Fantastic Fest day 2 brought Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist,” a Danish film called “Terribly Happy,” a Japanese comedy called “Robo Geisha,” the George Clooney-Ewan McGregor comedy “Men Who Stare at Goats,” and the British horror comedy “Doghouse.”
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was the last movie I saw beforehand, but I was struck by an interesting set of parallels between “Paranormal Activity” and “Antichrist.”
- Both films spend almost their entire runtime anchored by dialogue between a couple.
- Both feature men who try and help their partners face their fears through logic and science but end up seemingly making things worse.
- Both also feature strange, frightening noises and sinister external forces that may or may not be targeting them.
And yet, the films couldn’t feel more different. I’d also never recommend that my mother watch “Antichrist.”
“Antichrist” – solid rock fist up
“Antichrist” is a movie loaded with metaphor and symbolism. Some people will dismiss it as writer/director Lars Von Trier toying with the audience, but this movie has much more on its mind than simply trying to shock.
It’s actually a rather brilliant exploration of the pain, grief, and despair that follows the accidental death of a child. As such, the movie is a harrowing and appropriately difficult experience.
The movie is divided into four chapters, with a prologue and epilogue set to Opera and shot in slow motion. The first two chapters focus on “He,” a psychologist played by Willem Dafoe attempting to perform therapy on his wife, “She” a graduate student preparing a thesis on witch burnings and other violence perpetrated against women in the 16th century.
These two chapters are rife with psychological violence as he guides her through the stages of grief, pain, and despair. To deal with the anxiety that arises, he suggests they go to the place that seems to be at the root of her fears, “Eden,” their cabin in the woods where she had spent the previous summer with their son while trying to finish her thesis.
But just as she appears to be metaphorically through the woods of the final stage of despair, the movie shifts for its final two chapters to focus on him and his delayed journey through the same stages.
The much talked about physical and sexual violence that follows is as effective at ushering him through those stages as his psychological approach was for her. The surreal nature of some of these events leads to open questions and interpretations about the proceedings.
How much of it was real, or hallucination? Is the entire thing allegorical? While it’s not the type of movie most people would want to revisit, its many layers and mysteries beg for re-examination.
“Terribly Happy” – rock fist way up
This dark Danish thriller captures much the same feeling as the Coen Brothers “Fargo” and Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan,” with a plot that resembles “Hot Fuzz.”
Like that film, a big city cop is re-assigned to a strange small town with a history of people mysteriously disappearing and a peculiar way of doing things. Unlike that film, there is no broad comedy or satirical action scenes. The foreboding tone of this film’s darkly comic scenes keep things appropriately tense.
As our flawed protagonist finds things spiraling further out of control and the town’s history comes into focus, his future becomes more in doubt.
There’s a lot to love here. The uniformly excellent performances, the photography, the score, and the dialogue all come together in a tightly paced, gripping, and suspenseful package. This is one of the strongest of the festival and I urge everyone to check it out if they have the chance.
“Robo Geisha” – rock fist way down
This was the first secret screening of Fantastic Fest and a huge disappointment. From the same director as “Machine Girl” with makeup and gore affects by the director of “Tokyo Gore Police,” this movie is essentially an extended series of skits with the look and production values of an episode of Power Rangers.
The plot is suitably ridiculous and involves an evil steel-producing corporation that kidnaps girls and turns them into brainwashed cyborg geishas to be used for political assassinations. It’s defiantly juvenile in its tone and its dialogue is comprised almost exclusively of people stating things that just happened or that are about to happen. While amusing at first, this grows as tired as the rest of the proceedings very quickly.
Overall, this is a movie that practically begs to have its best scenes clipped out and posted to YouTube. Of its 90 minute run time, only about 15 minutes are truly amusing. The funniest detail involves buildings that spray blood as they’re demolished. It’s a rare bit of hilarity in the sea of tedium that is “Robo Geisha.”
The Q&A after the movie was more entertaining than the film itself, as the filmmakers, the owner of the Drafthouse, and a Fantastic Fest programmer all came out dressed only in sumo diapers and began running around the theater, chanting. Two of the female characters also came out dressed in costume. It was just enough to make me not regret missing “Zombieland.”
Thankfully, the second secret screening was also more enjoyable.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” – minor rock fist up
Anyone who’s seen the very good trailer for this movie knows that to expect from this film. It accurately captures the sense of humor and the tone of the film.
While the cast includes George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges, “Men Who Stare at Goats” is smaller in scale than you’d expect. The movie is a broad comedy somewhere between “Stripes” and “Three Kings” with a generally upbeat feeling throughout.
It’s about the partially true history of a secret squad of psychic soldiers—their rise, downfall, and slight resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. There’s a lot of really great humor born from the absurdity that makes it enjoyable. The performances are solid, and the poor de-aging makeup on Bridges, Clooney, and Spacey somehow works in the movie’s favor. It’s almost like McGregor’s slightly inept journalist character’s imagination is faulty. He just can’t picture them younger.
Unfortunately the “writer reflecting on his experience” narration gets a little stale and McGregor’s American accent, inconsistent in the same way I’m sure most attempts at British accents are, is fairly distracting. I also wish they’d gone a little darker and been a little more fearless. Everything feels a little too artificial and even when things are exploding and guns are pointed we never really feel a sense of danger.
They also have a tendency to milk the same jokes repeatedly, such as Mcgregor asking about “Jedis,” but there’s enough good here to recommend it, especially to those who enjoyed the trailer.
The last film of the evening was a British horror comedy about a zombie virus that only affects women.
“Doghouse” – Minor Rock Fist Up
When a group of old male friends decide to cheer up their friend after his divorce, they figure a weekend in a small town where the women outnumber the men is just what he needs.
Unfortunately, the remote village has been the subject of a biological warfare experiment where only women are transformed into flesh-eating zombies via an airborne virus originally introduced through laundry detergent.
Most of the comedy comes in via the fact that these men, all in various stages of arrested development and dysfunctional relationships, aren’t good at dealing with the women in their lives when they’re not ravenously trying to eat their flesh. This is not the tale of a group of reluctant heroes. Even with their lives are in danger, it’s a struggle for these guys to do anything but argue.
There’s a lot of really good ideas here, and the chemistry between the guys produces some good moments. But the horror aspect feels like an afterthought a little too much. There’s not too much scary here, which would be OK but it never really seems that the zombies are much of a threat until almost an hour in.
The battle-of-the-sexes zombie movie is a great concept that is a little too undercooked here. It’s hard to seriously recommend, but people looking for a decent comedy that happens to feature zombies could do a lot worse.
Overall, it was a pretty good day but a little weak by Fantastic Fest standards. Thankfully, Day Three was a marked improvement with two of my favorites of the fest: “Fish Story” and “The Revenant,” as well as George Romero’s “Survival of the Dead” and Takashi Miike’s “Yatterman.”