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Deep Cinematic Themes Prevail at AFI Fest 2012
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson

Afi Fest - "A" Poster Series

As the senior correspondent for Horror.com, the co-host and co-producer of the weekly chat show Inside Horror, and a cub reporter for Fangoria magazine, I have spent the past three months immersed in a genre flick spree.

It was all leading up to October 31, this bloody bombardment of direct-to-DVD zombies, the demons in big-screen 3D, and the multitude of mazes and haunted houses to explore and report on, not to mention horror, sci-fi and fantasy awards shows, film festivals, and press junkets.

I'm actually breathing a sigh of relief even when faced with sitting through some of the most heady, deeply emotional, existential and thought provoking dramas I've seen all year, packed into a one-week wallop at the American Film Institute's festival in Hollywood.

Don't get me wrong — I'm not knocking the genre that's my bread and butter, but sometimes a girl needs some meat (and I'm not talking about Leatherface, here). I did see some horror films at the AFI fest — and I'll get to them — but first, let's go deep.

Documentaries

Central Park 5, made by famed documentarian Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah (along with Sarah's husband David McMahon), recounts the lives of five rough-hewn black and Latino teenage boys who were wrongly convicted of the 1989 savage beating and rape of a well to-do white woman in New York's Central Park. It begins at the beginning, introducing us to the men as boys, intercut with them now, recollecting their lives before and after the attack that would forever change not just six lives, but many more beyond that. The doc delves into all the mitigating factors, explaining the psychology behind false confessions, the culpability of law enforcement and the legal system's twisting circumstantial evidence to fit their few facts, while also astutely relating the climate of crime in NYC circa 1989 (blips of subway vigilante Bernard Goetz, clips of Wall Street juxtaposed with crack dens just down the way, and Mayor Ed Koch calling the jogger assault "the crime of the century!"). While the film is educational, it also packs an emotional and thoughtful punch without ever being manipulative. Unlike Burns' other docs, there is no voiceover narration from a third party: everyone you see is everyone you hear, and they are all key players in their own drama. After the screening, the filmmakers did a Q&A, as did three of the Central Park 5. There were many tears in the audience, and the applause afterward was deafening.

Another documentary that truly tugs at the heart, mind and guts is West of Memphis. It's about The West Memphis 3, also wrongly convicted of a heinous attack. Again, these were young teenage boys from a poor area, condemned for all the wrong reasons. Over the many years they've spent in maximum security prisons and death row, the case has continued to garner media attention. West of Memphis is the fourth film to explore this triple-murder mystery (following the well-regarded "Paradise Lost" trilogy). But it's different in that it not only has some resolution — hollow victory though it may be, the men being forced to plead guilty in order to be freed — but it also presents a possible suspect and shows us sides of the "star" convict, Damien Echols, we've never seen before. Excellent director and investigative reporter Amy Berg had the support of producers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, musicians Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder, all of whom are a part of the presentation. Most interesting to see on the screen is the dedication and tireless work of Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, who married him when he was still behind bars.

The third documentary I saw at AFI Fest was Room 237. "Some movies stay with you forever...and ever...and ever." This is a subjective documentary not, as I'd assumed, about Stanley Kubrick or his polarizing 1980 film The Shining; no, it's about fandom. Think of it as Trekkies for the horror set. To be honest, I've barely heard of Room 237 outside word of mouth from the genre community, but the place was packed to the rafters. I liked it from the standpoint of filmmaking choices; director Rodney Ascher certainly makes some great decisions in not giving us visuals on the speakers, and to use various film clips to illustrate some of the emotions expressed. As just a movie-watcher, I was not thoroughly entertained... a couple of dead horses were beaten, and in the end there really was no upshot (unless it's the one interviewee -- John Fell Ryan, who was there for the Q&A afterward -- who full-circled it by comparing his own life to Jack Torrance's). After the doc, they showed the entire The Shining film super-imposed forward and backward (it was after midnight by then, and I'm not on drugs, so I bowed out for that bit).

Features

AFI Fest has some really high-profile features with big red carpet gala events going on even as I type. Been there, done that. I'll wait to see Hitchcock, On the Road, The Impossible, Quartet, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, and Lincoln. So far I've opted for the lower-key screenings, some of which took place for press on the AFI school campus in the weeks leading up to the festival.

The Hunt is director Thomas Vinterberg's examination of a false charge (seems to be a theme this year, what with two of the docs outlined above) and how it threatens to destroy one man's life. Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best-known as a Bond villain, is absolutely outstanding as Lucas, a kindly and well-liked kindergarten assistant, who is accused of sexual misconduct by a student. By and by, his former friends and colleagues not only turn against him, but in a united front of group hysteria, pursue him. The result is gripping; there's more suspense and white knuckle tension in this Danish drama than 90% of the outright horror films I saw this year. In reality, it's like a pared down McMartin Preschool case (minus the Satanic panic and actual trial).There are moments reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Lars Von Trier's Dogville, but most of all Vinterberg's film is about how the embracing arms of family and community can so quickly and wrongly turn to vise-like traps and prisons.

