Monday, November 30, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 4

Title: Hooked
Director: Adrian Sitaru
Country: Romania
Score: 8.0
A married woman and her mathematics professor boyfriend head off for a romantic picnic, but appear more eager to go at each other’s throats than lips, and one quickly gets the impression that their affair is in the final stages. The mood is made even fouler after they run into and knock unconscious a streetside prostitute. She wakes up while they are in the middle of dumping her body, and they awkwardly invite her to join their picnic to try and cover up their irresponsible cruelty. Tension fluctuates as she chats with the two lovers and picks apart their private affairs with a mixture of ingenuous friendliness and manipulative determination. Her motive is never quite clear, but none of the possibilities are reassuring.

The Romanian New Wave has been one of the international highlights of the last five years, and “Hooked” is no exception. The “Knife in the Water”-esque plot allows for the formation of a highly unsettling triangle, where candid conversations reveal a surface of commonplaces over a layer of tangled emotions over a layer of psychological confusion over layers still deeper. The innovative style uses exclusively first-person perspective, with the editing shifting rapidly and yet fairly smoothly amongst the gazes of the three characters. The screenplay is excellent overall, though the ending has a somewhat gimmicky implication. The acting makes the contrivances natural enough to take seriously and brings out the interplay of clashing personality types. The title is perfect.

Title: 35 Shots of Rum
Director: Claire Denis
Country: France
Score: 4.5
Centered on a train conductor and his daughter, this unassuming drama about friends and family exudes a warm, elegiac glow. The father attends the retirement party of a friend. The daughter debates whether she wants to be the reason a restless neighbor settles down and stays. A concert is planned, but car trouble and rain redirect the ensemble to a homely eating establishment for a night of drinking, slow-dancing and finding inner peace.

While a tribute to Ozu’s “Late Spring,” “35 Shots of Rum” is undeniably a work of Denis’s own. Critics have unanimously raved about this film, which will likely top a lot of best-of-the-year lists. Perhaps reading all the uncritical, factory-cut praise has made me feel the need to play devil’s advocate. While I’ve liked Denis’s work in the past, I see no evidence of artistic growth in this overly tame and mind-numbingly boring slice-of-life. Yes, it manages to recall real life with its meandering nonstory, lack of action, gentle rhythms, likable people and all that, but does it have anything to say? It tries so hard to be a quiet, intimate experience that it just made me sleepily note that I’d rather be having a quiet, intimate experience at home than watching one. The camerawork is lazy, the acting so understated that it can’t really be criticized or even much discussed and the pacing is a mess of sluggish debris. Critics will acclaim it, thinking that the masses really need to see this type of film, but audiences will stay well away. I, for one, can’t fault them this time.

Title: Three Monkeys
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Country: Turkey
Score: 9.5
An accident on a lonely rain-swept road triggers a series of dangerous transactions in “Three Monkeys” by Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The driver, a politician with an uphill election campaign in the works, asks his chauffeur to take the manslaughter rap in exchange for a lump sum of cash. While his dad waits out his sentence the chauffeur’s son asks his mother to get an early installment, leading to painful confrontations and revelations for the entire family.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Distant,” Climates) has had an extraordinary career already and if this isn’t his best film yet, which I think it is, “Three Monkeys” is at least his most entertaining. Considering that all his work is drenched in downbeat pessimism and immaculate imagery, it was hardly a leap for him to make an outright film noir (albeit a family drama noir), but what’s more surprising is his heretofore unexpressed knack for comic timing and surreal horror. He captures storm-strewn skyscapes, crumbling concrete and ill-treated flesh silhouetted in Hou Hsiao-Hsien lighting with rapturous shallow-focus, green-tinted cinematography without ever wasting a shot.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 3

Title: 24 City
Director: Jia Zhangke
Country: China
Score: 7.0
Zhangke’s “24 City” is a provocative mix of documentary and fiction, concerned with the relocation of a large Chinese industrial factory to make room for a luxury apartment complex. The details of the factory itself, such as what product it actually makes, is not the director’s interest, but rather the role it has played in the surrounding community and in the lives of enormous workforce. The film consists of a series of interviews with these men and women, about half of which are fake. The tone and craftsmanship are so strong even in the acted segments that viewers will be unlikely to distinguish them, and may not even realize that some parts were fictional. And yet Zhangke doesn’t play the postmodern trickster so much as delve into an impartial emotional truth that lurks behind both documentary and performance.

