Movies seen at SIFF 30 [the short takes, volume 5]

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The best six and a half minutes I spent at the festival this week (make that thirteen—I rewound the screener tape and watched it again) came from Seattle filmmaker Serge Gregory’s Foster Island. The short plays this Saturday, June 5 at 4 p.m., Broadway Performance Hall, as part of The Great Unspoken series. I wish that Cinema Seattle would run their collections of short films on the big screen for press. In seven weeks of press screenings, no shorts are programmed. Kind of a waste, and definitely a shame. If Foster Island at all indicates the superior quality of the shorts to this year’s dismal swamp of feature films, then my days parked in front of such trash as Man of the Year, Learning to Lie, and Jagged Harmonies (to name a few) seem doubly lost.

foster6A montage of beautifully stark black-and-white images, Foster Island summons to mind the Russian film The Return. Both create protean moods of wonder and unease through aquatic imagery; the dark, undulating surfaces here are Lake Washington. As glorious as the water compositions are, I favor the gathering of crows on thin, bare branches beneath a deceptively serene, cloud mottled gray sky. The plump, scavenging crows look much too hefty for these finger-bone winter trees to support. Gregory sets his footage to a deliciously moody piano and synthesizer score that Jeff Greinke wrote. The soundtrack bears a resemblance to Harold Budd’s ambient meanderings, yet I find Greinke’s endeavor more satisfying musically. After establishing nature as the dominant force (and not a particularly benevolent one), Gregory’s camera incorporates the underbelly of the bridge, and from there scales the reflective spires of downtown Seattle’s monolithic high-rises. In a rapturous, loopy finale, we return to the lake. A photo album floats along the water, and the camera hovers over submerged snapshot portraits. In one photo, a group of men in shirts and ties appear to be having a fun afternoon, unaware that their representations are drowning. In another, the misery of a sad-faced woman becomes that much more apparent as water damages the print, saturating her likeness with something akin to the tears she concealed. One of the few festival films awake to cinema’s expressive possibilities, Foster Island, in just under seven minutes, is magnificent.

I won’t say much about Shane Carruth’s suburban science fiction satire Primer, except that I enjoyed it immensely even when I hadn’t the slightest idea of who was trailing whom or for what. Carruth paces the film with such a sense of urgency and edits his footage so frenetically that the images supercede whatever the two software engineer anti-heroes happen to be talking about. One of the qualities I admire in Carruth is his candor. In an interview with Amy Taubin, he admitted that he’d never heard of Chris Marker, let alone seen the avant-garde director’s work. In the Q&A that followed a screening here, Carruth, who lives in Dallas, casually trashed Adobe Premiere as “terrible software…it crashes every ten minutes,” blissfully unaware that Adobe calls Seattle home and also serves as a festival sponsor.

sfnv52primerI’ll give the movie a real review when ThinkFilm releases Primer this fall. For now, just a couple of reasons why I found it irresistible. Carruth pulls off fantastical elements of a time-tripping, time-bending narrative amidst pre-fab, deliberately banal settings. Most of the action occurs in A) someone’s garage, B) a U-haul storage bin, and C) an anonymous corporate hotel room. His compositions are often brilliant, such as one brief, early shot of a foreground room illuminated only by the blinking lights of a Christmas tree while, in the background, twin door frames peer into a bright, harshly lit kitchen—the men huddled around a table talking business on the right; a silent, excluded wife clearing away dishes on the left. Women are practically nonexistent in Primer. The movie manages to be gleefully homoerotic without being gay, a trick that queer cinema ought to consider trying. The 30ish male leads Abe and Aaron (love the Biblical assonance) always wear crisp, white button-downs and forgettable striped ties. They’re relentlessly normal, and there’s a vague, bland, primeval sexiness inherent in watching these white-shirted, jargon-spouting men walk off with car parts or turn around a refrigerator as they hunt for useful components in their science experiment.

sfnv58stahltwistHow could a film about drug-addicted male hustlers slouching through a Toronto winter be dull? Twist manages. Writer-director Jacob Tierney “updates” Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as a framework for acting class exercises. Bad ones. Joshua Close, as Oliver, performs naturally and without encumbrance of affectation. The other actors are horrible. As Dodge (The Artful Dodger) Nick Stahl (the murdered son from In the Bedroom, and quite good there) does most of his acting with his adenoids. The outrageously untalented Michele-Barbara Pelletier, playing a waitress in a forlorn little dump of a café, makes every line reading sound as if she were auditioning cold. Gary Farmer, in the Fagin role, overplays and underplays at the same time, thus giving Pelletier some real competition in the rank amateur department.

