Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Yet another report about film after film I would have liked to have seen. And Harry's too busy with the fest to put these reports up, meaning I keep getting my nose rubbed in it, over and over...
*sigh* Good thing they're such good reports. Palp?
Well, the fest is dying down... only a few days left. I'm happy to have seen a few of the award winners (Manitou, Charlotte Sometimes, and Mai's America), and tomorrow should be getting most of the shorts out of the way. It's a credit to this fest that screenings are still going strong, even after the conference has closed.
CQ - Dir. Roman Coppola
Roman Coppola is a very naughty boy. Descendants of great figures in the entertainment world aren't supposed to have any talent. They're not supposed to have their own voice. They're supposed to produce films honoring the establishment they grew up in, rather than obscure nods to b-movies that most of the industry would rather cover up. They're certainly not supposed to make a better movie in their first attempt than their parent has made in 10 years.
But then, the Coppolas have never been ones to follow rules have they? What is it about this family? Francis, Carmine, and Nicolas Cage(Coppola) have all won oscars, Jason Schwartzmann and Talia Shire have had successful careers playing character roles, and now Sofia and Roman have directed. They're the Kennedys of American film, and that may be selling them short.
CQ is a wildly entertaining movie. It's fresh, focused, energetic, and stylish as all hell. Though Roman honed his tools working on music videos, he shows here a knowledge and genuine love of movies of all type. Balancing a love of art cinema with exploitation flicks is something every film geek should appreciate, and here we get equal servings of both.
Paul (Jeremy Davies) is an American who moved to Paris to make movies in the wake of the Nouvelle Vague. Currently he is making an amateur cinema verite documentary about his own life, and serving as editor on an Italian produced mod exploitation movie about a female secret agent named "Dragonfly". He has a pretty french girlfriend (Elodie Bouchez) who's struggling to find a place of importance in his life; they struggle at home while at work he finds himself lusting after the project's lead actress (Angela Lindvall), literally falling in love through the dailies.
Throw in Gerard Depardieu as Dragonfly's eccentric director, who sees the film as some kind of Godardian act of left wing protest, Giancarlo Giannini as the decidedly De Laurentis-esque producer, and cameos by John Phillip Law, Billy Zane & Jason Schwartzmann, and you've got yourself an interesting mix.
Coppola manages to balance the crazy fun of the plot with the personal center of Paul trying to keep his life together. Frustrated, confused, and overstressed, Paul spends most of the time escaping into his head; literally. There are a number of imaginatively staged dream sequences which take us inside his thoughts as he confronts his limitations, and daydreams about running off with Lindvall. He sees his documentary as an attempt at something honest, but is worried that it may be received as boring and self-indulgent. The threads of his life begin to unravel at a dangerous rate as he is handed increasingly more control and responsibility over DRAGONFLY.
One of my favorite things about this movie is that both of the films within the film could be authentic features in their own right.The finished bits from the documentary are poetic and real, shot in vibrant 16 mm black & white, while the exploitation movie contains all the wild, proposterous energy that only those films possess. I love that he doesn't talk down here; this is an actual homage rather than some cheeky self-referential Scary Movie style parody. By deeply entrenching both into the story he gets the chance to play with a guilty pleasure in the context of a serious film. I was wrong, you can have your cake and eat it too.
And how could I go this long without mentioning the spectacular music by Mellow? I've always hated seeing a movie advertised based on the strength of its soundtrack, but here the songs are irreplacable. Please see this movie in a theater with a good screen, and a great sound system. If nothing else it's a feast for the eyes and ears, a vivid sensory experience.
Do I have any complaints? Yes. The dialogue is a bit rough in spots. At this point in his career Roman is a better director than he is a writer, but his ideas are smart and concise and his skill at the former is good enough to make up for any roughness in technique at the latter. I also wonder how a movie that cites both Trouffaut and Mario Bava as influences will play with mainstream audiences...neither is a taste well cultivated. Like this movie, they're fully appreciated by those who spend most of their time in the theater.
