My theory was correct: the festival would get better the deeper we got into the days. This is probably an obvious intention of the programmers to have the fest hit it's peak during the weekend mountain of attendees... I was just a little worried post-Day 1.
Today (Sunday) was a great day. Not only did I see my favorite film of the festival (Fighter) but I also got to see my friend premier his movie (Zombie Girl : The Movie!) in front of a packed audience. It's a great documentary, and it moved an audience of typically snide fanboys and girls to tears.
But first up was Fighter.
This movie brought in the Kung-Fu heads, but it sounded like a disappointment to a few of them as we exited the theater. Mind you, you shouldn't mind these guys, because they are the ones who rate films on body counts and stunt work.
At its core, Fighter is a great teen film. Aicha is a Turkish immigrant in Denmark. She is obsessed with Bruce Lee and wants to be a martial artist. Her traditional parents want her to become a doctor and have an arranged marriage.
Director Natasha Arthy is fully aware of the "fight" Aicha faces at home as well as the gender walls put up against her in the ring. Fighter's most powerfully visual moment takes place in a recurring dream sequence where Aicha battles a ninja. In the final dream we finally see the eyes behind the ninja's covering and they are that of a female behind a veil.
Arthy's film is full of culturally aware moments like these that fight for the right of women without denigrating the religion of Islam (a criticism I have already predictably heard from fellow festival goers... SIGH...).
Ms. Natasha Arthy's Fighter is the best film at Fantastic Fest I've seen so far, and it's gonna be tough to knock it off that mantle.
Next I went to see the premier of my friend's film Zombie Girl : The Movie!
You may call "bias!" on me for praising a film of my friend's, but if you do, I would advise you to talk to some of my other friends & relatives about that. I don't give people free passes. If it's good, it's good, and Zombie Girl is good.
This years-in-the-making documentary is about a 13 year old (she's now 16) girl names Emily Hagins that decided to make a zombie movie called Pathogen after seeing the Australian zombie flick Undead at Harry Knowles' annual Butt Numb-A-Thon.
Directors Aaron Marshall, Justin Johnson and Eric Mauck follow Emily's journey from initial casting to eventual premier, but at the heart of the film is a touching relationship between Emily and her mother Megan. Refreshingly, the directors refrain from the modern documentary trend of mocking their subjects and manipulating the footage to tell their own story instead of displaying the events that are unfolding in front of their eyes.
Zombie Girl : The Movie! deserves distribution, and if it doesn't, it will just go to show you how ethically corrupt the documentary markets are. It's time to back away from the decades long sensationalism that has infected documentary culture and get back to appreciating films that care for their subjects more than their own stardom.
What we watched next was some kind of special experience. The film is already getting heavy buzz from other festivals and the film is called JCVD.
J-C-V-D stands for the iconic Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the film is a meta-movie autobiopic of sorts. Van Damme plays himself, and, by chance, he is thrust into a robbery at a post office. The set-up gives Van Damme a chance to explore his career and the portrayal/exploitation of himself in the media.
JCVD is utterly watchable, and I want to see it again once it hits theaters, but my initial reaction to this film is that it is kind of whiny. Still, there is little doubt in my mind that this movie is gonna shake-up discussions among cinephiles when it comes out. Beyond my quibbles with it, there is something quite unique about this film.
Cargo 200 was an artfully shitty experience. It takes place in 1984 Soviet Union, and supposedly it's based on some true event, yet I've been unable to find information on said event yet.
No doubt atrocities occurred in the oppressive grip of the USSR in 1984 (as they do in modern Russia), but what is on display here is more like an atrocity exhibition instead of any real heady or damning or angry condemnation of an ugly history that the recent Transsiberian said can only be uncovered "by using a shovel".
Sure, ugliness can be used in films in powerful and meaningful ways, but the way Cargo 200 is structured makes you question the director's intentions. The terror builds and builds and builds, not creating a satisfying tension, but a how-much-more-can-I-take tolerance test.
When a naked woman winds up handcuffed to a bed with two dead men in it (one of whom just raped her) while another man reads her love-letters from a dead husband, it's just too much, and the creators of Cargo 200 have lost my efforts to piece together something meaningful out of this.
The midnight movie tonight was Wild Man Of The Navidad.
Festival programmer Tim League introduced this film by saying that it accurately nailed the aesthetic of 1970's low-budget horror. He's exactly right, but I would like to expand on that. Wild Man... not only goes after the look of cheap 70's horror, but pins down the tone and unintentional humor of it as well. What's doubly special about that is that the humor is not mocking of the small-town Texas locals that act in it, but a celebration of their eccentricity. Further, Wild Man..., like Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz stays away from genre parody or spoofiness, and exists as loving tribute.
To me, this is what "independent film" is about. It's not Steve Buscemi's next directorial feature, or Steven Soderbergh trying to go "underground" with his shitty, shot-with-real-people Bubble, but about directors/writers/actors/editors/EVERYTHING! Duane Graves and Justin Meeks pushing their regular lives to the side and sacrificing weekends of leisure for self-funded film making.
This movie may not be for everyone, but I loved the hell out of it. If you look between the cracks of the fun that's happening on screen, you will see the product of two filmmakers that absolutely love what they are doing and have a totally non-cynical respect for the medium in which they work.
Lucky for you, IFC Films has just picked this film up for DVD release. Perhaps this means that IFC will finally get back to what their acronym initially stood for.