in the air like one of the alien ships: Do the heptapods mean to do us harm, or are they here for another reason?

Adams gives a tight, measured performance, while Villeneuve,  cinematographer Bradford Young, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and editor Joe Walker dole out information and color it in knowing ways, building to third act revelations that make for profoundly moving film-making, the sort that demands that you watch it again from the beginning.

 

 

“Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook explores crime, sensuality and colonial Korea with “The Handmaiden”

South Korean director Park Chan-wook at the Fantastic Fest film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse-South Lamar in Austin, Tx, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The filmmaker was on hand to introduce his new movie “The Handmaiden.” ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
South Korean director Park Chan-wook at the Fantastic Fest film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar on Sept. 22. The filmmaker was on hand to introduce his new movie “The Handmaiden.” ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Park Chan-wook paces around the small karaoke room at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Given the savagery of the South Korean filmmaker’s increasingly legendary “Oldboy,” one of the gnarliest tales of revenge ever lensed, you’d perhaps think he was pacing “like a caged tiger” or “a man imprisoned” or some such nonsense.

Nope. Just a bad back.

Park, whose “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” Tim League himself has said was a direct influence on starting Fantastic Fest, is in town for the festival with his new film, “The Handmaiden,”  which is based loosely on Welsh author Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith.” Park and his frequent writing partner Chung Seo-kyung move the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in 1930s.

And yes, some small spoilers follow.

“The Handmaiden” follows a pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is ordered by the con man leader of her crew, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to get herself hired as a servant to the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) so Fujiwara can ingratiate himself with Hideko and steal her wealth.

Instead, Sook-hee and Hideko fall in love. And things get complicated. Extremely, plot-twisty complicated. Three-chapters-from-three-different-perspectives complicated.

Park says he changed the setting for very specific narrative reasons. “It is a story about these two women falling in love,” Park says. “The first hurdle in their relationship is class. The second: the fact that they are deceiving each other. Thirdly, the fact that they are of the same sex. These are the three elements getting in the way of their love.”

In moving the story to Japanese-occupied Korea, Park was able to add a few more elements.

“They are now of different nationalities, two different nations that are opposed to each other, and they have to overcome this animosity as well,” Park says. “I added on top of that the age difference between the two characters. There is more of a gap between the two in the movie than in the novel. In Asian cultures, age difference adds a bit of hierarchy. All of these are hindrances for these characters to achieve love as equals.”

Park adds that the topic of Japanese-occupied Korea is still a delicate one: “Because it’s a touchy subject,” he says, “it’s not properly dealt with in mainstream cinema.”

Then again, it also allowed for Park to introduce the character of Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean collector of rare erotica who is posing as Japanese. Kouzuki lives in a bizarre home (literally one half is a European mansion, the other half is a traditional Japanese house) and is a key figure in the complicated narrative

“Kouzuki is basically a Japanese sympathizer, and his presence is felt throughout the film,” Park says. “Even in the scenes he is not there, because he has designed this house with those philosophies. He is worshiping the Japanese and Western culture filtered by the Japanese that has made it into Korea.”

Explicit but never pornographic, the sexiest scene might be the least conventionally hot, when Sook-hee files down her mistresses tooth while the latter takes a bath.

Park says this was a key scene for him deciding to make the movie. “They were clothed in the book, but I could imagine the sound of the thimble (used to file the tooth) and I could imagine the characters in such proximity that they could hear each other’s breaths and heartbeats,” Park says. “I wanted to see this scene in a film.

“It is such a sensual moment and I wanted to amplify it a bit by moving it to the bath with the steam and the flowers all around. These two women are shy, they will avert their gaze from each other. But it is a scene about that moment when you are taken by somebody. Your heart is beating because you have fallen head over heels for somebody so quickly. It is a moment of emotional tremor.”

“The Handmaiden” will be in theaters in October.

 

Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” to open Fantastic Fest

Arrival-1-600x936Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction epic “Arrival,” which stars Amy Adams, will open Alamo Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest. Villeneuve (“Sicario”) has been tapped to helm the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel.

The festival also revealed its second wave of films.

South Korean superstar director Park Chan-Wook (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”), attends the festival for the first time to present the US Premiere of his erotic drama”The Handmaiden.

