>> Fantastic Fest 2008: Day Eight

Zombie Girl:  The Movie / USA / Directed by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erik Mauck

Synopsis:  This documentary follows Emily Hagins, pre-teen filmmaker, as she sets out to make her first feature film, an ambitious apocalyptic zombie epic called Pathogen.

I’m sort of connected to this documentary, in a tenuous way.  When I first met Emily, and her mother Megan, I was handing out Shaun of the Dead promo merch at an indie video store that I loved, and they happened to be the only two customers there at the time.  She’s wearing the t-shirt that I gave her in this doc, but my connection goes deeper than that.  I was in an Emily Hagins film.  And I would also count Megan and Emily as personal friends.

Can I look at this movie objectively, removed from any personal attachment to the “characters”?  I don’t know.  I don’t beleive that I can.  For me, the film ends up being a semi-prequel to my experiences on the set of The Retelling, a Southern Gothic ghost story that Emily is putting the finishing touches on as of this writing.  In it, I play a sheriff–a small role, but my first feature.  I’ve been under the direction of a new-and-improved Emily; a more confident Emily than the one featured in Zombie Girl.  I can clearly see the mistakes, lessons, and thought processes on the set of Pathogen that led to The Retelling‘s tighter production.

I can also see that the mother/daughter dynamic on the set of Pathogen is still in place.  Megan is still the committed supporter, still a soldier when it comes to producing, and Emily is still testing her own independence, still putting her role as a director as her top priority while on the set, instead of her role as a daughter.  It’s an interesting working dynamic between the two of them, and it’s tough to foresee a future where they are separated, because their relationship goes beyond mother and daughter–they are also best friends and production co-workers, in a sense.  That day will probably come, but Zombie Girl will make a nice memento of a time I’m sure they both hold dear.

I’m not giving this film a number rating due to my connection with the subjects.  I would hate to think anyone would take the number grade as a personal affront, that it would reflect on what I think of the subjects in any way, shape, or form, instead of the film itself.  Zombie Girl as a documentary is, honestly, a little shaggy, but Megan and Emily get a 10 from me.

The Wreck / USA / Directed by James K. Jones

Synopsis:  In the aftermath of a nasty wreck, a pregnant woman and her lover are trapped in their car, stranded in the woods, and toyed with by someone lurking in the forest.

Aaron Lohr just about makes this movie.  He plays the man trapped in the car, and is absolutely terrific, completely selling the movie’s most harrowing moments.  The Wreck is a very simple, low-budget suspense piece, that works more often that not, and makes some creative decisions that are unexpected.  Too often in these kinds of films (like Open Water, for example), a couple will spend a good portion of the running time screaming accusations at each other.  In The Wreck, these people act like people–they bide their time with barely controlled patience and inner terror–showing affection to each other and attempting, at times, to lighten the situation.  I appreciated Jones’s approach to this situation.  It grounded the film in realism, which helps when things get a little shaky towards the end.  A character from the beginning of the film shows up in the last act, but it doesn’t enitrely work because we simply didn’t get enough time with the guy at the beginning of the movie to care like we should.

6.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Fantastic Fest/AICN Secret Screening #3: Role Models

Paul Rudd can finally lay claim to being a comedic leading man.  Managing to avoid mugging or schtick, Rudd brings a distinct kind of sarcasm to his comedy, one that comes from a place an audience can relate to, instead of through cynicism or a mean spiritedness.  I can’t quite think of anyone else like Rudd, and with the new David Wain film, Role Models, hopefully, he’ll become an A-list comedic force.

I say “hopefully” because Role Models feels a little like a movie from a different time and place–namely the last turn of the century.  Sean William Scott brings a decidedly Year 2000 aura with him, seemingly stuck to forever play the Stifler role, no matter how long it’s been since audiences seem to have lost interest in Scott’s schtick.  Jokes about energy drinks, Ben Affleck movies, Starbucks, and KISS nostalgia all feel like things that were written seven or eight years ago (Some folks might remember the KISS merchandise boom of the late 90’s/early 00’s, with toys, comics, and various knick-knacks crowding the shelves at the mall).  According to Wain’s own admission, the script had been around for a while with Scott attached to star.  I can believe it.  The Affleck jokes and Scott’s hornball persona are especially dusty.

