Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 2 Recap

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Headhunters
Director: Morten Tyldum
Genre: Thriller
Grade: B+
Screens again Sept. 25, 3:15

“Headhunters” is exactly the sort of film that makes Fantastic Fest such an exceptional festival: a tense, impressively paced thriller starring Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown, a little man with big ambitions and bigger expenses. Brown covers his exorbitant lifestyle, which includes buying absurdly overpriced gifts for his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund), by stealing rare pieces of art from clients he meets through his job as a recruiter for high-powered corporations. However, Brown picks the wrong mark in Clas Greve (Nikolaj Cster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”), an ex-mercenary with a priceless painting hanging in his apartment.

The film takes its time, adding all the necessary ingredients to its perfect recipe for disaster before things really hit the fan. Waldau makes a great villain, his chilly confidence and military skills turning him into something of a real-life Terminator, and Hennie’s pint-sized protagonist proves to be a capable, if not arrogant, hero worth rooting for. “Headhunters” mixes some superb black humor with impressive bloodshed and satisfying plot revelations with ease, and makes for an intelligent, well-acted thriller that never plays dumb with its audience or characters.

Also worth noting is “The Candidate,” the short that preceded “Headhunters.” David Karlak’s unnerving short is packed with poetic dialogue straight out of a hard-boiled film noir, and presents an intriguing premise underlined with a not-entirely-surprising twist.

El Narco/El Infierno
Director: Luis Estrada
Genre: Crime
Grade: A-
Screens again Sept. 24, 11:15

Originally titled “El Infierno” (or “Hell”), “El Narco” is something of a Mexican spin on the crime epic, lifting elements from classics like “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.” When Benny Garcia (Damien Alcazar) returns home from the US, he finds both friends and family dead, and quickly learns the only way to make a buck is to follow his deceased brother’s footsteps and get into the drug business.

Where “El Narco” shines is in its picture of Mexican drug-running, depicting it as equally seductive and repulsive, and making sure the audience undergoes the same struggle the characters do. Alcazar plays Benny’s rise to power with a lot of enthusiasm, but never sadistically, and Benny remains a good man for most of the film’s runtime (even if his actions occasionally slip into the realm of reprehensible).

With a runtime of well over two hours, “El Narco” is a movie many will hesitate to commit to, simply because 145 minutes is a long time at a film festival with so many options. However, “El Narco” never feels like its epic length, and crafts great sequences all the way up to the film’s bloody exclamation point of a finale.

Livid
Director: Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo
Genre: Horror
Grade: C+
Screens again Sept. 28, 6:30

The previous film from directing team Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, “Inside,” was a blunt assault on the viewer’s senses and good taste, and was one of the best horror films of the last decade. “Livid” is playing under slightly different rules, and lacks both the visceral impact and the narrative conciseness that made “Inside” stand out. The duo continues their focus on female-driven horror here, as Lucie (Chloe Coulloud), a caregiver for the elderly on her first day of training, stumbles upon a comatose old woman whose house is said to have treasure stashed inside it. At the insistence of boyfriend William (Felix Moati) and his brother Ben (Jeremy Kapone), Lucie reluctantly leads an expedition into the house to find the goods.

“Livid” is at its most effective as the characters explore the creepy mansion, making incredibly effective use of taxidermied animal heads and the dolls which are scattered around the house. As a whole, “Livid” is aesthetically flawless, with some truly surreal and memorable cinematography, an impressively detailed set design, and tons of creepy imagery. However, its story is an absolute shambling mess, a film with both too much and too little mythology, which teases out various supernatural concepts without ever establishing their importance to the audience, making for a rather bewildering final act.

Thankfully, “Livid” retains the preposterous amount of gore from “Inside,” and while it’s a bit more abstract and ramshackle than the directing team’s previous effort, it proves a versatility and ambition that makes it clear there are great things to come from these two.

Sleepless Night
Director: Frederic Jardin
Genre: Thriller
Grade: A-
Screens Sept. 27, 12:30

“Sleepless Night” is a tightly wound juggling act of a thriller, taking place almost entirely in a massive nightclub where corrupt cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley) must return the coke he stole from drug lord Marciano (Serge Riaboukine) before his abducted son pays the price. Add in a rival drug organization, a few other cops tracking Vincent, and a variety of ticking clocks designed to up the tension, and you begin to understand just how precisely designed each moment of “Sleepless Night” has to be.

The film is expertly crafted, with each character serving a purpose and not a wasted line of dialogue in its setup or the film’s lengthy series of scenes set in the various rooms of the nightclub. The techno-heavy score lends the proceedings a propulsive, steadily intensifying mood, and watching the film’s various factions compete to take down each other and Vincent never gets exhausting or confusing, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats at all times.

The film takes its time building intensity, but once the characters get a chance to come to blows, it doesn’t disappoint. One fight scene in particular, between Vincent and a fellow cop, is a brutal, creative brawl in the nightclub’s kitchen that makes you legitimately question how either of them can walk away from it, practically leaving bruises on your body just from watching it.

“Sleepless Night” may be the best film so far of Fantastic Fest, but it’s still early in the festival. While the film is mostly an impeccable thriller with some great action, the film lasts a bit too long after the surviving characters get out of the nightclub. Even so, “Sleepless Night” is not a film to miss.