Friday, July 11, 2014

Crash (2004): ...And Burn

The Other Films (Revisited)
Crash (2004)
dir: Paul Haggis

Original Review (Circa 2006)
Originally Posted to Livejournal and IMDB

I wrote this as a two part review. Part two has spoilers.

Part 1
No, this isn't that one about the sex with car accidents. This is the one about racism in L.A. You know, the one where everybody is a racist, and race is the topic on everybody's mind at all times. Race.

Its like the movie has a form of Tourette's Syndrome where race is the constant theme. Race. Racist. Racism. Race Relations. Relay race.

Paul Haggis made a movie which took the structure of Magnolia, which was used to show the disconnect of people who are tangentially connected, and then screwed it into a 1'53" mental vomit about racism in America. RACE. In the 24 hour period we have 7 stories running parallel all connected and about race. The first hour, people say ridiculous stuff and do absurd things in an effort to be real about racism in America.

For example, the story with Ludicrous and Larenz Tate provides the comic relief. Too bad, the first half of their story is lifted straight from The Bonnie Situation in Pulp Fiction. RACISM. Their section is the Quentin Tarantino section where, instead of being cool and talking about foot massages and religion, the characters talk about race and racism. CONSTANTLY.

The other good thing about it is the Mexican story when the Mexican guy is talking to his daughter. He gives her his invisible impenetrable cloak to protect her from bullets. Decent writing, but that's only because the writers have had daughters and know what they would say in his place.

The rest of the stories are extremely ludicrous. The Hindi does not act in any semblance of realism. The scene where he's trying to get the lock fixed and the Mexican tells him he needs a new door is abbreviated and stupid. Why would anybody act like that? Is it realistic? NOOO. It reminds me more of the convenience store clerk from The Doom Generation. "Six Dollar Sixty Six Cents girly." If i ever watch the second half of the movie, I hope his head is shot off and his bodiless head starts coughing up relish.

I haven't mentioned race in over a paragraph. RACE. RACISM. RACE FOR THE SUN. Better. Then, there is the black guy who wants to be white, Matt Dillon who has a chip on his shoulder against blacks, Ryan Phillippe who looks beautiful and does nothing, and various other bad actors acting badly with bad dialog. When Matt Dillon molests the black producers wife, could I help it if I was cracking up? When Philippe is second guessing his writing up of his partner for racism, can I help but crack up? The movie is so funny when it is being racist. Racist. RACIST I tell you.

Now, mind you, this movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing, besides a nod to Matt Dillon who actually did attempt to do a decent job. Who was paid off for that one, I have no clue.

Don't see it unless you feel like being preached at about the racism in society through a bad and unrealistic script from 2 white men over fifty who have no semblance of reality or interaction with real society in any way shape or form.

Grade: D-

...

Part 2
The second half of Crash takes any and all story lines in the first half...and spews them back out in a sort of redemptive, conclusionary, the world is a big coincidence kind of way. And it is in fact one of the worst ways to do it.

Take 1999's Magnolia. People weren't conveniently tied together over and over again. They were just connected in a strange way that happens more often than you think. You know somebody who knows somebody who did something that you knew somebody else was also involved in. Crash takes this wrapping into a serious extreme.

The stories are lined up so everybody meets again. Are there only 5 on the LAPD force? Aren't these people working weird shifts? Dillon and Philippe were a late shift then an early one the next day? And, why did Tate have to be the murdered hitchhiker? Wouldn't it have had more emotional tension, as well as realism, if it had been somebody we had not been following all day long? Like Phillippe just picks up a random hitchhiker and then freaks out. Everybody'd be freaking out.

Eventually, in the second half, the touching invisible cloak scene is used to get the Hindi to shoot the daughter. It ticked me off and made me feel dirty. Not that the Hindi shot the daughter, but that they created a beautiful touching scene and then had it be the direct cause of people tearing up. It really ticked me off. At the writers, not the scene.

The whole movie is fake and totally uncalled for. The coincidences are far too many and they require an extreme suspension of disbelief. Unlike Magnolia which was connected mildly, this had connections upon connections upon connections which were just so over-the-top. The only good part in the second half was when Sandra Bullock falls down the stairs. She doesn't die though. She should have. I cheered when she fell.

The worst part about the movie is it pulls a Magnolia. Not just in structure, but it has a montage over the song "In the Deep" where you see everybody being depressed. Magnolia took this and had post-modern commentary on it by having all of the characters singing along to Aimee Mann's Wise Up. Unfortunately, Magnolia came out in 1999, while Crash came out in 2005. Its hard to make commentary on a movie which won't be made for another 6 years, but it happened. Somehow.

Utter waste of my time.

First half: D-; Second half: lowest grade ever; Overall: F---

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tentacles (1977): Jaws vs Giant Octopus

Tentacles (1977)
dir: Ovidio G Assonitis

Italy in the 1970s and 1980s were all about churning out cheap rip-offs of American blockbusters trying to capitalize on the latest thing. When Jaws became the latest American blockbuster, filmmakers everywhere saw it and said, "We can do that, only cheaper!" In some cases, it turned out amazing, as with the Roger Corman-produced, Joe Dante-directed, and partially John Sayles-written Piranha, which is all about a summer resort town where the river has been invaded by man-eating fish. It had style, panache, and a sense of humor and pacing, all of which Jaws lacks in spades.

Then, you have Tentacles, a sort of "what was anybody thinking?" get rich quick Italian import that rips off Jaws beat for beat, but the pure insanity of the film keeps it entertaining.

Tentacles focuses on the summer resort town of Ocean Beach, where several people turned up missing in short order, and then being found in the water frequently skinned and dead. Right off the bat, you know you're in for a special movie, because Tentacles wastes no time in dispensing characters. The first victim is a baby in a stroller, who is mainly referred to as "The Little Fatso" by his mother's friend. His mother leaves him in a stroller on the edge of the cliff next to the ocean, when he disappears. The next victim is a salty sea captain with a wooden leg, who also has fat jokes aimed at him.

Then, we get to the real stars of the movie, John Huston and Shelley Winters. They play as a brother/sister pair who seems to be way too salty and quasi-incestuous. Winters is a complete alcoholic, making drinks as soon as she gets up, while Huston calls her a fat slut in so many words. Huston's main story is that he is a reporter investigating the deaths and suspects they have something to do with nearby construction work. While Winters' main job is to drunkenly take her and her neighbor's kids around town and get them entered in the sailing contest, where surely somebody will die.

I can't tell if Winters is just playing drunk or is actually soused in her scenes, which includes a general lack of volume control, and constant one-upmanship of her kids. During the first day's events, she wears the most obscenely gigantic sombrero while she forgets her kid's name, and then complains that she spends too much money on the children while downing yet another drink. By the time she tells her neighbor that the kids want to be in the race, the neighbor says she trusts Winters, and you have to wonder who in their right mind would trust their kid to an alcoholic with vodka on her breath.

Huston gets off a little better, playing the saltiest reporter to get to the bottom of the story. Along the way, he meets with business men, but also an orca trainer who really cares about his Orcas. I mean, REALLY CARES about the orcas. Like, tearjerkingly cares.