“Elle,” Paul Verhoeven’s new one, is described as a “deadly comedic rape-revenge thriller,” so, uh, we’ll see how that goes. 

Also look for Paul Schrader’s new one. His last was the astoundingly unwatchable “The Canyons” but this one, “Dog Eat Dog” is a violent crime film, a genre at which he excels. It stars Nicholas Cage and, man, that can turn out about a million different ways.

Also look for the U.S. premiere of “The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to her amazing film “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” a return of the massive band Itchy-O and two movies from the American Genre Film Archive vault: a digital transfer of “The Zodiac Killer and a rarely seen 35mm print of Hajime Satô’s 1968 low-budget alien invasion flick “Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell”

 See below for the full lineup of newly announced film titles for Fantastic Fest 2016. The final wave of titles to be announced shortly. The fest takes place from from Sept. 22 to Sept. 29.

AALAVANDHALAN
India, 2001
International Premiere, 178 min
Director – Suresh Krissna
Kamal Hassan stars in this ridiculously entertaining tale of an Indian commando pitted against his own serial killer twin brother in a deadly race to save the beautiful Tejaswini from certain death.

ARRIVAL

United States, 2016
Opening Film, 116 min
Director – Denis Villeneuve
When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team – lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – are brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.

ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM – GRADUATION (Japan, 2016)
U.S. Premiere, 118 min
Director – Eiichiro Hasumi
This conclusion to last year’s hit finds Class-E running out of time in their efforts to assassinate Koro-sensei, their yellow octopus smiley-faced teacher who is about to destroy Earth.

THE BAD BATCH

United States, 2016
U.S. Premiere, 115 min
Director – Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour follows up her alt-cult sensation A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE with her highly anticipated dystopian cannibal desert trip.

DOG EAT DOG

United States, 2016
U.S. Premiere, 93 min
Director – 
Paul Schrader
From the brilliant minds of Edward Bunker and Paul Schrader comes this unhinged pulp comedy at a million miles an hour; the story of three hardened criminals and the final, simple crime which will bring them all down.

ELLE
France, 2016
US Premiere, 131 min
Director – Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven’s debut in French cinema highlights an incredible Isabelle Huppert in a dramedy that first subverts then transgresses the rape-revenge narrative. 

EYES OF MY MOTHER
United States, 2016
Regional Premiere, 77 min
Director –
 Nick Pesce
After a traumatic event, a young girl begins to associate pain and death with love and friendship in increasingly dangerous ways.

GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
United Kingdom, United States, 2016
US Premiere, 111 min
Director – COLM MCCARTHY
In a dystopian future, young Melanie must go on a trip with the soldier who needs to kill her, the doctor who wants to use her and the teacher who wants to help.

GOKE: BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL – PRESENTED BY AGFA
Japan, 1968
Special Screening, 84 min
Director – Hajime Satô’s
An airplane crashes under mysterious circumstances and the survivors find themselves stalked by an evil blobby presence bent on world domination.

THE HANDMAIDEN
South Korea, 2016
U.S Premiere, 145 min
Director – Park Chan-Wook
In the 1930s, country girl Sook-Hee is hired as a handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hideko, who lives a secluded life with her uncle. However Sook-Hee is not what she seems… and neither is Lady Hideko, Count Fujiwara or Uncle Kouziki.

HELMUT BERGER, ACTOR
Austria, France, Italy, 2015
Texas Premiere, 90 min
Director – Andreas Horvath
Filmmaker Andreas Horvath (EARTH’S GOLDEN PLAYGROUND) offers a deeply personal and unblinking portrait of Helmut Berger, the Austrian film star of the ‘60s and ‘70s best known for his work with director Luchino Visconti. 

THE HIGH FRONTIER
Poland, 2016
International Premiere, 97 min
Director – Wojciech Kasperski
Father/son bonding time takes an extraordinarily dark turn when a former guard and his two teen boys receive an unexpected guest in their remote cabin along the Poland-Ukraine border.

KAMMATTIPADAM
India, 2016
North American Premiere, 240 min
Director – Rajeev Raji
Aging gangster Krishnan returns to his hometown after receiving a distressing phone call from a friend, only to find that he’s picking up the pieces after thirty years of bloody gang war.

