“The Conspiracy” is the feature debut for Christopher MacBride, and if nothing else, it gives the young director the chance to work in several different filming styles. The film jumps between documentary and the more popular found footage format, and it makes for a taut, often effective thriller that sometimes gets a bit too caught up in its own bluster.
Documentary filmmakers Aaron (Aaron Poole) and James (Jim Gilbert) are making a documentary about Terrance (Alan C. Peterson), a notable conspiracy theorist who can usually be found ranting into a megaphone at busy intersections. When Terrance disappears, Aaron and Jim start recreating his findings, and end up disappearing down a dangerous rabbit hole of secret societies and government cover-ups.
MacBride stages the film as the team’s final documentary, and loads it with goofy conspiracy theories to begin. “The Conspiracy” asks some very big questions through Terrance’s rants, and it’s hard to take the film seriously as times as it starts to sound like it believes the paranoia of a character that’s portrayed as mentally unstable.
Once Terrance disappears, the film picks up in intensity, and its final third is a brilliantly conceived, truly terrifying stretch of cinema. Without giving away too much, our heroes wind up way over their heads, and it’s a finale that’s consistently disorienting and wonderfully effective. Unfortunately, it’s hobbled by the choice to use lapel cameras that seriously restrict the audience’s line of sight, making the most visually compelling section of the film also its most frustrating. Even so, it’s a fundamentally flawed but consistently engaging and structurally clever work.
‘The Conspiracy” screens at 2:55 on Tuesday, 9/25.
The gritty cop drama is no stranger to the Fantastic Fest program, and this year, “Unit 7” joins films like “No Rest for the Wicked” and “Paris by Night” in representing the genre. Taking place in Seville, Spain, “Unit 7” tracks one brutally efficient unit’s quest to clean up the streets in time for the 1992 World Expo Fair. Rookie cop Angel (Mario Casas) joins up with grizzled veteran Rafael (Antonio de la Torre), and the two lead a team that pushes the boundaries of the law while enforcing it in rather spectacular fashion.
If you’ve seen “The Shield,” or “Training Day,” or any other corrupt cop drama, you more or less know the story of “Unit 7,” but that doesn’t stop the film from being visceral and gripping. Director Alberto Rodriguez captures his action with a kinetic energy that’s infectious, and the film moves at a rapid pace, covering several years in its characters’ lives in a brisk 96 minutes.
“Unit 7” is aided by strong performances from its stars. Angel starts off being shocked by his own brutality, but as his cynicism in his work and his own ballooning ego take precedent, Mario Cases does a great job capturing a man going off the rails. De la Torre is excellent at portraying the tiredness that seems to settle into Rafael’s bones over the course of the film, and his unlikely romance with Lucia (Lucia Guerrero) is a sweet and rewarding detour.
“Unit 7” doesn’t bring anything new to Fantastic Fest, but what it does, it does very, very well. Its particular brand of gritty street justice is captured with confidence and a refreshing interest in the human side of its quasi-villainous protagonists, making for a familiar but enjoyable experience.
“Unit 7” screens again at 5:30 on Monday, 9/24.
Surrealism is usually a cinematic touch that rubs me the wrong way, something about the level of self-indulgence and intentional audience confusion that simply grates on me. But Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” a squirmy conceptual oddity, is the exception to that role, a strangely touching but elusive film that works entirely because of its stylistic audacity. Denis Lavant gives a dazzling performance as Oscar, a man who spends his days in a limo, driving between appointments that require him to slip in and out of different lives at a moment’s notice.
Lavant plays a stunning 11 roles, each of them distinct in appearance and demeanor, and it’s fascinating to watch Lavant physically and emotionally transform himself throughout the film. Other actors tend to come and go based on which scenario Oscar is in, and the only constant is Edith Scob, who does warm work as Oscar’s driver. Also worth mentioning is a lovely interlude towards the end of the film where Oscar interacts with a woman played by Kylie Minogue. I didn’t have Minogue pegged as much of an actress, but her work here is unexpectedly tender and tinged with regret, and once it becomes clear why Carax chose Minogue for the small role, it makes for one of “Holy Motors”’ boldest moments.
