LAFF: Day #5

June 22, 2010

A welcome conversation with a fellow InRO writer, a chance meeting with master director Charles Burnett, and a host of interesting films added to an already rewarding festival schedule. Life is good. Now, three new reviews.

THE NEW YEAR (dir. Brett Haley, 2010)

Most debut films concern themselves with the exterior exploration of human relationships, the dimensions of genre, or the sensationalism of conflicts. Brett Haley’s first film The New Year inverts this expectation, walking side-by-side with incredibly complex souls experiencing subtle yet crucial moments of transition. Shot on a super-low budget over two weeks on location in Pensacola, Florida, The New Year harkens back to the honest human interactions of early John Sayles films, highlighting a specific physical region while discovering the rhythm of interior emotional calibrations directly connecting persona and space.

Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), an intelligent, vibrant young woman who works tirelessly at a local bowling “center”, rests at the heart of The New Year. Two years removed from leaving college early to care for her Cancer-stricken father, Sunny is stuck in a potent emotional malaise. She has nightmares about wardrobes full of rotting teeth, worries about her degenerating patriarch, and seems to be losing any chance of realizing fading long-term goals. But Sunny’s relationships with coworkers, family, and friends lighten her worry, and these glowing dialogue sequences are the soul of the film. When an old high school “nemesis” named Isaac returns home complicating Sunny’s relationship with her kind boyfriend Neal, The New Year takes on complicated layers of depth.

Decisions of all kinds define Haley’s film, but the many divergent answers are always out of reach, just beyond the next shifting human interaction. As Sunny’s life slowly moves toward a definitive crossroads, Trieste Kelly Dunn’s performance evokes a range of different conflicts through subtle glances, clever quips, and delicate smiles. It’s a brilliant turn by this young actress, and it proves the emergence of someone deft at traversing the often cliched landscape of the modern woman with a devout attention to detail and nuance. The rest of Haley’s fine cast brings texture and weight to the human mosaic on display.

Connecting the beauty of performance and plot is Haley and Elizabeth Kennedy’s perfectly rendered screenplay. Each character has a singular impact on The New Year, and even the most surface-level incarnations are anchored by one or two moments of pure honesty and purpose.  In the end, “The New Year” turns brilliantly reflective, drifting through Sunny’s existence with a calm dedication to the connections and disconnections life throws our way. The actual reasoning behind Sunny’s difficult resolutions are not the point. It’s the fact she confronts them in the first place with such personal feeling that makes The New Year a lasting piece of American Cinema, and its filmmakers exciting new voices in the medium.

PARADE (dir. Isao Yukisada, 2010)

A long line of passing ciphers criss-crossing through modern day Tokyo, all floating down a deceptively dark undercurrent of repression. Pairs of young men and women share a cramped apartment, and director Isao Yukisada gradually follows each as they experience disappointment, elation, and finally discombobulation. There’s a deep longing for camaraderie here, but as described by one of the space’s inhabitants, it’s more chat-room than confessional. These characters are happy just hanging out, and disavow any mention of conflict or doubt.

Maybe most interestedly, Parade becomes a series of voyeuristic moments of one character uncovering something horribly destructive about another. And the following silence/inaction really defines the film as an interesting commentary on the fleeting connections our modern technological world produces. But the individual moments are more impacting than the sum of the film’s parts. During the “shocking” twist ending, Yukisada pulls out all the stops to bring Lynchian horror to the final reveal. It’s just the last of many ambitious pieces of a strange cinematic vision, yet the puzzle never fully becomes clear, and we’re left with a distinctly incomplete picture of ignorance as bliss.

R (dirs. Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm, 2010)

Set in the oldest Danish Prison, R falls into many narrative traps plaguing most Prison films. Yet the sparse, incredibly realized fragmentation of the locale and the many strong performances elevate the film beyond cliche. The titular “R” refers to a fresh inmate named Rune, who quickly gets consumed by the entrenched toughs living on his ward. The opening bit of violence quickly introduces Rune and the audience to the brutality which will be leveled throughout. When Rune meets Rashid, his Arabic equivalent, directors Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm reveal some devastating parallels between men in the grips of mental and physical entrapment.

As Rune, Pilou Asbaek brings a palpable desperation to every scene, and Noer and Lindholm’s fluid hand-held camera stalks him through the dank interiors and gloomy prison yard. Even though R doesn’t instill the surreal horror of the recent French hit A Prophet it’s bare-bones approach gives the narrative a much more textured interpretation of prison life. Hope, no matter how small and fleeting, doesn’t provide lasting relief from the violent erosion occurring behind every closed door.  R ends with a crushing comeuppance that finally links Rune and Rashid forever, not as friends or enemies, but as victims of the same institutional destruction.


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