Monday, November 15, 2010

Festival Wrap-Up

Went to the Harry Potter screening this afternoon, so I couldn't wrap up the festival until now. Clearly LSIFF has reached that point where it's no longer the new kid on the block with the buzz of novelty. Now they have to keep things going. I didn't experience that "wow" movie this year that I did with previous festivals with Let the Right One In and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. However, I did spot some interesting new talent (Miss Nobody), take in a couple of great performances (Another Year and Everything Must Go), and find a couple of absorbing documentaries that I might have overlooked otherwise (Marwencol and Sons of Perdition). And the Jeff Bridges/T-Bone Burnett concert was a pretty good "wow" moment for the festival. I count this a weekend well spent.

Next year will be LSIFF's fifth anniversary, not a major occasion but worth celebrating all the same. Let's see if doing it helps LSIFF keep the magic going.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Punches

The festival's last day started with Night Catches Us, a debut feature by Tanya Hamilton that's opening in selected markets around the country next month. It stars Anthony Mackie (from The Hurt Locker) as a former Black Panther who returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood in 1976 despite his fellow Panthers regarding him as a snitch who set up his best friend to be killed. He's there for his father's funeral, but he falls in love with said best friend's wife (Kerry Washington). I love the talent on display here, but the movie is indifferently paced, and the romance is boilerplate. If you're not fascinated by the history of the Black Panthers, this movie doesn't have much for you.

I caught the winner of the festival's documentary prize, and it's a good one. Sons of Perdition follows several Utah boys who either ran away or were kicked out of Warren Jeffs' polygamist community. Now they're all living in shelters (organized by a millionaire who himself was expelled from a polygamist sect). The film keeps careful tabs on the different ways these colonies brutalize boys and girls, and the troubles that the boys have adjusting to the freedom of the outside world. One boy's sisters repeatedly try to escape, and the rescue scenes feel like something out of an action film. There's one scene in which a 24-year-old cult member who has escaped (leaving behind her four children) celebrates her freedom by getting drunk. We see her lying face down on the floor and suddenly just start screaming. It's primal stuff. I wish the filmmakers had explored that a bit more, but this is still an important documentary that LSIFF can be proud to have.

The afternoon finished with Sideways, not the 2004 comedy starring Paul Giamatti but a remake of that film that's still set in California wine country but with all four main characters turned into Japanese people transplanted to America. It's one of those instances where the idea of the film is much better than the execution. The Giamatti character is less of a flaming wreck and more of an anally-retentive alienated Japanese guy, though he still reacts to professional frustration by chugging the contents of a winery spittoon. The English-language scenes are acted woodenly, and not just by the Japanese actors, either. The bright spot for me is Rinko Kikuchi (the schoolgirl from Babel) in the Sandra Oh role. I've had the chance to see her in The Brothers Bloom as well, and she has a great natural presence. It's an interesting exercise, to be sure, but it doesn't hold up on its own.

Final thoughts on the festival tomorrow. — Kristian Lin

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Funny How Fallin' Feels Like Flyin', For a Little While

First, a correction to my last post: Colin Firth plays George VI in The King's Speech, not Edward VI.

Well, all my predictions about the secret screening blew up in my face. The thing turned out to be Everything Must Go, a drama starring Will Ferrell as an alcoholic who loses his executive job on the same day that his wife tosses all his possessions out onto their front lawn and changes the locks. With said wife conveniently away, the guy obstinately arranges the furniture and stuff on the lawn like it's his living room and sits there stewing away and drinking lots of beer. Man, we've had so many depressive drunks in this year's festival. Ferrell is really good in a more or less straightforward role, and he plays well off a talented supporting cast that includes Rebecca Hall as a pregnant neighbor and Christopher Caldwell (Biggie Smalls' son in real life) as a kid who helps him sell off some of his stuff. The movie is based on Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance?", but it's funnier and it ends more hopefully. I'm not sure how the movie will do in the general release that it's scheduled for next year; not much happens in it, particularly because the main character is trying to keep things from happening to him. Yet Ferrell's performance and the movie's subtle humor are enough to make it worth a look. The film was shot in the Phoenix area; writer-director Dan Rush reported that the houses he used were some of the only ones in the city that had a grassy lawn. Most of the houses there have rock gardens and desert landscapes out front, which does cut down the city's water usage.

