FANTASTIC LIFE : the 24th Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival, April 2008

"NO matter what I say, I'm branded as the Prince of Darkness." No, not the latest comment from the EU's Trade Commissioner; rather Hollywood director Tim Burton complaining about his recent treatment by north London's press – he's lived in Belsize Park (with partner Helena Bonham Carter) for the past few years. Burton's ire was directed at freesheet the Camden New Journal for their supposedly inaccurate reporting of a planning application he'd made: "We've got this reputation for being the neighbourhood weirdos," opined the frizzy-haired, dark-spectacled, 49-year-old responsible for Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands and, most recently, Sweeney Todd.
   But if Belsize is being beastly to Burton, there was a much warmer welcome awaiting him in Amsterdam last month at the city's 24th Fantastic Film Festival (AFFF). The man described in one local paper as 'King of the Goths' received a suitably quasi-regal welcome before collecting his Career Achievement Award in the wildly opulent art-deco splendour of the Tuschinski Cinema. Previous recipients have included Wes Craven, Dario Argento, local hero Paul Verhoeven, Peter Jackson, Ray Harryhausen, Roger Corman and Terry Gilliam, and the organisers will admit that one of AFFF's ulterior purposes is to enable them (as well as the Dutch public) to meet their heroes.
   There's much more to the festival than headline-grabbing visitors, of course: over 18 days more than 50 films unspooled on the three multiplex-type screens in the Tuschinski's modern annex – the cost of hiring the main auditorium for anything other than the Burton ceremony proving sadly prohibitive. The Tuschinski's custodians – multi-national cinema-chain Pathe – really should reconsider their position next year, presuming AFFF (a raffishly nomadic kind of affair which has visited most of Amsterdam's moviehouses over the decades) remains at the same venue in future.
   The next renewal – the silver anniversary – should also seek to redress the event's main omission: older movies. The best film festivals recognise that discoveries don't necessarily have to involve brand-new titles – and it's a safe bet that the enthusiastic, savvy AFFF-goers would love to catch genre classics (via celluloid prints, not DVDs) on the big screen.
   And AFFF, although initially dedicated to gory shockers, doesn't restrict itself to a single genre these days: "Fantasy / Horror / Anime / Thriller / Cult / Science-Fiction" is the eclectic scope of reference, according to official publicity-materials. The winners of the three main prizes – the Black Tulip for Best Feature, the Silver Melies for Best European Feature (awarded by separate juries) and the Silver Scream (voted by audiences, and won by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's rock-the-house [REC], recently reviewed on these pages) – don't really fit neatly into any one category, although their success does confirm that Spain is, in the wake of J A Bayona's international sensation The Orphanage, enjoying a purple-patch in terms of "this kind" of moviemaking.
   Nacho Vigalondo's Black Tulip recipient Timecrimes is, as its title suggests, the latest example of cinema's undying fascination with time-travel. Recent variants range from the clever-clever smart-aleckery of Shane Carruth's impenetrable Primer to the rather more unpretentious – and satisfying – likes of The Butterfly Effect. In terms of ambition and achievement, Timecrimes falls somewhere between the two – the Moebius-strip narrative requiring quite considerable viewer effort for what prove limited rewards – though 27-year-old writer-director Vigalondo (feature debut after a shorts-career which landed him an Oscar nomination) makes sufficiently smart use of a limited budget and a single location to suggest he's a name to watch.
   Silver Melies winner King of the Hill is more of the finished article, however. Directed and co-written by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, this is an absorbingly claustrophobic tale which (paradoxically) unfolds in the great outoors of the mountainous Castilia y Leon region: vertiginous pine-forested slopes providing perfect cover for snipers picking off hapless passers-by. The first, longer section of the film remains very much up close and personal with two such "targets"; the second reveals the identity of their relentless foes – an unforeseeable surprise (the best kind) which instantly gives proceedings much wider and more troubling sociological implications.
   Rather more carefree, art-for-art's-sake fare – on a budget astronomically higher than either of the Spanish prizewinners – was to be found in The Fall, a giddily elaborate fantasia from the florid imagination of the advert/pop-video director who prefers to go by the single name 'Tarsem'. Tarsem Singh Dhandwar is the gentleman's full moniker, and his movie – a quantum leap ahead of his disastrous Hollywood-thriller debut The Cell – borrows much from the visual and oral traditions of his native India.
   An airily whimsical split-level narrative – about an injured 1920s stuntman and the young girl he befriends while recuperating in hospital, spinning her a swashbuckling yarn which Tarsem simultaneously illustrates (with footage shot in two dozen countries) – The Fall (nothing to do with either Albert Camus or Mark E Smith, more's the pity) has been in a kind of distribution limbo since premiering at Toronto in 2006. But, while undeniably bonkers, it boasts terrific central performances from movie-star-of-tomorrow Lee Pace (of current Pushing Daisies TV fame) and little Catinca Untaru (one of the most astonishing child performers since Shirley Temple hung up her knickerbockers), and has garnered enough fans – and, indeed, fanatics – on the festival-circuit to suggest it may yet belatedly end where it belongs, up on our biggest multiplex screens.
   Rather less likely to pop up in your local CineWorld – but no less deserving of such exposure – is Black House, an engrossing noir/horror combo from South Korea which suggests that East Asia remains, fully a decade after Hideo Nakata's original Ring, a fertile source for scary/disturbing fare. A runaway hit at home, it's the grimly gripping tale of a greenhorn, Candide-like insurance-investigator who becomes convinced he's the prey of a homicidal psychopath – only for the truth to be even more disturbing and, in the protracted climax, gruesomely gory.
   At the other end of the action scale was one of the AFFF's more unheralded gems, Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth. Already established as a cult success via internet distribution methods such as BitTorrent, it's an enterprise of the highest philosophical, theological and psychological ambitions – and the lowest budget ($200,000) and production-values – about a college professor who astonishes his friends by announcing, at his leaving party, that he's actually a 14,000-year-old survivor of the Cro-Magnon era.
   Despite looking and feeling like the ropiest of video-shot TV-plays, the unashamedly talky Man From Earth soon proves that, if a film's ideas and dialogue are sufficiently strong, technical shortcomings are largely irrelevant. And any film which can reduce the usually chatter-happy Amsterdam audiences to such attentive, pin-drop silence must be doing something very right indeed.

