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Fantastic Fest 2017 Review Round-Up

I was a first-time attendee at Fantastic Fest when I stepped into the Alamo Drafthouse Theater on     September 21, 2017. A number of things were readily apparent: (1) the festival is committed to the first-rate presentation of its films with beautiful projection and stunning sound, (2) the volunteers and personnel running the festival are a super-friendly bunch who want you to have the time of your cinema-loving lives, and (3) the community of like-minded film-lovers that flock to the festival are kindred spirits who are all too happy to accept new attendees into their club.  What became more apparent as the festival entered its third and fourth days was the amazing depth of its curation.

Over the course of my five days at the festival, I saw 23 feature films and a block of short films. Of this content, I only outright disliked three feature films (FirstbornThe Killing of a Sacred Deer, Let the Corpses Tan), and I could tell that my dislike of those three films was personal to me. They didn’t strike a chord with me. They didn’t speak to my personal aesthetic. As Tom Cruise says to Dustin Hoffman when he switches from blackjack to the Wheel of Fortune and immediately loses money in Rain Man, “That’s not your game, Ray.”  So, a few films weren’t my game, but 20 out of 23 is a movie-going batting average I’ve never experienced before at a festival.

Here’s my overview of all of the films I saw at Fantastic Fest 2017. Thirteen of the 23 films were given featured reviews, and the links to those reviews are included in the entries below.  The other ten receive a thumbnail review in this column.  If release dates are imminent, that is noted in the film entry. Consider this a To-Do list for 2018.  Here are The Great, The Good, The Fair and The Head Scratchers from Fantastic Fest 2017.

THE GREAT:

Bad Genius:  Think Ocean’s SAT. A super-smart high school student in Thailand makes a small fortune helping her classmates cheat on exams. But, can she come up with a plan to defraud the international college entrance exam? She and her classmates hatch a scheme that rivals an art heist in its detailed planning. Based on a true story, it proves the old maxim that “fact is stranger than fiction” and made Bad Genius one of the most interesting films of the Festival.

Brawl in Cell Block 99:  S. Craig Zahler follows up his much-revered Bone Tomahawk with this macho pulp prison movie. If the over-the-top gruesome violence in its final act doesn’t turn the audience off, Brawl could be an indie action hit.  (For my full-length review of Brawl in Cell Block 99, click here.)

Darkland: When a surgeon sets out to learn the circumstances of his brother’s death, he risks everything he has to exact his revenge on the people responsible. Darkland is a Swedish film set in a community of Iraqi immigrants where some have become productive, law-abiding citizens and others have turned to a life of crime. (For my full-length review of Darkland, click here.)

The Death of Stalin:  Armando Iannucci’s political satire about Stalin’s inner circle trying to hold the government together following the unexpected death of their leader.  Iannucci claims his tale of a megalomaniac who needs to be worshiped by his followers isn’t based on current American politics.  You be the judge. (For my full-length review of The Death of Stalin, click here.)

Gerald’s Game: This Netflix Original film adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name is a horror home run. Director Mike Flanagan has done the impossible by taking one of King’s most psychological, internal novels and turning it into a tour de force of a horror film.  Gerald’s Game is playing now on Netflix Instant.  (For my full-length review of Gerald’s Game, click here.)

Good Manners:  Blending the fairy tale tone of Pan’s Labyrinth and the melancholy of An American Werewolf in London, this horror/drama/romance set in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was the most pleasant surprise of the Festival.  There’s a key moment at the midpoint of this film where you either fully buy in to this beautiful story, or you shake your head and check out. I bought in, and I’m glad I did. If you think of it as a fable for adults, and disregard any need you have for realism, Good Manners makes for a wonderful cinematic journey.

Revenge:  You’ve seen it all before, but you’ve rarely seen it done this well. This film from French writer/director Coralie Fargeat took my prize for the Best Midnight Movie at Fantastic Fest 2017.  When a woman is raped and left for dead, she’s forced to strike back at her attackers and kill her way to freedom. As the filmmaker behind this mayhem is a woman, you can enjoy this action thriller without feeling guilty about all of the violence against women. Right? Maybe? I’m not sure.  But, this thriller is a must-see.  (For my full-length review of Revenge, click here.)

Salyut-7:  A riveting account of the 1985 mission to prevent the damaged Soviet space station from making a runaway re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The film features amazing cinematography and explores the real world minutiae of space exploration in ways that most films ignore. (For my full-length review of Salyut-7, click here.)

The Square:  Ruben Ostland’s follow-up to his 2014 film Force Majeure is the big, sprawling story of Christian, a curator of a contemporary art museum whose new exhibit is intended to engender altruism and a sense of community among the citizens who experience it. With Ostland’s sense of irony on full display, Christian becomes involved in a series of petty incidents where his behavior runs contrary to his supposed love of humanity and community. The Square is bitingly funny with excellent performances. I think I will always remember the line:  “I will bring chaos on you.”  

Super Dark Times:  Four teenagers playing with a samurai sword.  It’s an accident (or murder) waiting to happen. Super Dark Times plays like the macabre, paranoid cinematic sibling of Stand By Me. Part coming-of-age romance, part thriller, Super Dark Times is available on VOD on October 2, 2017. (For my full-length review of the film, click here.)

Thoroughbreds: Two teenagers are thrown together by happenstance and discover that they are dark, disturbed kindred spirits. When they enlist the services of the local drug dealer to help them commit a murder, this thriller really catches fire. Originally conceived as a stage play, this debut film from writer/director Cory Finley features excellent performances from Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Olivia Cooke as the two twisted lead characters. Focus Features is releasing Thoroughbreds in early 2018. Don’t miss it. (For my full-length review of the film, click here.)

