Since I was lazy and did not bother writing up day-by-day dispatches from Fantastic Fest like other, more professional Daily Grindhouse writers, I am only now playing catch up with my festival wrap up. Because this piece ballooned to such a ridiculous length, it will be posted in segments broken up to cover two days at a time. The following is part four.
NOTE: Since this final part is so late, it includes reviews of films that are just now rolling out in limited release or on Blu-ray. Where applicable, it is pointed out if a film is now available for viewing beyond the festival circuit or when the films are expected to be released.
I feel like I got my second wind on day seven. Or it might have been that my body had adjusted to the brutal heat, constant ingestion of beer and breakfast burritos, and lack of sleep. Either way, I woke up early on that next to the last day of the festival and didn’t immediately wonder if I was going to die. You have to call that a win, right?
My rejuvenated mindset was more than rewarded by the first film of the day.
LIZA THE FOX FAIRY (2015, Hungary) wound up being my second favorite film of the Fest after GREEN ROOM. Both films feature numerous deaths, but LIZA could not be more different in terms of style, tone, and lack of Patrick Stewart as a murderous white supremacist.
Liza (Mónika Balsai) is a private nurse caring for the elderly Márta (Piroska Molnár) in late ’60’s/early ’70s Budapest. Liza is almost thirty-years-old and desperate to fall in love, but she is not unhappy. A naturally sunny person, she truly loves Márta, who returns Liza’s affection by teaching her Japanese (Márta’s dead husband was the Japanese ambassador to Hungary) and playing her songs by Tomy Tani, a dead ’60s Japanese pop singer.
Unknown to either Liza or Márta, Tomy (David Sakurai) is haunting the apartment in which they live. Liza can see him, but believes he is simply a figment of her imagination that she imagines singing to her when she plays his music. But Tomy is very real—in the spectral sense—and he has fallen in love with Liza. He just cannot tell her because not only does she not believe him, he is unable to speak unless singing one of his songs that Liza is always playing.
Naïve to the point of near-absurdity, Liza believes her life is going to mimic a paperback romance she has read where the heroine meets the love of her life on her thirtieth birthday in a fast food restaurant. When Márta encourages Liza to go out and try to fall in love, she decides to go wait in the Hungarian knockoff version of a McDonald’s for her destiny to be completed.
Of course, Liza’s love never shows up. But even more disastrous is Tomy’s jealous rage at Márta for encouraging Liza to go out in search of a lover. Tomy causes Márta to fall out of bed and die in Liza’s absence. Liza is heartbroken and things get worse when she meets Márta’s horrible family. Intent on claiming as much of Márta’s estate as they can, the family immediately kicks Liza out of the apartment. Only Henrik (Zoltán Schmied), Márta’s handsome nephew shows Liza even the smallest amount of kindness. When the family discovers Márta willed her apartment to Liza, they immediately accuse her of murder.
Zoltán Zászlós (Szabolcs Bede Fazekas), a stoic police officer with a taste for peanuts and Finnish country and western music, is assigned the case. In order to observe Liza, he rents a spare room from her and is witness to her attempts to find love that usually end in the deaths of all the men she goes on a date with. All these deaths are ruled accidents, but Tomy is of course behind them, making sure that Liza remains single as he tries to enact a sinister plan.
Liza eventually sets her sights on Henrik, remembering his half-hearted defense of her to the family as proof that he might be her true love. But Tomy manages to place the idea in her head that she is a “Fox Fairy,” a woman who is destined to bring death to any man who falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Zoltán sees that Liza seems to simply be the victim of tremendously bad luck and slowly falls for her, causing Tomy to turn his sights on him.
I wish my description of the plot setup for the film could be even one percent as entertaining as what co-writer/director Károly Ujj Mészáros managed to create. Much of LIZA could have been quirk overkill. Instead, it is one of those rare comedies that keeps nailing joke after joke while also making the audience care about the characters.
