Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest Review: Cold Steel


Cold Steel

It occurred to me halfway through Cold Steel (Bian di lang yan) that Fantastic Fest has no icon for "romance." There's "comedy" and even "date movie," which seems relegated only to ironic situations, but no "romance." I'm sure that's because some festivalgoers get that same squeamish feeling seeing "romance" next to a film that I get seeing "pet abuse." But David Wu's new feature is, in many ways, a very romantic film, from the actual love story between the war-torn main characters to the rich cinematography. As a man better known among the Fantastic Fest crowd for his association with hardcore action movies such as Bullet in the Head and A Better Tomorrow, his new film has a softer feel even amongst the sniper violence.

Set in China during World War II, Cold Steel focuses on the Japanese takeover of the country, and an elite sniper team tasked with blunting Japan's conquest. Young hero Wu Liangfeng (Peter Ho) is forced to join the team after his rebellion against an officer gets him in hot water (yes, there's a tea theme in the movie). He's already a very skilled sniper, learning from his hunting experience, as well as his tutelage from an American solider that literally fell from the sky. Wu's first mission becomes chaotic, setting off his personal journey towards love and brotherhood, as well as the horrors of war.

Fantastic Fest Review: The ABCs of Death


The ABCs of DeathSaturday night, Fantastic Fest held the U.S. premiere of the anthology film, The ABCs of Death. Like last year's Slacker 2011, this film featured 26 of the best, up-and-coming or already established horror directors showing off their creative ideas about death. The directors include Adam Wingard (You're Next), Ti West (House of the Devil), Noboru Iguchi (The Machine Girl, Robogeisha), Austin native Angela Bettis (May) and Adrián García Bogliano (Cold Sweat, Penumbra).

Before the screening started, Tim League took the stage to apologize about the print we were supposed to see. In the craziness of various festivals it had been invited to, they had neglected to send a print back to the Alamo for this first screening. All was okay, as they had a working copy of the film, although it was missing a few big edits that made it to TIFF. So while this was close to the final film, it wasn't nearly as tight nor did it have some corrected title cards, which really could help decipher some of the strangest deaths.

One of the most fun parts about The ABCs of Death is that the films are not preceded by what's going to be the killer in each episode. Each short will drag you through, making you guess the whole way through. Rather than having all the kills be something out of a horror movie, some very unique and obscure deaths are tossed in the bunch to throw you off. Sometimes, the killer isn't even an outside force but something in the characters themselves that led to their death. With all of this hype built up around what each death would be, some failed to reach the same successes as others. This shortfall could have been for lack of a good letter in some instances, but in others, I was left wondering why the director had gone that way.

The anthology film had its highs and lows. Because it includes so many different visions, it could only be expected that some would stand out more than others. My favorite letters of the bunch included: D, L, Q, T and W. I'll leave it up to you to guess what those could be.

Fantastic Fest Photos: Meeting the Heads of 'Machine Gun Woman'


Machine Gun WomanChilean director/writer Ernesto Diaz Espinoza has returned to Austin once again for Fantastic Fest to premiere his latest Latin-sploitation action film, Bring Me the Head of Machine Gun Woman. Accompanying Diaz Espinoza was the Machine Gun Woman herself, Chilean television star Fernanda Urrejola, as seen above on the red carpet. Diaz-Espinoza first visited Austin in 2007 for Fantastic Fest where he premiered Mirageman, along with a screening of his earlier project, the first Chilean martial-arts film Kiltro starring Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror.

With Bring Me the Head of Machine Gun Woman, Espinoza has crafted another humorously entertaining exploitation film that centers around a beautiful and mysterious hit woman clad in machine guns, stiletto boots and not much else. The Machine Gun Woman is tracked by other killers-for-hire including Santiago, a videogame-playing deejay who must deliver her to a crime boss or face his own death.

Fantastic Fest Review: Looper


LooperIf you haven't already seen Brick or The Brothers Bloom, then Looper is certainly a great way to introduce yourself to writer/director Rian Johnson. A frequent visitor to Austin, Johnson premiered Looper before a Fantastic Fest audience on Sunday night at the Alamo Drafthouse, the same location where he introduced The Brothers Bloom in 2007.

