A Damn Fine Year: Fantastic Fest 2019 Wrap-Up
Rockie Juarez spent eight days at this year’s Fantastic Fest. Here, he gives us a report on every single film he watched during one of the biggest genre film festivals, set in Austin, TX.
Jojo Rabbit, on a personal level, is my least favorite Taika Waititi film. That being said, you would be silly in thinking this is a bad movie by any means. It has a sweet message of love over hate that resonates even when the humor is stretched out to implausible levels. Guess that is the point really, but after a while you begin to wonder if the film even truly finds a balance. Uneven, but consistently funny Jojo Rabbit still works and looks very gorgeous at all times, I should add.
Takashi Miike returns with a film he describes as a story of a savage dog that falls in love for the first time. He even apologized for not having as many decapitations as his earlier films. First Love mixes the ‘90s comedy Short Time and Yakuzi shenanigans for a brutal and very hilarious cocktail. Every actor is doing wonderful work here making the film instantly engaging. Especially keep an eye out for Becky. Her performance as Julie goes from victim to relentless demon and had our audience rolling.
Son of the White Mare
A rare Hungarian miracle of animation, Son of the White Mare returns to the public with a jaw dropping 4K restoration that took 5 years to produce. Several animators came together to make this a reality and it was well worth it. A psychedelic experience that never stops doing something wondrous, it belongs in the same conversation as Fantastic Planet and Watership Down. Three brothers attempt to take back their lost kingdom using Godlike abilities. Unafraid to traverse into dark areas, it is inspired enough to make you follow it for fear of missing some ancient secret. One of the best I saw at the Fest hands down.
A lesbian couple have a nice house on the countryside but a damn alien cat something or other muscles in on their relationship. There really is nothing like Prey because it seems to have been directed by aliens because of how weird it is. It moves at an odd pace with performance choices that will make you question reality, or your sanity. If you are truly curious, seek out the disc from Vinegar Syndrome. It fits perfectly within their madcap catalog.
The Death of Dick Long
Loved this film. Directed by Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man co-director), Dick Long manages to be absolutely insane without being visually bananas. It is a crime story played totally straight allowing the absolutely insane moments to run you over like an 18 wheeler from Maximum Overdrive. Please keep actor Andre Hyland on your radar. His supporting performance is stand out and essential to this film. You’ll might also have Nickelback stuck in your head too after seeing this.
Color Out of Space
Richard Stanley is a wonderful talent. From Hardware to Dust Devil, he has displayed a rather unique vision in the early ‘90s. Many years later he returns with a cosmic horror film from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, starring Nic Cage, and the results are incredible. Stanley was in attendance and said two important tidbits before he screened his latest: “I put a strong woman and a person of color at the forefront as a ‘shot across the bow’ to Lovecraft’s known racism/sexism” and he stated that, “no one ever got the cosmic horror right.” Color Out of Space will go down as one of the best Lovecraft adaptations because of its brutality as well as its fearless portrayal of the unexplainable. Cage maybe should have dialed it back a little bit, but he can’t derail Stanley’s strong vision.
The Ship of Monsters
A thing of pure beauty. From beginning to end, I was either laughing or smiling until my cheeks hurt. From 1960, The Ship of Monsters is a kitchen sink movie: sci-fi, horror, musical and comedy in one stew. On paper that seems a bit much, but against all odds the film puts you under its spell. I mean, how can a film that involves women trying to repopulate Venus aided by a teleporting robot be boring? The songs sung by actor Eulalio Gonzalez and his overall performance are the stuff of legends. He carries every scene he is in with surgical comedic timing. Seek this out and discover one of cinema's greatest joys. The warmest hug I received at the fest.
Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters
This doc about the FX legend is very straight forward. They never really dive into his personal life, instead the filmmakers just showcase his legacy from beginning to end with interview subjects all basically saying the same thing: the man is a genius. The two things I extracted from this doc that resonated with me were Tippett’s Mad God and Paul Verhoeven. Mad God is a stop motion series that looks like raw unfiltered creativity from a stop motion wizard, making me grateful it was put on my radar. Paul Verhoeven was always a hero to me and he says some words about Phil during his interview that I won't repeat so you can experience it, but it damn near made a single tear roll down my cheek. Solid stuff for all FX nuts.
My favorite film of Fantastic Fest 2019. Jallikattu is Jaws colliding full speed into Koyaanisqatsi. Basic premise is a buffalo, right before slaughter, breaks free and runs amok in a local village. The community then scrambles to take it down before too much damage is dealt. This film only has a handful of real actors, the rest were locals who pulled off the stuff of miracles. The camera work and the soundscapes that accompany it will hypnotize you and lead to an ending that will scar you. The final two minutes of this film hit a peak of filmmaking that few films at Fantastic Fest have achieved. I will never forget Jallikattu nor the message it stabs you with.
