Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest Review: Blue Ruin


Blue Ruin

Fantastic Fest is a good time for me to watch movies that I worry will be outside my comfort zone. People who sit next to me may be amused to notice me peeking through my fingers a lot during the gorier scenes. I want to look away -- I can't. And then I go home and have to read M.F.K. Fisher or Jane Austen so I don't have nightmares about whatever I watched at the festival that day.

Austin connections of any kind help push me into movies I might not normally pick. Blue Ruin is a great example. The description made it sound a little too intensely bloody/violent for me. But then I learned that former Austinite Macon Blair stars in the movie. I'd seen Blair in a couple of Steve Collins films (Gretchen, You Hurt My Feelings) and felt I should give Blue Ruin a try. The gamble paid off beautifully, and Blue Ruin is definitely one of the top films I saw at the fest this year. It is indeed intense, bloody and violent ... and damned good.

The movie unspools carefully, letting the audience learn the backstory bit by bit instead of spelling it out in huge patronizing letters. Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car, not afraid to eat out of trash bins or bathe in houses where no one's home. He learns that a criminal is being released from jail after 20 years -- someone who destroyed his family and considering where he is now, probably his future as well. He decides it's time for revenge.

Reaffirming My Manifesto: A Fantastic Fest Mid-week Recap


Mood Indigo

I survived my long weekend of Fantastic Fest. I make it sound so arduous, when really it's one of my favorite weekends every year. It always feels like Christmas and Halloween rolled into one.

I prepped for the festival by attending the Austin Film Society's Moviemaker Dialogue with Harry Manfredini in mid-September. As the composer of Friday the 13th and other classic horror films, Manfredini was asked to comment on the current state of the genre he knows so well. "It tends to be a lot of mammary glands and no plot." The women's lib side of me thought, "Yeah!" but then I started hearing the conversation I inevitably have this time of year: "Isn't Fantastic Fest all gore and violence? Is that really your thing?"

To those who know me, gore and horror aren't my thing, but that's not what Fantastic Fest is about. Last year, I wrote an article about how I survive the fest. After having another wonderful weekend of crazy, over-the-top, and often moving cinema, I'm ready to say why I survive Fantastic Fest.

Fantastic Fest Review: Grand Piano


Grand Piano at Fantastic Fest

"Like Phone Booth, but with a piano." "It's what you'd get if Brian De Palma decided to rework Unfaithfully Yours."

Glib descriptions of Grand Piano like the ones above (overheard at Fantastic Fest) don't do the film justice, not at all. I'm not even certain they give you an accurate idea of what you're about to see. On the other hand, a plot summarization of the thriller makes it sound ridiculous ... and thanks to filmmakers and stars, it is instead breathtakingly suspenseful.

Grand Piano takes place during a concert of classical music. It begins as one of those potentially enervating movies about a pianist, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), giving his first public performance five years after a notorious failed concert. His wife (Kerry Bishe) is a famous actress whose career has eclipsed his, and who's obviously pulled strings to get the event set up, with help from a conductor friend (Don McManus). And just when you think you're in the middle of A Star is Born during the Norman Maine decline, the concert starts and out of nowhere, the movie shifts gears into a thriller with death on the line. That's not the only genre shift in the movie, either.

Fantastic Fest Review: Afflicted


Just when you thought a trope had reached the end of its shelf life, a new vision appears and adds more days to that trope's expiration date. This year's vision comes in the form of a new horror film called Afflicted. Afflicted tells the story of Derek (Derek Lee), and Clif (Clif Prowse), best friends about to depart for a round-the-world trip of high adventure.

The film opens with a set of vignettes (shot in the style of MTV's The Real World), where the friends describe to the camera their long-standing friendships and excitement for this round-the-world trip. The trip begins in Barcelona where the friends meet some musician friends on the final leg of their European tour, which wraps in Paris a few days later.

After their friend's final show, our protagonists find themselves in a seedy Paris bar where we are treated to the obligatory horror film hookup scene. After "working the program," Derek finds himself in the company of a beautiful Parisian girl and soon disappears to his hotel room. After having a few more drinks, Cliff and his musician buddies decide to play a prank on Derek by crashing into the hotel room they are sharing. After barging into the hotel room, Clif and his friends are shocked to find Derek unconscious and sporting a nasty shoulder wound. In true horror fashion, this is a hookup gone wrong. This attack affects the remainder of their trip as Derek slowly sinks into illness.

Fantastic Fest 2013 Dispatch: Scriptless Successes, Covert Disney Ops and Grand Suspense


Escape From TomorrowAfter three days of films and parties, it would seem the only bad choice at Fantastic Fest 2013 is to not be at Fantastic Fest this year. Response to almost all the movies has been overwhelmingly positive, and I found at the end of the second day that I enjoyed every selection more than the previous one.