I've never attended the music events at LSIFF before, but I stopped by 8.0 to catch Jeff Bridges and T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone took the lead on "Honkytonk Angel" and "Don't You Lie to Me," while guitarist Colin Linden did a fantastic job fronting four songs by the likes of Howlin' Wolf and The Band. The crowd was there to see Bridges, though, and he didn't disappoint. He and Burnett played the Bad Blake songs from Crazy Heart, and they are as good as I remembered them. Bridges fittingly dedicated "Brand New Angel" to the late Stephen Bruton. All in all, it was pretty awe-inspiring having these distinguished artists take the stage at 8.0. The festival organizers seem to be pretty good at tying these musical events into the movie world so that moviegoers will be interested. I'm looking forward to next year's closing-night concert, for which I fully expect LSIFF to book Gwyneth Paltrow and the cast of Country Strong.

Let's see if there are surprises on the last day of the festival tomorrow. — Kristian Lin

Waking Up with T-Bone

Started off the morning by going to an appearance at Fort Worth Public Library by the one and only T-Bone Burnett. His legendary discomfort with interviews showed, but he was quite gracious. He talked up his recently released albums with Elvis Costello (National Ransom) and Elton John and Leon Russell (The Union). He wasn't that revealing on his work in films, but he's not too high on the digitalization of music. He said that he happened to be very close to a digital TV that had a World Cup match on last summer, and he noticed that the ball looked square from his viewing position. "That's what digital is," he said. "A square ball."

The shorts program this afternoon was rather undistinguished compared with the other two I've seen. Lauren Wolkstein's Cigarette Candy didn't say much new in its story about a Marine returning home, though it had a fine lead performance by Jonny Orsini. Daniel Trevino's Amateur was very slight, too, about a guy who freaks out during an encounter with a girl in a bikini who turns out to have a penis. Jonathan Shepard's documentary The Sharecropper interviews a series of chicken farmers who were screwed over by Pilgrim's Pride. I wanted more rigorous journalism from this piece. The only short that really impressed me was Pablo Larcuen's Mi Amigo Invisible, a Spanish-language comedy about a fat nerdy young man who's so pathologically shy that he can't even speak to his own parents. (He never speaks on camera, but he narrates the story in voiceover.) That changes when an invisible friend comes to him, a shirtless dude wearing tight shorts, a cape, and an Admiral Ackbar mask. Nice piece of deadpan humor.

I'm left to speculate on the secret screening I'm supposed to see in less than two hours. I thought I had it pegged; with Jeff Bridges in town for a tribute, I figured it might be the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit, which would be a huge get for LSIFF. (Using similar logic, my second choice was Tron: Legacy, which would be a huge get for entirely different reasons.) However, my picks were blown out of the water by a note in the program saying that our mystery film played at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year. That scratches both of the Bridges films. It also rules out Country Strong, which would have made a nice companion with the screenings of Crazy Heart and The Blind Side that played at the festival earlier today. It also would have made sense because writer-director Shana Feste had her debut film The Greatest unveiled at last year's LSIFF.

So what are the possibilities? Most of Toronto's bigger items have already hit the movie theaters, but the ones that haven't include John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole, a heavy drama starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a couple dealing with the death of their young son. Then there's Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple who fall in and out of love. (The movie recently got rated R by the MPAA, which caused everyone who had seen the film to go "Whuh?") There's also Robert Redford's The Conspirator, a period piece about the criminals who took part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the days immediately after the president's shooting. Tom Hooper's The King's Speech has been getting all sorts of Oscar buzz lately, starring Colin Firth as King Edward VI of Britain and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist who taught him to overcome his stutter. My fondest wish, though, is that the mystery film might be Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, with Natalie Portman as a star ballerina who's going insane. If LSIFF has that one, I'm going to bow down to them. We'll find out soon, and I'll let you all know how it turned out.