Scott and Rudd are two co-workers, promoters for an energy drink called Minotaur, that end up wrecking their company car after a particularly bad day.  They’re sentenced by a judge to participate at Sturdy Wings (run by the always funny Jane Lynch), a “big brother” program where they are each assigned a problem child to look after for the duration of their sentence.  Scott ends up with Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a foul-mouthed brat with sex on the brain.  Rudd gets Augie (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), an awkard teen with a love for LARP (live-action role-playing).  Of course, life lessons are learned by all.  Role Models is formulaic stuff, especially for Wain who made his career on the fringes of alternative comedy.

However, as far as the mainstream comedy formula goes, Role Models works.  It’s actually kind of a sweet movie, yet firmly committed to its R rating, which makes it something that I haven’t quite seen before–the R-rated family film.  I admit the movie is downright crass at times, but the story of these guys becoming very real friends with these kids is almost (but not quite) warm and fuzzy.  The lines come sharp and quick, keeping the audience laughing hard enough to overlook the movie’s complete lack of ambition.  It’s perfectly happy being a dirty little studio comedy, one that will (hopefully) be remembered as Rudd’s breakout starring role.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Fantastic Fest/AICN Secret Screening #2: Appaloosa

“Old-fashioned” is the first word that comes to mind when describing Ed Harris’s directorial sophomore effort, the new Western Appaloosa.  There’s no post-modern spin, no personal drama pretending to be a Western, or an action film disguised as a Western.  This is a plain and simple Hollywood Western, and it would feel like the product of a bygone era if it weren’t for a smattering of raw language.

After Appaloosa’s marshall and his men are killed by the villainous Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), the town hires two new guns to keep the peace, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen).  The private lives of the new marshall and his deputy are anything but peaceful after the arrival of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), an attention-starved widow with a wandering eye, who quickly chooses Virgil as her man.  A former ranch hand of Bragg’s turns him in for the murders, but Virgil and Everett are not prepared for Bragg’s power as they try to bring him to justice, nor are they prepared for how Allison’s sketchy commitment to Virgil will affect their lives.

Harris obviously has a love for Westerns from half a century ago, and this has the earmarks of a project in which everyone is as pleased as punch to be running around with six-shooters and cowboy hats and riding on horseback.  It’s an unexpectedly funny movie as well, which adds to the old-fashioned vibe.  The good-natured humor reminded me of television Westerns in particular, and I think it’s probably intentional.  Harris shoots his film a little flat, but its serviceable, and he never tries to re-invent the wheel here.

Zellweger and Irons are the weak links of the film.  Irons isn’t given enough of a character to make it his own, instead opting for Generic Western Villain, but affecting some kind of strange accent that is neither country twang nor British.  Zellweger doesn’t seem to fully understand her character, and is content to fall back on Zellwegerisms–the squinty smile for light moments, the pouty face for dramatic ones.  Allison is a difficult, complex role; one that requires a complete understanding of who she is, where she came from, and why she does what she does.  I don’t get the impression that Zellweger knows the answer to any of those questions.  Now, is that Zellweger’s fault or the fault of a rookie director who may have been too busy starring in his own film to step outside of the situation and work with Zellweger to perfect Allison as a character?

If Appaloosa were a restaurant instead of a movie, there is no doubt in my mind it would be a Cracker Barrel–a reliable place to find diversion with your grandparents, while taking in a suprisingly comforting, intentionally retro atmosphere.  That may be the stupidest analogy I’ve ever used, but it’s apt.  Appaloosa has all the dust, clip-clopping horses, and shootouts you’d expect from a Western, and delivers it with two pretty great lead actors and some hard-boiled dialogue.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Fantastic Fest 2008: Day Seven

Spine Tingler!  The William Castle Story / USA / Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Synopsis:  A documentary detailing the life story of filmmaker/huckster William Castle, famous for his horror films and the gimmicky promotions he used to drive audiences into the theatre.

Wow, this is an incredibly fast-paced documentary.  It’s basically one of those docs that you get in the special features of a DVD–the usual talking heads (Leonard Maltin, John Landis, Jon Waters), a couple seconds of footage from each important film, and lots of computer graphics to slick things up a bit.  The information is interesting, if anecdotal, and makes you want to seek out more of his films (Homicidal and Shanks, esepcially), so, mission accomplished in that regard.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone’s life story told this quickly.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

Gachi Boy:  Wrestling With a Memory / Japan / Directed by Norihiro Koizumi

Synopsis:  An amnesiac named Igarashi uses pro wrestling as a means of making himself feel normal again.

