LAFF: Day #4

June 21, 2010

The Los Angeles Lakers championship parade descended on the LA Live campus and in turn everyone’s film festival schedule. Luckily most of the craziness had dissipated by the time I arrived to interview Life With Murder director John Kastner (look for that piece in the coming week). Because of the interview, I only screened two Festival movies today, Aaron Katz’s sublime mix of genre and character Cold Weather and Kimi Takesue’s observational Uganda documentary Where Are You Taking Me?

COLD WEATHER (dir. Aaron Katz, 2010)

The shoddy production quality and rambling dialogue sequences of the American indie sub-genre loosely labeled “Mumblecore” have always struck me as lazy and indulgent, basically the dumbed down bastardization of what Cassavetes, Sayles, and Jarmusch explored in the last half century. So the evolution of director Aaron Katz from that world into a completely singular auteurist space couldn’t be more fascinating. His third film Cold Weather, a sublime mix of detective genre quips and character driven set-pieces, signifies Katz as a major filmmaker concerned with both the haunting majesty of textured locales and the deep seeded human relationships traversing this terrain.

Doug (Cris Lankenau), a former forensic science major and avid Sherlock Holmes aficionado, has just returned to Portland, Oregon and moved in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Doug reads books, finds a job at a local ice factory, and goes about his daily life with a somewhat dejected but never pouty outlook on his situation. Katz makes it a point to inject beautiful long shots of rustic Portland scenery as transition points, emblems of a specific place often drenched in rain, covered in ice, and glossed in a haunting blue sheen. When Doug’s former girlfriend goes missing, he enlists the help of Gail and his work buddy Carlos (Raul Castillo) to piece together the jigsaw puzzle.

But Cold Weather is neither purely a detective film or character study, but an overlapping singular experience focusing on the shared moments in-between the action. During these sometimes hilarious always telling conversations, Katz develops character through sly tangents, resolute facial expressions, and a deep attention to movement and rhythm. Amazingly, Cold Weather becomes a film defined by pacing, as it ping-pongs back and forth between breakneck suspense and subtle resonance, then back again. Andrew Reed’s lush cinematography and Keegan DeWitt’s Hitchcockian score add a fantastic dimension to Katz’s direction, making “Cold Weather” a deeply personal slice of regional cinema and an ambitious advancement for this talented collective of filmmakers.

WHERE ARE YOU TAKING ME? (dir. Kimi Takesue, 2010)

Introduced by its director as an “observational” bridge to understanding the people/rhythms of Uganda in a more complex light, Where Are You Taking Me? weaves seemingly random footage of various everyday acts into a mosaic of facial expressions and character movement. The piece was commissioned by The Rotterdam Film Festival as a way of connecting diverging points of view and linking filmmakers from foreign countries. This is an admirable goal, but the film aimlessly moves from scene to scene without an indication of narrative focus. We see a beautiful Ugandan wedding, confront taxi drivers waiting on the street, and enter elaborate markets of stuffed stalls and corridors. But we never hear from the people themselves, never understand their perspective on the infiltration of the camera and filmmakers. A specific voice seems to be missing, and it’s that of the people being filmed.

After the film director Kimi Takesue explained her desire to blend into the scenery and capture layered moments of people in transition. Her reasoning is interesting and informative, yet the film doesn’t achieve this goal as a documentary. There’a a complete disavowal of structure, style, and focus, except during one sequence in the middle of the film when a voice-over reflection by a child soldier of Uganda rightly asks about the director’s intention with his image and story. There really isn’t a response, and this moment leaves an indelible mark on the viewer’s mind, making the rest of the footage seem disjointed in the process. By the end of Where Are You Taking Me?, we’re left with the images on the screen and nothing else. Universal human concerns can only take a film so far, and without any context, reflection, or structure the film becomes more slide-show than Cinema.

