Unless you have a bottomless bucket of air miles and a lot of friends with spare couches, film festival season can be a costly endeavor. Fortunately, the good people at Montreal’s Fantasia bent time and space to give the Austin office of One Of Us access to some of their more intriguing titles.
Cinema reflects a culture: so a war, or a civil war, penetrates into that nation’s cinema. Before its bloody partition, Yugoslavia had one of the most vibrant and fascinating film industries in the Adriatic: much of it was centered in Belgrade, and so, when the nation was divided, when Serbia got Belgrade it got the film industry (moreover, it’s got a lot of US productions looking for experienced and affordable crews). Yet Zagreb and Split in what is now Croatia have their own cinematic history, and Goran could be the kind of blackly, bleakly hilarious comedy that puts the Balkan state back on cinematic radar.
The titular Goran (Franjo Dijak) is an affable if taciturn loser in rural Croatia. He’s nice enough, but unambitious. His friends like him (but maybe mostly because he’s building a sauna). His wife (Natasa Janjic) loves him, but there’s the sneaking suspicion that, even in this one-horse town, she could do better. His stepfather doesn’t really like him, but that’s OK, because what can he do about anything?
Much of the opening act is spent establishing the sense that Goran knows he’s doing better than he deserves, and is waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it does, it does so on his birthday, as his suspicions about his fragile quality of life are sort of, maybe revealed to be true. A mistimed shove, and the house of cards tumbles with malicious hilarity.
At first flush, if it wasn’t for the accents then Goran could pass as part of the new wave of unapologetic tasteless but wryly acerbic Scandinavian comedies (Turbo Kids, Klown, Man and Chicken, the upcoming In Order of Disappearance) that have swept through film festivals over the last five years. Yet director Nevio Marasovic injects a distinctly dour Slavonic humor. There’s a delicious sense, every time something goes awry, of the characters looking at each other with a “huh, well that happened” twist.
Much of the buzz about Tank 432 has stemmed not from the script or cast or director, but from the producer credit earned by arguably Britain’s greatest living director, Ben Wheatley. It’s actually the creation of writer/director Nick Gillespie, who has been part of Wheatley’s cinematographic team since working as a clapper loader in 2009 on drug sitcom Ideal. However, Tank 432 (formerly known as Belly of the Bulldog) is a far remove from those dope-drenched hijinks.
It begins as an enigma: a British military unit, potentially mercenaries, potentially in a post-apocalyptic landscape, are dragging a couple of hostages/prisoners with them. Grouchy leader Smith (stellar character actor Gordon Kennedy) cajoles and barracks his team into pressing onwards, but Reeves (The Man in the High Castle’s Rupert Evans) is sure there’s something awry. After a bloody encounter, pursued by scarcely-visible enemies, they seek refuge in the titular tank. But the engine’s shot, the doors have sealed mysteriously sealed themselves shut, and whatever is inside the steel trap seems even deadlier than the glimpsed creatures outside.
If there’s any kinship to be found to any Wheatley flick, it’s arguably to 2013’s psychotropic period piece A Field in England. The themes of military loyalty in the face of collapsing reason, of an unsure mission, of claustrophobic isolation, are all there (plus the ubiquitous Michael Smiley, British horror’s touchstone actor, as one of the squad). Yet – and this is no knock – Gillespie is no Wheatley. To be fair, that’s like saying Adventures in Babysitting-era Chris Columbus is no Steven Spielberg. They undoubtedly share a coolly quizzical aesthetic, yet he definitely never reaches Wheatley’s cerebral insight and febrile experimentation. Instead, what he creates is a crisp, succinct, sweaty, and often unnerving little thriller, designed to exploit but not strain the budgetary constraints within which indie horror directors strain.
IN SEARCH OF THE ULTRA SEX
A La Recherche de L’Ultra Sex (In Search of the Ultra Sex) is hard to categorize as anything other than a pleasant diversion – although, one you probably shouldn’t slip on over Thanksgiving dinner. Remember Kung Faux. Mic Neuman’s art project/Fuse TV show, where he remixed old martial arts movies as hip-hop homages/broad spoofs? OK, well, imagine that, but for 1970s French porn.
It was a simpler time in porn, a hairier and less coherent time. This was the time of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. Everything was filmed in locked-off long shots, and narratives (yes, everything had a script that went beyond “OK, now turn over”), and perms were de rigueur. Here, it’s chopped and screwed (pardon the pun), with seemingly random clips from a plethora of unrelated pornos glued together with a crazy sci-fi script about the Ultra Sex, a pandemic that turns everyone into lust-crazed lunatics who drop their pants at every passing human.
