SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 10

December 10, 2008 at 5:02 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 2 Comments

Day 10: Sunday 11/23 (Notes: This was the final day and my overall favorite.)

From Inside and The Wrestler

Title: From Inside
Director: John Bergin
Country: USA
Score: 10
Review:
Graphic novelist Bergin adapts his own nightmares into an animated feature film with a half-dozen crew members, Maya 3D software and a whole lot of patience. The result is one of the best movies at SLIFF, though it was largely tucked away in the same time slot of the buzz-generating “Waltz with Bashir.” Nevertheless, I was determined not to miss it after reading the synopsis (a destination-unknown train traveling through a surreal post-apocalyptic wasteland) and watching the trailer. I couldn’t help resonating powerfully with the film, though I am clearly more biased towards it than I expect others would be (I love trains, surrealism and post-apocalyptic landscapes. Also, my own student short, based on my nightmares, had a similar premise).

“From Inside” uses a combination of CG and hand-painted watercolors from Bergin’s graphic novel to illustrate the haunting locomotive voyage of pregnant girl. She doesn’t remember where her train comes from and neither she, nor the passengers nor even the engineers know where it is going. Outside the windows, a featureless landscape passes by. It is eventually overtaken by startling locations: a rusting bridge, a sea of blood, flooded ruins, a monumental refinery, an endless tunnel and more.

Our introverted protagonist provides narration in lieu of dialogue, keeping us in claustrophobic isolation from the other passengers. We spend our time in her dreams and private reveries instead of the roaming omniscient perspective audiences are used to. Her voice has an eerie, hypnotic quality that ties together the bleak, but imaginative, artwork. Though it completely eschews notions of hope and salvation, “From Inside’s” disturbing imagery and brooding score still reaches a spiritual crescendo that is profoundly moving.

After gushing to the sound designer afterwards, his wife gave my brother and me unofficial copies of the film. I’ll be watching it often. The From Inside website should have information on the official DVD when it becomes available.

Title: The Wrestler
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Country: USA
Score: 9.5
Review:
Aronofsky’s latest film may be his most mature, and it certainly managed to convince critics (it took the Golden Lion at Venice) of what cult audiences already know: that Aronofsky is one of the most important directors of the last ten years.

“The Wrestler” is Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a WWF-style professional wrestler 20 years past his prime. Sitting at a sparsely-attended merchandise signing, he notices that most of his peers have leg braces, wheelchairs and other evidence of their fading health. Randy isn’t immune either; his rigorous tanning and toning doesn’t disguise the fact that his body is breaking down. He wears a hearing aid and stuffs himself with drugs to sustain everything from fists and folding chairs to barbed wire and staple guns. Most threatening is his failing heart. Outside the ring his life is also a mess: he is frequently locked out of his trailer, works odd hours at a grocery store to make ends meet and has an estranged lesbian daughter who hates him.

Marisa Tomei plays Randy’s romantic interest, a stripper nearing retirement age. Far from being a simple plot device for their mutual redemption, her character has a life nearly as full of complications and contradictions. She definitely goes all-out in her role, giving Rourke a run for his money and one-upping her eyebrow-raising role in “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” for sheer nudity. I’ve got more than a little bit of a crush on Tomei, and I can guarantee that anyone who shares that sentiment will go away happy.

Aronofsky’s approach is touchingly realistic, reminding me of the unsentimental humanism of the Dardenne brothers. Mickey Rourke gives a career performance as The Ram, not just looking the part perfectly, but imbuing the character with a likability that I would have thought impossible (as I hate wrestling). Randy is a throwback to the 80’s, a decade he desperately misses both for its culture of reveling in devil-may-care extremism and for his personal stardom. Yet Aronofsky manages to do a lot more than merely play on nostalgia (he wisely does without flashbacks) or to harp on how pathetic Randy is (I even sensed an affectionate tone at times), by making us care about a character we’d normally laugh at.

The film brings the boxing genre (I’m defining it loosely) into the present day. It leaves films like “Cinderella Man” and “Rocky Balboa” weeping in the locker room, revealing them to be mere has-beens compared to the freshness and defiance of this film. “The Wrestler” owes more to “Raging Bull” (1980), a film Aronofsky consciously references in one of his funniest scenes: a continuous tracking shot of Randy entering, not a stadium, but a deli. I imagine that Aronofsky can sit back for a while and just let the Oscars come pouring in.

