Movies

I Watched People Punch Each Other to Settle Movie Arguments

By  · Published on September 26th, 2016

Fantastic Fest takes a violent turn.

Photos by David Hill

On the Internet, we have arguments all the time. If you’re a Film Twitter person, you know this better than most. The central questions in these arguments are often frivolous and the outcome is even more often meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Rarely do any of these things lead to more than a Tweetstorm by one party, perhaps even a blog post, maybe even an episode of a podcast.

At Fantastic Fest, these arguments come to life every year in a way that can’t be achieved sitting in front of your computer with no pants on. Instead of tweeting about how “Zack Snyder is unfairly maligned” or “Superhero movies are ruining film,” these combatants chose to first stand at a podium in front of a raucous crowd and state their case, then stand and face their opponent in the boxing ring. Yes, in order to prove their ultimate point, these combatants actually had to punch each other. Because, America. And Fantastic Fest.

Despite my seven years of attendance, this is the first time I’ve attended the Fantastic Debates (at least that I can recall – there’s no ruling out a blackout drunk attendance years ago). If you watched the event via the Facebook Live feed or have watched previous years’ matches re-run via YouTube or on Twitter, you’re being undersold. The atmosphere for the debates, held at a South Austin boxing gym, is electric. Arriving about 45 minutes early, I was greeted by a relatively empty crowd. The stage was set, adorned with banners from the sponsor, El Rey Network’s Lucha Underground, but the crowd hadn’t begun to fill yet. Within the next 30 minutes or so, the moderately sized gym filled with the pulsing energy (and heat) of a packed house.

While the actual fighting didn’t quite live up to what you’d see in even the lowest professional levels of the sport, this amateur show did not lack for enthusiasm. In the opening bout, between Alamo Drafthouse manager Michael Welchester and Drafthouse programmer Greg MacLennan, argued about Rocky IV’s place at the top of the all-time list of boxing movies. Theirs was a spirited and bloody bout, supervised in part by special guest Dolph Lundgren. Face bloodied but spirit intact, MacLennon proved what we all know to be true in our hearts: that Rocky IV ended the Cold War.

Among the remaining fights, one was waged over whether or not Zack Snyder was the “most unfairly maligned director of the 21st century.” The crowd was expectedly in the tank against Synder from the start. Payback, no doubt, for Batman v Superman. And while the fight between Welchester and MacLennan was the bloodiest, the fiercest debate portion was on the subject of whether superhero movies are ruining the film industry, pitting actresses and SourceFed stars Bree Essrig and Whitney Moore against each other. Unbridled passion, a clear commitment to preparation, and plenty of trash talk made their debate one of the more vibrant (and thorough).

Describing the environment of The Debates as “electric” doesn’t quite to it justice. It’s the rock concert of Fantastic Fest. Part frat party, part nerd-off, all bravado, it’s an unmistakably Fantastic Fest experience. It’s all part of the showmanship that begins with Tim League and infects every planner, programmer, and volunteer. It exists in the margins, beyond the movies, but is just as essential a part of the experience.

And now some thoughts on the movies I’ve seen since last we spoke.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

In almost every high school movie, there’s at least one disaffected, socially awkward weirdo. The artsy kid who spends more time drawing in his notebook than interacting with other teenagers. It’s a cliche, but think back: you probably knew that kid (or were that kid) in high school. To its credit, comic artist Dash Shaw’s debut feature is the cinematic manifestation of what that kid spent his high school years drawing. It’s handmade film about the anxiety, friendship, and ambition that permeates the high school experience. It is also, in part, something like a Keith Haring painting come to life with Jason Schwartzman in the lead role.

The story is spelled out in the title – it’s about a high school that quite literally starts sinking into the sea. Focusing on how the many student groups deal with their predicament, Shaw’s film is at times delightfully unaware of its stakes and at others provocatively violent. There are moments when it devolves into a series of color patterns, symbolic of the chaos its characters are experiencing. Throughout, it gets a great set of performances from the likes of Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, and Susan Sarandon. Though it gets experimental (and dangerous to those with epilepsy) at times, it’s a charming, thoughtful, and unique film.

The Crew

The current wave of French crime thrillers – many of which revolve around groups of talented bad guys for whom everything goes wrong in a hurry – are plagued a bit by their shared formula. The Crew, the latest from Julien Leclercq (a rising star in the genre), struggles to break free of familiar territory. But it’s executed so splendidly and with such verve that it hardly matters. The story revolves around a seasoned thief whose brother makes a deal with the wrong gang, plunging their entire gang into dark waters. The action is unflinching and brutally authentic. Even some of the film’s gnarlier moments are aided by happening off-screen. It’s a testament to the way Leclercq so tightly winds his narrative and to the strong performances of his cast. It goes to show that if you execute your story properly and create atmosphere, your action movie doesn’t have to be particularly original.

Re:Born

In recent years, Korean and Indonesian filmmakers have been the most adept at delivering fucking bloody martial arts movies with films such as The Yellow Sea and The Raid, respectively. This year, we’ve got plenty of that but we’ve also got Re:Born, a Japanese take on a Bourne Identity-like story from longtime stunt coordinator Yûji Shimomura. Led with a strong, quietly charismatic performance from Tak Sakaguchi, Re:Born has plenty of down moments that are flanked by bursts of extreme violence. Because really, who doesn’t love extended knife fights in the woods? Despite all this brutality, the movie slags a bit here and there with overwrought poetry about honor on the battlefield and mystical killing machines. When it works, it’s a frantic stab-a-thon. When it doesn’t, it’s a slog. Either way, the closing 30-minutes or so of action is worth the price of admission as Sakaguchi slices his way through platoons of trained killers on the way to his final objective.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)