Dispatch From Fantastic Fest: Day One

It’s officially the start of Alamo Drafthouse’s genre film festival, Fantastic Fest. I have the privilege of reporting on this years festival for Lewton Bus, and will be providing daily dispatches running down the best, worst, and biggest surprises of FF 2017.  

Yesterday was essentially a half day, so this first article will be pretty brief. You can look forward to more goodness in the coming days!

The Line, Dir. Peter Bebjak, Ukraine

In many, Peter Bebjak’s gangster film doesn’t break a whole lot of ground. It’s certainly well crafted, and anchored by some great performances. Tomáš Maštalír is excellent as Adam, a ruthless yet principled working class mobster in Slovakia. He’s willing to use bolt cutters in creative ways in order to get confessions out of his employees, then turn around and embrace them and welcome back into the “family.” He smuggles cigarettes across the Slovakia-Ukraine border, but refuses to take part in less savory aspects of the criminal underworld, such as human trafficking and meth smuggling. Magnetic is kind of a cliché when describing performers, but I would seriously watch Maštalír in just about anything. He manages to get across genuine menace and sensitivity, often in the same moment, and he’s charismatic as hell the entire time.

With Slovakia about to become part of the Schengen Area, Adam’s tidy business it about to be complicated by much more stringent border security, and some of his underlings (as well as more powerful criminal figures) are pressuring him into, shall we say, expanding into other industries, something he is firmly against. Again, this kind of conflict isn’t exactly new to the genre, but it’s elevated and made more interesting by its geo-political context. Other than some rather random and off-tone surreal moments, The Line is a very engaging film: intense, sad, hilarious. It’s something to look for.

Salyut-7, Dir. Klim Shipenko, Russian Federation

The really lazy way to describe Salyut-7 is as Russia’s answer to Apollo 13. I am nothing if not lazy. This is  a big, sappy, inspirational story of survival, with stoic wives crying silent tears in Mission Control as their astronaut cosmonaut hubbies float around trying to get their vehicle in running order again. It’s very Hollywood, from top to bottom, but once you accept that it’s quite enjoyable.

It tells the true(ish) story of the Soyuz T-13 space mission in 1985. The unmanned space station Salyut-7 has been disabled by some random space rocks and is spinning out of control, so the USSR is faced with three options: let the thing crash into Earth and possibly cause untold damage, let the Americans scoop the thing up in the Challenger, effectively handing over their technology, or send some brave men up there to somehow board the station and fix it.

Can you guess which option they choose? The complication here is that the station is spinning on multiple axes and, being disabled, an automated docking is impossible. So they bring in their best pilot and best engineer to pull off the impossible. Being the kind of movie that it is, successfully docking with the thing is not the end of the story, and many more things go wrong. The whole thing is pretty heavy handed and, again, sappy, but it’s also intense as hell and it cultivates a great feeling of doomed isolation, even as you know exactly where the film will end up.

From what I gather, there’s a lot in this movie that is not in the historical record, so… yeah. Hollywood as hell. What’s interesting is how the film manages to be rather patriotic while also being honest about the issues with the Soviet government. If you want a rather slight, yet spectacular, take on a little known slice of Russian history, take a gander at this one. Then look it up on Wikipedia and see how much was made from whole cloth.

That’s it for today. Tune in tomorrow!