Rust and Bone is without question of the greatest movies I've seen all year. Is it perfect? No, but aside from only one or two others, it's a film I've been thinking about, and remembering, even weeks after I saw it. For me, the best movies encompass not only story, direction, acting, and a certain visceral passion, but striking visuals and amazing audio as well. (I don't ask for much!) The sumptuous cinematography is absolutely swoon-worthy, and Rust and Bone's soundtrack, mixing the of pop Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen, and The B-52s with a conventional orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat, is unforgettable. (There is only one movie I loved even more this year for its holy trinity of passion, sight and sound, and that is Café De Flore; it was not part of the AFI Fest, so I'm reviewing it separately.) Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone is based on a book of short tales by Craig Davidson, and the shoehorning of one narrative derived from several stories does show. The circumstances of the characters in Rust and Bone are pretty unbelievable, almost the stuff of fable, but they are played with grounded believability by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. She is Stéphanie, a recent double-amputee, and he is Ali, a bare-knuckle boxer; somehow, the two are drawn together — she with her outer wounds, he with his inner pain — and they form a sexually-charged alliance, which then turns into a reliance. But what happens when one lover can walk away and the other can't? This is one of the many deeper questions posed in the subtext beneath an almost soap-operatic surface.

Another great film about the human condition, and the reasons some choose to stay with a loved one in spite of all obstacles, is Michael Haneke's Amour. Amour has already been lauded, what with its win at Cannes and all the gushing reviews, but I fear some people might stay away, thinking the subject matter is too depressing. At face value, it is depressing: the adage, "Grow old with me, the best is yet to be" certainly is not true in most people's cases, and particularly in the case of octogenarian couple Anne and Georges (Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant). The long-time marrieds share a tender, attentive, interactive relationship, and have a grown daughter as well as a lovely little home and wonderful memories. Their life is simple, and comfortable. Then Anne suffers a stroke and we follow Georges, unflinchingly, through his ministrations and agonizing inability to stop her desperate, incremental demise. In place, always, is the love of the title. Somber, noble, and in a way quite beautiful even in its spartan brutality, Haneke has made a movie that is About Something. (I hasten to add, I feel there is an ideal ending point about three minutes before the actual end, and that lingering bad apple almost spoiled the barrel for me… still, I highly recommend Amour.)

Holy Motors, directed by French bad boy Léos Carax (who cut his teeth working with Godard in the 80s), is one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen. In fact, I saw it the day after checking out an infamous 1977 Japanese horror film called Hausu — which still takes the cake as the weirdest of all, but — that was a 24 hour period of cinematic strangeness I'll not soon shake! While Hausu was clunky and bad in its weird-ways, Holy Motors is beautiful, bizarre, suspenseful and provocative. After seeing it, I read a few reviews, and found all the different interpretations of the plot to be quite eye-opening. To me, as the tires stopped and the end-credits rolled, there was no question the main characters were angels on earth, fulfilling guardian and death duties, along the lines of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. (That is, if Wings of Desire were to take place in the nightmare fairytale world of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, with a detour to Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and a quick stop to say hi to Martin Scorsese's Hugo.) But others say Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant, channeling Lon Chaney), the shadowy character who journeys from one life to the next (scenario-style, he is a businessman, an assassin, a beggar, an acrobat, a troll, a dad, a lover, and so on), is a wish-fulfilling performance artist/actor along the lines of a role-playing prostitute. I don't really know now, but I don't really care, either — Holy Motors is much more about the ride than it is about the destination. At the wheel of his limo is yet another avant-garde puzzle piece, the gorgeous and enigmatic Céline (Edith Scob, famed for her unforgettable role in the 1960 French body-horror film, Eyes Without a Face — which is referenced many times in Holy Motors). Those two are our constant characters, while the others — played by Eva Mendes, and Kylie Minogue to name a couple of famous faces — revolve, and dissolve. What's more, the cinematography and locations (one sequence was shot in the famed in Pere Lachaise cemetery) add layers of artistry missing from this year's "other limo movie", Cosmopolis. In sum, Holy Motors is an interpretive film. It's an existential and strikingly thought-coaxing musing on the "masks" we all wear from time to time… if you choose to take it that way. Or/and it's just a wildly surreal ride that's a darkly comic, suspense-thriller, song-and-dance drama. Whatever your approach, you're unlikely to forget the exhilarating, eruptive cinematic splooge of Holy Motors.