NOVA SEED
Japan, Canada, 2016
U.S. Premiere, 64 min
Director – Nick DiLiberto
Painstakingly hand-drawn by a single animator over four years, this saturated slice of lo-fi sci-fi pulp recalls both Moebius and Miyazaki as it ambitiously realizes an eclectic post-apocalyptic future populated by lion-men, brain-leeching slugs and Saturday Morning Cartoon villainy, the latter most memorably personified by the sublimely named Dr. Mindskull.

RAW
France, 2016
US Premiere, 98 min
Director – Julia Ducournau
Part sister bonding, part coming-of-age story, part gross-out horror flick, Julia Ducournau’s debut feature is the terror discovery of 2016.

THE RED TURTLE
France, 2017
North American Premiere, 81 min
Director – Michaël Dudok De Wit
A castaway ekes out an existence on a deserted tropical island guarded by an enigmatic red tortoise in this magnificent animated fable from the imagination of acclaimed Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit (FATHER AND DAUGHTER) and produced in part by the legendary Studio Ghibli.

SADAKO VS KAYAKO
Japan, 2016
US Premiere, 98 min
Director – Kôji Shiraishi
The showdown of the century is about to begin and no one in Tokyo will be spared: Ring’s Sadako vs The Grudge’s Kayako in a fight to determine the future of humanity.

SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD
Australia, United States, 2016
World Premiere, 85 min
Director – Chris Peckover
Chris Peckover, director of 2010’s UNDOCUMENTED, returns to Fantastic Fest with this playfully twisted suburban Christmas thriller in which babysitter Ashley must protect twelve-year-old Luke during an unusual home invasion.

SHIMAUMA
Japan, 2016
International Premiere, 103 min
Director – Hajime Hashimoto
Dora is a lowlife con man who runs a marriage scam with his associates. But a badly timed encounter with a yakuza will plunge Dora into a new, deep world of darkness, both ugly and enticing!

SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL
United States, 2016
World Premiere, 76 min
Director – A.D. Calvo
Adele is a friendless young woman living with her wealthy but agoraphobic aunt. She meets Beth and the two become fast friends, but Adele may be drawn to a darkness within her new companion, a darkness that threatens to overtake everything.

TERRY TEO
New Zealand, 2016
International Premiere, 92 min
Director – Gerard Johnstone
Teenaged cat burglar Terry Teo turns crime fighter when his estranged father is killed by local gangsters in this revival of the classic New Zealand character.

TONI ERDMAN
Germany, 2016
U.S. Premiere, 162 min
Director – Maren Ade
A father tries to reconnect with his repressed, career-driven daughter in the funniest movie to ever come out of Germany.

THEY CALL ME JEEG ROBOT
Italy, 2015
Texas Premiere, 118 min
Director – Gabriele Mainetti
A lowlife thug finds his grimy, pornography-filled existence disrupted when he accidentally acquires superpowers that force him to become a better man against his will.

YOUNG OFFENDERS
Ireland, 2015
International Premiere, 84 min
Director – Peter Foott
The day after the largest drug bust in Irish history, with massive packages of cocaine washing up along the shoreline, two go-nowhere teens make a most sensible decision: They will ride to the coast on stolen bicycles and claim a bundle of that wondrous cocaine for themselves.

THE ZODIAC KILLER – Presented by AGFA and SOMETHING WEIRD
United States, 1971
World Premiere, 85 min
Director – Tom Hanson
AGFA and Something Weird present a brand new 4K transfer of this sanity-defying, tabloid-horror vortex that was produced with one goal in mind: to capture the real-life Zodiac Killer.

Tim Burton brings ‘Miss Peregrine’ to Fantastic Fest!

" Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children"
” Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

Tim Burton brings his adaptation of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” while  Don Coscarelli, architect of the Phantasm series, delivers the world premiere of “Phantasm: Ravager” and a “remastered” print of “Phantasm” reps for Fantastic Fest announced Tuesday.

The 12th edition of the Drafthouse-based, genre-focused festival runs Sept 25 to 29.

