Sunday, November 13, 2011

LSIFF Concludes With Pariah

The Lone Star Film Festival ended with Pariah, a terrific indie drama from Dee Rees that stars newcomer Adepero Oduye as a 17-year-old African-American girl named Alike, pronounced a-LEE-keh and frequently shortened to Lee. She's hiding her gayness from her middle-class parents (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans) and wondering what sort of woman she's going to grow up to be.

I wish Rees had gone into more depth about Alike's academic success (which is apparently considerable), but there's a great deal to recommend the film anyway: Its depiction of the marital discord between Alike's parents, the way it evokes a pocket of homophobia in New York City (one of the most gay-friendly cities on earth), the platonic friendship between Alike and the only other lesbian she knows (Pernell Walker), the way the parents are depicted as flawed individuals rather than gay-bashing monsters. I was most surprised with how funny the movie is, especially in a sequence involving a strap-on that's the wrong color. Stuff like that helps keep this from becoming a standard-issue anguished coming-out story. With terrific acting (Kim Wayans, who knew?) and well-managed storylines, this isn't a movie for gay audiences or African-American audiences, but for everyone.

I think we'll remember this year as the year that LSIFF stepped up in weight class. Counting The Descendants, The Artist, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shame, and Pariah, that's five plausible Oscar contenders in a five-day festival. Yeah, that's pretty good. And that's not even accounting for the charming minor films like High Road and the splashy premiere afforded to Searching for Sonny, a film that proves a Fort Worth movie can attract name talent. It's notable that this past year Dennis Bishop stepped down as the festival's artistic director, allowing programming director Alec Jhangiani to take over the position. The quality on display at this year's LSIFF is a testament to the programmers' good taste and the organizers' acumen in bringing such big-ticket items to the festival. Of course, that just means that they'll have to do this all over again next year. I can't wait.

Zack, do you have any final thoughts about how this year's festival shaped up?


I have read the book, Zack, and the structure is as you describe it. I have an idea what to expect, too, so I'll be weighing in on the film when I catch up to it.

I spent my Sunday morning earning my Béla Tarr merit badge. The Hungarian filmmaker's name is legend among hard-core cinephiles for his epic-length black-and-white films such as Werckmeister Harmonies and Sátántangó, which are filled with long tracking shots and not a great deal else. The film he had at LSIFF is The Turin Horse, which Tarr has said will be his last, and it was the first Tarr film that I've been able to see. Supposedly it takes place in the Italian countryside in the late 1880s, but it really takes place on an alien landscape with a howling wind that blows nonstop. The main characters are a farmer (János Derszi) and his daughter (Erika Bók) trying to survive on their farm, though it's hard to imagine anything growing in the world they live in. Their carthorse is gradually becoming sicker. And that's pretty much it, for almost two and a half hours. They get dressed, they pull up water from the well, they eat a single boiled potato each day. The only things that relieve the monotony are a visit from some Romani people and a garrulous neighbor who harangues the farmer with a lot of rhetoric about the godlessness of the universe. It's another slow-moving film, and though its visuals are neatly composed, I found considerably less to chew on than in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or in Meek's Cutoff, another extremely deliberate film where not all that much happens from earlier this year.

The movie probably left me in the wrong frame of mind to see Believe You Me, a Texas-shot indie flick about a schlubby newspaper photographer (Matt Dixon) in Corsicana who's put on paid leave after his teenage brother's suicide and volunteers at a suicide hotline, where he fields a call from his brother's schoolteacher (Julie Mitchell). I got the sense that the film had some funny jokes but fell down during the more serious moments, but I'll have to catch the flick again some time when I haven't just sat through a Béla Tarr film.

Whatever Happened to Crazy?

The house was nearly packed for We Need to Talk About Kevin, a deeply unsettling but extremely well-made film from director Lynne Ramsay, starring and co-produced by Tilda Swinton. Based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a psychological thriller told from the vantage point of Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of the titular Kevin (played variously by Ezra Miller, teenager; Jasper Newell, childhood; Rock Duer, toddler). Where the novel as I understand it was epistolary, taking as its structure a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), the film is set two years after the kid's spree and uses non-linear flashbacks from various stages of Kevin's life. The effect is exceptionally unnerving, as the details of Kevin's deed (and Eva's devastation) are only slowly revealed in carefully juxtaposed fragments. (Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead and There Will be Blood fame, turned in another aptly disquieting score here, and the film's soundtrack is rounded out by the occasional old pop song, the cheeriness of which stand in stark contrast to the images on screen, only heightening the unease.)

