Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Three

Day three: Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, and Luke Evans; The Mind’s Eye, a Scanners homage from the director of Almost Human; the animated French steampunk epic April and the Extraordinary World; the performance-art pop-culture riff Stand by for Tape Backup; Follow, a psych-thriller starring Noah Segan.

April and the Extraordinary World (France; Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci, 2015)

This French animated effort has some flaws. A belabored prologue over-explains exactly how this alternate 1931, in which Napoleon V’s empire wages war against Canada and everything runs on charcoal, came to be. The title character–a girl genius and fourth-generation scientist–has a character-development arc straight out of every mainstream film being made these days. And the filmmakers don’t seem to have thought through the moral implications of their story’s climax.

Those criticisms aside, April and the Extraordinary World is enchanting and supremely enjoyable. Based on the work of graphic novelist Jaques Tardi, the art style (reminiscent of Tintin creator Herge) negver fails to delight. Steampunk might be a little overplayed by this point, but the world-building still fascinates, with any number of unexpected touches (including one of the best characters, a talking cat–as opposed to A Talking Cat!?!–with the intelligence of a human) and cameos from the likes of Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein. Marion Cotillard heads a strong ensemble voice cast.

Just the thing to whet your appetite for Euro-animation while you’re waiting for The Little Prince to get American distribution.

Short film: Copycat (Charlie Lyne, 2015)

In 1991, writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky made a low-budget, self-aware slasher flick called There’s Nothing Out There, in which the characters apply the so-called rules of the horror genre to their situation. This probably sounds familiar, and for good reason: while Kanefsky’s film sank like a stone, one of the producers who saw it was reportedly Wes Craven’s son.

Copycat spends most of its running time pointing out the similarities between Copycat and Scream, and I can’t deny Kanefsky has a point. But not being a fan of this particular brand of horror (and obsession with the “rules”), my reaction to it didin’t go beyond a non-committal shrug. As ever, your mileage may vary.

Stand by for Tape Back-up (U.K.; Ross Sutherland, 2015)

This isn’t so much a movie as a performance-art piece, especially the way it was presented at its first screening. Ross Sutherland, a British poet, uses the device of a VHS tape he shared with his late grandfather as a springboard to riff on the intersections between popular culture and personal experience, repeatedly dissecting artifacts such as a bank commercial and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air titles. For this screening, Sutherland performed his narration live, giving it an intimacy and immediacy the recorded version may not have. I’m not sure where it fits in, but that’s fine; what I do know is that I won’t readily forget it.

High-Rise (U.K.; Ben Wheatley, 2015)

The prospect of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, the director/writer team responsible for Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England, adapting J.G. Ballard’s vicious social satire High Rise sounds too good to be true. Thankfully, it isn’t. This examination of the British middle and upper classes during the warm-up to the Thatcher era (a connection overtly made in the final scene) is just as caustic and acerbic as you’d expect.

Visually, Wheatley pitches the film as A Clockwork Orange with adults instead of nadsats, its retro-futuristic design shiny yet somehow drab and alienating. The film’s basic thesis–that “civilization” is a thin veneer, and it doesn’t take much for society to shed it in favor of pure, unadulterated barbarism–has been adopted by Ballard acolyte David Cronenberg (Shivers aka They Came from Within owes much to High Rise) as a central tenet of his aesthetic, and Wheatley plays up that influence as well.

The ensemble cast is perfect, with Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers) and Elisabeth Moss (Queen of Earth) serving as the most likeable characters amongst a gang of sociopaths and narcissists including Luke Evans (Furious 6 and 7), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), James Purefoy (The Following), Keeley Hawes (Ashes to Ashes), and Reece Shearsmith (Inside No. 9). Chuck in a bombastic score from the great Clint Mansell and what you get is one of the best films of the year.

Follow (U.S.A.; Owen Egerton, 2015)

Co-produced by Fantastic Fest/Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, Follow examines the relationship between Noah Segan (Deadgirl) and Haley Lu Richardson in the wake of Richardson’s gunshot death, which Segan may or may not be responsible for. Flashbacks reveal the couple to have a much creepier relationship than we assumed at first glance, which was one of my problems with the film: I didn’t really like or care about any of the characters. The stunt-casting of Don “Ralph from Happy Days” Most is another issue. On the plus side, Segan, Richardson and Olivia Grace Applegate put in good performances.

The Mind’s Eye (U.S.A.; Joe Begos, 2015)

Almost Human writer/director Joe Begos seems to approach his latest effort with the attitude that if the practical effects (read: gore) is awesome enough, it deosn’t matter how bad the rest is. He’s almost right. Almost Human star Graham Skipper and Lauren Ashley Conrad (Darling, Jug Face) play Scanners-type telepaths pursued by mad scientist John Speredakos. This gives Begos an excuse to indulge in horrific graphic gore sequences while Skipper and Speredakos stare furiously and scream at each other.

I won’t deny that the gore is top-notch, and the cast, which also includes Noah Segan, Larry Fessenden, The Battery director Jeremy Gardner, and Josh Ethier, clearly relish the fuck out of their roles. But Begos’s script isn’t just awful, it’s god-awful, with Speredakos’s private army being the most inept, idiotic gang of morons imaginable. Of course, the film would end after ten minutes if they were competent.

Its technical prowess, energy, and awful hilariousness ensure it’s a film not entirely devoid of entertainment value. But it’s the sort of movie that’s more “fun” than “good.”

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