Fantastic Fest 2016 posters
Fantastic Fest 2016 posters

Fantastic Fest also broke out the first wave of screenings, inlcuding a block of new and repertory South Asian features, including director Anurag Kashyareap’s cut of his violent 2016 picture “Psycho Raman,” the centuries-spanning epic “Magadheera” and the stylish Bollywood gangster film “Khalnayak.”

“We are celebrating not only Bollywood but also Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema, said Fest programming head Evrim Ersoy. “highlighting the kaleidoscope of textures and content that is as wide and varied as the subcontinent itself.”

The special screening of “Phantasm: Remastered” which will stream live to art house theaters across the country celebrating Art House Theater Day Sept.24.  Coscarelli will be joined in attendance with cast members and “Ravager” director David Hartman.

Alamo Drafthouse’s film collectibles arm Mondo will also be participating with poster, apparel and soundtrack releases made exclusively for the screenings.

Fantastic Fest is also partnering with Los Angeles virtual reality studio Dark Corner to world-premiering Guy Shelmerdine’s  VR film “Mule,” his follow-up to “Catatonic,” which will also screen. Look for Justin Denton’s two-part horror piece “Burlap,” which is both a two-dimensional short film and an immersive VR experience. Audiences can watch the short film, then step inside the story with “Burlap: Reflections,” where they will experience the killer’s sinister obsession firsthand.

Everything Is Terrible! bring work to Fantastic Fest for the first time with the world première of their latest assemblage of found footage, while legendary exploitation filmmaker James Bryan (“Lady Street Fighter;” Don’t Go In the Woods) will be on hand to world-premiere his never-before-seen VHS-era horror movie “Jungle Trap.” Shot in 1990, the film was shelved unedited and without a musical soundtrack, but has finally been cut and scored a quarter century later.

Check out first wave film lineup below (and let us know what you think):

 

24X36: A MOVIE ABOUT MOVIE POSTERS

Canada, 2016

World Premiere, 83 min

Director – Kevin Burke

Through interviews with art personalities from the past four decades, 24 x 36 examines the birth, death and resurrection of illustrated movie poster art.

 

A DARK SONG

Ireland, 2016

World Premiere, 99 min

Director – Liam Gavin

Sophia is a determined young woman who hires a weird occultist to perform a ritual which will risk not only their lives and souls, but also the very essence of their being.

 

ALOYS

Switzerland, France, 2016

US Premiere, 91 min

Director – Tobias Nölle

Aloys Adorn is a lonely private investigator who, after the death of his father, finds himself sucked into a mysterious “telephone walking” game with a mysterious woman who might be his only hope.

 

AMERICAN HONEY

United States, 2016

Texas Premiere, 158 min

Director – Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold’s first US feature follows 18-year-old Star as she leaves her home in Oklahoma and goes in search of adventure, adulthood and America.

 

BELIEF: THE POSSESSION OF JANET MOSES

New Zealand, 2015

US Premiere, 89 min

Director – David Stubbs

The true story of the Wainuiomata exorcism provides the basis for David Stubbs’ striking debut feature, a documentary exploring the tragic death of Janet Moses in a traditional Maori exorcism ceremony.

 

THE CREW

France, 2016

US Premiere, 81 min

Director – Julien Leclercq

It’s bad men face versus worse men as thieves face off against dealers in this super slick French heist thriller from the director of Chrysalis and The Assault.

 

DEAREST SISTER

Laos, France, Estonia, 2016

World Premiere, 100 min

Director – Mattie Do

After moving to the city, a poor woman realizes her recently blinded cousin can not only commune with the dead, but they can provide a path to much-needed wealth.

 

DOWN UNDER

Australia, 2016

North American Premiere, 87 min

Director – Abraham Forsythe

In the aftermath of massive race riots, two carloads of dim-witted alpha males set off to defend their respective territory with outrageous results in this sharp edged Australian satire.

 

THE DWARVES MUST BE CRAZY

Thailand, 2016

World Premiere, 92 min

Director – Bhin Banloerit

A Thai village of little people is attacked by evil, butt-munching, fart-tracking Krause spirits – floating heads with attached intestines – in this slapstick horror-comedy.


