I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Fantastic Fest in Austin, since it's a brand-new film festival that was put together in a short time. Would it all be chaos and long lines? Would I be able to get into the movies I wanted to see? The lineup of films looked, well, fantastic, but I still felt a bit wary. However, opening night was great and everything seemed to happen flawlessly.
Although a couple of movies screened on Thursday afternoon, the festival officially opened Thursday night with a special sneak preview of Zathura, with director Jon Favreau and actor Dax Shepard in attendance. The movie is not quite complete—the closing credits weren't on the film yet—but the rest of the film looked finished to me.
When I arrived at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar to pick up my badge, I found myself at an unexpected but nice cocktail party in the theater foyer. People offered me wine and tempting little tidbits. A red-carpet setup for Zathura included some cool models of the robot and a spaceship from the film. It was much more pleasant than merely standing in line for the metal detector and purse search before entering the theater.
After we all passed the metal-detector wand, which is becoming second nature to me, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News introduced the film. He pointed out that he and Jon Favreau will be working together soon: it had been announced that morning that Favreau will direct John Carter of Mars, which Knowles is producing.
Cinematical will post a review of Zathura closer to its Nov. 11 release, so I don't want to spend too much time on details now. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised and liked it much more than I thought I would. (I know I said the same thing about Domino. I hope I am not becoming old and crotchety.)
Zathura is a lively, action-filled film with remarkable special effects. The storyline is along the same lines at Jumanji, and like that film was adapted from a Chris Van Allsburg story. A couple of kids find an old mysterious game, start to play, and find that amazing things are happening. Unlike Jumanji, this movie has no weird Robin Williams vibe—the grownups here are Tim Robbins and Dax Shepard.
Zathura is one of those movies in which the audience continually wonders why the characters don't act the way that they, the audience, would in a similar situation. Like in Poltergeist, you keep thinking, "Why don't they just do X?" or "Why haven't they tried Y already?" If only movie characters were as smart as we are when we watch them.
The audience did seem to enjoy the film. Afterwards, Knowles moderated a Q&A with Favreau, Shepard, and editor Dan Lebental. Favreau and Lebental provided plenty of details about the special effects, while Shepard provided lots of comic one-liners (and an imitation of Mike Judge that brought down the house). Favreau said that the spaceship and house effects were chiefly achieved with stop-motion rather than digital effects, "old-fashioned techniques, like in Battlestar Galactica and even Star Wars." Favreau also noted that while digital effects were used, often in situations where it was important to keep the child actors safe, "we blew a lot of stuff up."
One question I wish I'd asked was how to pronounce "Zathura." At first, I thought the stress was on the second syllable. Then I heard Knowles and Favreau pronounce it by stressing the first syllable. The movie itself should be the best guide, but it was inconsistent: the same characters actually pronounced "Zathura" in two different ways at different times in the film.
After the Q&A, many of us headed to the nearby Elks Lodge for a Zathura-themed after-party. How do you give a party that Zathura touch? Well, Alamo decided to supply a room on the bottom floor with tables full of vintage board games. The bottom-floor room already looked so very Elks Lodge-y that I felt like I was in a time warp; the games made it more surreal. I got a kick out of the board games: The Hardy Boys game, the Barbie game, the Barney Miller game (who knew?), the Partridge Family game, and the game I was invited to play and was very sorry I couldn't stick around to enjoy: the Pride and Prejudice game.
I got back to the Alamo in time to meet my little brother so he could get a ticket for the midnight movie he decided we both ought to see: G.O.R.A., hyped as "the most expensive film in Turkish history!" (We bought Repo Man generic "drink" koozies while we waited, but that's another story.) I had heard from Alamo owner Tim League that Matt Dentler, producer of the SXSW film festival, was the Fantastic Fest programmer who campaigned for G.O.R.A. and had praised it to the skies. Sure enough, we saw Mr. Dentler on our way into the theater where this alleged Turkish masterpiece would be playing. He assured us we would enjoy it, even though there were maybe 12 people in the theater as opposed to the full house next door for Feast.
In introducing G.O.R.A., Dentler may have set up the movie a little too well, promising us rapid-fire dialogue that was "almost like a Howard Hawks movie" and describing the film as "a love letter to sci-fi films of the last 30 years." I think it was more like a mash note, or maybe one of those email messages that gets forwarded to half the internet. And I wonder if he didn't mean Howard Hughes. Really, after causing me to expect the Turkish equivalent of His Girl Friday but with light sabers, he could not expect me to fall in love with the film. On the other hand, I like Forbidden Zone, which might have resembled this movie more if it had been in color and had more of a budget.
However, Dentler did correctly note that G.O.R.A. is not the kind of film we usually have the opportunity to see in theaters, and it was a good choice for Fantastic Fest. It was wonderfully goofy in spots. Carpet salesman Arif is abducted by aliens from the planet Gora (I have no idea why the title is spelled with initials, by the way) and is determined to escape. He shamelessly steals plot devices from science-fiction movies he's seen in order to succeed, including Star Wars, The Fifth Element, and The Matrix. He is thwarted by evil Commander Logar, who is determined to control the planet. Logar and Arif are played by the same actor, although you'd swear that Logar was a heavily disguised Eddie Izzard at times. Assuming that Izzard knows Turkish, that is.
My brother and I were particularly amused by the fact that Arif's cell phone works perfectly on another planet, and rings periodically during action sequences in the film. At one point, Arif stops fighting someone long enough to instruct one of his salespeople about the best prices for a particular carpet. We also liked the characters' obsession with a video camera they find, which they then use to film their attempts to fight evil. The movie's overall tone reminded me a little of Stephen Chow films, although Chow's humor seems smarter to me.
We also enjoyed the cheesy trailers that Alamo included before the film. The Alamo programmers seem to delight in finding crazy old trailers, but they have outdone themselves for Fantastic Fest. Before G.O.R.A., we saw trailers for Star Crash, a blatant ripoff of Star Wars, and Mindwarp, a blatant ripoff of Alien. (The next day, my brother found out via the Web that James Cameron had worked on Mindwarp.)
It was 3 am by the time we got home, but my brother immediately opened the laptop and started surfing the Web. Ah, youth. The next morning, he showed the the official G.O.R.A. Web site, including a desktop wallpaper that he'd put on his own laptop. (I'm just glad he didn't put it on mine.) He also told me he wants to buy the DVD. Matt Dentler, you may have converted someone to the cult of G.O.R.A.
(By the way, check out Matt Dentler's blog entry about the opening night of Fantastic Fest: he has some cool photos.)