Friday, November 30, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 4

The gap ever widens between the close of the 2007 St. Louis International Film Festival and the time of my “coverage” for the films I saw. To help me get these all wrapped up, I’m going to skip the remaining short films and just focus on the features. This batch, hopefully the penultimate, contains my favorite film from the festival.

SLIFF 2007 reviews for Nov. 14-15:

Title: Juno
Director: Jason Reitman
Country: USA
Score: 9.5
Last festival, my favorite film was “The Lives of Others” and my taste turned out to be unusually in league with the general consensus because the film grabbed the audience choice award that year. Once again, my top pick also shared the popular sentiment, and “Juno” quite deservingly took home the audience prize. This is surprising for a number of reasons:

1) Comedies don’t win top prizes.
2) I almost never like comedies.
3) This happened to be a comedy about teen pregnancy.

I wasn’t enamored from the get-go, especially since the opening sequence (“It all started with a chair…”) didn’t strike me as particularly funny and the intro credit sequenced slightly underperformed next to “American Fork’s” similarly indie pomo-mo pop-art antics.

However, the early Rainn Wilson cameo (Dwight of “The Office” fame), which has been misleadingly over-represented in the previews, set things on track. Juno (Ellen Page) is taking her third pregnancy test at a convenience store while Rollo (Wilson) nettles her with wacko insensitive barbs. There is a lot of fast verbal play, weird alternate-reality slang and cheerfully delivered over-sharing (in a welcome mix of cynicism and honesty) that lasts, with defiance, consistency and self-enrichment, through the rest of the movie.

Juno is impregnated by light-weight, good-guy (isn’t that refreshing?) track runner Paulie (Michael Cera), but Juno initially doesn’t see him as being all that important to her plans. After briefly entertaining the quick-fix of visiting the abortion clinic and getting on with her life, she decides to bear the child and give it up for adoption. Using wanted ads, she finds a pair of local yuppies (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who want a child, but can’t have one. There seems like an obvious solution for making everyone happy, but complications ensue.

I know, I know. This doesn’t seem like a recipe for the funniest movie this year, but it completely comes together. Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” was a minor comedy gem with a brilliant topical edge, but with “Juno” he’s already entering into the pantheon of great comedic directors. A lot of the credit is due to his deft directing, but writer Diablo Cody arguably deserves the most thanks. His script is fast, lively, irreverent and witty with a style, tone and even a dialect that blazes with originality. The high quotibility factor of the film ensures it more than just first-time viewing pleasure. Rather, I predict it will have a major “cult” college following with an extended lifecycle in away messages, Facebook quotes and dorm-room whiteboards.

The TV show alumni (Bateman and Cera were the father-son team from “Arrested Development,” Wilson comes out of “The Office” and Jennifer Garner heralds from “Alias.” I’m probably missing plenty, but I’m completely clueless about television anyway.) comes together quite well, without ever creating a villain as an easy vent for the tough issues and high-strung emotions. Newcomer Ellen Page absolutely steals the show and will hopefully bring her talent for timing and sass to many future projects. The combination of dismissive wit, self-deprecating wisecracks and easy-going, yet unshakable determination make her character unsentimental, but both sympathetic and badass. She never borrows from the mellow, melancholic hipster or loser-cool gene pool so popular with other American indie-coms.

Title: Rainbow Song
Director: Naoto Kumazawa
Country: Japan
Score: 6.5
“Rainbow Song” is a bittersweet coming-of-age romance set in modern-day Japan awash in nostalgia and naivety, but surprisingly moving even when it overdoes the sappiness. A lengthy intro shows underling Tomoya being abused by his TV station employers. He hears about a plane crash in America and learns that his long-time friend/crush Aoi has died.

The majority of the film gets busy filling us in on the event leading up to the tragedy, including how Tomoya meets Aoi while stalking someone else. They become buddies at film school together where they make ambitious student projects including a tale about the last seven days before the end of the world. Despite there obvious feelings for each other, Tomoya is simply too shy and awkward to mention his love and the relationship teeters on consummation before Aoi decides to head abroad and see the world to gain a wider perspective on life and art. Tomoya stays behind and almost gets married to a eerily manipulative husband-hunter with an uncomfortable, though hardly evil, secret.

“Rainbow Song” feels like a first film and would be a lot more sweet and disarming if it actually were. It would also be easier to overlook the cloying abundance of heart-warming swoons, loudly symbollic devices (such as the title rainbow) and mediocre metaphors (the unrequited love story is divided into seven chapters and terminated by a death… just like the film-within-a-film romance set before the end of the world).