FAULTLESS

France, 2016

North American Premiere, 103 min

Director – Sébastien Marnier

After burning out in Paris, Constance returns to her home town only to find herself in lethal competition with a younger girl for her old job.


FRAUD

United States, 2016

Texas Premiere, 53 min

Director – Dean Fleischer-Camp

A family’s home movies document a desperate crime, and the subsequent bid to escape the consequences in this impressionistic meta-fiction born from the manipulation of hundreds of hours of innocuous uploads to YouTube. An extraordinary feat of editing, a provocative parable of the pursuit of happiness and a disturbing demonstration of the mutability of the stories we share in the Internet age.


THE GREASY STRANGLER

United States, 2016

Special Screening, 93 min

Director – Jim Hosking

Ronnie fears his first love affair is turning his father into a bloodthirsty monster who’s covered in grease and has an 18-inch penis that looks like a dead chicken.

 

JUNGLE TRAP : Presented By Bleeding Skull

United States, 1990/2016

World Premiere, 80 min

Director – James Bryan

Exploitation demigod James Bryan’s massively entertaining, decapitation-fueled shot-on-video horror masterpiece about a jungle hotel haunted by kill-crazy ghosts in loin cloths, shot in 1990 and unreleased until THIS VERY MOMENT.

 

KHALNAYAK

India, 1993

Repertory Screening, 190 min

Director – Subhash Ghai

Ballu is an unrepentant gangster who has dedicated his life to the celebration of villainy. He is a bad, bad man and not ashamed one bit. However, with the help of his mother and a sympathetic cop, Ballu will rise above his circumstances to gain satisfying redemption.

 

MAGADHEERA

India, 2009

Repertory Screening, 157 min

Director – S.S. Rajamouli

Harsha, a dirt bike racer, lives for thrills. One day he crosses paths with Indu, a girl with whom he feels strangely connected. Through this bond, Harsha discovers his hidden identity: a reincarnated warrior king.

 

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

United States, 2016

Special Screening, 123 min

Director – Tim Burton

From visionary director Tim Burton, and based upon the best-selling novel, comes an unforgettable motion picture experience.  When Jake discovers clues to a mystery that spans alternate realities and times, he uncovers a secret refuge known as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As he learns about the residents and their unusual abilities, Jake realizes that safety is an illusion, and danger lurks in the form of powerful, hidden enemies. Jake must figure out who is real, who can be trusted, and who he really is.

 

ORIGINAL COPY

Germany, 2016

Texas Premiere, 95 min

Directors – Florian Heinzen-Ziob and Georg Heinzen

In the heart of Mumbai, behind the screen of one of the last Hindi Film cinemas, lives Sheik Rahman, the city’s last painter of film posters. This is his story.

 

PHANTASM: REMASTERED (1979)

United States, 1979

Special Screening, 88 min

Director – Don Coscarelli

One of the most influential and important horror films of all time, Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm returns to Alamo Drafthouse’s screens in a gorgeous 4k remaster.

 

PHANTASM: RAVAGER

United States, 2016

World Premiere, 87

Director – David Hartman

The fifth and final film in the classic Phantasm film series, Phantasm Ravager follows our intrepid everyman hero Reggie on his quest across dark dimensions as he struggles to confront and vanquish the sinister Tall Man.

 

POPOZ

The Netherlands, 2015

International Premiere, 85 min

Directors- Erwin van de Eshof & Martijn Smits

Festival favorite Huub Smit (New Kids Nitro; New Kids Turbo; Bros Before Hos) stars as a Dutch cop raised on far too many American action films in this outrageous action comedy.

 

PSYCHO RAMAN

India, 2016

US Premiere, 127 min

Director – Anurag Kashyap

Raghavan is a cop: brutal, violent, and drug-addicted. Ramanna is a criminal: psychotic, unpredictable, and vicious. It’s only a matter of time before they meet and when they do, Mumbai’s slums will be colored deep crimson.

 

SALT AND FIRE

Mexico, 2016

North American Premiere, 93 min

Director – Werner Herzog

Herzog’s most wildly unpredictable film, Salt and Fire is a meticulously slow burning, quasi-ecological thriller punctuated by moments of the lyrically poetic and the inexplicably, outrageously absurd.

