Update (11/5/17): Two of the films below—My Friend Dahmer and Gilbert —receive limited US releases this weekend. If near a participating theater, the capsules below can definitely help guide viewing decisions. As such, we’re resurfacing this piece, which originally ran on October 15, 2017.
AUSTIN, Texas—Standard film genres—horror, documentary, sci-fi, et al.—run rampant at Fantastic Fest, but subgenre niches also seem to emerge every outing. In 2016, the festival boasted multiple films about promotional film art, for instance, in addition to a treasure trove of animation styles .
In 2017, origin stories jumped off the schedule. The high-profile Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was the most prominent (our review to come, but it’s worth it for those interested in explorations of societal forces in specific historic periods… or if you want the Finding Neverland of the Wonder Woman-universe). But that film was far from the only title taking audiences back to the beginning of a beloved (or at least notorious) cultural institution.
Ever hear of The Hope Whisperer? Me neither, but evidently today’s electric car enthusiasts should dig into Danish history a bit. Long before Tesla or the Chevy Bolt became twinkles in automakers’ eyes, a businessman named Thure Barsøe-Carnfeldt transitioned from his successful computer company to focus on dreams of a battery-powered electric car. Globally, 5,000 of these Hope Whisperers were sold after its 1985 debut, but the car never truly took off.
Why? Well, that’s precisely what the new Danish comedy Dan Dream sets out to detail. This based-on-a-true-story journey takes viewers back to rural Denmark in the early 1980s right as successful businessman Thorkil pivots to his new EV dreams.
Obviously, liberties have been taken (including name changes) to liven things up, and Thorkil’s soon-to-be four-man outfit relies on some eccentrics. Henrik, a hypeman with Duran Duran sensibilities, comes over from the previous company to handle events and promotion. Vonsil, a crude one-armed autobody expert from Thorkil’s local garage, leads the manufacturing. And Jens, a shy home tinkerer whose DIY electric bike battery planted the idea in Thorkil’s brain, will handle the all-important engine and battery. The quartet leaves Copenhagen for the small-town life (and the easy production facility acquisitions) of Bjerringsund. Once there, local characters from the mayor to the librarian help such tech-forward city folks adjust to country life in the hopes this new car can put the town on the global map.
Thorkil ends up promising he’ll build his car in a year to deliver the first strawberries of the season to Danish press, but things, of course, do not go according to plan. Jens’ already-fragile family situation can’t get settled, and his wife ends up falling for a local trumpeter. The mayor’s efforts to build the Scandinavian Detroit lead to him butting in far too often with horrible local-focused advice (everything has to be hotdogs, beer, and jazz in his eyes). And life in Bjerringsund doesn’t mix well with Thorkil’s foursome: Henrik is too eccentric, and people swipe his pet rabbit; Vonsil’s hits on everyone and tells crude jokes about Thorkil’s black wife; you can’t order crepes anywhere; and the town rumor mill points to the whole thing being a nuclear bomb initiative.
Dan Dream comes from the Danish team behind the country’s popular Klown films, which I understand to be kinda Hangover-ish in how they revolve around male bonding and eccentric personalities sprinkled with over-the-top comedy without topical boundaries. Some moments here genuinely solicit laughter, like the over-the-top mayor, an early brainstorming session, and Henrik’s most ‘80s-instincts. Others fall flat, possibly due to US versus Danish sensibilities (Vonsil comes off as straight racist/sexist often, though the film smartly addresses this directly at one point).
But for most viewers, the biggest takeaways here will be the true-story core itself. What happens to the Dan Dream (this film’s Hope Whisperer) actually happened in a crazy bit of under-discussed modern history. No spoilers, but the immediate headlines from the film’s Danish press may indicate why EVs didn’t take off for another quarter-century: “Engineer-Death Experience.”
Dan Dream is currently available on VOD platforms like iTunes and Google Play.
Gilbert Gottfried, he of iconic vulgarity and vocals, doesn’t immediately come to mind as someone who’s deeply shaped today’s Internet age of comedy. But Gilbert , a new documentary taking an intimate look at his personal life and career, is ready to surprise those of us not paying attention.
For instance, today’s debates about whether PC culture or censorship have cut comedy off at the knees? Gottfried’s performances have shouted “Nope!” in the face of that type of chatter since the ‘70s. An early montage of him doing morning shows includes one anchor flatly stating, “you’re single-handedly responsible for creating a full-time censor position with the Emmys.” (The anchor is likely responding to an infamous Gottfried monologue from ‘90s about Pee-wee Herman .) Gottfried responds to another anchor who states they’re on a family show without hesitation: “I know that’s the first thing you told me; it’s the first thing everyone tells me.”
