Sunday, July 27, 2008

Fantasia 2008: Johnnie To's SPARROW

Thing that you have to remember about Johnnie To sometimes is that there is more than one Johnnie To. There's the To that makes tough, brilliant, and purely cinematic action like P.T.U., THE BIG HEAT, and EXILED; there's also a very commercial To that makes unabashedly audience-friendly pictures with Andy Lau like LOVE ON A DIET and YESTERDAY ONCE MORE, while there's a more experimental and risk-taking To who makes hard-to-categorize films like RUNNING ON KARMA and THROW DOWN. In an odd way, all three are on display in SPARROW, his latest (it opened in Hong Kong just last month) that represents something of an end to what I can't help but think has been an extraordinary run of films that possibly no other director has touched this decade. It's very slick and commercial, but also incredibly stylish and beautiful and heartfelt, personal even. SPARROW is unquestionably an entertainment, but not necessarily a mainstream one and not really as frivolous as one may think at first. Nothing is ever easy with Johnnie To.

I have to hand it to Grady Hendrix of the NY Asian Film Festival (and Kaiju Shakedown) when he described SPARROW by saying, "Johnnie To woke up in love this morning", because that's pretty much a perfect summation of it. Making an unabashedly romantic film about Hong Kong pickpockets (once again starring To regular Simon Yam, who just gets better and better) is something one would have expected of Melville or Lelouche, but it comes as no surprise when you consider To's acknowledged respect to many of the French masters (his next film is supposed to be a remake of LE CERCLE ROUGE to star Chow Yun-Fat and Tim Roth) in some of his earlier works. SPARROW reminds one of John Woo's ONCE A THIEF, although not quite as insanely fun; in fact, ONCE A THIEF is probably the perfect companion piece to SPARROW, a love letter to French cinema on one hand, but a purely Hong Kong film on another. The film is also a love letter to Hong Kong itself, which To makes look as inviting as most any other filmmaker has in a long time (Hong Kong is still at the top of my most desired vacation spots), and it's a love letter to love itself, to falling in it and becoming consumed by it enough to go out on a limb in ways you usually try to avoid. It's easy to call SPARROW a piece of fluff, and there's no question that's true, but it's a substancial piece of fluff, a fun and airy frolic that is supposed to capture that sensation that love is indeed a wonderful thing and what the hell is wrong with getting caught up in that?

So, I'm perfectly down with what To is trying to do and I truly dig just watching To do his thing and have his fun, which can certainly be infectious. But I do have to say that SPARROW eventually falls short in the story department, though not tragically so. A filmmaker can coast on a vibe for only so long, so once you've settled into it and are starting to come out, you're realizing that maybe To hasn't quite figured all this out for himself, either. The plot doesn't always go into satisfactory directions, and some comical sidesteps (including one that puts one member of the cast in drag) feel more like humor meant to appeal to the Chinese market. But To is a master of the third act, and SPARROW ends with a beautiful set piece that finds two groups of pickpockets challenging each other in a rainstorm that saves the picture and is a really wonderful thing to simply sit back and watch. Hearing that To spent three years shooting SPARROW off and on makes me suspect that To wasn't as interested in story that he was about mood, but SPARROW's finale proves that he unquestionably knew what he wanted. A bit more clarity of vision could have made SPARROW a true classic, but for what it is, it's a feast for To fans, and this is one fan who is unquestionably stuffed with To-ey goodness.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fantasia 2008: Juame Balaguero and Paco Plaza's REC

