Thursday, April 28, 2011

Quick thoughts on the SFIFF films

Man, April has FLOWN by. And all of a sudden, the San Francisco International Film Fest is upon us.

MUBI's coverage

The SFist guide

SFIFF Finds Life Among the Ruins

Meek's Cutoff

I'm sure I'll probably get behind on a lot of these, since the next two weeks will be pretty busy, but I'll try to at least post brief impressions of the films I see. [Ed update: oh, god. I'm already behind.]

Meek's Cutoff
I ended up really enjoying this a lot. It's a very minimalist film, and probably not everyone's cup of tea, but I think it ends up being an incredibly realistic telling of what life on the Oregon Trail must have been like. It would have been hard, tedious, and scary. There would have been a looming threat of not making it, and having your survival dependent upon the abilities of your traveling companions.

The other really interesting thing is that the film was not shot in wide screen, which was so unusual. I thought it ended up mimicking how the women would have seen the landscape out of their bonnets, and it worked well to focus your attention on the characters.

4/5 Stars

Stake Land
I LOVED this film. It is sort of The Road with a supernatural bent, or I've heard it described as a 'post-apocalyptic, vampire western.' And it is scary. Not because of the vampires, although those are good for a few good jump scares, but because of the picture it paints of how America would disintegrate in the wake of an apocalypse. It is horrifying because it feels true. As the protagonist explains, cults pop up everywhere and the religious right goes off the deep end (not that they have far to go, but I digress). It isn't the vampires you have to survive so much as the people. (The main religious cult actually ended up reminding me a bit of the cult that springs up in Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.) I think everyone likes to think that they'd be able to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, given that it is a popular genre. And while I think I might be able to feed myself and find shelter, the film taps into the primal fear that there isn't anything you'd be able to do against religious fundamentalism-crazy. Could any sense of goodness or culture survive when nutjobs drop vampires from helicopters to cleanse the world of sinners?

Anyways, the characters in the film are fabulous. It is mostly about a boy named Martin, who is taken under the wing of a vampire-killer, known only as Mister. Mister schools Martin in the finer arts of vampire killing and survival and along the way they meet up with other survivors. All of the character development is great. And there are some really fun killing vampire parts. But that sense of scary is definitely going to linger.

5/5 Stars

Le Quattro Volte
If Meek's Cutoff is somewhat of an art film which may not be for everyone, that goes double for Le Quattro Volte (quadruple?). I don't really want to describe it, because I think going in without knowing much adds to the experience. I will just say that there is almost no dialogue and, as the introduction at the film fest went, it "pushes the boundaries of what is possible cinematically." That said, I don't want the non-traditional plot to scare off potential viewers. There are moments that work as well as any Charlie Chaplin film (seriously - the whole theater was laughing). And it is incredibly well made. The only thing I will say about the subject matter is; Goats! Lots and lots of goats! (So, also a good film for those who enjoy Cute Overload.)

4/5 Stars

The Troll Hunter
This film has a really great premise, and is mostly executed well, but it really needed to be edited down more. 2 hours is a long time to be hunting Trolls. There are certainly a lot of clever touches, but I did get restless in parts. However, the found footage gimmick works well and the Troll CGI is great. It is worth checking out if you are so inclined.

3/5 Stars

The Future
I... am not sure I totally understood this film. But I liked it.

It is about a couple who will be picking up a stray cat from the vet in a month and adopting it. They realize that this means it will be their last true month of freedom and they decide to be open to the possibilities that affords while facing the uncertainties of... well, the future. However, a certain amount of magical realism creeps into the film which makes it feel much more original than your generic indie romance. And it features a talking cat.

I came into this film not knowing anything about Miranda July's performance background, and I haven't gotten around to watching her first film Me and You and Everyone We Know. She did a Q&A after the film and while those can sometimes just be awkward or not particularly informative, she was surprisingly charming and had a really unique perspective on film, since she is an artist who works primarily in other media.

Both she and Hamish Linklater (Groove!) give great performances and it certainly surprised me with the twists and turns the plot took.

4/5 Stars

Nostalgia for the Light
This film falls victim to what my brother and I like to call "Metropolis syndrome," in that it decides to BEAT. YOU. OVER. THE. HEAD. WITH. ITS. MESSAGE. DO YOU GET IT YET?!?

And I did not like it as much as I like Metropolis.

The film is about the Atacama desert in Chile. It is one of the best places on earth to observe space because of the lack of humidity. It is also where there are pre-Colombian mummies, mining camps that became detention centers during Pinochet's reign and the remains of those killed during his dictatorship. (I thought of them throughout the film as los desaparecidos, but that term may have only been used in Argentina. I'm not sure.) The film is beautifully shot, especially the space porn bits, but it just goes on for a very long time over the same material again and again. The director connects the astronomers, looking at the light of the past, to the local women who go out looking for remains and, thus, live in the past. And he talks about how the calcium in bones formed in stars. And how the vastness of the desert these women are hunting in compares to the vastness of space. Again. Some more.

It's impossible not to be moved as some of the women talk about family members they lost. But when we came out of the theater, I misread the clock and thought the film had been 2.5 hours, which seemed about right. It had actually only been 1.5. And we had two people fall asleep during the screening. I think the topic matter would have been better served by a short film. However, the director is clearly passionate about the history of his country. I'd like to see his Battle of Chile, and see if it is any better.

2/5 Stars

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Oh god. This was the film I was most looking forward to in the festival. And it was everything I had hoped it would be. AND SO MUCH MORE!

First of all, Werner Herzog got unprecedented access to film inside the Chauvet cave in France, which has the world's oldest cave paintings. And they are stunning. Next, he realized that to properly appreciate the paintings, which make use of the topography of the cave walls, they needed to be filmed in 3-d. This is the first film I've seen that really necessitated the use of 3-d and it is wonderfully done. There are long stretches of the film that are just gazing at these paintings, beautifully filmed, while some wonderful choir compositions play. (A lot of the music was fabulous; some bits got a little too atonal, even for me, but a lot of the pieces were clearly written to play off of the acoustics in a cathedral, and accompanied the space inside a cave really well.) Also - just seeing the stalactites and stalagmites in 3-d is worth the price of admission on its own.

So all of that is awesome (in the original sense of that word) and completely makes it a 5 star film.

But then - THEN! - the fact that it is Werner Herzog means that you get his incredible musings on the nature of art and humanity. I giggled through long segments of the film. Plus, he gathers up several of the craziest French people he can find, which is just even more wonderful. And while some of the funny bits were clearly intentional, I also think he is just becoming more and more a parody of himself as he ages. It's no wonder he worked with Nicholas Cage on Bad Lieutenant. The postscript to the film might be one of the funniest things I've seen this year.

I just can't hear his voice now without thinking of this. Hello, my little friend.

5/5 Stars

And that's where I am so far. I stayed home sick today, so I missed the animated shorts program, which is really disappointing. Oh well. Hopefully they'll all make their way online at some point.

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