Wednesday, July 25, 2007

07 Fantasia

Hi, there. Been a while...busy summer so far. Here's a list of the stuff I saw up at Fantasia in Montreal this year. There was, of course, a lot of overlap this year between Fantasia and the NY Asian Film Festival, so the Asian selections weren't as personally exciting up there as in previous years. I still made time to watch most of Memories of Matsuko again in Montreal, though, especially on their gigantic screen with its fabulous sound system.

ON EVIL GROUNDS - first film I started to watch this year, and first one I walked out on, after 20 minutes. The programmer (Todd from Twitch) billed this as a brilliant Austrian gore/horror film that "takes the piss out of Hostel", but I didn't see that at all. Lame humor, unlikable characters, and a serious budget challenge took its toll on me pretty quickly.

GHOSTS OF CITE SOLEIL - this documentary about Haitian gangs was screening at IFC the whole time our fest was on, but I didn't catch it in NYC. I'm glad I saw it in Montreal. Even though it gets kind of maudlin at the end and features a bizarre subplot about a seemingly level-headed French relief worker who inexplicably winds up becoming the girlfriend of one of the main gang leaders (who looks to be 20 years her junior), it's still a really well-made doc about one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Great soundtrack, too.

THE KING OF KONG - yes, it's that "Donkey Kong tournament" documentary you've probably heard about already. It opens in the US in mid-August, and I'd avoided it at NY screenings, thinking it would be just another snarky, pop cultur-rific doc about yet another niche phenomenon, like spelling bees or crossword puzzles, etc. Boy, was I wrong. Yes, you get the requisite "I love the 80s" look at the brief history of video games, but that's only a short bit at the beginning. Instead, the movie turns into an amazingly detailed portrait of two men, common figures to anyone familiar with the world of fandom or subcultural events: the arrogant, seasoned pro and the fresh-faced newcomer. When this movie is remade as a fictional comedy (mark my words), imagine Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen as the newbie and Ben Stiller as the mullet-headed, evil pro. It's tailor-made for such treatment, and couldn't have been better if the screenplay had been written from scratch rather than taken from real life. You get edge-of-your-seat tournament action, good guys and bad guys, Rocky-like victories, an honestly tearful ending, and some utterly hilarious sequences that will make anyone who's a fan of any kind of geek culture cringe a bit. See this one at all costs.

THE RAGE - ugh. My first midnight movie at Fantasia, and just awful. Former KNB makeup artist Robert Kurtzman's fourth film as a director, and he seems to be getting worse with age (I kind of liked Wishmaster). It was billed as an attempt to recapture the 80s latex glory of movies like Evil Dead, but it didn't even come close. Boring, dumb, poorly written and with some truly awful CGI in it. And not enough rubber monsters.

DEATH NOTE - I caught a bit of this again on the big screen, and the Montreal audience loved it. Of course, we showed parts 1 and 2 at NYAFF and I wound up shuttling director Shusuke Kaneko and friend Norman England to Montreal, along with a bunch of film prints. It was a fun trip and I think Shusuke enjoyed the ride. He loved the big Montreal screen.

ZERO CITY - watched a bit of this 1988 Russian sci-fi flick, but kept drifting off and knew I couldn't stay for the whole film anyway. Looked kind of interesting, but very talky.

HOME SICK - this is a movie that Don May picked up a few years ago at Fantasia from its director Adam Wingard, and they premiered the new version at Fantasia this year. Don and Jerry are listed as producers, and Don did a lot of editing on the film, rejiggering it from its earlier version. I actually really liked it - not just saying that because I'm friends with Don! Bill Moseley has a fun time as a weird stranger who puts a kind of curse on a group of young people who are at a party one night. They are asked to name the person they hate the most, and the curse sends a kind of demon after those people in subsequent days. Ultra-gory but satisfying low-budget and gritty, the flick plays kind of like an underground sort of Final Destination movie. Tom Towles pops up at the end as a hilarious redneck uncle of one of the victims.

13 BELOVED - we tried to get this Thai Falling Down / The Game hybrid for NYAFF 07, but couldn't source a print. I voted yes on it, sight unseen, and would do so again, having now seen it, but it still left me slightly dissatisfied. Weinstein Co picked it up, I imagine for its "Dimension Extreme" line (same label that's doing Nightmare Detective), but I have no idea when they'll actually release it. I bet we'll see a remake of it first. A young office worker having the worst day of his life gets a mysterious phone call offering him a chance to win millions if he'll play along with a private game - complete 13 tasks without question, and the money is yours. Simple, perhaps, but the tasks escalate in their level of violence, anti-socialness and repulsiveness. Make a stranger's child cry? No problem. Beat up a homeless guy? Sure. Eat a big steaming plate of shit? That's when it starts to get difficult, and it gets worse from there. If only the ending and the inevitable revelation that something else is going on behind the scenes lived up to the level of the first 2/3 of the movie. Still, a really audacious flick from a cool new director.