Director Leos Carax brings astounding amounts of creativity to “Holy Motors,” and each of the different scenarios Oscar finds himself in stands out, if not for concept than for execution. A moment where he works in a motion capture studio is acrobatic and erotic, unabashedly strange, and one of the early scenarios where Oscar transforms into a repugnant sewer creature to kidnap a model (Eva Mendes) is a burst of slimy creativity. A mid-film musical number is also an absolute blast, a great shot to the heart to energize audiences for the rest of the film, and the film’s final scene, which doesn’t feature a single human character, is a surreal little punchline.
“Holy Motors” certainly won’t be a film that everyone enjoys, and even fewer will understand it. There’s an endless number of ways to interpret many of the film’s flourishes, and it’s hard not to see a parallel between the way Oscar experiences the key moments in so many different lives and the very art of cinematic acting, a profession where reality becomes a lie agreed upon by all its participants. No matter how you read it, “Holy Motors” is never boring, driven by Lavant’s excellent performance and the lush, well-rounded direction from Carax, making it one of the most unique films to play the festival so far.
“Holy Motors” screens again at 3:00 on Monday, 9/24.
Fantastic Fest’s midnight movies usually belong in that slot for a reason, and “Memory of the Dead” certainly has enough energy to keep its audience active. The film focuses on Alicia (Ana Celantano), the wife of recently deceased Jorge (Gabriel Goity). A few weeks after his demise, she gathers his closest friends for a memorial service that turns sinister after Alicia initiates a ritual to resurrect her husband.
Director Valentin Javier Diment has clearly grown up on the “Evil Dead” triology, and “Memory of the Dead” wears that influence on its sleeve. You can see Sam Raimi in the film’s camera work, bloodshed, and even in the way Alicia’s wall decorations come alive to torment her house’s occupants. Unfortunately, “Memory of the Dead” has all of the gore and shock value of the “Evil Dead” without any of the fun that comes with it.
The film’s premise is flawed on a basic level. Jorge doesn’t get a single line of dialogue before he’s found dead, and we never really get a read for who he was and why Alicia wants so desperately to revive him. Once the spookiness starts, ghosts from each character’s past begin to haunt them, bringing along a parade of psychoses that aren’t especially compelling or original. Finally, the film’s alleged protagonist, Alicia, is abrasive to the point of being villainous, and while some of the film’s final revelations start to put that into focus, she’s simply the wrong choice to build the film around, and “Memory of the Dead” suffers for it.
“Memory of the Dead” has a few scenes that undeniably frighten, and some of its jump scares are spine-chillingly effective. It also packs a final twist that’s undeniably clever, and some nice imagery pops up throughout. Unfortunately, it’s also scored within an inch of its life by Pablo Borghi, and Valentin Javier Diment fails to build any notable momentum or atmosphere. Ultimately, the film is a shriller, less interesting version of “Evil Dead 2,” and should probably remain hidden in that film’s shadow.
“Memory of the Dead” screens again at noon on Monday 9/24.
It’s important to make a distinct impression with your first feature, and Brandon Cronenberg has a big last name to live up to. With “Antiviral,” his twisted debut, Cronenberg blends several distinct genres, hitting some moments of demented cleverness and some that fall flat.
The film takes place in a modern age where the public’s obsession with celebrities is so intense that they intentionally infect themselves with the diseases that ail their idols. Sid (Caleb Landry Jones) works at one of these clinics of sickness, and moonlights as a black market disease dealer. When he infects himself with a mysterious illness that almost immediately kills its original carrier, Sid has a ticking clock in his body that also just became the hot new item on the market.