Gachi Boy is a sports comedy where Rocky meets Memento meets Japanese pro wrestling, and if that sounds like your cup of tea, then you’ll probably love this.  It’s colorful, goofy fun with a memorable cast, and I’d honestly like to see it again sometime soon.  The comedic elements work better than the dramatic parts, but that’s being nitpicky, really, since the film seems pretty aware of when it falls into conventional sports territory.  Just don’t expect a ton of great wrestling action either.  For one thing, that’s part of the comedy–these aren’t supposed to be excellent wrestlers–and secondly, the thrust of the story is more about Igarashi’s memory loss than it is suplexes and swantons.  His daily bruises and polaroids of his fellow wrestler remind Igarashi that he has a life to live.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Fantastic Fest/AICN Secret Screening #1: The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson almost does for romantic comedies what he did with the noir thriller in Brick, creating a labor of love that pays tribute while also turning conventions askew.  The Brothers Bloom is a con man movie, that, for an extended period of time, acts as a pretty loveable romantic comedy.  It does this so successfully that you hope it doesn’t slip into the conventions of the con man film, where every action until the credits roll is calculated as part of the grift.

Rachel Weisz is a revelation as Penelope Stamp, a lonely heiress with an encyclopedic skill set and a desire to experience new adventures.  She’s the mark for the Brothers Bloom, played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, and their silent partner Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi).  The brothers subscribe to the ideal that no con is worth pulling off unless every party gets what they want.  They’re after Penelope’s cash, fulfilling her desire for storybook adventure in the process, but the younger Bloom (Brody) wants more than that.  He’s smitten by Penelope, fighting back guilt, but also fighting with his identity.  Is he destined to keep chasing the next grift, or will he ever be able to truly connect to another human being besides his brother Steven?

In spirit and in execution, The Brothers Bloom has the feel of Wes Anderson’s best work.  It’s easy to picture Luke Wilson as Steven and Owen as the younger Bloom, with the same script and locales, replacing Johnson’s name above the credits with Anderson’s.  That’s no knock on Johnson at all, just an observation.  I like Anderson’s voice, and I’m going to like any film that could exist in the same universe as Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums.  It walks the same fine line as Anderson, cute while never cuddly, with characters that peer over the edge at cartoony, without ever taking the plunge.

Weisz is absolutely the most charming thing about The Brothers Bloom, which is saying a lot in a movie filled with this much charm.  The scene in which Penelope experiences her first kiss is wonderful, and she’s given a handful of moments like this.  The romantic parts of the film, where Penelope and Bloom fall for each other, is the real meat and potatoes of the movie.  It’s just too bad Johnson loses sight of that.

The film ends up climaxing about a half hour too early, as the romantic threads tie up, and then the con takes precedence over anything else.  The truth is, no one in the audience at this point can really care all that much about the con, because all we care about, all we were told to care about, is the relationship between Bloom and Penelope.  Once that reaches its resolution, the story is over, like it or not, and the confidence game starts to feel like a chore.  For one thing, the grift itself is never made 100% clear, and it simply doesn’t matter after a certain point.

I loved most of this movie, though, and it feels nice to love something, if only for a while.  As a romantic comedy, The Brothers Bloom works quite well, but as a con man movie, it’s only okay.  Johnson doesn’t quite find the balance, instead shifting priorities wholesale to the detriment of the overall film.  I’ll hold on to the parts that I like, and forgive the parts I don’t, and look forward to the next attempt from Rian Johnson’s growing talent.

7.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

(Special thanks to Aint It Cool News for making this screening possible.)

>> Fantastic Fest 2008: Day Six

South of Heaven / USA / Directed by J.L. Vara

Synopsis:  A ransom scheme causes unwanted trouble for a wannabe writer after he is mistaken for his criminal brother.

There’s a marked difference between stage and screen, and South of Heaven is a film that really reminds a viewer of that difference.  More than its limited locations, small cast, and hand-painted backdrops, the film also has the dialogue of a good play, with interesting character monologues and audience asides that come close to breaking the 4th wall.  Still, I’m not sure that South of Heaven, with all of its looney tunes ambition (think the Coen Bros meets Lil’ Abner meets Darkman, then make that a noir), really works as a movie.  It works as a story, but I could never quite overlook the un-cinematic-ness of it, as on display here.  The same story with a bigger budget and a little bit of script fat-trimming would probably be an incredible movie, and it’s almost a shame to see it exist in the form that it does–too low-budget for its own good.  The cast is all-around good, doing good service to the material, and J.L. Vara may be a writer to watch.  If you have an open heart to DIY movies, truly independent stuff, then you’ll feel rewarded by South of Heaven.

