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Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. If you’d told me a month ago that I’d be in Austin for Fantastic Fest, I would have told you that, regrettably, that was not the case. And if you told me that I’d be on a jury handing out an award for best feature film at the festival, I would have wondered what you were smoking and where I could get some. But here I am, back in Austin, excited by the films I’ve seen already and the ones I’m still going to see, and I couldn’t be happier if I tried. It’s all thanks to Grande Rojo, of course. We were talking recently, and he determined that my constant state of stress and anxiety was running a little higher than normal, and he told me to block out the dates because I was going to have to come to Texas. Sure enough, Roland put the trip together in a hurry, and I moved a few things around to make sure my schedule was clear, and I rolled out of town on Wednesday morning, the day before the festival was set to start. To help me get ready for jury duty, I was sent screeners for all eight of the films that are in competition for the Fantastic Features section of the festival. ASTROPIA. SAUNA. HOW TO GET RID OF THE OTHERS. EX-DRUMMER. LEFT BANK. SANTOS. THE SUBSTITUTE. And CARGO 200. I’d only ever heard of one of them before they showed up at my house, which is perfect. There’s no early favorite, and plenty of room for discovery. Even before I left town, I had movies to watch. When AMD and Fantastic Fest announced the online portion of the festival, the first thing I did was play I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW. It was the description that most intrigued me right away, and I’ve always got a weak spot for documentaries about truly fringe characters. Fringe barely even begins to describe the two central figures in Sean Donnelly’s horrifyingly sad and strange look into the lives of two long-time stalkers for the pop singer Tiffany. And, yeah, I know how crazy that sounds. Being a stalker is crazy, no matter what, but a stalker for Tiffany? Really? You mean the chick who sang a few songs in the ‘80s and who flashed some boob in PLAYBOY? Seriously? Maybe I’ll grant you one stalker. But two? At the same time? That’s just mind-boggling. Jeff Turner is a 50-year-old man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning autistic man who has a rich fantasy life involving his “relationship” with Tiffany. He’s had court orders against him, one for showing up to see her carrying a samurai sword and roses, but somehow he still manages to show up at autograph events and get close to her, time after time. Turner freaks me out a bit, but he’s nothing compared to the slow-motion meltdown of Kelly McCormick, a hermaphrodite from Denver who was in a coma for 18 days and who came out of it convinced that Tiffany is meant to be her soulmate. This is a film with a bottomless well of loneliness at the heart of it, disturbing and sad in equal measure. If I were Tiffany and I saw this, I’d never be able to leave my house again. I’m a tolerant person with a pretty broad definition of what is acceptable, but these two are like the personifications of everything bad about celebrity in this country. This is what our celebrity culture can do to people who already have a fragile grip on reality... they’re sold this bill of goods, like they have real personal connections to these famous people, and it’s reinforced by the way we digest paparazzi photos and gossip reporting and the way we manage to put celebrities on a pedestal and treat them as less than human at the same time. We are fucked up, and Jeff Turner and Kelly McCormick are just two of the many symptoms of this pervasive disease. I’m not sure how Donnelly managed to get this close to these two, and I’m less sure how he managed not to run screaming from each encounter with them. It’s a short film, running just over an hour, but it’s riveting and worth your attention. The night before I left town, I managed to watch another film, my first of the competition titles. Harry quite liked ASTROPIA, and I talked to a number of people over the course of the festival who felt the same way. It hit a note for them, the same way FANBOYS did for several people I spoke with. I know what the feeling is that these people are describing; it’s the feeling I got the first time I saw SPACED. I can appreciate the intention behind ASTROPIA. But if this were an American film, it would star Paris Hilton or Anna Faris, and it would be a mainstream studio release. Here, because it’s a micro-budget indie from Iceland [not Denmark, as I originally posted -- thanks, angry talkbackers! - "M"], it’s considered an alternative title. The sensibilities here are the same though; this thing’s got Hollywood romantic comedy deep in its DNA, and despite the geek trimmings, it’s about as predictable as any Reese Witherspoon film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. There are plenty of formula movies that work because they execute the formula so well. I can see how this one might charm you if you react well