Published at: Sept. 19, 2007, 11:36 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
Well, it's that time of year again. Time to vanish into Fantastic Fest for 8 straight days of a cinematic joyride by the end of which I will be smiling, completely desensitized to violence and talking incessantly about the thirty five feature films I'll have seen (not to mention the twenty or so I've watched already.) Every year Tim League promises to aid in my quest to see it all by heaping more and more screeners on me in advance, and every year he, Harry and their crew of programmers book more and more films, making it harder and harder to see them all. This year I'm missing a handful, breaking my streak of only missing one narrative feature a year. And it broke my heart to have to cut the one's I have out. It's impossibly hard to cut films from your schedule you've heard nothing about, especially for another film which you've also heard nothing.
And if I made my schedule after having already seen 20 of the Fantastic fest films, how on God's earth can anyone else make these kinds of cuts? It is with that in mind that I'm writing up a few pieces of pre-coverage this year, hoping to help those of you still scratching their heads or needing a few recommendations. Also, many of you Austinites without badges should keep in mind that a lot of the films I'm writing about will no doubt be viewable with single tickets at the door. So maybe you'll come out and join us for a movie or two if your schedule kept you from getting a badge.
So what should you check out? How about…
Oh dear god. Thus far it is my very favorite movie of the festival (I've already watched it twice) and it is also the single most screwed movie of the fest. With both of its screenings opposite two of Harry's secret AICN screenings, odds are there won't be a VIP badgeholder in the place that will make it into this. And that's sad. Because This. Movie. Fucking. Rocks. Not rules. Rocks.
Wolfhound is straight up fantasy, a Russian sword and sorcery epic that doesn't just borrow, but steals whole hog from Conan. Born of a blacksmith, Wolfhound is made a slave when his family and village is slaughtered – but worry not, because he wins his freedom through combat and wanders the earth looking for revenge and his fortune. Regardless of the theft, there's still enough different here to delight almost any fantasy fan.
First of all, the film knows its budget limitations and they put all the money into all the right places. The set design is unique, the scenery gorgeous and Wolfhound has this killer bat animal companion named Ragged Wing who hangs out on his shoulder being both adorable and awesome at the same time. In true Conan fashion, Wolfhound makes his way through the story, slowly picking up party members until he's maxed himself out and finally can set about getting the revenge he so richly deserves…oh yeah, before he has to go head to head with a druidic goddess that his nemesis is trying to awaken.
Forget the fact that the guy's name sounds like something a 15 year old would name his 10th level ranger. This movie is a definite must for anyone who loves fantasy. Bloody, fun and with a flavor distinctly its own, Wolfhound is a film well worth your time this week – and heads and shoulders above the usual lame attempts at low budget fantasy. If you don't have a VIP badge, make sure this is your backup if you can't make it in to one of the secret screenings.
This one is paired up with a great little short called Monster Job Hunter, the story of a first person shooter videogame pro who finds himself out of his depth at a job interview. If the other shorts are half as entertaining as this, we'll be in for one hell of a year. Stunning visual effects and clever set design make this an admirable effort that I'm looking forward to watching again. Highly Recommended.
This one's kind of bizarre, but something that grew on me once I figured out what they were trying to do with it. Another Russian fantasy film, this is more along the lines of a very well thought out comic book film that wanted to tell the story of a troubled anti-hero, and feels very much like it was plucked out of the pages of a graphic novel. This is the story of a man who has a sword that forces its way out of his hand whenever rage takes hold of him and uses it to get back at those who have truly wronged him in life – which is what makes this different from most other films of its ilk.
Sword bearer is never quite clear as to how much you're supposed to sympathize with the main character. Is he a hero or a villain? Sometimes he's on the side of righteousness and other times he's kind of cold blooded. And ultimately, that's what drew me into falling for this film. It really is something in line with Heroes in which a normal person is granted fantastic powers in a world not prepared for them. But it is not afraid to go into some dark, very rated R places.
