Archive for April 2010

Independent Film Festival 2010

April 28, 2010

The Independent Film Festival Boston wraps up tonight with the late addition closer Micmacs, the new one from the master of the weird/cute Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

I volunteered this festival again this year and thus was given the privilege of seeing as many films as I liked gratis. Here’s a quick run-through of what I saw from most impressive to most blah.

Winter’s Bone

An especially chilly and tense neo-noir set in rural Missouri. Ree Dolly, a level headed 17-year old who has dropped out of school to care for her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings, must find her fugitive Meth manufacturer father or the bail bondsman will take their home. Ree negotiates a tight-lipped underworld for her father (whose non-presence reminded me of a backwoods Harry Lime.) The ensemble acting is uniformly excellent, especially John Hawkes portrayal of Ree’s uncle, a quiet man harboring an undercurrent of extreme violence but also dedication to his family. Winter’s Bone won the Dramatic Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

The Oath

A documentary primarily about Abu Jandal, Osama Bin Laden’s one-time bodyguard (and less so about Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, a man captured in Afghanistan and the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.) While the documentary itself felt a bit murky about exactly what its focus was the access to and examination of Jandal is endlessly fascinating. A man who personally knew all of the 9/11 hijackers and top Al-Qaida leaders, became a top source for actionable intelligence during the initial Afghan invasion and drives a cab in Yemen. A quite charismatic man whose views on jihad and his own actions are quite complex, I left wishing the filmmaker had excised the Hamdan bits completely and just focused solely on this possibly-reformed radical and his son, who either wants to be a mechanic or a jihadist when he grows up. The Oath won a special Jury award at the festival this year.

Solitary Man

In this blackly comedic drama Michael Douglass plays a 60-year old womanizing, egotistical reformed con man/car dealer must deal with the fact that he’s now old and alone. Another excellent role for Douglas whose D-Fens (Falling Down) and Gordon Gekko rank as some of the my favorite characters in recent cinema history. A tight script and wonderful supporting work by Danny DeVito and Jenna Fischer (good for her leaving the discomfort-comedy ghetto.)

Drones

An uneven office comedy featuring grads from the short lived early Apatow show Freaks and Geeks. Some absolutely hilarious moments of stylized comedy utilizing effective His Girl Friday-style dialogue delivery and a completely original take on the office boss by the criminally under-used James Urbaniak. Directed by some chick who was on Buffy who everyone else in the audience seemed to know but me.

Elephant in the Living Room

A never-boring and occasionally touching documentary about the problems facing exotic animal owners (and their communities) in the US.

The Extra Man

Paul Dano and Kevin Klein star in this buddy comedy about men who befriend and accompany rich widows in NYC high society. Klein is, as usual, scenery devouring and hilarious. Dano is good as the Klein’s straight man roommate/”Extra Man” protégé. Katie Holmes looks like she needs a dozen donuts. John C. Reilley is absurd. The film is light and funny but in the end nothing really sticks with you. Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer-Berman, the makers of the excellent American Splendor.

9500 Liberty

9500 Liberty is a timely political documentary chronicling the controversy of an immigration enforcement law in suburban Virginia (almost exactly like the one recently passed in Arizona.) Certainly a film with a strong political message, it was unfortunate that the filmmakers became such a big part of the story half-way through, thus limiting their access to the big players on the other side of the debate. However, it’s effective in showing how the emotions and personal relationships between lawmakers and constituients in small communities can add fuel to the fire of fear and distrust.

Colony

Documentary about beekeeping in the US. The filmmakers examine the blight of colony collapse disorder and the effect of the great recession on a highly-religious/traditional beekeeping family business in California. Great cinematography, mediocre otherwise.

Lovers of Hate

A black comedy about a love triangle focusing on the mechinations of a spurned loser husband trying to thwart and get back at his estranged wife and her new lover – his famous young adult novelist brother. Some funny moments. Contains an effective set piece utilizing the enormousness of a mansion on the ski-slopes of Park City, UT. Some mediocre acting and technically deficient camera work but all in all an amusing little film.

Songs from the Second Floor

April 20, 2010

Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor is the most insightful piece of art yet made about the Great Recession. The amazing thing is it came 9 years too soon, released in 2000.

I have extolled the virtues of Andersson’s follow up You, The Living without having experienced his masterpiece: a collection of 40 odd static-camera, impeccably choreographed, diorama-like set piece vignettes populated by zombified, frowning characters. This is a world where the sun never shines and the streets and buildings carry no character. Trash piles in barren fields outside monolith apartment blocks. The indoor scenes carry the grime recalling the deepest recesses of the Ministry of Information in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

A traffic jam, caused by nothing, people pleading to get out of it but not knowing where they are going.

Men and women in business wear self-flagelate in unison like monks during the plague.