I find it fitting that I finally saw REC at the Fantasia Film Festival, as it was Fantasia programmer and longtime pal Mitch Davis who first clued me into it. After last year's TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival to you laymen) Mitch and I were on the phone, him giving me the lowdown on on the hits and misses of the festival. REC wasn't screened officially at TIFF, but a special screening was held for buyers and festival programmers there in advance of the film's November opening in its home country of Spain, and the report that I got back from Mitch actually made me salivate with anticipation. While I have to concede that Mitch is one who is often given to hyperbole (ever read his Fantasia program notes? Love ya, Mitch!), when Mitch really loves something you have to listen, and his love of REC - on top of similar reports from others whose opinion I trust - put this at the top of my "must see" list. It screened at last year's AFM and had a now-legendary screening at Sitges (both of which I missed) to even more raves, so I figured it would be hitting the festival circuit big time... but nothing happened. Sundance, Film Comment Selects, Philly, Tribeca, SXSW (among others) were all REC-less (no pun intended, but I'll take the compliments), leading me to believe that something was up, and that something is QUARANTINE, a major studio (Sony) remake that's already been shot (shot for shot, apparently) and is scheduled to open in October (do NOT watch the trailer, as it gives away some of the best moments, including the ending, of both films). Sony, as it turns out, doesn't want you to know that REC exists and has bought the rights to it and is keeping it away from U.S. audiences in an effort to not spoil their version's chances. (No doubt they'll just toss it off to DVD after it opens, but thank goodness for imports). However, Sony doesn't own Canadian rights, henceforth the film's North American premiere at Fantasia, bringing everything full circle, at least for me.

So does REC live up to the hype? It certainly does, making it one of the few films made this decade that has actually succeeded in scaring me. There's plenty of good, solid jumps here, a surplus of tension and a genuine sense of dread and menace throughout. Balaguero and Plaza have taken the hand-held horror premise - now something of a cliche - and have made it effective by presenting it as a newscast that starts out as fluff and then, of course, turns serious. What's particularly good about this approach is that people react differently to a news crew as opposed to just somebody with a video camera, giving the camera crew a sort of authority that doesn't really exist. Knowing that something is going to be on the news gives folks as false sense of security, the idea that people will see what these characters are going through, while at the same time putting them on the defensive, so it adds a bit to the drama, in addition to effectively eliminating the obnoxious characters traits that has sunk some of the other hand-held horror pictures. Balaguero and Plaza have casted the film quite well, with perky and cute newscaster Manulea Velasco anchoring the film as we see it all through her eyes, specifically as a light news reporter more and more out of her element, and I'd also like to single out Javier Botet as a fireman whose sudden disappearance from the story is what really sold me on the film. If something can happen to this guy, we're all shit out of luck.

All this said, REC isn't perfect, even at just 77 minutes. Specifically, it's the filmmaker's attempts to provide some kind of answer to what's going on that risks sinking everything. It's all unnecessary, and even though it leads into one final creepy climatic scene, by this point I thought that REC might lose me, so I'm glad it ends when it does. That said, it's probably one of the best times you'll have at the movies this year, providing you're lucky enough to see it in a theater (Canadians, for once you've got one over on us Americans). My experience seeing REC at Fantasia were what seeing movies is all about, full of people screaming and freaking out and having a hell of a lot of fun while going through this shared experience of communal fear and terror, everyone knowing that it's just a movie and that no matter what happens to the characters, they're all going to be OK. I have serious doubts that QUARANTINE will be able to replicate this (good luck the filmmakers behind this one), and Sony deserves a serious tongue lashing for not allowing U.S. screenings of REC so that people will be able to replicate this experience in a roomful of screaming strangers. Bootlegs are already out there (as are the illegal downloads), but I don't know how well REC will work at home, nor do I really want to. Once again, I had a wonderful, magical (yes, I said magical) movie going experience at Fantasia and even though I'd be happy to see REC again, unless my next screening finds me on Rosario Dawson's couch, the two of us caught in a fear-induced embrace that leads us to, ahem, other kinds of embraces (hey, a guy can dream, can't he?), I doubt it will be hard to top. Actually, that whole Rosario Dawson scenario would be much harder to top, so forget what I just said and enjoy REC.

Friday, July 18, 2008

It's All Too Much - YELLOW SUBMARINE at 40

As long as I have known and loved movies, there has always been YELLOW SUBMARINE.

As a kid, I have memories of watching the film from TV broadcasts when I was as young as 4 or 5. It was one of those films that I would always keep my eyes peeled for in the TV listings and I'd catch as many airings as I possibly could. When it hit videocassette in 1987 I was in the height of my own personal Beatlemania (that time when you discover the Beatles for yourself is usually a pretty wonderful time, isn't it?) and purchased a copy that I still happen to own. I remember an early morning hours airing on WNYC-TV in NYC on January 1, 1998 that I dropped everything to watch, even though I'd been up all night and already had the videotape. I saw the film theatrically for the first time at its 1999 re-issue and I still have a copy of the now out-of-print DVD that I'll refuse to sell if I ever grow hungry. Parting with YELLOW SUBMARINE is something I simply couldn't do. This is a film that has never failed to put a smile on my face, never once not entranced me and made me love life a little bit more. More so, I have always marveled at its creativity, its wit, its wondrous imagination, and, oh yeah, superb music. This is a film that, for me, is nothing but pure joy. To borrow a quote from the late, great John Peel, I love this film to the point of madness.