Much of this is due to the performances by Balsai, Fazekas, and Sakurai. Each actor commits to their place in this universe and never winks at the camera. Balsai provides an unflagging optimism for Liza in a way that is infectious. Instead of being cloying, she is sweet, funny, sexy, and adorable, all while keeping the character grounded in a believable melancholy as she buys into the idea that she might be cursed. Fazekas has a perfect deadpan face for his increasingly physical role. His part may largely be one (very funny) joke, but as his accidents pile up into near-death experiences, his gently affable demeanor keeps him a somber, yet engaging, presence. Sakurai gets the showiest role and runs with it. Alternating between campy song-and-dance numbers and outright malevolence as Tomy grows more desperate to keep Liza for himself, he has charisma to burn—an even more impressive feat when you consider much of his performance is pantomimed.
The world these characters inhabit is striking to the point that it would overwhelm a lesser script and cast. The production and costume design look like a kaleidoscope exploded. And I mean that in the best way possible. Mészáros exploits the vibrant colors and designs for maximum effect, creating a world that is so stylized that it becomes perfectly reasonable to the audience that the film gets to have scenes of ridiculous supernatural elements and smartly subversive deconstructions of those same fantastical twists coexist. The sets, costumes, and plot of the film tell us we are not in a realistic world, but the emotional connection to the characters is real.
It is hard to overstate how laugh-out-loud funny and sweet a movie LIZA THE FOX FAIRY is. I hope it finds decent distribution because it deserves as wide a release as it can get.
[LIZA is scheduled to slowly roll out in very limited U.S. distribution in early 2016 and is expected to be Hungary’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. This does not mean it will make the short list of nominees, but should make it a bit more accessible for American audiences looking for something original and fun in the usually drab late Winter/early Spring movie desert.]
Coming off the overwhelming high of LIZA, I suppose it had to happen that the next film would feel like a letdown, but I could not possibly have expected what a dud I was walking into.
RIVER (2015, Canada) is about as innocuous a title as you can get for a film. While this tale of murder, drugs, and a desperate protagonist fleeing from the authorities is not quite as flavorless as its title, it is not far off.
John Lake (Rossif Sutherland) is an American doctor working with a Doctors Without Borders-like organization (the organization is never named) in Laos. Lake is one of those intense, young movie doctors who takes the death of every patient he is unable to save as the end of the world. Forced by the head of his clinic to take a couple of weeks off to calm down, Lake makes the journey to a small resort town.
While the plan to relax initially seems to work, Lake still exhibits signs of not being able to completely let go of his angst-ridden behavior. He is clearly a heavy drinker who is bordering on alcoholism. Not surprisingly, it is an over-abundance of booze that helps lead him into trouble.
Spending an evening at a bar, Lake watches in disapproval as a couple of young men—Australian tourists, as it turns out—force drinks down the throats of two teenaged Laotian women. Lake mentions to the men that he thinks the women have had enough to drink and the tensions between the men immediately start to build. The tourists leave with the women, Lake has several more drinks with a friendly bartender and then staggers off into the night.
On his way back to his small apartment, Lake comes across one of the tourists and one of the young women alongside a river. The woman is passed out and the tourist is (of course) in the process of sexually assaulting her. Drunk and enraged, Lake attacks the man, eventually beating him to death and letting the body float off in the river. Believing he has saved the woman and acted in self-defense (although the film presents it as a pretty clear-cut case of manslaughter), Lake is horrified when the woman wakes up, finds her panties have been removed, and immediately assumes he was the one who tried to rape her.
Panicked and not wanting to face the daunting challenge of explaining what happened to the police force in a Communist dictatorship, Lake goes on the run. Throwing a few things in his bag and gathering together what little money he has on him, he goes on a desperate expedition to make his way across the Mekong River and into Thailand before he is captured.
