Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Epic SFIFF round-up.

In which I try to remember details from seeing 27 films in 14 days.

I missed three things I had been planning on seeing; Vivan las Antipodas, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Meanwhile in Mamelodi. Sad about Meanwhile, because it was the runner-up winner for documentary, and set in South Africa during the world cup. Ah well - there's always Netflix.

The Excellent (would not hesitate to recommend):

Liberal Arts. I know. I'm TOTALLY surprised. This was actually the secret screening. Once we were assembled in the auditorium, they announced the title and I thought, "Okay. It got decent buzz at Sundance. It'll probably be too twee and quirky and INDIE for my tastes, but they could've picked something worse." And I completely loved it. The tagline is about a 30-something falling for a 19-yr-old when he visits his alma mater, but it's actually about a lot more and a lot of the best parts stem from his interactions with a host of other characters he meets on campus. The film touches on college, life-long learning, literature, relationships, growing up... all-in-all it's just very well written and not what I expected. I really recommend checking it out.

Where Do We Go Now? Oh. SO GOOD. Fantastic characters, really fun, really human. Also the only film at the fest that made me cry (even when I knew what was going to happen!) The description; "Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, Nadine Labaki’s humorous and warmhearted follow-up to Caramel tells the story of a group of women in a Lebanese village who resort to extreme measures to keep their Christian and Muslim husbands from engaging in religiously motivated violence." [Trailer - warning, makes it seem cutsier than it actually is.]

Wuthering Heights. Fantastic. I love Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, and she did such a great job here.  She pares down the story to the obsession and bond between Heathcliff and Cathy and films it all in incredible, evocative camera-work. So good. Description; "Adolescent infatuation between star-crossed lovers deepens into wild passion in this cinematic incarnation of Emily Brontë’s classic 19th-century novel. Set against the rainy windswept Yorkshire moors, this adaptation is a haunting and almost tactile depiction of romantic obsession pared down to its most visceral and elemental form." [Trailer - this gives you a good sense of what the film is like.] (I have to follow this up with a story; I was in line for my next film after this one, and this guy turns to me, clearly not having gotten the film. Which, okay. It's filmed in a very oblique, artistic manner. It may not be for everyone. Anyways, he says, "was that a chick flick? Because I didn't get it." Um, NO. Personally, I've always liked Cleolinda's description; "Wuthering Heights is not romance but actually horror, about two emotional sadomasochists who lay waste to everyone around them, using them as pawns in their own personal war of attrition.")

663114 (short) (mentioned here)

The Good:
Valley of Saints. Mostly locals from Dal Lake and only one actor in the cast. A really interesting look into Kashmiri life, while not focusing overtly on the political situation. Description; "Using Kashmir’s picturesque Dal Lake as its backdrop and underpinned by the political unrest in the region, this moving drama explores the relationship between two best friends and the female researcher, studying environmental degradation, who threatens to distract them from their dreams of escape." [A on CriticWire.]

Headhunters. Really fun, slick thriller. Description; "An art heist goes terribly wrong in this darkly comic, fast-paced thriller." Out in limited release now.

Rebellion. This was a pretty straightforward procedural, but it covers an uprising in New Caledonia in precise detail. Description; "A French counter-terrorism captain negotiates with his rebel counterpart for a bloodless end to a hostage crisis in this powerful film, based on a 1988 military action in the French Pacific. Actor/director Kassovitz (La Haine) precisely dissects imperial arrogance and political expedience, building to a dramatic conclusion of great force." [7.2 on IMDB]

Robot & Frank. A very cute film. Description; "When an aging and cantankerous cat burglar (played with magnetic gravitas by Frank Langella) receives a helper robot against his wishes, a new chapter in his life begins. This crowd-pleaser is an elegant and heartfelt meditation on the nature of character, memory and trust."

John Dies at the End. A late addition to the fest. This film suffers from starting out AWESOME and ending up okay. And you need a strong ending to have the audience go out feeling great, you know? That said, it may be one of my favorite opening scenes ever, it is super fun, and it co-stars Doug Jones and Clancy Brown, so you know it has to be cool. [Trailer] Fest description; "Talking bratwursts, monsters made of meat and dogs with magical powers—the madly fertile brain of Don Coscarelli strikes again. Dissecting the incredibly baroque plot of his latest film would take out much of the fun, but the gist involves a super-powered psychoactive substance called "soy sauce" which causes its users to have extreme psychic experiences and the ability to travel across time and space. It can also overpower those who ingest it, turning them into shape-shifting monsters. The sauce makes its first appearance in the town of Sherwood, Illinois, where pals John and David come across it at an outdoor party. Trying to keep it from taking over their friends, and eventually the world, the duo teams up with other party survivors to defeat the substance and the various demons it sends after them. Adapting the popular Internet-launched novel of the same name by Jason Pargin (who wrote the book under a pseudonym) of fame, Coscarelli creatively shifts the action back and forth in time as David narrates his incredible story to an interested journalist played by Paul Giamatti. With wonderfully witty dialogue, a cabal of game actors and some terrifically gory set pieces, John Dies at the End is the most inspired horror comedy in years. Give yourself over to the sauce!"