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SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 9

December 9, 2008 at 4:58 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 1 Comment

Day 9: Saturday 11/22

The Trap and Yesterday Was a Lie

Title: The Trap
Director: Srdan Golubovic
Country: Serbia
Score: 8.0
Review:
Even if I live to be a hundred, I’ll probably never get tired of noirs featuring an essentially good man who tries to do the right thing, but makes one wrong decision that sends his soul spiraling towards damnation. “The Trap” is an excellent example and superb companion piece for Wim Wenders’ similar “The American Friend.”

Mladen is a state engineer who can’t possibly afford the 26,000 Euros price tag when he discovers that his son will die without a rare operation. In spite of his pride, Mladen’s wife puts a help ad in the paper. Eventually there’s a response… from a man who wants Mladen to assassinate in exchange for the money.

“The Trap” tries a little too hard to justify Mladen’s actions, when it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll accept the assignment (since otherwise this would be a different kind of movie). I think Golubovic is a bit too insistent when he tries to convince us that we would do the same thing in the same circumstances. Still, at least the motivations are realistic enough and it leads us to the consequences, which is where the film really comes alive.

Every goes wrong, of course. The victim turns out to be a husband and father. Mladen likes (and maybe even has a crush on?) the wife. Meanwhile, the stress and secrecy causes Mladen’s own marriage to fall apart. The criminals don’t come through with the money. The police don’t buy his story. And all the while his son is still dying.

The shift from dealing with tough decision to tough consequences is pessimistic, but uncompromising. One finds it irresistible to get caught up in Mladen’s plight and to share his frustration and despair. There’s a sense that his tale is a metaphor for the way individuals are crushed by fate, society, economy and other forces beyond their control, but it’s never too blunt to distract from the personal crisis.

A lot of the symbolism is handled in interesting ways. Mladen’s son, for instance, draws countless pictures that are brightly-colored and full of fantastic imagery in contrast to Mladen’s increasingly bleak reality. I particularly liked that the night before Mladen agrees to do the hit he sits in the rain at an empty intersection and eventually runs a red light (confirming, on an infinitely smaller scale, that he is ready to break the law). Later, he will remain stopped in front of a green light as he comes to accept that his life is at a dead-end.

The acting is really quite well done, never crossing over the line into excessive histrionics. The worst part may have been the makeup, which is inexplicably overly purple all the time (cold lips, tired eyes, bruises) and takes away some of the attention from Glogovac’s (as Mladen) highly facial performance. The film also make good use of shallow focus, dirty locations and bad weather to give off a sullen noir atmosphere.

Title: Yesterday Was a Lie
Director: James Kerwin
Country: USA
Score: 5.0
Review:
The surprisingly controversial content of the review has been removed by the author. See the original for a fuller discussion.

SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 8

December 8, 2008 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | Comments Off on SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 8

Day 8: Friday 11/21(Notes: This was my second favorite day of the festival overall. I did not see any films on day 7.)

The Custodian and Timecrimes

Title: The Custodian
Director: Rodrigo Moreno
Country: Argentina
Score: 9.5
Review:
As I discovered last year, the bustle of the festival and running about from theater to theater after work while still trying to fit in food, sleep and life can make it difficult to ease into the pace of slower, meditative films. Festival season tends to make me particularly conscious of poor editing, excessive length and lugubrious pacing. Yet every once in a while a film like “The Custodian” comes by and reassures me that it’s not my attention span that’s the problem; some films can be slow and minimalist and still be utterly fascinating.

The custodian (or “minder” in the more direct translations), Ruben, is a personal bodyguard for Artemio, an important minister. Ruben has managed to erase almost all outward evidence of his identity, forming himself into a diligent, silent, opaque presence that it variously ignored and abused by the family he is sworn to protect. Ruben quietly suffers each indignity without comment. For instance, he must wait outside while Artemio conducts extramarital affairs and must watch silently when Artemio’s daughter messes around with a boy in the backseat of the chauffeur’s car.

Ruben’s own family, a neurotic sister and her untalented daughter, offers no comfort or understanding. What goes on inside his head is not known. He remains a mystery, although we discover hints: he’s a talented sketch-artist (his pictures reveal possible romantic and sexual fantasies), was once a hero in the military and he cares more about the world than he lets on.

Moreno’s direction and Barbara Alvarez’s cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen this year. They shoot scenes with nearly mathematical precision (overhead shots of Artemio’s parking arrangements are frigidly geometric) in cold clean colors and 90 degree arrangements that are emotionally neutral. Unusual close-ups and shallow focus guide our attention to unimportant details, creating an atmosphere that reflects both Ruben’s boredom and his observant nature. A clever thematic touch is that Ruben never passes through a door while the camera is watching, putting him and the audience forever outside the action.

