By Todd Gilchrist | Indiewire September 24, 2013 at 11:01AM
Displaced to a Drafthouse nestled in a north Austin shopping center because of an extensive remodeling project at its original South Lamar location, Fantastic Fest 2013 offered a slightly different experience than in years past. While the genre festival's diligent, hard-working organizers mostly succeeded in coordinating as many events as possible on the premises of or nearby the Lakeline theater, its usual sense of intimacy occasionally felt like inescapability – there’s no Highball, the venue adjacent to the South Lamar, to escape to for karaoke, bowling, or just a little (comparative) quiet, or the usual parade of food trucks and eateries offering alternatives to the theater's exceptional but (if you eat there for every meal) limited menu.
But in the proud tradition the festival has maintained now for nine years, Fantastic Fest offers some of its most eclectic and provocative programming yet, which more than makes up for the lack of external options – because you pretty much always want to be in theaters watching something.
The opening-night entry was Robert Rodriguez' "Machete Kills" -- oddly enough, the first film the Austin native and avowed genre filmmaker has ever debuted at the festival. After Rodriguez and members of his cast, including Danny Trejo, Alexa Vega and Marko Zaror, gamely spoke to red-carpet press in the theater lobby, the director introduced the film to a raucous and excited audience, admitting that the premiere fulfilled a long-held dream.
Unfortunately, the film's uncertain sendup-slash-indulgence of grindhouse conventions was met with decidedly mixed reactions from both critics and fans, starting the festival on a less than positive note. But the opening-night party that followed was appropriately explosive, as Rodriguez donated props from the film for exhibition, and blew up a car while a terrific mariachi band played through the night.
Hot on the heels of its People’s Choice award at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, meanwhile, Sion Sono's latest film "Why Don’t You Play In Hell" received a decidedly better response from attendees, not the least of which because of its expert combination of film geekery, graphic violence, and Sono's singular quirkiness. His recent work, including "Cold Fish" and the phenomenal "Love Exposure," has earned him a new level of fame and recognition, and this film should continue on that trajectory, as its "craziness" – the word most frequently used to describe it – feels tailor-made for genre fans.
Friday brought the festival's first full day of programming, starting with a late-morning screening of Sundance darling "Escape From Tomorrow." As Badass Digest editor Devin Faraci observed in his introduction for the screening, there was a lot of skepticism about whether or not the film, which was secretly shot on location at Disney World, would be able to secure distribution without the theme park's parent company tangling it up in red tape. But as it advances towards its theatrical release on October 11, critics seem to be looking at the film more clearly without the prism of its unconventional production, and if the more mixed reaction it drew at Fantastic Fest are any indication, audiences may not quite be as eager to "escape" as the Sundance raves suggested.
The day also included screenings of films from two Fantastic Fest veterans, Ti West and Ben Wheatley, whose latest projects, "The Sacrament" and "A Field in England," both mark departures from their previous ones. West's film follows a trio of investigating journalists who visit a Jonestown-like cult, and its simmering menace builds to much more disturbing revelations than those in, say, "House of the Devil" and The Innkeepers." Strictly speaking, it's not even a horror film, but rather an unsettling drama. Wheatley's filmography, conversely, has been more varied thus far, but "England" is a psychotropic nightmare, set in one location and writ large against the backdrop of the English Civil War, and it's perhaps the most polarizing of his films to date.
Friday night marked the festival's annual Chaos Reigns karaoke party, and although the event has always forced – or rather, let's say, afforded attendees an opportunity -- to perform in front of a large number of people, holding it in one of the Lakeline theater’s auditoriums eliminated some of its intimacy. Thankfully, there were some interesting films playing opposite the event, and fans got a chance to see work like Alex de la Iglesias’ “Witching & Bitching” instead.
But the real spotlight came out for "Man of Tai Chi" on Saturday night, with Keanu Reeves and star Tiger Chen introducing the film and conducting a Q&A afterward. Reeves' silly but often enjoyable directorial debut seems destined to inspire a dozen new internet memes – expect to soon see phrases like "you owe me a life" trending on Twitter – but, like "Machete Kills," its mainstream leanings eventually prove underwhelming in comparison to the vision and ambition of the foreign and independent fare that's vying for eyeballs in Fantastic Fest's lineup. At the same time, a little bit of camp feels like the exact right grace note for the festival's big movies, which undoubtedly accounts for the enthusiasm with which it was received by attendees.