Y Tu Mama Tambien - d. Alfonso Cuaron
Y Tu Mama Tambien is quite a different beast from CQ. Where the former was rough and raw, this is a perfectly polished gem with performances and writing as good as anything you'll see this year. It's no wonder that James Schamus' production company Good Machine have attached their name to it: in terms of its beat by beat action this could almost be an Ang Lee film in spanish, though it's hard to imagine Lee producing the unadorned sexual energy which runs rampants through every frame. Seriously, this movie is naughty; in the fun subversive way as well as the serious reflective way.
The story concerns two life-long friends (played with unbelievable chemistry by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) reaching their sexual peak who's girlfriends have just flown off to Italy for vacaction. Tenoch is the son of rich parents with connections to the highest powers in Mexico's ruling party, while Julio is from a respectable lower middle class background. Both have vowed to smoke copious amounts of pot and generally not take life seriously. When they stumble upon Tenoch's cousin Luisa at a birthday party, a beautiful woman from Spain, they concoct a scheme to get her alone on an imaginary beach and have some fun.
At first she treats the two boys with a kind of gentle amusement, dodging their requests and having fun with their egos. However, after her husband calls her drunk in the middle of the night to announce that he's just slept with another woman, she packs her bags the next day, and the road movie begins. Along the way she hears stories of the duo and their girlfriends, their lifestyles and beliefs, shares her thoughts on sex, and then ends up sleeping with both of them which sets off a chain reaction of revelations which culminate in a scene that shocks us even though we see it coming.
The major theme here is that appearance, while not necessarily a lie, does not reveal the whole truth. Each of the characters is hiding something from the other. As each secret is spilled, several others are still held back. This point is further accentuated by a running thread of political criticism which emphasizes the unpublicized plight of the lower classes and the indigenous tribes (Zapatista detractors, you have been warned). It's a credit to Cuaron that the film manages to become a portrait of modern Mexican society while never losing track of the subtleties of the characters. It is engaging on all of the most basic levels, even while reaching for something higher.
It's also a film which examines adolescent sexuality in an open, frank manner. It doesn't shy from complexity, from grey, and that's bound to piss off both sides of what has become an endless debate (when you see the movie you will understand). This leaves us with a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion (I found the final revelation regarding Lisa to be a cheap shot at transcendence), but it's worth sacrificing a denouement for something more honest.
ZigZag - D. David Goyer
I overheard RAV talking to Joe Leydon after the screening of ZigZag, and Mr. Leydon had this say: "Their's so many ways a movie like this can go wrong, and so many of them do, that when you see one that does it right, you appreciate it all the more." These commentsd are particularly revealing in a year which brought us the much ballyhooed I Am Sam. It's not easy to make a good film about an autistic child. The angle's been explored in just about every way you can imagine, and it almost always comes down to a paltry imitation of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. It's ESPECIALLY not easy to make a movie about a black autistic child struggling in the slums of LA. So many other movies would gloss things over in an attempt to be inspirational, or turn into self promatory ejacualtion over how white people have triumphed over racism, especially if the filmmaker themself is white.
It's a credit then, to David Goyer, that ZigZag manages to avoid most or all of these pitfalls. He maintains, even celebrates, the street atmosphere of the story and keeps anything approaching the self-congratulatory to a near minimum.
Louis "ZigZag" Fletcher is a troubled 15 year old boy who's in and out of school, and has a police record for shoplifting. When his father demands that he produce $200 dollars for rent, Louis memorizes the combination of the safe at his workplace and steals the money. We then set off on an oddyssey through the dark underbelly of LA as various characters team up to help the boy return the money before he is discovered by the police and arrested.
Sam Jones III as the title character gives a performance that could change the way we see mental disability portrayed in movies. There are no ticks here, no funny mannerisms. He interacts with the other characters, talks and listens to them, but maintains a space that is all his own. In fact, many of the characters don't recognize at first that Louis is autistic. Further, Goyer bravely takes us inside his thoughts, making him the narrator of the film. Usually movies like these focus more on the side characters who consequently project their conscerns onto the lead, but here ZigZag's thoughts and emotions are the centerpiece. The result may well be the most human retarded character we've ever seen.