“The Custodian” is actually so hypnotic when almost nothing is happening, that I actually had a twinge of regret when the action picked up. When Ruben is given scenes like a family dinner party and a visit to a prostitute, I felt that these more overt “events” broke the spell of the gentle rhythm. The ending twist, however, feels right and sort of justifies the rising action.

Fans of Jean-Pierre Melville, Fabian Bielinsky and Bela Tarr should like this one.

Title: Timecrimes
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Country: Spain
Score: 9.0
Review:
Hector has just moved into a new house with his loving wife. He’s lounging around in the backyard when he thinks he spots a woman stripping in the woods. His natural voyeurism takes over. He goes to investigate, only to be stabbed by a bandaged killer and forced to flee into a secluded laboratory. The only person on staff, a suspicious young scientist, encourages him to hide in a strange cylinder of fluid. He emerges earlier that same day and gradually comes to accept that he has traveled through time. While trying to prevent any paradoxes from occurring, he inadvertently commits a horrible crime and must complicate things even further to undo the past.

Vigalondo’s three act screenplay (with each act covering the same handful of hours) is one of the funnest and cleverest time-travel plots of recent memory. The first act features all sorts of strange, unexplained details, allowing TT veterans to anticipate how they are going to fit into the timeline. The second act then follows through in a manner that I think is intentionally predictable and familiar. Then the third act comes along and makes mince meat of the other two with post-modern humor and surprising twists.

The plot is quite entertaining in itself, but Vigalondo accentuates it’s with a very distinctive brand of humor that does almost entirely without dialogue-based “jokes.” I laughed out loud several times, often purely due to the beautiful timing and symmetry of the action (the storyboarding and editing must have been excruciatingly rigorous). The balance of the cast (there are only four actors) is quite neat, with Hector’s development taking center stage. The way he transforms from naïve pawn to steely mastermind as he learns the ins and outs of time travel, is perfectly displayed by his body language and, quite literally, his body, which becomes increasingly bruised and bloodied.

Vigalondo has done all the hard work for us behind the scenes. TT veterans will be pleased to discover that his screenplay is free from obvious plot holes, while TT newbies should find the complicated plot relatively easy to follow. Since it is both more playful and less mentally strenuous, I’d call this (wait for it…) a good primer for “Primer.” Both films are excellent investigations of the scientific and moral complexities of TT, but while “Primer” is so dark and challenging as to sit permanently in the cult corner, “Timecrimes” is already slated for an American remake. Word is that David Cronenberg will direct, which would be seriously cool, but see this first (and then see “Primer,” which is even better).

SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 6

December 7, 2008 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 1 Comment

Day 6: Wednesday 11/19

The Pope’s Toilet and Stranded

Title: The Pope’s Toilet
Director: Cesar Chalone and Enrique Fernandez
Country: Uruguay
Score: 6.0
Review:
Beto is a smalltime border smuggler just this side of Uruguay from Brazil. His “work” consists of heart-pounding 60 mile bicycle trips across the open countryside with the risk of raids and financial ruin on any voyage. He lives in a small shack with his devout wife and unhappy daughter, who longs to become a reporter. When news comes out that the Pope will be stopping in their remote village to give a speech, everyone in town plans to pull themselves out of poverty by selling food to the tens of thousands of projected visitors. Beto plans to capitalize on the situation from the opposite end: by charging for use of a homemade restroom.

The simple setup allows plenty of time to get to know the family and to witness the humor and pain they cause each other. The film’s greatest success is its honest, unsentimental portrayal of poverty, where limited resources cause harsh competition and families are so desperate to escape their conditions that they will risk everything on inflated hopes. The casting of non-actors works beautifully and each of the central three characters gives fresh, realistic performances.

However, I was annoyed at the directors’ decisions in how they portrayed this based-on-a-real-life story. Whether it’s intentional dramatic irony or not, I never for a moment believed that a happy ending was possible. The tension and buildup for the inevitable disappointment felt hallow and manipulative to me. Ill-advised music rubs the disaster in our face. I found that I was holding myself back from emotionally connecting with the characters because I was conscious of the directors’ intentions from very early on.

Title: Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains
Director: Gonzalo Arijon
Country: Uruguay
Score: 5.0
Review:
Arijon’s much-hailed documentary revisits a headline that captured international attention in 1972. A rugby team from Uruguay crash-landed on a snow-covered Andean mountain and survived for 72 days before they were able to contact civilization. Untreated injuries, starvation, extreme-cold and depression plague the stranded boys. Two-thirds of the passengers die and the remainder resorted to cannibalism to survive.