Brandon Cronenberg is certainly his father’s son, and “Antiviral” is loaded with the squirmy body horror that made films like “The Fly” classics of the genre. Cronenberg packs his send-up of celebrity culture with macabre little touches, and details like edible steaks grown out of celebrity’s muscle cells are genuinely creative. The film takes place in a modern day that feels sterile and cold, but as the film delves deeper into its central mystery, Cronenberg’s icy control starts to melt away. “Antiviral” is equal parts sci-fi, film noir, and satire, and as Sid investigates what’s happening to him, the film chases him down far too many narrative rabbit holes, leaving it with a second half that steadily loses momentum before crawling through the finish line.
“Antiviral” screens again at 6:15 on Monday 9/24.
Dom - A Russian Family
Throughout, “Dom – A Russian Family,” we get to know a sprawling cast of characters all of them pivoting around the axis of Victor. Victor is a criminal who, after seeing a disturbing trend of his associates turning up dead, returns home to celebrate his decrepit grandfather’s birthday. He brings with him a small crew of gunsels, pursued by a rival outfit’s hitmen. In a mere 105 minutes, “Dom” gives almost all of these characters some definition, some reason for being onscreen other than necessity, and that’s perhaps its greatest achievement.
The beginning of the film asks the audience to do a bit of heavy lifting as it throws names and faces at us with little context, but once you start to get a grasp on how everyone fits together and the subtle dynamics that have developed among the family, the film becomes positively enthralling. One scene in particular, as one couple arrives at the family’s secluded compound for the celebration, is beautifully directed, a single shot that shows four generations of family reuniting at once.
Once Victor arrives on the scene, his family has some trouble accepting it. “Dom” does a wonderful job of capturing how deep wounds dealt by your own blood can run, and that’s in large part thanks to the weary, warm performances by the entire cast. Press notes haven’t been made available for the film, so it’s hard to single out cast members, but the actor playing the family’s patriarch gives a great, stubborn performance, one that sticks out in a film full of naturalistic portrayals. It’s a testament to the strength of the film’s writing and performances that a climactic act by a character who hasn’t spoken a word of dialogue can be such a triumphant moment, and the quality of the film’s script is one of many reasons why “Dom” works as well as it does.
Of course, this is a film playing Fantastic Fest, so Victor’s two worlds must eventually collide. Director Oleg Pogodin holds that inevitability off for as long as possible, and several sequences are staged with taut intensity. Once the rival gang finally arrives at the family compound, the ensuing finale is a perfectly executed tight-wire walk of tension, taking place just as various family arguments come to a boil. The film’s climax is about as brutal and realistic as you’d expect from a Russian film, and there’s not a beat of glorified violence here. Every death is deeply felt, and the whole ordeal ends up being more punishing than cathartic. “Dom – A Russian Family” is a violent but tender look at a family and the trouble that one rogue member can bring upon them, and it’s one of the most distinct films at this year’s festival.
“Dom – A Russian Family” screens at 2:15 on Monday 9/24.
Many of the smaller films at Fantastic Fest come and go, too brazenly unconventional for a commercial life outside of Netflix streaming. Fortunately, “Graceland,” one of the best films at the festival so far, has already been picked up by Drafthouse Films, and audiences across the country will get a chance to check out Ron Morales’ intense, stylish thriller.
Arnold Reyes plays Marlon, a driver for a prominent politician with some skeletons in his closet. Driving his employer’s daughter (along with his own) home from school one day, Marlon is pulled over by a man posing as a policeman with intentions of kidnapping the girl for ransom. The trouble is, he nabs the wrong girl, and Marlon finds himself struggling to save his daughter.
“Graceland” is full of shocking moments, and its plot is a twisty, bold journey through a criminal underworld, unafraid to go to some very squeamish places. Marlon makes for an interesting protagonist, played with just the right amount of darkness by Reyes, and the film doesn’t hesitate to let its hero stretch the borders of sympathy.
As intense as “Graceland” is, the film could probably use a bit of fleshing out. A few developments towards the end need some extra time to breath, and while you’ll never catch me complaining about brevity during a film festival, some of the developments in the third act are a lot to swallow. Nonetheless, it’s a memorable, taut little thriller, and absolutely worth seeking out upon its inevitable Austin release.
“Graceland” screens again at 3:45 on Tuesday 9/25.
