Sunday, November 30, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Congress

Title: The Congress
Country: USA
Score: 2.5
                Actress Robin Wright (of Princess Bride and Forrest Gump fame) plays a near-future version of herself. Out of work and worried about her son’s narratively-convenient illness, she considers an offer (from the painfully on the nose ‘Miramount’ studio) to have herself digitized so that a computer likeness of her can star in endless crappy blockbusters. After initially demurring she takes the plunge and for the next hour plus the movie switches from live action to animation. Fast forward a few decades and we find Robin on her way to the titular congress, in a bustling world of the mind where she will preach clumsily about the sins of media and commodification before a riot or a revolution or something breaks out. Then she gets rescued by a slubby animator and they fall in love and get executed and fly around in fantasy land with angel wings and talk in forlorn voices about how lost humanity is and then go looking for her son because she’s a good mother and that what they do. It is rather hard to follow and generally even harder to care.
                I’m a self-avowed fan of excessively ambitious SF failures (witnesses can testify that I’ve defended Interstellar, Southland Tales and Waterworld to name a few), but The Congress is so many drafts away from working that I wonder how production even got approved to begin. There are tons of ideas, many of them interesting, none of them fully baked. The acting is served up with generous portions of ham, all the more intolerably because these people should know better: Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm. (Robin Wright, in her defense, is the least bad.) Only the animation has sparks of creative genius, but the futuristic world-building is ceaselessly undermined by the screenplays bitter finger-wagging at Hollywood studio crudeness, celebrity worship, corporate fascism, audience pleasure-seeking, virtual worlds replacing reality and other typical technology fears that you can probably guess.
                The director seems unaware that telling a good story can make these themes clear without literally having an authorial mouthpiece present them in a speech. Nor is there any sense that societal, cultural and technological change is complicated enough to have both positive and negative results. Instead we get a film that tiresomely points out how we are obsessed with celebrities, but which is itself jam-pack will ill-fitting celebrities. And we are force fed a lot of bad art ranting about how studios put out so much bad art.
                Go see Ari Folman’s previous “Waltz with Bashir” (I even wrote about it here), and pretend this shrill satire didn’t happen. Folman has demonstrated that he’s good with material that is close to his heart and his own experience, but this big, loud, fuzzy dust bunny of ideas does nothing but ruin a perfectly decent Stanislaw Lem novel and a handful of reputations.

SLIFF 2004: #ChicagoGirl: The Social Networks Take on a Dictator

Title: #ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator
Country: US/Syria
Score: 7
                19-year-old Ala’a Basatneh, a Chicago resident and college freshman, says she used to spend her time at the mall hanging out with friends. Now she runs a revolution in Syria from her computer. She still has friends, but now they are a network of activists, protestors and journalists ‘on the ground’ in a country she hasn’t been to since she was 6.
                Her contacts send her news, photos and videos from the inside and she posts these on internet outlets that many of her contacts don’t have anonymous access to and tries to get them enough exposure to be covered by the mainstream international media. She plans protest marches with built-in escape routes. She runs campaigns to spread awareness in the US. She brokers between various anti Bashar al-Assad groups that don’t necessarily know about or trust each other. In the course of the documentary she deals with the death of two physically distant but very close friends. She sees others give up on peace and resort to violence. Even on US soil, she receives death threats from the foreign regime. This is not an ordinary gal.
                For me the moment that really drove home ChicagoGirl’s shocking discipline and responsibility occurs while she is trying to balance her college attendance with her activist duties. She gets a text that a friend has been captured alive. Her job is to drop whatever she is doing, even an ‘important’ exam, and log onto their social media accounts (they trust her with their passwords), deactivating them before their login credentials are tortured out of them and their networks compromised.
                #ChicagoGirl as a documentary is interesting for two reasons: 1) because Ala’a Basatneh herself is so interesting and the disjunction between her and American teens as we typically think of them never gets old and 2) because of what this particular example of online activism implies in a broader sense about social media, nonviolent resistance, mass communication and political evolution. If the film doesn’t quite break through into brilliance it is because it tries to tackle both the personal story and the wider scope at the same time, but can’t quite capture the latter. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Bit Player