Of course, it all ends in a gigantic orca fight with a giant octopus. This being Italy in the 1970s, they didn't really care too much about animal well-being, and so it seems they ripped apart a real octopus, who may have been living when it was ripped to pieces by the orca puppets. Which may be a bit nauseating to more sensitive viewers (far more than the off-screen murder of The Little Fatso in the stroller).

If we can forgive that bit, however, there are many treasures in Tentacles to be found. The awkward dialogue. The giant sombrero. Walkie Talkies that irritate the octopus. A constant barrage of fat jokes aimed at everybody because they're fat Americans (HA HA). Corpses who float feet up. Dead fish who sink face down. It's all so ludicrous that one can't help but be entertained. Tentacles isn't a good movie, but it's a great bad movie. And, it's a much more entertaining movie than Jaws would ever be. Jaws wishes it were this interesting.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014): The Faults in the System

Snowpiercer (2014)
dir: Bong Joon-Ho

The capitalist system has faults. It's a fact. Every pure ideological system has faults in it, especially when you take the human factor into account. The human urge for tribalism, as well as the human urge for natural selection both factor heavily into the capitalist system's faults.

As such, Snowpiercer isn't just an allegory for capitalism, so much as it is an allegory for every caste system that has ever been set up.

The set-up for Snowpiercer comes from modern times. There is an extremely long train that was built to continuously moves around a series of interconnected railways on an annual circuit around the Eurasian hemisphere. After it was built, the corporations decided to try to combat climate change by launching a chemical into the atmosphere, sending the Earth into an Ice Age, where the only thing that seems to have survived is this train.

The train is set up as a caste system. The rear of the train are the poor people, who have to eat protein bars that look like black Jell-O bricks. They live in squalor and tight quarters with bunk beds and poor lighting. The front of the train are the rich people, who are, according to the poor people, getting to eat steaks and live like kings. At the very front is the engine, where the leader rules the whole train from front to back.

The train runs on a perpetual motion engine, and so there is little to do but sit and wait. The poor people have sex and children, and wait around until the guards come in to give them their food. Now and then, the guards will take two children up front, and periodically scour the back for people to work with the front people. One such resident is a violinist, who is forcibly separated from his wife to live life in the front to play violin for the rich people. Two children are forcibly taken from their parents at the beginning of the film, for reasons not explained to anybody. When the poor start to revolt, the guards take one of the passengers and freezes his arm by setting it outside the window and then shattering it off.

Even though the poor don't work, and didn't pay to be on the train, the conditions are so insufferable that a revolt would always be bound to happen. Spurred on by Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis (Chris Evans) and his side kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a revolt to take over the engine, going through the various trains that get increasingly classier and more decadent as they get closer to the engine. Along the way, they fight guards and big bosses on several occasions, much like a video game.

Which brings us to the first problem of Snowpiercer. The fighting sequences are not that good. I know I've been a bit spoiled by The Raid, but the fighting sequences start out afflicted with shaky cam, and with an inability to discern who was fighting who, or where anybody was. Joon-Ho, who previously directed the suspenseful The Host, has very little grasp on how to direct a fighting sequence when there are too many people involved in the fight. The camera is all over the place, the editing is strange, and the people are indiscernible. Plus, the timing of the scenes are off. As the movie goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people to deal with, Joon-Ho's direction gets slightly better, but the initial rebellion, the axe sequence, and even a little bit of the classroom sequence are all fraught with problems that seem to dissipate by the sauna sequence.

The set-up for Snowpiercer isn't subtle in its intentions. Anybody paying attention to politics anywhere should be able to parse out Joon-Ho's political statements with a flinch of the eye. But, Snowpiercer is far more nuanced than one might give it credit for. It asks questions about food supply in closed systems. It asks questions about overpopulation, and slave labor. It asks questions about political indoctrination and obedience. Most of all, it asks questions about idealism and intent.

To say that Snowpiercer is a gung-ho radical "take over the system" movie is to deny it the whole final act it has been working towards. In the final act of Snowpiercer, Boon-Ho decimates all the ideology that he has been building up for the first 100 minutes of the film. For 100 minutes, Boon-Ho gives the microphone to the Occupy movement, essentially. The poor. The ones who have been oppressed. But, in the last 20, he gives it to the leader. The 1%. The owner of the train. The builder. And the controller of the engine. And in the final 3, he ends with the most radical note in an already very radical movie.

There are flaws in Snowpiercer. A lot of them, in fact. The fighting is the most major one, in my opinion. The score swings between not bad to HAAAAAANS ZIMMMMMER boring. The elements in the allegory don't always hold up to real world equivalents, or do so in much more minute/subtler ways. A simultaneous flaw and also benefit is that Snowpiercer doesn't answer all the questions it raises. The emotional climax is played too earnestly. And, there are a lot of weird techniques that seem to draw attention to themselves for illogical reasons.

Much like the ice formations that build on the tracks, the flaws in Snowpiercer present merely elements that jar the movie, but never completely derail it. The pacing and visuals of Snowpiercer outside the fight sequences are spectacular, the tension is top notch, and the acting is completely aces. Tilda Swinton practically steals the show with her imitation of Margaret Thatcher, and Evans is perfectly capable of most of the scenes in Snowpiercer, with one major exception towards the end.

Snowpiercer gives both action movie thrills, and intelligent fodder to chew on for days. Modern caste systems, constant rebellion, the justification on either side, and how it could be applicable or not to modern society are all topics that aren't left with answers, and the most dangerous answer is still in the movie, which ends with a note of hope and promise. The allegorical fodder makes Snowpiercer a Required Viewing, even though it has some deep flaws throughout the film.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stories We Tell (2012): Exorcising Demons on Screen (Documentary)

Stories We Tell (2012)
dir: Sarah Polley

The process of making a documentary is frequently personal and intimate. You discover a topic, you start interviewing the subjects, you edit the piece, you re-interview the subjects, you continue editing, and you get closer and closer to the piece of work.

But, Stories We Tell is personal straight out of the gate. This is a documentary by Sarah Polley about her own family. There's not much more intimate than you can get. But, the topic isn't just about her family, but about everybody's memory of the family, and more specifically, her long-deceased mother.

Sarah, in the process of making the film, all but excised herself from the topic at hand. She interviews all her siblings, her father, aunts, her mother's friends, and her mother's ex co-workers and lovers when she could. Her father also reads from a memoir, in which he details situations from the past. She gets specific and generic memories about her mother, all from different perspectives. Some remember her as a flirt, others say she was chaste. Some remember a vibrant lively personality, others remember somebody who was distant. Some say she was an open book, others say she had many secrets.

Such is the power of memory.

Polley, early in the film, tells one of the subjects that the interview is less an interview and more an interrogation. This is fitting because of the reliance on memory that this film uses. Interrogations are always about memory. In police work, and in this documentary. Memory is fallible, and Polley doesn't just recognize that, she examines that.

