Saturday, November 24, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 3

While I initially predicted that the Thanksgiving holidays would give me plenty of time to catch up on my reviews from the St. Louis International Film Festival, I had not taken into account traveling home, enjoying time with the family and just relaxing. It has been nice to get back into the routine of things. Both Katie and I admitted to being a little burnt-out by the nightly double and triple features and we needed some time to unwind. Currently, I'm back in Kansas for a few days and I've been making the most of my family time. Now everyone's in bed and it's time to get some writing done.

And so on to the reviews from Nov 13:

Title: The Sacred Family
Director: Sebastian Campos
Country: Chili
Score: 4.0
While not as bad as "No Regret," this domestic drama from Chili was definitely one of the more disappointing features at the festival. I went into it fairly blind with two main reasons for attending: curiosity about Chili's national cinema and an unusual time slot when little else was playing.

The film unfolds almost entirely at a single beach house where Marco is returning to his parents to present Sofia, his recent girlfriend. They are a little biased against her since she recently injured his leg when she crashed his car while drunk. Just the same, they are taken with Sofia's sheer energy and enthusiasm and Marco's father develops more than a little crush in response to her second-nature flirting. After vacillating for several hours, the mother leaves to help a friend in need and Marco goes on an angry walk. He returns to discover his girlfriend having sex with his father, but keeps the knowledge a secret. He broods and then decides to get his revenge.

As an intense drama that is supposed to be shocking and emotional, "The Sacred Family" is somewhat of a dud, releasing muted explosions long after the war has already been won by better dramas from the 1970's. The same goes for the dialogue, which tries to show off an intellectual side, but lacks new insight. While often realistically clumsy (kind of a good thing in this case) it lacks the kinetic chemistry required to sell the vying ideas about life (wild bohemian versus settled middle-class) and the dark passions smoking underneath the friendly exteriors. The action is at times suspenseful and almost even thrilling, but never truly captivating; probably a side-effect of Marco's lackluster central performance and light-weight development.

Like "No Regret," the main failure is the amateur visuals. Shot on digital, the film tries for immediacy and in-your-face realism, but with a story that feels so contrived and predestined that the bumpy, raw visuals can't deliver the impact that story should provide. "The Sacred Family" suffers from the same stylistic pitfall which appears to be plaguing a great number of off-the-cuff digital features: an obnoxious proximity to the action which leads to confusion, nasty editing and far, far too many messy close-ups that make us wish we could push the actors away. Campos can't seem to take those precious backward steps and let the cozy, domestic beach-house provide some the contrast, development and hypocrisy that it could have beautifully encapsulated. He never seems to zoom out far enough to even begin considering artistic decision about framing, blocking and angle.

A lot of poor "natural" lighting also gives us frequent splotchy gray patches in the dark scenes that are distracting and a bit off-putting.

The reason I'm not giving this film a terrible rating even though I'm sounding so negative is that the essential story only fails to certain degree: it still holds mild interest and believability. Also, a couple of the performances shine through. Patricia Lopez is a natural as Sofia, a woman who thrives on pleasure and attention (she's not just a compulsive flirt, but a drama student who somewhat unwittingly channels her sensuality into her mediocre performances). Sergio Hernandez, who plays the father, exudes just the right level of below-the-surface creepiness as a man whose ego and selfishness make him vulnerable.

Title: American Fork
Director: Chris Bowman
Country: USA
Score: 7.5
"American Fork" is an indie comedy that celebrates a semi-sympathetic loser in the tradition of "Napoleon Dynamite," although a fairer comparison might be a cross between Christopher Guest and Todd Solondz.

Tracy Orbison (Hubbel Palmer) is an overweight grocery store employee with few friends and a dysfunctional family. He keeps a journal of poetry and maintains a proud aloofness despite his unenviable lot. He becomes interested in acting and enters into the tutelage of washed-up B-actor Truman Hope (William Baldwin is cast as just the man for the role) at a community college night school. After Hope backstabs him outside a lecture by Rutger Hauer (which was a little touch probably funny to the director, myself, Katie and only five other people in the world), Orbison ends his celebrity worship. His problems only escalate when Hope starts dating his homey sister and a coworker draws him into a robbery. Oh, and he gets arrested for sexually soliciting a minor.