The Okay (would recommend with caveats):
Alps. This was pretty surreal, if fairly engaging. Description; "Stepping outside of the manor into urban terrain, the audacious director behind Dogtooth returns with a tragicomedy about a tightly knit group that specializes in impersonating the recently deceased. You’ll never look at tennis or rhythmic gymnastics—or modern life and grief counseling—the same way again."

Terrafirma. I'm not sure why this didn't captivate me completely. I think I found the son, one of the main characters, a little bit grating. But it looks at immigration from a very personal point of view. Description; "When African refugees reach the shores of the paradisiacal Italian island of Linosa, members of a tight-knit Sicilian family get caught between cultural tradition and moral responsibility, in this gripping drama by the acclaimed director of Respiro (SFIFF 2003) and Golden Door (SFIFF 2007)." [Special Jury Prize at Venice.]

Chicken with Plums. The problem with this film, is that when it starts, the main characters are pretty despicable. Later, you find out that they have their reasons, and by the end, an entire tragic love story is revealed, but it takes awhile to get to that point. The film-style itself is whimsical and engaging. Description; "Having told her own riveting story in Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi explores the life of her great-uncle, revered Iranian musician Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), as he reflects on the past and future while pining for a lost love, in this romantic, richly textured adaptation of her own illustrated novel." [Rated a B on CriticWire]

Dreileben - Don't Follow Me. Much better than the first film. The main character, a police psychiatrist, is an interesting portrait. I wish her two companions were slightly more well fleshed out. Description; "All three films of Dreileben’s character driven crime drama trilogy are set in and around a small town by the Thuringian Forest... A self-possessed police psychiatrist travels to a normally tranquil burg tense over an escaped killer’s unknown whereabouts. Her working rural “vacation” with friends won’t leave anyone feeling rested, safe or at peace with the past in this droll, suspenseful and slippery midsection to the Dreileben trilogy"

Dreileben - One Minute of Darkness. Of the three Dreileben films, this one is probably the best overall and also the most artistic. Description; "Dreileben’s final chapter finds mad yet resourceful hunted man Frank Molesch front and center, pursued through the wilderness by a detective. Is Frank a murderous criminal or lifelong victim? The triptych’s vertical narratives—not linear but vaguely simultaneous—conclude on a note that resonates with poignancy, tragedy and bitterest irony."

Hysteria. Not great, but Maggie Gyllenhaal has her rah-rah suffragette convictions. And things are kept t and moved fairly quickly. Rupert Everett, though completely charming, made me really sad with his botched plastic surgery. Description; "The invention of the vibrator is at the center of this historical romp. Weary from treating female hysteria with his hands, a young doctor (Hugh Dancy) contrives a contraption capable of making women sing arias of pleasure, with a little help from a layabout friend (scene-stealing Rupert Everett). Maggie Gyllenhaal costars." [B- on CriticWire]

The Problematic But Pretty:
Ah - I felt like so much I was seeing fell into this category.  Films with structural, directorial, or other problems, but which work SUPER well as travel porn. 

The Orator. This started off very slow, although by the end you understand why. The ending is very good, and it is a really interesting look at Samoan culture and traditions. And I wanted to book a plane ticket immediately, it's so gorgeous. Description; "Hailed as the first Samoan-language feature film, The Orator is a tale that pits pride, grief and shame against forgiveness and courage. Saili, small in stature, must face the roles of manhood and speak up for his deceased loved ones in this tense, complex present-day look at Samoan tradition."

The Loneliest Planet. The actors are really good, but as a film about contemplation while hiking abroad, it is very slow. But very gorgeous. It made me want to go hike. Description; "Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) trek through the Caucasus Mountains, led by Georgian guide Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze). A split second decision becomes a seismic event in this visually stunning chamber drama by the acclaimed director of Day Night Day Night." [B+ on CriticWire]

Sleeping Sickness. Argh. This film was frustrating. I wanted to like it, and it tackles really interesting issues, but it just didn't resolve in any sort of satisfying way. Despite a cute epilogue of sorts. Description; "A German doctor working to fight an epidemic in Cameroon must make difficult choices in director Ulrich Köhler’s subtle examination of African postcolonial ties with the West. Echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and a sense of dread pervade this lush meditation on the experience of being European in Africa." [B+ on CriticWire]