A decade later, Gottfried’s 9/11-related performance at an early 2000s Comedy Central roast of Hugh Hefner literally inspired an entirely separate documentary (called The Aristocrats ). And fast-forward another 10 years or so, and he keeps the same approach even if the mechanisms for delivering comedy have changed. You may still think of Gottfried as the voice of insurance (“I’ve been typecast as a bird, but one day they’ll realize they can just get a duck,” he says at one point in the film), but his relationship with Aflac ended more than five years ago. Why? Gottfried stuck to his brand of possibly too-soon, possibly too-crude comedy and fired off tweets making light of the tragic Japanese tsunami at that time. (“Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach, the beach comes to them,” one read. Another: “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent, I asked if there’s a school in the area. She said, ‘Not now, just wait.’”)
Though Gottfried quite literally dabbled in such humor for at least three decades, having it in writing on a potentially mob-reactive platform like Twitter convinced Aflac to swiftly cut ties. “Someone had to be the first to run off the cliff,” comedian Bill Burr says when asked about this moment. Post-Gottfried, now the Internet often looks toward comedians in difficult times whether on Twitter or via other means (see Anthony Jeselnik policing the thoughts-and-prayers coalition after mass shootings or Dave Chappelle on Trump’s election at the first SNL that followed).
Gilbert shows how the game has changed over time—doing movies became a comedian necessity in the ‘80s/‘90s the way podcasts may be required today (he’s got one). But the film also shows that Gottfried has remained the same. His reaction when his wife Dara lost her grandmother and was sad to lose those her daily phone calls, for instance: “You can call her, you just can’t expect she’ll answer the phone.” And when the documentary shows how Gottfried’s sister Arlene has tackled the astounding (gospel choirs) and difficult (the last days of their mom) through her award-winning photography, Gilbert quickly injects from off camera. “What the fuck? I thought this was supposed to be my documentary.”
Gilbert is filled with great, little moments: Gottfried interviewing Dick Van Dyke on his podcast, his travel habits, or an afternoon when he wanders into a historic wars convention (where a young man in a Reich uniform offers him a joke—“It’s not the worst thing Nazis have done, a bad Michael Jackson joke,” Gottfried says while chuckling). But if you have any interest in how comedy (content- or business-wise) has evolved across decades or about what powers an influential yet deeply reclusive artist, Gilbert should be on your radar.
Gilbert opens theatrically November 3.
My Friend Dahmer
Things get skinned and ripped open in My Friend Dahmer, a biopic of sorts that follows the high school years of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. But the real moments of horror in this film have a stillness to them—Dahmer watching from the woods with heavy breath as a jogger cruises the side of an isolated road, or Dahmer walking a dog to nowhere in particular while tightly clutching a pocket knife. Terror comes in the form of extreme tension at this point in the title character’s life. And director Marc Meyers ’ vision only enhances this feeling with many camera shots lingering on a young Dahmer from behind, slouched and slothing around as life around him pushes forward.
No spoilers, here: before entering the theater, everyone knows the ultimate destiny of the socially awkward, troubled teen with the brutal home life. But My Friend Dahmer does well to offer an answer to the perennial nature versus nurture question society obsesses over when examining killers—it’s both.
The new film grew out of a 2012 graphic novel from Derf (aka John Backderf), who attended high school with the notorious Dahmer. Based on Derf’s character in the film, he considered Dahmer a friend of sorts. Dahmer lived one of those involved-on-the-fringes high school lives—he joined the tennis team and played trumpet in the band, but sat alone at lunch. Instead of spending time with friends, he spent his after-school hours in his makeshift lab dissolving roadkill carcasses in some acid gifted by his scientist dad.
But Derf takes an interest in Dahmer heading into senior year because the latter starts showcasing an oddball, Jackass -style performance humor (faking seizures in public places, for instance). He becomes a kind of muse for the aspiring cartoonist, who doodles Dahmer as a superhero or as the Statue of Liberty during shared classes. So Derf invites Dahmer into his social circle more frequently, giving him (and us) a front row seat to all the complex forces influencing this future killer’s life.
This may all sound morbid, but calling My Friend Dahmer a thriller or horror film feels like a stretch. You’ll laugh at seemingly normal high school boy hijinks one moment (say, Derf and pals sneaking Dahmer into every group and team’s yearbook photo); but you’ll cringe in the next when what looks like an impulse of oddity to Derf and co. foreshadows Dahmer’s life after the credits. Nearly every main character earns genuine admiration, disappointment, and sympathy at times.
But even as a teen, flashes of the future Dahmer would come to the surface on occasion. Dahmer asks a black classmate if his insides look the same as his. He meticulously memorizes the exercise schedule of a doctor he fantasizes about. And as substances or the complications of his parents’ divorce draw Dahmer further away from the handful of things anchoring him to high school life, his ability to navigate such urges seems to diminish.
The performances are strong (ask the tween in your life about Ross Lynch, who excels in a role far outside the Disney playbook; Anne Heche and Dallas Roberts, aka Walking Dead’s Milton, do well as flawed parents), and the tone ends up appropriately complex. No killers get glorified in My Friend Dahmer, but the film prompts reflection about the origins of evil at a time when recruiting the vulnerable for everything from ISIS to white nationalism has become regular news fodder.
My Friend Dahmer hits theaters on November 3.
Listing image by Fons PR / Fantastic Fest