If you're a comic book fan or simply a fan of any kind of super powered fiction, this probably should find itself on your must list. Cool, stylish and pretty brutal at times, this is something unique – the kind of mature storytelling us comic book dorks always talk about wishing Hollywood had the balls to provide. Much like Wolfhound it's not perfect (there's a love scene sequence that goes on ridiculously long, almost to the point of parody), but it is exactly the type of film this festival was designed for. Recommended.
End of the Line
Throughout my career as a film critic, I have always strongly hesitated ever using the phrase "B-movie" because it tends to carry with it connotations like cheap, half-assed or just plain bad. And really, that's not what a B-movie is. Far too often that phrase is used as an insult – and I want to stress that this is not how I am using it now. Because End of the Line is a B-movie, in the best way possible. It is that film a was clearly made on a modest budget, with all the heart in the world, but is so far out in left field that there's no way in hell a Hollywood studio would have ever made it.
Having made its way around the world, playing a number of festivals, this thing has yet to find distribution – primarily because there isn't a studio out there that knows how to sell it. It's a film about a bunch of strangers riding the subway when the call goes out to what can politely be called a CULT of Christians who believe the end of the world is upon them and set out to kill every living soul they can find to prevent them from being possessed by the devil to join his army against that of heaven. Got all that?
So you have Christians. With crucifix knives. Stalking and killing people in subway tunnels.
Now why on earth would that be hard to sell?
Oddly enough, upon closer examination this film isn't nearly as blasphemous as it sounds – especially when you begin to wonder what if they're right? What if these people need to die for their souls to be saved? This film never for a moment shies away from that notion, and what you end up with is a film about a possible apocalypse that asks some very serious questions about faith and just what you would do if faced with judgment day. But it is one that plays by all the standard survival horror rules. So in place of zombie hordes you have very polite, singing Christians stalking you through subway tunnels. It's tense, creepy and overall pretty delightful.
Anyone who is a fan of Christian Mythological horror (movies like Fallen, Stigmata and their ilk), or anyone who is just tickled by the idea of a zombie movie with Christians in place of the living dead, owes it to themselves to write this in pen on their schedule. It is one of the few films I will have already seen that I will be watching again at the fest just so I can see it on the big screen with an audience. A truly inspired original effort that comes Highly Recommended.
Dog Bite Dog
Imagine, if you will, that Jet Li's character in Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) didn't have a heart of gold, and was in fact just a fucking monster. Now imagine his boss took the leash off, sent him on a mission to kill someone and that hit led to a completely insane, bloody chase with the cops that pits a disheveled cop on the edge against a brutal, animalistic, human killing machine. That's Dog Bite Dog.
This is a movie that gets better and better as it chugs along, the fights getting fiercer and more painful, and the emotion getting crisper and more heartfelt, as it climaxes with a sequence that you realize was probably the point of making the whole movie to begin with. Let me tell you, the last 20 minutes become so unhinged that if I were to describe to you what happens, I don't think you'd believe me. It is dark, nihilistic and completely raw. Fans of Hong Kong cinema MUST NOT MISS THIS. This is one of those movies that completely changes the way you look at this kind of movie. You've never seen a film quite like this before. If Ong Bak was crossed with Unleashed and crossbred with A Better Tomorrow you still wouldn't have a film with both the heart and raw brutality of this, but it would at least feel something it. Highly Recommended.
Do you really need a reason to put this on your schedule? Okay, here's one. Gary Oldman. Do you need another? How about Paddy Considine? If that doesn't do it for you, I don't know what will. To be honest and fair, I'm not going to fully review this film until later. The copy I had had no subtitles for the Spanish, which is a solid third of the dialog – and I know exactly enough Spanish to get me into a bar fight in Tijuana. Which means I WILL be seeing this one again just to find out what's being said. Backwoods is very straight forward and I doubt anything in the story is going to change much – but the movie is good enough to warrant watching it again just to dive in and find out what was missing.
This is going to be hard to talk about without referencing films like Straw Dogs and Deliverance as this film clearly owes its pedigree to them, but by the end it really becomes its own thing. An excellent character piece with a cast worth watching, this one comes Recommended.
Alright, I'll be back later with part 2, filled with some great horror movies and the mindbenders EVERYONE will be talking about this weekend.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.