Fantastic Fest, which kicks off today for a week in Austin, Texas, is arguably the most nerd-centric film festival in the U.S., and certainly the most blogged about, in large part thanks to a free arcade of new indie games, the coolest karaoke rooms in the world (including a Twin Peaks-themed red room), an aggressive outreach by uber-film geeks Harry Knowles and Drafthouse’s Tim League, and even debates that end in boxing matches…usually by dorks with no idea how to actually fight, which is part of the appeal.
The movies themselves range from upcoming sci-fi flicks you want to see, to weird-ass shit you never knew you needed, most of it falling under sci-fi, fantasy, action/martial-arts, horror or crime drama (the crime drama thing is weird, and generally my least favorite part, but there it is). Tusk will be playing there. The ABCs of Death 2 will playing there. Keanu Reeves’ new action movie is there. I’m here to focus on stuff you don’t know as much about yet; stuff you can bet will make up most of Magnet releasing and Drafthouse’s slate for next year.
Here are 9 picks besides the obvious…
1. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.
I’m just gonna come out and say it – I love the Marlon Brando Island of Dr. Moreau. Unironically. On the level the viewer is supposed to love it. I love that they cast David Thewlis in a romantic lead role you’d normally reserve for somebody handsome and appealing, I love what a whacked-out asshole Val Kilmer is and I feel his pain when he says he wants to go to Doggy Heaven, I love the weirdly compassionate way Brando plays the mad scientist, I love the little guy to whom Verne Troyer owes his entire career because Mike Myers thought it was funny, and I love how exhausted Ron Perlman acts at the end about the whole “pretending to be a man” thing.
But now that I’ve seen this making-of doc, in which original director Richard Stanley finally breaks his silence and admits he might at last be ready to make another feature…I cry inside for the way-more-amazing film he was actually planning to make, all loaded with Cthulhu and Jesus metaphors and beastiality, before he cast two narcissist stars who didn’t give a shit and got fired and replaced by John Frankenheimer. From witchcraft to flesh-melting spiders to hurricanes, to Bruce Willis’ divorce and Cheyenne Brando’s death, everything went wrong that could have. And that was before Brando showed up and tried to write in a surprise twist that would have had him revealed as a dolphin all along.
If you love the movie as I do, or are even simply fascinated by its chaos for totally ironic reasons, this documentary is a must-watch. Notably absent is any mention of leading-man Thewlis; I can only imagine his people legally advising this production to never mention that project to him again.
Horse-human hybrid creatures, furry men, incest, abortion, nudity, drugs and the guy who sang “One Night in Bangkok” in a leading role? If you are a TR reader, I think they made this movie for you.
Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) suffers from nightmares about the weird demonic Horsehead, and tries to deal with them by learning lucid dreaming skills that will allow her to interact with her subconscious. Upping the stakes, she is called home to her mother’s house where grandma has just died, and is lying there dead on the bed upstairs, in a house where half the lights don’t work and the walls are adorned with severed animal heads. Mom (Catriona MacColl) turns out to be an oddly awful parent, there are strange, dark secrets surrounding her late grandfather, and her grandmother was apparently delusional at the very end, drawing pictures of the Horsehead and other nightmarish things.
Augmented by an enervating industrial soundtrack, this is a disturbing piece of work that’ll keep you on edge even when you know you’re in a dream and are supposedly “safe.” And Murray Head? I don’t see that guy facing the kind of game she’s contemplating.
3. Kung Fu Elliot.
Meet Elliot Scott, a man who claims to be Canada’s next big action hero, thanks to movies he shoots on consumer grade still cameras with video capability, and sells at local video stores while he stands outside and demonstrates his high kicks. Obsessed with China, he’ll date anyone Asian and is studying to be a nurse in the field of Eastern medicine.
Yes, it’s funny because he says “aboot” a lot and is genuinely clueless about his prospects, even as he sets himself on fire for his films and discusses the childhood coma that made him who he is – but this is not an American Movie retread. Mark Borchardt, for all his wackiness, was talented. Scott is not…and the further the documentary follows him, the more dangerous his delusions – about himself as well as his dreams – are revealed to be.
It’s like The Foot Fist Way, but real. Amusingly, scarily real.
4. Wastelander Panda.
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, an outcast must find a young girl to bring home to his community, replacing the potentially healthy breeder he killed in a fit of rage. Hoping to make a deal with a nomadic warrior tribe, he is double-crossed and sent on the run along with the young female captive he has in mind to bring back. Sounds like any number of movie you may have seen from the ’80s…except this time, the main character is a panda.
An hourlong edit of pre-existing webisodes, Wastelander Panda certainly looks good enough to play the big screen, and is a welcome antidote for those who particularly dislike CGI Ninja Turtles and miss the old man-in-suit martial arts. The pacing still betrays its origins as a serial, however – like a certain Tom Cruise me, it could be titled Set-up. Fight Scene. Twist. Repeat, and it ends on a cliffhanger – but the idea is to use this to pitch a full TV series, or feature.