Though the book has been out for about eight years, I won't reveal too much about the plot, given how purposefully and meticulously Ramsay sequenced the film. Suffice it to say, Kevin's a a teenage serial killer, going on a spree just around the time of his 16th birthday.

The way I see it, Ramsay is saying a couple of things about such acts of irrational, inconceivable violence. The film's focus is not on any particular aspect of culture that critics on the right and left seize upon to explain phenomena like school shootings, but on the mixed-up machinations of the self, especially as it relates to those most intimately involved in one's upbringing: parents and, specifically, mothers. While other characters, reflective of the general culture, may hold Eva accountable for her son's actions, and while she no doubt lives with unbearable guilt, what the viewer sees would never lead one to believe that she were a bad parent. Indeed, to me, the only "explanation" for Kevin is an extreme psychological disorder. (I'm reminded of Chris Rock's take on Columbine: "Everybody wanna know what the kids was listening to. What kind of music was they listening to? Or what kind of movies was they watching? Who gives a f--k what they was watching? Whatever happened to crazy?!").

In Kevin's case, his motivation seems to have stemmed from an inexplicable but lifelong hatred of his mother -- not, again, so far as one can tell, based on anything she'd done. Even as a baby, he would only cry around her, only ceasing in the presence of his father, Franklin. (So disruptive a baby was he that Eva temporarily wheeled the stroller near a city worker wielding a jackhammer on the street, in a vain effort to drown out his screams and cries.) That kind of behavior serves as a template for their relationship in the future, from potty-training to helping with chores: Kevin would always oblige his father, acquiescing only rarely to his mother and only then for future blackmailing material or to throw her for a loop. His seemingly unconditional relationship with his father was, too, one gradually (and then abruptly) realizes, a charade he orchestrated to torment his mother. Eva's unbroken, motherly love for Kevin, if most painful to watch, is still plausible to the viewer, but it's something Kevin cannot understand himself.

There's probably more going on in the film, but I feel confident saying that Ramsay is focusing clearly on the self and psychology. Like many films about personal rather than historical evil -- for me, Michael Haneke's Caché (which, obviously, also had as much or more to do with cultural and political issues) comes to mind -- We Need to Talk About Kevin will make you question having children. I got the impression afterward, as the credits rolled and upon subsequently soliciting the opinions of a few attendees, that many in the audience found the film too disturbing to be in any way redeeming. But again, a film may make for uncomfortable viewing and still be a successful work of art; thought-provoking on the one hand, well-made in just about every way on the other. -- Zack Shlachter

Saturday, November 12, 2011

One Saturday, Five Movies

Whew! Just spent 13 consecutive hours at the AMC Palace, minus an hour here and there for meals. Let's recap.

Zack, you mentioned being taken by the doctor in Anatolia, but I found the character of the prosecutor to be the most absorbing, as he tells the story of a young wife who predicted her own sudden death. The doctor hears this and asks a few questions, and it emerges that a) the woman in the story was the prosecutor's own wife and b) her sudden death may have been a suicide. Much of the film is taken up with the lawmen wandering around the Turkish countryside in the middle of the night trying to find this corpse. I was imagining what headlines I'd write if I were reviewing the film and came up with "Dude, Where's My Carcass?" The movie also struck me like a Harold and Kumar film, though the Turks would change their names to Hayrettin and Kemal. I've seen a couple of Ceylan's other films, and they are indeed not pulse-pounding thrill rides. Yet they do hold your interest with their anecdotes and jokes, here told by the cops among themselves to kill the boredom as much as anything else. I found the film as quietly absorbing as you did, Zack, and you're absolutely right about the visual splendor. The sight of leaves blowing from the trees lit up by headlights, or the ghostly appearance of a village mayor's beautiful daughter during a power outage, are unforgettable sights.