The Chinese Sixth Generation has been one of my weak spots in exploring Asian film, and so I eagerly embraced a chance to see my first film by the well-regarded Jia Zhangke. He’s a director I clearly need to get in better touch with, as his film evinces such a penetrating curiosity about what makes his country and his countrymen tick. “24 City” is at ease in a sea of rocky history, ugly architecture and disparate national priorities, watching with a misleading detachment the changes in generations, philosophies, personalities, economies and so on. His film can be almost unbearably glacial, but it has wisdom and even wit, notably demonstrated in an interview where a beautiful factory girl (played by Joan Chen of “Little Flower” and “Twin Peaks”) recalls being nicknamed “Little Flower” by her admirers because she looked like Joan Chen. This film has only grown on me upon reflection.

Title: Yella
Director: Christian Petzold
Country: Germany
Score: 7.0
Nina Hoss turns in an award-winning performance as a capable accountant trying to climb her way out of financial straits and an abusive relationship. She accidentally runs into and takes up with an unethical loan assessor and finds herself really enjoying her role as sharp-eyed sidekick. Yet as she extorts money from both shady and relatively honest entrepreneurs alike she’s plagued by something more than a guilty conscious and her violent stalker boyfriend: strange auditory hallucinations with ominous implications.

“Yella” is actually a really well-crafted film if you can ignore the obvious and intrusive ending twist. Why Petzold telegraphs it so openly, or even why he bothers to include it, is a more ponderous mystery than the mystery itself. But that aside, “Yella” manages to be a rare corporate thriller where the characters are worth caring about, especially the rather reserved lead, who manages to blend courage and cynicism into a decidedly complicated and not necessarily sympathetic role. Her conflicted desires to adopt a cold hard exterior while needing an emotional anchor neatly inverses the crisscrossed atmospheres of cold interiors and sun-dappled exteriors.

Title: We Live in Public
Director: Ondi Timoner
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
Timoner ("Dig!") continues her triumphant documentary career with this biopic about Josh Harris, a virtual personification of the information age and our internet culture. In 1993, Harris founded, the first internet television station, whose channel hosts he recruited by staging massive decadent parties reminiscent of interactive art installations. After alienating his own company by adopting a disturbing baby-talking clown persona called ‘Luvvy,' Harris was forced out of his own company. He proceeded to take his millions and build “We Live in Public,” an underground kingdom beneath New York City where he housed more than a hundred experimental subjects with free food, music and living quarters, but under the condition that everyone was subject to humiliating interrogations and constant surveillance (made accessible to all via TVs in each sleeping pod). After the police, thinking they were busting a Y2K doomsday cult, broke in on what had degenerated into a fatigued orgy, Harris abandoned the idea to embark on his next work. This time he wires cameras to cover every inch of his flat and lives with his girlfriend in a 24-7 live internet show with a chatroom for people to comment on his life. The results were unsurprisingly detrimental to everyone involved.

Harris is an undeniably fascinating character to study, a prescient mad-genius type that embodies not just our society’s obsession with technology and exhibitionism, but our increasing immaturity and cult of youth and novelty. Timoner is not quite trusting enough to let her audience ingest the self-evident warnings about our culture that her footage contains and is a little too ready to interpret it for us, but she’s deftly aware of the potential in her subject and handles the stages of his blazing ups and downs with the skill of a consummate storyteller. While “We Live in Public” is by no means scholarly enough to make us feel we are getting the whole story, it captures the zeitgeist of the online boom where the internet was treated like a wild lawless frontier and poorly-adjusted nerds became multi-millionaire celebrities overnight.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 2

Title: My Time Will Come
Director: Víctor Arregui
Country: Ecuador
Score: 5.0
“My Time Will Come” is a sprawling and somewhat meditative study of Quito, Ecuador where family and friendship tries to hold together amidst both domestic and gang violence. Dr. Arturo, a philosophical mortician, struggles to understand his brother, his separated parents, a budding romantic interest, his troubled city and even the dead. It is the latter which he relates to with the greatest ease, finding satisfaction with his evident forensic skill (practiced in a comically cavalier manner that involves heavy drinking) and the silent rest of corpses.

