fantastic-fest-2015-700x300Preston Barta & Cole Clay // Film Critics

Today marks the beginning of the end, it’s the day when the 2nd half badges roll up on the scene. While we have been feasting our eyeballs on the decadent array of movies the past four days, these folks had the luxury of coming in to Austin with hopefully eight hours of sleep, they’re going to need it to carry them until Thursday.

Last night, we saw The Nerd Rap Battle take place and the ever popular Fantastic Feuds where factions of horror lovers exercise their trivia knowledge. With all the beers, events, food and films taking place, you’re bound to find something to do for 12-plus hours.

Now we’re into the repeat screening phase. Here’s a pro tip: check twitter, or ask an actual human being what they’ve seen; it will carry you a long way. Big hits at the festival were HIGH-RISE, THE WAVE and THE ASSASSIN, which are being shown again throughout the day and we’ve seen them ALL. So let’s get to it.

A still from THE WAVE.

A still from THE WAVE.

Perhaps the biggest film of the day was THE WAVE, screening in three theaters last night. The Norwegian disaster film shows the difference between a disaster film and disaster porn, which is pretty much anything and everything directed by Roland Emmerich. 2012, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and the more recent SAN ANDREAS all show how as an audience we just love to watch destruction in a fictional setting. That’s all those aforementioned films are: destructive eye candy. THE WAVE, however, reveals how to appropriately tackle the subject material.

From the photo that was released (to the right here), the trailer on the website, and what the programmers said before the screening took place, THE WAVE is a “Hollywood blockbuster” from Norway. Yes, that’s precisely what it was. It’s a by-the-numbers disaster flick; however, what sets it apart from the typical Hollywood junk food flicks is it puts more focus on the drama and the characters.

Adhering to the formula, the film concerns a geologist named Kristian who on his last day before moving away with his family, notices something usual going on with the monitors detecting seismic movement. After many signs pointing to the contrary, Kristian believes they should evacuate the area before rock slides occur and a tsunami engulfs them. Well, like a group of idiots, his team says he’s crazy. Then, everything Kristian predicted naturally happens.

There are moments with the characters where they react and behave so moronically during this catastrophe that it’s difficult as an audience to accept. It insults your intelligence a little bit: “What are doing? Run!” The film’s biggest issue, like many disaster flicks, comes in the drama. But despite its shortcomings, the visual look, the wave special effects, and tension are all done well enough to make this movie worth a peek.

TheassassinshuqiHave you ever watched a movie that was so beautiful to look at but was boring as hell to watch? I’m thinking most recently with THE TREE OF LIFE, or most Terrence Malick movies, really. Well, that’s THE ASSASSIN, a Taiwanese film set during the Tang Dynasty-period in Chinese history.

Assassin Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu) returns to her family after several years in exile. Upon her return, she is given a new mission: kill the tyranny of the Governors who go against the authority of the Emperor. This proves to be a difficult task for Yinniang, as she must choose between sacrificing the man whom she loves, or breach the order of the Assassins.

The plot is hard to follow, even though the film moves at a snail-pace. Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien fills the film to the brim with visual splendor, vibrant colors and costumes, all in a 4:3 aspect ratio. You get so comfortable watching these visual treats that it slowly hypnotizes you right to sleep. Seriously, my neighbor fell right asleep, and I can’t blame him.

Many thoughts and expectations come with a Taiwanese “martial arts” film, but Hsiao-Hsien hopes we get more lost in the aesthetics. The usual action is far too short and far between. While those very brief scenes of fighting look great and are well choreographed, especially one scene that takes place in the woods, the action is over before you even have time to register it.

It was my hope THE ASSASSIN would be a slow-burn film where things would be ferociously brought to boil before unleashing the fury in the third act, but that sadly never came. Maybe this film will age like a fine wine and I’ll appreciate it later, but for now, it’s sensationally dull.

One thing that Fantastic Fest has quietly excelled at in past years is curating the most mind bending, beautiful, and flat our incredible animated films from around the globe, including PERSEPOLIS and THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA. This year, the stand out from our perspective is APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD from Belgium. The story imagines that Napoleon didn’t die at the Battle of Waterloo and the world’s top scientists have been mysteriously been disappearing.

With the voices of Marion Cotillard in the starring role as April, this movie is nothing short of incredible. It has talking animals, intergalactic battles and eye catching animation from the steampunk generation. French and Belgian film have typically had a way of confronting social issues with a little quirky spin, but APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD completely reinvents an entire universe. This is one of the best and heartwarming films of the year that not only wows visually but focuses on the importance of family.

A still from SCHNEIDER VS BAX.

A still from SCHNEIDER VS BAX.

And then there’s SCHNEIDER VS BAX from Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam. It’s a darkly comic thriller that takes place in broad daylight. Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) is a mannered hit man who is celebrating his birthday with his wife and kids. He gets an unexpected phone call ordering him to exterminate Bax (van Warmerdam), who is all about popping pills and living the sporadic lifestyle in the middle of a swamp.

The duo battle wits without ever sharing the screen. It’s a fun film to watch unfold. It’s genuinely entertaining throughout as the characters’ decision-making becomes increasingly dire and effects their lives greatly. SCHNEIDER VS. BAX doesn’t land the dismount when the bullets begin to fly, but the contradictory characters and technical direction from van Warmerdam work in favor of the bloody conclusion.

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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.