 

S IS FOR STANLEY

Italy, 2016

North American Premiere, 82 min

Director – Alex Infascelli

Alex Infascelli’s documentary about Emilio D’Alessandro, Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant for more than thirty years, which provides never-before-seen insight into the private auteur.


THE VOID

Canada, 2016

World Premiere, 90 min

Directors – STEVEN KOSTANSKI & JEREMY GILLESPIE

Trapped in a hospital with a handful of people, a small town sheriff finds himself caught up in the demented plot of a death-obsessed madman.

 

 

 

WE ARE THE FLESH

Mexico, 2016

Texas Premiere, 80 min

Director – Emiliano Rocha Minter

Somewhere within a ruined city, a man makes an offer to a pair of siblings who wander into his abandoned building: food and shelter in exchange for building a strange room…

 

ZOOLOGY

Russia, France, Germany, 2016

US Premiere, 87 min

Director – Ivan I. Tverdovsky

Natasha is a lonely, middle-aged woman who still lives with her mother and feels insecure about her tedious life… until she grows a tail.

 

 

 

Fantastic Fest 2015: Foreboding terror permeates “The Witch”

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in "The Witch"
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in “The Witch”

Genre fanatics have been buzzing about “The Witch” since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It screened in competition, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and walked away with the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category for first time filmmaker Robert Eggers.

Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” the film takes place in 1630 where William (Ralph Inesone) and his family are thrown off the plantation where they live due to a disagreement that is never fully made clear. They forge ahead and settle on the edge of a wooded area, where they struggle to grow crops and survive away from their previous community.

Oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) is playing outside with her newborn baby brother Samuel, when he disappears during a game of peek-a-boo. One moment he is wrapped in a blanket before her eyes and the next moment he is gone. This prompts the household to descend into chaos, with accusations of witchcraft and black magic.

Katherine (Kate Dickie) is the matriarch of the family and has a hard time holding it together, already suffering from depression since leaving England and subsequently being banished from the plantation. After a failed hunting trip into the woods to hunt for food, William’s young son Caleb (newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw, who gets one of the film’s most haunting sequences) becomes determined to help pull his family back together, but doesn’t bargain for what awaits him under cover of darkness.

Technically, this film is a marvel. Staying true to the time period, every scene is shot only by natural light or candlelight, to the point where you feel like you have to squint sometimes to make out some of the interior evening scenes. Mark Korven’s score is an integral part of supplying the film’s ominous mood, as important as any of the situations the characters find themselves in to prod the nerves. The string-heavy music is accented by a choir that combines with the visuals for a genuine racheting up of tension. It also doesn’t hurt that the chosen aspect ratio of 1.66:1 literally boxes us in and adds a subtle undercurrent of feeling trapped in the wilderness.

Eggers directed and wrote the screenplay, which was painstakingly researched and features dialogue that is based on court documents and period sources from historical accounts of witchcraft. Much like the lives of those during this time period, the film is slow-paced, but not problematic. It’s deliberate, but exciting.

It’s unfortunate that general audiences will not get a chance to enjoy “The Witch” in time for Halloween, but good things come to those who wait.

“The Witch” screens again at 9 p.m. Tuesday. A24 is expected to release the film nationwide on February 26, 2016. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “Zoom” provides mixed media with a message

Gael Garcia Bernal in "Zoom"
Gael Garcia Bernal in “Zoom”

One of the greatest things about attending Fantastic Fest each year is that it reminds you that you haven’t seen it all before. This is a festival where creativity is championed in a major way and the very notion of what a genre film is can often be challenged.

A Canadian and Brazilian co-production directed by Pedro Morelli, “Zoom” is a fresh and truly original tale that examines complex issues of body image and vanity in a lighthearted way. It takes some time to figure out what direction the movie is going in.

