• Weekend Recs: Blondie, State Fair, The Dinner Detective

    WHAT: Generous Art grand opening event
    WHERE: The W
    WHEN: Tonight at 5:30 p.m.
    HOW MUCH: Free

    The new online art gallery kicks off with an evening of free drinks, live music and the opportunity to buy unique pieces. Money raised will go to local charities, including the Art Alliance Austin and Cancer Connection.

    WHAT: Blondie
    WHERE: ACL Live
    WHEN: Tonight at 8 p.m.
    HOW MUCH: $40-$50

    The iconic rock group of the ’70s new wave and punk scene, fronted by Debbie Harry, is touring in support of its ninth studio album.

    WHAT: State Fair of Texas 2011
    WHERE: Fair Park
    WHEN: Begins Friday at 3 p.m.
    HOW MUCH: $40 for season pass

    Twenty-four days of art, entertainment and exhibitions kick off this weekend. Musical acts include Hanson and KC and the Sunshine Band.

    WHAT: 1st Saturday Tour Day
    WHERE: Independence Brewing Company
    WHEN: Saturday at 1 p.m.
    HOW MUCH: Free with valid ID

    Enjoy a free tour of the brewery and free beer samples the first Saturday of every month. Brewery pint glasses are available for $6.

    WHAT: The Dinner Detective
    WHERE: Marriott Austin Downtown
    WHEN: Saturday at 6 p.m.
    HOW MUCH: $59.95

    This interactive murder mystery dinner hides its actors among the audience, making everyone a suspect. Price of admission includes four-course meal, dinner show and the chance for prizes.

    WHAT: Brady Brunch
    WHERE: Third Base on Sixth Street
    WHEN: Sunday at 11 a.m.
    HOW MUCH: $20 for buffet and bottomless mimosas

    Featuring music from DJ Kurupt, this brunch includes games of life-size Jenga and giant versions of Twister and Connect Four.

  • Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 5 Recap

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    “Juan of the Dead”
    Alejando Brugues
    Genre: Zombie Comedy
    Grade: A-
    No additional screenings
    The first independent film to come out of Cuba in 50 years, “Juan of the Dead” is a relatively original take of the zombie comedy. The film has the Cuban government casting the zombies overrunning the country as dissidents from the United States and constantly assuring its citizens all is well. However, likeable rascal Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) sees an opportunity to make money in the destruction and removal of the undead, so he and his friends team up to take advantage of the impending apocalypse.
    Written and directed by Alejandro Brugues, “Juan of the Dead” clearly isn’t operating on much of a budget, but the movie is so charming that it barely matters. While the CGI is more than a little spotty at times and there are a few shortcuts the film takes to cover up its financial shortcomings, it more than makes up for it with a funny, pointedly written script and a few large-scale scenes of zombie mayhem, including one of the best mass undead decapitations to ever grace the silver screen.
    The story of the film’s reception in Cuba is one still being written, as Cuban government officials have yet to see and approve the film. It’s entirely feasible that “Juan of the Dead” could be a film that becomes much more underground as time goes on, and that’s a shame, because the film is a heartfelt, funny and often just gorey enough zombie comedy, and isn’t overwhelmed by its low budget or subversive political undercurrent.
    “A Boy and His Samurai”
    Yoshihiro Nakamura
    Genre: Romantic Comedy
    Grade: A-
    No additional screenings
    Yoshihiro Nakamura directed one of the all-time greats of Fantastic Fest with “Fish Story” a few years back, and since then he’s returned with last year’s “Golden Slumber” and this year with “A Boy and His Samurai.” The film, easily the most wholesome to play the festival this year, is an understated romantic comedy, pairing Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka), a divorcee and single mother of Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), with time-traveling samurai Yasubi (Ryo Nishikodo). The film makes Yasubi’s domestication a sweet and funny journey, as he learns to care for Tomoya and becomes a baking fiend.
    While “A Boy and His Samurai” ultimately boils down to a predictable formula in new clothes, the film is warm and inviting enough that by the time you realize it’s a romantic comedy, you’re already so charmed by the characters that its predictability is more or less irrelevant. Tomosaka and Nishikodo make a nice pair, but Fuku Suzuki’s performance as the young Tomoya more or less commands the audience’s emotion, with Suzuki able to break hearts and coax smiles simply by breaking into tears or reacting to one of Yasubi’s actions.
    “A Boy and His Samurai” won the Audience Award at last night’s Fantastic Fest award and for good reason. Yoshihiro Nakamura knows how to please the attendees of this festival, but he also knows how to make an emotional, sweet film that stands out proudly among the cinematic rapes, murders and home invasions that run so rampant at Fantastic Fest.

  • Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 3 Recap

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
    Lynn Ramsey
    Genre: Drama
    Grade: A
    In theaters Dec. 2011
    It’s not often that a real Oscar contender plays at Fantastic Fest, but “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is exactly that, and if isn’t, it sure as hell should be. Director Lynne Ramsey’s challenging gut punch of a film plays almost like a dream for its first half, freely floating through Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) experiences with her son Kevin (Ezra Miller). Something of a free spirit, Eva settles down to start a family with Franklin (John C. Reilly), but hits an unexpected road bump once Kevin is born and she realizes that her son is a malicious, sociopathic little monster.
    The film’s opening moments are bathed in red, from the curtains in Eva’s rundown home to the seats at her office to the blood that runs down her face after she’s slapped for reasons the film makes the audience wait to find out. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” takes its time arriving at its disturbing climax, and paints a detailed picture of Kevin’s life, with clever edits bridging various moments, all of them underscoring Kevin’s ruthless manipulation of his parents, even as a prepubescent child.
    Tilda Swinton gives perhaps the best performance yet of Fantastic Fest, playing a mother torn between her biological duty to her son and her gut instinct to get far, far away from this abomination she’s created with expert restraint and fear. Swinton deserves endless accolades for her work here, and co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller both rise admirably to her challenge.
    “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a very hard film to shake, and goes to some very dark places in smart, restrained ways, making its unsettling material feel plausible and terrifying rather than exploitative.
    “The Devil’s Business”
    Sean Hogan
    Genre: Horror
    Grade: B+
    Screens Sept. 28 at 3:15 p.m.
    Sean Hogan, writer and director of “The Devil’s Business,” came to Austin with horror anthology “Little Deaths” earlier this year during SXSW. His segment of “Little Deaths,” which depicted a young couple kidnapping a homeless girl before she reveals herself to be something much more dangerous than they expected, was the best of the film, a scary, stomach-churning short story that parceled out its revelations in very deliberate and intelligent ways. “The Devil’s Business” is very much in the same vein, a hitman drama starring Jack Gordon as Cully, a first-time assassin uncertain about his career choice and Billy Clarke as Pinner, a veteran sent along to make sure he doesn’t bundle the hit.
    Over its brisk 75-minute runtime, “The Devil’s Business” lets us get to know Cully and Pinner, and their interplay in the film’s opening scenes is funny and well-written, especially a lengthy, hypnotizing monologue Pinner delivers early in the film. Cully’s nervousness only increases once they find a Satanic sacrifice in a shed in their target’s backyard, and the job spirals into oblivion from there.
    At its heart, “The Devil’s Business” is a long series of conversations, doling out nice doses of philosophy about the morality of killing and the meaning of life amongst its hard-boiled dialogue and clever turns of phrase. Like Hogan’s segment in “Little Deaths,” the film is smart in how it reveals its various twists and turns, and Hogan’s direction is understated and confident, scary when it needs to be and restrained at all the right moments.
    “The Devil’s Business” is a fun distraction, a short trifle in a long day of films, but it’s also a well-observed character piece with an entertaining supernatural bent. It’s by no means the best film at Fantastic Fest, but it’s certainly worth a viewing.
    You’re Next
    Director: Adam Wingard
    Genre: Horror
    Grade: A
    No additional screenings
    Fresh out of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Fest, “You’re Next” played to a rapturous crowd last night at Fantastic Fest. The home invasion genre has always been rather commonplace at the festival, and director Adam Wingard was at the fest last year with “A Horrible Way To Die,” which won well-deserved awards.
    “You’re Next” opens with a bitter little tease, killing off a couple living in an remote estate before moving onto the main attraction, a family reunion stocked with a who’s who of modern indie horror. The cast includes the likes of AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Ti West (whose “The Innkeepers” is also playing the festival), Joe Swanberg, and legendary horror icon Barbara Crampton.
    Bowen’s Crispian warns his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) that tensions often flare up when his family gets together, and just as tempers are starting to boil over at the dinner table, an arrow crashes through the window and the family starts shedding members with startling quickness.
    “You’re Next” moves very quickly and kills off its characters even quicker (and in fairly unpredictable order). While a few of its characters act too stupidly to be human beings, “You’re Next” is mostly intelligently written, with a real eye for subverting the audience’s expectations. When one of the guests makes it clear they have no intention of rolling over and dying, the film moves onto the next level, doling out satisfying kills and plot twists at perfect intervals.
    Director Adam Wingard juggles a lot of balls with obvious ease. Even amidst the brutality and bloodshed, the film manages to work in a few pitch-black punchlines, and Wingard makes the shifts in tone work very well. He also gives almost every member of the ensemble a great moment, but the film’s clear star is Sharni Vinson’s Erin, a smart twist on the traditional horror film’s protagonist and a noteworthy, thoroughly badass character that earned lots of cheers from last’s night audience. Although the film ends on a bitter, unearned note, 30 false seconds in an otherwise near-impeccable film is not nearly enough to derail things.
    “You’re Next” probably won’t be in theaters for a year or so, and it’s a real shame. The film is legitimately scary, plays out in unexpected ways, and never cheats the audience, which puts it above most American horror films of the year instantly, and makes it the best film of Fantastic Fest thus far.

  • Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 2 Recap

    Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

    Director: Morten Tyldum
    Genre: Thriller
    Grade: B+
    Screens again Sept. 25, 3:15

    “Headhunters” is exactly the sort of film that makes Fantastic Fest such an exceptional festival: a tense, impressively paced thriller starring Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown, a little man with big ambitions and bigger expenses. Brown covers his exorbitant lifestyle, which includes buying absurdly overpriced gifts for his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund), by stealing rare pieces of art from clients he meets through his job as a recruiter for high-powered corporations. However, Brown picks the wrong mark in Clas Greve (Nikolaj Cster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”), an ex-mercenary with a priceless painting hanging in his apartment.

    The film takes its time, adding all the necessary ingredients to its perfect recipe for disaster before things really hit the fan. Waldau makes a great villain, his chilly confidence and military skills turning him into something of a real-life Terminator, and Hennie’s pint-sized protagonist proves to be a capable, if not arrogant, hero worth rooting for. “Headhunters” mixes some superb black humor with impressive bloodshed and satisfying plot revelations with ease, and makes for an intelligent, well-acted thriller that never plays dumb with its audience or characters.

    Also worth noting is “The Candidate,” the short that preceded “Headhunters.” David Karlak’s unnerving short is packed with poetic dialogue straight out of a hard-boiled film noir, and presents an intriguing premise underlined with a not-entirely-surprising twist.

    El Narco/El Infierno
    Director: Luis Estrada
    Genre: Crime
    Grade: A-
    Screens again Sept. 24, 11:15

    Originally titled “El Infierno” (or “Hell”), “El Narco” is something of a Mexican spin on the crime epic, lifting elements from classics like “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.” When Benny Garcia (Damien Alcazar) returns home from the US, he finds both friends and family dead, and quickly learns the only way to make a buck is to follow his deceased brother’s footsteps and get into the drug business.

    Where “El Narco” shines is in its picture of Mexican drug-running, depicting it as equally seductive and repulsive, and making sure the audience undergoes the same struggle the characters do. Alcazar plays Benny’s rise to power with a lot of enthusiasm, but never sadistically, and Benny remains a good man for most of the film’s runtime (even if his actions occasionally slip into the realm of reprehensible).

    With a runtime of well over two hours, “El Narco” is a movie many will hesitate to commit to, simply because 145 minutes is a long time at a film festival with so many options. However, “El Narco” never feels like its epic length, and crafts great sequences all the way up to the film’s bloody exclamation point of a finale.

    Director: Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo
    Genre: Horror
    Grade: C+
    Screens again Sept. 28, 6:30

    The previous film from directing team Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, “Inside,” was a blunt assault on the viewer’s senses and good taste, and was one of the best horror films of the last decade. “Livid” is playing under slightly different rules, and lacks both the visceral impact and the narrative conciseness that made “Inside” stand out. The duo continues their focus on female-driven horror here, as Lucie (Chloe Coulloud), a caregiver for the elderly on her first day of training, stumbles upon a comatose old woman whose house is said to have treasure stashed inside it. At the insistence of boyfriend William (Felix Moati) and his brother Ben (Jeremy Kapone), Lucie reluctantly leads an expedition into the house to find the goods.

    “Livid” is at its most effective as the characters explore the creepy mansion, making incredibly effective use of taxidermied animal heads and the dolls which are scattered around the house. As a whole, “Livid” is aesthetically flawless, with some truly surreal and memorable cinematography, an impressively detailed set design, and tons of creepy imagery. However, its story is an absolute shambling mess, a film with both too much and too little mythology, which teases out various supernatural concepts without ever establishing their importance to the audience, making for a rather bewildering final act.

    Thankfully, “Livid” retains the preposterous amount of gore from “Inside,” and while it’s a bit more abstract and ramshackle than the directing team’s previous effort, it proves a versatility and ambition that makes it clear there are great things to come from these two.

    Sleepless Night
    Director: Frederic Jardin
    Genre: Thriller
    Grade: A-
    Screens Sept. 27, 12:30

    “Sleepless Night” is a tightly wound juggling act of a thriller, taking place almost entirely in a massive nightclub where corrupt cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) must return the coke he stole from drug lord Marciano (Serge Riaboukine) before his abducted son pays the price. Add in a rival drug organization, a few other cops tracking Vincent, and a variety of ticking clocks designed to up the tension, and you begin to understand just how precisely designed each moment of “Sleepless Night” has to be.

    The film is expertly crafted, with each character serving a purpose and not a wasted line of dialogue in its setup or the film’s lengthy series of scenes set in the various rooms of the nightclub. The techno-heavy score lends the proceedings a propulsive, steadily intensifying mood, and watching the film’s various factions compete to take down each other and Vincent never gets exhausting or confusing, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats at all times.

    The film takes its time building intensity, but once the characters get a chance to come to blows, it doesn’t disappoint. One fight scene in particular, between Vincent and a fellow cop, is a brutal, creative brawl in the nightclub’s kitchen that makes you legitimately question how either of them can walk away from it, practically leaving bruises on your body just from watching it.

    “Sleepless Night” may be the best film so far of Fantastic Fest, but it’s still early in the festival. While the film is mostly an impeccable thriller with some great action, the film lasts a bit too long after the surviving characters get out of the nightclub. Even so, “Sleepless Night” is not a film to miss.