Antiviral is the directorial debut of David Cronenberg's son, Brandon. Set in a futuristic world obsessed with and addicted to celebrity culture, so much so that stars' diseases and viruses are designer drugs sold for top dollar to the discerning fan, Antivirus follows Lucas Clinic employee and salesman Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones). March gets greedy, and begins to smuggle the clinic's patented products by harboring them in his own body. Like a drug dealer, he cuts them and doles them out in cheaper versions through underworld pushers who grow the diseases in secret cell-gardens, and at first it's the highest of highs. But when he nicks an unknown illness directly from the veins of superstar beauty Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), then finds out what she's got is fatal, it's a race against the clock, D.O.A. style, to find the antidote. There are quite a few sociopolitical shades of crisp black and stark white to this truly infectious and addictive film. It's smart, darkly satirical, and truly horrific in not only the contemplative sense, but in its no-holds-barred blood-gushing. There's plenty of flesh (on and off the bone), the glorification of herpes sores, gore-saturated yak, syringe-stabbings, and… well, let's just say Antiviral will send the squeamish squirming in their seats.

Horror

Berberian Sound Studio - Said to be a cinematic love letter to the 1970s Italian sub-genre known as "giallo" (think: Mario Bava, Dario Argento), Berberian Sound Studio struck me as something more along the lines of Pupi Avati's House of the Laughing Windows, with maybe a touch of Brian De Palma's Blow Out. It stars the inimitable Toby Jones as a milquetoast English soundman hired to work on a horror film in Italy by some rather shady characters. Holed up in a dark, claustrophobic studio with them, doing foley and looping on some of the most scary scenes ever recorded, the man begins to lose his mind… or does he? Maybe these terrible echoes are from a past he's forgotten. While the ending of the movie had me in a dither (basically, there isn't one, after all the build-up), I will say I appreciated the caressing style of the cinematography, fetishizing and sexualizing even the most inanimate and mundane recording equipment and sound-related props. It's a gloriously beautiful and arty film, for sure. I'll gladly see it again, just to make sure I didn't miss something leading up to the climax.

ABCs of Death - This experimental horror film, comprising 26 different stories by different directors from all over the world each taking a letter from the alphabet to illustrate a mode of demise, is, as to expected, a mixed bag. It's just too bad there aren't more treats than tricks in this Halloween haul. I couldn't possibly recount all the tales and I wouldn't want to spoil the surprises in any of them, so I'll just say I didn't care for most of them on the basis of scatological humor, gross-out sex, trying too hard to be outrageous, or just being too silly in fey, faux-meta self-reference. There are only three of the 26 I really liked a lot, and they are:

-       D is for Dogfight (by Marcel Sarmiento, whose feature, 2008's Deadgirl, is one I loathed), which is gorgeously filmed, expertly edited and strikes an emotional chord in just a few moments

-       O is for Orgasm (by Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet, the duo who did the 2009 neo-giallo Amer, which I loved), which is sexy, arty, passionate and strange

-       and X is for XXL (by Xavier Gens, the filmmaker behind several features I have not liked), which is a gory, alarming and sad commentary on society's misplaced importance on a woman's good looks.

Here Comes the Devil - directed by Adrián García Bogliano (who also did an ABC of Death, B is for Bigfoot), is a simple, oft-told story of demonic possession. But how it differs from most is that it's at once a family drama, a vigilante tale, and a whodunit mystery. We follow a married couple (Francisco Barreiro, Laura Caro) who lose their children while on a family trip near some caves in Tijuana. The kids eventually reappear without explanation, but they are much-changed. Not that it's any secret they're possessed, but by whom, and what do these entities really want? It's not outright terrifying, but Here Comes the Devil is subtly scary and well worth a look.

John Dies at the End - "Bill and Ted meet Dawn of the Dead." John (Rob Mayes) and Dave (Chase Williamson) are the two stoner / slacker / spiritual advisors who are somehow chosen to save humanity from sinister supernatural beings who are unleashed through the use of a deadly designer drug called Soy Sauce. Soy Sauce makes its users feel omnipotent. Nothing new, there. But the side effects include psychic ability, levitation skills, and inter-dimensional time travel. Oh, and death. Once infected, the user becomes a host for strange, locust-like creatures which fly out into the world looking for new breeding grounds. There were so many lead-ups to 'the' big showdown, I began to lose track, and focus. It was like an extended version of Dude, Where's My Car? with ghosts and zombies.

I also caught a few movies I didn't think enough of to review — Like Someone in Love, Sun Don't Shine — and missed even more I want to see in the future — Ape, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Wrong, Barbara, A Royal Affair, The Final Cut, and Ginger & Rosa.

Next up, my reviews of Café de Flore and Skyfall. 

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