THE PRINCE OF NOTHINGWOOD (France/Germany, dir. Sonia Kronlund)
Salim Shaheen is a filmmaker in Afghanistan who has made over 100 independent films, despite his country’s long history of conflict and strife. Documentary filmmaker Sonia Kronlund travels to Afghanistan to talk to Shaheen and his friends, collaborators, and fans as he shoots his latest film. Shaheen is an extremely charismatic person, and everyone seems to know him from his films, but he’s hardly a celebrity in the Hollywood sense–he wheels and deals to get locations, he’ll hop out of his car to help another car stuck on the road, and he’s had his share of close calls including an incident that killed several of his friends while in the middle of a film production. His tenacity is inspiring, but THE PRINCE OF NOTHINGWOOD is hardly a puff piece on an unusually large personality. Kronlund contrasts his determination with the horrors that take place on a daily basis in his country, and Shaheen’s wives and daughters are conspicuously absent from the picture (an issue the film addresses directly). It’s utterly fascinating to watch Shaheen at work in such circumstances, and inspiring to see how his simple films bring some little bit of joy to his audiences even in the midst of seemingly endless war.
THE LINE (Slovakia/Ukraine, dir. Peter Bebjak)
The border between Slovakia and Ukraine is months away from closing, and the people who make their living moving contraband over the line find their way of life in danger. Adam (Tomas Mastalir) runs a construction company as a front for his smuggling operation, work that has provided a comfortable living for his family. His longtime partner Jana (Eugen Libezniuk) wants to move into drug smuggling and moving illegal immigrants across the border, and as the closure looms Adam finds himself forced into an uneasy partnership with a local drug lord. As if things weren’t tough enough, his teenage daughter is determined to marry her boyfriend and his wife Sasa (Zuzana Fialová) is becoming uneasy with the family business and the toll it takes on their relationship. THE LINE is a solid crime drama with a fine cast and some nice character work, but there’s not much to set it apart from other films of its ilk other than its novel setting. Like DARKLAND (another film that played Fantastic Fest with a familiar story set against a unique cultural backdrop), this film could have spent a bit more time delving into the specifics of its characters’ cultures. There’s a bit of it here, including a riotous protracted wedding reception, but a bit more would have gone a long way toward making THE LINE something more than just a good crime drama.
RIFT (Iceland, dir. Erlingur Thoroddsen)
Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) gets a late-night phone call from his ex Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson), who has holed up in his family’s remote cabin and may be suicidal. Gunnar drives to the cabin to find Einar drinking himself stupid, but otherwise claiming to be fine. Gunnar decides to stay with him for a night to make sure Einar isn’t going to hurt himself, and that night someone tries to break into the cabin. As Gunnar and Einar wander around the barren land and abandoned buildings nearby, they talk through the issues that ended their relationship while trying to puzzle out who or what is stalking them at night. RIFT is the second feature from writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen, following up his debut CHILD EATER. Where that film was a gruesome, economical creature feature, RIFT is a glacially-paced psychological horror film with a thick atmosphere of almost palpable dread. It’s beautifully shot and the two leads give excellent performances, but at nearly two full hours it just takes too long to get where it’s going. Overall that’s a relatively minor complaint, as RIFT is as much a thoughtful study of its two lead characters as a horror film. It will be interesting to see where Thoroddsen goes from here.
SALYUT-7 (Russian Federation, dir. Klim Shepinko)
In June of 1985, the USSR lost contact with their satellite Salyut-7. In a daring and near-impossible mission, they sent two cosmonauts to dock with the dead satellite in hopes of restoring it to functionality and prevent the United States from capturing it. SALYUT-7 is a dramatization of the events of this real-life story, a slick, lavish Hollywood-style affair that recalls American studio films like Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13. The special effects are astonishing and seamless, the cast is great across the board, and the ticking-clock tension working against the launch of the U.S. shuttle is effective. Director Klim Shipenko expertly stages and executes a number of small, intense set pieces in the claustrophobic confines of the Salyut-7 and the rescue craft–anyone who has a problem with small spaces should give this film a hard pass. Anyone else looking for a handsomely mounted space drama based on actual events will find SALYUT-7 well worth their time.
VAMPIRE CLAY (Japan, dir. Sôichi Umezawa)
After a fire destroys a small school for art college prep, the school moves to a remote cottage in serious disrepair. While cleaning up the area around the cottage, the school’s teacher finds a bag of dried clay buried in the yard. She takes it into the school and the students use it for their sculpting lessons, but this is no ordinary clay. Soon the students and teacher are fighting for their life against a diabolical supernatural menace that can take over their bodies and warp itself and their flesh to its will. VAMPIRE CLAY is the feature directing debut of Sôichi Umezawa, an established special effects artist who has been working in the Japanese film industry for twenty-five years. This was obviously a labor of love for Umezawa, a small independent film packed with amazing and imaginative makeup and special effects work. It’s pretty fun when the action kicks in, but that takes a bit longer than it probably should have. The film also has a RETURN OF THE KING problem where it seems to hit a good point for a solid ending about five times in the final act. Still, while it’s narratively messy and a bit draggy when it gets mired in exposition, VAMPIRE CLAY is well worth a look for any fans of old school practical makeup and effects in their horror.
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