Listen, if you don't want to hear me gush on and on about the brilliance of YELLOW SUBMARINE then you should just click elsewhere, because this is going to get sloppy. We're talking super-excited puppy who's happy to see you excited here. So let's move on.

Aside from the obvious reason (The Beatles), YELLOW SUBMARINE is, to me, the ultimate example of a movie miracle. This film should not have worked at all. It was a contractual obligation film for The Beatles, who owed UA one more film in their contract and didn't want to concern themselves with movies after MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. They had little creative input and didn't lend their own voices to it, only agreeing to film their cameo at the end after they saw a rough cut and agreed that it was no embarrassment. They wrote and recorded four songs, one of which, George Harrison's "It's All Too Much", is my second favorite song of all time, but didn't contribute beyond that. But the creativity and genius of The Beatles put everyone else on their game, and everything in YELLOW SUBMARINE - the design, the animation, the script, the voice work, the choice of songs - is perfect. I don't perfect for an animated film, I just mean perfect. The dialog is endlessly quotable: "Bless you" "Should I sneeze?"; "I've never told anyone this before, but my cousin is the blue bird of happiness"; "I've got a hole in me pocket"; "I can't help it, I'm a born lever-puller"; "Frankenstein!" "Yeah, I used to go out with his sister" "His sister?" "Yeah, Phyllis"; "What's the matter, fellas? Blue Meanies?". No other movie looks like this one, and if anyone else ever tried to do so again they would just call it a rip-off. There's a wonderful, remarkable feeling to YELLOW SUBMARINE that I don't get from any other movie, one that makes me sort of actually understand the spirir of the sixties. I feel genuine peace and love from this film. If feel the power of music and art to change and it proves to me the importance of humor to everything in life. And there's some great tunes, too. I know how how effusive I'm sounding, but I don't care because I mean every word I'm saying.

YELLOW SUBMARINE quietly turned 40 years old yesterday, having opened in London on July 17, 1968. There were no celebrations anywhere, no blog-a-thons, no nothing to spread the word. I had hoped to screen the film this month at the Alamo Drafthouse's Saturday Morning Kid's Club, but I was told that MGM no longer owns the rights to it (they've apparently have shifted to, or been purchased by, Apple Films). The DVD, like I said before, is out of print, and there's been no indication of a re-release any time soon (although HELP! snuck out late last year). Most would probably just pass this off, but I think it's important to celebrate this anniversary, not only because of my love for it, but because YELLOW SUBMARINE has probably been responsible for more Beatle fans than most people realize. It was a huge influence for me, although growing up in my house I was going to be inundated by the Beatles, anyway, and I'm sure if you ask around a lot of people will tell you that YELLOW SUBMARINE marked their introduction to The Beatles. As part of its perfection, it's a movie that can be enjoyed by young and old, as timeless as THE WIZARD OF OZ and a lot funnier, and the more kids see it, the more the Beatles remain eternal. And I know this for a fact, as my dear friend Rebecca Vahabzadeh down in Houston has a 5 year-old who now loves The Beatles, all thanks to YELLOW SUBMARINE. I've seen this happen with others, too, and I have no questions that it will be repeated from now until there are no more movies. Of course, it would help for the film to be back in print, but that's up to Apple, and the sooner then better in this case, because we'll always need YELLOW SUBMARINE around. I sure know I will.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

OK, Now I Can Start Talking Fantastic Fest Titles...

Here's the first press release for Fantastic Fest 2008. We'll be announcing more titles in a couple of weeks, then the remaining titles a few weeks after that. And then a few weeks after that it's the festival. Funny how things move in a forward momentum like that.

Yes, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN will be playing, but there are some other gems that have yet to be announced. Just you wait.