Simple trashy fun. Does nothing new for genre cinema and you can see its influences like pins on a jacket, but it was very satisfying watching a cast of old dogs grind up a bunch of punk rockin’ addicts in this midnighter siege picture. Stephen Lang teaming up with William Sadler would have been enough to make me take a peek, but when you add Fred Williamson, David Patrick Kelly and Martin Kove in that mix? Well, you have my full undivided attention at this point. Again, nothing new here but watching Sadler stomp a man’s face into pulp is quite satisfying. Perfect beer and pizza movie.
Memory: The Origins of Alien
Imagine going to a restaurant and overhearing a table of 13 people talking about the film Alien. They bring up stuff you already know. They also mention some things or ideas you were not quite privy to. Then someone chimes in about what Alien is really about, spouting off their theories and you just wish a chestburster would pop out of their chest to stop the conversation. Uneven, but interesting nonetheless, Memory has enough going for it to make Alien fans happy, just be prepared to hear some jibber jabber that’ll hurt your brain a few times.
Ride Your Wave
Director Masaaki Yuasa delivers a sweet and colorful story about true love that shines even after tragedy. A really cute ghost story about surfing and firefighting of all things. Kind of an odd combo for sure, but you can see the water and fire collide for contrast and metaphor with great results. It played just fine, I just don’t see myself chasing this one down again.
Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street
Actor Mark Patton went through Hell after the release of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. A closeted gay man upon release, Mark was blamed by fans and the filmmakers themselves for the gay subtext and possession-driven take on Freddy. This film explores Mark’s journey from the films release to his self-imposed isolation in Mexico. This is a movie about an artist's struggle to deal with his past and to receive closure with those who have done him wrong. Directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen give Mark Patton his flowers and let the entire world know that the gay community was in tune with Freddy 2 and Mark is the one of the best Screen Queens to ever do it. A heartwarming film indeed.
Secret Screening 1: Dolemite Is My Name
A total crowd pleaser. Craig Brewer crafted a film where you love every single character, but most importantly you appreciate Rudy Ray Moore and his journey to celebrity. This may be the greatest film Netflix has ever made because of its respect for the subject. Brewer completely understands the plight of an artist trying to make it (see his Hustle & Flow) and the power found within Blaxploitation Cinema. There is never a dull moment in this huge hug of a film, with Eddie Murphy playing Rudy Ray Moore with nothing but class. Loved the whole damn thing, especially Wesley Snipes, who takes this film and steals it with his incredible turn as D’Urville Martin. His eye movements alone will bust you up.
Like a Black Mirror episode that goes on way too long, Vivarium is solid until it wears out its welcome by stretching the premise a bit too thin. A young couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) are looking into buying a home. They go into an agency and are guided to a neighborhood by the strangest realtor ever. The couple soon realises the neighborhood is an elaborate trap that is forcing them to raise a baby that was dropped off in a cardboard box. Interesting premise, but alas it begins to get repetitive and you end up kind of not caring if they escape or not.
In the Shadow of the Moon
This feels like a VHS nugget from the early ‘90s, but even those films knew to stop after the hour and a half mark. The film has a cool buddy cop vibe with an interesting sci-fi premise that is engaging until it starts to drag. Bummer because I was on board until it basically became equivalent to a run on sentence. Netflix has it available to steam now if you’d like to give it a fair shake. It’s cool, just a bit too long.
Secret Screening 2: The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers follows up The Witch with this amazing nightmare set on a New England island featuring on two men and, well, a lighthouse. This is a film that can be taken several ways. Are they in Hell? Is this truly a tale of sirens and Poseidon? Cabin fever? No matter how you slice it, this is laced with razor blades, guaranteeing injury before you hop off the ride. Beautifully crafted and told in a tunnel vision endicing 1.19:1 aspect ratio, The Lighthouse solidifies Eggers as an incredible director with his two leads (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) carrying the madness splendidly. It is also quite hilarious at moments, saving the film from being one note. Oh yeah, the final shot is one for the ages.
So nice, I saw it twice. Just had to see it with another crowd to hear their reaction to that slam dunk of an ending.
Fantastic Feud 2019
A yearly tradition of me. Set up like Family Feud, the Fantastic version is all movie based and the teams are made up of film critics and filmmakers. Hearing the crowd go ape shit when someone messes up a question will never get old. Highlight of this year: watching director Ari Aster not be able to name a single movie cult when Midsommar had the number 1 answer. Can’t make that shit up.
The Black Pit of Dr. M
A nice slice of gothic atmosphere from 1959. A Mexican film that flirts with how to see the afterlife and return unscathed must have been pretty radical back in the day. I loved how his film mixed science with religion becoming a full blown horror film in the process. Between this and The Ship of Monsters, I am fully ready to make a deep dive into other not-often-discussed gems from that era.
