Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Fantastic Fest Daily 2014.08: I Am Here, I Am Trash, Waste Land, and The Treatment

I didn't have much time to talk about Fantastic Fest while it was going on - midnights every day before an 11am show the next doesn't leave a whole lot of writing time for anything but a few reviews - but one of the things I sort of committed to enjoying (because if I didn't it would likely drive me nuts) was the lottery aspect: Every day at 10am, you can start ranking which film you want to see in each "slot"; it closes at 6pm and then badge-holders are chosen in random order, given their first available choice. I decided early on not to get too riled about getting my first choice or not - heck, when people would ask how many of my first choices I got, I usually couldn't say; I made my choices quickly, went for the independent stuff over the bigger names as much as I could (while also prioritizing the Japanese Big Three of Miike, Sono, and Nakashima), and by and large not including stuff I didn't want to see or had already seen just to fill the list and be guaranteed something, lest I block someone genuinely enthusiastic about seeing that movie.

It's fun, but it also means that by the end of the festival, with some stuff having been knocked out by Fantasia as well, I'm not sure who is more to blame for my Day Eight schedule: Me, the random number generator, or whoever built the day's schedule as a whole. But, man, this was not the sort of thing that sends you away happy: Grim movie about a woman dealing with a horrific miscarriage, story about an entire family of sex criminals, dark crime thing about a detective drowning himself in a case, and finally a thriller about a detective hunting down a pedophile. Suffice it to say, that last one was the most fun, even though when I pointed out my schedule and that it was ending with that, at least one person grunted and said it was a pretty rough draw.

I actually considered trying to move some stuff around, but there wasn't much happier stuff to be found. I heard a theory that this was to make the closing night party seem even more celebratory by comparison. I didn't go - not a big fan of loud crowds of people smoking and drinking - so I can't attest to how much that might have been the case.

Anyway, not exactly the way to be sent off. I'll have a few more general thoughts of the festival as a whole when I write up the "This Week in Tickets" for these dates, but it's at least something I'm glad to have done once.

I Am Here

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #4 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

I Am Here is heart-and-gut-wrenching in its first act, taking horrific events and making them hurt more with things that would at first glance have the opposite effect. It's not quite so sure-handed when it starts to actually tell a story around the situation it has set up, but is built on such a strong base that this hardly matters.

Maria (Kim Basinger) and Peter (Sebastian Schipper) are a wealthy, successful couple living in Copenhagen, but the one thing that they - especially Maria - feel would make their life complete is a child. It's no easy thing to conceive at their age, and their most recent attempt has ended catastrophically. With Peter realistically giving up any hope, Maria latches onto a comment at work and embarks on an extremely ill-advised quest.

Writer/director Anders Morgenthaler has his roots in animation and cartooning, and while one would likely not guess this from looking at this extremely grounded film, there are moments which certainly indicate a different way of looking at the material. The scene which introduces Christian (Jordan Prentice) to the film certainly qualifies in retrospect, and there are a couple others from before that which drop the jaw, with one becoming all the more heartbreaking because it briefly gives the audience a sense of wonder and joy before not just leading to one of the film's most horrifying moments, but setting something up which will carry through the rest of the movie, either as a narrative conceit or an indication of just how broken Maria may be.

Full review at EFC

I Am Trash

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #7 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

"Just jerk off when your brother tells you to" isn't quite the first line of I Am Trash, but it's close and gets the audience's attention. It also turns out to be one of the less horrific moments in this movie about a family of sex offenders. If that description puts you off, you're probably well-served trusting those instincts.

Writer/director Lee Sang-woo delivers that line as a character of the same name, a street cleaner and de facto head of his family. He wants his brother Sang-tae (Yang Myung-hun) to masturbate because he is prone to acts of sexual violence otherwise, and it seems to run in the family: Third brother Sang-gu (Park Hyung-bin) is molesting his barracks-mate while on his military service, and their pedophile father has just been released from prison after a ten-year sentence for raping an eight-year-old girl. The still-traumatized girl's father, Yong-suk, has casually informed Sang-woo that he will castrate the father if he shows up in town.