I found myself hoping, and perhaps even assuming, that Arturo would unravel the network of interlocking deaths that come streaming into his morgue. However, the type of clever cathartic conclusion that ties up the loose ends in many similarly structured films about disparate characters connected through a web of subtle links, doesn’t actually seem to be the point. Dr. Arturo’s bemused, deadpan resignation is the best that Arregui offers his audience, and while I can’t help being a bit disappointed, there is certainly an honesty and depth to his screenplay. The photography is pretty, if not quite beautiful. The editing is inefficient, but gives a fair-handed attention to even its peripheral characters.

Title: Animated Shorts
Director: various
Country: various
Score: various
It’s both unfair and irrational to try and review a compilation of shorts together, but it’s a little tedious to try and discuss each one individually, so I’ll try and just single out highlights. Overall, I thought this shorts program was better than any of the last few years, presumably because Cinema St. Louis is now able to be even choosier due to the huge number of submissions. Of the 13 shorts in this batch, about half were essentially music videos, which tended to make them quite watchable, but not very deep.

My favorite was “Checkoo,” by Erik Rosenlund of Sweden, about an office drone who doesn’t quite fit with the fast-pace tempo of modern life and resorts to a speed-enhancing drug to keep up. Smooth, sly and charming, Checkoo is a confident exercise in simplicity and style awash in orange colors and pop geometry. It has a lot to say, but knows how to do so in very few words. Other standouts include the ambitious dictatorship comedy “Only Love” by Lev Polyakov, the rough and jazzy “You’re Outa Here” by George Griffin and “Santa: The Fascist Years” by the always reliable Bill Plympton. The only short that really grated on me was “Articles of War,” a blunt, preachy and visually unremarkable treatise against the horror of wars presented as a letter from a WWII pilot to his WWI vet father.

Title: North Face
Director: Philipp Stoltz
Country: Germany
Score: 7.0
Based on a true story, “North Face” follows the ascent of two German mountain climbers scaling Mt. Eiger’s north face in 1936. Promoted by the Nazi’s as a race to “solve the last problem of the Alps,” the climb was regarded by many as impossible and even suicidal given the slope’s reputation as a “Murder Wall” prone to freak snow storms and avalanches. The pair of unpretentious country-bred climbers matches wits against an Austrian team, but quickly come to see the mountain as the only real foe when bad weather, frostbite and major injuries pin all four men against the unforgiving north face.

A gripping and evocative adventure, “North Face” easily carves a place for itself in the mountain movie genre. The acting is rather period-piece standard (which is to say, generically good), but the focus is really on Eigar and the gorgeious photography that puts us right in the midst of stone and snow. The viewer can feel the biting cold, the jagged crags and the constant vertigo. The film’s only serious flaw is in trying to tell the story from the perspective of one climber’s ex-girlfriend, a neophyte reporter with a callous Nazi boss. Her character just isn’t particularly interesting, nor do the Nazi subplots go anywhere, and the indirection distracts from the main action, especially when we are subjected to constant updates on her unchanged status waiting around at the base camp hotel.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 1

Title: Edgar Allen Poe’s Ligeia
Director: John Shirley
Country: USA
Score: 5.0
A professor of Romantic poetry with a happy carefree relationship finds himself entranced by a dark and mysterious student, with the odd name of Ligeia, who is conducting shady experiments on the nature of mortality in the university labs. Half hypnotized, half seduced, the hero is soon married to Ligeia and ensconced in a Ukrainian castle where he becomes aware of her paranormal efforts to cheat the grave.

In the great tradition of Poe adaptations (such as Roger Corman’s low-budget classics), this film shares only a few superficial ideas with the original story and largely plays up the sensational aspects (in this case the sex appeal, rather than the gore or terror). Also according to Poe-adaptation tradition, neither myself nor my friends could resist seeing this film, especially considering its Friday the 13th timeslot. I enjoyed seeing my alma mater used for quite a bit of the film’s first half and was most impressed by the remarkable cinematography and lighting. I was perhaps overly pleased by the campy screenplay and playful trashiness, which didn’t particularly resonate with some of my fellow viewers, but I thought it made for a rather entertaining, if uninspired, diversion.