Neil Young
22nd April 2008
written for Tribune magazine

also seen (reviewed 3rd June)
The Devil Dared Me To : This dopey New Zealand faux-doc – about a dopey New Zealand stuntman – is a bit like being stuck with a boisterous, keen-to-impress drunk: one who's never quite as zanily funny as he reckons himself to be, but is intermittently amusing and sufficiently genial company that you don't crave escape too longingly. That said, it's not exactly an experience one could wish to repeat or recommend – even if it may eventually build up some of the cult following which its makers (no surprise to discover the uneven, episodic project started out as small-screen skits) so clearly crave. Most of their – clearly limited – budget seems to have gone on the elaborate stunt effects themselves, which make for divertingly daft set-pieces. In between, the variable performances (not helped by some clumsily conspicuous post-dubbing) and blandly flat visuals (owing more to early Kevin Smith than early Peter Jackson) become distractingly noticeable, and the relentlessly sophomoric/lavatorial/potty-mouthed humour suggests that the target audience is 15-year-old boys. Likeable enough as a low-aiming crowdpleaser, though nothing for Death Proof's antipodean crackerjack Zoe Bell to worry about, and, rather like its protagonist's rickety four-wheeled conveyances, it does run out of momentum at certain crucial junctures.

5 Centimeters Per Second
: Although only in his mid-30s, Makoto Shinkai has been widely touted as "the next Miyazaki" and "the anime world's bright new hope." This hour-long triptych confirms him as an intriguing, original talent, though more forceful evidence of his promise may be found in the 30-minute, epic astronaut romance Voices From A Distant Star (2002). 5 Centimeters, the title referring to the speed at which cherry-blossom (in Japan, the main symbol of springtime) falls, is a triptych of uneven-length parts, each dealing with romantic episodes in the life of one Takaki Tono: high-school puppy-love in Cherry Blossom Story; post-university strife in Cosmonaut; a pop-video-style timehopping montage in the final segment,  5 Centimeters Per Second. Various visual and thematic tropes recur (Shinkai is notably and fruitfully obsessed by clouds), building a closed circuit of moods and references. Sweet if ultimately somewhat inconsequential, the picture – enigmatically subtitled "a chain of short stories about their distance" reaches a floaty, dreamy lyricism at its best moments.

