Even though Fantastic Fest has been over for about a month now, there were a few films that this writer saw that have really stuck with me and I felt like I needed to take a moment to write about them here. And as the saying goes, better late than never. So, here’s a look at three very different films that I really enjoyed for very different reasons: Takashi Miike’s First Love, the old-school sci-fi stylings of The Vast of Night, and The True Adventures of Wolfboy, which stars IT’s Jaeden Martell.

First Love: As someone who has been a longtime fan of Takashi Miike’s work, First Love delivered up everything I could possibly want from the Maestro and more, as it is a proverbial buffet of brutality that also leans into Miike’s sly sense of humor and manages to strike a few heartfelt chords along the way. And despite the fact that First Love features numerous touchstones of what we’ve come to expect from Miike, it also sidesteps any expectations we might have of his work, completely blazing its own blood-spattered path along the way, making it one Miike’s best features to date (which is saying a lot, considering his decades-spanning resume).

A mishmash of a Yakuza crime story, a romantic meet-cute, a woman on a destructive path of vengeance, drug deals gone wrong, corrupt cops, spiritual hauntings, and criminal warfare, all with a darkly comedic slant peppered throughout for good measure, there are a lot of familiar elements at play in First Love, and yet, Miike glides effortlessly between all these ambitious components with the greatest of ease. With its multiple storylines weaving back and forth between each other, and a cavalcade of characters coming out of the woodwork at every turn, First Love feels akin to Miike building his own cinematic universe, and the results are absolutely thrilling to behold.

At the center of First Love is a boxer named Leo (Masataka Kubota), whose great with his fists, but lacks the competitive edge to take his talents to the top. One night, Leo finds himself mixed up in the middle of a series of felonious happenings involving crime bosses, crooked cops, and a gang war after coming to the aid of a young woman named Monica (Sakurako Konishi), who is desperately trying to escape both her past and her present. As they set out to figure out just what exactly is going on—and how they got caught up in the first place—these two broken souls will discover just how far they are willing to go in order to survive the chaos all around them and fight for their love.

For as sensational as it is, between the film’s various action set pieces, heads being lopped off in hilarious fashion, and a deeply layered narrative that offers up pretty much everything and anything a genre fan could hope to see, the best parts of First Love are when the budding romance between Leo and Monica are front and center, making Miike’s latest an endearing experience that also offers up a bonanza of badassery that I could not have loved more. Without a doubt, First Love is one of my favorite films of 2019.

Movie Score: 5/5

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The Vast of Night: There was a point about five minutes into Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, where lead characters Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Faye (Sierra McCormick) are jabber-jawing back and forth about radio technology, and it was in those moments when I realized I had found my way into a “talkie,” and it made my movie-loving heart soar. Set in a remote town in New Mexico during the 1950s, The Vast of Night is a stunning debut feature from Patterson, who delivers up a film so confidently made, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been directing movies for decades now.

Utilizing interstitials for the fictional Paradox Theater series to draw us in, The Vast of Night follows the aforementioned teens, Everett and Faye, who stumble across a mysterious signal that appears out of nowhere one fateful night. Everett, a local radio host, and Faye, a switchboard operator, quickly realize that something big is happening, even if nearly everyone else in their town is completely oblivious to the unnatural audio occurrences they just happened to discover. As the teens set out to uncover the truth, they have no idea of the enormity of what awaits them at the conclusion of their investigation into the unknown, and how it will change their lives forever.

On both a technical and storytelling level, The Vast of Night is a brilliant slice of sci-fi that manages to capture the wonder of our own curiosities as to whether or not we are alone in this universe, but also focuses on the intricacies of who we are as human beings and the relationships we share with each other. When examining Vast on a surface level, there’s a beautiful simplicity to Patterson’s approach, following these two passionate and fastidious teens as they traipse around their small community, trying to put all the puzzle pieces together to this mystery set against the backdrop of 1950s Americana. But there’s a technical prowess that is on display in The Vast of Night that is truly remarkable, particularly the camerawork from cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz and the sound design by David Rosenblad. The audio design to Vast is particularly crucial, and it elevates the rest of the elements of the film, making for a spectacular experience from top to bottom.

For me, The Vast of Night served as the perfect reminder as to why I fell in love with science fiction in the first place, and I look forward to whatever Patterson directs next, because he shows an immeasurable amount of promise as a storyteller here. Amazon recently acquired The Vast of Night, and for those of you who grew up on classic sci-fi, whether on the big or small screen, I cannot recommend this film enough. It’s something very special.

Movie Score: 4.5/5

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The True Adventures of Wolfboy: When most teenagers are contending with body hair in weird places, poor Paul (Jaeden Martell) has it a whole lot worse. He’s afflicted with the condition of hypertrichosis, which is also known as “Wolfman Syndrome,” where he’s covered with an abnormal amount of hair and is bullied by his peers for looking like a “freak.” His mother (Chloë Sevigny) also abandoned Paul as a baby, which has only elevated his feelings of being an unwanted outsider. But when he turns the tender age of 13, Paul receives a mysterious package that provides with him a map to where his mother lives, and he sets out on a journey of discovery, leaving his worried father (Chris Messina) behind, who is deeply concerned about Paul’s well-being and his state of mind.

During his travels through The True Adventures of Wolfboy, Paul is befriended by a vivacious “mermaid” named Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), crosses paths with the free-spirited Rose (Eve Hewson), and must outwit and outrun the dastardly Mr. Silk (played to perfection by a scenery chewing John Turturro), who wants to get even with the teen after Paul accidentally cost the underhanded carnival barker his livelihood. And while Paul’s trip is propelled by his desire to know the truth about his mom, along the way his odyssey and experiences become more about Paul being more comfortable in his own skin, and embracing his differences instead of letting the bullies get the better of him.

As a road-movie-meets-modern-fairy-tale mash-up, The True Adventures of Wolfboy is truly a captivating and heartfelt tale from director Martin Krejcí, who does a lovely job of capturing Paul’s internal struggles and juxtaposing them against the various locales we’re introduced to during his travels (the film is framed in sections similar to what you’d see in illustrations from a classic children’s book). And as much as it’s about Paul’s own sense of acceptance, Wolfboy also becomes something of a showcase for Giannamore as well, a trans actress who stole my heart as much as Martell does here. They’re lovely together, and add so much heart to the film.

While there is a bit of slightness to the dramatic stakes, and there are some elements that feel a bit convenient as well, The True Adventures of Wolfboy gives off some Pinocchio by the way of Stephen King vibes, but with much softer edges to it, and I found it easy to be charmed by Krejcí’s work here, as well as by all the performances in Wolfboy across the board.

Movie Score: 3.5/5

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Heather Wixson
About the Author - Heather Wixson

After falling in love with the horror genre at a very early age, Heather Wixson has spent the last decade carving out a name for herself in the genre world as a both a journalist and as a proponent of independent horror cinema. Wixson is currently the Managing Editor for DailyDead.com, and was previously a featured writer at DreadCentral.com and TerrorTube.com where her online career began; she’s also been a contributor at FEARnet as well as a panelist for several of their online programs.

Wixson recently finished her first book, Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures, and is currently working on her second upcoming book project on special effects artists as well.