• Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 3 Recap

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
    Lynn Ramsey
    Genre: Drama
    Grade: A
    In theaters Dec. 2011
    It’s not often that a real Oscar contender plays at Fantastic Fest, but “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is exactly that, and if isn’t, it sure as hell should be. Director Lynne Ramsey’s challenging gut punch of a film plays almost like a dream for its first half, freely floating through Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) experiences with her son Kevin (Ezra Miller). Something of a free spirit, Eva settles down to start a family with Franklin (John C. Reilly), but hits an unexpected road bump once Kevin is born and she realizes that her son is a malicious, sociopathic little monster.
    The film’s opening moments are bathed in red, from the curtains in Eva’s rundown home to the seats at her office to the blood that runs down her face after she’s slapped for reasons the film makes the audience wait to find out. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” takes its time arriving at its disturbing climax, and paints a detailed picture of Kevin’s life, with clever edits bridging various moments, all of them underscoring Kevin’s ruthless manipulation of his parents, even as a prepubescent child.
    Tilda Swinton gives perhaps the best performance yet of Fantastic Fest, playing a mother torn between her biological duty to her son and her gut instinct to get far, far away from this abomination she’s created with expert restraint and fear. Swinton deserves endless accolades for her work here, and co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller both rise admirably to her challenge.
    “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a very hard film to shake, and goes to some very dark places in smart, restrained ways, making its unsettling material feel plausible and terrifying rather than exploitative.
    “The Devil’s Business”
    Sean Hogan
    Genre: Horror
    Grade: B+
    Screens Sept. 28 at 3:15 p.m.
    Sean Hogan, writer and director of “The Devil’s Business,” came to Austin with horror anthology “Little Deaths” earlier this year during SXSW. His segment of “Little Deaths,” which depicted a young couple kidnapping a homeless girl before she reveals herself to be something much more dangerous than they expected, was the best of the film, a scary, stomach-churning short story that parceled out its revelations in very deliberate and intelligent ways. “The Devil’s Business” is very much in the same vein, a hitman drama starring Jack Gordon as Cully, a first-time assassin uncertain about his career choice and Billy Clarke as Pinner, a veteran sent along to make sure he doesn’t bundle the hit.
    Over its brisk 75-minute runtime, “The Devil’s Business” lets us get to know Cully and Pinner, and their interplay in the film’s opening scenes is funny and well-written, especially a lengthy, hypnotizing monologue Pinner delivers early in the film. Cully’s nervousness only increases once they find a Satanic sacrifice in a shed in their target’s backyard, and the job spirals into oblivion from there.
    At its heart, “The Devil’s Business” is a long series of conversations, doling out nice doses of philosophy about the morality of killing and the meaning of life amongst its hard-boiled dialogue and clever turns of phrase. Like Hogan’s segment in “Little Deaths,” the film is smart in how it reveals its various twists and turns, and Hogan’s direction is understated and confident, scary when it needs to be and restrained at all the right moments.
    “The Devil’s Business” is a fun distraction, a short trifle in a long day of films, but it’s also a well-observed character piece with an entertaining supernatural bent. It’s by no means the best film at Fantastic Fest, but it’s certainly worth a viewing.
    You’re Next
    Director: Adam Wingard
    Genre: Horror
    Grade: A
    No additional screenings
    Fresh out of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Fest, “You’re Next” played to a rapturous crowd last night at Fantastic Fest. The home invasion genre has always been rather commonplace at the festival, and director Adam Wingard was at the fest last year with “A Horrible Way To Die,” which won well-deserved awards.
    “You’re Next” opens with a bitter little tease, killing off a couple living in an remote estate before moving onto the main attraction, a family reunion stocked with a who’s who of modern indie horror. The cast includes the likes of AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Ti West (whose “The Innkeepers” is also playing the festival), Joe Swanberg, and legendary horror icon Barbara Crampton.
    Bowen’s Crispian warns his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) that tensions often flare up when his family gets together, and just as tempers are starting to boil over at the dinner table, an arrow crashes through the window and the family starts shedding members with startling quickness.
    “You’re Next” moves very quickly and kills off its characters even quicker (and in fairly unpredictable order). While a few of its characters act too stupidly to be human beings, “You’re Next” is mostly intelligently written, with a real eye for subverting the audience’s expectations. When one of the guests makes it clear they have no intention of rolling over and dying, the film moves onto the next level, doling out satisfying kills and plot twists at perfect intervals.
    Director Adam Wingard juggles a lot of balls with obvious ease. Even amidst the brutality and bloodshed, the film manages to work in a few pitch-black punchlines, and Wingard makes the shifts in tone work very well. He also gives almost every member of the ensemble a great moment, but the film’s clear star is Sharni Vinson’s Erin, a smart twist on the traditional horror film’s protagonist and a noteworthy, thoroughly badass character that earned lots of cheers from last’s night audience. Although the film ends on a bitter, unearned note, 30 false seconds in an otherwise near-impeccable film is not nearly enough to derail things.
    “You’re Next” probably won’t be in theaters for a year or so, and it’s a real shame. The film is legitimately scary, plays out in unexpected ways, and never cheats the audience, which puts it above most American horror films of the year instantly, and makes it the best film of Fantastic Fest thus far.

  • Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 2 Recap

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    Director: Morten Tyldum
    Genre: Thriller
    Grade: B+
    Screens again Sept. 25, 3:15

    “Headhunters” is exactly the sort of film that makes Fantastic Fest such an exceptional festival: a tense, impressively paced thriller starring Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown, a little man with big ambitions and bigger expenses. Brown covers his exorbitant lifestyle, which includes buying absurdly overpriced gifts for his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund), by stealing rare pieces of art from clients he meets through his job as a recruiter for high-powered corporations. However, Brown picks the wrong mark in Clas Greve (Nikolaj Cster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”), an ex-mercenary with a priceless painting hanging in his apartment.

    The film takes its time, adding all the necessary ingredients to its perfect recipe for disaster before things really hit the fan. Waldau makes a great villain, his chilly confidence and military skills turning him into something of a real-life Terminator, and Hennie’s pint-sized protagonist proves to be a capable, if not arrogant, hero worth rooting for. “Headhunters” mixes some superb black humor with impressive bloodshed and satisfying plot revelations with ease, and makes for an intelligent, well-acted thriller that never plays dumb with its audience or characters.

    Also worth noting is “The Candidate,” the short that preceded “Headhunters.” David Karlak’s unnerving short is packed with poetic dialogue straight out of a hard-boiled film noir, and presents an intriguing premise underlined with a not-entirely-surprising twist.

    El Narco/El Infierno
    Director: Luis Estrada
    Genre: Crime
    Grade: A-
    Screens again Sept. 24, 11:15

    Originally titled “El Infierno” (or “Hell”), “El Narco” is something of a Mexican spin on the crime epic, lifting elements from classics like “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.” When Benny Garcia (Damien Alcazar) returns home from the US, he finds both friends and family dead, and quickly learns the only way to make a buck is to follow his deceased brother’s footsteps and get into the drug business.

    Where “El Narco” shines is in its picture of Mexican drug-running, depicting it as equally seductive and repulsive, and making sure the audience undergoes the same struggle the characters do. Alcazar plays Benny’s rise to power with a lot of enthusiasm, but never sadistically, and Benny remains a good man for most of the film’s runtime (even if his actions occasionally slip into the realm of reprehensible).

    With a runtime of well over two hours, “El Narco” is a movie many will hesitate to commit to, simply because 145 minutes is a long time at a film festival with so many options. However, “El Narco” never feels like its epic length, and crafts great sequences all the way up to the film’s bloody exclamation point of a finale.