A kung fu panda movie? Somehow I think that sort of thing just might work.
5. Dwarves Kingdom.
In rural China, there is a theme park, officially a butterfly garden but most notable for looking like a dilapidated Smurf village, populated entirely by little people in fantasy costumes. They sing and dance for customers, and live and work there the rest of the time.
Admit it: you hear that premise and already it’s a must-see, right? Matthew Salton’s documentary takes on the most important and obvious issue: is this cruel exploitation, or in giving these people a place to live among others who look just like them, is it saving them from a life of being stared at and condescended too elsewhere? One woman, having left, works now at a more “legit” theme park inside a mascot costume, and feels more dehumanized as a giant cartoon than as herself in medieval get-up.
And yet there’s so much more unsaid. How did the park get started? What do the customers think? At 71 minutes, it feels at times like an overlong first half of a more comprehensive film. Still: Dwarf Theme Park.
6. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.
Without Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, you might not know what a ninja is, or have ever used the phrase “Electric Boogaloo.” It’s possible there’d be no Chuck Norris Facts, Jean-Claude Van Damme super-splits, or whatever it is Michael Dudikoff does. Superman would not have fought Nuclear Man, Frank Langella wouldn’t have been Skeletor, Death Wish could have been a standalone film with no sequels, and…Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello might not have been made?
Like Roger Corman before them, Golan-Globus and their Cannon films gave good filmmakers small budgets and a lot of control (so long as the requisite sex scenes were there), but you can’t quite make the case that they churned out great alumni the way Corman did: Chuck Norris is no Jack Nicholson, for example. Yet if you grew up in the ’80s, you’ll be amazed how many of these movies you remember, and perhaps saddened that their modern-day equivalents wouldn’t have much of a chance of getting into theaters.
Yes, this documentary argues, they were crooks and hustlers, but they made amazing cheese and the occasional masterpiece…and you know you miss them. They were such knock-off artists that when asked to be in the documentary, they said no and immediately prepped their own competing one which came out first, shortly before Golan died.
Even Chuck Norris can’t haul ass like that.
Imagine a good version of I, Robot mixed with a less action-heavy Blade Runner and you’re somewhere along the lines of this sci-fi mystery movie, set in a future where solar flares (a minor cop-out that’s presumably there so anti-environmentalists won’t have knee-jerk “liberal agenda!” reactions right away) have turned large parts of the planet into radioactive desert and cities into the kind of dark, hologram-laden dystopias that come about whenever humans who haven’t seen The Matrix or Highlander 2 attempt to block out the sun.
Antonio Banderas’ Jacq works for the ROC Corporation, the inevitable big evil bureaucracy that makes all the robots in town and instills in them a modified version of Asimov’s laws – they can’t hurt any living thing, and they can’t alter themselves. Naturally, as the movie opens, Jacq is investigating a case in which one appears to have done just that.
Though the movie features impressive effects work and many familiar faces (Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster and Melanie Griffith have major roles), this is a low-explosion, heavily meditative take on evolution and extinction…though they never explain why, in a world we’re told is now under-populated, there’d be so many crowded slums.
8. Closer to God.
Familiar character actor Jeremy Childs – you’ll know him when you see him – is Victor, the first man to successfully clone a human being. She’s a cute baby named Elizabeth, but when word gets out prematurely, the political and religious controversies that start to swirl around her put Victor’s life at risk.
Meanwhile, in what appear to be flashbacks, we see Victor’s housemaid take care of a baby named Ethan (Isaac Disney) who has a terminal illness…yet he keeps growing, and is prone to violent rages from the pain his condition causes. We don’t quite get a good look at him, but it’s clear there’s something…off.
While the movie opens sickeningly with a baby getting an injection to the forehead, the story initially plays as an overly obvious allegory for the abortion debate. Then the Ethan scenes get steadily creepier, eventually tossing us into full-on terror that’s intensely disturbing. Like in the song this tale’s named after, you’ll let this violate you.
Apparently this is set in 1984 – they keep mentioning that year in the movie, but I assumed it was discussion of some good old days rather than the present, until I read the press notes. It doesn’t much matter, as grungy European cities at night have a timeless quality to them, and this is a highly stylized version of Athens (Greece, not Georgia), full of sparsely populated bars and dance clubs in the wee hours. Now imagine a Keith Richards-esque vampire is wandering these rooms, dancing to stay alive, seeking a warm body and willing to go along on any random mission with a strange woman just to see where it takes him.
Anyone who ever has pulled an all-nighter in an unfamiliar city with slightly dubious guides will tune into this vibe right away, and even as the plot goes from random nonsense to more explicit horror, that’s the heart of the film. Strangers in strange cities, regardless of language barrier, look for excitement.
The character who shows up to incite the climax is a bit of a silly cliche – but put enough stuffed birds around him, and you get weird enough to earn a pass.
If you’re going to be at Fantastic Fest, head to the official site for showtimes and tickets. If you aren’t, bookmark this page and remember we told you so.