And, part of that is due to the shifting narrative of her life. She spent most of her life under the impression that her biological father was her mother's husband, and she was raised by him. Come to find out, her mother had an extensive affair with a guy in a different city, and she is his daughter. But, nobody knew. They suspected. There was even a game when she was a kid teasing her that she's from a different father, though nobody suspected that to be true.

What Polley is saying about humanity isn't straightforward. She never explicitly comes out and says "what I'm saying is..." Instead, Stories We Tell intelligently lets us draw our own conclusions about the drama in our lives, and how its seen from completely different points of view. Do we put on different faces for different people knowing that they know different things about us than other people? Or, do we see other people differently because of how they present themselves to us? How are all of our realities different from each other's realities when it's the same mass of humanity? Polley's story of the basic human search for love is filled with complex characters that aren't drawn into easy stereotypes, letting us all try to figure out what it means to our lives.

Stories We Tell is deeply personal to Sarah Polley. But, the issues she raises are universal to the human experience. And, they're questions we all should be asking ourselves.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Dance of Reality (2013): Exorcising Demons on Screen (Fiction)

The Dance of Reality (2013)
dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Jodorowsky is constantly exorcising demons through film, but never has it been more explicitly laid out as in the semi-autobiographical The Dance of Reality.

In The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky documents his childhood growing up as the son of Russian Jewish Communists in Catholic Fascist Chile under the rule of then-dictator Ibanez. Or, rather the film is more about what it felt like to be a kid growing up under those circumstances. But, more than conquering the societal differences, Jodorowsky is commenting on what it was like growing up with an unemotional brute of a father who believed he could toughen his son through emotional and physical abuse.

The two central characters are Jodorowsky as a young boy and his father Jaime (played by Jodorowsky's son, Brontis). Jaime is a store owner, a fire fighter, and a card-carrying Communist who also believes that men should be men, and that teaching Alejandro to be stoic in the face of pain and suffering, then Alejandro will be more of a man. Early in the film, Jaime smacks Alejandro so hard, he breaks a tooth. When Alejandro has to go to the dentist, Jaime forces him to not take anesthesia as the pain makes him tougher. But, the child is not without emotional support. He gives himself a coddling mother who speaks only through opera. And, as a directorial conceit, Alejandro stars as himself standing behind his child avatar, telling him things about the future and offering support to his then-self. It's like those exercises where you write a letter to your child self.

This is the first Jodorowsky which has a directly identifiable major influence, namely that of Fellini's Amarcord, right down to the affinity for gigantic breasts (Alejandro's mom is remarkably well endowed), and bizarre sexuality. A major scene has Jodorowsky being invited into a young circle jerk, but then being rejected because he has been circumcised, while the other boys had not. Another is when he and his mother strips and cover themselves in shoe polish while chasing each other around the room. Clearly, Jodorowsky is exorcising some deep demons through this film.

The Dance of Reality is in part how he remembered childhood, and in part how he wished childhood actually was. He completely removes his older sister from the picture, explores Oedipal fantasies, and also sends his father on a third act journey to try to kill Ibanez, resulting in him being brutally tortured for no real reason and then coming back home broken and contrite. This blends seamlessly with Jodorowsky's usual heightened visuals and overloaded symbolism where the fantasias are filmed with the same surrealism as the realistic portions.

While Alejandro isn't explicit about which parts are real and which parts are fantasias, this is the first time he actually comes right out and explains what he means with his symbolism. Where Jodorowsky used to be content to give just a handful of dialogue that explains what's on screen, here he's spelling everything out through the dialogue. One representative scene is when a spiritualist gives Alejandro a metal symbol from the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, and then explains that each symbol represents the same God...but then Alejandro's father flushes them down the toilet telling him that God doesn't exist. Because this film is more about exorcising personal demons than exploring universal ideas, it is a little forgivable, but it's still the most spelled out movie of his career.

Because of the digital, and the leaning on Amarcord, Jodorowsky's warped fantasies also are less absurdist or surreal than what he used to lead us to. His visual composition is still as stunning as ever, but has now become bolder and more saturated than in films past. However, gone are the strange imagery of potato Jesus statues or church bloodbaths. The medium didn't allow the pervasive strangeness of Jodorowsky's oeuvre.

In the end, The Dance of Reality is more like Jodorowsky lite. He's more interested in exploring his personal past than exploring universal ideas or even general history. If the symbolism gets too strong, he's always around to explain what's happening, and we don't have to work for anything in the film. At 135 minutes, it also feels a little long in the tooth. Despite the flaws of The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky lite is still more entertaining and interesting than most mainstream films, and it's still highly recommended. It's Jodorowsky at his most accessible, and should be a good starting point if you've never experienced him before.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Manuscripts Don't Burn (2014): Scathing on the Fly

Manuscripts Don't Burn (2014)
dir: Mohammad Rasoulof

SIFF 2014 Film #29

In 2011, Mohammad Rasolulof, an already accomplished director, was arrested and had a 20-year ban from making any films imposed on him by the Iranian government. In secret, Rasoulof broke that government-ban and made Manuscripts Don't Burn, a film which is an indictment of the Iranian government, and it's attempts at intellectual censorship. The end result is a harrowing indictment of not only censorship but also cultural manipulation and how the whole system is set up against everybody's best interest.

The main characters of Manuscripts are not the intellectuals, but a pair of Iranian government assassins who are chasing after a manuscript. The assassins aren't rich or even paid all that well, as one of the two assassins has a sick child who is trying to gain admission to a hospital, but he doesn't have the money to pay for the stay. The assassin is constantly calling their government bosses to try to get the finances transferred to his account so he can prove he can afford for his son to have whatever surgery is needed.

The manuscript is written by a wheelchair-bound intellectual poet who had written a book that was essentially an anti-government screed that had over 100 instances of censorship inflicted upon it. One of the major instances is a story about a group of poets on a bus trip to Armenia, which was supposed to be driven off a cliff in the middle of the night. They intervened and survived, but were warned to be silent about it. The uncensored manuscript is put to a small circle of intellectuals for safe keeping, and the Iranian government is trying to keep it repressed.

The saying of "Manuscripts don't burn" means, essentially, that while the government can censor all they want, they actually don't have the power to remove memories. Until they do. The assassins aren't just going to destroy the manuscripts, but destroy all of the memories of the manuscript from those who have read it, wrote it, and remember it. At this point in their career, murder and death are second nature to the assassins. They even delude themselves to the reasoning they kill, with the father of the sick child questioning whether he's actually doing a good service, or if he's just doing something more immoral.

While the general frame of Manuscripts Don't Burn is a traditional assassin story, the details and the government prescience adds a presence that otherwise would be absent in this rather slow and pondering execution of the usual story. The ponderings of religion and God, and the intersection of religion and government, duty and manipulation of the poor, plus the responsibilities of rebels to try to promote the truth in a lying government, makes Manuscripts more detailed and pointed than the usual generic stories we get.

Rasoulof filmed Manuscripts in secret, and even eliminated all names except his own from the credits. The cast and crew have gone unnamed in the movie in order to prevent them from legal action by the government. But, the secrecy shows. There are some questionable filming choices that seem more rudimentary than thought out, and the pacing is a little erratic even in its heavily plodding pace. However, given the circumstances, one can forgive those technical details over the thoughtful content within the film itself.