The Artist is enormously charming, and with Harvey Weinstein pushing it, the general public will undoubtedly get to see it. Someone behind me in line for the film saw a promotional photo and mistook Jean Dujardin for Gene Kelly. The resemblance is pretty uncanny, especially the way they both have the same wide, hammy, self-satisfied smile that serves them well when they're portraying movie stars. I wasn't prepared for how emotionally draining the film is, considering that it starts out as a light comedy. You'll hear lots of people compare it to Charlie Chaplin's films, but I think the better comparison might be to The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau's 1924 silent masterpiece that's also about a man who falls wrenchingly from grace only to be redeemed. In any event, it's been too long since we had a movie with tap dancing in it, so for that alone the movie's worth a look.

I took in Slacker 2011, which isn't a remake of Richard Linklater's Slacker, but rather a takeoff using the same general idea, with the narrative following first one character, then another as they wander around Austin. Each scene is done by a different director, but they don't bring much individual style or sensibility to the scenes. There are a few odd bits of innovation like a segue when an eight-year-old Caucasian boy walks through the door of a coffee shop and comes out as an Asian woman in her 20s. Still, it's not enough, and if the movie hadn't had the Slacker title or Linklater's seal of approval, I would have lost interest in it much earlier than I did.

The main attraction was undoubtedly Andrew Disney's Searching for Sonny, which packed the largest auditorium at the Palace and also drew a pretty good crowd for the extra screening at 10:00. The film was shot in Fort Worth, though it takes place in an unspecified Texas city where many of the locations have the same names as places here (Overton Hills, Trinity Park). Jason Dohring (who did tremendous work on the TV show Veronica Mars) plays a New York City pizza delivery boy named Elliott who returns to Texas for his high-school reunion, invited by his old buddy Sonny Bosco (Masi Oka). Yet when he gets back he finds that Sonny has vanished, so he has to put heads together with his loser brother Calvin (Nick Kocher), his nerdy friend Gary (Brian McElhaney), and the girl he once had a crush on (Minka Kelly) to solve the mystery of Sonny's disappearance, which leads to financial schemes and murders. Everybody eventually notices that the events are mimicking the plot of a stage play that Sonny wrote in high school.

The crowd gave the film a rousing ovation. I found the movie to be loud, ramshackle, and a bit of a mess, especially near the end. Yet I also found it clever, funny, stylish, and slickly edited, which is a nice starting point for a first-time feature filmmaker. Andrew Disney told me he was heavily influenced by Rian Johnson's polarizing indie noir thriller Brick when he made Searching for Sonny, and you can see he's going for the same stylized, unreal tone, but with more humor. Among the misses: Calvin's unexplained hatred for Irish people, which we're supposed to take as a ridiculous prejudice, but it doesn't come off. Among the hits: Gary smuggling Elliott and Calvin into a homecoming dance. Some of the throwaway jokes score better than the set pieces; when a security guard asks via walkie-talkie if a reported streaker is male or female, the answer is "A boy, just like you like it." I was reminded of a movie I saw earlier this year, Aaron Katz' Cold Weather, which is also a comedic noir thriller set in, and filmed in, a city that's not known as a film noir backdrop (Portland, Ore.). I think Cold Weather did better at balancing the comedy and the thriller elements, while Searching for Sonny struck a more consistent tone. The ultimate test of any debut feature is whether it makes you interested in seeing what the filmmaker does next. I want to see what Andrew Disney does next.

There was a Q&A session with Disney and his actors and producers after Searching for Sonny, but I ran out of it because of Shame, and even though I missed the beginning of the NC-17-rated film (which, by numerous accounts, contains a shot of the lead actor's penis), I still found it to be one of the best movies of 2011, with the best performance I've seen all year. Michael Fassbender stars as a successful New York City businessman named Brendan who tries to hide his sex addiction when his sister (Carey Mulligan) crashes in his apartment for a few days.

Before his Inglourious Basterds-related fame, Fassbender teamed with director Steve McQueen on a drama called Hunger about the Irish prisoners who went on hunger strikes in the 1980s to protest British rule. It was an excellent debut for McQueen, an Englishman who's not related to the similarly named movie star from the 1960s. Hunger was as austere as you'd expect for a movie set in sterile Irish prisons, but Shame is no less austere for being largely set in swanky Manhattan restaurants and apartments. However, this movie does display a sense of humor that wasn't evident in Hunger.