“The Collector” wasn’t a film I ever expected to see a sequel to. When I saw it, it was playing once a day at a multiplex that would exhibit anything longer than 80 minutes, and it was a deserted Wednesday night screening. The film surprised me with its creative set-up, unconventional hero, and some impressive gore effects, but was forgotten almost as soon as I left the theater. Imagine my surprise when “The Collection” was announced at Fantastic Fest, and when director Marcus Dustan took to the stage, he was genuinely excited to bring the film to this audience. Dunstan is one of the writers behind the back (and weaker) half of the “Saw” franchise, and that influence is more than felt in “The Collection,” one of the most unlikely sequels I’ve ever seen.
Arkin (Josh Stewart) was the lone survivor of the original film, and the sequel finds him still in the grasp of the Collector, a serial killer with a penchant for rigging up elaborate traps for his victims (sound familiar?). Arkin escapes, unwittingly dooming Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) to take his spot after a massive club massacre. Elena’s father (Christopher McDonald, given maybe half a dozen lines here) recruits Arkin to lead a team of mercenaries into the Collector’s lair to rescue his daughter.
“The Collection” sometimes feels like nothing more than an excuse for Dunstan and co-writer Patrick Melton to dip into the ideas they didn’t get to use during their time on the “Saw” franchise, and the film is a barrage of crazy concepts and imagery. It takes place in a magical world where the killer has an endless supply of time, able to rig his entire lair with booby traps while also torturing what seems like dozens of victims and staging elaborate schemes to add to his body count, and once “The Collection” gets going, it’s rare that more than a few minutes passes without another corpse added to the pile in spectacular fashion.
Unfortunately, most of the mercenaries led into the lair are nameless sets of adjectives, sacks of blood and guts waiting to be sliced open. And the scenes of bloodshed are occasionally staged with genuine incompetence. Moments that could have been memorable (like the team of mercenaries taking out charging packs of depraved Collector victims) are rendered inert by indistinct close-ups, and make the audience almost plead for a wide shot.
“The Collection” is a standard B-horror movie, content to shower its audience in blood and leave logic by the wayside. And in that context, it works. It’s certainly never a boring watch, and the crowd at Fantastic Fest had a blast with it. However, in a setting where most of the films are shining examples of their genre, “The Collection” falls a bit short.
Jason Lapeyre, the director of “Cold Blooded,” has another film called “I Declare War,” playing this year’s festival, and after “Cold Blooded,” you can bet I’ll be checking that one out. After an energetic opening where Cordero (Ryan Robbins) botches a jewelry heist and gets himself hospitalized, the film introduces his guard for the evening, a constable named Frances (Zoie Palmer). “Cold Blooded” is quick to establish Frances’ isolation in a wing under renovation, and the first stretch of the film is a quiet little cat and mouse game between her and Cordero. Robbins and Palmer have nice chemistry, and their easy rapport is helped along by Lapeyre’s witty dialogue. Then Cordero’s boss, Louis (William McDonald), shows up, and things get very dark very fast.
“Cold Blooded” is notable for its willingness to play with real stakes, and none of its characters come out completely clean. Even so, they’re all portrayed by strong, likeable actors. Frances isn’t sure if she’s cut out to be a cop, and Palmer walks the tightrope between indulging her own self-doubts and retaining her unflappable sense of decency with control, making for an interesting performance. Robbins is hard to get a bead on simply because his squirrely Cordero is constantly shifting allegiances, throwing in his lot wherever he can, and Robbins plays him with an endless supply of confidence and a mouth that never runs out of excuses. William McDonald makes for a great, intimidating villain, and even when he’s just delivering dialogue, there’s a menace to his character that’s impossible to ignore.
Lapeyre was working on a low budget with this film, but he makes the best of his sparse location and small cast. His direction is full of innovation, and while the film’s third act somewhat betrays the film’s low cost with an unfulfilling climax, “Cold Blooded” is taut, well-written, and interesting throughout.
“Cold Blooded” screens again at 6:15 on Monday 9/24.