LAFF: Day #3

June 20, 2010

A FAMILY (dir. Pernille Fischer Christensen, 2010)

A Danish attempt at the lyrical stylings/poignancy of French master Olivier Assayas, A Family charts the tragic ebbs and flows of an upper class family in crisis. Two brilliant lead performances by Jesper Christensen and Lene Maria Christensen playing sickly baker Rikard and his art curator daughter Ditte respectively, anchor this slowly paced and often trying examination of generational conflict, jealousy, and regret. The film begins in a lovely bright hue as possibilities abound, including a new job in New York City, a fresh bill of health for the aging patriarch, and a long due marriage proposal. But the glow doesn’t last, and these expectations of happiness become variations of deep inaction and tragedy.

Director Pernille Fischer Christensen uses a fluid hand-held camera to capture individual moments of reflection and sadness, but the script itself delves into the stereotypes of modern melodrama. This tug of war between these subtle, often illuminating aesthetics and the drawn out suffering inherent to the narrative never reconcile, forcing the viewer into one uncomfortable juxtaposition after another. The film admirably traverses difficult subject matter regarding the slow degeneration of the sick and the tough decisions family members must navigate when looking toward the future. But there’s no room to breath in A Family, no need for improvisation when discussing these very complex ideas. The overt construction of the tragedy is too forced to make the kind of resonant impact of a film like Summer Hours. The vice of suffering closes in an all participants in a way that speaks of contrivance more than real life, and the final sequence of resolute hope falls flat as a result.

LEBANON (dir. Samuel Moaz, 2010)

Set completely in the hull of an Israeli tank during the first day of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, this formally rigorous assault on the senses envisions a shifting, chaotic perspective on the horrors of war. The small crew of young soldiers rely  entirely on the limited scope-sized perspective of exterior assaults, contradictory radio communications, and occasional invasions of their own space by commanders to build a picture of the surrounding conflict. The result is a terrifying and incomplete vision of hell on earth, where the textures, fluids, and layers of war cake every inch of the frame.

Devastation is seen through sudden zooms, confrontational close-ups, and heard through a booming musical theme. Certain scenes appear almost completely consumed by the pulse-pounding sound design echoing off the walls of the tank. A piece of paper hanging on a particularly disgusting interior slab reads a quote – “Tanks are made of iron. Men are made of steel.” This slice of philosophical propaganda turns out to be incredibly problematic and fascinating, indicative of the film’s audacious formalism and the limitations of cinema to fully capture such an environment. The tank’s hull seemingly closes in from all angles, leaving both the viewer and the characters trapped physically and morally, dependent on the actions of unseen players in a conflict where the only certainty is personal catastrophe.

CAFE NOIR (dir. Jung Sung-il, 2010)

Sprawling, enigmatic, and deeply personal, South Korean Juny Sung-il’s debut film about the intertwined lives of lost souls in Seoul is a completely singular experience. Film and literary references abound, layering scenes with multiple meanings, configurations, and outcomes that both frustrates and fascinates. At 197 minutes, Cafe Noir tests your patience with elongated conversations between characters, endless tracking shots through the city, and a disjointed overlapping narrative structure. Yet the film never feels bloated and Jung packs in enough symbolism, metaphors, and recurring imagery for a whole auteurist career.

One gets lost in the rhythms and tones of Cafe Noir, entranced by the dynamic attention to faces, expressions, and body movement. Shot on the Red HD camera, the film’s imagery burns with a sharp crispness, even when Jung shifts his film into a high contrast black and white for a particularly haunting series of promises and betrayals. This is a beast of a melodrama, a film that cannot be digested in one viewing. Many of the vignettes don’t always add up, but each sustains the overall mood of yearning the film sustains throughout. Through the trials and tribulations of these many emblematic characters, Jung always comes back to one phrase- in this modern expansive world, “there must be someone out there to love you back.” By the end of Cafe Noir, the answer is still muddled by the haunting complexities of unrequited love. The incredibly intricate process of relationships seems to be far more important than the typical and expected happy ending.

Tomorrow brings two films, an interview with Life With Murder director John Kastner, and the headache-inducing Los Angeles Laker’s celebration parade. Stay tuned.

LAFF: Day #2

June 19, 2010

THE FALL (dir. Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1959)

This rare oddity from neglected Argentine master Leopoldo Torre Nilsson bristles with darkly comedic interludes, subversive outbursts, and perverse displays of childish anarchy. Realized in a shifting vision of sharp contrast black and white photography, “The Fall”immediately tests the limits of discomfort when a beautiful but shy university student named Albertina (Elsa Daniel) rents a room from an invalid woman and her rambunctious four children.

