Tuesday, October 07, 2014

This Those Weeks In Tickets: 15 September 2014 - 28 September 2014

Last major film festival of the year for me in Austin's Fantastic Fest, and it needs a little talking about on its own.

This Week in Tickets

This Week in Tickets

... but first, here's what I did before and after. And, yeesh, do I take a lousy picture.

There were a couple things I wanted to catch before heading south, and they were interesting in their own way. I caught But Always after having missed it on Sunday, and, yeesh, does it have issues. The next night, I knew A Master Builder wasn't likely to last the week, let alone past the end of the festival. Glad I saw it, because it's pretty nifty.

And what did I see there?

18 September: Hardkor Disco, As Seen by the Rest, and Cub
19 September: Force Majeure, Redeemer, Over Your Dead Body, Necrofobia, and Wyrmwood
20 September: The Duke of Burgundy, The Babadook, Tommy, The World of Kanako, and The Editor
21 September: Wastelander Panda, Shrew's Nest, The Tribe, Tokyo Tribe, and The Man in the Orange Jacket
22 September: The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Purgatory, Realiti, From the Dark, and I Am a Knife with Legs
23 September: The Stranger, Everly, Automata, The Guest, and Dead Snow 2
24 September: Man from Reno, The Absent One, Haemoo, Local God, and It Follows
25 Septembe: I Am Here, I Am Trash, Waste Land, and The Treatment

Then I got back, woke up barely an hour before the Red Sox game, and made my way to Fenway. It was great; I was still in line to buy food while most of the tribute to Bud Selig was going on, so it didn't make me wretch too much, especially since it wasn't for Derek Jeter. I wasn't prepared for it to be quite so hot, like I hadn't left Texas the previous day (in contrast, the trip from Boston to Austin was a forty-degree swing in temperature). It was quickly fun, though, as Masahiro Tanaka had nothing, and that led to a forty-five minute second inning that left the Yankees behind 8-1 and the Yankees fan next to me literally slack-jawed. After getting the first refill on the day, I headed down to see if Tony & Ken were around. They were, there were free seats, so I got to see the last Red Sox victory of the year from five rows behind the home bullpen.

After that, I headed up the street to Boston Common for A Walk Among the Tombstones, and liked that quite a bit. Still kind of on Austin time, it wasn't tough for me to stay awake through The Boxer's Omen at the Brattle. Then, Sunday, the week and a half without a full night of sleep caught up with me and I didn't do a darn thing.

So, the festival. In a way, I don't really want to write about Fantastic Fest itself as an experience, because I think that doing so will badly overshadow what you can see in the eight "daily" posts and seventeen reviews (with about thirteen more to come) say: I saw a bunch of movies that I might not have had a chance to see elsewhere, most were pretty good, and even those that weren't that great were at least interesting. That's the most important thing to remember, enough to merit a repeat:

If you go to Fantastic Fest, you will see a bunch of good movies that you might not otherwise see on the big screen.

You might not know which ones ahead of time, of course; theater assignments for each "round" are determined by everyone stating preferences the day before, the VIPs being given their choices, and then the rest being drawn in random order and positioned as best they can; this is probably when they assign films to screens, a good way to match capacity to demands that prevents the occasional situation where a big auditorium winds up half-empty or a smaller one leaves a lot of people outside looking in. When I first read about this, I was prepared to hate it for how it seemed to fly in the face of what I looked about having a pass at other festivals: It made it hard to build a schedule strategically ("I'll skip A for B because A is playing against C which I don't much care about later on") or spontaneously ("I know I was planning on seeing D next, but I am in no mood for something like that, so I'll go with E"). There's some room for the latter with an hour's notice, at least.

Fortunately, I'm reasonably well-positioned to deal with that as a system; I like a broad range of genres, have no issues with subtitles, and am already going to be passing up the big spotlight screenings with Hollywood guests in favor of things that won't be playing in the multiplexes. It's easier to take what comes without strong preferences, and I tried my best to maximize that mindset during the festival - quick scans of the options, put the names into the system, and forget, this saving a lot of investment in whether I got my first choice or not. I did pretty well on that, I think, and the one time i had to swap, it was relatively painless. If I were coming in with a narrower set of interests or things marked as must-sees, it might be frustrating or never-wracking, but I found it kind of fun once I accepted it.

A side-effect of this "rounds" setup was that building the schedule that way means it can be rather stretched. Every day aside from the shorter opening and closing dates had five rounds, the first of which began at roughly 11am and the last of which went in at midnight. At other festivals, those start times indicate a six-movie day, while a five-movie schedule might mean starting the first at roughly noon and getting out of the last at roughly midnight, and those extra three hours of potential sleep can be a big deal. It also means that there are regularly long gaps between movies, sometimes as much as two hours, which gets me twitchy - I feel like I should be able to fit another one in there.