sfnv510brightyoungStill, I would take Twist over Stephen Fry’s abysmal directorial debut Bright Young Things, without question one of the very worst films at this year’s festival. The movie not only gave me a splitting, pounding headache—it gave me a brain tumor. Fry extracts bad performances from Jim Broadbent, Peter O’Toole, and Stockard Channing. One of them, perhaps, but all three? I haven’t read the Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies (a snappier title) that Fry adapts. Based on reading A Handful of Dust and The Loved One, I’d say that the unfolding events of Bright Young Things certainly stake a claim in Waugh territory. Fry, however, hasn’t grasped Waugh’s essential mean streak, or if he has, he lacks the expertise to portray it. He misdirects Broadbent and O’Toole to perform in the exact same key: loud, unintelligible mumbling. Channing and Dan Aykroyd are all wrong in their respective miscast roles: she as a crusading evangelist in a hideous purple dress, and he as a supposedly urbane publisher. Tonally, rhythmically, they both flounder. As the scandal-prone Agatha Runcible, stage actress Fenella Woolgar fails mightily in her film debut. She has a pivotal final scene in a mental hospital where she’s supposed to be talking in her sleep, trying to talk away a recurring nightmare. Maybe, maybe the actress would’ve had a chance with the material, to give it the scalpel thrust that Waugh intended, if Fry didn’t rush slipshod over everything. The only pleasant surprise here is that for once Emily Mortimer plays someone other than a masochist.

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Cinematographer Juan Carlos Gómez splendidly photographs Madrid in the Spanish film November. In the opening sequence, the city’s impressive architecture glides by from the perspective of a young man riding a bike. The scene sets an expectation of grandeur that’s never fulfilled, although I loved the mere act of looking at November from start to finish. The colors and images stay rich; the drama sidesteps a story worth exploring in favor of self-indulgent miscalculation. Director and co-scenarist Achero Mañas tracks the rise and fall of a radical street theatre troupe. The leader Alfredo (Oscar Jaenada) and his idealistic followers have too much integrity to be paid for their work: “Taking money means selling out,” Alfredo puffs to his comrades. These young students meet one another at a fairly bizarre acting school, a place where the aged instructor denounces Alfredo as “…ridiculous…a scumbag,” for the thespian’s lack of truthfulness in a class exercise. First of all, no acting teacher would ever say that. In the second place, it’s obvious that Alfredo’s lying, yet the filmmakers would have us believe the other students were bowled over by his emotional honesty. I didn’t buy it. November improves when Alfredo and company take to the streets in The Devil’s Cherubim, a performance piece in which the men, their bodies smeared with densely applied red make-up, play foul-mouthed, diaper-clad, destructive babies who “liberate” the patrons of a crowded public square. Mañas directs this sequence with anarchic electricity, a quality in too short supply elsewhere. I wish the movie had spared more time for Alfredo’s handicapped brother, a paraplegic who responds only to the bald female marionettes that Alfredo builds for him. Now there’s a story I haven’t seen before. Couldn’t Mañas have depicted some of these therapeutic puppet shows (surely as rewarding to give as to receive) instead of wasting so much bloody time on the troupe’s in-fighting over their “integrity”?

garden2Just this morning I suffered through all 109 minutes of the wretched Garden State, a self-consciously quirky flop written, directed by, and starring Zach Braff. The movie strains to be a black comedy. It isn’t especially dark; it is, however, decidedly unfunny. As also applies in Napoleon Dynamite, another bomb to be foisted on the public by Fox Searchlight this summer, Garden State’s humor, an assaultive blend of slight rudeness, deadpan tone, and maudlin, gooey crap, revolves entirely around how stupid people are, how ridiculous they appear in contrived situations. The movie will undoubtedly fill some secret, psychological needs in viewers fixated on a boy’s fantasy of maiming and killing his mother, or on parents who quash the life out of their progeny. Braff, who has cast himself as a slightly stoned, over medicated sweetboy, doesn’t skimp on close-ups of his nice, white teeth and full, chewy red lips. He’s a virtuous angel on lithium, don’t you see, a polite disguise for a scenarist obsessed with gags (promised, though never delivered) relating to canine genitalia. Everyone constantly underlines everything, as in a sitcom. Example: Natalie Portman informs Braff, “This is the point in the conversation where you offer me a ride home.” Another example: the 20-nothing male caricatures who populate this film, a bunch of coke-snorting, grave-robbing morons, repeatedly exclaim, “Holy shit!” in lieu of anything else to say. After 40 or so minutes, I tuned them out and waited for it to be over. By the end, when false epiphanies lift Braff’s lithium haze to unveil a touchy-feely, self-help affirmation spouting goon, and he stands atop a quarry so gosh darn happy to be alive, as a Paul Simon tune blares on the soundtrack (the same one that was used to better advantage in Tadpole), I knew I preferred our protagonist as a numbed pill-popper. – NPT

June 2, 2004

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