Over the hump and onto the final leg of Fantastic Fest. Day Five was highlighted with Cuba’s first horror movie, one of the worst things I’ve seen at the festival, one of the best things at the festival, the awards, a movie starring a blind man, and the annual Fantastic Feud game show. These blog entries may be getting a little shorter in length and I apologize, but as the wear of the festival sets in and my attempts to fit in the final few movies takes over, finding times to get to sit down and write become fewer and far between. I do promise to continue to provide updates daily.
Director Alejandro Brugués, who challenged Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) to a debate at next year’s festival, has brought us what is being touted as Cuba’s first horror film. I can only assume this is true because I find no record of any others, and if there are any I doubt they’re as fun as Juan of the Dead. Our titular character (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is a slacker of the worst kind. Depending on whatever drops in his lap is how he makes a living. Sometime this may mean he and his crew happen upon some stereos from the local cars, but it beats any real living. Like other zombie flicks before it, one day they start to notice things are going awry and people aren’t behaving as they should.
Where Juan takes a different turn on the genre is by incorporating a pretty heavy Cuban political agenda within. It’s neatly packaged with a oftentimes hilarious script and a cohesive ensemble cast. Juan of the Dead features a lot of fun, creative zombie kills and Brugués has done a nice job with his work to make the scope of the film feel much larger than could be legally filmed in Cuba. I forsee that we’ll be hearing more about this film at a later date and let’s hope the fight between Vigalondo and Brugués is equally as fun next year.
It’s easy to sound like a broken record when praising Fantastic Fest and at it’s heart it would be nothing without a really top quality lineup of movies. In the years past there’s certainly some standout clunkers (I’ll never forgive the showing of Seventh Moon) and this year unfortunately has one of the worst things they’ve programmed with The Squad. Full of flat characters that are nearly indistinguishable from each other, sound cues that build to nothing time and time again, a nonsensical storyline about a military troop that seems to slowly go crazy for no reason while investigating an abandoned fortress, and, worst of all, it’s just plain boring. It’s unimaginable to me that I’ll see anything I like less than The Squad this year.
Luckily for me my day was redeemed by the third show of the day and a movie that went on to win the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor awards in the AMD “Next Wave” Spotlight Competition, Bullhead. You wouldn’t think a crime drama about the Belgian cattle hormone trade could be made into an incredible movie, but it’s been done. Interweaving a touching story about a traumatic childhood experience that forever changed Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) with the murder of a federal cop who is investigating a Flemish beef trader, Bullhead is both complex and utterly compelling. It’s also one the most beautifully shot and edited films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing at the festival this year. I would count on being able to see it later, as right before our screening it was announced that it was being entered for Oscar Foreign Film contention for Belgium.
After moving things around in my schedule, I was able to fit in the next movie of the day and one I wanted to see because its star is completely blind. Aardvark follows Larry (Larry Lewis Jr.) as he discovers a jiujitsu club run by the enigmatic and gentle-souled Darren (Darren Bench), and then enrolls as a student. The two quickly become friends and even as Larry excels at his class and as the leader of a local Alcoholics Anonymous class, Darren descends into a dark world of sex trade and boozing. An odd couple pair, Larry is introduced to the stripper Candy (Jessica Cole), only furthering the complex relationship.
I’m not sure why it’s called Aardvark, but the name is as compelling as much of what is contained within. The movie is very pretty to look at and Cole has an easy on screen presence, but it’s Larry that highlights the story as he makes his way through the journey. However, to its detriment, the film is filled with a few too many long takes of people walking or cars driving that feel like they’re there only to pad the length. Still, it’s a film worthy of some praise despite it’s minor flaws and I enjoyed it.
I did not make it to the awards show but You’re Next pretty much swept the horror category and A Boy and His Samurai took the much deserved Audience Award. Instead, my final show of the evening is something special that I can guarantee isn’t at other movie festivals. If you’ve ever seen the classic TV game show, Family Feud, it’s become a tradition for Fantastic Fest to host their own version. A survey goes out to all the film attendees and the public a few weeks before start, asking movie related trivia. The top answers are then calculated and used in the game show wherein two teams of five players goes head to head to pick the best answers.
Every year the enigmatic yet well-known critic Scott Weinberg and his friend and Drafthouse employee Devin Steuerwald host and run the show; this year dressed up as Mario and Luigi. Team USA once again took the win over Team World as they were all asked questions such as “Name the best Lucio Fulci film” or “What movie is your greatest guilty pleasure” (spoiler, the top answer was Armageddon). It’s a whole lot of fun, but this year ran particularly short, ending before we even had a chance to order a 2nd beer or get our checks. I would have loved another half an hour of questions but it did allow us all to top off the night by heading to The Highball for a few drinks and some nice socializing before heading back to crash out and get a few hours of shut eye before Day Six.