What are the Fantastic Debates?
Last year, I attended the Debates but didn't write them up. It was just a fun evening out at the end of a long string of movies I saw and reviewed. In the year since then, though, every time I've told someone about the Debates and the fight between Michelle Rodriguez and Tim League, they've been captivated. They are fascinated that this event exists. They want to know more.
And so this year, I'm dedicated to bringing you the same sort of breathless blow-by-blow account of the Debates that I could have expected to read in the papers the morning after an Ali-Frazier match-up as a kid.
Because these are not just about entertainment. Oh, no. No, these are battles over the most important ideas in our current cultural conversation. These are life and death struggles, fought verbally first and physically second. There is no more significant event during the week of Fantastic Fest.
And this year, we were ringside for every single punch that was thrown.
What are the Fantastic Debates?
I rarely remember my dreams.
When I was in Toronto this year for the festival, I was staying at a hotel that was ridiculously close to the venues where they were showing the movies, so I went home in the middle of a few of the days and got a nap or two. Since I rarely nap, and since most of the time I have terrible insomnia at home and don't sleep until I'm exhausted, at which point I pass out more than anything, I'm not used to the kind of shallow sleep I was getting in Toronto at all.
As a result, I started having crazy vivid dreams, and while I was having them, I was absolutely cognizant that they were dreams, but even so, I felt trapped in them, and they were absolutely nightmares. Things were embarrassing, disturbing, hard to explain, working against logic, the laws of physics suddenly up for grabs. I was upset but couldn't explain why in the dream, and even when I managed to wake up from the dreams, there was a mood they cast over me that was hard to shake. It was one of the strangest few days of consciousness I've ever had, and I think I'm glad I don't have more recall of what happens when I dream. I think it would be upsetting based on the work-out I got in those few short days.
Geography is one of the most important things in making an action movie, yet it is one of the most egregiously abused things in most big Hollywood action films. Last week, I ran a series of links out to all sorts of conversations about modern action cinema, and in those various conversations, there many conflicting theories about what works in modern action cinema advanced by the various writers and filmmakers involved.
Action geography has been on my mind for the last few weeks anyway thanks to the screening of "Sleepless Night" that I attended as part of the Toronto Midnight Madness program. I walked in knowing nothing about the film, and walked out wondering how Frederic Jardin has gone totally unnoticed so far as a filmmaker. Together with his co-writer Nicolas Saada, he's crafted a wickedly smart thriller that erupts into flurries of action in scenes that feel real, not like heightened Hollywood hooey. It's a smart premise in the first place, but then the film is broken into two long movements, one which teaches you every inch of this giant Paris nightclub, and then one where our knowledge of that location pays off in one thrilling scene after another.
Here's the thing about the "Human Centipede" movies: when you hear the premise of the films, that moment of "oh, gross, really?" is about as strong an impact as the films will ever have.
The first film is really all about the art of the misdirect. You hear the set-up and you dread the experience of actually seeing what it's about, and then when you do see it, it's fairly tame. Things are suggested. It's terrifying in concept more than execution. I didn't care for the first film, but I respect the way it's put together and the general filmmaking skills. Tom Six had a good sense of how to make you feel like you were going to see the end of the world, and the whole thing is so blatantly gleeful about being childish and ridiculous that it's hard to be upset by it. I would never call the first film a good film, but it's a well-made film that I don't think is interesting. It's not worthless. It's not trash. It's just provocation with no weight behind it, and it left me cold.
At 5:00 PM this afternoon, I was onstage at the Alamo Drafthouse introducing Fantastic Fest's first screening of Frederic Jardin's relentlessly entertaining new action thriller "Sleepless Night," and I made the joke as part of the introduction, "I'm glad you guys get to see it before Hollywood buys it and screws it up."
Cut to the news breaking while that same screening is still playing that Roy Lee and Warner Bros have joined forces to remake Frederic Jardin's relentlessly entertaining new action thriller "Sleepless Night."
I think it's safe to say I'm not surprised.
There are certain films that challenge viewers simply by existing. They are these dares, issued by the filmmaker, that linger out there, and it's up to each viewer to decide if they want to take that dare and see whatever it is, whatever taboo has been broken. It's an entire school of cinema that many people avoid as viewers, and I don't blame them. So much of our culture is designed to make us feel good or to placate us or to reinforce the things we already believe that it's incongruous when we encounter something that seems genuinely determined to hurt us.