MULBERRY STREET - missed this at the Tribeca fest, but glad I caught up with it at Fantasia. Super-low budget movie about a group of apartment building dwellers in lower Manhattan who must deal with chaos when some kind of rat-borne plague starts infecting the island of Manhattan. Reminiscent in some ways of 28 Days Later (and The Descent, in the way the attacks are handled), the movie still has tons of originality, terrific, authentic-sounding dialogue, and a sense of enthusiasm that carries all the way through the film. Its making-of story is even more amazing, once you hear it. This one's just been picked up by Lionsgate, so keep your fingers crossed for some kind of wide release. And parts of it were even shot in a bar that we've been to - Tom and Jerry's on Elizabeth, just above Houston!

KILTRO and MIRAGEMAN - usually when I hear about martial arts flicks made outside of the HK, Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Thai film industries, I'm suspicious. There's just not much experience or precedent, even in places like the Philippines. So when I read about Marko Zaror, a Chilean martial artist who's begun starring in some films produced there, I was really skeptical. I shouldn't have been - these movies were great fun. Kiltro is a kind of 80s Cannon/New World throwback about an ordinary guy with a mystical destiny, secret martial arts societies, an evil villain who returns to seek vengeance, and so on. It's got lots of misplaced Asian mysticism and magical hooey, but it's still a lot of dumb fun. Zaror is likable and amazing in that he's this giant, muscular guy (he was The Rock's double on The Rundown) who can do amazing flying martial arts stunts. Kiltro is rock-headed, bloody and violent, but Zaror's follow-up Mirageman is the exact opposite. It's a light, shot-on-video superhero comedy about a bouncer, unhappy about the level of crime in his town, who decides to take matters into his own hands. There's lots of humor about him trying to make an adequate uniform, finding unlikely sidekicks, and dealing with the fickle media. Very low-key but smart in its approach, it also features even better martial arts than Kiltro because it all seems more down-to-earth. Running a short 85 minutes, it never overstays its welcome, has some great music, and never takes itself too seriously. Magnolia has picked these up for US release, and I'm sure they'll just go straight to video, but check out Mirageman when you can. It's really worth it.

THE BACKWOODS - Spanish-produced Straw Dogs riff that stars Gary Oldman and Paddy Considine as two Brits who go to the wilds of Spain for a vacation with their foreign-born wives. The locals start lusting after Considine's French hottie, they discover a secret in the woods, and the locals come after them. A serious 70s vibe permeates this movie, which is also a major Peckinpah homage. Unfortunately, the many Spanish sequences weren't subtitled in this print, but we still got the point. It's a good updating of the earlier film, removing much of its misogyny but retaining its viciousness. There's no siege, as in the original, but rather a different kind of final confrontation. The two UK actors are great and the movie is gorgeously shot. Not sure where this one is going in the US, but hopefully it'll see a release.

YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS - caught this controversial documentary on DVD-R screener, and really liked it. It opens with some shocking footage of workers abusing dogs at some kind of animal testing facility, but backs off the shock tactics for the rest of the film. And despite its oddball title, it's a remarkably even-handed documentary about the animal rights movement that'll definitely change your opinion of at least some of its subjects. The only organizations that really get skewered are the Humane Society and PETA, and that's more for their oversized corporate problems these days than for anything else (although they go into great detail about PETA's seemingly contradictory policy on euthanizing homeless animals). I think this is getting a release here in theatres, and it's worth seeing.

GARY'S TOUCH - the most controversial film of the fest, and it was only a 20-minute short that screened during Small Gauge Trauma. Made by a gay, Asian, Ottawa resident, the movie is about a creepy homeless guy intent on procreating, despite the fact that he's not attracted to women and has some serious personality issues. To say any more would be to spoil this film's myriad surprises. Suffice to say that it's probably best if you haven't had a full meal before viewing it.

THE TRIPPER - David Arquette's directorial debut, a gore comedy about a killer in a Ronald Reagan mask who offs hippies. And that's about it. Not nearly as bad as it sounds, yet not all that good, either.

