[Fantastic Fest] Review Round-Up: THE LONG WALK, KNIVES AND SKIN, VFW, BLISS

By: Paul Farrell

VFW 2

I was told upon my arrival at Fantastic Fest that, at a certain point, the days would begin to blend together. That reality itself would become an unreliable entity, time passing in great chunks as nothing but movies, beer, and brief encounters with those I had previously only known via their Twitter handle float by in scarcely digestible vignettes. Yes, I was warned, I just thought it would take longer than a few days to kick in.

Still, life at the festival has been good to me. Take Saturday, for example. Putting aside some welcome new encounters (Jeremy Gardner is one of the nicest people alive, by the way), Saturday included a time-walking ghost collector; a trippy, neo-noir, feminist inversion of the “teen” film; a collection of crotchety old men under siege by mutant drug addicts; and a 35mm explosion of light, sound, sex, and vampirism.

All told, warped festival reality or not, it was another wonderful day at Fantastic Fest and I have some thoughts.

The Long Walk

The Long Walk

Time is a cycle. A loop of decisions and consequences that, for better or for worse, informs the future and yet seems doomed to repetition. Whether on a macro or micro scale, it seems humanity rarely learns grander lessons from its failures and its pain, always returning blindly to the naively selfish notion that this time around things’ll be different.

Director Mattie Do’s incredibly personal The Long Walk is a Laotian film that subtly employs the tools of science fiction to tell a story that feels both modern and ancient at the same time. Despite its lo-fi futuristic trappings, a strong sense of spirituality and the supernatural permeates every moment of the movie.

The story follows an old hermit (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) with the unique ability to converse with the dead. Do’s depiction of this world is steeped in the warring, disparate elements of the past and future, with the protagonist clinging to the life and habits he grew accustomed to while the world has changed around him.

The old man’s fixation on the past is embodied in the apparition of a woman (Noutnapha Soydara) who has been walking alongside him on the dusty roads outside his impoverished village since he was a boy. He found her dying alone in the woods, and he held her hand until she passed. In return for his compassion, her spirit remained with him through a traumatic childhood in which his father abandoned his family and his mother died a painful death.

The old man learns that the woman’s spirit has the ability to send him back in time, resulting in a hasty, bullheaded, and frankly dangerous attempt to control the otherworldly powers at his disposal as a means to altering the past. Change can be good, certainly, but only when it comes from lessons learned. Otherwise, change becomes deteriorating sameness, exaggerated degradation.

The Long Walk is a film about grief, loneliness, and mankind’s willingness to sacrifice almost anything in the pursuit of changing our painful pasts. It’s beautifully shot with haunting performances and a narrative that delves into the darker recesses of the damaged mind.

Knives Out

Knives and Skin

There’s a moment in the early minutes of Knives And Skin that finds Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) alone by a lake at night with Letterman jacket-clad Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin). It’s a scene that’s graced the early moments of many films, often leaving the viewer with a victimized female lead that’s either dead or damaged as a means to drive the story’s plot. The trope is tired, yes, which is why it was so surprising when Carolyn cuts a glowing “C” into her beau’s forehead.

Confused? I certainly was. Admittedly, it’s difficult to discern the intentions behind the dream logic that writer and director Jennifer Reeder employs without being fully immersed in it. Even then, it may or may not connect. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, the oddball weirdness of the film’s vignette-like story structure becomes like a foreign language — a method of communication made up of quirky, biting dialogue, intensely beautiful colors, acapella musical interludes, and character choices that make sense to the individual in question based on their emotional states regardless of how it fits into the wider scope of the story. It may be indecipherable to some viewers, but for those able to decode Reeder’s dialect, I believe it will resonate all the more strongly.

This is not the first time someone has attempted to crack the teenage cipher, creating something authentic by venturing into the fantastical. While it shares little in common with Heathers, such a film does jump to mind. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s a unique, inclusive vision that upends what you might expect and provides a window into the mind of the teenage girl that is driven by agency, empathy, and understanding.

Carolyn Harper is missing after the film’s introduction, but she makes her mark. A bloody “C” that says she was there. And no one, not even a shitty teenage boy, can take that away from her. Hers is an aura that remains, a presence that glows.

VFW

VFW

Fred (Stephen Lang) has served his country with honor, dignity, and aplomb. He’s earned his retirement, as have his crew, spending his days quietly slinging drinks in the old VFW bar he and the boys call home. Even on his birthday, all Fred wants is a little goddamn peace and quiet.

What he hadn’t counted on was getting caught up in the conflict of a local drug lord, which results in an army of mutant junkies hellbent on breaking into the VFW post to recover a stolen stash of super drugs. Where’s the stash, you might ask? Right smack dab in the middle of his bar. His home. And now? Well, now he’s going to have to do something about it.

Joe Begos’ VFW is violent, gory mayhem in the form of high art. It’s the purest form of midnight, exploitation entertainment, checking every last over-the-top box on the list, including William Sadler wielding a circular saw as he mows through a crowd of crazed people. It’s gritty, it’s loud, and it’s fun.

Still, it’s the cast which carries the movie to even loftier heights than its classic siege premise delivers on its own. Even before the shotguns start exploding the heads, watching the likes of Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe), Martin Kove (Rambo: First Blood Part II), William Sadler (The Mist), David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors), George Wendt (Cheers), and Fred Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn) bust each other’s balls at a dive bar is endlessly entertaining. More than that, it’s endearing. These are characters we love from the start, which makes everything that happens subsequently all the more powerful and intense.

VFW is an absolute blast, a crowd-pleasing collection of character actors proving their strength against a generation that undervalues and underestimates them. Take Fred, for example, whose lesson may well be that the thing that was killing him from the start was the quiet monotony he had found himself trapped within. For only when death came at him full swing in the form of an axe-wielding junkie did he finally feel alive once more.

Happy birthday, am I right?

Bliss

Bliss

Some movies intoxicate the senses. These are the films which offer a pure, unadulterated shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. They pulsate and flow through you as you take it all in, employing every last element of the cinematic experience to make you feel. They’re wholly unique creations, animals of art that feel dangerous in a way. Impossible to be pinned down or controlled. Movies that can’t be described, only experienced.

Bliss is one of those movies. It’s lust incarnate — a manic, fever dream of creation that mirrors the filmmaker’s own visceral ride to his art’s completion. It concerns a painter, Dezzy (Dora Madison), who’s on the precipice of losing her agent, apartment, and opportunity with the gallery that had already provided her an advance on her unfinished work. In her frustration against a world so unwilling to see and accept her for who she is, she seeks refuge in a new drug called Bliss and finds that the lifestyle it leads to is as explosively creative as it is damaging to the soul.

Shot on 16mm but blown up to 35mm, the film is a visual feast reflecting the emotion on-screen. Reds erupt from the grainy depths of the night as Dezzy’s painting begins to take shape and her increasingly dark desires manifest in horrifying ways. Dora Madison turns in an incredible performance, allowing herself to go as far as she needs to in an effort to achieve the special brand of lustful, unyielding longing she can’t help but express in order to release what has been buried so deep in her psyche.

It’s a movie that demands to be seen big and loud. A film which defies explanation because words simply cannot convey the experience of watching it unfold. A grandiose piece comprised of violence, sex, and unfettered creativity, and one that will echo through the genre for decades to come.

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