FF_HeaderPreston Barta & James Cole Clay // Film Critics

Going into Fantastic Fest – Austin’s beloved weirdfest that includes a collection of unique films and activities – a first day doesn’t get more exciting than a satanic panic room and two films by extremely gifted directors.

Even when you open the doors to the festival’s home of the Alamo on South Lamar, you are greeted with a decorated lobby that can only be compared to a Joe’s Crab Shack from hell– and I mean that in the best way possible. If you take two steps into the theater hall, you’ll witness a model of a naked woman cut open (a marketing piece for the film AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE– more about that film tomorrow).

There really isn’t anything like Fantastic Fest. They operate under their own rules and they don’t care what you think. They just want you to roll with the punches with a beer in hand and smile on your face, which they do succeed.


Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks in ARRIVAL. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

As teased, the big film of the evening (also the opening night feature) was filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL. You may recognize his name from titles such as PRISONERS, ENEMY and last year’s haunting SICARIO. He’s a filmmaker who expertly knows how to build tension, even in the lightest written scripts. So, you can imagine our faces lit up upon learning he was directing a grounded alien invasion film.

ARRIVAL follows Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who’s recruited by the U.S. government to decode an foreign language from the aliens that have landed in 12 locations all across the globe.

What are they doing? Why are they are? As the clock ticks, humanity becomes more and more distressed. So it’s up to Dr. Banks and her physicist colleague, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to work out the ultimate puzzle before war breaks out.

This is a movie about conflict, but really, there’s zero conflict in the film aside from decoding a single phrase that could, maybe, possibly start a global war. Villenueve’s film is beautifully poetic at times, operating with large existential themes that have the potential to resonate upon multiple viewings, yet the film’s relentless blue hued camera work by Bradford Young (A MOST VIOLENT YEAR) never elevates the broad concepts beyond the surface.

While Adams and Renner are formidable actors, in ARRIVAL their characters are dealing with their own form of grief that can never fully anchor the emotional heft.

Unfortunately, while ARRIVAL gives much for audiences to appreciate and wrestle with (especially its emotionally satisfying ending), Villenueve’s past work proves to be larger leaps for mankind.


Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim star in THE HANDMAIDEN. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The film that did give filmgoers their badge’s worth was Park Chan-wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN.

After making his English-language debut with the underappreciated STOKER, Chan-wook returns to his native land for a gothic romance-thriller. With its healthy mix of eroticism and mystery, THE HANDMAIDEN winds takes viewers back to 1930s colonial Korea, where a woman (Kim Tae-ri) attempts to defraud an heiress (Kim Min-hee) while working as her personal servant.

Chan-wook adapts Sarah Water’s novel – the aptly titled FINGERSMITH – and builds upon it in a way that not only captures the spirit of the original book but translates it well for any viewer. The film is dark, imaginative and stylish to a fault, and it will be mentioned a ridiculous amount by us as the year rolls into awards season. (You have been warned.)

Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller star in SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest.

Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller star in SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest.

Speaking of seasons, Christmas isn’t quite here, but Fantastic Fest is the perfect place to introduce a holiday horror romp. Chris Peckover’s SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD showcases a story that goes from bad, to worse, to psychotic real quick.

The film – about a babysitter (Olivia DeJone) tending to a 12 year-old-boy (Levi Miller) as his parents (Patrick Warburton and Virigina Madsen) go out the night.

SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD is an Australian production used as a stand-in for America. The up-and-coming lead actors DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (who plays Miller’s character’ best friend in the film) broke out in last year’s THE VISIT, while Miller (PAN) gives a cheeky yet sometimes stilted performance.

Nonetheless, Peckover directs these young talents with a vigor that only comes with passion for a project. The haunting tone goes full-stop in audience pleasure there were just a bit of what makes the problem arises inherently terrifying. SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD has its moments of HOME ALONE-like fun, but can’t quite find the keys to become a classic.

Sky Elobar is Big Brayden in THE GREASLEY STRANGLER, produced by Elijah Wood. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Sky Elobar is Big Brayden in THE GREASY STRANGLER, produced by Elijah Wood. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

When it comes to Midnight movies, things tend to get weird… and fast! We’d have to say the South by Southwest holdover THE GREASY STRANGLER is the granddaddy of all midnight weirdness that’s going to take place over the course of Fantastic Fest.

There’s no point in elaborating too much on the plot, as it works better as an experience. Picture the dry humor of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE mixed with a gross-out comedy with a dash of messed up father-son bonding.

This isn’t for the faint of heart, yet THE GREASY STRANGLER hits note perfect for those who dare to take a dive into this slippery pool of macabre behavior.


About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.