Fantastic Fest Day One: 'Frankenweenie' Q&A and champagne for 'The Devil'
Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon.
I kid. I am thrilled to be heading into my second full film festival this month, something I'm not always going to be able to say. These are work, and I have suffered a bit of a physical ding on my way out the door to this one. I'm hobbled, as it were, with a torn Achilles tendon, which makes walking and sitting equally painful, but it very different ways. A real pleasure, that. So I did wake up this morning feeling a little bit like Martin Sheen in that Saigon hotel room, groggy and unsure about much.
And even so, I'm looking forward to eight full days of mayhem here, starting with last night's screening of "Frankenweenie 3D," which I just reviewed for you. I also managed to catch a midnight show, because just like in Toronto, many of Fantastic Fest's most potent pleasures will be hidden at that late hour, and "Here Comes The Devil" was certainly a dark ride to take at the witching hour.
As with every festival, you are faced with choices over the course of a day at Fantastic Fest, and there were some great films showing yesterday that I did not attend. For example, I saw Brandon Cronenberg's "Antiviral" at Cannes this year, and I liked it. At the time, I wrote:
Well, as the old saying goes, the diseased and throbbing apple does not fall far from the penis-shaped flesh tree. Or at least, that's a variation on the old saying that seems applicable when you're talking about the debut film from Brandon Cronenberg, son of the king of body horror, David Cronenberg…
… It is a vile world that Cronenberg imagines here, but it's not that far off from the disturbing amounts of worship already focused on celebrities by our culture, or from the freaky things that people hire medical professionals to do to them voluntarily these days. If it were truly impossible to imagine a world where this occurred, then the film wouldn't have any power, and it's hard to deny that there are places where "Antiviral" really gets under your skin.
For many people at the festival, Thursday night was their chance to see "Dredd 3D," which is crazy bloody hyperviolent fun. It made for a tremendous opening night energy at Midnight Madness in Toronto this month, and I think Urban's work here is pretty sensational. It's not easy to do what he does in the film, and he makes it feel organic and real, even though the film plays out in somewhat heightened fashion. Here's what I wrote about it a few weeks ago:
Ultimately, your reaction to "Dredd 3D" will depend on your tolerance for an almost breathtaking level of graphic violence. People are skinned, burnt, blown apart, and thrown off 200-story balconies, and Travis captures every horrifying detail of it. There are some jet-black laughs built in, but it's not treated as a joke. Travis shoves your nose into it, making sure you get a tactile sense of how awful this life can be. I sincerely hope that the movie does well enough that we see more films with Urban, Thirlby, and Garland all back to expand on what they've done here. There are more than 30 years worth of stories to draw from, and "Dredd 3D" proves that this creative team is more than up to the challenge of bringing the world to life.
"Dredd 3D" is so good that it retroactively erases the Sylvester Stallone misfire from the record. Karl Urban absolutely embodies the sort of grim-faced seriousness that you need to get just right to keep everything from tilting over into self-parody. And if that doesn't sell you, then just look at this:
The anthology film "Doomsday Book" also played yesterday, and I was attracted mainly because of the director of the middle sequence, Kim Ji-Woon, who has made such films as "The Good The Bad and the Weird," "A Tale Of Two Sisters," and "A Bittersweet Life." I think he's one of the most exciting guys working anywhere in the world today, and "The Heavenly Creature" is a wonderful bit of science fiction, the story of what happens when a monastery calls the company that sold them a service robot and asks them to send a repairman to inspect the robot. They believe that not only has this simple service robot attained enlightenment, but also that he is a manifestation of the Buddha. What unfolds is a debate about the nature of the soul, a look at our uneasy relationship with technology in the face of our growing dependence on it, and a deeply-felt look at the almost unspeakable joy and sorrow of being human. It is a terrific film, one of his most quiet and thoughtful, and I think it's well-served by being a short instead of a feature. He doesn't make the more commercial choices that would be easy to make on a film like this if it were full-length, allowing it instead to simply and elegantly explore this one idea. The other two sequences, both written and directed by Yim Pil-Sung, each explore a different version of the end of the world. The opener, "A Brave New World," could have been simply a rote zombie movie exercise, but there's something particularly gross about the way this one starts with a single rotten apple that finds its way into the recycled feed of cattle that are eventually fed to the citizens of South Korea, and something sweet about the unlikely romance that drives the segment. The final story, "Happy Birthday," is by far the wackiest of the three, dealing with billiards, the Internet, family dynamics, UFOs and the end of mankind. Overall, it's a pretty solid anthology, one that doesn't overstay the welcome of any of the individual stories.
The "Frankenweenie" screenings took place on five different screens at the same time, and the live portion of the event was simulcast to every theater. One of the theaters, for example, was made up of dog owners and their dogs, all dressed up in costumes, a special promotion that may be a first in exhibition history. In the main theater, Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse and Drafthouse Films and the co-founder of the festival, came out to introduce things. He was very excited about the evening and the festival as a whole, and when the film was over, he brought up a group for the Q&A, including young Charlie Tahan, producer Allison Abbate, Winona Ryder, Tim Burton, and the legendary Martin Landau. I've seen dozens of horror films over the years here at Fantastic Fest, but I've never seen anything even half as scary as the moment where Landau, trying to climb up onto the stage, managed to fall about five or six feet straight backwards onto the hard concrete floor. It was one of those terrifying moments where no one is able to get to him in time and everything slows down and you're just sure you're about to see something horrible. To his credit, Landau climbed back up, got onstage, and played it all off as a joke, but for a moment, I thought Fantastic Fest was over before it even began. It was a good Q&A overall, and there's something great about how visibly nervous Tim League was even after all the people he's met and all the Q&As he's conducted. Burton was in fine form, making great wry observational jokes about himself, his process, the production of the film, and even his childhood. He told a crazy story about a next door neighbor who kept a spider monkey that wore a diaper and how the monkey vanished, only to be discovered a few years later in a mummified state in Burton's attic, where it had evidently gotten trapped and died. Ryder was fetching and distinctly eccentric during the Q&A, and it just reminded me how much more I wish she would work.
There was also a lovely celebration before the midnight movie, "Here Comes The Devil," a Mexican horror film that just sold to Magnet Releasing in the US. The Drafthouse staff handed out a glass of champagne to everyone in the theater and we toasted to the new distribution deal. League got the director, Adrian Garcia Bogliano, to open the bottle with a sword, and there was a general giddiness to the proceedings, something that shifted immediately once the movie began. It's a dark and brutal look at what happens to a family when their teenage kids vanish overnight during a trip. They're found the next morning, but they're different, and in the weeks following the vacation, the parents try to uncover the truth about what went on during that night they spent in a cave on a hill in Tijuana. The film has an authentic '70s aesthetic, and it's also an unsettling experience for parents. Great performances, a script that never quite does what you expect it to, and a nasty jet black ending all make "Here Comes The Devil" an effective and memorable little shocker, and a great way to round out the first day at the fest. There's a short film playing in front of it called "The Video Kid" that is one of the most accomplished pieces of coming-of-age cinema I've seen in a while, cold and tough and menacing, almost the complete tonal opposite of something like "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower," and I give the film extra credit for making fantastic use of the music from "Suspiria."
I'm moving a little bit slowly right now, but hopefully I'll get into the swing of the festival in the days ahead. There's so much more to do and see, and I'm here until the bitter end next week. After all, where else can you start a conversation, "Hey, did you see the penis museum documentary" and not have people think you are a crazy person?