: Quite a smart little comedy dressed up in horror-movie trappings, Hatchet follows a set of Louisiana tourists as they embark on an ill-advised "Haunted Swamp Tour" that brings them into hazardous contact with an inbred, homicidal maniac. The presence of genre stars Robert Englund, Kane Hodder and Tony Todd (none of whom have very much to do) suggests that the picture is intended to launch a new franchise along the Jason/Freddy lines, but the killer here lacks the intrigue and charisma to make such ambitions likely to be realised. Most of the energy and imagination seem to have been directed towards coming up with ludicrously over-the-top and disgusting methods of dispatching the various victims, resulting in some pleasingly gross touches. Performances are a cut above the average for this kind of fare, with Joel David Moore (a familiar face from TV shows and adverts) making for a rather unlikely geeky/gawky hero and Mercedes McNab doing her best to steal the show as a buxom dim-bulb blonde. A bit of a pity about the climax, in which deft homage tips over into predictable rip-off ("we're alive! we made it!!" – BLAM!), but by this stage Hatchet has done enough to make it more than worth a passing glance.

The Rage
: For many years one of the world's busiest and most respected suppliers of grisly horror-movie make-up effects, Robert Kurtzman also enjoys the occasional stint in the director's chair every now and then (most notably the unexpectedly nasty Wes Craven "presentation", Wishmaster). The Rage, clearly intended as a DVD treat for undiscerning gorehounds, suggests he won't be giving up his "day job" any time soon. It's the gleefully nonsensical tale of a deranged Soviet scientist - Wishmaster star Andrew Divoff, despite top billing, is only on screen at the beginning and the end - who cooks up a homicidal-mania virus as revenge on the perfidious, capitalist West. The shenanigans unfold with a certain berserk gusto, but seem primarily intended as a vehicle for Kurtzman to try out various stomach-churning make-up effects. The straining for campy, OTT cultishness occasionally gets out of hand – a little of the exploits of a murderous, foul-mouthed dwarf go a long way – and the picture could profitably be trimmed of 15-20 minutes. But there are sufficient flashes of wit and invention to make it passable enough as dopey entertainment, which will no doubt pop up as schedule-filler on several cable and satellite channels devoted to such fare.

Wolfhound (click for full review)

Black House : [7/10] : Geomeun jip : S.Korea 2007 : SHIN Terra 99m (timed) : seen 15/4 : FULL REVIEW 
The Devil Dared Me To : [5/10] : NZ 2007 : Chris STAPP : 75m : 15/4
The Fall : [7/10] : USA (US/Ind/UK) 2006 : 'Tarsem' (Tarsem SINGH) : 117m : 15/4
5 Centimeters Per Second : [6/10] : Byí´soku 5 senchimêtoru : Japan 2007 : SHINKAI Makoto : 53m : 16/4
Hatchet : [6/10] : USA 2006 (copyright-dated 2007!) : Adam GREEN : 85m : 15/4
King of the Hill : [7/10] : El Rey de la montaña : Spain 2007 : Gonzalo LOPEZ-GALLEGO : 90m : 16/4 : FULL REVIEW 
The Man From Earth : [7+/10] : full title Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth : USA 2007 : Richard SCHENKMAN : 87m : 17/4 : FULL REVIEW
The Rage : [5/10] : aka Robert Kurtzman's The Rage : USA 2007 : Robert KURTZMAN : 93m : 16/4
Timecrimes : [6/10] : Los Cronocrí­menes : Spain 2007 : Nacho VIGALONDO : 88m : 16/4 : FULL REVIEW 
Wolfhound : [6/10] : Volkodav iz roda Serykh Psov [Волкодав из рода Серых Псов: Russia 2007 : Nikolai LEBEDEV : 136m : 17/4 : FULL REVIEW 

all running times are approximate, unless indicated otherwise
all films seen at Tuschinski cinema (annex), Amsterdam (complimentary tickets)