Signs posted in their neighborhood suggest that the mother went missing twelve years ago, so it appears that the brothers never had much in the way of sensible guidance. Sang-woo may try, but he's established as weak early on, getting attacked kids on the street as he does his job in the first scene. It's a theme that continues through the film, as he's blackmailed by someone who knows of his family's crimes and stymied in his attempts to get Sang-tae to actually take a job. It seems like a rather pessimistic view - men are slaves to their urges, while the women presented are all helpless victims - although it does serve to highlight the jam Sang-woo is in trying to exist with one foot in the civilized world and one in his family's. Perhaps that's what life is like for the sort of man his father and brothers are: Aggression is normal, women (and weaker men) are targets, and those who would impose some sort of order deserve contempt.

Full review at EFC

Waste Land

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #7 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

One of the best sorts of mysteries plunges its detective into a world not his own, such that figuring out how this other culture works is an important part of finding the killer. Some sort of personal growth is nice too. The trouble with Waste Land is that it never offers much more than the plunge, and that never with the sort of depth that makes the lack of a compelling mystery or fleshed-out character arc less keenly felt.

It's got the making of all three: Brussels homicide detective Leo Woeste (Jérémie Renier) pulls the case of Lukengo, a 19-year-old Congolese man who is pulled out of the river with a couple of Nkonde statutes. The trail leads Leo and partner Johnny Rimbaud (Peter Van den Begin) to a collector and businessman named Géant who still has a mine in the former colony. In fact, all records indicate that Géant is still in the Congo at the time Leo meet with him. The investigation is affecting him in other ways, too - though he has promised his pregnant wife Kathleen (Natali Broods) that he would leave the force after this case, he's been feeling a strange pull towards Congolese mysticism from the start, and has been more attentive than usual to the victim's sister Aysha (Babetida Sadjo).

Leo sits squarely at the intersection of all that's going on here, and in the movie's favor, he is always interesting. The intense detective who is perhaps only able to weather what he sees on the job because he himself is a little off is a familiar character type, but in this case he is put together fairly well. There's a bit of paranoia to his depression, while scenes with his father quickly illustrate where his fear of admitting weakness comes from. Jérémie Renier plays Leo as seeming much more secure than he actually is, although it's a clear, well-essayed part to what he becomes as the case swallows him whole. It's a superior example of this sort of character, and Renier does him justice.

Full review at EFC

De Behandeling (The Treatment)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #7 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

Film festivals, or the other ways that film lovers cram more movies than their friends watch in a month into a much shorter span of time, can really warp one's perception of a given picture via context. On its own, I might consider The Treatment to be a dark, pessimistic movie about especially horrible crimes; after three screenings that plunged me into that sort of dark water without any sort of lifeline, this movie's police procedural approach made it seem much more an exciting thriller.

It follows Nick Cafmeyer (Geert van Rampelberg), a detective for the Belgian federal police who has just been called in to take the lead on an ugly case - a couple found chained up in their home, their captor fleeing with their nine-year-old son upon being discovered. The whole department scrambles, but it's more personal for Nick than most: When he was nine, his brother Bjorn was abducted and never found. Neighbor Ivan Plettinckx (Johan van Assche) was the prime suspect, but nothing could be proven, and he has spent the last twenty-five years slipping Nick taunting notes containing conflicting accounts of what happened to Bjorn, stepping it up in recent months. Plettinckx almost certainly has nothing to do with this new case, although what looks like his most honest note yet may be the only thing that can break Nick's focus on what some of the kids he talks to call "the troll".

The Treatment is a detective story if not necessarily a mystery; it points its fingers in roughly the right direction early on on and then spends most of the next couple of hours having the police piece together the path necessary to get there. In fact, it lets the audience get far enough ahead of Nick and his colleagues that it can get a bit frustrating toward the end; viewers may find themselves frantically rewinding the picture in their heads, trying to remember if Nick has all the crucial bits of information they have our not. That's not necessarily ideal - not every detective story needs to be a fair-play whodunit, but it helps to know what everyone knows - but director Hans Herbots and screenwriter Carl Joos (adapting a novel by Mo Hayder) mostly have a good juggling act going, keeping plenty of balls in the air even as new ones are thrown in.

Full review at EFC

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