Manuscripts Don't Burn isn't an "enjoyable" experience. But, not all cinema should be enjoyable. They should be thought provoking, and Manuscripts Don't Burn has that in spades. Being an anti-government screed, Manuscripts is an important movie, even if it isn't technically amazing.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

La Mia Classe (2013): Going Meta-Overboard

La Mia Classe (2013)
(aka My Class)
dir: Daniele Gaglianone

One of my traditionally favorite formulas is the story by proxy formula. In this formula, it's generally a group setting, and in one remote location. The story, we learn, is happening off stage, and we're learning about it piece by piece through the dialogue only. Generally, this works best on radio or on stage, and it helps to have only a handful of stories progressing at any one point. But, the action only sometimes interrupts the on-stage/screen action, with most climaxes happening off screen as well.

This formula must fascinate Gaglianone as well, as La Mia Classe uses the formula, then makes meta-commentary on the meta-formula, thus making everything meta squared.

Gaglianone is tackling some heavy, hefty, issues with La Mia Classe that affect a broad range of people, namely that of immigration and treatment of immigrants in the country of Italy. He sets La Mia Classe as a cinema verite style peek inside an Italian as Second Language class for immigrants. He fills the classroom with a wide variety of immigrants from a variety of places - Egypt, India, Libya, etc - and with a variety of reasons for not wanting to remain in their own country: money problems, cultural pressures, etc. Through the language exercises, we learn what these situations are, and the struggles that happens because of their being an immigrant.

But, Gaglianone also poses La Mia Classe as a documentary about the making of the narrative feature La Mia Classe and also a behind the scenes of the making of that documentary. He opens the film with the students testing their various microphones before the shooting is supposed to begin. But, before that, we explore the halls of an empty school into an empty room, as if the class had happened long ago in a different time period. At one point in the film, a student walks up to the teacher saying he has problems with his residential status papers, but then at another point, a student walks up to a producer with the same problems creating a hullabaloo. At yet another point, the film is documenting the setting up of a shot for a student to sleep in a park, and then filming the sleeping in the park.

Gaglianone goes overly meta to get the point across that this isn't your traditional poor weepy, but this stuff actually happens, but he loses the point of going meta by making his meta narrative kind of wishy-washy in its status as a non-fiction fictional narrative, and thus making everything seem faker and less urgent than it may actually be in that country.As a counter-example, Interior. Leather Bar. is a meta-narrative where the whole thing is scripted, but it's scripted as if it is a documentary, and doesn't half-ass or confuse any of the scenes. Thus, the scenes in Interior. Leather Bar. while climbing up its own ass still, seem more real than the scenes in La Mia Classe.

The missed opportunity is great here, because when La Mia Classe is on, it's really on. And, when it's off, it's really off. It's a point blank disappointment that's greater because it was reaching for the stars and burnt out before it reached it's destination. The acting didn't help because most of the students seemed to be able to speak Italian with great ease, and the mistakes also seemed scripted. But, what do I know? It's not my language. Nor my country.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Creep (2014): Found Footage Done Creepy

Creep (2014)
dir: Patrick Brice

SIFF 2014 Film #27

This year's SIFF proves that Found Footage horror is still going strong. After the success of V/H/S, we're starting to see a revitalization of the genre (despite what the producers of Beneath discovered). Creep is the best of the ones I saw this year, which took the same approach to the rules of found footage as Willow Creek, but didn't resort to redoing a well-worn plot line. Instead, Creep is original and founded in modern day fears, like Catfish. In fact, much like Catfish and the earlier The Signal, Creep is asking what happens when you respond to a stranger.

Patrick Brice stars as Aaron, an amateur videographer who responds to an ad from Josef, a guy who wants to make a My Life style video for his kid. Josef's dying of cancer, and he has a kid on the way, but he only has a few months to live and doesn't believe that he will see the kid being born. But, Josef starts out the film disarmingly and disconcertingly positive and just gets creepier from there.

Did I mention that it's a black horror comedy? Mark Duplass as Josef just gets creepier and creepier with his broadly grinning mug, as Patrick Brice just keeps trusting way too much. From the first scene that Josef wants filmed, where he strips naked and gets in the tub to have "tubby time" with his not-yet-born son, you just want Aaron to get the fuck out of there. This guy is weird. But, at the same time, he could just be a really weird guy who doesn't know social norms. Is he a creeper? Will he kill Aaron? Drug him or other things? Or, is he just overly strange without knowing typical limits.

The number of times that Josef freaks Aaron out in the opening sequences as a joke puts the audience at unease from the get go, but at the same time he's hilarious and charming. And, it's Duplass' acting that sells the whole movie. Most of the audience has probably met the weirdo character that Josef is playing. Maybe he wants to sell a mattress. Maybe he asked you on a date on OK Cupid or Grindr or whatever. Maybe he works at your movie theater. Maybe he's a Steve Buscemi character. Creep plays on our trust that people are good at heart, even if they're creeping us the fuck out, as long as they don't hurt us. Without Duplass' winning grin, the movie would probably fall apart like so many houses of cards.

Duplass and Brice stripped the found footage genre to the barest minimum. All music is in scene. All sound it in scene. There is only the one video camera used (though, one shot does seem rather without cause, and it bugged the shit out of me). You may be annoyed at Aaron for going along with Josef as far as he does, but these characters aren't out to ANNOY you. Even Josef is a winning character who is just intended to creep you the fuck out.

With a bullet-train short running time of 82 minutes, Creep will hit you like a ton of bricks. This is a movie that constantly sets you on edge, even if you're laughing your way through it. It's completely playful approach to the horror genre makes Creep genuinely well...creepy. This is a blast of a movie, and I wish it well in it's journey. Because, it's an amazing ride.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Intramural (2014): Yet Another Sports Parody Film

Intramural (2014)
dir: Andrew Disney

SIFF 2014 Film #26

One of the hardest things about reviewing small ambitionless movies is trying to decide how to say that these small, tiny, independent movies which have no hard feelings towards anybody are not very good. Or, worse, that they're merely OK, but that the movie itself is well worn subject matter that has been tackled time and again.

And, so it is with Intramural, a movie that parodies sports movies and college movies in ways that you've seen 10 times already. In Intramural, Caleb Fuller is about to marry some rich daughter of a powerful law firm in order to shore up a job prospect. Suddenly, he has a crisis where he wants to make up an Intramural team one last time before he goes off to live his pre-determined life path. So, he has to get the band back together, run through the usual sports movie tropes, including the now requisite parody of sports movie tropes, to win the big game and get the other, better for him, girl.

We've seen it 100 times before, but, as with improv shows, where these movies are supposed to shine are in the freshness of the jokes. Unfortunately, Intramural isn't all that fresh either. Bradley Jackson's script for Intramural relies heavily on well-worn treads of having a jock fraternity, a ragtag team, and a well-meaning coach in a wheelchair straight out of Upright Citizens Brigade. Periodically, Intramural has some gem moments, such as the coach coming up with the nonsensical advice "You've got to shit on the ceiling," and then actually having the team help Caleb to shit on the ceiling. Or, a particularly clever sports movie parody montage. And, the two guys who hang around the bleachers being sub-ESPN sports announcers for the teams are particularly genius. But, beyond these few moments, much of Intramural is rather expected and dull, kind of like a Saturday Night Live episode. And, I'm not talking about the good ones.