What follows should be a white-knuckle exercise in suspense. It is clear that writer/director Jamie M. Dagg intends it to be a tense, grim, wrongly-accused man on the run thriller. But he wastes the potentially interesting twist in the formula of Lake actually being guilty of murder. Instead, RIVER turns into a slog as it tries to ponder the morality of Lake’s actions, makes surface-level attempts to understand what demons drove him to violence, and gives lip service to the idea that international politics can muck up the lives of street-level peasants in a country like Laos. If the film had succeeded at working as a thriller, those themes—even with as shallowly as they are presented—could have added some nice layers to thinks about. But because the genre elements fall flat, those attempts at depth just feel misguided and pretentious.
It is rare to find a film so packed with incidents, yet so lacking in drama. Even as Dagg obviously tries to inject suspenseful set-pieces into RIVER, there is never a sense of tension or even escalation of events. The film quickly becomes repetitive as Lake encounters obstacles and then figures out a way—usually through luck—to get around them and continues on until the next obstacle. But the problem is that there is clearly only one endgame for Lake—and the film, so Dagg’s script feels like a ton of wheel spinning to get nowhere interesting.
And make no mistake, the script and direction are the major problems with the film. Not only does Dagg fail to justify the tedious nature of Lake’s journey, he has no handle on who the man is as a character. Sutherland’s portrayal is fine—suitably panicked, sweaty, and righteously angry in equal measures. But Lake is a less a character and more a plot device to be put through the wringer. Unfortunately, Dagg turns his ordeal into a consistently dull set of luck and coincidences. Even worse, Dagg wastes what had to be some difficult location shooting in Laos. It is not easy to film in a closed-off country that is actually ruled by a Communist dictatorship. If you go to that trouble, why would you then use those locations in the banal ways that RIVER does? I have no answer for that question in the same way that Dagg does not seem to know why he wants to tell the story he has written.
[RIVER currently has no distribution plans.]
I had no clue what to expect out of my next film of the day. All I knew about it was that it starred Mads Mikkelsen. Being a big fan of Hannibal, I wondered if I could ever again see Mikkelsen as any character other than Hannibal Lecter. His performance as such an iconic character was so strong and fleshed-out, I wondered if he would be pigeon-holed as a brilliant psychopath for the rest of his life.
MEN & CHICKEN (2015, Netherlands) quickly put my questions about Mikkelsen to rest. Almost unrecognizable under a curly wig, bushy mustache, and a surgical scar from a repaired cleft palate, Mikkelsen gives a broad comedic performance that is only one of the many delightful aspects of this strange, melancholy, and funny film.
Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mikkelsen) are very unhappy brothers. Gabriel’s most recent girlfriend has broken up with him because of his inability to father a child—an apparent pattern in his relationships. Elias is a chronic masturbator who has disturbing dreams where he turns into a large bird and attacks Gabriel. Gabriel is quiet and intellectual, but has a terrible gag reflex that takes over when he becomes emotional. Elias is brash and so dumb, one has to wonder if his idiocy could possibly circle back around to make him some sort of savant. The two men are not only different in temperament, but also physical appearance as Gabriel’s bald head looks positively anemic when compared to the hirsute Elias. The only trait identifying them as brothers are the matching scars from their repaired cleft palates.
When their father passes away after a long illness, the brothers are left a video tape in which he reveals that he was not their biological father. In actuality, he was a friend of their real father, a disgraced scientist who lives in seclusion on a sparsely populated island. Deciding to seek out their biological father, Gabriel and Elias travel to the island where they find a few locals who seem a little ashamed of their crumbling community and treat their father’s residency there as an embarrassment. But the real surprise is that Gabriel and Elias have three brothers who live in a sprawling, abandoned hospital on the island. And wouldn’t you know it? They all have cleft palates.
To say any more would be to ruin some of the more surprising twists in a film that ends up very far from where it started. Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen has several cards up his sleeve and uses them at perfect moments to reset the narrative and change what the audience thinks they know about the characters.