I’m occasionally accused of being too tough on documentaries, and I’m likely to draw that complaint once again. Let me first say, though, that the story of these survivors is absolutely captivating and inspiring. When I rate a documentary, however, only a small amount of the score is based on the topic chosen while the primary thing I try to judge is the presentation of the subject. For that reason, I was not much impressed by “Stranded,” which looks and feels like a routine television special.

Arijon’s re-enactments are particularly uninspired. He uses vague, shaky clips where you can’t really see any details and grainy filters try to convince us the footage is old or damaged. This material doesn’t capture anything of the reality, not even the atmosphere or terror, and serves very little purpose except as filler. I’m sure the idea was to temper the talking heads syndrome that is brought on by trying to tell the story through interviews decades after the fact. The most interesting visual moments, notably, are the authentic photographs and the news footage near the end.

I think a full-scale paid-actor/set-recreation treatment would have been worthwhile and compelling. In fact, I’d have probably liked a film adaptation more than any documentary version, but that’s purely personal taste. As a documentary, I felt it relied too heavily on the emotional emphasis and didn’t give enough facts to really appreciate the situation. Despite the film’s totally unnecessary 126 minute run-time, I was left still fairly clueless and curious at the end:

How cold did it get at night? How much battery power was in the radio? Did they build snow-shoes or sleds to travel over the snow drifts? Were they able to build fires? How did they decide which direction to head off in? What was the decision hierarchy like? Did they converse or invent games to pass the time or sit in silence? How far away were they from the nearest village? Do they keep in touch today? Etc, etc, etc.

SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 5

December 6, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 2 Comments

Day 5: Tuesday 11/18

Opera Jawa and The Heartbeat Detector

Title: Opera Jawa
Director: Garin Nugroho
Country: Indonesia
Score: 6.0
Review:
This adaptation of a love triangle from the Hindu epic Ramayana has enough to intrigue almost anyone into giving it a try, but it’s a rare instance of a film almost too exotic for me to take. Siti is a gorgeous pottery maker who is loved by her modest husband and a ruthless butcher magnate. The latter’s seduction scheme leads to sorrow, battle and death. Every line of dialogue is song (a bit like an oriental “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and every movement is choreographed. The costumes and sets are allowed to be equally expressive.

While I really like the idea of this film in theory, the simple story adapts poorly into a two hour movie and most of the scenes are consequently irrelevant to the narrative. This isn’t a problem if the presentation sufficiently wows you, but I my ignorance of Javanese traditional music and language had me feeling like all the vocals sounded pretty much the same and the choreography looked like bad modern dance. That said, I really liked the exotic instrumentation and the decision to model the acting after animals (a particularly good example is done in shadow silhouette).

The set design is imaginative, if not as consistently impressive as Parajanov’s work. I did enjoy the use of ceramics, wicker cones and crimson wax heads as reoccurring visual motifs. There are a handful of scenes that make for unforgettable imagery, like a room full of candle skulls or the beach finale inside a sheer yellow tent.

Yet all the sound and colors didn’t seem to make for a consistent story, mood or pacing and I ended up with the dissatisfying feeling that I’d just beheld one of the world’s most visually resplendent bores. I don’t understand it. I usually love visually resplendent bores! I think “Opera Jawa” is the type of film that I’ll engage with better on DVD, where I can appreciate its charms without the bustle and exhaustion of the festival.

Title: Heartbeat Detector
Director: Nicolas Klotz
Country: France
Score: 5.0
Review:
“Heartbeat Detector” (also known by its literal translation “The Human Question,” which I prefer) had already made so many waves in Europe, that my expectations were perhaps a bit too high. I didn’t like it, yet so far it’s the festival film I’m most interested in discussing.

The first hour of the film is a corporate intrigue thriller without the intrigue or thrills as we watch a company psychologist for a large faceless organization deal with his relationships and an investigation into the sanity of his own CEO. Eventually the film stumbles its way into a series of revelations about Nazi ties amongst the executives, but it doesn’t actually get interesting until the movie turns into a polemic indictment of corporate culture in general.

The clumsy interrogation of this one idea, that fascism and capitalism can come to disturbingly similar conclusions, is just about the only redeeming debate to emerge from the film. It taps into our innate mistrust for powerful entities of any variety, and our suspicion that companies, bureaucracies and hierarchies may be intrinsically and profoundly evil. “Heartbeat Detector” never really covers enough ground or goes far enough to say anything new or provocative on these subjects, but its mixture of fear, doubt, regret and loathing is sincere and potent.