I suspect that if you were drunk or stoned and particularly liked the sports movie parody genre, you could do worse than Intramural. People in the audience seemed to enjoy the easy going SNL-inspired humor of the genre. And, if you like late-era SNL, you may actually enjoy Intramural. But, really, the only truly original part of it was the gay stereotyped character who also wanted to be a magician. Despite the semi-stereotype (gay, goth magician), he wasn't the butt of any gay jokes, or even the butt of the stereotype jokes...which is something I guess. He was funny. Yay progress!

On the other hand, the women are reduced to 2 character, one being an annoying whiny rich bitch, and the other being the epitome of the trophy trope. And, yet again, there is a team of butch women who call themselves Manhaters and are the butch lesbian bull dyke stereotypes. All of which is, "Yawn." Seriously, guys? Move on...

All in all, though, Intramural is far too lazy of a movie to fully enjoy. It's probably best as one of those movies you'll pull up late night on a Friday or Saturday still drunk or high with a couple of your friends and you don't want to watch anything that will make you go, "Whoa!" It's silly enough to make you get the high giggles, and will otherwise entertain your easily entertained friends. But, watching it sober in the middle of the day is a chore.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Babadook (2014): Motherhood is hard

The Babadook (2014)
dir: Jennifer Kent

SIFF 2014 Film #25

Raising a kid is hard. Raising a kid as a grief-stricken single mother is harder. Harder still is when your kid is going through a violently hyperactive strange phase and doesn't mesh well with the other kids, causing you to be isolated from all the social groups you used to belong to.

Such is the premise of the new Australian horror movie, The Babadook, a film about the things that go bump in the night in your head. The Babadook is a genuinely creepy horror movie from first-time director, Jennifer Kent, which completely takes you by surprise and can make you freak out yourself. The young guy behind me was crying and practically hyperventilating by the end of the movie, and the audience I saw it with was pretty much enraptured in the movie. The less you know about The Babadook, the better it is. It's not gory, and is one of those old-school horror movies with a slow burn like The Omen (attention Ti West, this is how it's actually done), and once you feel the film's icy grip wrap around you, it doesn't let go until it's almost over. It's not slick or even all that polished, but it works all the better for it. Stop Reading. Now. Go see it.

You've been warned.

Amelia is a single mother frequently plagued by nightmares of the car crash she was in on her way to the hospital which took the life of her husband. Now, her son's birthday is the same as the anniversary of her husband's death, thus ensuring that her son is a constant reminder of her dead husband. Seven years later, Amelia's son, Samuel, is guilty of being a hyperactive boy with an overactive imagination. He has nightmares about the things that goes bump in the night, creates weapons to protect him and his mother, has screaming temper tantrums, and otherwise acts out to test his boundaries. When his school needs to further isolate Sam from his peers due to a homemade weapon he brings to school, his mother has to pull him out of school and keep him at home, fighting to keep her job as a nurse at a nursing home.

Further complicating measures is Amelia's sister, Claire, who is increasingly tired of Claire's depression and inability to deal with the death of her husband. "It's been seven years," Claire semi-justly observes regarding Amelia's feelings. Claire's daughter had been born close enough to Samuel's birthday to have joint parties, but far enough to be distanced from the memory of Amelia's husband.

One night, at bedtime, Samuel discovers a book called Mister Babadook, which seems like a well drawn pop-up children's story in the vein of Edward Gorey. The Babadook is a dark figure which comes knocking at the door, then haunts whoever denies that it exists. Mister Babadook gives Sam nightmares, and he believes that The Babadook exists even talking to thin air when it's not around. Amelia tries destroying the book, but it keeps returning to haunt her and her son.

First-time director Jennifer Kent is wise enough to know that what scares us in the middle of the night isn't the scary things that go bump, but the things that run through our head. Whether its the death of a husband, the fear that we're not able to provide for our family, or that we're not good enough, smart enough, popular enough, rich enough, all of these things fully take hold in our subconscious as we lay ourselves to sleep. These are the fears which, if strong enough, can keep somebody up at night. By making a monster movie where the monster is a pure metaphorical manifestation of the character's insecurities and aggression, Kent has made a horror movie that resonates with everybody.

Kent has also taken the extra step of making Samuel as annoying as possible. He isn't lovable. He is as annoying as all of the people say he is. Amelia isn't delusional about Samuel. Neither is anybody else. He's a child that would drive anybody to their wits end. When Amelia starts lashing out at Samuel, the audience feels she's justified because of Samuel's terrible behavior. When she lashes out at anybody she interacts with, it's because they're acting rather badly themselves. The Babadook is able to put you in the isolated mindset of Amelia who has refused to deal with her grief by putting on a strong face and praying for the best. Better still, Samuel isn't just an annoying brat, he's somebody who is starting to realize the full weight of the absence of his father. He starts wanting to know who his father is, something that has been denied to him by Amelia because she still hasn't dealt with her own loss, and is unable to broach the subject without breaking down.

The best horror is rooted in real-life tragedy. The Babadook has that in spades. It's a brilliant, frightening, intelligent horror movie that should hopefully make it's mark in the horror landscape.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Wetlands (2014): Women can be vulgar too

Wetlands (2014)
(aka Feuchtgebiete)
dir: David Wnendt

SIFF 2014: Film #24

Wetlands is about to change a game. One of the major complaints is that there aren't enough (read, virtually any) female-driven gross out comedies. These comedies have generally been the realm of men, and delegated to phallo-centric film making. And, when women try to get in on the game, frequently they turn out either polarizing (Dirty Love), too sensitive (Bridesmaids), or too immoral (Bachelorette). Finally, I think the blend is just right for a completely unabashedly vulgar teen gross out sex comedy that's also female driven.

Wetlands, referring to a woman's vagina, centers on Helen, a just over teenage girl who also has hemorrhoids. How do we know she has hemorrhoids? She tells us in the opening scene as she's skateboarding barefoot. Then, she walks, barefoot, into the most disgusting public toilet in all of Germany, that's got 2" of standing water in it, where she proceeds to put hemorrhoid cream in her anus. After which, she spots a dry urine stain on the toilet rim, and we zoom into the public hair going into a microbial representation of the hair as the title credits play.

The most disgusting public toilet in Germany visually has a direct recollection of Trainspotting's most disgusting toilet, intentionally. The surreality of Trainspotting is a heavy influence in this film about a teenager trying to conquer her ass problems via surgery while also trying to pick up her hot male nurse and get her parents back together. Wetlands isn't linear, straight-forward, or polite, frequently covered in bodily fluids of all kinds, both male and female. Nothing is taboo in this call for Helen to fully embrace her body and her sexuality.