Leave Me Like You Found Me. The most beautiful setting of the bunch - California! Getting back together with an ex on a camping trip seems like an awful idea, and it is painful to watch people falling into bad relationship patterns. Anyways, the director said she wanted to make a film while camping (pretty!) and she wanted to explore 'Why love isn't enough.' The film devolves into some indie relationship cliches, but the scenery stays gorgeous. Description; "On what is supposed to be a romantic camping trip in Sequoia National Park, a couple gives their relationship a second chance but finds the reunion more complicated than expected. With a restrained tone and deftly achieved authenticity, this heartfelt debut contrasts an intimate story with a majestic backdrop." [B+ on CriticWire]

The Bad
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. She might have been an interesting lady - certainly she had a fondness for dropping Wilde-ian bon mots - but this documentary was cursory and not very well put-together.
Dreileben - Beats Being Dead. This starts off alright, and then the two leads become the worst, most annoying people in the entire world. It's hard to watch a murder mystery when you're begging the escaped convict to hurry up and kill them already. There are some good creepy moments when there are noises in the woods, but, again, I was rooting for the things that go bump. 

The Audience Award:
Mosquita y Mari. This is for the ACTUAL audience. It was about 2/3rds full of latina lesbians and they were super into it. Easily the best possible conditions to see a film under. Every twist and turn was greeted with gasps, laughter, and cheering. The movie is pretty straightforward young love, but the two young actresses are engaging. And lord knows we could use more films from a Chicana perspective.

The Other Shorts:
I mentioned 663114. Here are the rest (skipping Pixar's La Luna, which seemed like an odd inclusion.):
BELLY. This was cute. I enjoyed it. Description; "Oscar is coming of age, against his better judgment. In doing so, he must experience the necessary evil of leaving something behind, but he can still feel it in the pit of his stomach. (Julia Pott, England 2011, 8 min)." [If you click "Watch" on this page, you'll see a clip.]

DUST AND GLITTER. I adore this, just because it introduces the concept of street hyenas to San Francisco. Description; "Slovakian filmmaker Michaela Copikova, beloved for her generous and beautiful work, offers a paean to her experience in the Bay Area. (Michaela Copikova, Slovakia 2011, 12 min)." [Trailer]

LACK OF EVIDENCE. This was really interesting and very well done. It used a variety of animation styles to great effect. Description; "A translation of an application for political asylum is the touchstone for multiple perspectives on the consequences of civil war. (Hayoun Kwon, France 2011, 10 min)." [Full video here!]

M. WARD: THE FIRST TIME I RAN AWAY. This was pretty good. Description; "Joel Trussell revives his collaboration with M. Ward in this latest music video, a sweet tale of loss and change. (Joel Trussell, USA 2012, 4 min)." [Video]

OEDIPUS. Pretty silly, but okay. Description; "Parodying the Greek myth and throwing in a bunch of well-known NFB-animated characters for good measure, director Paul Driessen offers up a backwards version of the classic tale. Oedipus is Driessen at his absurdist best. (Paul Driessen, Canada 2011, 14 min)." [Clip]

PLUME. Okay. Came off very much as a student film, but had its moments. Description; "A primeval winged man falls to earth and is robbed of freedom by his alter egos. He finds redemption by casting off his former existence. (Barry JC Purves, France 2011, 14 min)."

20 HZ.  Kind of interesting, experimentally. Totally abstract. Description; "20 Hz observes a geomagnetic storm occurring in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Working with data collected from the CARISMA radio array and interpreted as audio, we hear tweeting and rumbling caused by incoming solar wind, captured at the frequency of 20 hertz. (Ruth Jarman, Joseph Gerhardt, England 2011, 6 min)." [Video]

The Old Stuff:
Buster Keaton Shorts: One Week, Good Night Nurse, The Haunted House, and The Cook. All fantastic. He is one of my favorite actors ever. He's so good. Two of these are with Fatty Arbuckle, who is also hilarious. And, the Tune-Yards!! [Clip here with the Tuneyards]

Hey, look! Public Domain! Good Night Nurse. The Haunted House. The Cook. One Week.

The Third Man. Brilliant. Easily the best film I saw. ;)

Dead Again. About half-way through this I remembered that I had seen it as a child and I remembered whodunit. I think it's probably Emma Thompson's worst performance, but it's a fun thriller. And I always love Derek Jacobi.

House by the River. This was so bad. Or, rather, it had a certain campy, melodramatic appeal, but it just wasn't what I was expecting. First of all, because it was directed by Fritz Lang, and secondly, because it was chosen by Pierre Rissient, who is this genius of film history. It seemed like such an odd choice. That said, it never gets screened, so it is kind of cool to have seen such a little known film.

Tommy. Also the winner of the honorary "Yellow-Submarine-this-would-probably-be-better-on-acid" award. Like, seriously. What the fuck?

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