Sadly, the unremarkable story goes along way towards undermining the themes, especially by making the references to Nazism so terribly literal. In movies since the start of WII Nazi villains are dragged out for audiences to boo and jeer at so that we can feel even more self-righteous. The really scary thing is no longer onscreen Nazis caricatures, but the implication that offscreen, we may be slipping into the same “I’m just trying to get by” cog-psychology that makes inhuman totalitarianism possible.

The boilerplate bits of script are equally indigestible, featuring 2.5 hours of a blank-faced protagonist that we’re thankfully never asked to care about and a bunch of elderly executives who are cryptic and depressing. The worst are the lead’s pointless girlfriends, who stop existing for the main character (and the screenwriter) the moment they are offscreen. The cinematography is murky and underlit, probably an attempt to enforce the somber mood. The gray and black color scheme, rectilinear locales and sleepy emo soundtrack would probably have accomplished this anyway. The lack of proper lighting just makes the film feel frustrating and unprofessional. I was amused to see that the screenshots used for the poster and DVD have been digitally brightened.

SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 4

December 5, 2008 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | Comments Off on SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 4

Day 4: Monday 11/17 (Note: I didn’t see any films on day 3)

All for Free and Special

Title: All for Free
Director: Antonio Nuić
Country: Croatia
Score: 7.0
Review:
After the good luck I had with last year’s “Fine Dead Girls,” I decided to try another shot-on-digital Croatian character study and once again found it to be quite satisfying. This one features Goran, a friendly slacker who spends most of his time drinking and hanging out with his tight-knit quartet of local friends. One night at their favorite hangout, one of his pals shoots the other two dead. Goran is shocked out of his complacent stasis and haplessly scrambles for some meaning in life. With nothing to keep him in town, he decides to sell his house and buy a travelling beverage stand where he’ll give out drinks “all for free.”

Goran’s mellow adventures are full of ironic character observations as the citizens of each new town turn their suspicions upon him. Each customer is sure that there’s some catch or hidden agenda. Nuic’s sense of humor is smart and deadpan, a little like Jarmusch or Kaurismaki, but more incisive. Their isn’t much expectation that anything will happen, and true to form, very little does. The story slowly evolves a romance and rivalry, but it never really abandons its core as an existential reverie.

“All for Free” is probably too slow and too comically sparse for most, but I found it pleasant and thoughtful. It never tries to be anything more than what it is and it’s just wise enough not to outstay its welcome. “All for Free” strikes me as a good example of what a tiny budget and a reflective personality can do.

Title: Special
Director: Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore
Country: USA
Score: 7.51 (to make sure it rounds up)
Review:
Les Franken isn’t exactly happy; he’s just not unhappy. He works as a meter maid, reads comics and watches TV. He has the sensation that his soul is slowly seeping from his body and decides to enroll in a clinical trial for a new antidepressant, Specioprin Hydrochloride.

The medication has unexpected results: Les develops a multitude of superpowers. But while Les acclimates himself to his newfound powers, others see nothing but a young man with a screw loose. The directors strike an inspired comical duality between the world as Les sees it and the sad reality. Thus, while Les believe that he can run through walls (and we watch him do so), we also can’t help but notice that he has a bloody nose and bruises afterwards.

This setup makes for quite a variety of great scenes, like a visit with his clinical supervisor who suggests he immediately cease taking the drug. Les suddenly develops telepathy and believes that the doctor is mentally telling him just the opposite, but to put up the pretense of quitting since an enemy is listening. This enemy turns out to be the suit-wearing financiers behind the drug, who don’t want Les to create a media embarrassment. When they try to kidnap him, Les converses with a version of himself sent back from the future, who advises not to trust them. Michael Rapaport is well-cast in the lead role and is convincingly sympathetic as a deranged nerd whose desperate need to feel special may actually make it true.

“Special” is the type of indie comedy that alternates making you laugh and feel depressed, a combination I happen to like. It deals in the type of quirky irony where dream sequences are painfully normal (like riding in an elevator), and when the protagonist suddenly wakes up, it’s in a much stranger reality. The small budget may be the film’s biggest liability, especially towards the overly-padded, uninspired ending. With a longer, loopier second half and a few more subplots, this could have been a real favorite.

SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 2

December 4, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 2 Comments

Day 2: Saturday 11/15

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Slumdog Millionaire and Alone

Title: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Director: Paul Schrader
Country: Japan
Score: 8.5
Review:
Despite being well-aware that “Mishima” is 23 years old and that Criterion has put the restoration on DVD, I really wanted to see this on the big screen and was not disappointed. The movie weaves together three time periods, each in its own style. Mishima’s life growing up in shown in black and white. His final day plays in color, detailing his carefully plotted attempt to rally a pro-emperor military coup and his infamous ritual suicide. Most beautiful of all are the scenes from three of his best-known works, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” “Kyoko’s House” and “Runaway Horses.”