Casual Friday

After yesterday started off with so many dark and disturbing shorts, it was nice to see today's shorts program primarily composed of funny shorts. There was even some star power in Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Successful Alcoholics, which stars T.J. Miller and Lizzy Caplan as, um, successful alcoholics. (They were both in Cloverfield. He's been in She's Out of My League and Unstoppable. She's been in Hot Tub Time Machine and True Blood.) They're high-functioning salespeople who are engaged to each other and are so far gone that they're reduced to drinking mouthwash at 4 a.m. at one point. The material was pretty good in this one, and the presentation was slick. I also liked Landon Zakheim's Delmer Builds a Machine, which can be seen in its entirety here. It's only two and a half minutes, it tells only one joke, and it builds up to that skilfully. The only shortcoming was that I didn't immediately get the identity of the old man at the end. The end credits gave me that information. Then there was The Legend of El Limbo, which was co-written by Kevin Brennan, a local guy who also worked on last year's festival opener The Scenesters. (We profiled him earlier.) El Limbo is a Western spoof that tweaks Sergio Leone, tells a good joke, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Well done.

A slight change of tone came from the documentary short at the end. Ken Ochiai's Frog in the Well shows the filmmaker traveling all across his native Japan because his late mother wanted him to scatter her ashes all over her homeland. Very little footage is actually filmed; most of it is still photos taken in quick succession and strung together in sequence. The tone is frenetic and yet wistful and nostalgic.

The feature event was Mike Leigh's Another Year. Leigh's coming off his marvelous but atypically sunny film Happy-Go-Lucky; this feels more like the Leigh we know. There's a lot of misery here, and it might be difficult to take if the main characters weren't basically happy people. They're a married geologist and psychiatric counselor (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), and we see them receiving their grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and various friends at their London flat at different times over the course of a year. Joe is pretty much okay, but everybody else is a train wreck. There's a sad turn by Peter Wight as a fat guy who seems hellbent on eating and drinking his way to an early grave; he guzzles wine and beer at the same time during a meal. Even that is outstripped by this amazing supporting performance by Lesley Manville as their friend Mary, who also drinks way too much and keeps up a pathetically positive outlook. It's pathetic because she never stops feeling sorry for herself for being alone and past 50, even though she's quite beautiful. I wish there'd been more of a crowd for this, but I heard more than one audience member say they knew somebody like Mary. Manville's highly strung performance is horribly real. You feel like you're the one cooped up with her and her boozy self-pity. When I make my list of great acting performances of 2010, I'll remember this one.

I went straight from Another Year into the far different Miss Nobody, a Heathers-like satire about a pharmaceutical company secretary (Leslie Bibb) who accidentally kills her boss (Brandon Routh) while he's sexually harassing/trying to rape her and then discovers that murdering her horrible, corrupt, sexually deviant bosses and colleagues is a great way to climb the corporate ladder. The main character serves as a narrator, and sometimes turns to the camera in the middle of a scene to continue her narration. This is a difficult role to play, and Bibb does it perfectly. (I always thought Bibb was underappreciated. Remember her in Talladega Nights? "I'm a driver's wife! I don't work!") Director Tim Cox put a lot of talent around her, too (Adam Goldberg, Kathy Baker, Missi Pyle, Paula Marshall, Barry Bostwick), and directs this in a candy-coated style that's exactly what's needed. So why isn't this movie awesome? I think it's because the material just isn't there. That's too bad. You can tell a lot of talent went into this thing. I hope the artists involved get a chance to do better stuff.