What’s surprising is that despite the transparency of Kumazawa’s emotionally leading techniques, the film does make the characters real and he generally convinces us to care about them. They are plain and unexceptional, but somehow their enthusiasm for casual reality, simple fun, big plans and young love is infectious enough for us to join them on an emotional rollercoaster.

I feel the film would have been improved by ending trapped within the flashback, defying its overly contrived framing structure and emphasizing the nostalgic fondness of memory over the uncertainty of the present. Kumazawa also should have toned down the erratic attempts at deeper meaning and wider scope, which hamper his intimate story and are handled poorly anyway. I would also have appreciated it if Tomoya were not quite so clueless, since his complete inability to understand his or Aoi’s feelings make him maddeningly frustrating to watch.

Visually, the film strikes just the right tone. The low-budget charm fits the story and there is a sense that a special connection between the characters and creators lingers in the air and lends authenticy. Kumazawa is rarely fancy (he’s borderline documentary at times) but when he does pull a good shot (a rainbow reflected in a puddle, a POV shot lying on the ground during the filming of an “invisible” gas attack, a sparing walkthrough of Tomoya’s apartment) it gets just the right amount of special attention.

Title: Fresh Air
Director: Agnes Kocsis
Country: Hungary
Score: 4.0
Not every female-directed Hungarian movie can be a masterpiece, and yet somehow I was sort of hoping that my good fortune with “My Twentieth Century” would carry over. Kocsis lacks almost everything that made the other film great: creativity, inquisitive gusto and a sense of cinematic exploration. “Fresh Air” is a late-comer to the boredom-is-art school of indie pretension, and while the characters have a degree of genuinely convincing ennui, I only get marginal utility from contemplating the void that lies under modern working-class East European life.

Viola works at a pay restroom outside a subway and contends with mind-numbing labor, dismal surroundings and humiliating stench. Her daughter, Angela, survives being ground into the dirt by her school’s oppressive inhumanity by dreaming about becoming a successful fashion designer. She does minor, but dedicated, sewing invariably in her favorite color (green), but really has no future to speak of.

Most of the film deals with the interplay between their personal tribulations and the mutual pain they inflict on each other through silence, neglect and alienation. In a ritual of delicate cruelty, Angela opens all the windows when Viola comes home, drawing attention to her discomfiting smell. Viola already scrubs compulsively for hours in the tub to mask the ordor and maintains an encyclopedic array of spray scents. Viola ignores her daughter completely, occasionally sneaking off to dance and leaving Angela to lunge desperately towards love and freedom. She runs away to pursue a fashion design opportunity only to arrive back home having hitchhiked in a circle without ever being missed. In the impressively anti-climactic (in a good way) ending, Angela abandons her dreams and adopts the zombie-state and occupation of her mother, who has been injured defending the modest toilet takings.

It is so clear from the beginning that Kocsis intends to depress us by making us stare into the awful faceless impassivity of capitalist society that the film loses its chance to surprise or ensnare us with its quiet revelations. Instead, we must wait through torturously long sequences to arrive at bitter codas easily visible long in advance. The drawn-out inevitability is both boring and insulting, a very bad combination by any standard.

The characters themselves and their interaction (or lack there of) do have a brutal realism while maintaining an interestingly stagy symmetry. Their alternating screen time keeps the kernels of dejection more palatable than if we had only their individual non-stories. I did find that the characters were treated with a gentleness and respect that was admirable and despite the seeming emptiness of their lives, Kocsis displays a laudable faculty for character development through minute gestures, banal conversations and morose introspection.

Kocsis never quite gets the visual gloom and pacing rhythm she aims for. Too much repetition and stagnation prevent the soft flow of implacable workaday routine from building the ugly momentum it needs. Instead there is the uneven sensation that we are about the break free from the cycle and explore new ground (which might be intentional), but instead the plot simply recoils into its bland status quo once again. The cinematography tries to frame the oppressive, uniform city as a desolate alien habitat, but fails to make dullness any more meaningful than dullness naturally registers.


Mad Dog said...

So Juno isn't unbearably indie precocious/quirky?

FilmWalrus said...

Contrary to what the previews would have you think, I would say it's not. It managed to have appeal to festival audiences (film snobs, college hipsters and retirees), which says something, but I'm not exactly sure what. I loved it.