Date: Thursday, July 17, 2008


Subject: First Wave of Fantastic Fest content announced

Where: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema South Lamar, Austin, TX

Fantastic Fest, September 18-25, 2008


Tim League

We are proud to announce the first wave of our feature film programming for the 2008 edition of Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. For the past 9 months, we have been scouring the globe for the strangest, the most heart-pounding and the most challenging new genre films. With over 100 films representing over 30 countries, Fantastic Fest is the largest festival of its kind in the United States. We are proud to announce our first slate of 22 confirmed feature films. Also included is information about our signature Fantastic Fest special events and parties.

Feature films:

Art of the Devil 3 (2008, Thailand, director: Ronin Team)

A prequel to one of the most graphic and visually creative horror movies in recent times, ART OF THE DEVIL 3 is a tale of unrequited love set amid the exotic world of rural Thai black magic.

Cargo 200 (2007, Russia, director: Aleksei Balabanov)

Acclaimed Russian director Balabanov's tale interweaves stories of cowardice, corruption and horror set against the backdrop of the birth of perestroika in the Soviet Union.

Dark Floors (2008, Finland, director: Pete Riski)

Finnish heavy metal legends Lordi (dressed in their actual stage costumes!!!) star as demons from another dimension who torment a band of strangers trapped in a hospital.

Doctor Infierno (2008, Spain, director: Paco Limon)

A demented gynecologist discovers a cure for all the world's illnesses and uses it as leverage to become sole dictator of the earth. Jam-packed with monsters, kung fu, battling robots and deviant sexual practices, DR. INFIERNO doesn't let budget get in the way of executing a mountain of crazy ideas. Producer Sergio Martínez Mourelle and actor Carlos Ortega Ceacero live in person!

Donkey Punch (2008, United Kingdom, director: Oliver Blackburn)

Seven sexy young Brits are hanging out on a "borrowed" yacht for a day of drugs, debauchery, and ultimately donkey punching. It's the last activity that causes everything to unravel. After the screening, follow us to Ladybird Lake for the potentially inappropriate Donkey Punch Boat Party.

Eagle Eye (2008, USA, director: D.J. Caruso)

Two strangers (Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan) become the pawns of a mysterious woman they have never met, but who seems to know their every move. Realizing they are being used to further her evil plans, they must work together to outwit the woman before she has them killed. During the week of the festival, take part in the EAGLE EYE cell phone scavenger hunt. Director D.J. Caruso (DISTURBIA) live in person!

Estomago (2007, Brazil, director: Marcos Jorge)

Love, sex, jealousy, food and murder in the streets and prisons of Brazil. Fantastic Fest is also offering, for an additional charge, an opportunity to enjoy the ESTOMAGO Feast, a four-course meal with wine pairings prepared by Alamo executive chef John Bullington. The feast is inspired by the actual dishes from the film and will be delivered to your seat as they appear on screen.

Ex Drummer (2007, Belgium, director: Koen Mortier)

Three low-life handicapped losers recruit an arrogant and abusive author to play drums in their punk band. Layered with brutality, surrealism and bloody violence, EX DRUMMER is like no music film you've ever seen.

Fighter (2008, Denmark, director: Natasha Arthy)

A Danish (?!!) kung fu coming-of-age drama choreographed by and featuring a supporting role by action master Xian Gao (CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, FONG SAI YUK)

Gachi Boy: Wrestling with a Memory (2008, Japan, director: Norihiro Koizumi)

After a car accident renders Igarashi without a short-term memory, he abandons his dreams to become a lawyer in favor of becoming a masked wrestler. Director Norihiro Koizumi live in person!

How to Get Rid of the Others (2007, Denmark, director: Anders Rønnow Klarlund)

When it is discovered that the least productive 5% of Danish society consumes 60% of government spending, the conservative politicians decide to quietly eradicate the problem.

I Think We're Alone Now (2007, USA, director: Sean Donnelly)

This fascinating and severely disturbing documentary takes you deep into the worlds and obsessions of Kelly McCormick and Jeffery Deane Turner, who have been separately stalking 80s pop icon Tiffany for nearly 20 years. Director Sean Donnelly live in person!

Jack Brooks Monster Slayer (2007, Canada, director: Jon Knautz)

Horror legend Robert Englund costars in this epic battle of angry plumber vs. the demonic creatures of the night. Packed with fantastic practical effects and spot-on humor, JACK BROOKS should prove to be an audience fave. Director Jon Knautz live in person!