Yeah, "American Fork" may be a bit of an acquired taste for those who like their comedy to be gentle and guilt-free. Luckily, Bowman does seem to care about his quirky cast, even if he can't help highlighting their worst traits. I really appreciated his essential disunity, the way his character don't instantly bond and work together. Just because two people are wallowing in misery doesn't mean their flaws are somehow compatible, and Bowman bravely shows how these people use, abuse and hurt each other either casually or just to make themselves feel better. It dips into cruelty occasionally, but a lot of the humor is so genuine anyway that it manages to let us vent some of the sadness.

There isn't a whole lot that struck me as patently new about "American Fork," although it does a good job at translating the dark, everyday tragedies of life into comedy and it features a compelling obese protagonist (quite a rarity in American films of any type). Though I haven't seen it, I imagine this film is a lot more mature than "Shallow Hal" and one could even read the brutal honesty as a twisted form of sensitivity in the way it commiserates with our hero.

The cinematography is not special, but the art design is fitting: Tracy's sister's room is so painfully pre-adolescent while the grocery store and drama classroom have just the right level of depressing flavorless realism. The editing shows wise comic timing, with plenty of cuts to quiet, lonely moments that got sympathetic chuckles from the audience. Perhaps the most technically accomplished part was the hectic, scrapbook intro that navigates through a galaxy of American materialist excess (including a fork).

Title: Big Dreams Little Tokyo
Director: Dave Boyle
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
This ultra-low-budget indie features a quirky protagonist whose good posture, pencil-thin physique and linguistic wizardry provide almost a complete inversion of "American Fork's" Tracy Orbison. Boyd (played by the director, Dave Boyle), is a young American entrepreneur who speaks flawless Japanese, a skill he seems unable to leverage into a career as a businessman, writer, personal teacher or translator. His roommate, Jerome, has a likewise idiosyncratic ambition: to become a sumo wrestler by eating vast amounts of food.

There is not a lot of conflict or opposition in "Big Dreams Little Tokyo," though it hardly seems a problem. The plot follows Boyd's many attempts at achieving the businessman status that his one-man "Tiger Industries" business cards simply, but incessantly, proclaim. He doesn't really need the money since his rich father is content to cover Boyd's rent while he gets settled and tries to find a "real job." However, Boyd desire to be successfully self-employed for his own principled personal satisfaction makes him endearingly quixotic.

Dave Boyle has a certain amount of brilliance to the character humor of his highly-driven, counter-slacker hero. Jerome, however, is too obvious of a foil and the sumo wrestling dream is less exciting, especially since it relies on a series of inevitable eating-large-quantities-of-food-for-laughs segments. Mai, a Japanese nurse who speaks extremely passable English yet decides to take lessons with Boyd anyway, also seems a little forced as the love interest. She's a bit too naive and free of complexity to add much to the dynamics, but she's also irresistibly cute and disarming.

The budget constraints and inexperience of the crew will not go unnoticed by viewers, but I sensed it in a way that only amplified my admiration for how they got the film made, and with plenty of personality and dignity to boot. A lot of the sets are undressed and the editing is a bit crude and staccato, but the composition and polish show effort and commitment. This is not a film to see on its technical merits, but it is also not so poorly made that it interferes with the oddball trans-cultural humor. Netflix it sometime when you're in the mood for something light, goofy and weirdly cute.


Mad Dog said...

I'd heard of Big Dreams, Little Tokyo before. Honestly, it wouldn't hurt if there was an entire genre dedicated to de-glorifying East Asian studies/Japanese fanboyish-ness.

FilmWalrus said...

I have to agree, though "Big Dreams Little Tokyo" definitely seems to sympathize with Japanese-obsessors even while acknowledging that Mid-west America doesn't need too many Japanese translators. There is something a little dangerously fanboyish about the effortlessness with which Boyd gains a darling Japanese girlfriend, but he is an awful cute lad himself.

I'm somewhat looking forward to Boyle's next feature, "White on Rice." He's not particularly a "director to look out for," but I do like to cheer for the low-budget, high-spirit filmmakers.

Unknown said...

I would like to note at this juncture the giant crush I have on Dave Boyle. It would have been awesome to have him come nerd it up in a Q&A, but it was a disappointment to have his friend, who played the crappy sidekick, show up instead. Nothing he said added to my experience of the movie in a positive way.

Also, the director of American Fork was interesting, but it would have been much better in that case even to have the writer, Hubbel.