Thankfully, Jensen does not rely solely on surprising plot twists to keep the audience engaged with his film. There is a give and take to Gabriel and Elias’ relationship that goes from earnest and touching to slapstick comedy and mean-spirited violence in a flash. When these two men, clearly lost in their own internal angsts, are forced to make room in their family for three more brothers they never knew about, the strain leads to a surprising power struggle. While Gabriel and Elias always seemed to fight, this new dynamic seems to threaten their relationship at a base level that shakes both men and leaves them frightened that they have lost each other forever.
Lest this all sound a little heavy, Jensen relies heavily on lowbrow sight gags, slapstick violence, and casual shattering of taboo subject matter to lighten the mood. In many ways, the film feels like a surreal Three Stooges short where the boys confront an existential crisis and deal with deep-seated psychological issues the only way they know how—with an eye gouge. It is hard for me to think of a higher recommendation than that.
[MEN & CHICKEN will receive theatrical distribution from Drafthouse Films at an undetermined point in 2016.]
I cannot imagine the amount of research and work that went into my next film of the day. Of course, that research largely amounted to watching thousands of hours of pornography. But IN SEARCH OF THE ULTRA-SEX (2015, France) is not a documentary about the adult film industry. It is a bit of silly, smutty fluff that gets a decent amount of mileage out of its one joke premise. Unfortunately, that mileage only takes it to around the thirty minute mark and the film is a full hour long.
Writers/directors Nicolas Charlet and Bruno Lavaine piece together footage from numerous adult films of the ‘70s and ‘80s to create a sci-fi spoof about a world gone insane with sexual desires and the crew of a spaceship trying to stop the carnal epidemic before it destroys the human race. Or something like that.
As should be expected from a project like this, a juvenile sense of humor propels the film. Charlet and Lavaine dub new dialogue and sound effects (the filmmakers provide all the voices and sounds) over the footage. Rapid bursts of exposition reveal a plot that does not come close to coherence as the filmmakers constantly go for the most obvious joke, often mocking the silliness of their film as it goes along.
This approach is entertaining enough for a while and occasionally provides some inspired gags, but eventually it is too thin to hold interest. Goofs on the ridiculous costumes and cheap special effects used in some of the sci-fi adult films become redundant and the silly voices Charlet and Lavaine use for nearly every character start to grate on the nerves. Even more damning, the filmmakers “cheat” by using footage from the non-pornographic SAMURAI COP as connective tissue to bring their plot to semi-coherence.
A definite party movie, IN SEARCH OF THE ULTRA-SEX is best viewed with a drunken crowd. Seeing it with a large and appreciative audience almost certainly helped me to be more entertained than I should have by the film, but it is not enough for me to recommend it.
[IN SEARCH OF THE ULTRA-SEX currently has no U.S. distribution announced.]
My final day at Fantastic Fest 2015 started out with a repeat viewing of DARLING. The film was even more effective the second time around and had me in good spirits as I went into two of my most highly anticipated films of the Fest.
Saying Sion Sono is prolific almost feels like I am underselling the always busy and offbeat Japanese writer/director. Working at a pace that makes fellow countryman Takashi Miike look lazy, Sono already had made one of the best movies of this year with the truly unique hip hop musical TOKYO TRIBE (2015, Japan) under his belt for 2015 and four more films completed and awaiting stateside release. In the last two years, Sono seems to have hit is peak, so I had high hopes for LOVE & PEACE. While the movie does not quite live up to the high expectations I placed on it that does not mean it is a disappointment.
Ryoichi is a put upon office worker who is despised for his cowardly, socially-awkward manner. So hated is Ryoichi, not only is he a pariah in his workplace, but television commentators pick apart his life as they criticize him. It is through these commentators that we learn of Ryoichi’s failed attempt to start a band when he was a teenager and how that failure has defined his life, turning him into the cowardly office drone he has become.
Desperate for companionship, Ryoichi buys a baby turtle that he names Pikadon, not realizing that word refers to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. Confiding in Pikadon his plans to become a huge rock star, Ryoichi has his first apparent moments of happiness in his entire life.