Let the Right One In (2008, Sweden, director: Tomas Alfredson)

An awkward, introverted boy (Oskar) befriends a new neighbor girl (Eli) who helps him to confront the bullies at school. Eli, however, has a dark secret, and there are bodies piling up at the local morgue.

Muay Thai Chaiya (2007, Thailand, director: Kongkiat Khomsiri)

An action-packed Muay Thai fighting drama by Kongkiat Khomsiri (ART OF THE DEVIL 2), Cinematography by Wisit Sasanatieng (TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER).

The Short Films of Nacho Vigalondo (various, Spain, director: Nacho Vigalondo)

Festival darling and last year's grand prize winner Nacho Vigalondo didn't just come out of nowhere with his first feature TIMECRIMES. In 2003 he directed academy award-nominated short 7:35 IN THE MORNING and has a large and impressive body of short films. Fantastic Fest is premiering the collected short works of Nacho Vigalondo, many subtitled in English for the first time for this program.

South of Heaven (2007, USA, director: Jonathan Vara)

Two brothers on the wrong side of everyone must face an endless array of torture, terrors and indignities in this darkly comic and visually striking noir. Director Jonathan Vara live in person!

Spine Tingler - the William Castle story (2007, USA, director: Jeffrey Schwarz)

William Castle, one of the mighty giants of fantastic film and media manipulation is lauded and explained by the ones who knew him and loved him best.

Substitute, The (2007, Denmark, director: Ole Bornedal)

The middle-high school students in a small Danish village have figured out that their abusive new substitute teacher is actually a space alien on a vanguard mission to investigate taking over the earth. They just can't seem to convince their parents or the administrators.

Terra (2008, Canada, director: Aristomenis Tsirbas)

An Armada of humans arrives on a habitable planet with intentions of colonization, but the seemingly peaceful indigenous creatures turn out to have some unexpected moxie. Beautifully animated with voice talent by David Cross, Brian Cox, Dennis Quaid, Rachael Wood and Luke Wilson.

Tingler, The (1959, USA, director: William Castle)

William Castle's masterpiece, an electrifying celebration of tactile horror that culminates in a shocking climax which audience members may never recover from. For this special presentation, the theater at the Alamo will be wired to recreate Castle's greatest gimmick: "Percepto!"

Tokyo Gore Police (2008, Japan, director: Yoshihiro Nishimura)

The privatized Tokyo police force led by Audition's Eihi Shiina is authorized to execute judgment on the spot. They are threatened, however, by a breed of "engineers," genetically modified super-villains who grow mutant weapons from their injuries and amputations.

In addition to the features above, we are proud to announce more details about our Fantastic Fest parties and special events:

Opening Night Party: Air Sex World Finals

Following the opening night film (title TBD) join us for the official Fantastic Fest opening night party – the Air Sex World Finals. Badge holders and the general public are invited to the culminating event of a year's worth of preliminary competitions. It's a lot like Air Guitar, but a bit spicier.

Closing Night Party: "Get Lit"

Following the closing night film, we'll be heading outside of town for what we feel will be the Austin party of the year: "Get Lit," a subterranean dance party a mile beneath the earth at nearby Longhorn Caverns.

Fantastic Feud and All-Night Karaoke Party

Scott Weinberg, managing editor of Cinematical, brings his 2nd annual trivia challenge that pits festival guests and select badge holders against one another to do battle in the arena of genre film trivia. Following this clash of intellectual titans, we'll settle in for another tradition – the post trivia all-night Karaoke Party.

Fantastic Debates

We are proud to honor the age-old tradition of over-opinionated verbal nerd combat by introducing FANTASTIC FEST DEBATES at FF 2008! For the first time in genre festival history, the audience will be truly heard...through blazing displays of surefooted, acid-tongued mindpower!

100 Best Kills

Fantastic Fest celebrates the great legacy of stomach-churning, blood-spurting movie magic with this interactive showdown party where YOU THE AUDIENCE are invited to join the FF programmers in providing the all-time greatest on-screen headbursts, rib-rips and gutblasts!

