How You Know You’re At Fantastic Fest

On day one, some thoughts about the experience of first timers.

Photo: Jack Plunkett

In the back of a glossy, gentrified shopping area in South Austin, where signs for recently built condos – they kinds that dare you to look up their price – tout the “New Bones and Old Soul” of one of the city’s formerly beloved, kitschy strip malls, sits the very soul of the neighborhood. The Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard has changed over the years. It’s been partially torn down, rebuilt, and attached to its spiritual sister, the karaoke dance hall playland known as The Highball. If you’re a longtime reader of this site, you know this place, be it in person or through the descriptions we’ve provided. It’s the site of Fantastic Fest, after all, Austin’s film nerd social event of the season. For locals, it’s the chance to celebrate and welcome friends home for a week of genre cinema at its finest. For visitors, it’s part vacation, part fever dream. For veterans of any ilk, it is an immediately familiar environment of close quarters cinematic combat. We know that if we survive the onslaught of sleep deprivation, dehydration, claustrophobia, and the looming specter of diabetes, we’ll be treated to a show unlike any other.

As the crowd milled about prior to the opening night film – this year was Denis Villeneuve’s thoughtful sci-fi thriller Arrival – I found myself speaking with a number of first timers. As a veteran of seven years at Fantastic Fest, it’s a perspective that feels foreign to me. When a first timer asked me to explain “the deal” with this festival, it was cause for a moment of reflection. “There will come a point,” I explained. “Right between the introduction and the opening credits of the first movie, that you’ll know what Fantastic Fest is all about.”

The truth is that it’s not always about the movies. The programming of Fantastic Fest, while never something that can be described as bad, has its ups and downs like every festival. What matters most that in the moments that lead up to lights down on the first film, the love that goes into this yearly event shines. This year’s intro involved a DJ on a platform some 15 feet in the air, pushing out EDM as a host of tightly clad alien cosplayers raved about on stage. Amidst this charmingly low-rent Daft Punk concert was Tim League, the multi-hyphenate Alamo Drafthouse boss, playing his part as a mostly inebriated astronaut. When Tim speaks to his Fantastic Fest faithful for the first time, he’s a preacher in the church of celluloid. “If you are new to our family,” he proclaims with glee. “I want you to have the best fucking time.”

If you’ve read about Fantastic Fest throughout the years, you know that Tim League’s intro antics are a thing of legend. His work with swords and champaign bottles, beer chugging, and even the occasional burst of flames are the things that earn the most headlines. To see it live, it’s clear that his earnestness is what keeps people coming back year after year. When he says that he wants you to have a kickass week of film, food, and debauchery, he’s nothing if not genuine. For the newcomers, this is what you need to know. No one cares more that you have a good time than the man most responsible for making it so. It’s a feeling that infects the rest of the Drafthouse staff, the festival volunteers, and the filmmakers in attendance. This is the shared experience in its purest form.

My hope is that the newcomers with whom I spoke in the lobby felt the love. It’s possible that they didn’t. Like any adventure, this one probably isn’t for everyone. But if it is for you, it feels like home.

Now onto some thoughts about day one at Fantastic Fest 2016.

Arrival

Before it hits theaters in November, I’ll have some longform thoughts about Denis Villeneuve’s stellar alien contact film. What you should know right now is that I agree with every word Rob Hunter wrote in his review. Beyond that, know that this is one of the year’s most tender, thoughtful films while simultaneously being one of its most visually daring. If you’ve enjoyed the filmmakers previous work – most notably Prisoners or Sicario – you’ll be all-in. The same goes for anyone who loves Close Encounters or Contact, as there’s plenty of shared (though not directly replicated) DNA.

Boyka: Undisputed

In 2002, Walter Hill made a Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames led boxing film called Undisputed. In 2006, director Isaac Florentine picked up the reigns and made a sequel, in which Rhames character (now played by Michael Jai White) goes to Russian prison and squares off against a bad guy named Yuri Boy, played by a then mostly-unknown Scott Adkins. Two movies later, Boyka: Undisputed is an anti-hero story about a recently escaped Boyka, trying to find redemption in and out of the ring. The existence of this film is a testament to the rise of Scott Adkins as an action star. That Boyka could go from a one-note baddie to a sympathetic centerpiece is a direct-to-DVD class miracle.

For all its basic-ness – including some groan-worthy dialogue – the fourth Undisputed film delivers plenty of kicking and punching. Like any rollercoaster at an off-brand theme park, it delivers the ride as promised. So in that regard, it’s fun. And funny, in that “we’re not quite laughing with you” kind of way. Atkins’ legs fly just as high as his Russian accent falls flat, both charming in their own way. If you’re in for the Scott Adkins experience, this feels like yet another essential piece.

Popoz

Celebrating the bombastic action films of the 80s and 90s is, at this point, a genre unto itself. To date, no film has sent up that period of cinema quite like Edgar Wright did with Hot Fuzz. What Wright accomplished was a spirited, independent story that had the right feel. Now imagine if you will that the same sort of movie was made with Dutch sensibilities. The same kinds of minds that delivered films like New Kids Turbo and Nitro. It’s a mash of absurd comedy, passion for the art of bullet-riddled schlock, and a dash of Troma. That’s what we have in Popoz, a Dutch comedy about two desperately hopeless cops whose desire to getting in on the action leads to all sorts of mayhem.

In a way, Popoz is exactly the kind of absurd genre stew that plays perfectly with the Fantastic Fest crowd. Were it a little less chaotic, it might have even made the perfect midnight film. Sadly it’s a little too fast and loose to elevate beyond the category of “fun but forgettable.”

More dispatches from Fantastic Fest to come. Click the logo below to read my updates and reviews from myself and Rob Hunter.

Neil Miller :Before time itself, this person created the website you're currently reading.