Next: The most extreme movie intro ever? Plus: Keanu Reeves versus Tim League.
The other high-profile screening on Saturday was "Cheap Thrills," a terrifically subversive feature debut from writer-director Evan Katz. While the film met with almost universal adulation, the film's introduction was an even bigger event: Stars Pat Healy, Dave Koechner and Ethan Embry enlisted members of the audience to perform a series of dares that included eating a popsicle covered with crickets, dipping a man’s genitals in a bowl of sriracha, and in one case, someone receiving a tattoo of the film’s title on his buttocks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of the audience leapt at the chance to participate -- but the real punchline came after the film, when a blackout-drunk Koechner and his slightly less-inebriated co-stars performed what may go down in history as the festival’s drunkest Q&A ever.
But Saturday night's main event, as always, was the Fantastic Debates, an annual face-off between various attendees and members of the industry over issues that moderator and host Owen Edgerton repeatedly reminded the audience were of vital importance – not just to festival-goers, but society as a whole. Sure thing: The format essentially boils down to a silly but often extraordinarily well-argued session of verbal sparring, followed by a few minutes of boxing between the opponents, and this year's debates offered better physical fights than rhetorical ones.
Debates raged over whether "28 Days Later" was a zombie movie (Dread Central critic Brad McHargue won the oral arguments, but Screen Crush contributor Jacob Hall roundly defeated him in their physical confrontation), if attractive people are ruining geekdom ("Looper" costar Noah Segen and 2012 Nerd Rap champion Andrew Todd proved evenly matched), and about Sylvester Stallone's canonization as the "only" true action star (Slashfilm's Russ Fischer successfully answered Drafthouse employee Greg MacLennan's case for the star, but MacLennan's last-minute physical preparation ultimately prevailed). However, the title fight was a beautiful spectacle, as Drafthouse founder Tim League argued against Keanu Reeves in a bout to determine whether tae kwon do or tai chi is the superior form of martial arts.
Reeves approached the verbal exchange from a decidedly zen perspective – basically granting all of League's hyperbolic but factually accurate claims – but the actor (as planned) bowed out of the physical bout and had "Man of Tai Chi" star Chen take his place. League's braggadocio has become a legendary catalyst for some great confrontations over the years, but the actual fights have often ended up being underwhelming, because he typically fights someone who could probably knock his head off if they tried – such as, with the case of Chen, a bona fide martial arts master. But League's determination to goad his opponent into fighting actually worked this time; after he landed a few solid blows, Chen stepped his game up and it became a true fight – though ultimately League did win.
Sunday, by comparison, was less intense, although its gauntlet of films equaled those of its predecessors. After a quiet morning – it felt slightly as if the entire festival was at least a little hung over – things perked up with "The Congress," Ari Folman’s follow-up to "Waltz With Bahir," which quite frankly is the kind of film that needs to be programmed more often, thanks to its poetic combination of high-concept science fiction and emotional nakedness. After that stunned audiences in the afternoon, Simon and Zeke Hawkins' “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” not only offered a homecoming for a cadre of Texas filmmakers who currently collaborate in Los Angeles, but offered a fresh, engaging and artistic take on the familiar rhythms of a small-town crime story.
That film was immediately followed by "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane," which shares a producer in Brian Udovich with "We Gotta Get Out," and ranks as one of the films that people have been most eager to see since its completion in 2006, but only secured distribution this year. For those audiences that needed lighter fare after a weekend of powerful, provocative, disturbing films, there were two salves: the Nerd Rap battle, an annual competition in which attendees write and perform their own geek-infused verses, and “Kid's Police," a goofy but absolutely adorable Japanese film about a group of police officers who get transformed into children.
Either way, attendees – or at least this one – had hit a wall; even the programmers and moderators were acknowledging that sleepless nights were an inevitable byproduct of trying to see and do so much in such a short period of time. But as the festival continues this week, those whose constitutions (much less livers) have been thoroughly tested will have an opportunity to get a few extra minutes of rest and gear up for more movies. Despite its displacement, and the various logistical obstacles that organizers have faced, Fantastic Fest kicked off as impressively as it has in past years with a solid and interesting slate of films and events that perfectly complement the appetites and interests of its attendees.