to the cast, or if the geek references are enough to ring your bell. I think the difference between this and SPACED (an easy comparison to make) is that this is a movie about geeks, while SPACED feels like a movie that’s actually in the language of geek. It’s the story of Hildur, played by Ragnhildur Steinunn Jonsdottir, a pampered society princess whose scumbag car dealer boyfriend is busted by the cops and sent to prison, leaving her to fend for herself. She’s never worked an honest day in her life. For her, a workday is standing around in a bikini looking good. She doesn’t even know how to wash a dish or pick up her apartment. She’s useless. A friend takes her in, and Hildur spends a few days just sort of stewing in her troubles before her friend tells her she’s going to have to find work somewhere. She takes her friend’s little boy out for the afternoon, and as they’re shopping, they stop by Astropia, a local mecca for all things RPG/comic book/cult movie related. She sees a help wanted sign in the window, heads inside, and proceeds to learn a valuable life lesson about how nerds are people, too. And that’s it, basically. She learns to play D&D. She learns to love a nerd. She learns she has some abilities beyond shaking her moneymaker. And she learns her boyfriend is a shit. It’s all stuff you’ll see coming down Broadway. I thought the film was amiable fluff, forgettable but inoffensive, but if you feel like you need another movie that tells you that it’s okay to like comics and D&D and SF and the like, ASTROPIA will certainly soothe and validate. I guess I’m at a point where it’s not enough just for me to see a subculture I’m part of on film... there has to be more to it, and with ASTROPIA, I’m not sure I believe there is. Bonus points for the two great ROMANCING THE STONE jokes, though. I’ll admit they both got guffaws from me. I flew into town on Wednesday, giving me one evening with friends before the festival began, and I spent most of the night playing THE FORCE UNLEASHED on XBOX 360 with Quint and Kraken. After playing the first two levels, I can honestly say... ... oh, wait. It’s STAR WARS. Never mind. We also threw on another one of the screeners I was sent for the in-competition films, picking it at random out of the stack. Considering how little I knew about any of them, I figured that was the best way to chip away at the stack... just let them hit me without any real warning. SAUNA is a moody little film about a group of Swedish and Russian soldiers in the 1500s who are sent on an expedition to map and divide some lands after a prolonged and bloody war. All the men are hollowed-out by the experience, so as they make their way north, they have a hard time switching off the savagery that has become their stock in trade. An ugly encounter with a farming family kicks off a series of events that drives the men deep into a swamp where both time and direction start to get strange, and where the dead don’t quite seem to be dead. Eventually they find a town deep in the swamp that’s not on any of the maps, built partially underwater around a stone sauna building. And, of course, there’s a reason that town’s not on any map, and there’s definitely a reason no one should ever go into that goddamn sauna. I wouldn’t call SAUNA a bad film, but it feels somewhat incomplete. It’s got a great confident sense of mood and atmosphere, though, and there are some strong performances in it. But it’s a long slow burn, and what little payoff there is at the end doesn’t really seem to be worth the effort. Director Antti-Jussi Annila and writer Iiro Kuttner play with chronology in a way that’s more confusing and annoying than effective or illuminating, but it’s the only real misstep in the storytelling. This is a great example of a strong voice without a lot to say, and it almost feels like a warm-up. I’d guess, based on this, that we’ll see a great film from them at some point. This one just isn’t it yet. Thursday kicked off with a couple of press screenings as everyone was picking up their badges and their t-shirts and their tote bags. This year, you had to submit a “shakeyface” picture for the badge, which is basically a photo that someone snaps while you whip your head around, face totally slack, trying to sling your skin like a Sharpei. In taking my photo for my badge, I (A) learned some rather upsetting things about the elasticity of my giant awful WC Fields-like nose (B) managed to freak out Toshi quite a bit and (C) gave myself a headache so bad it felt like I got punched by Tyson in his prime. But it turned out to be a good badge photo, so I guess the three days worth of headbanger’s neck was worth it. Our first press screening of the day set the bar incredibly high for the rest of the festival, something that can easily lead to someone becoming disappointed with the line-up afterwards. It’s just one of those flukes of scheduling that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN turned out to be one of the best films I’ve seen all year, much less in the festival. John Ajvide Lindqvist adapted his own novel for the screen and, working