    Director: Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo
    Genre: Horror
    Grade: C+
    Screens again Sept. 28, 6:30

    The previous film from directing team Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, “Inside,” was a blunt assault on the viewer’s senses and good taste, and was one of the best horror films of the last decade. “Livid” is playing under slightly different rules, and lacks both the visceral impact and the narrative conciseness that made “Inside” stand out. The duo continues their focus on female-driven horror here, as Lucie (Chloe Coulloud), a caregiver for the elderly on her first day of training, stumbles upon a comatose old woman whose house is said to have treasure stashed inside it. At the insistence of boyfriend William (Felix Moati) and his brother Ben (Jeremy Kapone), Lucie reluctantly leads an expedition into the house to find the goods.

    “Livid” is at its most effective as the characters explore the creepy mansion, making incredibly effective use of taxidermied animal heads and the dolls which are scattered around the house. As a whole, “Livid” is aesthetically flawless, with some truly surreal and memorable cinematography, an impressively detailed set design, and tons of creepy imagery. However, its story is an absolute shambling mess, a film with both too much and too little mythology, which teases out various supernatural concepts without ever establishing their importance to the audience, making for a rather bewildering final act.

    Thankfully, “Livid” retains the preposterous amount of gore from “Inside,” and while it’s a bit more abstract and ramshackle than the directing team’s previous effort, it proves a versatility and ambition that makes it clear there are great things to come from these two.

    Sleepless Night
    Director: Frederic Jardin
    Genre: Thriller
    Grade: A-
    Screens Sept. 27, 12:30

    “Sleepless Night” is a tightly wound juggling act of a thriller, taking place almost entirely in a massive nightclub where corrupt cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) must return the coke he stole from drug lord Marciano (Serge Riaboukine) before his abducted son pays the price. Add in a rival drug organization, a few other cops tracking Vincent, and a variety of ticking clocks designed to up the tension, and you begin to understand just how precisely designed each moment of “Sleepless Night” has to be.

    The film is expertly crafted, with each character serving a purpose and not a wasted line of dialogue in its setup or the film’s lengthy series of scenes set in the various rooms of the nightclub. The techno-heavy score lends the proceedings a propulsive, steadily intensifying mood, and watching the film’s various factions compete to take down each other and Vincent never gets exhausting or confusing, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats at all times.

    The film takes its time building intensity, but once the characters get a chance to come to blows, it doesn’t disappoint. One fight scene in particular, between Vincent and a fellow cop, is a brutal, creative brawl in the nightclub’s kitchen that makes you legitimately question how either of them can walk away from it, practically leaving bruises on your body just from watching it.

    “Sleepless Night” may be the best film so far of Fantastic Fest, but it’s still early in the festival. While the film is mostly an impeccable thriller with some great action, the film lasts a bit too long after the surviving characters get out of the nightclub. Even so, “Sleepless Night” is not a film to miss.

  • Fantastic Fest 2011 Reviews: Manborg

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    Steven Kostanski
    Genre: Comedy
    Grade: B-
    Screens again Sept. 27, 11:45 p.m.

    The best possible way to wash the taste of “The Human Centipede II” out of your mouth is the schlocky, zero-budget “Manborg,” a wry bit of carefully calculated mediocrity. The film lifts liberally from every sci-fi and war film ever made, wearing its “Terminator” and “Star Wars” influences proudly on its sleeve. Matthew Kennedy stars as the titular human-cyborg fusion, a soldier killed on the front lines of the battle with an army from hell. Resurrected by a mad scientist and transported to a future where steampunk demons rule the world, Manborg must learn to control his new powers in time for a climactic confrontation with the nefarious Count Draculon.
    Yeah, it’s all about as silly as it sounds (if not sillier), with its intentionally bottom-of-the-barrel special effects and acting. Even so, “Manborg” takes unlimited joy in its cheesy 80’s effects and creative B-movie gore, and at a runtime of just under an hour, the movie zips by so quickly that the joke doesn’t even have time to get old. It’s almost hard to grade “Manborg” on a scale that assesses the quality of the film, as its inherent awfulness is what makes the film so entertaining. Ultimately, there are far worse ways to blow an hour than watching “Manborg.”