The sinful collage was originally concocted for French TV channel Canal Plus (ah, French TV, you magnificently smutty enterprise) by Nicolas Charlet and Bruno Lavaine. Arguably France’s leading contemporary comedic creatives, they sit somewhere between Colbert and Stewart, Parker and Stone, and Knoxville and Jonze. They even adapted The Office for French TV as Le Bureau, but they also know their way around a dubbed script, having written the French script for What We Do in the Shadows.
Ultra Sex is nowhere as good as either of those works. Even at a brisk 60 minutes, it comes perilously close to overstaying its welcome. Yet nothing about it is supposed to last longer than the watching. The core joke – that period porn was kind of hilarious, and enacted with a diffident disinterest by most of the performers – mashed up into a bad SF spoof is funny for the hour long duration, and that’s about it. The porn is hilarious, especially decontextualized: the pop-culture-riddled humor is more hit than miss (in a light giggle fashion); and the plot is dopey enough to pass the time.
The greatest comedy is probably derived from knowing that, somewhere out there, there’s a cadre of aging French adult performers who know they had sex, on camera, on roller skates.
CREATURE DESIGNERS: THE FRANKENSTEIN COMPLEX
Passion of a different kind: Passion project documentaries for a niche audience can be a dangerous thing. Case in point: Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex is an exhaustive history of practical monster effects. Starting with George Mellies’ Giant of the Snows from The Conquest of the Pole, running right through to Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.’s original latex and foam designs for the 2011 The Thing.
But the inevitable question is: so what? Fans with only a passing knowledge of FX are unlikely to want to see a two hour catalog of talking heads, and practical purists are likely to know most of the stories anyway. They may truly be worthies of the art, but with so many names flying past, it’s hard to contextualize. When they do diverge on a point – such as the divisiveness over CG – the film seems schizophrenic.
Having directed Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan for the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, director Gilles Penso knows a thing or two about hagiography. He undoubtedly put in the leg work, interviewing pretty much every living notable in the industry (Phil Tippett, Greg Nicotero, Steve Johnson), plus just enough directors (John Landis, Mick Garris, Guillermo Del Torro) to fill in the details about what an effective monster means for storytelling.
Yet the end result is so fervent in its love for the medium that it misses so many opportunities for better stories. The issue of CG versus practical, versus CG complimenting practical, is worth a documentary in its own right. The case of Gillis, Woodruff, and the painting over of their Thing designs seems ripe to anchor that story, as does the forgotten story of how much of Jurassic Park’s revolutionary computer-designed effect slate was a practical one. Or the fascinating and unresolved question of whatever happened to Rob Bottin, the maestro behind the original The Thing. Moreover, by attempting to create a universal history of monster effects, he accidentally ends up with a narrow focus (never really touching on anyone other than US effects artists, nor tackling the thorny question of why it has been such a male-dominated segment of the industry). Penso never even seems sure about his core hypothesis, of whether practical effects are doomed or in a new Renaissance.
And, seriously, does anyone need to hear Kevin Smith’s opinions about practical effects?
No. The answer is no.
Part of the problem with Smith is that his ubiquity undercuts diversity in genre voices. That’s exactly what writer/director Clay Liford is attempting to redress with Slash, his comedic take on the outsider. Neil (Michael Johnston, Teen Wolf) and Julia (Hannah Marks, Weeds, Necessary Roughness) are the two kids in their high school getting into trouble for the most innocuous of reasons: writing bad teenage fantasy porn. Neil is starting to tackle his burgeoning sexuality and attraction to the lead actor in the school drama society. Julia, on the other hand, uses her genre jerk-off fodder to be as confrontational as possible.
It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off reversed, with Neil’s Cameron the center of focus as Julia’s Ferris tries to crowbar his royal nerdishness out of his shell. But it’s not simply a slapstick comedy. Liford melds humor with a coming-of-age drama. Neil’s occasionally more forthright than he lets on, and less confused about what he really wants, while Julia struggles with knowing that she’s less talented and more fragile than she wants to pretend.
If it runs into a problem, it’s summed up when Julia declares that “we’re the only two kids in this entire joint who know what we know about.” It so accurately catches the sensation of being in a room with a couple of young genre fans that it also evokes how incredibly annoying teenage fans can be. Plus, do 15 year old SF fans still read Frederik Pohl?
No. Again, the answer is no. But a much less resounding no than asking for Kevin Smith’s opinion. Yet it’s a little unclear whether Liford is mocking fandom lovingly, or a little too acerbically, and he seems far more at ease when dealing with complicated questions of sexual awakening and confusion. A final speech by Michael Ian Black (as a slash fic forum moderator) attempts to crystallize those issue shifts that balance into the ‘loving mockery’ territory. It may meander a little, but its underlying message of acceptance finally shows its true heart.