It may only be year three for Fantastic Fest, Austin’s very own premiere fantasy, action, horror, sci-fi festival, but they seem to have ironed out many of the kinks in event planning very quickly. Located all in one central location of the world famous Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest boasts a myriad of premieres, guests and screenings, not to mention a homey atmosphere that would put any film geek in heaven. Unlike other premiere festivals, Fantastic Fest not only celebrates its cinema, it also celebrates the communal viewing process.
The biggest event for the weekend was the secret screening of the final cut of writer/director Richard Kelly‘s long awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales.” Pre-maturely screened at Cannes in an unfinished two-and-a-half hour cut, the film received a lot of negative criticism and Kelly returned to the editing room. Emerging now with the version Samuel Goldwyn will release this November, Kelly says, “I’m finally not nervous to screen it because I know the film is actually done.” Perhaps the perfect place to test the waters, Austin fanboy audiences greeted it with a warm reception and were enthusiastic to ask him about the process in a lengthy Q & A following the film. “It was incredibly ambitious,” he remarked, “but I decided you only live once.”
In classic Fantastic Fest fashion, organizers Tim League and Harry Knowles kept the surprises rolling all weekend. They brought the house down with a screening of Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi‘s touching animation pic about one girl growing up around the time of the Iranian revolution, “Persepolis.” Also popular was Hitoshi Matsumoto‘s “Dai Nipponjin” (aka Big Man Japan), which is perhaps the most insightful of secret screening choices because the film contains so many surprising genre twists within the first twenty minutes that it’s almost necessary to see it “blindly” to enjoy the full effect. This week promises at least two more surprises–though Knowles has been hinting in intros about a possible third that might appear at the last minute.
Also this weekend was a special screening of “Sex and Death 101,” the new comedy written and directed by ’80s legend Daniel Waters, who penned “Heathers.” The film, starring Winona Ryder and Simon Baker is the story of a man who receives a mysterious list revealing the names of all the women he will have sex with, which ends up being a curse. Waters, and the film, received the warm audience response they deserved in a screening hosted by comedian Patton Oswald. “I had gone astray for awhile in my writing,” admits Waters in a Q & A, “but I got back in the same way I wrote ‘Heathers.’ I [asked], ‘what would I want to see in the cinema?'”
But easily the biggest buzz at the festival is over the two films starring Marko Zaror, South America’s first martial arts star. Playing to packed houses with incredibly enthusiastic responses, “Kiltro” and “Mirageman” are two standout pieces of action cinema that had festival goers chomping at the bit for more. Zaror, the 6’2″ ex-stunt double for The Rock is bound to be the next big thing in martial arts.
Perhaps the secret genius behind these films, however, is Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, Zaror’s high school best friend turned writer/director whose sharp wit and cinematic intelligence kicks “Mirageman” and “Kiltro” a notch above your standard action film, producing pieces of commercial cinema that are not just visually astounding, but, also, wholly entertaining. The premiere of “Mirageman” proved to be something different. Shot in long-take handheld documentary style with more realistic fight scenes and a plot that facilitates its raw realism, the film piqued viewer interest for its ingenuity in storytelling and had many anticipating the Sunday screening of “Kiltro,” a much more complexly plotted film–though the more conventionally told of the two.
When asked at a Q & A about the abrupt change in style with the second film, Espinoza remarked, “I wanted to make like, how you say, French New Wave?” Whatever the influence, Espinoza and Zaror along with producer Derek Rundell (also in attendance at Fantastic Fest), certainly have everyone excited for more. Luckily, they signed a development deal with Magnolia Pictures that promises bigger things in the coming years. Meanwhile, fest-goers await more surprises League Knowles have in store for the rest of the week.