Fantastic Fest 2023: UFO Sweden and Kill

Fantastic Fest 2023: UFO Sweden and Kill

UFO Sweden – dir. Victor Danell

I’m a literal Scully (look at the website name), but my heart has always pumped the blood of a Mulder. I’m the type of guy who, no matter how low-quality that video of a UFO, or Bigfoot, or Mothman is, wants to believe. Give me a tinfoil hat and a radio that, per some science I don’t understand, can track space aliens, and I’m a happy guy. Perhaps this is why the characters of UFO Sweden moved me so much. Every last one of our plucky protagonists is a person who wants to believe, and resents the fact that the scientific process has yet to bear any concrete extraterrestrial fruits.

Our hero comes in the form of Denise (Inez Dahl Torhaug), a troubled young woman whose UFO-enthused father disappeared under mysterious circumstances while pursuing what he saw as a link between weather reporting and visitors from another world. Since then, Denise has been bouncing between foster homes, stirring up her own brand of trouble while trying to avoid juvenile detention. Then one day, her father’s car mysteriously falls from the sky, leading Denise to believe that maybe he’s still out there somewhere. She soon teams up with a group of UFO researchers to find out more, placing the whole lot of them into very terrestrial danger. It ROCKS.

Tonally, UFO Sweden moves between the starry-eyed wonder of The Vast of Night, and the “run from the shadowy government agency” intensity of E.T. or Midnight Special. What elevates this above so many non-horror extraterrestrial films (of which there are few, and they aren’t typically great) are the characterizations of the protagonists. Denise, despite her interests, is believably motivated. Her desire to reconnect with her father is palpable — amazing considering how little time we spend with him before he’s out of the movie completely. We want her to find her father, even if he was a man blinded by obsession. To this end, the (inter)stellar supporting cast does wonders taking what could be silly cartoon people and turning them into not just quirky, realistic human beings, but also an empathetic, aspirational surrogate family for Denise. Each has a background that, while never exposited, is found through performance, and the group has a dynamic that feels lived-in. It’s remarkable to see how Denise’s introduction into the group affects the group both as a whole and as individuals. It’s worth noting that even a local cop who has taken a shine to Denise’s plight gets a full arc.

The film is paced brilliantly. It’s never in such a rush that the audience loses a chance to ruminate on the big thematic concerns and sweeping story developments, or a chance to revel in the wonder that we share with our heroes. But it’s not a slow movie either. The whole thing is a race against the clock, with smaller action/heist/chase set-pieces littered throughout, all of which have excellent rhythm. 

This all leads to a profoundly moving and gorgeously visualized final act that evokes the awestruck feelings granted to us by science fiction classics like Interstellar or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, albeit with a smaller budget. UFO Sweden is magnificent, so much so that even when the plot dips into nonsense in the final reel, it hardly registers on account of how moving it is. A warm, exciting reminder that it’s important, when looking to the skies, not to lose touch with what we have right here on Earth.

But you should still keep looking to the skies.

KILL – dir. Nikhil Nagesh Bhat

As I crawl with increasing haste toward forty, the midnight movie, a treat in which I used to indulge quite regularly, has become a much rarer occurrence. It’s a tall order to pay attention to a movie until nearly 2 AM, and an even taller order to do so during the marathon task of covering a film festival. In order to survive at all, let alone be engaged, the film in question has to kick serious amounts of ass.

Kill kicks serious amounts of ass and then some and then some and then some.

Not only did it keep me engaged for it’s entire runtime AND the post-film Q&A with the writer/director, but by the time I got back to my hotel I was too jacked up to sleep. Yes, I’m writing this in a daze — partially because I got maybe 5 hours worth of winks last night, but mostly because I’m still recovering from Kill.

The set up is simple: 40 thieves take over a passenger train in an attempt to rob everyone blind. They count their blessings when it’s discovered that a high-ranking, very rich businessman is on board. They stop counting their blessings when they run afoul of Amrit (Laksh Lalwani), a soldier whose future wife is also on board — a soldier who might as well be Jason Voorhees on account of how skilled he is at dishing out bloody justice.

What follows is a master class in close-quarters combat that maximizes the use of its setting in myriad ways. The architecture of the train becomes the perfect physical limitation in which innovative action can be staged, and the many weaponizable items which can be found on a train are put to gruesomely imaginative use. One is reminded of The Raid in terms of action insanity, as wells as The Night Comes for Us in terms of its splattery sensibilities. While the fisticuffs aren’t necessarily as dynamic as either film, there’s a brutality to the style that’s wholly unique. Each player has a different method of battle, and it’s fascinating to watch our hero regularly shift gears in order to dispatch his opponents.

Where Kill has the edge over so many of its peers is in the characters. Basically, every single on-screen death matters to another character. This isn’t a case of faceless hordes throwing themselves at Amrit, but rather a brilliantly orchestrated story that is told through the action. The villains, while villainous, have a family dynamic that motivates them beyond simple robbery, while our hero’s journey shifts from duty to justice to revenge. It’s a wildly impressive feat of cinema — doubly so on account of how quickly the action gets moving. There’s maybe 20 minutes of exposition up top, and the rest unspools in real time.

The level of brutality on display is excessive in the best of ways. It’s properly motivated (insofar as caving someone’s face in with a fire extinguisher can be), catering to an effectively structured, albeit loose moral code that handily provides the catharsis we love when it comes to good guys straight up butchering bad guys.

We’ve reached a new age of action cinema in which the hyper-cut “let’s hide the fact that we didn’t have time to rehearse this” style is finally fading into the background behind the John Wicks of the world. With Kill, there is indeed a speedy edit, but it’s never employed to hide the choreography. Much the opposite, in fact. Kill has a rhythm to its edit that, in conjunction with impeccable and percussive sound design, turns every punch, every kick, every smash of a head against a luggage rack into a piece of high art.

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