Title: The Bit Player
Country: The Philippines
Score: 7
                The Bit Player is a day in the life of an extra on a popular Filipino soap opera. The film is surprising for the detail, dignity and compassion it holds for Loida, a single mother struggling to earn enough to pay for her daughter’s schooling. She wouldn’t mind a little bit of local stardom either.
                  However the majority of her job is excruciatingly dull and routinely thankless. As she says herself, crowds are important: they lend life and realism to an otherwise empty artificial fictional world. You can’t do without them. And yet extras are treated like talentless, brainless dirt. They are served lousy food and little of it. They are barely listened to, and then mostly to make sure their accents aren’t off. Even the very space they take up is resented, as demonstrated in an early scene where the extras are sent packing from every shred of shade as they mill about waiting for their scene. When it comes, they are faking farm work in the back of a cheesy bucolic romance; figures so small and out of focus that they can’t be recognized.
                It’s humbling, but Loida and her friends are good-humored about it all. Their fundamental likability and fathomless energy helps keep the movie upbeat even as the story makes it clear that they will never be stars. Loida has what she would probably think of as her ‘big break,’ but it doesn’t amount to much. Her celebration of this middling just-enough-to-get-by success, tainted by an almost overwhelmed by disappointment that she bottles up inside, is what makes the film resonate as profoundly real.

SLIFF 2014: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

Title: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain
Country: India
Score: 6
                This is a fictionalized docudrama about the 1984 Bhopal industrial accident, following a range of characters in and around a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the days leading up to a chemical gas leak that kills thousands. The best aspect of the film is its fair-mindedness, asking viewers to consider characters and decisions that would typically be portrayed a lot less sympathetically: the consequences-averse CEO who built the factory up from nothing and really does want the region to prosper, the frighteningly underqualified rickshaw driver turned safety engineer who can’t say no to a job that would put food on his family’s table and provide his daughter’s dowry and an unselfconsciously manipulative – but in a charming way – journalist who has cried wolf too many times to stir up serious concern.

                But while the characters are often interesting individually, they fail to mesh, in part because the casting is so scattershot: Martin Sheen in full-on corporate American mode, teen TV-star Mischa Barton as a fashion reporter who contributes little to the narratives, Kal Penn alternatively glib and serious, Indian comedian Rajpal Yadav in a questionable dramatic role, some evil British dude acting generally callous and colonial, etc. Ultimately the film is competent and admirable, and at its best provokes both sobering thought and strong emotions, but it doesn’t particularly distinguish itself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Apostle

Title: The Apostle / O Apostolo (2012)
Country: Spain
Score: 6
                During an escape attempt, a career thief learns that his cellmate once hid stolen treasure under the floorboards of an old lady’s house. After tracking down the location, tucked away in a dark and gnarled forest frequented only by weary pilgrims, it is abundantly clear that the whole hamlet is creepy. There are only six citizens, all elderly, sepulchral and suspicious, and they clearly have ill intent of their own in store for anyone they can trick into staying the night. Our roguish hero is too busy sneaking around in the moonlight with money on his mind to fall into their initial schemes, but he’s doesn’t escape unscathed. He eventually unveils the town’s dark secret, but in the process gets cursed by a mysterious ghost parade. His only hope of rescue come from an unlikely quarter.
                I love stop-motion, and if you also love stop-motion then go ahead and stop reading this review and make plans to see The Apostle. The character design conveys a lot of personality, the miniature sets are rich with gothic detail and the director sprinkles in some interesting 2D and CG animation sequences to mix things up. You won’t be disappointed in the way this film looks.
                Unfortunately, the story isn’t nearly as full of life and imagination. It has the feel of an old folk tale or classic ghost story, which while that lends it an air of timelessness, it also means you’ve heard this one before. It’s a little too simple and straightforward for my taste, and it often feels like the pacing drags just to stretch things to the feature length 70 minute mark. The villagers are so obviously evil, their machinations so easily overturned (half a dozen geriatric innkeepers, barkeeper and a priest just aren’t that much of a threat, especially to a strong young thief) and their secret so run-of-the-mill that it will be tough for adult audiences to get very invested. And yet it might be too scary, thanks to the impeccable production design, to be a safe bet for little kids. That said, the right type of kid (or adult) will love this movie, and I hope it finds its audience.

SLIFF 2014: Introduction

I’m going to post review coverage of the 2014 St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) over the next few days. Since I copped out of writing a novel this November, unlike so many of my more dedicated friends, I don’t have a good excuse not to!

This year I saw 20 films. It feels as though the caliber has only gone up (or maybe I’m just getting better at avoiding the flops), but as a result I’m grading a little harder than usual. I’ve created an overview below, and will post the full reviews (in alphabetic order) in what passes for me as rapid succession.

--Highly Recommended--
Stations of the Cross – 9.5
The Overnighters – 9.5
Winter Sleep – 9
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – 8.5
Zero Motivation – 8.5

The Tribe – 8
The Dark Valley – 8
Patema Inverted – 7.5
Human Capital – 7
The Bit Player – 7
Still Life – 7
#ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator – 7

--The Rest--
Elegy to Connie – 6.5
Listening – 6
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain – 6
The Apostle – 6
The Major – 5.5
Diplomacy – 5.5
Uzumasa Limelight – 4

The Congress – 2.5