The evening ended with a midnight screening of Dawning, a horror film that makes an admirable stab at psychological complexity but doesn't do much right. It's about a family of four trapped in a log cabin by a deranged intruder who claims that some malign supernatural force killed his girlfriend. Writer-director Greg Holtgrewe does some innovative things with the sound mix, but he needed to do more to make us wonder whether something really was out there or whether the demons are all in everyone's heads.

The film was preceded by yet another humorous segment about applying movie logic to the real world. (These things are co-written by Andrew Disney, I've learned since yesterday.) This one was about a couple who hit a mysterious creature with their car. Disney and director Sam Parnell were parodying a horror-movie cliche, so it was dismaying right off the bat to see Dawning do that same cliche straight-up.

It's 4 a.m. and I'm off to bed. There's a screening of a mystery film tomorrow evening. In the afternoon I'll air my speculation over what that might be. — Kristian Lin

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dark and Disturbing Times

Wow, the second day of LSIFF sure served up a lot of angst and outright horror. Primarily I'm thinking of the shorts program that started off the evening. The Wonder Hospital is a disquieting Dali-esque animated Korean film about a girl who goes into a hospital for cosmetic surgery and has it go very wrong indeed. That was followed up by Pinched, another animated film (this one from the U.S.) about a pickpocket battling schizophrenia, personified by a giant dreadlocked gorilla with a Caribbean accent. The racial caricature made me uneasy, as did the conclusion implying that a girl's love can make mental illness go away. Yet there's no denying the slickness of David Vandervoort's drawing style, about halfway between Jules Feiffer and Gorillaz' music videos. I wasn't offended by it, though, like I was with Matthew Morgenthaler's Love Me Tender, a slasher flick about a wholesome girl seeking a "white knight" and hacking to death any boy who doesn't measure up. I'm told the intentions were satirical; any humor the film had was lost on me. Then there was a Swedish film called An Affair With Dolls, which told much the same story but in more effective terms, with a woman in her 30s dressed up as a doll (knee socks, frilly blouse, short tutu) and acting out a story with dolls that ends with her committing violence against both dolls and people. What is with all these unhinged women early in the going? The Swedish film is nicely hinky, but Marwencol addressed dolls in more creative terms yesterday.

There was a much funnier entry with the Finnish short The Patient, which is about a security guard at a mental hospital who's making rounds late at night when he runs into a patient outside the ward who claims to be an angel. The twist is that the patient may be right, but there's one more twist after that. The short is full of that deadpan Finnish sense of humor that one sometimes hears about, as the guard unleashes an astonishing monologue that goes seamlessly from "What was in the universe before the Big Bang?" to "Why does the Easter Bunny exist? And isn't it strange that a bunny lays eggs made of chocolate?" The most frightening short film was S. Vollie Osborn's Monsters Down the Hall, in which a kid in New York City sees his heroin-addicted mom coming out of an apartment down the hall and is told by her to never go in there. Naturally, he imagines the place as full of monsters. The filmmakers do an excellent job of making that apartment building look like something in one of Hell's sleazier neighborhoods, and the creatures there would do any haunted house proud.

The feature I saw was Monogamy, the first fiction film by Dana Adam Shapiro, whose documentary Murderball was my favorite film of 2005. I had high hopes for this thing, which only set me up for disappointment. Chris Messina (from Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the recent Devil) stars as a New York City photographer who's hired by various people to take candid shots of them from afar as they go about their business. One hot young woman who hires him starts masturbating in public, visible only to his camera lens. Then she starts engaging in high-risk sexual activity for the benefit of his camera. His fiancee (Rashida Jones) knows about this from the beginning. I guess later on his obsession starts driving them apart somehow. It's not really clear. The movie does give us Rashida Jones singing and playing guitar; it's no surprise that Quincy Jones' daughter is musically talented. Still, what starts out as an intriguing erotic thriller with psychological overtones turns into a tedious disquisition on pre-wedding jitters. That's no fun.

