If you didn’t know better you might think that an event called Fantastic Fest simply shows horror, sci-if and fantasy films, attracting a crowd of geeky genre fans. What makes this annual gathering in Austin, Texas so special is that it defies expectations on every level. For one thing, it offers a wide array of contemporary cinema and television from around the globe. As a member of this year’s comedy jury (along with Matt Manfredi and Alejandro Brugues) I saw films from Germany, Ireland, Australia, Japan, and The Netherlands and got to hear talented young filmmakers discuss their work. Some of them will go on to take their place on the world stage, and I won’t forget that I first saw them at Fantastic Fest.
What’s more, the week-long festival is great fun, filled with wacky events from a gross-food-eating contest to a series of movie-related debates that wind up in a boxing ring. My daughter Jessie and I met nothing but nice people: fans, filmmakers, fellow journalists, and the welcoming, enthusiastic staff. They put this whole thing together under the leadership of Tim League, the maverick owner of Alamo Draft House Cinema. One of this year’s highlights for Jessie and me was getting to record our podcast Maltin on Movies before a live audience at the Highball, a bowling-alley-turned-lounge at Alamo’s Lamar location. On Sunday night our guest was Tim Burton, fresh from a screening of his latest effort Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, which opens this Friday. Monday night we had a lively session with Bruce Campbell following a showing of the first two episodes of Ash vs. Evil Dead, Season 2, which debuts October 2 on Starz. (The Burton conversation will air this Friday on the Nerdist network, with the Campbell show to follow next week. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you posted.)
There’s never enough time to see all the films I’d like to, but several stood out for me. The Young Offenders is a confident debut feature by writer-director Peter Foott about two 15-year-old hell-raising lads from Cork. A news story about sacks of cocaine worth millions floating in the water not far from their home town sends them on a bicycle odyssey. A uniquely Irish sensibility permeates this disarming, profanely funny film, which manages to weave a number of story threads together without a wasted moment. It was made for a pittance and has already enjoyed great success in Ireland; it deserves to find an appreciative audience here as well.
Aussie filmmaker Abe Forsythe pulls off an even more astonishing feat in Down Under: opening with footage of a horrifying race riot that took place in Sydney in 2006, he crafts a farcical story pitting whites against “foreigners.” The characters are extremely well-drawn, and a young man with Down Syndrome becomes the movie’s beating heart. The story builds over the course of one day and night, growing more intense–and more absurd–as the hours pass. The result is uproariously funny and shocking at the same time, a searing social commentary that also has you doubled up with laughter.
Popoz is based on a popular TV series in The Netherlands about two young, fumbling cops and it, too, made me laugh pretty consistently. It could easily be replicated in the U.S., but I don’t think American filmmakers would, or could, get away with some of the darker, more violent, or sexy gags that set this comedy apart.And then there’s Hentai Kamen 2: The Abnormal Crisis, the sequel to a successful Japanese superhero comedy based on a manga series. I didn’t think I would warm up to this one: it’s about a nerdy high-school student who is transformed into a muscular crime-fighter whenever he puts his girlfriend’s panties over his head. (Go ahead, call me narrow-minded.) But this preposterous production is quite funny and well-executed, with no shortage of outlandish ideas. It can’t quite sustain a two-hour movie but it’s definitely one-of-a-kind, and precisely the kind of film I wouldn’t have seen except as a jury member at Fantastic Fest. (I have not mentioned Toni Erdmann, Germany’s entry for the Academy Awards this year, a fascinating and provocative film that has already garnered ample attention elsewhere.)
By volunteering for the comedy jury I spared myself the grim, gory, graphic horror fare that Fantastic Fest is better known for. At least, that’s how it went until I saw those episodes from Ash vs. Evil Dead, produced by Bruce Campbell’s lifelong filmmaking pals Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. There is a scene in Episode 2 that I dare not even try to describe in which Ash (Campbell, reprising his role from the Evil Dead movies) has intimate contact with a corpse. I doubt there’s ever been anything quite like it on television before, or possibly anywhere else. Yet here again, the leavening factor of humor–outrageous humor–made it work for me.
As I write this Fantastic Fest is still going strong, destined to cap things off with a wild closing-night party. I’ve had to return home to Los Angeles, but Jessie will fill me in on what I’ve missed. Tim League and his wonderful team have created something genuine and unique, I really can’t say enough about this entertaining, eye-opening event.