The most impressive thing here is the seething rage that Fassbender brings to his performance. Brendan is an angry man, because he's in love with his sister and can't have sex with her. He's an emotional cripple; when he goes on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), their conversation is strikingly normal, but when she wants to have sex with him, he can't perform. He can only do it with hookers and sex workers and anonymous women (and the odd man) who are looking for a quick orgasm and nothing more. Brendan's interactions with his sister are all kinds of unhealthy, ranging from a rancorous argument on his couch to a tiff when she walks in on him while he's masturbating, an initially funny scene that turns rather frightening. Yet his love for her and his despair are palpable in the film's climactic scenes, when she enters a spiral of her own. Fassbender has been in four movies this year (including the upcoming A Dangerous Method, in which he's also excellent as a man acting sexually against his better judgment.), but he's nowhere as vivid in any of them as here.

Well, I need to catch the rest of the film, including Fassbender's penis. Zack, what did you think of We Need to Talk About Kevin?

Cannes Favorites at LSIFF

I spent the first half of the day with a couple of big-name films that did quite, by all accounts, at Cannes this past year. First up was Grand Prix winner Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da), a two-and-a-half-hour doozy from Turkey, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and scripted by Ceylan, Ercan Kesal and Ebru Ceylan. I recalled reading a little about this from coverage of that festival and looked up some of those micro-reviews to refresh my memory, so I knew I was in store for something long, slow and, at times, frustratingly enigmatic. To say the film is long and slow is not a knock; the little dialogue on offer, usually about mundane concerns, is richly textured and speaks to the tensions under the surface, without making the experience too uncomfortable on the viewer. There are a few very revealing passages, however, and the film demands your attention without being obvious.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia follows a team that includes law enforcement officials (police and military), the prosecutor on the case and a doctor along a wild-goose chase for what the viewer can guess but is not actually explicitly mentioned for quite some time (or found, for quite a while). Even then, the details of the case are murky, as are the back-stories of the characters, none more-so than the doctor, Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner). Dr. Cemal is learning the ambiguities and motivations of criminals and the people delegated to bring them to justice, fueled as much by personal issues as politics, while simultaneously contending with the dissolution of his own marriage -- something which transpired a couple of years before the action but remains, for him, unresolved. Because of how little the divorce is referenced in the film, it would seem like a minor detail but for the lingering effects shown on his face in a few key, brief scenes.

I'm barely scratching the surface here, so I hope Kristian can provide both some more "plot" points and insight into the film's subtext. When we caught up this afternoon, he said he was still processing it; indeed, I feel like I'll need to watch it again.

Next up was The Artist, a French silent film by Michel Hazanavicius, for which past collaborator Jean Dujardin took home top honors at Cannes for his portrayal of fading film star, George Valentin. Valentin is the world's biggest movie star, whom early viewers have likened to a Fairbanks or Chaplin, but he sees his career eclipsed when talkies hit the scene and he fails to adapt. In an attempt to buck the trend, he directs, produces and stars in one last silent film, Tears of Joy, which tanks at the box office just as an extra-turned-actor and romantic missed-connection, Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo), launches into talkie stardom -- and just he loses his fortune in the Great Crash.

LSIFF did well to have a film about the movies on this year's line-up, and no doubt, The Artist is a warm and sentimental crowd-pleaser. Though it might lean a little to hard in its first act on visual and sonic gags, in a series of winks and nods to the audience that thankfully climax early, it certainly does capture the the joy of (the) cinema. The film's closing sequence is sheer fun and redemption, and I might have had chills watching it had there been no -- I hate to mention this -- technical difficulties that interrupted the viewing experience, with two minutes to spare.

A last, stray note before I head out for We Need to Talk about Kevin -- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was, for a rather bleak film, rather beautifully shot. The cinematography, lighting and editing were perfect, lyrical and subtly expressive for a film which largely hinted at action but tended to hold back. The Artist had an almost dreamlike quality that suited it well. -- Zack Shlachter

Further Thoughts on High Road

Thanks, Kristian. As my first-ever LSIFF screening, High Road got things off to a good start for me. I don't have much to add to your take on the film, a low-budget indie comedy with, as you mention, quite the ensemble cast. I likewise don't expect the film to get a wide distribution but I think it's the kind of thing comedy nerds will seek out, given the preponderance of UCB, SNL, The State, Daily Show / The Office, and Party Down alums among the cast. As you say, everyone gels together, but my one "complaint" might be that High Road feels less like a film than an extended episode of the kind of television show these actors have worked on. Which isn't a necessarily bad thing. While never big, they keep the laughs coming, rarely hitting a false note. (Kristian mentions the aggressive, homophobic sex worker as one; I might add the drag-queen father, whom the script and, considering the level of improvisation, other characters don't quite know how to treat.)