Justin Long takes a new type of hallucinogen at a party that helps him see how lame his well-off life actually is. Oh, and he can also move forward in time if anything with a clock is struck. Weird premise that doesn’t quite work, but it’s still a passable film. Visually, this film does every trick in the book to sell the trip, which is fine. The problem is the lack of substance. The message is basically “be a better man,” but my question is: “do I take a mega dose of LSD or do I wait for the next designer drug to hit the market?” Either way, take drugs and watch this, I guess.
The one that started it all for Rudy Ray Moore and his wonderful gang of misfits. The success of Dolemite launched several more films for Rudy, establishing his legacy and creating an important chapter is Blaxploitation history. With a cast composed entirely of his friends, Rudy made a film that he wanted to see on the big screen. One with sex, guns, gangs and kung fu. This is a poorly made film, but you’d be a fool to laugh at it. It was a labor of love and the hustle shows on screen. Against all odds, this film was made, and we as a people are greater for it. Well, maybe not, but I’d call you a Rat Soup Eatin’ Motherfucka if you trash it.
The True Adventures of Wolf Boy
A film that I wanted to love but ultimately only ended up liking. Told to us in a way that makes you question if it is real or a fantasy, Wolf Boy reminds us that humans can be trash to those who look different. Paul, aka Wolf Boy, has congenital hypertrichosis, a rare disorder where hair grows all over your body. He runs away from home after constant bullying in search of his mother, who is completely absent from his life. His journey is altogether tough, weird and admirable. I didn't think all the dramatic beats landed, but the film still works as a whole. It is still seeking distribution as of this writing but I am confident it will find a home soon.
The only film at the Fest that made me cry. Wyrm takes place in an alternate reality where children wear neck collars until they land their first kiss and wristbands until they lose their virginity. It is a very quirky film that will have people making comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, but Wyrm thankfully has more substance within its weird universe. The lead performance from Theo Taplitz is absolutely incredible, taking the offbeat and making it both human and accessible. One of the special movies that makes you laugh throughout, but will also break your heart to teach you a lesson. I loved this film so much.
The Long Walk
The only film at the Fest that I outright disliked. In a plot that is part epic quest and part ghost story, our protagonist is on a journey that is hard to talk about without giving away spoilers or the twist ending. He can see ghosts and he is trying to send them to the great beyond by aiding them in certain tasks. Sounds fine but this film drags and then it drags some more. By the time the terrific ending took place, I had already checked out. While I wasn’t huge on it, it’ll surely find a fanbase somewhere for its original voice.
Talk about a stunning feature film debut. Director Rose Glass delivered a movie that rattled my audience and prompted someone to yell “OH MAN!” during the final shot of the film. This is how you make a rewarding slow burn, ladies and gentlemen. It is wonderfully acted by the entire cast, but it is the lead performance from Morfydd Clark that deserves all the praise and wine. Clark is on another level with her turn as Maud. It is truly one of the great horror roles and years from now people will remember the time she melted your face off. One of the best films that played at the Fest hands down.
Bong Joon-ho is something else. His filmography was no weak moments so my anticipation was through the roof on this one. Not only does Parasite exceed expectations even with the hype that was surrounding it, the film also manages to be a complete experience as you will feel every high and every abysmal low. An airtight story about class struggles, the rich and poor collide in a relatable story that will resonate worldwide. Visually, it is saying so much with very minimal settings. Everything in this just lands on its feet and it is more proof that Bong is a master at his job: making great movies.
The final film of the Fantastic Fest 2019 was Rian Johnson’s murder mystery Knives Out that was mostly Agatha Christie with a peppering of Colombo for taste. Knives Out has a stacked cast that will attract most and thankfully they have wonderful material to work with because the mystery at its core is a total blast. Constantly hilarious while being a head scratcher too, this is a film that never has a chance to get stale or boring. Make sure to go see it for Danile Craig alone, who makes total meals out of every scene he is in. Just wait until you hear his drawl as he compares the mystery to donuts. You will find it impossible not to laugh your ass off. A fun time at the movies.
In summation, I had a damn good Fantastic Fest. Made it into every film that I wanted to see and saw wonderful people for eight days straight. It was like a huge party that had a huge closing night party at the end. Like the last day of High School and everyone is in great spirits. This was easily the most consistent Fantastic Fest that I have had the pleasure of attending. Movies are a powerful thing, but seeing them with audience members who eat, breathe and sleep cinema is another thing entirely. The conversations afterwards and the friendships made throughout the fest can never be beaten. Based on the energy of this year’s programming and overall vibe, I’m totally looking forward to next year.