Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Fantastic Fest Catch-up, Second Half: Purgatory, From the Dark, The Guest, The Absent One, Haemoo, and It Follows

So, remember what I said in the last Fantastic Fest catch-up about how it can be pretty easy to finish a review even a couple months later if you did the capsule at the time? Sorry, Local God. Back in September, I wrote that you had some memorable scenes, but come December? Well, as I like to say when I'm trying to get festival reviews done as quickly as possible, sometimes things fall out the back of your brain.

I'd feel worse about it if I had attended on a Press Badge, but that wasn't the case; I was the third person to apply for one from my outlet and we're not exactly big enough to merit that. As it turns out, I wound up being the only one who posted any Fantastic Fest stuff to eFilmCritic, and while that kind of stings a little - there was an anxious week or two where fan badges sold out while I was waiting to hear if I would get a press badge - I'm not going to be bitter about it. Going to film festivals and writing reviews is half vacation and half avocation for me, and I am not in a situation where I can't afford to pay for my time off and hobbies. Plus, I would have felt bad if me getting a press pass meant that someone who needs it to do a job went without. Fantastic Fest is a big enough festival these days that freelancers - which, basically, is everyone writing about movies online - probably have to list their entire potential reach at every outlet they work for to qualify for a badge, and if they don't generate material for every one, well, that just may not have worked out.

(The need to freelance for multiple outlets is why, as much as I love seeing and writing about movies and idly dream of doing this for a living, it will only ever be just a hobby for me. The idea of having to put together five employers means I'm much better off financially writing SQL code from nine to five and then writing when I really should be sleeping. I'd probably be better if I had an editor and had to hone my skills in competition, but I'm not built for that.)

Besides, I'm as bad as anyone - when they couldn't give me a FF badge, the good folks at the festival offered me one for MondoCon, and my reply was along the lines of "wouldn't say no", even though I strongly suspected that I wouldn't get near the poster art festival running in parallel with Fantastic Fest unless I had some pretty terrible luck with the lottery system for movie tickets.

So, anyway, here are the links to the six reviews: Purgatory, From the Dark, The Guest, The Absent One, Haemoo, and It Follows.

I'll probably be one-and-done with Fantastic Fest; the way that these reviews wound up getting put on hold and dragged out of me doesn't indicate a lack of enthusiasm, but does show how busy fall gets, movie-and-other-things-wise. If I feel like bulking up on genre film festivals next year, there's the New York Asian Film Festival before Fantasia and Sitges around my early-October birthday (and let's face it, as much as folks like Austin, if your two options are a week there and a week on the coast of Spain...).

Now to try and catch up on everything else before the New Year!


* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #7 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

Though it's not uncommon to encounter one that makes a good case for its greater length at all, most horror movies would be best served running seventy-five to eighty minutes, long enough to set a story up, make the audience jump a few times, and stick a twist or two in without giving them the chance to realize that what's going on makes no sense. So let's give a cheer to Purgatorio, a nifty little thriller that doesn't have an ounce of fat on it.

It starts as any number of scary movies do, with Marta (Oona Chaplin) and her husband Luis (Andrés Gertrúdix) moving into a new apartment in a recently renovated building. Luis works the night shift, so Marta is unpacking on her own until Ana (Ana Fernandez), one of the very few other neighbors, is unexpectedly called into work herself and asks Marta to watch her son Daniel (Sergi Mendez). It doesn't take long for the kid to reveal himself to be more than a bit of a brat, with a taste for creepy and tasteless pranks. And if any of the weird goings-on are for real...

I didn't think much of Purgatorio for much of its first third or so; it starts off on a fairly slow burn, holding the sort of information that might normally be used as foreshadowing or myth-building back, so there didn't seem to be much story. The cast was doing the best that they could with artificial constraints, making for a few good moments, but it was looking kind of forgettable.

Full review on EFC

From the Dark

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #9 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

From the Dark has the feel of the first movie from a new horror talent, but Conor McMahon has actually been doing for a while, never quite having the same sort of breakout as others in the Irish horror scene. This probably won't be the one that leads a producer to give him a still-modest ten or twenty times the money something like this costs for his next project, but it's decent fodder for genre fans, with a couple high points worth recommending.

It's got a familiar starting point - young couple Mark (Stephen Cromwell) and Sarah (Niamh Algar) are driving to some relative via the back roads of Ireland when their car breaks down. It is, of course, the middle of a mobile phone dead zone. Mark sets out to find someone with a landline; after a while Sarah follows. Darkness falls, which is too bad, because whatever the owner of the farmhouse they found unearthed while digging peat greatly prefers the dark to the light.

Give McMahon credit for building a reasonably solid horror movie out of almost nothing here, but it really strains against its tiny budget. The premise of it - a light-averse peat bog zombie thing - requires darkness, but there are long stretches of this movie where I felt like I couldn't see anything either because of the dark or because there were lights being shone directly in my eyes, and it was more aggravating than eerie. McMahon and cinematographer Michael Lavelle could have shown much more of what was going on without losing the visceral sensation of stumbling around in the dark except for the blinding moments and reduced the frustration immensely.

Full review on EFC

The Guest

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #4 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

Initially, The Guest almost seemed like a step back for the team of writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard. It introduced a pleasant enough cast and set up a kind of familiar "stranger in the house is more dangerous than anyone knows" situation which the group was good enough to make go well, but it lacked the zing of You're Next. And then a thoroughly unremarkable scene starts a chain that gets Lance Reddick involved. After that, it's still the same movie in a lot of ways, but it gets bigger and crazier, just flat-out exciting.