While High Road is less steeped in irony than the usual indie comedy, the film's sincerity isn't nearly as cliche, problematic or gratingly overdone as the usual Hollywood fare. As the filmmakers noted in the subsequent Q&A session, because the small budget didn't allow for the kind of production choices one might expect from an Apatow joint or an action-comedy, character development was key. And perhaps that's why it felt like one of those TV shows: the characters felt lived-in and pleasantly familiar, something actors typically achieve with comic roles only over the course of a season or series. These actors, some with only a scene or two, managed to do so in under an hour and a half. -- Zack Shlachter

Friday, November 11, 2011

Triangles on the High Road

I missed the opening of Rampart, but I saw enough of it to be disappointed. My high expectations came from knowing that the movie was the second film directed by Oren Moverman, whose debut film The Messenger made a strong impression at the 2009 Lone Star Film Festival. Rampart stars Woody Harrelson as a crooked L.A. cop during the 1990s who's struggling to avoid various corruption probes over his many, many misdeeds. The movie has a starry supporting cast: Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as his ex-wives (who are also sisters), Sigourney Weaver as a police psychiatrist, Steve Buscemi as a politician, Robin Wright as the cop's lawyer girlfriend, and Ice Cube as an investigator from the D.A.'s office who's hounding the cop. It even has James Ellroy, whose novel L.A. Confidential became a modern classic film, as a co-writer. Despite all that, this whole portrait of a bad man's moral squalor has a rather negligible impact. The only actor who impressed me was Brie Larson as the cop's screwed-up gay teenage daughter. I completely failed to recognize the same actress who portrayed Michael Cera's hipper-than-thou rock-star ex-girlfriend from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, so when I saw her name in the end credits, I was pretty blown away. Still, it wasn't enough to make this into a good movie.

Better stuff was in High Road, a comedy by Matt Walsh, a character actor who's also the founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade. James Pumphrey stars as an L.A. pot dealer named Fitz who wants to be a rock star and is working on a rock opera about his theory that triangles can explain the entire world. Unfortunately, his bandmates leave him on the same day, one for a promotion at his day job, the other for a different band that has actually gotten paying gigs. (It's a White Stripes cover band called 8th Nation Army.) One day, Fitz mistakenly gets the idea that the cops are onto him, so he hastily packs up and drives to Oakland to lie low, accompanied by his neighbor's unmotivated teenage son Jimmy (newcomer Dylan O'Brien). They're chased not by the police but by an overzealous ex-cop named Fogerty (Joe Lo Truglio) and Jimmy's dad (Rob Riggle), who think Fitz is a pedophile who has kidnapped Jimmy. They're also chased by Fitz' girlfriend Monica (Abby Elliott from Saturday Night Live) after she learns that she's pregnant.

Most of the dialogue was improvised, and most of the onscreen talent has connections to UCB, so they're pretty much all on the same page. What talent, too: Lizzy Caplan as a dimwitted member of 8th Nation Army, Ed Helms as Monica's pervy boss, Horatio Sanz as a suspicious (in more ways than one) doctor, and Kyle Gass as a weed buyer named Uncle Creepy. ("I'm Creepy," he introduces himself.) Not everything works: The scene with the hooker (Morgan Walsh) who keeps calling her potential customers "faggots" is repetitive, tone-deaf, and unfunny. Still, that's more than balanced out by the scenes that do work, like the one when Monica's boss sexually harasses her and then tries to get out of it by playing innocent, or Fitz' encounter with his estranged drag-queen dad (Rich Fulcher), or Monica's conversation with Fitz' ex-bandmate (Zach Woods), who won't stop talking on his Bluetooth headset with a guy named "Cole," so she's never certain whether he's talking to her or Cole. The chemistry among the cast is pretty good, especially the partnership between Lo Truglio and Riggle. Dylan O'Brien is a newcomer, but he keeps pace with these others very well. I wonder what kind of distribution this movie's going to get given that its lead actors are pretty much unknown, but it's funnier than many Hollywood comedies, so it deserves to be seen in some format. My fellow Weeklian Zack Shlachter was at this screening as well. Zack, what did you think? -- Kristian Lin