Not surprisingly, that happiness is short-lived. Ryoichi’s bullying co-workers make fun of him when they discover Pikadon. Panicked, Ryoichi flushes Pikadon down the toilet and instantly regrets his decision. Heartbroken, Ryoichi is practically a zombie when the members of a garage band attempt to embarrass him by putting him in front of a small audience to sing.
Instead of embarrassing himself, Ryoichi sings a touching ballad about Pikadon, stunning the band and a record company executive who just happens to be in the audience. It does not take long before Ryoichi and the band have been signed to a label. Ryoichi is given the stage name “Wild Ryo” and has his song’s lyrics and title changed to “Love & Peace.” Before long, the band is being manipulated into stardom by their label. While Ryoichi’s dreams seem to be coming true, he develops the ego of a spoiled rock star and begins making plans to branch off on a solo career.
While Ryoichi is living his rock star dream, Pikadon winds up in the lair of an old man named Pa (Toshiyuki Nishida). Pa lives underground next to the sewer with a huge menagerie of abandoned pets and discarded toys. While this living arrangement is not exactly normal, it gets downright surreal when you figure in the fact that the toys are all sentient, talking characters. It seems that Pa has magical concoctions that grants them actual life.
Sono gives a few of the main toys enough personality that their individual stories (a toy cat that is bitter and cynical as the result of being thrown away, a doll who clings to the belief that her owner is looking for her, etc.) resonate with the viewer. When Pikadon accidentally swallows one of Pa’s magical pills, he gains the ability to make Ryoichi’s dreams come true (the real cause of his sudden run of good luck), but the side effect is that the turtle grows at a rapidly accelerated rate.
As Ryoichi’s wishes grow bigger, so does Pikadon. Portrayed as a growing Kaiju, Pikadon is clearly a puppet, but all the other characters react to him as though he is just an abnormally large turtle that has the tendency to hum instantly-addictive melodies that become hit songs for Ryoichi.
The film is at its best as Sono sets up the two plot threads of Ryoichi’s success and Pa’s inability to deal with Pikadon’s rapid growth. But when it comes time for these two plot threads to intersect, the results are strangely anticlimactic. Most of the problems with the film’s third act come from the character of Ryoichi. Instead of being the underdog who succeeded and had to learn a lesson about remaining humble when presented with wealth and fame, he comes across as a sad-sack who never stands up for himself and then acts like a petulant child when his magical turtle grants him all his greatest wishes. His storyline plays out like an episode of Behind the Music with raging egos, band breakups, evil music industry executives, etc. It’s a surprisingly straight-forward character arc for a Sono film.
Thankfully, the Pikadon/Pa story is a strong piece of emotional storytelling that goes to some dark places before Sono pulls back just shy of going fully bleak. This half of the film is by turns magical and melancholy, giving the audience more interesting and sympathetic characters in Pa and his toys than Ryoichi and his bandmates.
Despite my complaints about Ryoichi’s arc and the rote skewering of pop stardom, LOVE & PEACE is mostly successful because of the huge heart that Sono gives Pa and Pikadon. I was never quite certain where their story was going, but I desperately wanted them to find a happy ending. That I felt that strongly about even two characters in the movie is the mark of superior filmmaking.
[LOVE & PEACE will receive a limited U.S. theatrical release starting in January 2016.]
My final film of the day — and the Fest — was BONE TOMAHAWK (2015, United States). I had been looking forward to this one since word of a horror-western starring Kurt Russell first hit my radar. Alas, while the film is pretty to look at and the dialogue has a similar musical ring to the stellar writing on Deadwood, the end result is a mixture of tonally odd scenes—some horrific, some awkwardly charming, and some that simply ramble on for far too long—that never gel.