I began the fest on Thursday with Coherence, an intriguing exploration into the human psyche when confronted with an impossible situation. Many of the best films over the years of the fest have been shot on zero budget with just a good idea and a great script. This one foregoes the script and instead let the actors truly go "method" as they were only provided with character notes about motivations or specific things they needed to say or do. Yet from these, the actors build performances that draw the audience into their nightmare.

One of the most feel-good selections ever witnessed by Fantastic Fest viewers, Detective Downs' title appears deceptively insensitive. It is, however, a rare film that never insults with boorish attitudes nor by handling its subject with kid gloves. The limitations imposed by Downs Syndrome are not lost on the titular detective, Robert Bogerud, but in the face of dismissal by everyone around him this hero persists in emphasizing his unique strengths. With a spot-on noir aesthetic, a dark plot, and some perfectly-chosen offbeat covers of familiar tunes, Detective Downs is still entirely worthy of a Fantastic Fest marquee, even though it will leave you smiling.

Escape From Tomorrow has received the strongest buzz of any movie at the fest this year, and there was no question I had to see it at the first opportunity. It is as notable for the way it was filmed as for the amazing story it presents. Except for a couple of shots, the film was shot entirely on the grounds of Walt Disney World's Epcot Center and Magic Kingdom parks, without the consent or knowledge of Disney. It is an achievement in underground cinematography, reviving techniques from the earliest days of filmmaking. Meticulously planned shooting schedules required the actors and crew to criss-cross the park to be able to shoot in the right daylight. Eerie, empty shots of a deserted park meant they had to be the first to arrive, running into the park  to get shots before anyone else turned up at the attractions. All this is used, however, to present a multi-layered story that is as ingenious as it is subversive. This is a mind-blowing look at the seedy underside of the "happiest place on Earth."

Eugenio Mira is a Spanish talent well-known to Fantastic Fest audiences as the composer of Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes. He's also premiered two films at the fest (The Birthday in 2005, Agnosia in 2010), neither of which has had much traction in the U.S. That is about to change. Starring Elijah Wood, John Cusack and Alex Winter, Mira's latest, Grand Piano, is a contender as one of the strongest films to ever play at Fantastic Fest. After a few minutes to introduce the players and set the stage, Grand Piano takes flight into thriller territory not as well explored since Hitchcock and a possible career-best performance for Elijah Wood. Grand Piano is not to be missed -- and since Magnet is releasing the film in the U.S. next year, there's no need to miss it.

Fantastic Fest Interview: Clay Liford, 'Slash'


Clay Liford

Local filmmaker Clay Liford's short film Slash (aka S/ash), which premiered at Dallas IFF in April, screens this week at Fantastic Fest. This wickedly funny short film portrays Sam (Arthur Dale), a 13-year-old boy who writes erotic fan fiction involving characters from the Harry Potter franchise. Not an unlikely premise when you think of Internet Rule #34: "If it exists, there's porn for it."

I met with Liford at a local coffeehouse where he frequently works on projects, and we spoke about Slash and its creation as well as other projects. Liford traveled this past week to New York for Independent Film Project (IFP) Film Week where the script for the feature-length version of Slash was included in a project. He describes his short film as "a very nerd movie about this subculture of fan fiction" and spoke of the challenge presented by references to copyrighted materials in an unintended light.

The selection of the name Slash contains a double meaning -- not only is "slash" a type of fan fiction that features homoerotic relationships (often male), but it's also a reference to Harry Potter's signature lightning-shaped scar.

Fantastic Fest Interview: Tyler Mager and Americo Siller, 'Witch'

Cast of Witch

The short film Witch is one of two Austin-shot shorts accepted for programming this year at Fantastic Fest 2013. It's screening as one of the Short Fuse selections. I spoke with local writer/directors Tyler Mager and Americo Siller about the production.

Slackerwood: Which of you had the idea for Witch? And what was the inspiration?

Tyler Mager: We came up with the idea together over numerous writing meetings. 

Americo Siller: It's a bar, a beer, a table, and a two-hour talk as Tyler scribbles everything down in a spiral notebook.

Mager: It started with an idea of classic supernatural monster mythology and how it would be looked at now. If a crazy psycho was going around eating the hearts of victims, most would automatically think it was, you know, some sort of serial killer. But what if it was a witch, an honest-to-goodness evil entity that lives through the life force of others. So we decided to maintain the realistic aspects of a potential serial killer while still staying true to classic witch mythology.

Fantastic Fest 2013: How to Get There, and Late-Night Dining


Lakeline Long Ago

Debbie has put together a great guide to food and drink in the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline area, but I realized Fantastic Fest attendees need some late-night options. They are few, but there are some. Debbie has already included RC Fowlers on 620, which has a kitchen open until 2 am, and the 24/7 Kerbey Lane Cafe at 183 and Anderson Mill Rd.