6 on a 1 to 10 scale

Tokyo Gore Police / Japan / Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura

Synopsis:  In the near future, privatized police units fight against bio-mechanical fiends called “Engineers” that can grow weapons from the wounds they sustain.

When this movie is being satirical, it works really, really well.  Almost too well, as the moments when it goes for more straightforward action seem dull in comparison.  Long-time FX man, Nishimura, literally sprays the screen with blood so red it looks flourescent, and offers up some memorable set pieces including a fast-paced opening and a bizarre battle at a brothel.  Tokyo Gore Police is probably the gooeyest action film ever made–a ridiculous claim, but there it is.  The fake ads within the film, including a hilariously un-PC commercial for girls that like to cut themselves and an audacious Wii parody in which a family uses a remote wand to torture a live prisoner on their TV, are brilliant, and the movie could’ve used more of this spirit throughout its running time.

6 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Fantastic Fest 2008: Day Five

The Cream (La Creme) / France / Directed by Reynald Bertrand

Synopsis:  A down-on-his-luck family man discovers a facial cream that makes others see him as a celebrity.

I like surprises like this at a film fest–the indie movies with little-to-no hype, that you walk out of feeling 100% satisfied.  La Creme is effective, balancing a farcial conceit with just enough reality to make it into something special.  The clever concept and the fresh take on celebrityhood seem primed for an Americanized remake, and when that inevitable day comes, I hope people watch the film that inspired it.

7 on a 1 to 10 scale

The Substitute (Vikaren) / Denmark / Directed by Ole Bornedal

Synopsis:  A sixth-grade class is terrorized by their cruel substitute teacher, secretly an alien disguised as a human.

Bornedal’s The Substitute is a great piece of entertainment and accessible enough for the anti-subtitle “I don’t like foreign films” person in your life.  How can anyone not be entertained by this cast of kids and this memorable villain, played by Paprika Steen?  She’s an unflappable phony, with a mile-wide mean streak, and mental powers to boot, and she makes a great foil against this cast of pale-faced Nordic pre-teens.  They’re one of the best ensembles of kids I’ve ever seen.  There are some bumpy plot holes towards the end of the film, but The Substitute is such a crowd-pleaser, so funny and exciting, that those holes are easily overlooked.

7.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

Sauna / Finland / Directed by Antti-Jussi Annila

Synopsis:  In post-war Eastern Europe, Finnish and Russian delegates arbitrate a new border as they travel north through the country, before coming across a mysterious village and the secrets of a sauna nestled in the middle of a swamp.

This atmospheric, creepy “thinking man’s” horror film is the kind of movie that you really hope develops an audience, even a cult one, because it’s totally deserving of the attention.  The unusual time period and setting, along with gorgeous, stark visuals and fantastic production design are all part of what makes Sauna a must-see.  It has an ambiguous approach to horror, giving you just enough information to buy into the story, without anything being explicitly spelled out for you.  In Sauna‘s case, this works remarkably well.  The story is basically a redemption tale of a merciless, lifelong soldier looking for direction after the end of a war, and as long as it tells that specific story well, and it does, then detailed explanations of all the supernatural goings-on in the film are inconsequential.

8 on a 1 to 10 scale

Deadgirl / USA / Directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel

Synopsis:  A motley group of teenagers find a nude zombie girl chained to a table in an abandoned asylum, where they allow their sexual desires take them down a nightmarish path.

I don’t think any subject is taboo when it comes to horror, even necrophilia, but I take offense at a movie that handles its subject with no emotional resonance whatsoever, or, worse yet, handling deadly serious material with a winking, nudging “ain’t this messed up?” attitude.  Deadgirl is one of the most annoying movies in recent memory, filled with unpleasant characters in underdeveloped situations, spouting inane dialogue, where every sentence is punctuated with the word “man”.  The concept offers a different take on the zombie film, but the execution is simply so grating–bad acting, weak screenplay–that I can’t recommend it.  I wanted every scene to end quickly; every character to please, stop talking.  This is an incredibly weak movie about potentially strong stuff.  Total swing and a miss.

3.5 on a 1 to 10 scale