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Quint's perfect Day 2 of Fantastic Fest 2013: Grand Piano, The Sacrament, Ragnarok, Witching and Bitching and Detective Downs!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I typically avoid doing a full day recap when attending festivals because I find that my inclination is to short change the shorter reviews as I get closer to the end and my tired eyes/brain/body/soul start pulling me towards my nice cool comfy bed. However, I couldn't resist doing a “my day at the fest” recap because I had such a perfect Fantastic Fest day that I had to write about all five of the movies that registered at either “great” or higher from today's lineup.

I'm not saying I won't start pooping out as this goes on. I am working on about 3 hours of sleep and have just gotten home after some 17 hours of festing. Needless to say I'm pretty tired, but also still buzzed about the day, so I'm going to try to power through and tell you guys about the awesomeness of these five titles: Ragnarok, Detective Downs, Grand Piano, The Sacrament and Witching and Bitching.

This Norwegian film kind of felt like it was made for me. It's a family unit adventure story heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg/Amblin films but chock full of Norse Mythology. Based on a real life archeological find, the story offers up an interesting what if? The ancient wreck of a viking ship is found with weird runes and serpent-headed carvings and a young single dad archeologist becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of these artifacts.

He ends up taking his children on a trek through beautiful Scandinavian country ultimately ending somewhere near the Norway/Russia border where one of the creatures of myth and legend await their arrival.

I'm sure you can already see the Raiders and Jurassic Park parallels in your minds eye, but there's also a pretty good amount of Jaws thrown in for good measure. And I'm not just talking about story, either. The focus on the family is Spielberg special mixture of precocious, but real. A lot of time is spent establishing the relationships within this semi-broken family. Mom's gone, Dad's buried in work, the young boy is fascinated by his father's passion while the daughter is fed up with it and just wants a normal family.

The Ragnarok of the title is pretty badass, even if it doesn't get much screen time. Director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose either blew all his budget on the production design and LOTR style helicopter shots of the landscape or he wanted to hide the monster ala Jaws... the truth is probably a mixture of both, but the design itself is pretty cool. Think of the Basilisk from Harry Potter and mix in some more dragon-ish facial features and you're close.

With a big budget feel, quality production design and family drama, I ended up really invested in this movie. It's a family creature feature in a way that doesn't talk down to the kids or pander to them, which is good news for the adults in the crowd. I highly recommend checking it out if you get the chance.

You're not going to believe me when I say the Norwegian neo-noir about a PI with Downs Syndrome who is hired to solve the case of a missing speed skater is one of the most touching, funny, engaging and good-hearted movies I've seen in a long, long time, but it's completely true.

Detective Downs refers to the lead character, Robert Bogerud, who is played by Svein Andre Hofso Myhre, an actor with Downs Syndrome and while the characters in the story acknowledge his disability the film itself never makes him a joke. His dad is an over the hill detective and Robert really wants to follow in his pops' footsteps. He's turned his room at the care facility into an office that'd make Sam Spade proud. Robert sports a Bogart trench coat and fedora and is desperate to help someone on any kind of case.

The reality of a Downs Syndrome detective getting clients is addressed pretty bluntly until a middle aged woman (blonde, naturally) walks in and hires him to track down her missing husband. It doesn't take a genius to figure out she's hiring this young guy who has never finished a case in his life for a reason. Even Robert suspects something strange is brewing, but this is his chance to prove himself and he goes after it with all he has.

His particular method essentially involves finding the truth through putting himself in the emotional state of being as the man he's looking for, which means he wears his clothes and takes his place within the family unit, much to the dismay of the missing man's daughter, wife and brother-in-law.

From the opening credits, which reminded me so much of both Pink Panther and the Incredibles opening title sequences, I was hooked. At every twist and turn of the actually pretty decent private dick plot, the filmmakers made sure to protect their star and yet still find humor in the situation. The sheer heart on this film floored me and from what I gather from my fellow Fantastic Festers who have seen the film as well I'm not alone in feeling that.

