Fantastic Fest 2013, Day Two Report: Ninjas and Disney and vampires, oh my

The day began as all days should probably begin: with a sold-out crowd taking shots of Jack Daniels to ward off the cat flu. The day ended as all days should close: with an exceptionally lively and entertaining martial-arts film made by a group of passionate people who know how to kick ass. Yes, Day Two of Fantastic Fest 2013 was a predictably unpredictable and wild ride. It is, perhaps, fitting that spending the entire day–by which I mean 13-plus hours–at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline reminded me very much of the vacations I’ve spent with my wife at the Walt Disney World and Disneyland resorts. No, there were no costumed characters, no meet-and-greets with beloved cult movie figures, or literal attractions. But Day Two was one of those days where I realized how much I had done over the course of just one day. It’s hard to believe that I started with a surreal look at those Disney theme parks and ended with ninja battles. But so it goes.

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And, yes, I do believe in miracles now. You’ll note, dear reader, that I mentioned at the end of my opening-day missive that I’d need one to get into the morning screening of Escape from Tomorrow. This guerrilla-style drama about a family man at the end of his rope while on a family vacation to the happiest place on Earth was shot entirely–well, almost–at Disney without prior approval. It was a huge hit at Sundance and Ebertfest, so it stands to reason that it’d be a hot ticket at Fantastic Fest. So, how did I get in? After nixing an idea to impersonate a bloodied Mickey Mouse, a la the figure on the recent poster, I…well, I did nothing. Instead, thanks to a trio of guardian angels (or, to keep the Disney theme running, fairy godfathers), I was able to secure a seat. If my tweets weren’t enough thanks, here’s to Jacob Hall, Brian Salisbury, and Luke Mullen, all of whom were kind enough to get me in. Gentlemen, I owe you one. (Of anything. But preferably a beer. Let’s be reasonable.)

So, Escape from Tomorrow. Walking into this, I wondered if the production of the movie, the fact that a feature-length film–I am told by City Weekly’s Scott Renshaw that the Sundance cut ran 104 minutes, where this version was just 90–made entirely at the Disney theme parks without anyone’s knowledge exists, would be better than the movie itself. That’s not entirely the case, though I do wonder if Escape from Tomorrow is a film that works best on those people who can recognize Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, and more. The film, written and directed by Randy Moore, focuses on Jim (Roy Abramsohn), who finds out in the first scene that he’s been fired for no real reason. He gets the bad news on his hotel-room balcony, at the Contemporary Resort in Walt Disney World. He chooses to keep his firing a secret from his wife Emily, and kids Elliott and Sarah, so everyone can have one more good day. But almost immediately, Jim begins having nasty visions, fixating on a pair of nubile French teenagers, and potentially losing his mind.

When Escape from Tomorrow works, it’s because the film has at least one foot in reality. The opening credits play over a POV shot of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, culminating in a rider getting their head lopped off because they (apparently) didn’t meet the height clearance requirement. On its face, that sounds ridiculous and sets the tone for this surrealist work quite well. But if you’ve ever ridden Big Thunder Mountain, you might watch this and think, “Yeah, I can see that.” The drops in Big Thunder Mountain are designed to make you wonder, if you’re paranoid enough, that you just might lose your head if you don’t duck at the right moment. In these scenes, Moore is able to tap into the dark side of Disney while being just grounded enough. Jim suffers through the infamous it’s a small world ride (yes, the lowercase letters are intentional and, for these purposes, grammatically correct), and quickly sees the friendly, peace-loving dolls as toothy demons. Sure, it’s a goofy, if novel, gag. But even the most passionate Disney fans might look at this ride and have similar flights of imaginative fancy.