Looper is an unusual combination of sci-fi action and thought-provoking drama. This duopoly is fitting for the story, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays an assassin, aka a "looper," who must execute his older self --  portrayed by Bruce Willis -- as a condition of his employment and continuing survival, a task known as "closing the loop."

With a team of his fellow assasins hunting him, young Joe's only hope to survive and enjoy the wealth he has saved is to complete his mission, but his older self also has a mission to preserve the life he has lived. As he faces himself, young Joe is decisive and quick to act, with the advantage in the knowledge that he can't be killed by his older self. Old Joe, however, has the benefit of 30 years of training and experience as well as memories, though they are in a state of flux caused by his presence in the past.

Though time travel is essential to the existence of this story, it is not a hardcore time travel story. Old Joe speaks on behalf of Johnson to the audience when he says, "I don't want to talk about time travel!"  If you pick it apart, Looper could unravel, but a deep exploration into the effects of changing the timeline isn't the story Johnson wants to tell.

Old Joe is no android sent back to ensure the destruction of humanity. He's absolutely human and operates based on ultimately humane motives. Even Abe (Jeff Daniels), the head of the Looper organization, is not a malevolent agent. He has chosen and fostered unwanted young men who would otherwise face a short life of poverty, providing a father figure to them. Technology and time travel serve only as enablers for the human elements of the story.

Fantastic Fest 2012: Mid-Fest Buzz


Fantastic Fest 2012 tickets

We're halfway through Fantastic Fest 2012, and that means we still have four more days of amazing movies, friends and partying. Many filmmakers and industry types have left or will be leaving, to be replaced with second-half badgeholders. For those of you just arriving, we've got some tips and updates.

First, you must navigate the ticketing system. At 9:30 am you have two choices. You can stand in line at the South Lamar box office, or you can go online at and click the Reserve Boarding Passes button, which puts you in the ticket queue. When your turn comes up in the queue, you enter your badge number and then select from the available films in each timeslot for the day. When you're finished, click the button at the bottom of the page to return to the Fantastic Fest homepage. There will be no other confirmation that you are done. Also, you must still go to the box office to have your tickets printed and number assigned. (Don't be scared by the high numbers. You can get a pretty good seat even with a number above 200.)

Fantastic Fest Review: Black Out


Black Out Still PhotoFilms centering around a protagonist attempting to fill in the blanks of his/her past run the gamut from The Hangover to Memento, and in my opinion have been quite overdone. However, Dutch fillmmaker Aren Toonen delivers a fresh take with his comedic crime drama, Black Out. Toonen effectively weaves wickedly funny humor into a crime thriller that keeps viewers engaged.

Jos Vreeswijk (Raymond Thiry) wakes up with more than a hangover, as he finds a dead body in his bed the day before his wedding. Despite the realization that he has no memory of the last two to three days, Jos assesses and addresses his situation very quickly, as he is no stranger to dealing with a crime scene. Through the use of voiceover narration by Jos, we learn that 10 years ago he was a shakedown henchman for drug dealers, but he gave up a life of crime and his coke connoisseur ex-wife Coca Inez (Rene Fokker) for a career as a waiter and lovely fiancee Caroline (Kim van Kooten).

Jos must locate both the wedding rings and ten kilos of coke that have gone missing, while dodging a colorful and violent assortment of criminals including former Russian ballet dancer and kingpin Vlad "The Gay Basher" (Simon Armstrong), his rival Charles aka "Grandpa" (Edmond Classen), and the lovely and destructive duo of Charity (Katja Schuurman) and Petra (Birgit Schuurman).

Fantastic Fest Review: Antiviral



The future is a cold, sterile land of ennui and unhealthy celebrity worship. Or at least, that's the future as filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg presents it in his debut feature film Antiviral, which had its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest on Thursday night. I wish I could say it all seemed unbelievable, but it did not.

The characters in Antiviral are obsessed with either commodity or celebrity, and sometimes both. Young Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) appears to be perpetually ill -- he pops a thermometer in his mouth every morning -- and as the movie progresses, it's revealed that this isn't because the air of the future is full of contagions. People want to be like celebrities so much that they are willing to have viruses cultivated from celebrities' illnesses injected into them, so they can experience the exact same diseases as the beautiful people. The viruses are "owned" by corporations that patent them and prevent them from being contagious, out of a desire not for community health but their own wealth. Think of GMO, but with flu instead of corn.