Schrader expertly weaves together Mishima’s biography and philosophy, creating a mesmerizing investigation of a body-building, hyper-nationalist, homosexual artist fixated on harmonizing life and art through suicidal glory. The soundtrack by Philip Glass is central to the mood, and feels perfectly at home with the themes of trance-like passion and transcendence. The theatrical staging of his novels, while confusing at first, melts into the spirit of the film and is ultimately more revealing about the author than the more strictly biographical segments. The sets for these vignettes are precisely geometric and richly color-coded islands in a sea of black.

Last year, Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” left me pretty unimpressed, so I’m glad this one restored my faith in him. I didn’t see “Adam Resurrected,” his latest film, when it played Friday night, but I’ll probably visit it on DVD. The only other directing work I’ve seen by Schrader is “Affliction” and “Light Sleeper,” neither of which stand out in my mind as great works. I suspect, therefore, that Schrader is getting this year’s SLIFF lifetime achievement award as much for his writings on and for cinema as for his directing. It’s interesting that SLIFF [almost] gave last year’s award to Peter Greenaway since the two are probably the most vocal directors when it comes to declaring the death of cinema. The film walrus does not agree.

 

Title: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Country: UK/India
Score: 8.0
Review:
Boyle continues his successful string of high-energy entertainment with this slick Indian production based around “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Ironically, contestant Jamal Malik, a poor orphan raised on the tough streets of Mumbai, is more interested in reuniting with his lost love from childhood than winning the money, but he just might get both wishes. The inspired structure has Malik narrating his life story to the police, as a way of explaining how a “slumdog” with no formal education could know each answer without cheating.

As with all of Boyle’s films (“Shallow Grave,” “28 Day Later,” “Sunshine”) the style is unabashedly populist, characterized by rapid cutting, throbbing music and aesthetic hedonism. While it isn’t surprising that this formula worked well for his films about gangsters, zombies and astronauts, I was surprised how easily it integrated with the more serious setting of India’s megaslums. It helps that the writer took care to channel the excitement, humor and optimism of youth even as he bares the pain and viciousness of poverty and crime. Even the visuals manage to strike a unique beauty, finding splashes of joy in human faces and dyed cloth against backdrops that include sprawling dumps and open sewers.

The final third of the movie becomes more subdued and saccharine, turning into a more conventional love story complete with overtures about destiny, smirking villains and tragic sacrifice. It’s likely to rub the wrong way with many who enjoyed the freshness of the rest of the film, but I suspect that it’s an intentional nod by Boyle towards the traditions of Indian cinematic romances. The ending credits are done as a Bollywood music video, making a more explicit reference to Indian pop culture.

With his kinetic storytelling, emotional range and engaging story, Boyle’s likely to have another hit on his hands. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he walked away with the SLIFF audience award. At the same time, I suspect the critical elite will turn their noses up at the flashy style, cheesy ending and occasionally hokey acting and they’d probably have a good point… but I have to say it was one of the most entertaining releases I’ve seen this year.

Title: Alone
Director: Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
Country: Thailand
Score: 7.0
Review:
The Pisanthanakun/Wongpoom team (“Shutter”) continues to make a name for themselves in the international horror scene with this creepy tale about cojoined twins and the strange separation anxiety and survivor guilt that results when only one survives into adulthood. Pim seems to be doing well with her loving husband Wee, but when her mother becomes critically ill and they return from South Korea to Thailand, painful memories of her twin sister Ploy begin to drive her towards insanity.

Though “Alone” is unmistakably genre-bound, it is far less interested in the grotesque body-horror possibilities of its premise than the intensified intimacy of its relationships (twin sisters, husband/wife) and their psychological ramifications. This is more “A Tale of Two Sisters” or “Sisters” (1973) than “Basket Case” or “Dead Ringers” (1988) (interesting to note that this split seems to run down gender lines). The directors are quite skilled, if not particularly original, at developing atmosphere, tension and curiosity around their setup.

Horror fans will be particularly pleased by the sheer quantity of scares, which are thankfully not all hoarded for the finale. These are almost all of the loud-noise/sudden-image variety that I’m not usually impressed by, but I give “Alone” credit for actually scaring me time and again. I wish the directors would have tried to sustain the terror, however, since most of the fear-climaxes lasted only a single shot (sometimes with a reaction shot) and I was too often able to assure myself that “it will be over in just a second.” Though the film tarries a little long in the one-scene, one-scare purgatory of horror set pieces, the directors get the plot out of a rut and managed to admirably surprise me (and everyone with me) with a solid final act.