Signature Alamo Special Events

In addition to the traditional fare of Fantastic Fest, this year we're also offering badge holders a sampling of the Alamo signature shows: sing-alongs, quote-alongs, Master Pancake Theater, Weird Wednesday and Terror Thursday. Badge holders get free admission to these special shows at the new flagship Alamo location, the Ritz. See the live comic stylings of the Master Pancake troupe as they skewer the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, enjoy the communal experience of the EVIL DEAD 2 Quote-Along and 'Fantastic' 35mm classics as part of our free midnight movie series Weird Wednesday and Terror Thursday.

Details for all of these shows, parties and more can be found on our website:

Important dates have been announced for the 4thAnnual Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.

Thursday, August 7, 2008: Second wave of festival content announced

Thursday, September 4, 2008: Final content and schedule announced

Thursday, September 18, 2008: Festival begins

Saturday, September 20, 2008: 2009 Festival Badges go on sale

For more information about Fantastic Fest, please visit our official website:


Fantastic Fest is an eight-day festival of the best new sci-fi, horror, fantasy and genre films, as well as choice classic and obscure cult titles from all over the world. The festival director is Tim League (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema). Programmers include Harry Knowles (Ain't It Cool News), Blake Ethridge (Cinema is Dope), Todd Brown (, Zack Carlson (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) and Lars Nilsen (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema). Fantastic Fest is a supporting member of the prestigious Melies European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation and a founding member of the North American Fantastic Festival Alliance. Fantastic Fest is sponsored in part by Ain't It Cool News, Twitchfilm, Gamecock, Best Buy, DVD Empire, VIZ, Embassy Suites and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema South Lamar.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fantasia 2008: Tomas Alfredson's LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

This is something that has always gotten to me: I see a film I love, a smart, beautifully made piece of filmmaking that I cherish and instantly becomes a favorite. But there's a problem - it happens to be a genre film. Perhaps because I'm more inclined to enjoy genre films my opinion might be in question, so the reception accorded LET THE RIGHT ONE IN thus far is most appreciated, because it's proving to the world at large that, hey, it's not just me who thinks this is as good as I say it is. Granted, that includes top prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, not a festival known for its outstanding quality, but an award from them does tell the rest of the straights that perhaps they should also take notice. And they damn well should, because otherwise they'll miss the best film of the year thus far, one that just happens to be a Swedish vampire movie.

What makes LET THE RIGHT ONE IN so great as far as I'm concerned is that it understands that tragedy is one of the essential elements to truly great horror. Beyond just the mere idea that you have to care about the characters in order to get caught up in their horrific plight, the tragedy of it gives the story a sense of melancholy, a sadness that brings it closer to the heart than one would expect. At the heart of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is a story about two lonely kids - one of them a shy, picked-upon boy, the other a vampire - and what Alfredson's does with this material (it's based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist) is whip-smart in the quiet and natural approach he takes. FX are kept to a minimum and are not treated like money shots; the camera usually stands perfectly still and the action is treated no different than as if someone is walking from one end to another. Beautifully shooting in scope (this is one of the best scope features in years) Alfredson doesn't ram anything down your throat, as if to scream, "This is horror, so be scared!", he keeps it all simple, quiet and unfettered and it's all a beautiful thing. The casting of leads Kare Hedebrandt and Lina Leandersson places an emphasis on all this; these kids are as natural as can be, often silent, saying more with their eyes than anything else, a desperate desire for a love that has otherwise escaped them and much of what makes the film so heartbreaking comes from them. I risk sounding like a quote-whorish blogger by saying this (wait, I am a quote-whorish blogger), but LET THE RIGHT ONE IN suggest the kind of genre film that Truffaut might have made if he ever felt so inclined, and comparisons to THE 400 BLOWS are, in my opinion, not unwarranted. Like that landmark, this is a film that truly understand the pain and suffering that goes into childhood, which is also part of what makes it a great horror film, because all of that pain takes the horror and makes it even more powerful.

Last thing I want to address here is that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is also the best vampire film since Katheryn Bigelow's NEAR DARK over 20 years ago. I once wrote a little thing about my dislike of vampire pictures over at the AMC monster thing and that still stands, but LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is easily the freshest vampire film in years and it should go without saying that it's one of the best ever made. While essential to the story, the vampire aspects are treated secondary to the characters, one of whom just happens to be a vampire, though she could be a kid with cancer or something. Vampire films have become such a dumb cliche (an earlier Swedish vampire pic, FROSTBITE, proved that point), but LET THE RIGHT ONE IN avoids all of them and barely feels like a vampire film at all. But it sure as hell is a horror film, and not just a great horror film but just a great film, period, and quite possibly the enduring movie classic of 2008.