A child’s metaphorical designs on a birthday cake leads to a ritual plank walking.

Couples struggle for hours to drag their belongings, packed in suitcases, piled on carts to airport ticket counters like a macabre Sisyphian contest.

Economists sit around a table and fail to explain a paradox and rush for the door when a house is seen to move.

Beautiful/grotesque and absurd and stingingly poignant. Treat yourself and see this film.

Late to the party: The Dardennes Brothers

April 2, 2010

Oddly enough I watched my first Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes film The Son last night and I’m glad I persevered beyond the first 30 minutes. Beyond that time period the camera calms down, you begin feeling more comfortable with the mise-en-scene (whose long but nauseua-inducing takes give those in Irreversible a run for their money, the omnipresence of the back of the protagonist’s head and the fact that any natural light in the shot absolutely burns through the camera lens.) In reflection I found it to be unlike any other film I’d ever seen, though it still only gets 4 of 5 stars in my netflix rating (I judge all films by what I’d give them on netflix, sue me.)

While the film is unquire, the thought I kept coming back to throughout my viewing was both how similar and dissimilar this film is to those of von Trier’s 90s work. Their visual and technical sensibilities are quite similar in that they are both spartan, but their stories are quite different. von Trier creates faux-realist fables, portraits of what may appear on the surface to be life but are really fantastic contrivances. The inhumanity of the “villians” in a film like Breaking the Waves or the unrelenting and tragic nature of fate and good intentions in Daner in the Dark stand in stark contrast to the hyper-realistic actions, motives, situations and social structures that exist in The Son. The closest American analogue I can find thematically is the work of Rahmin Bahrani, who addresses the lives of a similarly downtrodden class of people but uses expressionistic images, significantly more dialogue and character development, quite at odds with the neo-verite style of The Son. If only the Dardennes’ camera wasn’t so fascinated with the pimples on the back of Olivier Gourmet’s neck they’d have made me a bigger fan.

Chloe

April 1, 2010

Some of Atom Egoyan films are insightful, slow-burning examinations of people’s idiosyncratic means of connecting with those they long for. Some are not. He’s incredibly uneven as a filmmaker. For every Exotica there’s a Where the Truth Lies. Chloe, his new thriller whose plot immediately reminded me of last year’s Mike Judge comedy Extract, is yet another of his many missteps. Julianne Moore is a Gynecologist who suspects her Professor husband, Liam Neeson, of cheating on her. A chance meeting with Amanda Seyfried, a high end escort, leads to various tests of Neeson’s fidelity and, eventually, a more-than-she-bargained-for entanglement with Seyfried’s Chloe. Full of overdramatic music that makes every scene feel as if any minute Willem Dafoe is going to throw his hands up in agony while helicopters fly overhead, it attempts to be an erotic edge-of-your-seat ride in the vein of Fatal Attraction but comes off like a toned-down, arted-up episode of the Red Shoe Diaries.

In many ways the film comes off as just sloppy and thrown together. Example one: Moore and Neeson’s teenage son’s piano recital is used to demonstrate the growing divide between between Moore and Neeson. But, if that’s the case, what is the point of taking the extra two minutes to focus on the son playing the piano and bowing on stage? The son is such a slightly sketched character that I can only wonder if this scene maybe had greater import for his character but the scene wherein it felt relevant was cut. The rocky relationship between Moore and the son is addressed early and often but is never developed. Sadly, most of the son’s scenes just feel like filler and his character a cipher used simply to move the plot forward.

Example two: Moore gets a text from Seyfried during a scene in which Moore has lunch with her yuppie friends who then, playfully and excitedly ask her who she’s having an affair with, saying it’s obvious that that is the case. But aren’t affairs supposed to be fun? And aren’t your girlfriends supposed to be insightful and perceptive? Moore is a walking Valium ad – there are few scenes where her face is red, her lips tense and eyes half welling up with tears and half firey rage. Can one chew the scenery just with their facial expressions? If so, Moore is the John Malkovich of the face.

The real saving grace of this film is Amanda Seyfried’s performance in a scene early in the film. She meets with Moore in a hotel room, telling her that she has just slept with her husband for the first time. Seyfried lounges in a chair, blithely disclosing the details as Moore becomes overwhelmed with her arousal and jealousy. This is both the best and the worst scene of the film. It’s when Seyfried’s manipulative nature is most well performed and, for me, when I was finally sure what the twist would be. Unfortunately the next 40 minutes of the film plays it as if the twist wasn’t obvious while keeping the level of boredom at bay by jarring and pointless shifts of tone.

What I took away most from Chloe is a sense that Egoyan is somewhat of a misogynist. The female characters are crueler, sneakier and more unsympathetic than any Noah Baumbach could create. It’s amazing to think this script was written by the woman who wrote such a full and likeable female lead played by Maggie Gyllenhal in Secretary.