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SIMON SAYS: Finding the obscure and the strange at Austin’s Fantastic Fest

SIMON SAYS: Finding the obscure and the strange at Austin's Fantastic Fest

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

I feel like I have to preface this second of two Fantastic Fest dispatches with a disclaimer: I didn’t go to Fantastic Fest this year. In fact, I’ve yet to attend Fantastic Fest.

So, because I’m a cheapskate, this past weekend I plowed through a number of screeners. One week and seven films after my first Fantastic Fest report, I’m sad to say that my blasé attitude toward this year’s slate hasn’t changed much. To be fair, I’m still mostly ambivalent about this year’s selection. Extraterrestrial, Livid, Carré blanc, Melancholia, Take Shelter, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Karate Robo Zaborgar, Let the Bullets Fly, Milocrorze: A Love Story — all of these films are terrific, but I’ve already seen them at other fests and have written about them in one form or another, so I kinda don’t want to pimp them out again. I mean, there’s just not much in it for me, I’m just that good.

And that’s what sucks about reading festival coverage from someone as difficult to please as myself: I’m more likely to look up the obscure stuff playing at Fantastic Fest because, ultimately, I have to keep myself interested. That subjective interest is something most film festival correspondents don’t talk about but hey, I have to be entertained in order to convey some kind of enthusiasm to you, hypothetical reader o’mine. Basically, I try to be as wide-ranging as I’d like to be in the kinds of films I check out, but I’m not going to rehash stuff for the sake of putting together a better “Best of the Fest” post.

Besides, don’t you want to know about the other flawed but neat stuff that mostly fell by the wayside while everyone made a big stink about how puerile and ugly The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence was? I’d like to think so. Of the seven new films I watched, I didn’t really discover anything truly great to write home about, but I did catch a bunch of noteworthy also-rans. So that’s what I’ll talk about instead, because that’s what Fantastic Fest is good for, to my mind: getting you interested in little genre films from around the world.

Aardvark: This brooding thriller sounds a lot stranger in theory than it actually is in practice, but I think that strangeness also accounts for its allure. A blind, recovering alcoholic befriends a young alcoholic jujutsu instructor, and that’s most of the movie right there. You follow the film’s sight-deprived protag, who is in fact played by a blind actor, as he bonds with his martial arts-practicing new buddy, who may or may not be a hitman of some kind. Director Kitao Sakurai does a great job of approximating a feeling of disorientation similar to his protagonist’s psychological dilemma: who can an older, blind single man confide in, knowing that he can’t see any new acquaintances? Aardvark‘s big take-away — maybe we never really know the people we trust the most — is on the nose and I honestly have no clue what the title means. But apart from a lame ending, this one’s pretty decent. B.

Blind: A South Korean murder mystery where the protagonist is an ex-cop suspended after her brother dies in a freak car accident. True to its Italian giallo roots, the film’s heroine “witnesses” a crime in progress, making her the prime target of a ruthless serial killer. I like Blind more than most of the other films I saw during my screener binge because, while the film’s plot is strictly by the numbers, it’s, y’know, tense and stuff. I love the way that the killer is filmed with Bava-esque lighting cues (purple front-lighting!) and all of the chase scenes are a hoot as well. Plus, even if the film’s script is pretty schmaltzy, I actually cared about the protagonists, more than I might have in any other film of this kind. B+.

A Lonely Place to Die: I’d heard nothing but good things about this supposedly no-nonsense survival horror flick. Unfortunately, here’s way too much nonsense for my liking. Eventually, Lonely stops being a survival horror flick and becomes a doughy thriller in which a child is ransomed by generic Euro-baddies. Still, in spite of some seriously distracting trick shots that simulate the P.O.V. of the film’s imperiled protags, the survival horror stuff is pretty good. B-.

Retreat: Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy shack up on a small, isolated Irish island. True to generic form, their relationship is falling apart slowly until Jamie Bell stumbles upon their cabin and warns them of a global pandemic with no cure. The final twist is satisfying, but the rest of the movie, save for Murphy’s typically compelling performance, is not. C.

Revenge: A Love Story: This batshit thriller is rabid in the most energizing way possible. Director Ching-Po Wong has no concept of restraint when it comes to dramatizing the lengths one man will go to defend his more-innocent-than-Mary girlfriend. This girl is so kittenishly innocent that she ought to wear a bull’s-eye t-shirt so that even the dimmest badman will know who to hassle. The most fun part about Revenge is watching as this cute young thing’s bugfuck protector, played by Dream Home‘s Juno Mak, goes to the mat and then some when it comes to defending his girlfriend’s honor, by which I mean he gets his head mashed into a bed of thumb tacks and a long, thin, pointy stick shoved in his ear in one of the film’s first couple of scenes. The film’s consummately over-the-top action scenes are redolently gruesome and churlishly violent. They’re also tons of fun. The romantic melodrama at the heart of the film is its weakest part, but it’s otherwise negligible. Still: wow, this movie is screwy. B+.

The Squad: An effectively moody Spanish thriller but not much more than that. I like the way that certain scenes showed us, sans dialogue, the psychology of a unit of soldiers before the soldiers in question start to generically fight amongst themselves. Pervasive dread matters more here than the film’s plot, which is kind of a bland, post-Ten Little Indians, the-enemy-within horror film. It just doesn’t matter that much more, unfortunately. B-.

Two Eyes Staring: While the final twist in this Danish ghost story overtaxes what was otherwise a wonderfully spare horror film, most everything else about Two Eyes Staring is very atmospheric and exciting. I was surprised at how well the film’s formulaic “girl discovers ghost who explains why her mother doesn’t like her” narrative worked. Until the ending, that is. No amount of atmosphere could rescue this film from its totally unnecessary final plot twist. B.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.

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