From the very moment Albertina ascends the stairs to the family’s enigmatic domicile in a stunning low angle shot, Torre Nilsson instills a palpable sense of menace  into the narrative. The children’s frenetic perspective begins to slowly crawl into Albertina’s subconscious, revealing the insecure core hiding behind her naive exterior. Extreme angles dominate, framing the characters within a constricted and contorted world defined by fear and uncertainty. This warped world of innuendo, trickery, and breaking perception seems to be falling off its axis, leaving a damning critique of adult indifference and selfishness in its wake. Abandonment issues have never been so eerie or unnerving.

THE MUSIC ROOM (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1958)

Restored by Martin Scorsese’s indispensable The Film Foundation, Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece about wealth, arrogance, and artistic exhibition is a measured stunner from start to finish. The story of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), a rich landowner who wields his dwindling power and influence by staging lavish parties, explores the lengths people will go to sustain a crumbling facade. The three musical interludes are both mesmerizing and deeply tragic, indicative of the power earthly possessions have over the weak-willed.

As Ray’s protagonist slowly descends into madness, searing symbolism erodes the very fabric of the man’s existence. His epic domicile, once anchored by the regal Jalsaghar (Music Room), becomes a cracking shell of his former life, a reminder of his need for extravagance and the consequences of such a selfish philosophy. The final scene in the Jalsaghar is a metaphorical powder-keg, dimming the lights one last time on a man consumed by his own desire to be relevant in the eyes of his countrymen.

FAREWELL (dir. Ditteke Mensink, 2010)

The epic journey of British journalist Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, who was the first woman to fly around the world on a commercial airship (a German Zeppelin), is constructed entirely from archival footage from the 1927 trek. Director Ditteke Mensink overlaps voice-over narration recited from Drummond-Hay’s articles and journal entries which she wrote from the Zeppelin.

The film is undeniably majestic, especially in the first 20 minutes when the Zeppelin takes flight for the first time departing New York City. But Farewell becomes greatly limited by its aesthetic structure, relying entirely on the voice of narrator Poppy Elliot which doesn’t always display the necessary depth or humanity the words deserve. When the film should be at it’s most hauntingly lyrical, it’s repetitive imagery and cloying sound effects create a very monotonous feel. Still, there are ample soaring moments where the scope of the journey finally comes into focus and the bittersweet memories of a woman in transition are deeply felt.

THE TILLMAN STORY (dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2010)

The most conventional documentary I’ve seen so far, and this expose on the tragic death and mythification of Pat Tillman turns out to be the least engaging. Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” gets consumed by an uneven structure, jumping aimlessly from necessary background on Tillman’s time as pro football player, his decision to enlist with the Army Rangers, and the deep cover up the Army perpetrated after his death by friendly fire.

While the story itself is essential to the modern dilemma of war propaganda and governmental manipulation, the film never achieves a distinctive approach to unwrapping the layers of information and deception. Interviews with The Tillman family, friends, and fellow soldiers are loosely tied by themes of friendship, loyalty, and disappointment, and they never connect into a the damning mosaic the filmmakers obviously desires it to be. But director Amir Bar-Lev has the difficult task of fighting an already futile battle with a now absent Bush administration, who could care less than ever about Tillman the man, son, and husband. The lack of a resolute denouement becomes problematic from a narrative perspective, but it speaks volumes about the stalemate between governmental perception and public reality hounding our country today.

LAFF: Day #1

June 18, 2010

The Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs a nicely paced 11 days from June 17-27, rests on the border between Hollywood extravagance and independent filmmaking spirit. There’s an obvious need to impress with visual splendor and gloss, but this well organized arena of films, retrospectives, guest speakers, and galas has a very real sense of the modern cinematic pulse. As expected, you have the mainstream opening and closing night films of The Kids Are Alright and Despicable Me respectively, but there’s also a devout connection with the fringes of Cinema, best on display in the great Documentary category and sidebar sections highlighting neglected films from a range of different national cinemas. Argentine master Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Indian icon Satyajit Ray, and American actor Robert Culp are just a few of the auteurs being recognized with screenings.