Emma (Alison Pill,”The Newsroom,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”) works in a sex toy factory, spending her days delicately painting the bodies of realistic looking “love dolls” that are custom made for clients. Surrounded by amply proportioned female dolls, she yearns for her own breasts to be larger. Emma sees a plastic surgeon only to discover after the surgery that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

When she’s not at work, Emma is illustrating her own graphic novel – the story of a well-endowed film director (Gael García Bernal, who only appears on screen animated) who is fighting with a Hollywood executive over the ending of his latest movie. Michelle, the lead character in his film (played by Mariana Ximenes), is a Brazilian model who is longing to be a writer, but is fighting against the misconception that she’s only a pretty face. 

All of these characters find their stories folding into one another in a way that an audience member during the Q&A described as “breaking the fourth wall, by three.” Screenwriter Matt Hansen somehow manages to juggle the multi-dimensional stories and merges them into a hysterical voyage that reminds us all that karma is a real bitch.

Approximately 30 minutes of “Zoom” are presented in animated form, with over 20,000 frames from filmed scenes that were rotoscoped in a similar fashion to Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” The whole kit and caboodle is brilliantly scored by Kid Koala, whose compositions become a large part of pushing the narrative along.

Delightfully raunchy and surprisingly sweet, “Zoom” will hopefully find an audience beyond the festival circuit.

“Zoom” screens again at 2:15 p.m. Monday. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “Daniel’s World” tackles taboo topic

The subject of "Daniel's World"
An image from “Daniel’s World”

Daniel is 25 years old. He’s a student, a writer and a self-confessed pedophile.

I’m not sure if there is any topic that is off limits at Fantastic Fest, but this is a subject area that most people would like to not spend much time thinking about. Veronika Liskova’s documentary about Daniel was made for Czech television and is a fairly sympathetic portrait of a man who struggles with his attractions and tries to find a way to tame them.

He meets up with other men in his area who share his predilection, all of whom claim that they spend their entire lives without harming children, despite their desires. In Daniel’s case, he’s in the process of “coming out” to others and trying to figure out what the future for his life can be without the companionship he longs for.

Daniel goes to have his attractions measured by a sexual therapist who confirms that his sexual response is strongest in images of boys from aged 8-10. “It’s a pity that your spectrum does not include adult men,” the sexologist says when Daniel asks if he can have a happy life. Instead, he relies on small groups of like-minded people in real life and online to reconcile his feelings.

It is nevertheless troubling to see that Daniel’s dorm room walls are filled with collages of young children – not sexual photographs, mostly magazine advertisements that have been pasted together on cardboard that can be easily taken down if other people come over – and that he has professed his love for the son of a friend who he longs to be around and get hugs from.

The biggest question that most viewers will have after watching this documentary is if it’s even possible for these desires to remain fantasies that are never acted upon? It’s an uncomfortable uncertainty that “Daniel’s World” provides no easy answers for.

“Daniel’s World” screens again at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, October 1. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “Too Late” screens in glorious 35mm

John Hawkes and Dichen Lachman star in "Too Late"
John Hawkes & Dichen Lachman in “Too Late”

Former Austinite John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) rules every frame of his performance as a tough private investigator with a heart of gold named Samspon in “Too Late.” And I do mean every frame, as the debut feature from Dennis Hauck was shot on film and projected on 35mm during Fantastic Fest. It was only a few years ago when this wouldn’t have been uncommon, but now it’s a true rarity.

In one of the film’s first scenes, Dorothy (Crystal Reed, MTV’s “Teen Wolf”) is on walking on Radio Hill and borrows a stranger’s phone to make a call to Sampson. As downtown Los Angeles looms large in the background, the camera tracks beyond her, into the city and onto a balcony where the call is answered. This happens in a very long, carefully orchestrated take that eventually goes to split screen to get us just a little bit closer to the action. Each reel continues on like this, with five continuous episodic takes that pass by without edits. In fact, the closing credits state that “no hidden cuts were used in the making of this movie.”

These are techniques that set the movie apart, but also never let you forget that you’re watching a movie. The long takes and tracking shots can be distracting, but not as much as the dialogue. Hawkes elevates the occasionally weak, but ambitious script with a bravura performance that illustrates again why he’s one of the best character actors on the scene. The supporting cast includes Robert Forster (whose brief on-screen time feels phoned in), Joanna Cassidy, Vail Bloom, David Yow from The Jesus Lizard and former “Dollhouse” star Dichen Lachman.