Title: Terribly Happy
Director: Henrik Ruben Genz
Country: Denmark
Score: 9.0
Genz’s Danish comedy-thriller, set in a boggy rustic village with a wealth of secrets and infused with noir and western influences, was probably the most fun film I saw at this year’s festival. A city cop with a history of anger management issues is sent to replace the sheriff of a small soggy Jutland town as a form of provisional punishment. The place is quiet; clearly too quiet. Our hero hardly comes across his first report, a seemingly cut-and-dry case of domestic abuse, before he is sinking inexorably into a mire of moral compromise and corruption.

Playing like a Danish Coen brothers film, but with a voice of its own, “Terribly Happy” is a brilliant example of how you can blend genres and still make a thoughtful film with local color. The oft-visited bog where the evidence of innumerable secrets and crimes are sucked into oblivion, offers a deliciously morbid backdrop to the action while serving as a perfect metaphor for the hero’s reluctant integration into the community. The humor and awkwardness keep the film from being even the slightest bit depressing, while the frequent and unexpected plots convolutions make the deliberate pacing feel lively and tense.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Overview

It’s time I came out of my book-buried retirement, at least temporarily, to cover the St. Louis International Film Festival, one of my favorite local events of the year. Showing remarkable restraint, in my own opinion, I saw only 13 screenings. I’ll do capsule reviews of them over the next few days.

This year’s festival had more than 250 films and my guess is that it was the best-attended year yet. Most screenings I attended were pretty packed and almost every major film and even some not-so-major films sold out (good for the festival, bad for audiences). I was too slow to get tickets for “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” which goes on my list of regrets along with accidentally missing the undistributed “The Headless Woman” due to my own clerical error. In retrospect, I also wish I’d seen “Beeswax” by mumblecore icon Andrew Bujalski, but I’ll look for it on DVD.

The best films I saw were “Terribly Happy” (a highly engrossing dark-comedy noir) and “Three Monkeys” (a Turkish masterpiece also of a noirish persuasion). Nothing I saw this year was particularly bad, though my least favorite is the current metacritic darling “35 Shots of Rum.” I lived up to the goals I laid out about a year ago: I saw documentaries (“24 City,” “We Live in Public”), shorts, local St. Louis work (“Edgar Allen Poe’s Ligeia”), the latest by several great directors (Jia Zhangke, Claire Denis, Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and a film from a country whose cinema I’ve never seen before (Ecuador).

For the first time in three years, I did not see or predict the winners of the main festival prizes. “Precious,” which I actively avoided (I am willing to admit I may have been wrong, but it was coming out in regular theaters the very next day so there was no rush), took the top prize. “Marcello, Marcello,” which I actively avoided because it looked overly cute and corny, took the ‘Best International Feature’ award. Best documentary went to “9500 Liberty.”

As usual, the commercials were the only really bothersome aspect of the festival, especially odious to viewers like myself who have to see them repeated 10+ times (maybe I wouldn’t be bothered if I watched more TV). Stella Artois continues their theme of misguided pretentiousness, Metromix St. Louis has not backed down from (or even changed) their loud and obnoxious ad claiming that St. Louis has a nightlife and SLIFF’s Coolfire Media spots again focus on genre movies (although to be fair they had many more this year and the ad was much better), but the standout newcomer is a cheesy promotion from some St. Louis culture center which has the gall to suggest that a weekend in St. Louis is the equivalent of touring the great cities of Europe. Incidentally, a live volunteer came out before each showing to ask that we all thank these and other sponsors. So, um… thanks.

Anyway, it really was a good time. Three of my friends from out of town stayed with me for the first weekend and we kept up a pretty constant diet of fine films, delicious food and erudite conversation (like whether Hugo the Hippo could beat Razorback in a fight). I was satisfied with the films I saw without exhausting myself utterly. I look forward to next year!