"Michael" is the debut film from writer/director Markus Schleinzer, and it's a nasty bit of business, a character portrait played dry, a dark joke told with a straight face, starring Michael Fuith as an insurance worker at an anonymous company who spends his days playing a sort of hide-in-plain-sight game of "look how normal I am" with his co-workers before going to his small and forgettable house where he keeps a young boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) locked in his disturbingly cozy basement. There is nothing coy or ambiguous about Michael's intent, either. Wolfgang is his prisoner, his toy, his sex object, his punching bag, his thing. He has completely cut this boy off from the world and broken him, and for much of the running time, the film simply observes the details of their daily existence. What happens if the boy wants to go outside and do something? What happens if he gets sick? Can Michael take him to the doctor without being exposed? What if something happens to Michael? Would anyone ever know?
This day has been a long time coming.
We all have landmarks by which we measure our lives and our accomplishments, goals you've set for yourself that you've either accomplished or not, and I'm certainly someone who holds film experiences very dear. The moment I knew I'd spend the rest of my life somehow involved in movies took place in a dark movie theater when I was seven years old, and it was one of those lightning bolt occasions. I felt pinned to the back of my chair as I watched a tiny blockade runner fleeing from a seemingly endless Star Destroyer that just kept coming out and over, more real than anything I had ever seen, and I've never wavered in my determination to be involved in storytelling somewhere, somehow.
Because of the relevance of "Star Wars" in my development as a fan of storytelling in general, reaching the moment of sharing these films with my kids has been one of my primary goals since I've been writing about the entire experience of sharing narrative with my children. I know people who start screening the films for their kids as soon as they are old enough to open their eyes, and I respect that. Of course I know other people who don't think it's of any particular importance, and I respect that as well. For me, "Star Wars" is special, and I wanted to wait until they were old enough to process them as stories, so they're not just wallpaper, images without context.
To be honest, I think we went overboard. But for good reason.
I mean, four hours of podcasting in one week? Good lord. Sure, that first podcast had no less than five interviews from the Toronto Midnight Madness section of this year's festival, and a great conversation with Bobcat Goldthwait, another with the filmmakers behind "Livid," and yet another with Eduardo Sanchez. It was overstuffed with goodness, and there was some conversation about Netflix and Kevin Costner and other things as well, so if that was it, that would already been one of our better weeks.
But no. No, I had to push it. I had to try to put together two full giant podcasts this week, so that we'd have all of our Toronto coverage up and done and nothing hanging over me for after Fantastic Fest. That meant we had to do another full-length podcast so that I'd have room to run the rest of the interviews. After all, I've got an interview here with Gus Van Sant about his new film "Restless," an interview with '70s icon Paul Williams and Steven Kessler, the guy who made the documentary about him, and with the Duplass Brothers on their lovely new film "Jeff Who Lives At Home." I can't sit on that stuff. I want you to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed having the conversations during the fest.
If you missed it on IGN, here's the gory-fun graphic red band trailer for "The Thing" which reveals lots more of the monster effects and, honestly, way too many plot details as far as who gets eaten, smooshed, penetrated, etc.
I repeat: DO NOT WATCH THIS IF YOU ARE SPOILER ADVERSE.
On the other hand, if you've been curious as to the look of the effects in the film, and do not mind a few details about how each character gets assimilated, check it out.
I say "each character" because this is a prequel to the original John Carpenter "Thing", and in that movie they make a reference to no one surviving the events that came before? I may be mistaken, or they may choose to alter the reality of the first film. All's fair in love and remakes… er prequels.
When I met Jonah Hill, it was on the set of "Superbad," and that performance in that film was all about a certain type of confidence turned up to a fairly intense level. Having already gotten to know Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg a little bit, and realizing that Jonah and Michael Cera were playing comic versions of Seth and Evan, it was one of those meta-moments where you're not sure who you're really meeting.
Since then, our paths have crossed many times, and watching him increase in both craft and confidence in his work onscreen and how he handles himself off-screen has been a real pleasure. Hill is smart, but more than that, he strikes me as the kind of guy who is always observing, always watching the people he works with, growing in each new experience because of how open he is to different choices that other performers or filmmakers are making around him.