Syd is a salesman at The Lucas Clinic, which has an exclusive contract for all diseases contracted by blonde celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). And if Syd wants to smuggle out a disease to resell on the black market ... what better way than to inject it into himself?

Fantastic Fest 2012: The Many Faces of Zack Carlson


Zack CarlsonOf all the film experiences Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas has to offer, the most consistent and long-running are the weekly series Music Monday, Terror Tuesday, and Weird Wednesday. Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen are the Alamo Drafthouse's "Cult and Culture" programmers behind the latter two, scouring the earth -- sometimes literally -- for unique and seldom seen 35mm prints to screen. These films could never be described as highbrow art, but have an appeal to film enthusiasts who want to see films that challenge the norm and are outside the comfort zone for mass appeal. I'll never forget the first time I saw Carnival Magic, nor the story about how Carlson secured a copy of a print. Watching that surreal movie with a Weird Wednesday audience is a memorable adventure worth experiencing.

Zack Carlson is more than just a film programmer, with many creative collaborative projects not just in movies but across multiple mediums including books and cartoons. He's written, acted in and produced film projects. This year at Fantastic Fest, attendees can see the premiere of the documentary he produced, The American Scream. Directed by Michael Stephenson (Best Worst Movie), this film follows three households in sleepy Fairhaven, Massachusetts as they dedicate thousands of hours along with a seemingly infinite amount of creative energy to capture the Halloween spirit in their haunts.

I recently spoke with Carlson at his Halloween-themed home about The American Scream, as well as about other projects he's involved with including the American Genre Film Archive and Fantastic Fest.

Fantastic Fest at Any Age: Breaking the Stereotype


Steve DaigerContinuing our theme of crushing Fantastic Fest stereotypes (see my previous look at women at the fest), today I'm talking with a man whose many years have given him a great context in which to enjoy the festival. Steve Daiger (yes, he is the author's father) recently turned 70 years old and proudly proclaims his place among that minority of Fantastic Festgoers who remember when movie tickets were $1.50.

Hailing from Canton, Ohio, Steve is a research scientist and geneticist at the University of Texas in Houston. Since 2010, he has taken that weird and wondrous pilgrimage to Austin alongside his younger counterparts and has never looked back. Here's what Steve has to say about his own unique festival experience.

Why did you decide to start Fantastic Fest-ing?

My son-in-law had always talked to me about the festival. It seemed like something I might enjoy, but I definitely wouldn't have gone without encouragement from him and all my friends in Austin. And, they were 100% right. This is my third year and every year I've enjoyed the current year more than the previous year

What do you enjoy most about the festival?

Being surprised. Seeing something I wouldn't normally see. Something completely out of left field that is interesting and holds my attention.

What are some past films you've enjoyed?

I think like everyone I really enjoyed Juan of the Dead. I thought it was a very funny movie and great action adventure. But, it also showed something of Cuba that you could never see otherwise and really fits the idea of a surprise.

I had seen anime, but I was blown away by Summer Wars. I thought it was a beautifully crafted movie, but what really struck me was the depth of story in terms of the family. It was just a wonderful thing to see.

And then, I have some secret guilty pleasures I don't think I'm going to say out loud.

Fantastic Fest 2012 Day Two: Devils, Motors and Combat Girls



Fantastic Fest is now past day two and lots of great things have happened. Thursday included the premiere of Frankenweenie (Rod's review) and screening of Antiviral, where director Brandon Cronenberg decidedly wanted to keep away from comparisons to his father. I didn't stay for the final film of the day so I could be prepared to spend the entirety of Friday at the fest.

I started out Friday morning at the screening of Here Comes the Devil, which screened along with a Norwegian short, Videoboy. The short was very similar in tone to the feature that followed it. Videoboy takes you along with two young boys, as they visit a mysterious kid who lives in a household with a library of VHS tapes. Beyond the library stands a hallway, leading up to the top floor where it's forbidden to go. The overwhelming sense of dread as these boys try to figure out what's going on upstairs works well with Here Comes the Devil.

Syndicate content