September 24, 2012

FANTASTIC FEST 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Holy Motors

Satan hates you. But, apparently, he loves Fantastic Fest. The forces of el cine demoniac gathered like a black storm of winged doom in Austin over the weekend, and I don't mean the beloved bats that haunt the bridges over Town Lake. Of course, over the past eight years, America's No. 1 genre film festival has won a reputation for showing great movies—period. The 2012 edition is no exception, with such out-of-the-box marvels as Leos Carax's magical mystery tour of the multitudes contained within Denis Lavant, Holy Motors, and Quentin Dupieux's likewise idiosyncratic Wrong, a comedy that turns one man's love for his lost pup into a mindbendingly dada exercise that's like Ionesco gone K-9.

Yet, when it comes to genre mania, the Alamo Drafthouse is the portal to its own hallucinatory dimension of cinematic extremes. Argentine director Adrián García Bogliano came blasting out of the gate with Here Comes the Devil: a pair of naked women, covered in sweat of a heavy sapphic grind, have their afternoon delight slashed to bits by a machete-wielding madman who collects the fingers of his victims. The intense cold open shifts to the more mundane scenario of a family on a day trip near a rocky expanse outside Tijuana. An otherwise ordinary afternoon is interrupted when teenage Sara (Michele Garcia) has her first period and Sol (Laura Caro) ushers her daughter into a gas station restroom to wash up—the camera glimpsing a shady middle-aged man spying on them from the street outside, eyes riveted in the blood-stained panties that lay atop the sink.

Here Comes the Devil

The dual themes of sexual awakening and looming menace are amplified as Sara and her younger brother Adolfo (Alex Martinez) are given permission to play for an hour on the adjacent hill, attracted to an odd formation of rocks that form a cave. With the kids gone, Sol slowly gives in to the sexual demands of her clearly hard-up husband Felix (Francisco Barreiro, the troublesome cannibal from We Are What We Are), who arouses her with a graphic confession of his first sexual encounter, whispered with a comic urgency. She responds in kind, but while they tease each other into a mutual state of intense horniness, they forget about the kids. And the kids have vanished. Bogliano (Cold Sweat, Penumbra) turns on the slow burn figuratively as well as literally here. He uses intensely bright exteriors to create a sense of fevered disorientation, paying explicit homage to the Nicolas Roeg of Don't Look Now with jolting flash-cuts to images whose meaning is not immediately clear but clearly loaded with ominous intent, much as the sudden zooms that punctuate the scenery, provoking a sense of psychic disorder. When the siblings are safely returned by the police the next day, narrative expectations are thrown for a loop. Appearances are deceiving. The devil's on his way.


Rather than risk spoilers, let's leave the story there: Bogliano prefers to sever its limbs and rearrange them anyway, tapping his terrific leads for bold performances whose emotional and sensual dimension is a good deal more complex than what you might expect, and necessary for the film's severe dynamic to kick so forcefully—enhanced at every turn by lysergic sound design, emphasizing terror as an interior landscape--ot only a black secret hidden in the rocks. And even then, it's not quite over until it's over... a final jolt awaits.

For sheer manic thrills, the Nicolas Wending Refn-approved remake of his Pusher is hard to beat. Transported to London from the Copenhagen of the 1996 original (part one of a trilogy that launched the Drive director's career), the film sustains a sleaze-bag milieu of cocaine, fast cars, disco party sluts and the great Zlatko Burić—a lone holdover from the Danish films—as the Turkish drug kingpin who has the title character (Richard Coyle, as a burnt around the edges dealer named Frank) whirring in an increasingly desperate bid to keep his fingers and kneecaps intact. I was impressed by the film's wholehearted embrace of incessant drug use, excessive casual violence and sullen conversations with elegantly debauched Edie Sedgwick lookalikes (Agyness Deyn). Like its antihero, the movie makes no apologies and packs an exhilarating rush cut with brief episodes of unshaven despondence. Which is to say, it takes itself seriously enough not to take itself too seriously.

[Video footage from Pusher's Fantastic Fest premiere can be found here.]


If the rampant hedonism on display in Pusher makes it hard to feel too badly for the jams Frank has to extricate himself from—he may be the world's stupidest drug dealer—the motives that drive the desperate protagonist in the Filipino thriller Graceland are more complex and disturbing, rooted in the nation's chronic political corruption and sharply divisive class system. First-time writer-director Ron Morales has made a gutsy thriller that delves with uncomfortable detail into Manila's child-sex underground, tying it to a complex web of woe that includes kidnap plots, domestic terrorism, scandalous cover-ups and the black market for body organs. At the center of the drama is Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), an all-too-fallible father who job as a limo driver for a powerful political figure leads to a chain of events that puts his own daughter in life-or-death peril. Unlike some Liam Neeson version of the story, though, Marlon exists to have his ass kicked and has to out-think everyone around him to save his child, while keeping hidden his own dangerous secrets. It's a stone-cold harrowing contemporary noir with the breaking news kick of a documentary expose.

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Posted by ahillis at September 24, 2012 3:20 PM