The rest of the movie, isn't quite up to that level, but still rock solid. Wesley Snipes as the drug addicted father, John Leguizamo as ZigZag's "Big Brother, only he's not," and Oliver Platt as an obnoxious restaurant manager, are all oscar worthy. Goyer's pulp-tinged dialogue gives everyone, especially Platt, a chance to flex their muscle and all the characters come off as human and real. Natasha Lyonne is also good as a prostitute who finds herself in the reluctant position of good samaritan.
ZigZag is a movie that manages to be at once a slice of life, social commentary, and a coming of age story. It's also funny, innovative, engrossing and moving, as well as beautifully shot and brilliantly edited. The fact that Goyer managed all of this with a four week shooting schedule and miniscule budget is a kind of crime.
Master of the Game - D. Jeff Stolhand
Like Harry, as this film began I was both curious and squeamish. Curious because it was shot locally and being projected in Lucas approved high definition (rather than the beta of most of the festival's digital offerings), squeamish because the opening seemed worthy of a bad cable TV movie and the audience was cheering at the appearance of every name and cast member.
Sometime around the Battle of the Bulge, a group of Jewish prisoners escape from a van carrying them to Auschwitz and find shelter in the woods from a rainstorm, only to find the cabin already occupied by a troop of Nazi soldiers. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, or as one of the characters puts it: "Escaping from hell, only to land in the lap of the devil." After this somewhat heavy handed opening, complete with bad V-W's for the Germans (which spoil the otherwise good accents put on by the actors), things get a little more tense with a grizzly execution scene. Then they get intriguing: the last prisoner (#3264) is American. The commandant leaves him alive to tell his story, and the wiley young man ceizes the opportunity.
He proposes a game: switch places with him, and by the end of the night every German present will acknowledge his superiority. The only rules: he can't use the game to force them to inflict bodily harm on one-another, and the game ends when he says it does, or when they call him master.
From this point on, I was hooked as the screen becames a stage for a debate of ideology, rage, and personal demons. Writer/Star/Producer Uygar Aktan relishes the opportunity for dramatic excess, and his script handles the situation in ways far more interesting than I would have anticipated. I'm not sure that even Uygar himself realizes how smart the whole thing is. Everyone talking about the movie has emphasized role-reversal. Role-reversal, in my opinion, has been done. It's uncompelling and usually just manages to be a veiled mirror for the writer/director's own beliefs.
What sets Master of the Game apart is that the methods employed by 3264 in the game might have actually worked in real life. He doesn't set about trying to make the Nazis feel like Jews, he plants seeds of doubt as to the integrity of their unit, playing on the unspoken emotions of each guard one by one. Once he starts digging, even if they were to kill him, I doubt the unit would have made it out intact. Authority and unity among the troops was crumbling, and the film reflects that in the very structure of what happens.
The performances, other than the defective accents already mentioned, are more than adequate. Jeff Stolhand's direction is cinematic even in the face of such a theatrical setup (all the action is confined to one room), but certain touches show he is still getting used to digital. As a showcase for 24 p cameras and digital projection the results are mixed. The picture has the sharpness and clarity of film, but the motion, color, and depth of field, feel like video. I was impressed with the way it picks up shadows, and Master of the Game is lit and shot to take advantage of that. The final shot however is an attempt at a painterly image that comes across as simply ugly. On film, or with more experience, it might have worked.
On a more positive note, Aktan is a real find. A Hungarian immigrant, his vocal and physical transformation for the film are astonishing. I doubt many of the audience recognized him when he appeared on stage for Q&A. More than a mere chameleon, he's also a monstrous screen presence, and a talented writer. There are hints that we may be seeing more of him in the future, in local films, as well as in the world at large. His next project with Stolhand should be one to watch.
Manito - D. Eric Eason
Manito was this year's grand prize winner for narrative feature at SXSW, as well as the runner up at Sundance. It is, like many (maybe even most) of the debut features at this festival, a digital film, shot in a crazy dogma95 style that a friend of mine dubbed "video verite". The story is a bare-bones stringing of cliches that serves as a background for a focus on the atmosphere, rhythms, lives, and ultimately tragedies of the Latino community of Washington Heights New York.