  • Fantastic Fest 2011 Reviews: The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)
    ?Tom Six
    Genre: Horror
    ?Grade: C-
    In theaters Oct. 6

    After last night’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest, the most intriguing topic of discussion concerning “The Human Centipede II” was the film’s subtext: Writer/director Tom Six has made a sequel to his body-horror debut that both ups the original’s ante and turns the mirror on the audience, commenting both on the impact of the original film and challenging those who found it underwhelming. If there’s one thing Six does in this follow-up, it’s making sure that no one thinks “The Human Centipede II” isn’t graphic enough. The film fetishizes the revolting and revels in its own filth, taking scatological humor (if you can even call it that) to nauseating extremes. Every scene is designed to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible and there’s not a relatable character in this amoral film.
    The film’s premise is undeniably intriguing, focusing on Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a fan of “The Human Centipede” who decides to recreate his favorite film in a desolate warehouse somewhere in London. Except where “The Human Centipede’s” titular creation had three unlucky participants, Martin’s abomination will have twelve. Most of the film is spent watching Martin trudge about his day, slowly amassing his victims and dealing with relentless abuse from his mother (Vivien Bridson), with the traumatizing final moments are composed of a long, disgusting sequence where Martin finally puts his plan into motion.
    As Martin, Harvey instantly assures no one will ever be comfortable around him again and makes an impressive screen debut. Martin doesn’t speak a word in the film, and yet Harvey’s sweaty, bug-eyed leer tells us all we need to know about the irreversibly damaged madman. Harvey’s performance as Martin is the one unreservedly good thing about the film, although Tom Six’s deft criticism of the viewers provides interesting food for thought.
    Even though there are a few vaguely positive things about “The Human Centipede II” here, do not take them as a recommendation. This is not a film that can be graded on terms of quality or style. It’s a brutal, self-indulgent, disgusting piece of work and there is absolutely no way to recommend anyone expose themselves to this, ever. It’s a film without a human character or quality, instead a celebration of the disturbing simply for the sake of making the audience pay for their criticisms of the first film. Morbid curiosity or a masochistic streak may draw you to see this film, but you’ll be better off not having this product of Tom Six’s twisted mind rattling around in your brain.

    Editor's note: The following video contains graphic content.

  • Weekend Recs: Horns and Heroes, Spring Awakening, Museum Day

    WHAT: 3rd Annual Horns and Heroes
    WHEN: Friday at 7 p.m.
    WHERE: Mike A. Myers Stadium
    HOW MUCH: $7

    Join Texas Soccer in celebrating America’s service men and women, and interact with service department members and vehicles including fire trucks, police cars, helicopters and military vehicles. A canned food collection will take place to benefit those affected by the Central Texas wildfires.


    WHAT: ZACH Theatre presents “Spring Awakening
    WHEN: Sept. 21 - Nov. 13
    WHERE: ZACH Theatre
    HOW MUCH: $35-$55

    The critically-acclaimed, eight-time Tony award winning folk-rock musical explores the joys and difficulties of budding adolescent sexuality. “Spring Awakening” at the ZACH Theatre premiered this week and will run through Nov. 13. Contains mature themes and nudity.


    WHAT: Quesoff 2011
    WHEN: Saturday, September 24, 5 p.m.
    WHERE: The Mohawk
    912 Red River
    Austin, TX 78701
    HOW MUCH: Free

    The Mohawk hosts the quest to find the greatest queso Austin has to offer, from amateur chefs to recipes from well-established local joints.


    WHAT: Austin Museum Day
    WHEN: Sunday
    WHERE: Various participating Austin museums.
    HOW MUCH: Free
    On Saturday, participating Austin museums, including the Blanton Museum of Art and the Visual Arts Center, will be offering free exhibits and activities. See austinmuseums.com for a full list of participating venues and events.