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After a point, Moore adds a bit too much background to the plot, and while the concepts are intriguing–a late scene set underneath the well-known Spaceship Earth (the big golf ball) attraction at Epcot–the execution is a bit iffier. And, though no spoilers will be divulged here, the aforementioned cat flu is a kind of funny non sequitur until Moore treats it more seriously than he should. Abramsohn is an appropriately hapless screen presence, his Jim a man who’s always lost amidst a flurry of the heightened and unreal. That is, in essence, all of what Escape from Tomorrow aspires to be: a twisted version of real life. Make no mistake, a documentary about how the hell Escape from Tomorrow happened–or, frankly, a documentary about the typical Disney-theme-park-attending family having a terrible day (something that occurs every day)–could be more compelling than the film. But this movie is one of a kind, no doubt. It’ll be in theaters and on VOD on October 11. Check it out. And take your Jack Daniels shot first.

After spending time at the happiest place on Earth, in which you can visit a fake version of Norway, I traveled to the real thing. (Excuse me while I pat myself on the back for that segue.) This year’s Fantastic Fest has a number of entries with premises that sound insane, offensive, exploitative, or all three. Detective Downs is at least one of those: it’s a film about a private detective with Down syndrome. Though Robert, the lead, is disabled, he’s very passionate about following in his father’s footsteps in solving crime. Of course, his father is a harried police detective who seems more embarrassed by his son constantly visiting him at the station, and by his co-workers being unable to hide their disdain for the kid. But then Robert gets his first case, investigating the disappearance of a speed skating legend whose family may not want him to be found. As in the best film noirs, Detective Downs explores the nooks and crannies of modern humanity, revealing that each person involved in the case harbors at least one or two shocking secrets.

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For the most part, Detective Downs is a sweet, if slight, film, as much an enthusiastic journey for Robert as it is a hardboiled noir. (The frequent voiceover narration as well as Robert’s trenchcoat and hat affirm the latter.) There are, however, a few moments in which the film, co-written by its director, Bård Breien, feels as if it’s skirting the edge of exploitation. At one point, when Robert is at his happiest, he breaks out in a giddy, playful dance. On one hand, this is a cute scene and Svein André Hofsø Myhre, who plays Robert, gives his all in busting a move. But it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the idea of a guy with Down syndrome…well, busting a move is meant as an easy gag, not a pure character-driven moment. (Robert does not dance at any other point in the film.) It’s hard to knock Detective Downs too much, because Myhre and Breien, who attended the festival, clearly have their hearts in the right place. It’s just also hard to deny the slightly awkward feeling a few scenes inspire. That aside, Detective Downs was a pleasant bit of counterprogramming.

Something that felt right at home at Fantastic Fest was the latest from British director Ben Wheatley, A Field in England. His past films Kill List and Sightseers have gained cult audiences abroad and here in the States, so it’s no surprise that his new movie would show up in Austin. As has been mentioned elsewhere at Sound on Sight (this film played at the recent Toronto International Film Festival), though, A Field in England is a very different kind of movie from Ben Wheatley. Not only is the film set far in the past, it’s shot in black-and-white and is more skewed and glacially paced than his other films. It is, in a single word, puzzling. With a cast of only six and a location that is…well, you can probably guess, A Field in England is a spare horror film, and also one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Removing context from the characters’ actions allows the film to be unsettling and haunting in fits and starts, but as a whole, the film comes across as more disjointed than anything else.

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However, I can’t deny the eerie feeling of some scenes. Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the cowardly lead of the film, has deserted his post in the English Civil War of the 17th century. He finds a few other deserters, then stumbles onto the man he was ordered to find (Michael Smiley, recently of Luther and The World’s End). This man, O’Neill, is convinced that there’s a bountiful treasure to be had in the titular field, and is able, through alchemical means, to get Whitehead to help him despite their growing animosity. After this point, a number of things happen in A Field in England, but it’s hard to categorize them as plot developments so much as random acts of mental and physical violence. The film climaxes in a montage that’s hard to describe outside of the warning placed before the studio logo, regarding that montage’s kaleidoscopic flourishes. And in terms of visuals, Wheatley’s work is outstanding. The technical and stylistic choices are frequently arresting. The story occurring within those choices is far less so.