How they struck this particular tone is baffling to me because they go pretty far with Robert, so much so that he becomes one of the most convincing womanizers of the festival so far. How they can do that and not make it either A) mean or B) a parody is beyond me, but they did and I can't wait for the film to get out there and be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Outside of hearing the basic plot to Grand Piano described as Speed but with a piano I have stayed thankfully spoiler-free on this movie. No trailers, not advertising materials of any sort, really. That helped me get swept up into the story, I think. It's the kind of movie that if you accept the basic conceit at the beginning and go with the flow you'll have a wonderful time.

Elijah Wood is on a roll lately picking strange, off-kilter projects for himself. He had the Maniac remake where most of the movie was shown from his POV, for instance, and now he's starring as a disgraced pianist who comes out of hiding for a big concert. He's facing his demons, getting back on the horse, but he's doing it as reluctantly as one can and still actually go through with it.

Turns out he has a little stage fright after attempting a legendarily “unplayable” piece composed by his mentor, but has been pushed into a comeback performance by his famous actress wife (Kerry Bishe). We're told how talented Wood's Tom Selznick is and when we actually get to see him play he absolutely lives up to the legend.

Elijah's great in the movie and he especially impressed me in his ability to make playing piano look effortless. I know he only had a few weeks of heavy duty training and as a guy who has been taking weekly piano lessons for the last 6 months or so I'm incredibly jealous of his ability to at least look like he knows what he's doing. I'm just now starting to get to the point where I can use my left and right hands independently of each other!

The main drama of the movie is that somewhere in the giant concert hall is John Cusack with a silenced heavy duty sniper rifle trained on the hapless pianist and the threat that he'll get a bullet in the head if he misses a single note. The reasons for this are revealed later in the film and I won't go into it too much, but I will say that director Eugenio Mira and writer Damien Chazelle do a bang-up job wringing every bit of tension you possibly can from the situation.

There's a wonderful split screen moment that sneaks up on you that is already drawing comparisons to De Palma... but Mira doesn't rely on one storytelling tool. He changes up constantly, which means the second Wood sits down at the piano the movie is rocketing towards the credits. Most movies have peaks and valleys, high excitement and quiet moments, but this one's a little different. Those moments still exist, but the distance between them are rapid-fire short.

I think there are some third act inconsistencies, but nothing that gets in the way of the movie. It's the kind of stuff that hits you when you start picking at it after the film ends. I would go into more detail but I'd literally be talking you guys through the last 10 minutes of the movie and I won't do that to ya', especially since they announced at the Fest that Magnolia bought the US distribution.

Oh, before I go... Alex Winter is in the movie! Yeah, that Alex Winter! And he plays a heavy! He's actually the scariest/creepiest character in the movie! It was great seeing him on the screen again and I hope he doesn't stay away for so long again.

Full disclosure: I've known Elijah for 15 years now and he was producing The Home while it navigated development before hitting a fatal iceberg and sinking like the Titanic when we were 6 weeks out from shooting. That movie never happened, but in case you think that could color my thoughts on the flick, it's better that you know up front. I don't think I'm blinded by it, but I guess people in my position never really know, do they? So, now you have all the info and can make up your own mind.

Next up was The Sacrament. I was the SXSW premiere of Ti West's The Roost and while that is one of my least favorite films of his I remember making a mental note of this guy and for good reason. Both House of the Devil and The Innkeepers won me over big time and I was anxiously awaiting his newest film, which follows a Vice team as they go into rural Mississippi to investigate a seemingly peace-loving hippie-dippy sect and find something troubling beneath the too-nice exterior.

AJ Bowen is the Vice reporter in front of the camera and Joe Swanberg plays the camera operator. Making them real deal Vice guys really helped me get over that found footage logic trap of “why don't you just put down the camera when the shit really hits the fan?” If you've watched Vice's stuff you know that when the shit starts hitting the fan is exactly when they keep filming.