SLIFF 2008 Reviews from Day 1

December 3, 2008 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, Review, SLIFF | 1 Comment

Day 1: Friday 11/14

Vanaja, Interkosmos, The Juche Idea and Shadowland

Title: Vanaja
Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Country: India
Score: 7.0
Review:
After already playing in almost every other festival in the world (it seems) and getting a DVD release, “Vanaja” finally made its way to St. Louis. It tells a the coming of age story of Vanaja in a rural Indian village, who hopes to overcome her poverty, low-caste status and poor prospects by learning traditional dance in the home of her rich landlady. While working as a servant girl, she wins the approval of the landlady and sets about becoming an accomplished dancer.

This familiar arc is soon disrupted both by her father’s increasingly lethal drunkenness and the arrival of the landlady’s attractive, politically ambitious son. Despite early flirtations, any chance of a storybook romance is foiled by age and class, resulting in a painful relationship that includes rape, a contentious pregnancy, blackmail and difficult choices about motherhood.

For some reason I felt hard to please while watching “Vanaja,” both during it predictable plucky-hero dances towards her dreams first half and it’s more complicated young-mother making tough decisions second half. Perhaps it’s because both plotlines are such perennial festival scenarios. Yet what they lack in originality they make up for in delivery. There’s a great deal of well-earned emotional moments and enough time and nuance to gather honest sympathy for Vanaja and her situation.

The acting, particularly the 15-year-old lead Mamatha Bhukya and Urmila Dammannagari’s curmudgeonly landlady, is where the film really shines. Director Domalpalli deserves credit for his unassuming sunlit photography, which captures the rustic dustiness and colorful highlights of rural India. Working on a small budget, the film nevertheless has just the right atmosphere to intensify the drama without overwhelming it.

 

Title: Interkosmos
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 4.0
Review:
Part of a double-feature by experimental director Jim Finn, “Interkosmos” is a mishmash of appropriated documentary footage transformed into a fictional history of a lost East German space program. A mixed crew from assorted communist nations attempts to establish mining and refueling stations on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, but spends most of their time chatting aimless by radio. Their greatest success is in positioning orbiting libraries of communist material, which later conspiracy theories suggest was the real mission goal all along. When the budget disappears, the manned ships go silent and the government covers up the program.

Finn’s premise and his unusual style of integrating archival footage with artificially-aged fiction are certainly interesting, but this first feature by the director suffers from a fatal lack of focus. Monologues about dolphins, minimalist space exercise routines, an all-girls Marxist hockey match, a hamster in a space suit, NASA videos of Earth and a lot more are loosely fitted into place, but they amount to a fairly arbitrary collection of things that Finn found amusing more than a story or even a compelling overview of a story (which is probably closer to his intention).

Even with the short ~70 minute run-time, the film feels far too long and drawn out. It’s hurt by a lack of editing discretion and abundant repetition, revisiting low-interest imagery with minor variations of what we’ve already seen and digested. The overextended intro and end credits are perhaps the clearest examples of indulging at the audience’s expense. Even the best set designs, like a spaceship cockpit and two moving models of the moon stations, are given too much time to sink in while we listen to mildly informative monotone voice-overs. The film is at its best when it plays the narration for bone-dry humor, as in the radio transmission conversations with their blend of bored small talk and Marxist rhetoric.

Title: The Juche Idea
Director: Jim Finn
Country: USA
Score: 6.0
Review:
Much more successful than his previous film is Finn’s “The Juche Idea,” a rough retrospective of fictional propaganda films created by an enthusiastic North Korean director. The director once again appropriates a disparate assemblage of archival footage including media coverage of national celebrations, internal theatrical releases and corporate training videos.

Not only is it clear that Finn has matured as a director and polished his style since the former film, he also seems to have homed in on his strong suit: humor. Laughs are stitched from all sorts of unexpected resources, rather from juxtaposing Kim Jong-il’s ideological tenets with laughably lame film clips, mocking language-training videos with badly green-screened backgrounds and heavily-accented ludicrous conversations or just from spouting inappropriately convoluted metaphors.

One still finds too much repetition, a lack of visual stimuli and the unsatisfying feeling that no cogent movie really forms from the individual scenes, but the pacing is more stable, the rhythm tighter and the themes better realized. For those who are interested, I’d recommend sampling this film first before giving “Interkosmos” a try.