In addition, there's a Whataburger at 183 and 620, and another at Lakeline Blvd and Cypress Creek Road. Jim's at 183 and McNeil Rd is open 24 hours. They are all five minutes or less from Lakeline.

Now, why the above photo? The entire shopping center where Alamo Lakeline resides and Fantastic Fest 2013 will take place was this empty field just a year ago. Even many local fest attendees are unfamiliar with the new complex.

So I wanted to clear up some confusion for those who are unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable driving in the area. Alamo Lakeline sits at the transition where a free US highway (183) automatically becomes a toll road. Miss the last free exit or take the wrong onramp, and you won't even see a toll booth. Handy traffic cameras will shoot your plates and deliver a severely inflated bill months later for the privilege of having to drive a mile or two out of your way to get back on the proper path.

Fantastic Fest 2013: North Austin Cuisine and Libations


Fantastic Fest 2013

Fantastic Fest this year has moved to Alamo Drafthouse's largest facility at Lakeline -- ten screens and combined seating for 944 customers. Not only is the theater in a different part of Austin, but changes have been made to the standard Alamo Drafthouse menu at all locations to ensure customer satisfaction. Despite their popularity with many moviegoers, the potato skins and nachos have been removed from the menu as League and his culinary staff strive to improve consistency and quality of food items.

Eight days of consuming Alamo Drafthouse food during Fantastic Fest leaves many attendees craving local as well as inexpensive options. Although several of the restaurants nearest the new location are national chains like Fuddrucker's and Olive Garden, there's no shortage of great dining and drinking establishments accessible by vehicle within a three-mile radius, including several personal favorites of Slackerwood contributors. Although not reflected on the City of Austin Bike Map, Pecan Park Blvd has a bike lane that can be considered in the medium to high comfort range.

Navigating the area around Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline isn't too difficult once you get the "lay of the land." Remember that the theater is just northwest of the intersection of two major highways -- U.S. 183, which runs north/south, and Ranch Road (RR) 620, which becomes Toll Road 45 east of 183. Pay attention to signs to avoid tolls when driving north of the theater location by using "old 183," officially named South Bell Blvd.

Here's a few of our recommendations in the area, sorted by proximity to Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline:

Lakeline -- Immediate Vicinity

These restaurants are theoretically within walking or biking distance of Alamo Lakeline, but you want to exercise extreme caution around the high traffic zones of the U.S. 183 frontage roads and RR 620.

  • Smashburger (14028 N Hwy 183, Bldg. G-310) -- This newly opened burger franchise is a stone's throw from the front of the theater. Although not a personal favorite, its proximity ensures that I'll be stopping in to try a truffle mushroom Swiss burger.

Fantastic Fest 2013: News Roundup, Austin Ties and a Cry for Help


Fantastic Fest 2013 posterFantastic Fest is announcing all kinds of movies and events practically daily at this point. I leave my computer to get a sandwich and return to find out that Keanu Reeves is debating Tim League. Or that Errol Morris will be there, receiving an award and screening his latest film. Today I got a list of red-carpet events, giving me the chance to snap photos of celebrities from Danny Trejo to Elijah Wood.

First of all, the "whole" lineup of shorts and features has been announced, although I would not be surprised to see a few more announcements pop up in the next week. You might already have heard the news that Terry Gilliam's film The Zero Theorem will close the festival (please, let it be better than the other two Gilliam movies I've seen at Fantastic Fest), and that Metallica will be in Austin for the documentary Metallica Through the Never 3D, directed by Nimrod Antal, who also directed the Predators reboot Robert Rodriguez produced, and who appears in Machete (one of the bodyguards who shouldn't have tangled with the "gardener.")

I found a few Austin and Texas connections in the features and shorts, besides Machete Kills, the fest's opening-night film:

  • All the Boys Love Mandy Lane -- Actually this Central Texas-shot horror movie is available to buy for online streaming right now, but if you've been waiting six or so years to see it on a big screen (I was assigned to review it twice at Cinematical, and both times the release date fell through), Fantastic Fest has it for you.
  • We Gotta Get Out of This Place -- From the press release: "Three fun-seeking teenagers end up on the VERY wrong side of a bloodthirsty crew of rural crimelords." The feature was shot in Corpus Christi and Taft, Texas. Present and former Austinites involved include associate producers (and past Slackerwood contributors) Paul Gandersman and Nick Robinson, producer John Lang, first assistant camera Brian Nelligan and editor Luke Mullen. (Wondering if actor Jon Gries lives in Texas or if he just happens to pop up in a lot of Lone Star movies, including this one.)
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