Fantastic Fest 2024 Wrap
As with any film festival no matter how many films you see you always miss films that you later hear about. It makes you wonder how many hours a person can watch non-stop movies before they go a little bit bonkers.
Fantastic Fest 2024 offered up over 75 features as well as many short subjects that ran in front of select films. I saw a solid eight films during my sojourn to Austin. (The festival lasts eight days; I attended two days.) Here’s the skinny on a few of the films; there are some spoilers.
Liza the Fox Fairy hails from Hungary, but there’s also a bit of Japanese being sung. Liza has a problem in that every potential boyfriend or work related patient ends up dying. A chandelier falls at an inopportune moment, a gun goes off when it shouldn’t, what have you. Liza has fantasies of a Japanese rock crooner who inhabits her walking reality. Liza can see him but nobody else can. The tone is a kind of hybrid Western/Eastern magic reality.
Liza herself walks around for most of the movie in this cool ’60s style white dress with matching go-go boots. The film itself is garish in color. Liza inhabits a topsy-turvy universe but it’s a fair and kind universe.
Nicolas Refn and Alan Jones hosted a screening of Farewell Uncle Tom. The movie is one of hundreds of images depicted in the movie poster book The Act of Seeing, edited by Refn and written by Jones. The version show was the American release, which is different than the original Italian version. Refn explained how the American version was edited in a manner made it less political and devoid of the social commentary in the Italian cut, which is also slightly longer. Perhaps not oddly a medium res version of said Italian cut is on Youtube.
The Witch shows what life was like in an American rural situation in 1640 from the viewpoint of English immigrants. The woods come alive with metaphysical realities, and rabbits and goats become invested with demonic dimensions if not just being plain bad tempered. The family, father and mother, teen daughter, son and twins find their limited belief systems challenged by the Puritanical standards of their era. The Witch is loaded with authenticity from the sets to the costumes to the way they talk like they are auditioning for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
There are some scenes that give you chills up the spine. Yet I didn’t feel The Witch was pure horror like say Goodnight Mommy or If Follows. There’s a strict psychodrama going on and Robert Egger’s direction keeps you sidetracked by what is happening to the reality of what may be really happening.
From Chile, The Club demands a sophisticated audience. The film is filled with tense dialogue and some very strong violent images, most of which are achieved by editing and your imagination as opposed to actual watching bloodshed. A group of middle-age-to-elderly-priests live in a house, with a nun as their caretaker. A new arrival promptly blows his brains out in the first half reel. Through a series of conversations we come to know the individual members of this group in a manner both philosophical and sexual.
All of the priests have engaged in some form of sodomy in one manner or another. The nun has her own issues. She taught in Africa and adopted a child. Her own mother had her disqualified as a parent, and her child taken away because she didn’t want a black grandchild. The town has a dog racing ritual, and the priests’ dog is more often than not the winner.
The Club was truly hard to sit through. There are some ugly conflicts taking place. One church member was raped by a member of the clergy (none of the main cast) as a child and he projects his personal fetishes onto the priests. Later in the film a couple of the priests and the nun systematically assassinate the three main racing dogs: broken glass packed in raw meat; suffocation; and a blow to the head while said dog’s head is lodged between two fence posts. The Club had me questioning every facet of man’s inhumanity to himself.
After the dog slaughter the club makes the crime look like the work of the town’s abused adult. Naturally the townspeople beat him to a pulp. Then the priests (and nun) take him in and help him convalesce. The Club is a fine example of the cinema of cruelty.
And then for something totally different a one-hour documentary essay, Stand-By for Tape Backup made me reflect on why I still maintain a collection of VHS tapes. Director Ross Sutherland narrates throughout as he recalls a half-erased VHS tape that he came across in parent’s collection of useless artifacts of the past.
Sutherland’s non-stop banter reminded me of the agitprop films of another UK documentarian, Adam Curtis, although Sutherland’s rap is devoid of political awareness yet infused with self-actualization. The image is low resolution at best, as if the filmmaker has purposely inserted video roll bars and noise at random. We see a scene from Ghostbusters where the green ghost is coming after Bill Murray in a hotel hallway. The image slows down to frame-by-frame speed and eventually freezes on Murray’s face as Sutherland unleashes a diatribe aimed at cultural detachment. The screen fades to black on occasion; and Sutherland also repeats ad infinitum the opening title sequence of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, again with a slew of verbiage. The filmic treatise end with a dissection of the first half-reel of Jaws.
