October 4, 2012


by Steve Dollar

Fantastic Fest Debates 2012: Faraci vs. Swanberg

Let them drink deer blood. It's not every film festival where a filmmaker guest is flown in purely to jump in a boxing ring with his blogger nemesis, or a closing night celebrates a (needless) Red Dawn remake with a theme party featuring free prison tattoos and muscle-spasm-inducing rounds of "torture"-oke. But, as they say, "That's Fantastic!" Fantastic Fest 2012 nearly outdid itself with the big titles this year: Dredd 3D, Frankenweenie, Looper—the latter inspiring a series of time-travel bumpers—and a secret screening of the phantasmagorical Cloud Atlas.

But, as ever, it's also one of the most entertaining discovery festivals going, guided by unpredictable perspectives that shine a solitary flashlight flickering at the odd corners of human behavior.

The Final Member

Strangely touching given the subject matter, The Final Member was a word-of-mouth favorite. The documentary opens with stately tableaux of handsomely displayed body parts floating in infinite black space. Whose bodies and what parts? Sigurdur Hjartarson appears soon to explain. He's the founder and curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, the world's only repository of penis. Located in Reykjavík, the site has corralled every kind of penis out there—280 varieties—a veritable Noah's Ark of disembodied cock. He's even got some big ol' whale wang, but this gentleman obsessive's Moby Dick, as it were, is ever elusive: a human specimen.

Hjartarson's getting on in years and fears he will die without having completed his quest. As the movie unfolds, it becomes a suspenseful race against time. The curator's most likely donor, a 95-year-old ladies man named Páll Arason, has proudly offered his junk, but as he continues to age a fear abounds: Will his once-mighty sword shrink too much? Meanwhile, another volunteer appears: a bold, 60-year-old American named Tom who is willing to undergo surgery and deliver the package while still alive. He's seemingly motivated by some weird combination of patriotism and ego, but also appears somehow deeply wounded by failure at love. The more directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math reveal, the weirder it gets.

Working in a mode that recalls Errol Morris in his pre-Interrotron era (see Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida), the film treats wacky individuals and their wacky compulsions as not wacky at all, underscoring every deadpan giggle with the tone of something more profound and substantial. Given the topic, the filmmakers could have just made 75 minutes of dirty jokes and probably gotten away with it. Instead, they've made a compelling cultural commentary paced like a thriller—and it's educational, too! They aren't dicking around.

The American Scream

Obsessive behavior also occupies the subjects of The American Scream. Michael Stephenson's follow-up to 2009's Troll 2 opus, Best Worst Movie, takes us to the quaint seaside village of Fairhaven, Mass., where Halloween isn't merely a once-a-year romp. It's a 24/7/365 state of mind. Much as his previous film, the focus is on the manufacture of horror as an all-American folk art, a hobby gone nuclear where—like punk rock and poetry slams—enthusiasm is what counts. In this case, it's not a Grade Z monster movie being produced, but haunted houses. Being a "haunter" is everything for Victor Bariteau. The middle-aged family man has a steady-if-boring desk job but spends most of his time in the garage, constructing ghouls and inventing contraptions to scare the piss out of the neighborhood kids each Halloween when they come to his house—transformed into a hellish dimension of doom and gloom. Victor's sweet wife indulges him because he never got to have Halloween growing up (watch the movie for the surprising revelation as to why), and at least one daughter—his eldest—embraces his passion wholeheartedly, relishing the prospect of terrorizing her classmates in spooky costume each year and proudly mangling boxloads of Barbies as haunted house props. Her younger sibling is less impressed by the family avocation, but every household of Munsters needs its Marilyn. And as Stephenson introduces us to other neighborhood haunters, each sweetly eccentric in their own way, it's clear that the Bariteau's unconventional family life is abundantly functional. If his kids grow up to be the next Sam Raimi or George A. Romero, you'll know who to thank.

Everybody in Our Family

Domestic life is never so huggable in Everybody in Our Family. The Eastern European entry at Fantastic Fest fell into this year's counter-programming slot: The film that doesn't really seem to fit, and therefore fits perfectly. Radu Jude's tense-as-fuck drama has the rambling gait and handheld verisimilitude we now immediately associate with contemporary Romanian films, qualities that the director uses to keep an audience up on a high wire as a day-long crisis develops from an incident that might easily have been sorted out with some patience and maturity into a situation that might turn lethal at any second. That's almost all I want to tell you (which was the common refrain from anyone encouraging fellow festers to not miss the movie), except that the performances are terrific from the top down: Serban Paviu, as a stressed-out divorced father with grudges and a bruised ego that won't let him go, turns one man's meltdown into a full-tilt display of vein-bulging virtuosity.

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Posted by ahillis at October 4, 2012 8:17 AM