The stranger is David (Dan Stevens), who introduces himself to the Petersen family as a comrade-in-arms of the son that died in the Middle East, saying he'd check in on them if he was ever in the area. The family - mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), father Spencer (Leland Orser), bullied younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer), and sister Anna (Maika Monroe) - react with the expected mixed emotions, but he seems sincere and helpful, though most don't realize how violently helpful he has been. So Anna isn't entirely suspicious when she calls the Army looking for a little more information, but David's name gets the called flagged and sent to a mysterious defense contractor, who dispatch a no-nuance troubleshooter (Reddick) to the area immediately.

And that's when the movie becomes a real kick, to be honest. It wasn't bad before, but it looked like it was going to be as close to a typical indie thriller as to team is capable of (or one of the things pointed at young adults built around the star's handsomeness, often just as bad), a very familiar story told competently but forgetably. Thankfully, it doesn't stop there; it gets just big, nuts, and self-aware enough to drop jaws in a good way. The kills are neither treated as a perfunctory narrative necessity nor something the audience is meant to whoop and cheer for, and while the filmmakers go for a very familiar plot point, the portion size is just enough that the action becomes bigger than life but not big enough for the audience to check out.

Full review on EFC

Fasandræberne (The Absent One)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #8 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

I swear I've heard of the Department Q books from somewhere, even though I haven't really been keeping up on detective fiction as much as I'd like. If they're going to keep cranking out movies this good in adapting them, I hope they make it over here as well as the Dragon Tattoo series briefly did. This second movie based on the series is a nifty, intense little thriller.

Department Q is a desk in the Copenhagen police department manned by two people, Carl (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares), that investigates cold cases. The one they had just been dropped on their desk is a doozy, a cop's kid who was murdered twenty years ago, with the dead girl's father always thinking that some of the evidence used to put the now-released Bjarne Thøgersen (Kristian Høgh Jeppesen) away as a juvenile didn't add up. As Carl and Assad reopen the investigation, they find the investigation leading in two very different directions - one toward rich and powerful Ditlev Pram (Pilou Asbæk) & Ulrik Dybbøl (David Dencik), the other toward homeless Kimmie Lassen (Danica Curcic).

It is kind of a familiar sort of detective story set-up - the too-intense sleuth with the partner who grounds him, the case that leads into decadence among the elite going all the way back to boarding school, the finale that, let's face it, involves a lot of things that would get these guys fired from the police force. The script by Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg (adapted from Jussi Adler-Olsen's novel) is not exactly a mystery story much of the time - while Carl & Assad do have to do some digging to figure out what happened, it's laid out fairly clearly for the audience, enough that the wave of details and subplots is appreciated for more than just filling time.

Full review on EFC


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #6 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

This one has received a lot of notice in part because of Bong Joon-ho's involvement as a producer and co-writer for long-time collaborator Shim Sung-bo, and if that helps it out, that's great. It's a nifty little movie, the sort of thriller that South Korea seems to do better than anyone else right now - the type that plunges the audience into much darker than expected territory and still keeps one on the edge of his or her seat out of genuine excitement.

It takes place in 1998, and times are tough in the port city of Yeosu, South Korea. Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yun-seok), the captain of a small fishing boat, has just been told that the owners intend to sell the old ship for scrap, putting him and his crew out of work. He would like to buy the Jeonjiho, but fish won't let them make that sort of money fast enough. Smuggling people in from the North will do it, but it's a job for which these grizzled fishermen are ill-suited; they almost lose young and idealistic hand Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun) when he dives into the sea to rescue Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri), one of just a couple women in the group. Still, what happens when a Coast Guard ship stops them for an inspection is far worse.

Haemoo is based upon a real incident, and comes to the screen by way of the stage, but those looking for an introspective film built around the characters talking about the moral dilemmas they face are in for a few shocks. There is not much opportunity for big, memorable speeches at all, and if Bong & Shim have done much to make the dialog of their (generally) unrefined working-class characters snappier, it doesn't make it to the subtitles. And that's probably good, because the film becomes a quite starkly horrifying thing in the blink of an eye, and it would not do for a glib or self-satisfied impression to come through.

Full review on EFC

It Follows

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #5 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

It Follows is genuinely weird in a few places, and there are moments when I think writer/director David Robert Mitchell had a great idea for a horror movie without any idea of how he would finish it. This thing is pure distilled "stalker who won't stop and whom nobody will believe exists" without much worry about mythology, and that's okay - it lets Mitchell really get at the emotion of never feeling safe again, and the ending he comes up with is, in its own way, kind of fantastic.

The premise is simple - as soon as Jamie "Jay" Height (Maika Monroe) has sex with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), his curse - a strange pursuer that only he could see - is passed on to her. It can take any form, but it is always coming, its intentions are not good, and it never stops. Soon Jay isn't sleeping, and is otherwise acting weirder than her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), their friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), or neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto) can ever recall.

What is "It"? Mitchell doesn't say, and in some ways that's terrific. His heroes are teenagers who don't know anything, and the setting - basically 1980s Michigan, although cars and some electronics are present-day models - doesn't give them instant access to information. It is a set-up that minimizes the importance of mythology while leaving plenty of room for the characters to try and figure stuff out. It is an impressively clever way of concentrating the story and with it the audience's attention in specific areas: Not just how good they are at figuring out puzzles, but how committed they are to doing the right thing. There's an easy out if Jay is willing to just think of her own safety, but the movie has been built to make that seem unlikely.

Full review on EFC

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