 

Title: Shadowland (2008)
Director: Wyatt Weed
Country: USA
Score: 1.5
Review:
“Shadowland” looks to be an early frontrunner for my least favorite film of the festival. The SLIFF website describes it as an amnesiac mystery. It leaves out any reference to vampirism, which is odd, because this is a vampire movie. I would have seen it anyway (in fact, I would have been more interested). My primary motivation for checking it out wasn’t the plot, but that it was made locally and I wanted to try and see more native St. Louis films this year.

The scraggly story involves a young woman who emerges from a hidden churchyard grave with no memories, but a desire to head towards “main street.” She meets a friendly diner waiter, a pushy hobo and a snobby retro clothing clerk along the way. A professional vampire hunter named Julian and eventually the police are on her trail. Meanwhile, she struggles to remember the circumstances that led to her “death.”

Despite a surprising amount of production polish for a local film, “Shadowland” is ultimately closer to the Sci-Fi channel’s original programming than something you might want to see even for throwaway thrills. The acting is consistently embarrassing, especially the “period” flashbacks (signaled, of course, by overused streak-blur transitions). The writing is unimaginative and devoid of personality, exacerbated by over-earnest performances.

The special effects are of the quaint TV variety. I think the film really should have gone the less-is-more route, since the conventional fake fangs and bad contact lenses were bad enough without the fast-motion running and CG wings.

Ultimately, the main pleasure came from spotting the familiar locations. I got to see my street on a sign and a scene set at a diner where I tried to eat right before the film. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to make the movie legitimately good (pay attention, New Yorkers reviewing NYC films) and I can’t recommend it to anyone.

SLIFF 2008: A Tour Guide

November 20, 2008 at 4:47 pm | Posted in Brian Vacek, Movies, SLIFF | 1 Comment
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The St. Louis International Film Festival is a great time to enjoy yourself and take in a new film or two. That is, if you happen to be a casual movie-goer. If you’re a fanatical cinephile, its a stressfully delightful gauntlet run through an international smorgasbord of films that consumes your every waking hour and drives your loved ones to insanity. I walk the latter path.

I’m new here at Highway 61, but I’ve been blogging for some time now over at The Film Walrus where I babble incoherently about movies when I should probably be cooking, cleaning and socially interacting. I’m going to babble about movies here, too. With good reason: there’s so many films at SLIFF that no single person could see them all.

So you’ll probably be seeing a sustained spurt of my reviews over the next few weeks as I dash between the Tivoli, Plaza Frontenac and Webster making my sleepless eyes bleed and belatedly typing up my opinions. While these will be too late to do you any immediate good, most of these films are already available on DVD or in theaters or will be soon. I encourage you to seek out any films that sound interesting and, of course, you should do your own exploring of SLIFF’s offerings while the festival rages on.

If you need a quick tour guide, though, to sift through the many, many choices, I offer some advise: be eclectic. See features, documentaries, shorts, etc. See films from countries you know nothing about. Take a chance on a new director. Take in a mix of genre fluff and art house.

And keep an eye out for me! Here’s my schedule for this year:

Fri the 14th: Vanaja, Interkosmos with The Juche Idea, Shadowland

Sat the 15th: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Slumdog Millionaire, Alone

Mon the 17th: All for Free, Special

Tues the 18th: Opera Jawa, Heartbeat Detector

Wed the 19th: The Pope’s Toilet, Stranded

Thurs the 20th: Of Parents and Children

Fri the 21st: The Custodian, Timecrimes

Sat the 22nd: The Trap, The Class, Yesterday Was A Lie

Sun the 23rd: Little Heroes, From Inside, The Wrestler

Rivers and Music at the Tap Room Tonight

May 28, 2008 at 11:45 am | Posted in Concert, Environment, Events, Movies | Comments Off on Rivers and Music at the Tap Room Tonight
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OSC LogoBackstory:

During the day, I work for a non-profit organization called The Open Space Council that works for land and water conservation in the St. Louis area. One of our biggest projects is Operation Clean Stream, a volunteer stewardship program that has gotten thousands and thousands of volunteers to clean up the Meramec River for the last 41 years. Pretty amazing. Well, we just produced a documentary called Meramec River: Miracles and Milestones documenting the success of this cleanup project in restoring the Meramec from a dumping ground back into a beautiful river.

What this means to you:

Tonight, we are showing our film at the Schlafly Tap Room at 7:00pm. The documentary is about half an hour long, and following the film we will have live music from local alt-country / folk bands Auset and Rough Shop. We are asking for a $5.00 cover charge, which will include one free beer and snacks. Proceeds will go to continued conservation work on the Meramec River. And if you have ever floated on the river (and chances are you have) then you can surely give a little back!

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