Filling those gaps is where this festival reveals itself as well-tailored to my tastes but not really my personality. I'm not particularly sociable, don't hear well in crowds, and don't drink, so I'm stuck out in the Texas sun with a vague din going on around me, and the fact that smokers aren't keeping their toxic clouds in their designated area isn't helping. I'm coughing, sweating, waiting for the next movie to be called, and then having to push through a too-dense lobby to get to it. Part of this might just be that I don't know an awful lot of people in (or visiting) Austin, and the same setup in Boston or even Montreal plays better (or if I did a few more of these, although it took me years to get to know people at Fantasia). Folks who do strike up conversations and friendships easily clearly love it, which helps explain how downright evangelical the fans are and how worried many were at the prospect of the theater's old "back porch" area being lost as it was remodeled.

As an aside about that remodel, it kind of struck me as curiously indicative of how the Alamo Drafthouse and the area around the theater have changed since I was last there in 2007 - a lobby that was once fairly utilitarian is now festooned with murals and Alamo-branded stuff hanging from the ceiling, a strip mall and parking lot has been replaced with condos, and a great big bar with themed karaoke rooms has been attached. It's become a much more upscale, specific brand in a lot of ways, and sometimes a weirdly paradoxical one with equal parts "we're ca-ray-zee" and "follow the rules or get tossed".

On a practical level, it seemed kind of screwy that they rebuilt the theater but didn't exactly make sure there were nine screens worth of toilets, although I suspect that on a regular schedule exit times are a lot more staggered. The corridors still seem rather cramped in a lot of spots, exacerbated by having "Fantastic Arcade" stations set up in a spot that was already sort of a bottleneck and initially cordoning way too much of the lobby area off for red carpets and photos. I found myself much less enamored of the cinema seats and bar setup than I was last time I visited - not only did the servers seen less unobtrusive than before (to be fair, I spent a lot more time in the front two rows), but I've gotten used to the desk-style arrangement at Fantasia and the Showcase SuperLux; at the Drafthouse, you have to kind of lean in and down to deal with your food rather than look up at the movie or move your plate to your lap.

Another thing I noticed was that the Q&As seemed very short, especially considering all the time built in between screenings. I'm kind of curious as to why that is. Many films were showing on multiple screens, with those in the smaller rooms getting a simulcast of the Q&A and having to run to another room if they had a question, which maybe served as a barrier (same with everything having two screenings, instead of one). I also kind of wonder if the set-up which had almost everyone on a pass rather than able to make plans for individual movies in advance had an effect of having the audience filled with general film fans rather than ones with a specific interest who would have more questions.

Odds are I won't be back next year - it's too soon after Fantasia for me to jump back into a festival with such a similar roster of films, there's only so much vacation time, and if I feel like something like this at that time of the year... Well, Sitges is just a week later, and takes place on the coast of Spain rather than Texas. I can see why Fantastic Fest has its fans, but I do think my time would be much better spent trying out new places than returning to this one in the future.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 September 2014 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, DCP)

I was buttonholed to fill out a survey when A Walk Among the Tombstones let out, which is always great fun because I genuinely enjoy skewing averages in such things (why yes, I have seen more than ten movies in the last two months). In this case, I suspect that I was one of relatively few to put down that I saw this movie primarily because of director Scott Frank, as opposed to star Liam Neeson or general timing of the show. Frank wrote one of my favorite movies in Dead Again, did the screenplay for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations, had a pretty good directorial debut with The Lookout, and tends to have his name on good stuff. The guy is good at his job, especially where crime is concerned, so, yes, I was expecting pretty good things from him adapting Lawrence Block with Neeson in the title role.

And I was not disappointed. Tombstones is a great introduction to unlicensed private detective Matt Scudder (Neeson) and the world he lives in, specifically starting with a story that is particularly suited to that sort of protagonist: The loved ones of drug dealers being kidnapped, ransomed, and then murdered anyway. The how of it is interesting but kept low-key enough to not be the while fulcrum on which the story rests. Instead, a character mentions Spade & Marlowe, and although 1990s New York is quite a different beast than Raymond Chandler's mid-century L.A., the feel is often the same, with Scudder and self-appointed apprentice T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley) plugging along, pulling threads until something unravels, meeting interesting characters along the way but not making them all so resolutely gray that villains cannot ever be summed up with "you're insane". It's a great-looking movie with some excellent performances.

There are moments when I suspect that Frank and/or Block go a little too far, getting somewhat over-enamored with words as writers are wont to do. I don't really blame them, because it works in some cases, like how the film keeps returning to an early defining moment for Scudder, transforming it from a thrilling chase (with throwback cool) to a tragedy as he grows more willing to open up to T.J. Toward the end, though, I have to admit that I was starting to develop a theory about writers developing an ironic dependency on AA and other twelve-step programs as too-easy ways to connect unrelated characters or give structure via the steps. There's also a very thorough housecleaning toward the end, past the point where it becomes a bit wearing.

Mostly good, though, and I'd like to see Frank & Neeson do more of these if they're interested. It's quality P.I. storytelling, and you hate to see a good team break up if there are more stories to tell.

But AlwaysA Master BuilderFantastic Fest Day #01Fantastic Fest Day #02Fantastic Fest Day #03Fantastic Fest Day #04
Fantastic Fest Day #05Fantastic Fest Day #06Fantastic Fest Day #07Fantastic Fest Day #08Last Sox WinA Walk Among the TombstonesThe Boxer's Omen

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