Also by making them investigative journalists and from an outlet the audience may already be familiar with that eases the film past traditional found footage and almost into a straight up faux documentary.

Bowen and Swanberg both turn in great, likeable performances, with AJ given the benefit of actually being on-camera for most of the movie while Swanberg gives the bulk of his performance off-camera or in voiceover.

If you're interested at all in a Ti West movie you should expect a slow burn and boy do you get one here. West turns the screws bit by bit until we get to a point where the lovely lady sitting next to me had her hand over her mouth, eyes wide in complete disbelief of what she was seeing. Because West is confident in his pacing and he cast such likeable actors you care when things turn sour.

It's pretty common knowledge that Jonesboro was a heavy inspiration for this film, so that should give you an idea of where this thing goes, but even knowing the cult angle you are not prepared for Gene Jones' portrayal of “Father,” the leader of this community.

Jones is a character actor that is probably best known for the amazing coin flip scene in No Country For Old Men. In that short, but movie-stealing scene Jones played a bewildered southerner who didn't quite grasp the situation he was in. Father knows exactly what is going on and how to get what he wants. The fucked up thing is you can tell he believes everything he says, from the ordinary Christian love and worship stuff to the crazy he starts spewing later.

What's scary about him is that he's not only realistically portraying a real life horror that exists in this world he's also so charming and convincing that you don't really question why people stay with him. The genius of this movie is West almost makes you buy into the cult yourself when watching.

The film is disturbing, but a radical shift in style for West. Although he's been staying in genre, West has done a fantastic job of differentiating his work, especially over the last three films. House of the Devil's late '70s/early '80s horror aesthetic was perfect for that film, but is different from The Innkeeper's more modern spookhouse look, which itself is miles away from the Vice Guide look of The Sacrament.

The Sacrament hooks you early and keeps you on the line all the to the end, no matter what horrors you have to witness while on your journey. Confident, envelope-pushing and successfully achieving the kind of creep-out that you don't shake off the second the movie is over, but will stick with you for a while to come.

One more Full Disclosure: AJ Bowen stars in this film and he's a friend as well. There are lots of acquaintances when you cover movies, but very few that are close friends. I would count AJ as a close friend, so if you feel that'll taint my opinion on this movie that's your call, but never say I wasn't up front.

Oh, man was I excited going into Alex de la Iglesia's Witching and Bitching. One, that title... I mean, come on. Two, Iglesia is such a unique filmmaker. His sense of humor and hyper filmmaking style are unlike anybody else out there. His movies can be all over the place, but you're always guaranteed a unique experience when letting Iglesia into your brain.

Witching and Bitching is fucking bugnuts insane, but oddly feels restrained following up his “holy shit, what am I watching” The Last Circus. That's not to say this is a stuffy drama by any means... I mean, the movie opens when street characters (yep, like the ones on Hollywood Blvd) suddenly rob a we-buy-gold store. You have Jesus Christ, Spongebob, The Invisible Man, a green Army guy and a 10 year old kid robbing a store... with fatalities! That's the opening of the movie that then goes on to introduce us to the idea that pretty much any living female is a witch of some sort

I don't know if Iglesia just went through a bad breakup or what, but all the guy characters really don't like ladies in this movie. Don't worry, that's not shown in any kind of realistic ugly male Secretary type violence. The flick is cartoony and goes a mile a minute that by the time any real violence happens it's to comically exaggerated witches.

Like a lot of recent Iglesia movies the flick runs a little long, but this dude is so nuts and willing to go to the lengths of taste to get a laugh that I was constantly entertained. Iglesia is making movies in tone similar to what I'd expect Peter Jackson to do if he ever returned to the Bad Taste/Braindead low budget horror comedy.

I'm fading hardcore, but Witching and Bitching was definitely a perfect closer to a wonderful day of film.

Hopefully my next few days match the quality of these entries. Stay tuned, this sucker is just starting.

-Eric Vespe
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