It opens from Magnolia (via their genre arm, Magnet) in October.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Forgotten Movies, Fantasia Edition: Yudai Yamaguchi's CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL

The Fantasia Film Festival begins today in dear old Montreal, and I'm flying up on Saturday to experience a week's worth of flicks and friends, a welcome break from spending all my time working... on a film festival. With this I bring to you, the HQ 10 readership a Forgotten Movie from one of the many great Fantasia's of year's past.

In a lot of ways, there's nothing better than a good comedy. Solid laughs throughout a film's running time often leaves one with a happy and memorable experience. This is why I own a copy of DODGEBALL. But you know what's better than a good comedy? A good comedy that comes from out of nowhere, that's what. A good comedy that surprises the living hell out of you by being good when all signs pointed to being bad, and that was my experience with Yudai Yamaguchi's CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL. And what's even better, this is one good comedy that came out of both nowhere and bad expectations, something that doesn't happen very often, if ever. Does that make any sense? To explain, the director of this film previously made a movie called BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL, which I have not yet seen but have been told by pretty much everyone it sucks to high heaven, so that explains why expectations were low. When I saw this film was on the Fantasia 2005 schedule, I had to question why. And it got a prominent Saturday night slot, too. What's up with that? It wasn't until I was sitting in my seat and laughing my ass off with 700 others, some of them my best friends, that I realized why - CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL is fucking hilarious.

Like most every other Japanese movie these days, CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL is based on a manga (Japanese comic book), proving that Hollywood is not the only film industry bereft of original ideas, and I'm told it's loyal to its source. But it also seems extremely cinematic in its execution, made with the crackerjack timing of the Zuckers for nonstop nutty jokes, and dry, dry humor. The plot of the film is that the worst high school in Japan is the title school (named after Japan's top baseball player, apparently) and at the start we find an otherwise clean-cut, intelligent student transferred to the school by mistake. But he finds that the supposedly bad students are actually just misunderstood and that the school is simply a magnet for weirdness. The student body includes yakuzas, a robot, a gorilla, Freddie Mercury, and Japanese actor Kai Ato, while the episodic nature of the plot gives us the birth of the Global Defense Force, a robot exorcism, and an alien invasion. With that, I have just skimmed the surface of what happens in CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL; this is a picture where a lot happens, but it doesn't so much happen as just flow in from one scene to the next. There is the basics of a plot in there, but it's mostly a lot of unrelated sketches that kinda sorta flow into a narrative. Some, film critics mostly, would probably take issue with this approach and maybe they're right. But they're also assholes for simply not just giving in and enjoying themselves, which is sure as hell what the audience I saw this film with did. I also experienced an interesting phenomenon with this film that I'd only experienced a few times before. There was a 10-15 minute stretch where there were absolutely no laughs. Lots of funny stuff was happening, but strangely, the laughs just stopped. I started to think that the film had lost its mojo and that it was all downhill from there. But then the laughs started up again and by the end of the picture the audience was on its feet. So what the fuck happened? It wasn't until much later that I realized that the problem wasn't the film, it was the audience: they'd been laughing so much they need to rest! This was pretty astonishing, I thought, and I remember the first time I ever experienced this was with the original AIRPLANE!, and it's nice to see someone who knows what they're doing invoke the unspoken comedy rule that you've got to give your audience a break sometimes. But this bodes well for CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL, because it means that it will stand up well to repeat viewings, that people will think that they missed something when in fact they were just tired.

Unlike a lot of other films in
The Forgotten Movies, CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL is available on DVD in the U.S., from Media Blasters, although it's a bit of a bitch to find if you're looking to get it in stores (Netflix does stock it, though). It's recommended, of course, and as I travel up to Fantasia this weekend for another week of film fest fun, I will take with me fond memories of such films as CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL for making the event so much fun, and if that's not the dumbest thing I've ever written I don't know what is.

(Parts of this review were lifted from an earlier piece that I wrote on my MySpace blog some years back. A bit of laziness on my part, sure, but I, unlike some people on the internet, will actually cop to that. Just sayin')