I went straight to Mark Claywell's documentary American Jihadist. I missed the first few minutes, but I caught the gist of this profile of Clevin Holt, an African-American U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who converted to Islam in the 1970s and changed his name to Isa Abdullah Ali. Isa went rogue and traveled to Iran, Afghanistan, and Bosnia to help revolutionaries spread the word of Allah and fight the Shah, occupying Soviets, and genocidal Serbs. The CIA kept careful tabs on him the whole time, yet they were powerless to keep him out of America or off any planes because he only provided training for the Muslim insurgents/guerrillas/freedom fighters/what you will. There's no evidence that he ever took part in any war crimes or terrorist acts. He has since settled in Bosnia, and if he has any sort of opinion on the terrorists currently waging war on Islam's behalf, I missed it. The insights into him aren't deep, but his story is interesting enough to be worth hearing.

The festival is running humorous locally made segments before showings about people applying movie logic to real-world situations. I thought the one before Marwencol would be the only one, but there was another one before the shorts program, so apparently there'll be more of these. The first was a pretty lame bit about a dude trying to perform an inception on his girlfriend so she'll let him watch football on Sundays. The second was much better, with a guy deciding to ignore an animal bite that he sustains while gardening. ("It's probably a bat! I'll turn into a vampire! We'll be wealthy and I'll have diamonds in my skin!") I badly needed the dose of humor on this night. If there are more of these, I'll pass the word along. — Kristian Lin

Doll Town

I had some trouble signing on last night, but I'm here now to weigh in on Lone Star Film Festival's opening selection, Marwencol. It takes some gumption to open a film festival with a documentary without much exposure and with a relatively obscure subject matter. Yet there was still a pretty healthy crowd there, especially given that it was Wednesday evening with the Fort Worth premiere of Spring Awakening playing a couple of blocks away at Bass Hall. (So wish I could have made one of the show's performances.) The prime seats at the AMC Palace's big auditorium were about three-quarters full, and there was significant spillover onto the floor-level seats.

What that crowd saw was an utterly absorbing film about Mark Hogancamp, a mentally damaged artist living in upstate New York. Before 2000, he was a Navy sailor and a mean drunk with a talent for drawing and some serious demons running loose in his head. The evidence for this is a diary that he kept that includes some violent cartoons and a scrawled "last entry" clearly meant to be a suicide note. That changed ten years ago, when he made the mistake of telling some guys in a bar that he liked to dress up in women's clothes, and they beat him into a coma. (Hogancamp isn't gay, by the way.)

Having re-learned to do everything as a functioning human being, Hogancamp no longer drinks. Instead, he spends his time creating a 1/6 scale Belgian World War II village in his backyard. He populates the place with dressed-up G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, each of whom has a name and a distinct identity. Hogancamp takes incredible pains to get the historical detail right in the costumes, weapons, etc. The wheels on the model Jeep looked too new when he got them, so we see him distressing the wheels by dragging the toy car behind him as he walks down the road. He incorporates his friends and relatives into the village as well, and filmmaker Jeff Malmberg interviews those people while they're holding doll versions of themselves. The place is called Marwencol after Mark's name plus the names of two women friends, Wendy and Colleen.

Hogancamp finds a level of fame with his photographs of Marwencol, and the movie builds toward a gallery show of these in New York City, a trip that gives the artist considerable jitters as to whether he'll be able to handle the attention. He never intended Marwencol to be a piece of art; it was just his own form of therapy. Marwencol has complex ongoing storylines that reminded me of Henry Darger's work, and the fictional place's roiling sexual tension and violence is clearly a way for Hogancamp to work out his own personal feelings of anger and fear stemming from his beating. Ultimately, the film gives an inspiring look at a man who's had so much taken away from him and yet has found a way forward that gives his life greater purpose than it had before. And he even works up the courage to wear a pair of heels and seamed stockings at the gallery opening. Much like Marwencol itself, the movie feels like an unearthed treasure that you feel privileged to have come across. Nice opening, let's see what the rest of the festival holds. — Kristian Lin