Here are three capsule reviews from Fantastic Fest ...
The Devil's Business
Some films have no business being features. The Devil's Business is a solid movie, but it would be a terrific thirty-minute short. Even at a seemingly scant 75 minutes, director Sean Hogan's tale of two hitmen who get more than they bargained for when their target turns out to have occult connections feels padded and lethargic, a truly creepy and unsettling story that sadly overstays its welcome. If the pay-off was a bit more satisfying or the pacing brisker, The Devil's Business may have justified its running time, but the intentionally oblique mysteries at the heart of the movie and the slow, deliberate pacing are a nearly lethal combination.
Still, The Devil's Business is not without triumphs. Hogan's slow-burn approach, while ultimately not quite as successful as it should be, does an incredible job of building dread, patiently exposing nasty revelations about our characters' situation, slowly tightening the noose around their necks without them -- or the audience -- noticing. However, the final ten minutes, when all of our waiting should be rewarded, are underwhelming at best. It's all slow build with no payoff, like reaching the top hill of a roller coaster and immediately disembarking.
As the two hitmen, Billy Clarke and Jack Gordon give fine performances, but their extended exchanges -- we're talking about fifteen-minute monologues here -- feel indulgent. Sometimes, a few sentences or a thoughtful glance can say more than ten pages of dialogue…and sometimes a short film can carry more power than a feature. As a feature film, The Devil's Business is an interesting experiment in stripped-down horror, but you can't help but shake the thought that there's a significantly shorter movie of incredible power lurking in there somewhere.
A spirited homage to '80s action trash, Manborg tells the tale of a future where the forces of Hell have taken over the Earth and the cyborg who has to stop them. It doesn't get too much deeper than that. Heck, the tagline for this one is "Revenge is back." Consider that a litmus test: if that makes you laugh, you're very much in Manborg's target audience.
Working on a budget that surely couldn't have exceeded $18, writer-director Steven Kostanksi has created a movie that truly feels homemade. Practical make-up, stop-motion monsters and green-screen environments all collide in Manborg, giving the impression of a film that is lovingly assembled from spare parts. There isn't a single frame that isn't winking at the audience, not parodying any films directly, but crafting a goofy experience that would feel right at home on the bottom shelf of your local movie rental store. 'Manborg' feels like it should be watched on VHS and only VHS.
Although the joke starts to wear thin after awhile, Manborg only runs an hour, getting in and getting out without overstaying its welcome. As fun as it is to watch a pitch perfect homage to junk, the best parts of the film are, strangely enough, the more traditional jokes, like the awkward, lovelorn demon commander who's trying to work up the courage to ask one of his human prisoners out on a date. When the film stops slyly winking and starts delivering hilarious dialogue and creative physical gags, it actually gets better. For his next film, Kostanksi will hopefully move away from the homages and work on something purely in his own voice. A filmmaker this clever can only poke fun at other movies for so long.
The Yellow Sea
Korean thrillers tend to run over two and a half hours, take their sweet time moving every piece into place and feature more death, emotional destruction, severed arteries and cold-blooded vengeance than you can shake a bladed weapon of your choice at. They also tend to be terrific. The Yellow Sea continues this tradition. Although its length is intimidating, director Hon-jin Na earns every minute: this film is revelation, a crime epic that actually, you know, feels epic.
The story, though steeped in regional politics, is easy enough to follow. A cab driver (Jung-woo Ha) living in Yanji City (a territory wedged between the borders of Korea, China and Russia) finds himself up to his ears in debt after his wife takes her expensive work visa to Korea and vanishes. With no options left, the local crime boss, Myun (Yun-seok Kim in a spectacular performance that makes hatchet-welding the latest in absolute badassery), offers him an opportunity: travel to Korea and kill a man. Any time not spent committing the hit can be used to locate his missing spouse.
To say that things go wrong is an understatement. Soon enough, our hero is involved in foot chases, car chases and battles to the death, forced to outrun and outwit several different factions that want him -- and each other -- dead. Although the action itself isn't as well shot as other recent Korean thrillers (I Saw the Devil and The Man From Nowhere spring to mind), the stakes and characters are are beautifully established, making every close call and every knife fight (and oh boy, this is a movie filled to the brim with close calls and knife fights) feel like it matters. This is not disposable action. This is action that hurts the body and wears down the soul. 'The Yellow Sea' isn't content to tell an insular, small story; it's a quest movie, a sweeping epic that puts its audience and its hero through the wringer. The only thing keeping this tragic story from being emotionally exhausting is the fact that it's so darn fun to watch.
There goes South Korea, once again showing the rest of the world how it's done.