with director, Tomas Alfredson, the result is haunting and gorgeous, smart and subtle and hard to describe. It’s almost impossible to discuss without offering up one real spoiler, so if you don’t want to know anything at all about the film before Magnolia rolls it out in limited theatrical release next month (it’ll be on video at the start of 2009), then just suffice it to say that this has far more on its mind than “just” scaring you. It’s a film about how important connections to other people can be for us, how even one friend can change the way we live, and how monsters come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Now skip down to where I start talking about the next film. If you don’t mind a few basic spoilers, then read on. It’s inevitable anyway. By the time you see the movie, you’ll know that it’s “just” a vampire film. The same way you’ll know that another movie in the fest (I won’t say which one) is “just” a zombie film. But in both cases, that’s not really true. These are films that take these familiar monsters, this worn-out iconography, and they bend it to something real. Not even new, per se. Just real. These are movies about something more than their genre. That’s nice to see. There’s a lot of irony out there in the world. A lot of movies that strike an arch pose but don’t really mean it. Movies that want to wink at you and diffuse their own potency just to make sure that you don’t get a chance to laugh at them for trying. And I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of that. But LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is painful because of how real it plays. It’s like AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS, a film about this difficult childhood relationship playing out in extraordinary circumstances. Here, we meet this lonely kid Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), angry and embittered and frail at the start of the film, standing outside alone in the cold and practicing with a knife. He’s rehearsing what he’s going to say, his tough guy patter, as he prepares to stab someone. Oskar’s 12, but he’d be easily mistaken for 10 or even 9 years old. He’s just a wee squirt of piss, the kind of kid who was genetically evolved to give bullies something to do. And Hedebrant’s great, right from that first scene. If the movie was just about him dealing with the world, I have a feeling it would still be a great film. That’s something you can’t say about many genre films. Someone moves into the building where Oskar lives, right into the apartment next door. Someone he doesn’t see at first. And there’s a guy, he’s attacking people. Trying to drain their blood. He’s got local police on edge, and he’s clumsy, not terribly good at what he’s doing, so he’s always justthisclose to getting caught. And this guy... he’s got a little girl. And his little girl... she’s hungry. Oskar meets this little girl, his strange new neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), who seems to be 12 years old just like him. Strange is an understatement, actually. Alfredson plays subtle tricks on the audience right from the start with little physical impossibilities, little digital or make-up or even editing tricks that all enhance the fact that this little girl’s seriously not right. Oskar’s no dope. He figures out what she is. What her dad’s doing. Why she needs this blood he’s draining. He calls her what she is, and she never denies it. But whatever this movie is, it’s not a standard revenge film. Yes, Oskar sees Eli as a way to settle some scores, a motivator or maybe even a weapon. But it’s not handled the way any Hollywood movie would handle it. The storyline sneaks up on you. It dodges formula in favor of very simple, raw character work that all feels real. And whatever this movie is, it’s not a standard horror film. Eli’s a monster in a conventional sense, but her actions actually help pull Oskar back from the edge of being a very real and recognizable human monster, the kind we’ve seen march into schools or malls or post offices, guns blazing, determined to make the world hurt just as much as they do. Oskar’s on the road to that. He’s just so easy to pick on, such a blinking red target, that he’s been pushed more than anyone should be. Every day. Pick. Pick. Pick. Pick. And whatever this movie is, it’s not a standard coming-of-age romance. There’s something animal in the way Oskar sniffs out exactly what Eli is. Little boys are wild things, and Oskar’s just about to lose that the way little boys do when they become teenagers, but he still has enough of it to recognize her for what she is, and to accept her just as easily. So whatever this movie is, it’s a powerful and intimate film that commands real respect. Alfredson has a real gift for directing young actors. He gets remarkable work out of both of his young stars, and from the supporting cast as well, and he has impeccable taste when it comes to the way he stages his big moments. He could probably make a terrifying film if he wanted to. His scares here are sophisticated and perfectly timed. But that’s not what