The setup is as simple as they come. In the very late 19th century, a group of feral cannibals kidnap Samantha (Lili Simmons), the unofficial doctor of a small town. Her husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), a trail drive foreman recovering from a broken leg, teams up with town sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a borderline sociopath who enjoys bragging about how many “Indians” he has killed. This small group heads into the wilderness on the trail of the cannibals, leaving unspoken the real possibility that Samantha is already dead.
There are no real surprises in BONE TOMAHAWK and that is the film’s biggest problem. Once you get over the initial novelty value of seeing a western on the big screen again, the film is mostly another warmed over rehash of a very similar plot (damsel in distress, the group of heroic men determined to rescue her, etc.) that has been used almost since narrative filmmaking began. But writer/director S. Craig Zahler provides at least two very interesting characters, three surprisingly gory set-pieces, and coaxes different but equally affecting performances out of Jenkins and Fox.
The stand out performance and character comes from Jenkins as Chicory. At first, he seems like simply an old man in the early stages of dementia who Sheriff Hunt has anointed as the “backup deputy” out of simple affection without giving him any actual responsibilities. But while the other characters seem to initially see Chicory as a lost old man to be humored, he proves his usefulness over and over as the rescue party marches into untamed territory. Jenkins is funny, gentle, and charming in the role, playing Chicory as a man who has survived the American Civil War, outlived his beloved wife, and has gained wise perspective from frontier life without ever losing his innocence.
Brooder, at first glance, seems to be the exact opposite of Chicory. He is cool, calm, and educated, but nurses a deep racial hatred for Native Americans and casually comments on how many of the married women in town he has had affairs with. He is also a man of violence, casually gunning down two men who approach his camp without first finding out if they truly posed a threat. But where Chicory reveals himself to be tougher than his initial appearance lets on, Brooder shows more humanity as events become grimmer. Fox is impressive in his performance. He plays Brooder with a heavy helping of arrogance and menace, but also manages to lighten scenes with an ironic smirk that turns menacing with barely an effort.
Unfortunately, much of the heavy lifting of the plot is handled by Wilson and Russell. Wilson plays everything with the single note of intense purpose, which is understandable given the desire Arthur has to rescue his wife. But Wilson’s performance also becomes a weight that holds the film back as Zahler spends too much time observing Arthur morosely riding a horse, morosely limping along a trail, and morosely sitting around. The film runs over 130 minutes and could have been pared down to under two hours simply by trimming unnecessary shots of Arthur pouting.
Russell has spent so much of his career stealing scenes and using his natural charisma to save bad movies, it is startling to see him play Sheriff Hunt so straight. An actor who can never phone in a performance, he does get in at least one truly badass scene, but he largely fades into the background of the ensemble. It seems a crime to cast as magnetic a screen presence as Russell and then use him to simply ask questions of other characters who then spout some exposition.
BONE TOMAHAWK winds up a frustrating film. The action beats are brutal and exciting. There are moments of real wit and insight into the psychological make up it takes to survive a violent land. The film often looks beautiful as cinematographer Benji Bakshi captures a sun-drenched, dusty desert landscape that is as threatening as it is inviting. But it is also far too long with a second act that lasts an eternity without accomplishing much. Other than a handful of good dialogue exchanges and an ambush by bandits, the trek by the rescuers is an absolute slog that feels as punishing to the audience as it does to the characters.
Despite its numerous flaws, I find myself giving it a hesitant recommendation. It has a classic setup, the look of the cannibals is a truly original design, the ending is satisfyingly grisly, and it boasts a supporting cast made up of long line of genre veterans (Sid Haig, David Arquette, Sean Young, Michael Paré, James Tolkan, Fred Melamed). It is an easy movie to appreciate and even like, it simply could have been so much more had Zahler excised at least thirty minutes of the dreadfully slow middle.
[BONE TOMAHAWK received a theatrical and VOD release in October from RLJ Entertainment and is now available on Blu-ray from Image Entertainment.]
With the end of BONE TOMAHAWK and the boozy final night party, Fantastic Fest 2015 came to an end. I will be back next year and promise to be faster when it comes to posting my updates.