Like almost any worthy film festival, it’s difficult to pin down a completely satisfactory screening schedule because there’s simply too many interesting films to see. But over the course of the next week, I’ll be do my best to cover the most important and engaging films from the festival. Schedule permitting, I’ll also be conducting filmmaker interviews with a wide array of interesting artists, so stayed tuned for special feature examinations of especially worthy films. Special thanks to EInsiders.com for making this coverage possible.

THE TWO ESCOBARS (dirs. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, 2010)

Produced for ESPN’s 30th anniversary documentary series “30 For 30”, The Two Escobars charts the rise and fall of narco-soccer in Colombia, focusing on the role national corruption, public perception, and mass violence had on the social, political, and economic ramifications of the sport. In an expansive mosaic of archival footage and first person interviews, directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist weave together a detailed look at the reign and influence of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar with the humble life and tragic murder of soccer player Andres Escobar (no relation) after his own goal solidified the sudden collapse of the Colombian national soccer team during 1994 World Cup.

From the opening credits, the filmmakers juxtapose their densely intricate story with a bombastic soundtrack of musical cues. While this aesthetic builds tension by laying down a strong stylistic foundation for key information and testimonials, it also suffocates the gripping story during moments of reflection, rage, and deep loss. The humanity becomes somewhat skewed by the thumping bass, the slow motion freeze frames, and the onslaught of flashy dissolves. Yet a key moment late in the film exemplifies the filmmakers at their most reserved and poignant. After nearly 90 minutes of breakneck documentary filmmaking, the film slows down to an eerie calm, watching Andres’ face as his accidental mistake slowly destroys his team’s chances of reaching the next round. We feel his epic internal pain, but also the agony of entire country attempting to crawl out of the shadow of its international image of violence and corruption through the positive imagery of soccer.

The Two Escobars describes a lengthy cause and effect timeline, dipping into many different wells of emotional and political resonance. The only element keeping it from being great is it’s desire to wow the viewer with style and sensationalistic aesthetic devices. The story consistently develops as a terrifying slice of historiography, while the film itself sometimes delves into the realm of music video. Still, the very talented Zimbalist brothers have crafted an in depth examination of a country eroding from the inside out by crime and punishment, and the only hope for redemption rests on the shoulders of great sportsmen. In that sense, Colombians and documentary lovers everywhere should be thankful.

LIFE WITH MURDER (dir. John Kastner, 2010)

A complete stylistic reversal from The Two Escobars, John Kastner’s gripping examination of familial trauma in Life With Murder is the epitome of restrained horror. In 1998, the Jenkins family changed forever after 18 year old daughter Jennifer was brutally killed and 20 year old son Mason was arrested for her murder. Kastner charts the impossible decision faced by parents Brian and Leslie after their son is convicted of the crime – accept him as the last remnant of their family or disavow his existence.

Life With Murder begins as a focused crime documentary, contextualizing the murder with talking head interviews from family members and detectives, grainy archival footage, and few clumsy reenactments. Kastner unveils damning interrogation footage from directly after Mason’s arrest, putting the harsh realities of the situation into perspective. We also witness the slow degeneration of Bill as he and his wife stand by their son during the long trail and appeal attempts. Kastner positions these visual memories with the present day relationship between Mason and his parents, one built around strange and uncomfortable supervised family visits at his prison institution.

But Life With Murder slowly churns into something deeply fascinating, building these personal relationships into a brilliant analysis of the many layers of desperation in a family fraught with uncertainty. Kastner allows the subjects to develop without impeding their responses with overwhelming stylistics. The menacing score and haunting camera movements create an overall feeling of distress, a theme that comes to fruition during the film’s terrifying final act. By the end, Life With Murder forces the audience to consider the evil truths residing underneath the surface level facade. Judgement and heartbreak coexist as the film fades from the screen but not from our subconscious. The small shards of devastation are palpable, unsettling, and unexplainable, yet undeniably complex in scope and worthy of debate.

Four films scheduled for tomorrow so stay tuned.