It’s hard not to look at some of the technical aspects of the film and casting choices as gimmicks. “Too Late” is a throwback to indie films of the 1990s that we don’t see often anymore and that alone is enough to recommend it. Bonus points from me for a moody soundtrack that includes Nick Cave, the Cowboy Junkies and an original song performed by Hawkes on guitar.

The producers of “Too Late” are currently searching for a distributor that will commit to releasing it to theaters in 35mm. It screens again on film at the festival on Tuesday at 5:45 p.m.

Fantastic Fest 2015: “The Brand New Testament” is gleefully irreverent

Catherine Deneuve stars in "The Brand New Testament"
Catherine Deneuve stars in “The Brand New Testament”

In this clever satire, God is real and reimagined as an angry Belgian man. Played by Benoît Poelvoorde (“A Town Called Panic”), God is also not a terribly pleasant person. He spends a lot of time screaming at his wife and daughter Ea (a wonderful performance from young Pili Groyne who was also in “Two Days, One Night”), watching sports, and presiding over the world on his computer. 

When Ea gets tired of her father’s attitude, she sneaks into his office, logs on to his computer and sends every person on the planet a direct message to let them know just exactly how long they have left to live. For those lucky enough to have many years ahead of them, the message is empowering. For others, it’s a stark notification that their time is running out. After this notion wrecks havoc among the general population, Ea runs away from home at the urging of her older brother, JC, so that she can find some new apostles and use their stories to craft an addendum to “the good book.”

Director Jaco Van Dormael (“Toto The Hero,” “Mr. Nobody”) has crafted a gleefully irreverent film that is filled with legitimate laugh-out-loud moments. Van Dormael and co-writer Thomas Gunzig have filled the movie to the brim with absurdist comedy. While some may find the film’s version of God to be blasphemous, “The Brand New Testament” is surprisingly sentimental.

The entire cast is excellent, but it’s worth noting that Catherine Deneuve plays one of the new apostles. She gives a fearless performance in the film’s most ridiculous storyline wherein her character falls in love with a gigantic circus gorilla and invites him to move into her home. It provides for some really goofy sight gags (the gorilla becomes a veritable bull in a china shop once inside her home), but viewers expecting her to be the star may be disappointed to learn she doesn’t even enter the picture until almost an hour in.

“The Brand New Testament” does not currently have U.S. distribution, but has been selected as the official Belgian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars. It screens again at 5:45 p.m. on Monday. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: Owen Egerton’s “Follow” is one grim Christmas movie

Good news, Austin! Local writer, comedian and extremely busy creative person Owen Egerton’s first feature film “Follow” isn’t just “friend good,” it’s actually good.

That whoosh you hear is a sigh of relief from everyone who knows him, which is a whole lot of people in town.

"Follow"
“Follow”

Shot in Austin, (mostly in a now-demolished house in Clarksville) and based on two of Edgerton’s short stories, “Follow” takes a look at Quinn (Noah Segan) and Thana (Olivia Grace Applegate). It’s a few days before Christmas, and Quinn, a visual artist, is feeling restless. He’s tired of being in a town where nothing happens and wants to go to New York for grad school. His girlfriend has a reputation as a bit of a shut-in; his pals at the bar, including fellow bartenders Ren (Merik Tadros) and Viv (Haley Lu Richardson), who clearly has a thing for Quinn.

Thana, who has seemed a little odd from the jump, gives him a gun as an early Christmas gift. He and asks him to put it in his mouth and pull the trigger, just based on her say so.

Let’s just say things don’t go as either Quinn or Thana planned and Quinn spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out the next move, losing his mind in the process. Don Most (of “Happy Days” fame) makes a cameo as the building’s owner, local singer Southern Longoria bookends “Follow” as a young man singing Christmas carols in the neighborhood for a buck a song, and yes, since this is playing at Fantastic Fest, a dog bites it.

The tight, 74-minute psychological thriller is a stellar example of making your script fit your budget. Virtually all of the scenes take place in one house (complete with a basement, a rarity in Austin), there are a minimal number of speaking roles and Egerton himself takes a cameo as a hacked off bartender.

“Follow” screens again 8:15 p.m. Monday.