he’s really trying to do. That reaching deeper, that attempt to make his movie more... that’s what makes this one such a profound surprise, and such a pleasure. Color me shocked, but the same is true of Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD, although to a lesser extent. I’m not surprised at all that so many people at the festival were so demonstrative in their affection for this film, especially if you talked to them right after they saw it. It’s a solid little movie with an interesting premise and one scene that is so amazing that you’ll buy the DVD so you can show it to friends. And it’s amazing to actually write this, but the only reason this film exists or works or dazzles is because of Jean-Claude Van Damme as “himself” in the single most emotionally lacerating self-portraits on film since Charlie Kaufman’s ADAPTATION. Seriously. A friend this week talked to me about how they were reluctant to see JCVD because they were afraid it was going to be just another PAULY SHORE IS DEAD. If you haven’t seen that film, count yourself lucky, and if you have, then you understand why that’s a truly scary prospect. It’s fake and dim-witted and obvious and never really says anything at all. It’s a vanity piece. JCVD is not that at all. It’s basically a heist movie, in which a character walks into a heist already in progress and finds himself caught up in it, forcing him to deal with the complete mess he’s made of his life. It just happens that the character is Jean-Claude Van Damme. And not him as someone in a movie, either. Him. He’s come home to Belgium after losing in a nasty custody battle. He’s just shot some cheapo action direct-to-video junk that he probably won’t see a dime of after everyone else gets their taste. And at 48 years old, the wear-and-tear of it all has caught up to him. He’s tired. He’s unable to do continue. He’s threadbare. So much so that he can’t even use his credit cards or get money from an ATM. He’s frozen out. Much of this is played at a slight exaggeration, but not much. The Hollywood stuff is some of the most specific and real I’ve heard in a film. It’s not ENTOURAGE... that’s fantasy-land. This is the way it works for guys like Van Damme who are “movie stars” in that they can guarantee a certain budget level of payback in the international market, and so their films can cost a certain amount and no more. And that certain amount? It’s nothing. In actual dollars spent on what you’d see onscreen, you’re talking about million dollar movies. Maybe two million if you’re lucky. But that’s it. That’s the world Van Damme’s in right now. No wonder he’s so crushed. There’s nothing luxurious about what he’s doing. It’s a job. It’s a grind like anything else, only he has to stay in shape to a certain degree, and he has to accept that a certain amount of physical damage is part of the cost of doing business. So that’s the guy who walks into the hostage situation in this small Belgian post office, where he tries to pick up some cash from a wire transfer, not realizing there’s a robbery in progress. When they realize who they’ve lucked into, they quickly make him talk to the police, leading everyone to think that the movie star has cracked, and that he’s the one holding the prisoners. The real robbers exploit that misunderstanding as they try to figure out what to do. The heist stuff is the weakest material in the film. It’s okay, but it’s basically like pretty much every hostage situation ever in the history of movies. Fairly standard set of hostages. One robber’s a controlling psycho. One’s a decent guy doing this bad thing. One guy’s star-struck by Van Damme. I didn’t mind it, but it was all the other stuff, all the character work and inside Hollywood stuff, the things on the edges of the film, that really worked. And then there’s the scene. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know which one. It’s a confession. A moment of clarity. And it’s amazing. It gives Van Damme a second half of a career if he’s lucky. I would hire him now. I would have him act in his own language, and I would definitely cast him, and not in an action film. In anything. He flattened me with this sequence, and I’m dying to hear him talk about the process that led to the shooting of it. I have no idea how they pulled it off, or how many takes they had to do, or even if it was scripted, but it’s unforgettable, and I urge you to give the film a chance, even if you don’t like Van Damme in anything else ever. And if you do, then prepare to re-evaluate the guy in every way. This is quite literally the film he had to make if he ever hoped to matter again, and although I don’t think the film as a whole is amazing, it more than does what it sets out to do, with enough skill and grace that I would recommend this to anyone. I’ve gotta run catch a plane in a few hours, so I’ll have to post my EAGLE EYE review when I land this afternoon. And I’ve got a ton more festival coverage coming over the weekend, so keep an eye out for that.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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