Forget about the boxing, the beer, "Human Centipede II" and Elijah Wood. Fantastic Fest, which wrapped its seventh year with a screening of Morgan Spurlock's documentary "Comic Con: Episode IV -- A Fan's Hope," had a lot of great movies to go accompany the fun (a fan's hope, indeed). While my personal favorites included French action vehicle "Sleepless Night," uber-raunchy Danish sex comedy "Clown" and the alien invasion romance "Extraterrestrial" (see links below), there were many more in the program that helped make this a memorable year. Here's a few highlights in brief.
While many festival attendees celebrated (or recovered from) the world premiere of "The Human Centipede Part II (Full Sequence)" at the opening-night party, a small audience got a treat with the first midnight screening: "Manborg," a masterwork of guilty pleasure indulgence and unadulterated pastiche. Director Steven John Kostanski's hour-long feature-length debut plays like the restless, low-budget love child of "Robocop" and "Blade Runner" by way of the green screen. It's the science-fiction equivalent of "Hobo with a Shotgun": Set in a flashy near future where the opening of the Gates of Hell leads to an epic battle between an army of vampires and the puny human race, "Manborg" follows a valiant soldier killed on the battle field by the cruel Draculon, only to find himself resurrected by a morally conflicted scientist as half-man, half-machine.
Equipped with arm guns and speaking in a hilariously one-note monotone, Manborg joins forces with a kung-fu expert and a few other friends to take down the enemy. From the start to finish, "Manborg" is pure, dumb fun, dominated by the hyperbolic rush of a Saturday morning cartoon but more thoroughly dedicated to stimulating nostalgia and whatever wiring tells us that some derivative movies work better than others. This one works better than most.
Letdowns and Misunderstandings
Unfortunately, one of the lower-profile world premieres wound up in the disappointment category: "Penumbra," an Argentinian soap opera that turns into the poor man's "House of the Devil" in its closing moments, was touted as a potential discovery. That's because it has roots in the Fantastic Fest family: Director Adrian Garcia Bogliano premiered his superior torture-porn drama "Cold Sweat" at Fantastic Fest's South by Southwest sidebar earlier this year. Picked up by IFC Films ahead of the festival, "Penumbra" spends too much of its running time building up to an obvious finale, despite a committed performance by Spanish actress Cristina Bondo. In the final minutes, Bogliano (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother) finally hits on a distinctive image when his lead comes face to face with a crowd of people in the heat of an eclipse. If only the mayhem had started earlier.
On the other hand, the French fantasy "Livid" was met with a tepid response it didn't deserve. Arriving at the festival fresh from a similar reaction in Toronto, the latest from Julian Maury and Alexandrew Bustillo starts as an annoyingly familiar haunted house story before transforming into a beautiful, moving gothic fairy tale. Those familiar with Maury and Bustillo's "Inside," a home invasion thriller that infamously concluded with a graphic abortion, may have expected more extreme blood and guts. Instead, they pulled off an eerie storybook experience that recalls Tim Burton at his best.
Catharsis from the Violence
Audiences were served flan during screenings of "A Boy and His Samurai," the acclaimed work of Japanese director Yoshihiro Nakamura ("Golden Slumber"), but that's not the only reason it played through the roof. The delicate story of a time-traveling samurai who ends up crashing with a single woman and her shy young son, it's actually a stirring family comedy disguised as something sillier. When the samurai (TV star Ryo Nishikido) discovers his love for cooking, he begins to pursue a new direction for his career. Coming to terms with 21st-century views on gender equality and professional responsibility, he becomes the movie's template for a series of smart and surprisingly believable conversations about life. The crowd must have viewed this unequivocal delight as the ideal escape from a week of gory mayhem.
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