Trying to Find the Good: A Report from Fantastic Fest 2017
I decided I was going to Fantastic Fest. If this was going to be goodbye forever, I had to witness it with my own eyes and not through a series of tweets miles away. I was going to go and be 100% positive with all my friends, both new and old, because they (too many to list) are beautiful souls who want nothing more than to watch great movies. You see, despite all of the drama surrounding this event, I needed to actually be there to engage with my community. I tried to inject some kind of love in this disaster.
Being a part of, or in love with, various film-related voyages here in Austin, TX, some of which involving the Alamo Drafthouse banner, made the news extremely disappointing. But, again, for those of you in the back, a community of badass worker bees, the real heroes in all of this, will never get the credit they deserve (again too many to list) and are totally worth fighting for and celebrating.
The controversy itself was brought up openly throughout the fest and discussed head-on. Women were not having it, either speaking the loudest with words or action. From the potent speech at the Fantastic Debates, to the tags being handed out that read, "WE ARE ALL FANTASTIC", they ran laps around everyone with their hustle. Going by who I talked to throughout the four days I attended, the consensus was disappointment, also unwillingness to give up on friendships they have forged over the years attending the fest. These friendships run deep. "I only see you once a year and I wouldn’t miss it for the world" kind of vibe. Also that feeling of putting a face to that name you’ve been in a gif war with for some time on Twitter is quite sweet.
So for all the marbles, with my Second Half Badge, I dove in on September 25th and emerged September 29th. Here is a quick rundown of the films I saw at Fantastic Fest, most of these screened sitting next to great friends who you’d fight Godzilla for.
Anna and the Apocalypse (Scotland)
This lovely musical from Scotland does nothing new with zombies, but hot damn these songs are electric. Well-cast and performed, Anna and the Apocalypse is infused with too much love to deny. MVP goes to Sarah Swire and her awkward craziness; she steals the film.
An up-and-coming business called Netflix screened a few of their films at the festival and Wheelman was one of them. Frank Grillo has that grit that only he can wield and it is used splendidly here in this recommended, airtight thriller about a getaway driver caught in a pickle. Completely worth it for whatever the fuck Shea Whigham was delivering.
Secret Screening: The Death of Stalin (U.K.)
Very, very mean so I loved it, of course. I prefer In The Loop over this but, make no mistake, this movie has as much bite as the other Armando Iannucci works and it’s going for the jugular, then it makes art with the blood. Dark and hilarious, this Secret Screening blindsided us after hearing it was going to be either Blade Runner 2049 or Death Wish all day.
The Fantastic Feud
A trivia contest in the vein of Family Feud that will always be near and dear to me because I help write the trivia with a bunch of wonderful people. This one was extra special for two main reasons: it opened with a wonderful heartfelt speech from Meredith Borders of Birth.Movies.Death stressing communication within our community, and Maxim Pozderac hosted for the first time ever and he did a bang-up job! People screamed and cheered; the audience was rowdy but never belligerent. All in all, one for the record books.
3ft Ball and Souls (Japan)
Shave off the final five minutes and this one is a masterwork. Four strangers from a online forum agree to meet with that same goal: suicide via giant firework. Only snag is every time they detonate the giant firework, they become trapped in a timeloop. Learning more about one another during each loop, the film becomes a great look at hope and communicating during your lowest point.
The Line (Slovakia/Ukraine)
Gangsta stuff along the Ukrainian border. Smugglers torn in various directions testing family and loyalty to its breaking point. I liked it well enough, I just do not see myself returning to it anytime soon. Does nothing new but isn’t terrible, so it’s weird.
The Square (Sweden)
Director Ruben Östlund is a funny guy and the way he breaks men down kills me. Here he portrays them as liars and cowards amongst a sea of pretentious art and it is perfect. Awkward as Hell with possibly the greatest condom scene committed to celluloid.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (U.S.A.)
This movie is so trashy and I love it. Takes its sweet time getting going then people die in hilarious ways via Vince Vaughn’s bulldozer-like fisticuffs. It ends on a shot that would make Savini and Botin smile. Seriously, this movie is nuts with the exploitation sweats.
Cold Hell (Germany)
This one was a little bit scatterbrained with character threads but none the less a badass serial killer film with an incredible female lead. Violetta Schurawlow plays Özge, a tough as nails lady, who is proficient in kickboxing and taking her rage out on people. She then witnesses a brutal murder and now she is the target. Violetta is perfect in this film and I hope to see her in more of anything. Her eyes are the sharpest daggers.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (Mexico)
A fairy tale about street children caught between a ruthless cartel and a ghost demanding some unknown vengeance. The ultimate middle finger to the immeasurable pain the cartels have caused countless lives; you can tell this story comes from a place of loss. I cried throughout and the final shot left me a mess long after the credits rolled. This might be my favorite of the entire fest.