THE GOOD

1922:  The second Stephen King Netflix adaptation to play at Fantastic Fest 2017, and it’s almost as good as Gerald’s Game. With his Nebraskan accent and gaunt frame, Thomas Jane transforms into Wilfred James, a farmer who wants to live a simple life on his wife’s inherited acres. When she decides it’s time to sell and move to the city, Wilfred does what any rational person would do: he kills her? In true Edgar Allen Poe (and Stephen King) fashion, the murder is far from the worst thing that Wilfred experiences as he pays the physical and psychological tolls for his crime. 1922 debuts on Netflix Instant on October 20, 2017.

3 Feet Ball & Souls:  Four desperate people agree to commit suicide together. When they get caught in a time loop, living the same suicidal sequence of events over and over again, their views of their lives begin to change. Despite its flawed final act, 3 Feet Ball & Souls is a creative take on the all-too-familiar Groundhog Day/Edge of Tomorrow style of story-telling. (For my full-length review of 3 Feet Ball & Souls, click here.)

Five Fingers for Marseilles:  A revisionist western set in modern day South Africa. That’s not a genre you see very often outside the walls of the Alamo Drafthouse in September each year. A group of five young boys are caught up in a murderous incident that alters all of their lives forever. When they are reunited as adults, they find themselves on different sides of the law from one another. Then a local warlord threatens their childhood home, and they must decide where their loyalties truly lie. Transplanting traditional American western tropes to South African politics and locations breathes new life into the genre. This film has more in common with The Rover than Unforgiven, but if you like your westerns to push boundaries and explore new territory, then Five Fingers for Marseilles is your kind of film.

Pin Cushion:  Shot in beautiful primary colors, the gorgeous cinematography of this film belies the sadness of its narrative.  A mother and daughter move into a new community.  They are “free spirits”, dressing oddly and living in a cottage that looks like it’s been decorated by a 3rd grader. The daughter is mercilessly bullied at school and tries desperately to fit in while her mother is ostracized by the local adults. Pin Cushion is a beautiful tale of a mother and daughter doing their best in a bad situation, and it teaches its audience a lesson in acceptance and tolerance without getting preachy about it. Recommended.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women:  A biopic on the life of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who invented the Wonder Woman comic book series. Who knew Marston was involved in a polyamorous relationship involving bondage and threesomes? Who knew he invented the lie detector? And who knew that Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth and penchant for tying up her enemies was nothing but a manifestation of her creator’s kinky predilections? Some biopics work because they take an unusual approach to rather rote subject matter. Others, like Professor Marston, succeed because of the unique personalities at the core of the story. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women hits theaters on October 13, 2017.

Thelma:  A modern-day retelling of Carrie about a young woman with psychic abilities that begin to assert themselves during her sexual awakening as a young adult. Throw in a fundamentalist Christian parent, and the only thing  you’re missing is Sissy Spacek. Thelma lands on my GOOD list because it’s so well made that I mostly overcame my displeasure at its lack of originality.  Mostly. (For my full-length review of Thelma, click here.)

Wheelman:  Frank Grillo stars in the anti-Baby Driver as a down-on-his-luck getaway driver who owes a favor to the mob and gets double-crossed in the process. More in the style of a Michael Mann film than The Purge sequels, Wheelman shows us another side of Frank Grillo, and it’s a side audiences are sure to want more of after they see this Netflix Original film. Wheelman premieres on Netflix Instant on October 20, 2017.  (For my full-length review of the film, click here.)

THE FAIR:

Before We Vanish:  From Kiyoshi Kursosawa, director of The Cure, Pulse, and Tokyo Sonata, comes this tale of alien invasion in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) and The Hidden (1987). Aliens are among us, living inside our friends and neighbors. They are here to collect human concepts to advance their knowledge. When a concept or idea is taken from a human host, that concept or idea can never be recovered, leaving the human victim incapable of re-adjusting to life on Earth. It’s an interesting scenario, but Kurosawa plays his subtext as his main text, and Before We Vanish wears its message on its metaphorical sleeve. “What is this love you speak of?  Is it important to you?” Yeah, it is, and so is subtlety … which this film lacks entirely.

Firstborn:  A man and his wife are accosted by a thug on a motorcycle. The husband fails to protect the missus, and things grow strained between them in the aftermath of the incident. This thriller takes an interesting premise and loses its way in a thicket of incoherent sub-plots. Is this a failed attempt at Lynchian dream logic? Or is it simply a convoluted thriller stuffed with too many ideas? I’m not really sure. But, either way, Firstborn didn’t work for me.  (For my full-length review of the film, click here.)

Jupiter’s Moon:  This film is a visual marvel featuring several long takes and tracking shots as well as seamless incorporation of CGI. If you can enjoy a film solely for its cinematography, then Jupiter’s Moon might fall under your GREAT heading. It was the best looking film at Fantastic Fest 2017, but its aimless story rendered it a total slog in my opinion. It’s billed as a science fiction film, but plays as a character drama which would be fine if the drama were more interesting. It was my single biggest disappointment of this year’s festival. (But, it’s still really pretty to look at.)

THE HEAD SCRATCHERS

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: I just don’t get the appeal of this latest offering from writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s the miserable tale of miserable people living in misery. Is it a drama about the futility of the human condition? Or is it an ironic comedy driven by lifeless deadpan dialogue? Either way, I don’t really care. It definitely wasn’t my cup of tea. (For my full-length review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, click here.)

Let the Corpses Tan:  Italian giallo film-making meets the spaghetti western.  I understand WHAT is being done in this tale of criminals holed up in a remote location with the stolen gold from a recent heist. I just don’t understand WHY I would want to watch it. But, one man’s headscratcher is another man’s treasure. I saw Let the Corpses Tan on several Best of the Fest lists on social media. It features some arresting visuals, but the characters are so bizarre that I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of them.




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