Wetlands sees the line it shouldn't cross, and gleefully runs past it at rocket speed and ends up about 20 miles away from it. Right from the start, it doesn't want to be polite, and it's punk girl aesthetic informs you that this isn't your "I'm going to be a polite, behaved woman" type comedy. Helen doesn't care about societal norms, and instead goes after what she wants. Indeed, the male nurse she unabashedly seduces is treated as a trophy that is torn between Helen and his kinda-ex-girlefriend Valery, a student doctor in the same hospital. Wetlands is a girl power film in the full sense of embracing a previously male-dominated genre.

While Wetlands is hilarious and crude, like the best gross out films, it actually has a heart to make you care about the story behind all the gross out gags. Not only does it show you a finger going into a butt, it makes you care about the person who possesses that butt. Helen comes off as a crude, slightly confused teenager who needs to figure things out, and needs somebody to love. Everything she says is meant to provoke a reaction in all of her audiences, on screen and off. Wnendt makes sure that we don't think that Helen is a completely immoral degenerate, but merely a girl who needs to provoke her way through to maturity.

I've been waiting for Wetlands for ages. I have been wanting a female-driven gross out that's hilarious, takes-no-prisoners, and doesn't care about being polite about anything. Helen never apologizes for being who she is, and neither does the film. Which is exactly the type of entitlement that is endearing in male gross out comedies. Helen is a perfect gross out character, and Wetlands is an exemplary insertion in this genre.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

To Be Takei (2014): It's OK to be Takei's Autobiography

To Be Takei (2014)
dir: Bill Weber, Jennifer M Kroot

SIFF 2014 Film #23

George Takei is one of those stars who has known how to continually adapt and build his brand. He has changed several times over the years, and his brand has always seemed to be honest, which makes him one of the best, most ingenious, stars of our generation. To Be Takei commemorates George Takei in all his fabulous glory, and it's almost exactly what you'd expect from one of the biggest stars on Facebook.

Takei's life began as a kid in California, when at a very young age his whole family was sent to a Japanese internment camp during WWII. From those humble beginnings, Takei made his way into Hollywood, starred in a beloved tv series, became a politician, became a movie star, became an internet star, then became the producer and writer of a musical about the Japanese internment camp. To Be Takei tackles all of these subjects taking us behind the scenes of the brand of George Takei to give us a bit more of the personal than we usually get, just like in most of these commemorative films.

To Be Takei serves as a life chronicle, a career retrospective, a commercial for Takei's new musical Allegiance, a bit of life with George and Brad (George Takei's husband), and a call for gay rights. Crammed into 90 minutes, To Be Takei never really delves too deeply to penetrate much more than the surfaces of anything, including the Japanese internment (for that, you'll have to see Allegiance), but does pass the time aimably enough. Even the warts and all approach amounts to George ribbing everybody about their weight, and Brad semi-adorably worrying and kvetching about everything in order to keep the brand happy and rolling. Brad serves as George's manager as well as lover, and he seems happy about that.

It's hard to be disappointed in To Be Takei as it has so many topics to cover, and does it all entertainingly, but the surface-level lack of depth to any of the topics still disappoints, especially when it comes to either of the really tough topics: internment camps and coming out. Takei didn't publicly come out until after Prop 8 in 2008, but had been dating Brad since 1989(ish). Yet, he doesn't delve into how he stayed in the closet for so long, what he thought of that, and how it affected him. The gay rights topic gets about as much time as the Shatner "feud." The bulk of the film seems to be the internment camp, but much of it is as more informational than completely emotional. It's also separated out into sections as a recurring thread throughout the film, thus never breaking out into a full-on weepy section of depth.

If you really want to know what's on Takei's mind in what he wants to project to the world, To Be Takei is like an OK star-autobiography. Not that long, slightly self-effacing, no real dirt on anybody, and a good summary of a life, but not deep enough to truly get to know the subject (or, alternately, for the star to bury themselves in). It's crowd-pleasing and winning, just like Takei himself, but can I help it if I really wanted more?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Long Distance (2014): The Illusion of Closeness

Long Distance (2014)
(aka 10.000 km)
dir: Carlos Marques-Marcet

SIFF 2014 Film #22

Maybe you've been in a relationship where one side had to go abroad for a year. Maybe you know somebody who has. Most proponents of temporarily long-term long-distance separations frequently say that with the new technology, it will almost be like living with your significant other. You can Skype across the world for next to nothing, and stay intimate via cyber sex. You can talk on the phone, text, e-mail, send photos, converse...it'll be like living at home!

Carlos Marques-Marcet's cinematic debut closely examines the claims that a relationship will be able to sustain the same intimacy over a long period separation. Sergei is a student who is hoping to become a teacher in Barcelona. Alexandra is a photographer who was chosen for a year-long residency in Los Angeles. We meet Sergei and Alex in an opening 17-minute single shot of a morning in Barcelona, where they discuss having a baby before Alex discovers she was selected for Los Angeles. The camera captures the intimacy and familiarity of the couple as they wake up and perform their routines together, as their harmony is never broken up by the force of the editing.

The remaining 90 minutes is following the couple as they cling to each other, and then start to discover life outside each other until life apart has changed them in ways to the point where communication is more difficult than ever. Sergei and Alex believe that the modern wonders of the world - Phone, Texting, Facebook, Skype - will keep them close to each other, and that their relationship can sustain the long-term absence. Marques-Marcet denotes each subsequent scene with the number of days into the separation they are, constantly making us aware of the toll that time takes, even when technology is presenting the illusion of closeness.

To tie in the message of technology being illusory, Alex's project is all about the presence of technology in life. She begins by taking photos of hidden antennae in plain sight, such as in elephant statues. Later, she moves on to a more obvious comparison when she films car rides through city streets, and places them side by side with Google Maps going through the same path, hammering home the point that technology brings us the illusion of being worldly, but it really is all fake.

Sergei and Alex are but mere ciphers for the audience. Marques-Marcet doesn't put much to their character beyond their history together and their career ambitions. Sergei's big dominant characteristic is that he's a Spanish man who has a little bit of a machismo issue, where he dreams that his career is the most important. Alex is a modern woman striving to live her own life and have her own career. Beyond that, we learn little about these characters, and that's almost the point. Technology has a similar effect on all relationships, when we can leave the screen and be absent at our leisure. When we can edit and re-edit e-mails instead of speaking from the heart.

While Long Distance may be working in broader strokes than a movie about a specific relationship, it's important to realize that it's not really about this specific couple. Marques-Marcet is more interested in how technology affects us, and how it deceives us. If you let it, Long Distance will make you question your own reactions, and you will look at whether their reactions will be similar to your own. Or, maybe you'll have a different response. Maybe you'll be frustrated at one character or the other. But, Long Distance is full of questions and insights that I haven't seen tackled yet. Original, dramatic, and entertaining, Long Distance captures what technology actually represents.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Helicopter Mom (2014): Overbearing Your Child

Helicopter Mom (2014)
dir: Salome Breziner

SIFF 2014 Film #21

With one film, Nia Vardalos made a name for herself, and also became a personality that nobody can stand. She is a dominating, embarrassing, loud, brassy personality who seems to actually have little knowledge that she comes off as annoying and brash. So, it is with refreshing admiration that she used her persona to maximal effect in Helicopter Mom, the new LGBTQ coming out movie by Salome Breziner.