A Russian film about two very brave Cosmonauts that board a dead space station and do their damndest to bring it back to life before it smashes into Earth. This one is cool because it is a very patriotic film for Russia yet it is shot like a Bruckheimer production and damn-near sounds like Zimmer scored it, too. This American Cinema-influenced production is really quite fascinating. An all-ages film, too.
THE film of the fest. Bodied is screaming in your face, illustrating how lame you are using hip-hop or, more specifically, battle rap to behead your opponents. Using racism and faux pas like atom bombs, Bodied is calling out all you talking out of turn, both on and off the mic. While I wasn’t huge on Detention (I respect it, just never grabbed me), Bodied is an undeniable film that kicks down the door, takes off your glasses then crushes them while you cry like a sucka emcee. See it with a crowd.
Good Manners (Brazil/France)
I went in blind and was completely blown away. A meek nanny takes up a job watching over a pregnant lady and soon a strong relationship blossoms. Things are going great until the mom begins to sleepwalk on nights with a full moon. Amazing tone shifts, with one of the best endings of the fest, Good Manners knocked me out.
Super Bad Times (U.S.A.)
This will go down as one of the greatest high school films. A sad tale about teenagers involved in a freak accident and how they maneuver through the pain. Steeped in the '90s but never calling attention to it (seriously, thank you, filmmakers), Super Bad Times has the goods and deserves to be seen big. Cinematography is absolutely perfect.
The Cured (Ireland)
A zombie yarn out of Ireland about a large group of zombies that are cured but can remember everything they did while infected. Mixing real Irish politics with a horror slant, it says a lot but can’t quite deliver the message. Not terrible, but it kind of misses the mark.
A goofy martial arts blast that boasts solid fight choreography and tons of humor that definitely helps the low budget charm it is toting. Same set is used a million times but this is easily the funniest prison riot film ever committed to film. The blooper reel at the end, a'la Jackie Chan cinema, will make you fall in love with the film all over again.
Blade of the Immortal (Japan)
Takashi Miike's 100th film and it is a barn burner. Body count is through the roof and yet it all matters. In a structure that could be as simple as fight-a-boss-fight-a-boss-then-fight-the-final-boss, Blade of the Immortal manages to make every single battle matter as well as having some kind of significance in the grand scheme of things. Would pair well with the Lone Wolf and Cub series. My final film of the fest and it was a facemelter.
Closing Night Party: Itchy-O
I hopped on a shuttle bus with a gang of tired festival attendees and was taken to Austin Studios Stage 7 (a massive warehouse used in film productions) for a special concert performance from the satanic marching band Itchy-O. I had a few and the conversation with fest-goers was still the same: disappointment in the higher-ups but we all (well, at least all the souls I had talked to) had a blast in one another's company. The energy was good and positive then seemingly out of nowhere a member of Itchy-O strapped on a guitar and began laying down a sonic foundation that allowed the rest of the members of the group to spill out and get ready. Some of them on foot with backpacks loaded with instruments and speakers, some of them on bicycles also with speakers and various instruments. Itchy-O began to perform and not a single person could deny the power that was projected. The drumming went down to the bone marrow and I danced my ass off, sweating profusely the entire show. It was needed, that feeling of cutting loose, dancing-like-nobody's-watching freedom because, again, if this is the last fest I attend, I’m going out swinging. Itchy-O blew us all away and I wished they never stopped playing. It was a perfect, cathartic way to end the fest.
So, that was my Second Half adventure in a nutshell. I was able to finally meet creative people that traveled to and just moved into Austin. I was able to connect with and become stronger with my Talk Film Society partners in crime. I was able to watch the legendary Barbara Crampton scream for another drink during the Feud. I was able to to do this and many more amazing things because I actually attended the tainted fest. I do not know the gatekeepers personally, I know the soldiers on the ground actually putting in the work to keep the ship afloat. To me, this all boiled to how I view movies: don’t talk shit unless you’ve been there and gone through it. I had a damn good, if not great, Fantastic Fest and I have never known this hate-posting on my couch from afar. Am I in a hurry to return? The excitement has definitely died a little but once we get closer to September 2018, the fever (and the Fantastic Flu) will return and I will kiss and hug my friends from all over the world once again.