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SIMON SAYS: Austin’s Fantastic Fest 2011 screens the notorious and the raunchy

SIMON SAYS: Austin's Fantastic Fest 2011 screens the notorious and the raunchy

By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor

The lineup at this year’s Fantastic Fest, one of the most prominent and boisterous genre film-centric festivals, is a bit thin. To be fair, there are a number of terrific films that have already played the festival circuit at least once or twice now, like Beyond the Black Rainbow (Tribeca), Take Shelter (Sundance, Cannes), Boys on the Run (New York Asian Film Festival), Livid (Toronto), A Boy and His Samurai (New York Asian Film Festival) and Extraterrestrial (Toronto). But I don’t think of these films as Fantastic Fest titles; these aren’t films that need Fantastic Fest to become known quantities, so they can’t be exclusively associated with Tim League’s wonderful Austin-based festival.

Sitting on the sidelines and covering the festival remotely makes it hard to judge the atmosphere of Fantastic Fest. That’s why I won’t say much about why I’m disappointed that the Fantastic Fest Awards for “Best Horror Film,” “Best Horror Director” and “Best Horror Screenplay” went to You’re Next, a movie that I saw at Toronto and thought was reprehensibly lazy filmmaking all around. Still, I’m in New York as I type this, which is a long ways away from Texas. So no straw man arguments about awards, audience reception, etc.

With that caveat in mind, I’ve been frantically trying to cover Fantastic Fest (FF) titles that are both unique to the festival and that I feel are the best of the fest. Next week’s post will be a more indiscriminate post on festival viewing (i.e., stuff that’s already screened at other fests).

Fantastic Fest kicked off last week with the vile, draining but nonetheless weirdly satisfying Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence, the sequel to the notorious exploitation film whose infamous reputation began in Austin last year. Writer/director Tom Six knew that he couldn’t pull the same prank twice, so he didn’t try to play coy as he did in the first film. In Human Centipede: First Sequence, Six didn’t unnerve viewers with explicit violence but with violent shifts in tone and the suggestion of some very gross stuff. It’s queasy stuff, but it’s also really funny when it wants to be. The main difference between First Sequence and Full Sequence is that in the latter film, Six only pulls the rug out from under his viewers after encouraging them to laugh with him.

Human Centipede 2 toys with its audience knowing that they already know what the film’s title entails. In it, a churlishly obese and hygienically challenged recluse plots to create a 12-person-strong human centipede. Six bludgeons his viewer with fetishized violence, including some torture scenes that are selectively filmed in real-time. He’s showing viewers more than they ever wanted to see and throwing in appropriately crass jokes, too. In that sense, Full Sequence is the second part in what Six promised Fantastic Fest audiences would be a three-part running gag. It’s the same joke but told in a paradoxically more grueling but less disorienting way.

The rest of the Fantastic Fest-centric titles I’ve seen have been OK, but none has really impressed me as much as Full Sequence. Clown: The Movie, the recipient of Fantastic Fest’s “Best Comedy” award, is satisfying, but it’s basically just a better version of raunchy but never-as-subversive-as-they-think-they-are Hollywood comedies like The Hangover or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Based on the Danish TV show by the same name, Clown follows Frank (Frank Fvam), a nervous and very square married man, as he and his horndog best friend Casper (Casper Christensen) ditch their wives to go on a, uh, canoe trip that they constantly refer to as the “Tour de Pussy.” The trouble is that they have to take Frank’s withdrawn and very unsexy prepubescent nephew Bo (Marcusz Jess Petersen) with them when they go on the prowl, jeopardizing their chances of getting laid. Throw in some genuinely squirm-inducing sex and gay panic jokes, and you’ve got a satisfying, if wholly generic, sex comedy.

I have similarly mixed feelings about Calibre 9, a rabid French action comedy that takes cues from the Crank films’ emphasis on adrenaline-fueled mise-en-scčne instead of little things like blocking, lighting, polished camerawork, etc. While the Crank films were fun and genuinely silly, Calibre 9, a movie about a middle-mannered city planner that symbiotically bonds with a gun that’s possessed by the ghost of a dead hooker, is alternately too spastic and too serious for its own good. The jokes aren’t garish enough and I could do without the self-important and utterly meaningless social commentary about how corporate big-wigs redesigning the city are treating residents like cheap prostitutes. Still, when director Jean-Christian Tassy does intermittently achieve a good balance of goofy action and comedy, Calibre 9 is a hoot. The rest I can pretty much take or leave.

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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