Junior Moreno (Franky G.) is a hardworking Mexican-American from a poor family. He's ostracized himself and his brother Manny from their drug dealer father and is trying to make ends meet modeling houses with a team of migrant workers, while Manny is on the verge of graduation and getting ready for college. The younger brother is the first of the family to graduate from high school (I think) and the hopes and pride of all his relatives are pinned on him. I think by now you can see where this is going, but curiously enough, with the help of the bare bones hand-held style, and a good score, it works..
There are moments in Manito that could go head-to-head with IN THE BEDROOM in terms of tension. The language and flow of the scenes, many of which involved large numbers of actors, feels improvised, but the producer claimed it was 95% scripted: a credit to Eason's skills as writer/director. Franky G is a standout among the cast, playing a character who is sympathetic even while he is unlikeable.
Though the film is unabashedly about the Latino experience (and seems to capture this very well) there are few scenes of overt political content, and the final emotions are more of sadness than anger, strengthened by an unexpectedly powerful & open-ended ending. With 3 awards and counting Manito looks to have a lot of headlong momentum. It should gain distribution and is worth seeing when it hits theaters.
Charlotte Sometimes - D. Eric Byler
Here's a real winner: a well constructed, engaging piece of finely wrought emotions. A movie about 4 people and 4 couples that avoids preaching and manages to heighten our sympathy for all of the characters involved with the mistakes they make rather than the things they do right.
Following in the footsteps of Magnolia, the plot seems eerily constructed around a series of songs, most of whom are by a talented black LA singer-songwriter whose name is unfortunately not included in the production notes. Michael (Michael Idemoto) is a "mechanic who reads." He's inherited the family business and spends most of his time at home alone, and taking his Aunt out for dinner once a week.
The old family house has been transformed into a duplex, and he rents to a girl named Lori (Eugenia Yuan), a friend of 3 years, and her boyfriend Justin (Matt Westmore). Michael is in love with Lori, but they've never consumated. Every night she comes over to his side of the house for comfort after having (sometimes deviant) sex with Justin.
He's night quite comfortable with this role, and sensing this one day offers to set him up. He refuses and the matter is dropped, but a few days later a mysterious girl named Darcy (Jacqueline Kim) shows up at Michael's favorite watering hole. He takes her home, and she spends the night, but they do not have sex. She is however, particularly inquisitive about his neighbors. A few days later she convinces the four of them to go out to lunch together.
Things only get stranger and more twisted from there, but the characters are never mocked or derided. In the tradition of Ozu, Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee, Byler hooks the audience with small character details; little pauses of high emotion. His small cast manages to carry the picture in a respectable way, with Kim being the most successful, and Idemoto suffering from a deadpan that borders on monotome.
Like Manitou this a film that deals with ethnicity. Byler, who is half-Chinese, intended it to be somewhat of an experiment with racial politics. Though the story is universal, there are small touches of the Asian American experience. Michael's traditional Japanese aunt demands time out of his schedule even as his persona life is falling apart, Darcy pushes racial buttons with Justin (who is half asian, as is actor Matt Westmore) during the fabulous restaurant scene, and a third, subtle moment, has Michael staring down a white man who flirts with Darcy at the bar.
The results of Byler's little experiment are mixed; the film itself is a resounding success, but it was turned down for admission by all of the Asian American film festivals (who subsequently asked for his student academy award nominated short film Kenji's Faith instead). Perhaps it's because more emphasis is placed on story and character than race, or perhaps, as Byler seemed to suggest, it's because the film features a relationship between an asian girl and a half-asian man. One can only guess.
Charlotte Sometimes is the kind of cinema I envisioned with the advent of digital technology. A small work by a talented director who could not otherwise have afforded to make a movie. It features very little hand-held camera, nicely framed compositions and traditional editing, and could just as easily have been shot on film. Byler does not appear to subscribe to the dogma of the digital revolution. He does not use 24 p cameras, and plans to complete transfer to 35 mm very soon. This is a film that deserves to be seen, especially since there seems to be an oncoming wave of other Asian-American features. Jeff Dowd: If you're reading this, I know you're here. Here's someone who could use your help. Give Charlotte Sometimes a look.
That's all for now. Be back soon with a look at a slew of documentaries.