Helicopter Mom is, ostensibly, about Lloyd (Jason Dolley), a 17-year-old senior in high school in Venice, CA. But, in actuality, much as the title intones, Helicopter Mom is actually about Lloyd's mom, Maggie (Vardalos), who has no knowledge of her son's boundaries and frequently goes to extreme lengths to try to make her son happy but ends up making his life miserable. One such example is Maggie putting a silk scarf and floppy bright orange sun hat on her son, and then pushing him onto the Venice boardwalk, right into a big bunch of bikers. At the start of the picture, Lloyd's father has been long out of the picture.

Lloyd, a slim bookish nerdy type, desires to go to NYU in order to be away from his mother. But, Maggie, being a single mother, can't afford it on her own. But, when she gets the idea that Lloyd might be gay due to nasty rumor mill PTA parents, and semi-verified by Lloyd's late sexual development (no boyfriends, no girlfriends, no sex talk, etc), she brings Lloyd's father Max (Mark Boone Junior) back into the picture, and also signs him up for an out gay scholarship.

While the plot points are totally sitcom worthy (bringing the father back into the picture, a zany gay scholarship, setting Lloyd on dates without telling him, etc), the actual movie feels fresh because Salome doesn't actually care about making Maggie being adorably zany. In the (extremely terrible) opening credits, the title is initially Hell Mom until a cartoon helicopter drops in to change the word to "Helicopter." Nia's completely abrasive and obnoxious role as an overbearing mother from hell cuts through the usual treacle to create a good mix of grating and funny.

There are some also amazing points to Helicopter Mom, some of which haven't been seen since But I'm A Cheerleader. Lloyd's debate isn't fueled by self-hatred, and is actually a genuine debate between being gay or straight or bi. The conversations Lloyd has with his father about his sexuality are scripted extremely well and actually sound like mature dissections of modern sexuality. Even though the whole plot is aimed for the Prom, the climax at the prom is more interesting than typical boy kisses object of affection.

If there is one major complaint about Helicopter Mom it would be that Lloyd gets put on the back burner for the first half of the movie. Maggie pretty much owns the first half of the movie, and it's only when Max is introduced to hold Maggie back does Lloyd (and Jason) get some valuable screen time. Part of this is also due to the script being more about Nia than Lloyd until Lloyd comes around.

Helicopter Mom feels like a modern coming out movie appropriate for 13-year-olds on up. Despite an unnecessary and cheeky diagram of penis, Helicopter Mom is appropriate for teenagers and great for saying that struggling with your sexuality is OK, a modern message. With a lack of nudity (there is a brief scene of shirtless guys playing soccer, and Venice beach shirtlessness) and lascivious lusting, Helicopter Mom keeps it all about personality and tastes and not about body parts, a commendable feat. The sitcom tonality fits in with the age appropriateness of the film, and the originality of the content makes Helicopter Mom the best teen LGBTQ film of the festival.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Circle (2014): The History of Gay, Swiss Edition

The Circle (2014)
(aka Der Kreis)
dir: Stefan Haupt

SIFF 2014 Film #20

I'm guilty of being America-centric when it comes to my knowledge of gay history. I know a lot about the history of being gay in America, including pre-Stonewall, and I know about Germany's infamous Paragraph 175 (which has a good documentary, btw). But, I had never heard about Der Kreis (The Circle), a magazine of gay fiction/erotica and photography that also served as a communication underground.

In Switzerland, being gay wasn't illegal. But, it was still frowned upon. Being outed as a homosexual could end your career, and also bring around harassment. But, still, one could distribute material in plain brown envelopes, as long as it passed the censors, and one could throw big gay balls that were seasonal gay megaparties.

To give the history of The Circle a human element, and also to demonstrate how this is not the complete story, Haupt infused the movie with a romance between two men, Rapp and Ostertag, who met at a ball one night, where Rapp was performing as a drag queen. They fell in love, and their relationship sustained the years as they're the characters telling the story in modern times.

Haupt made The Circle with a structure of blending docudrama recreations and actual modern day interviews of Rapp and Ostertag, filling in some of the holes with other interviews of journalists, family members and ex lovers of people who were part of The Circle. The recreations take up the bulk of the film, but the interviews are fascinating, especially since Rapp and Ostertag are two of the cutest 80-year-old gay men you could ever meet.

The Circle goes through the full story of The Circle, from how it was started all the way through how it was destroyed by constant harassment from the police after a series of murders rocked the gay community. While there is probably a certain amount of dramatic license taken, Haupt wisely uses the interviews to keep the maudlin dramatics grounded in reality. There are police beatings, and suicides, and harassment, all of which are representative of larger movements in the gay lifestyle at the time.

The balance between the modern talking heads and the maudlin dramatics really gives The Circle a freshness that few docudramas and period pieces have ever reached. The importance of The Circle is highlighted by the tale of survival of the two talking heads. The weight of the situation is balanced by the sweetness. But, really, the interview/re-enactment format is taken to new levels in The Circle, feeling like the an answer to the new dilemma of Fact/Fiction/Faction in the documentary genre.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Boys (2014): Yet Another Coming Of Age Gay Film

Note the shallow depth of field, and the out of focus trees.
Boys (2014)
(aka Jongens)
dir: Mischa Kamp

SIFF 2014 Film #19

I know I was just complaining about The Way He Looks for falling into the cliche traps of all the coming-of-age, coming-out gay teen movies, but Boys makes that movie seem like a masterpiece.

Boys is a new coming-out film from the Netherlands where the defining characteristic of the central boy is he's a track star. Sieger, the 15-year-old track star, gets promoted to the next level of track with his friend Stef. While competing on that level, he meets Marc, a boy who seems to be a little more free and is already accepting of his gay status. Marc and Sieger start a covert relationship, while Sieger struggles between his gay identity and his hetero identity, having a new girlfriend Jessica, whose friend Kim is dating Stef. Torn between Jessica and Marc, Sieger must confront his new found sexuality.

Since that's about enough of a plot for a 30 minute after school special, Boys adds in the extra complication of Eddy, Sieger's rebellious older brother. Eddy likes to ride a moped, though his father has forbidden it for some reason. Eddy also has problems at the lumber mill, and does all sorts of rebellious behaviors.

Mischa Kamp fills Boys wall to wall with dreamily out of focus shots, slow-motion, and super closeups to pad the running time. If you want to play a deadly drinking game with Boys it's drink every time there's an extreme close-up of anything, from a hand tugging at the leg of shorts, to a shoe to two lips kissing. Extra hardcore edition is when there's a super narrow depth of field and everything outside of the focus is blurry and stylish. This is the new status quo and I am now really tired of it. It kind of fits the overly sweet and shallow topic matter of Boys, but it's so overused here that it becomes ridiculous.

Not to mention, Eddy's story line makes absolutely no sense. The final scene with Eddy is completely dumb. And, this is the second movie with a scene which shows gay boys bonding by tandem riding bikes, standing one behind the other. The other one being The Way He Looks. No, I'm not making that up. It just shows how generic these two movies actually are.