AMPHIBIAN MAN - the 1961 Russian fantasy flick about an underwater dude who romances a land-girl. Heavily melodramatic and padded, but still charming in its own way.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR - like last year's The Lost, this one is based on a full-strength Jack Ketchum novel, though this is always the one that people say "couldn't be filmed". Well, apparently there are two versions of the story coming out, this one and another based on the true-crime tale that inspired the novel 20 years ago (An American Crime). About a group of kids in the mid-50s (early 60s in the other movie) led by their delinquent mother to torture and imprison an orphaned cousin who's staying with them, it's grueling throughout and seriously divided the audience. The original story is extremely powerful and well-observed in its ability to show how "ordinary" people can do inhuman things in the right circumstances (think Abu Ghraib, etc), but I think that the filmmakers who did this version weren't quite up to the task of translating the story. It lacks any kind of transcendence or meaningful resolution. Although they certainly gave it the college try, I think it remained beyond their grasp. I'd have liked to have seen what a more experienced group of filmmakers could have done with the material, and definitely look forward to American Crime, which I hear is a much better movie.

AL FINAL DEL ESPECTRO - you didn't know that lame ripoffs of Asian horror came from places other than Hollywood, did you? Add Colombia to the list. Boring, predictable, completely uninspired, even in the 30 minutes I was able to sit through.

THE DEVIL DARED ME TO - Chris Stapp and Matt Heath are New Zealand-based daredevils, and friends of our buddy Ant Timpson. Just don't call them the Kiwi "Jackass"! This is a hilarious, retro comedy about a young stunt guy who seeks to become the best in the biz. Chris and Matt do their own stunts and are lunatic about it - the stuff presented in the movie is just amazing, with very little CGI enhancement. Extremely low-budget ($300K), the movie has supposedly been bought for worldwide release by Uwe Boll's company! Catch it if you can, and hopefully the delightful Chris and Matt will come back to the US to intro their screenings here. Chris even did some live stunts in the cinema, throwing himself onto the audience seats from the stage...twice!

WIZARD OF GORE - remake of the HG Lewis film, and not all that bad. Director Jeremy Kasten and producer Dan Griffiths are great guys, and also hung out all weekend for some drunken revelry. The best things about their movie are Crispin Glover as Montag the Magnificent (sadly underused), lots of naked Suicide Girls, and an extended cameo by the great Brad Dourif as, of all things, a Chinese medicine doctor! The movies goes too far overboard on stylistic shooting and editing, but its combination of film noir and LA postpunk is at least original and it's clear the filmmakers tried to stray as far as they could from the source material, which is a refreshing change.

MURDER PARTY - a real treat, this indie horror comedy was an unexpected surprise. Produced in NY, it skewers the Brooklyn hipster and art scene perfectly while also telling a neat little story about an ordinary, un-hip guy who gets caught up in the titular event, an art "happening" that turns deadly. Spot-on dialogue and some great gore effects contribute to the movie's effectiveness.

POSTAL - the first of the two Uwe Boll movies presented at Fantasia this year, introduced by Boll himself, who's actually a nice guy. This one didn't work for me, however. It's an intentionally "controversial" and "offensive" adaptation of yes, the video game, but also is Boll's personal shout against the martyrdom of everything surrounding 9/11. Although it opens with a hilarious sequence featuring a cockpit conversation between two 9/11 Arab highjackers about how many virgins they'll get in paradise, it quickly descends into lame old jokes and supposedly-edgy comedy. Not really - it all felt like Boll was trying too hard to both shock and make people laugh, and when he appears onscreen in lederhosen and starts giving out gold Jew teeth (concentration camp joke!) as payment, then has himself shot in the balls, I couldn't take it anymore and left.

IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE - the other Boll movie this year and you know what? It's actually really good! Although it's plagued with the typical turgid dialogue and situations of all sword & sorcery movies, this epic tale is at least engrossing throughout and despite some early laughs at cast members Burt Reynolds and Ray Liotta in period costume, it all comes together. The plentiful CGI battles look fantastic and the cinematography of the movie (shot on gorgeous locations in British Colombia) is terrific. Jason Statham is good in the lead role, and has great supporting work from Ron Perlman and others. There are a lot of funny scenes (mainly involving Liotta as an evil warlord), kind of intentional, but it all adds to the entertainment value of the movie. It's certainly a helluva lot better than Bloodrayne (which was entertaining, but only in a bad way) and feels like a "real movie". Action scenes by Ching Siu-tung are fabulous. Supposedly coming to theatres in January 2008.

14 AMAZONS - finally, another vintage Shaw Bros film to end the fest. This one's terrific, an epic (yes, again) story based on a classic Chinese novel about the female members of a martial family who go to war to avenge their brother/son/grandson. Ivy Ling Po stars and Cheng Kang directs, with his son Ching Siu-tung (yes, again) providing some of his first action choreography. Gorgeous, restored print courtesy of Celestial, and more onscreen death than I think I've ever seen before.

And that's that. Already looking forward to next year.