Sutherland can lay down poetry, rap, and stream of consciousness dialogue all in the same breath. Stand-By is the kind of film you want to share at parties, however you are only likely to ever see a film like this at a film festival. The clearance rights on the aforementioned films mentioned alone insure that it will only be shown in select engagements.
Man Vs. Snake chronicles the true-life story of a young lad who walked into his local video arcade in 1984 and put a quarter in a machine. That machine was a B-level game called Nibbler. Think copycat Pac Man only with a wiggly snake.
Forty-hours later young Tim emerges as the first person to have ever scored a billion points on a video game.
Twenty-five years Tim finds out that another player might have duplicated his feat in Italy at the same time but it was not officially recorded. Then there are challengers to Tim’s feat. As the film progresses we see Tim, now a weight-challenged nerd with an equally enabling wife, trying to relive his teen glory days by trying to beat the billion point spread in under 40-hours.
Man Vs. Snake also gets technical on our ass and takes apart the electronics of the game. We examine chips and the central processing unit of the game and one expert demonstrates how a flaw in a circuit can actually make it possible to achieve the billion point pinnacle in 30-hours. King of Kong, a similarly themed doc gets a shout out. King of Kong grossed a little bit over half-a-million at the box office, by the way.
Schneider Vs. Bax, no relation to Man Vs. Snake, comes from the dark recesses of Netherlands’ director Alex Van Warmerdam’s mind. Van Warmerdam previously directed the baffling and mysterious Borgman. If you think about it Warmerdam literally translated to English would be hot shit.
SVB is a hit man movie, a black comedy with a smirk on its face. Two hit men, with Warmerdam playing one of the roles, try to kill each other over the course of an afternoon.
Great locations and sets highlight the proceedings. Most of the action takes place at a country home in the reeds and swamp. The house has a translucent ceiling that lets lots of light shine and gives the proceedings a comic hue despite its constant threat of death by sniper scope. SVB is all at once funny, desperate, tension inducing and profound. Not a bad combination.
My personal favorite movie at FF 2024 was High Rise. High Rise is helmed by Ben Wheatley, based on the novel by J. G. Ballard, and includes a tony cast with names like Tom Hiddleston, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, and Sienna Miller (whom I didn’t even recognize until the final credit roll).
Tenants of a high-rise condominium with a fascist architecture find themselves at odds with each other, floor by floor. The top penthouse suite, which occupies the entire overlooking floor and boasts a world-class grass and flower garden and stable of animals, has the best parties.
The lead character, a notable doctor by trade, played with subtle nuance by Hiddleston, gets invited to a party on the top floor. He shops on a floor that is a supermarket and buys a bottle of Riesling. However when he gets to the party dressed in a chic suit and tie, where a sting quartet is playing Abba’s “S.O.S.”, he’s promptly told his bottle of wine is shite and ejected because he didn’t get the missive that everyone was to dress in late-18th century haberdashery.
Evans plays a BBC documentarian that wants to make a film about the societal injustice in the building. Moss plays a pregnant mom, one of many residents that show up on the floor that is a gym and swimming pool. Miller plays a movie star yet some people have never seen her films. Irons lords over everything he sees as the architect, and it’s a snug role for his condescending manner.
Celebs are a common image in Ballard’s books. In his novel Crash (made into a film by David Cronenberg) he has a character that wants to crash his car into the limo of Elizabeth Taylor who is shooting a film at a nearby studio. Ballard also wrote the autobiographical Empire of the Sun, made into a film by Spielberg, and starring a child Christian Bale.
High Rise could be genre related to Snowpiercer, which looked at the class struggle on a train car by train car basis, only here people are separated by floor. In the parking lot everyone is equal. Only it’s the luck of the draw as to which car hood will be crush when someone jumps off a ledge in a medically mandated suicide.
Wheatley has never made a film as mainstream as High Rise. Even in the third act he gets loose and experimental and displays a death with a kaleidoscope eye. Wheatley films like A Field In England and Sightseers were highlighted by diversions into genre mixing. High Rise marches straight ahead to the beat of its own drum – a kind of lacerating expose of middle class values colliding with the speed of a Large Hadron unit.
Things go from copasetic to anarchy, often in the blink of an eye. The ‘70s look to the film extends from its technology to its groovy dresses and suits. But it’s a story that unwinds as relevant to any decade, especially our own. The survivors of this single building rebellion are destined to resort to ancient myth to finally establish their new rules for living.
In retrospect you have to give a tip of the hat to the ingenuity of Fantastic Fest for inducing audience participation. The films were preceded by trailers based on famous films (The Exorcist was oft copied.) that were made in a contest that required that the participants in front of the camera were senior citizens or youngsters or hand puppets.
— Michael Bergeron