Let’s shift gears (and we’ll do it once more, so hold on tight). My next film of the day was another entry in the ever-expanding found-footage genre, Afflicted. Written and directed by Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, Afflicted is about two young men named…well, how about that, they’re named Derek Lee and Clif Prowse. What a coincidence. Seriously, Derek and Clif are about to embark on a yearlong adventure, traveling around the world and documenting every part of the journey via written and video blogs. They begin in Barcelona and meet up with two friends in a (real) band, generally having the time of their lives. The next stop is Paris, where the single Derek hooks up with a flirty French girl named Audrey. Clif and the bandmates plan to cockblock Derek, just because they feel like it, but when they surprise Derek in his room, they’re the ones who end up shocked, finding him unconscious and bloodied. Once Derek and Clif go to Italy, they find that Derek’s beginning to shy away from the sunlight and getting a curious taste for blood…

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Like pretty much every found-footage movie, Afflicted suffers from a serious case of the illogics. I will not spoil the film–as it has distribution from CBS Films, I presume the movie will get a decent release in the States sometime soon–but after a certain point, it makes absolutely no sense for the characters to be filming what’s going on. More to the point, even before Derek has his incident with Audrey, the footage is a strange balance between legitimate found footage and a snazzy documentary look. In short, parts of Afflicted look too good to be found footage. Despite this reoccurring flaw, Afflicted is actually very solid, in part because it doesn’t ride too hard on excessive gore, and in part because it’s twistier than expected. What’s more, from sequence to sequence, Lee and Prowse use the found-footage technique to their advantage, with a surprising use of special effects and first-person POV. Afflicted is not coming to save the day for the found-footage genre from all of the people who raise an eyebrow at its basic construction. (Y’know, people like me.) But it’s an entertaining, sometimes thrilling horror hybrid.

The real winner of the day was saved for last. One of the many joys of attending a film festival is seeing something you’ve never heard of before, walking in cold to an experience that inspires great enthusiasm. Such was the case with Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, which had its world premiere last night in Austin. This sequel to the 2009 film Ninja follows up on that film’s ending, as Casey (Scott Adkins) is now married to Namiko and living happily in Japan. They run a dojo together, she’s pregnant, he’s giddy, so clearly, nothing could ever, ever go wrong, and hey, stop laughing. Of course, something does go wrong, and quickly: Namiko’s killed brutally in their apartment, leaving Casey on a bloodthirsty quest for vengeance in Japan, Thailand, and Myanmar. Cut to the chase: Casey’s attempts to gain revenge are just excuses for Scott Adkins to lay smackdowns on countless baddies. (One of whom, by the way, is played by the same actor who played Ryan Gosling’s fierce counterpart in Only God Forgives. Let’s just say he had an easier time with Gosling.)

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Listen, you can probably tell from the title that Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is going to be a mildly cheesy affair, if not one overloaded with Gouda. (Or Provolone. Or…you know what, you pick whatever cheese you like.) Thankfully, the cheesiness only adds to this movie’s sheer level of intensity and excitement. Before the film began, director Isaac Florentine emphasized that everything in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear was done without the use of CGI and wirework, and he was right to do so. Everything that happens in this movie may have been choreographed and staged precisely, but it all looks very real. Every kick, every hit, every slam, and every punch sounds viscerally satisfying, crunches echoing through the speakers. What’s more, Florentine avoids what almost every other action-movie director does: quick cuts in the editing room. No, there aren’t a ton of long takes in this film, but each fight is clearly choreographed, the geography of each setup totally clear. This allows for each fight that Casey gets into–and though this is only 95 minutes long, he gets into plenty–to not only feel different, but to feel like they have any impact. Though I admit to rolling my eyes just a bit when audiences applaud during movies (even ones where the star and director are in attendance), the cheers that came after each fight scene in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear felt totally earned. If you love action, if you love martial arts, or if you love something in between, you’ll want to see Ninja: Shadow of a Tear as soon as you can.

Tomorrow: Well, no miracles need to happen, first of all, so calm yourselves. But unless things go pear-shaped, I should be taking in screenings of Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the new film from director Stephen Chow; the Dutch entry for this year’s Best Foreign-Language Oscar, Borgman; the Korean film Confessions of Murder; Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi; and another Korean film, Fatal. Five films, one day, no waiting. And it’s all for you. Yes, you. Not him. You.




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