It had to happen eventually, that I’d see a movie that wasn’t up to snuff. No joke: of the 26 movies I’ve seen so far from Fantastic Fest, none have been outright terrible, and only a couple, this first one included, were missteps of any kind. I suppose the good news is that Monsoon Shootout, relative to most non-festival movies, isn’t that bad. But it’s a definite step down from pretty much everything I’d seen up to this point. Monsoon Shootout is essentially Sliding Doors meets every crime thriller of the past two decades, focusing on rookie Mumbai cop Adi (Vijay Varma) and his decision to shoot or not shoot a fleeing suspect who also works for a feared gangster called the Slum Lord. In one reality, he might shoot and cause himself guilt and nasty feelings from his co-workers and the family members of the deceased. In another, he doesn’t pull the trigger and the suspect only gets more violent. While writer-director Amit Kumar has come up with an intriguing twist (one apparently inspired by An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which certainly rears its ugly head), that twist isn’t enough to disguise the film’s crushing sameness. Aside from the foreign setting, many ingredients of Western cop dramas are present, from the half-formed romance to a diseased and corrupt justice system. The cast is adequate, the direction is fine, but the script just lies flat.
Until the final twist, that is. There is one last turn of the screw that Kumar has planned, and while it might seem like a snappy surprise, it only serves to emphasize exactly how pointless Monsoon Shootout feels. The trick ending, even when gimmicky, can work in literature; sometimes, it even affords a book or film with the potential of rewatchability. Seeing if a writer laid all the groundwork for the last reveal can be as fun as the reveal itself. Not so with Monsoon Shootout; the last twist arrives, and I thought, “Is that all there is?” All that ending does is remind the audience that what came before had literally no meaning. The twist is meant to inspire emotion, but only causes frustration.
My next film of the day also inspired frustration, but this was the intentional kind. Errol Morris returns to familiar territory with his new documentary, The Unknown Known. In 2003’s The Fog of War, Morris profiled Robert McNamara, one of many politicians responsible for the disastrous Vietnam War. Now, ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is put in the spotlight to explain whatever rationale he may have for his part in the Iraq War as well as the run-up to the attacks of 9/11. It shouldn’t surprise most people to learn that Rumsfeld doesn’t get more forthcoming in this film than he ever was while in office. He makes a few impressive revelations, sprinkled throughout, but Donald Rumsfeld sticks squarely to his guns, as enervating as that may be.
His smile is one of the recurring images of The Unknown Known, and it’s legitimately one of the more terrifying things I’ve seen yet at Fantastic Fest. It almost always comes at an inopportune time, as the finishing point for some unpleasant anecdote about his time in office either under Nixon, Ford, or Bush. He’s more like a Mephistophelean magician, luring you in with false promises of the truth, only to reveal that what he has up his sleeve is a bunch of hot air (or snowflakes, which is what he dubs his countless memos from over the years). Morris captures Rumsfeld’s evasive tactics with a growing sense of bafflement. There’s only so much you can say to a guy who contradicts himself in almost the same breath and doesn’t seem to realize or care. The Fog of War, perhaps because McNamara was more honest and accountable, is the better film, but The Unknown Known is an impressive entry in Errol Morris’ filmography. Just don’t expect hard facts. Or answers. Just a lot more questions.
Once more into the fray of world cinema I went next, with another trip to Norway. This time, though, I sat down not for a would-be noir like Detective Downs, but an old-fashioned family adventure film. Ragnarok is the closest you’re going to get to a new Steven Spielberg movie in the manner of Jurassic Park or Raiders of the Lost Ark; watching the movie is like listening to a cover band play your favorite group’s greatest hits. The songs are the same, but the notes are slightly different, and not quite as good as when you first heard them, either live or on the album. The film focuses on a young archaeologist who believes that centuries-old artifacts need to belong in museums, not in the hands of greedy treasure hunters. He also carries a whip and is afraid of snakes, and hold on a second. OK, fine, this guy isn’t named Indiana Jones, but he might as well be. Yes, Ragnarok’s lead character, Sigurd, is an archaeologist, but one obsessed with Viking lore and mythology. He believes that Ragnarok is less a sign of the apocalypse and more of something specifically monstrous. He gets his kids to join him on a trek in the northern part of Norway to hopefully find the key to the Ragnarok legend.
Ragnarok isn’t a bad movie, and hey, if you’re going to take inspiration from modern movies, Spielberg’s blockbuster hits of the 1980s and 1990s aren’t too shabby. But director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose and writer John Kåre Raake do not even make an attempt to hide their influences. The line in the previous paragraph about Sigurd wanting artifacts to stay in museums, away from the avaricious and grubby hands of others, isn’t an embellishment, but a line he has. His love for his kids is challenged by his long grief over losing his wife, even though the comely blonde assistant he works with on the adventure is clearly positioned as a replacement. Even when it’s not directly aping Spielberg, Ragnarok, like Monsoon Shootout, isn’t incredibly unique to its country of origin. It’s more of a foreign attempt to make a Western movie. Both of these films, visually, are able to impress; the nature photography in Ragnarok is really beautiful, but that’s because Norway clearly is a lush and verdant landscape. The story in that environment is just too familiar.
My last film of the day—well, my last film of the festival, kind of—was something I’d been looking forward to for at least a few weeks, after it did so well at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, and if the title isn’t enough of an indication, trust me, this thing is bonkers. It should not be a complete shock that a 2-hour movie can’t sustain a level of insanity throughout, but Sono comes awfully close. What’s more, the final third of the movie is so darkly funny, meta, outrageously bloody, and sharply written that it almost forgives the slightly weak story. Frankly, it’s a bit challenging to critique Why Don’t You Play In Hell? because of Sono turning the movie into a live-action cartoon. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, so critiquing it might seem to run counter to its very existence. But let’s try anyway.
The basic concept is that a group of guerilla filmmakers, known fondly as the Fuck Bombers, are finally given the chance to make a wonderful masterpiece of a movie when one yakuza clan decides to make a movie starring the yakuza head’s daughter. Of course, the movie will be that clan fighting a rival yakuza clan for dominance, with the Fuck Bombers’ cameras swirling around the presumed bloodbath. This is, in essence, an excuse for Sono to make a trenchant commentary on movie violence, action-film conventions, and the way that media sometimes burrows so deep into our brains, there’s no way to escape it. (I hope, very much, that the toothpaste jingle that opens this film someday leaves my brain, but I fear it will not.) The real issue with the story is that it doesn’t kick in for the first hour. The Fuck Bombers are positioned as the center of the film from the opening, but then they vanish almost entirely. They roar back on screen with a vengeance for the blood-soaked finale, sure; however, they’re not nearly as fascinating as the yakuza boss’s daughter, her pretend boyfriend, the rival boss, and so on. So I can’t say I completely loved Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, but its crazy mentality is hard to shake, especially in the last 40 minutes. It’s excessive, yes, but often gloriously so.
Next: Well…I’m going home. There are three more days of festival left, but after 26 movies, I’m high-tailing it back to Phoenix. (Yes, I know, I wish I could stay for the whole thing, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my wife something fierce.) However, I should, over the next week or so, have a few more reviews up on this page, of some movies I haven’t yet seen from Fantastic Fest. So keep an eye out.