There is absolutely no intentional humor in Boys. Unlike The Way He Looks, Boys doesn't regard being a teen as fun, but as a series of emotionally sweet scenes which are all out of a melodrama with no humor injected into them. These boys barely laugh in this film. It's all smiles and furtive looks. It's just such a serious drama.

As mentioned in the review for The Way He Looks, Boys utilizes the new trope of not actually telling the parents that you're gay. Which is more fucked up here than in The Way He Looks because Sieger actually pussyfoots his gay identity around his father and brother, and that coming out isn't regarded as important even though the father figures heavily into the film

Boys is a pretty but shallow film about another teenager discovering his sexuality. There is no best female friend in this movie (surprise!), and the boy seems overly normal and rather sporty. Which is nice for a change. But, it's just so dry and cliche that these new innovations pale in comparison to the downfalls of the rest of the movie. Skip it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Palestine Stereo (2013): Subverting Politics

Palestine Stereo (2013)
dir: Rashid Masarawi

SIFF 2014 Film #18

Palestine Stereo is a light-hearted episodic comedy about living under Israeli Occupation, using the episodic comedy as a vehicle to communicate the various absurdities of Palestian life and easy-to-swallow messages of Pro-Palestinan morality. Masarawi has turned down the irony to make a film that is more directly piercing, almost to the point of being heavy handed, and made a film that lightly documents the injustices of occupation.

Samy and Stereo are the movie's central characters who are trying to escape Palestine in order to seek asylum and a life of sanity in Canada. Stereo's apartment, pre-film, had been bombed by Israeli forces while he was out singing at a wedding, and while Samy was there to fix the electrical. The bombing killed Stereo's wife, and left Samy deaf and mute, a pointed allegory for how Israeli occupation strives to if not destroy Palestine, then keep it from communicating effectively with the outside world. Devastated by the disaster, the sane decision is to flee Palestine and go live among the calm. But, Samy's fiancee, representing the call of the Palestinian nation, tries to keep Samy from fleeing to Canada, saying essentially that fleeing is a cowardly act.

However, Samy and Stereo need to have $10,000 in a bank before they can be approved for Canadian citizenship. Their scheme is to buy a shoddy ex-ambulance that's been riddled with bullet holes, and borrow a stereo setup in order to make the money so they can leave. This allows them to go around Palestine setting up audio equipment everywhere it is needed. They go to protest rallies against Israeli occupation when the occupation moves to bulldoze olive trees or other such movements. They go to political conferences and rallies where the politicians make the same pro-Palestine speeches over and over and over again to the point that Stereo knows what they're going to say. They go to weddings and celebrations. It's all a documentation of the variety of life under occupation.

Though Palestine Stereo is a bit direct, it's easy-to-swallow capsule makes the direct messaging go down smoothly. It's a political allegory through and through, while also noting the various absurdities that Masarawi perceives to be part of life in general. Religion is blind while Palestine is deaf and mute. And, Stereo is our observer of all of this.

Masarawi's light comedy touch to even the heavily political scenarios makes Palestine Stereo a required viewing to see the dissection of Palestinian politics in a way that both indirectly challenges its own government while also challenging the occupation while also dealing in its own sloganeering. It's clever in the way it masks its intent in order to deliver a message that might be considered unpopular or even criminal.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Beneath (2014): Losing Your Way

Beneath (2014)
dir: Ben Ketai

SIFF 2014 Film #17

The absolutely non-descript title of Beneath is the least of the problems for this low-rent rip-off of The Descent.

Beneath opens with a title card saying that this was inspired by a true story. It's not. It claims that this is what happened when a bunch of miners were trapped in a Colorado collapse. It's not. That's just crass capitalization on a national tragedy, which marks how Beneath is a crass capitalization on The Descent and other national fears.

The first scene of Beneath introduces us to Samantha Marsh, who is collecting video tributes to her father, George, after hours in a miner bar. George, played by the calmly intense Jeff Fahey, is going to retire from his long-term job, and Sam is back in town after getting a degree in environmental law, intent on taking on the dirty coal industry (among others) to make a cleaner way of life. At the bar, the guys challenge her to come do a day's hard labor before her dad retires and she returns to her white collar life.

The next day, Sam heads down with the guys, and the mine collapses. There are injuries abound. But, then things start to be heard and seen. Two of the other miners are missing, probably still trapped deeper in the mine, but while Sam and the rest of the guy are staying in a holding room, the sounds convince them that the two missing miners are around. Everybody goes exploring, and...yeah, you know where this is going.

There are a number of problems with Beneath, and many of them stem from the changes that the producers made to the original script. The original script had Sam being a journalist doing a report on the miners, and was originally in a found footage format. The original script was also completely supernatural in nature, being about hauntings and possessions. But, the final version reworks the script to be a movie about people possibly going crazy, but doesn't entirely drop the supernatural elements of the original script, balancing between the two. Which undercuts both elements. The supernatural begins to make no sense, and the insanity really begins to make no sense.

In fact, the changes also make Samantha become less of a capable heroine and more of just a crazy stupid out-of-control woman. The film focuses mainly on her experience, but she is either confronted by the supernatural (sane) or goes completely crazy for no reason other than a mere few hours in a holding cell with a bunch of dudes.

The large topics that Beneath brings up get dropped fairly quickly. That topics of blue-collar vs white-collar, male vs female, and environmentalist vs miner are all dropped in the first half and never addressed again. The movie could become a metaphor about the coal workers vs the enviornmentalists, but it would be a really really asshole metaphor.

Does Beneath work as a horror movie? That depends on who you are. I was whelmed by the stupidity of the lead character, and the insanity doesn't have a believable build up for me. But, the cinematograhy and the pacing is nice. The woman in front of me screamed at many of the jump scenes. Other people in my audience seemed to really like Beneath, but the guy next to me walked out on it and many others seemed not happy with it. If you're susceptible to claustrophobic horror, you'll probably like it. Because, Beneath looks fairly nice, but it's kind of really dumb.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Internet's Own Boy (2014): Aaron Swartz, Internet icon

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)
dir: Brian Knappenberger

SIFF 2014 Film #16

Aaron Swartz, one of the rebel heroes of the internet. He's probably best known for being a co-founder of Reddit, and walking away from his job after Conde-Nast purchased it. But, he's so much more than just a co-founder of a very popular populist-seeming website.

The Internet's Own Boy, a new profile crossed with agitprop documentary, documents Swartz's life from his prodigy youth beginnings to his online blossoming to his later activism and the trial, ending with notes of hope about the influence that Swartz had on the internet and internet rebellion. Knappenberger, who previously directed We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, created a vast documentary gaining the participation of Swartz's family, his friends, lovers, and collaborators. Being constructed in a year following Swartz's death, The Internet's Own Boy is surprisingly thorough and enjoyable.

Swartz started as a child prodigy in Highland Park, and worked on developing the base RSS code as a teenager. By 15 he had also found his way into the W3C and working on the Creative Commons programs. After working on Reddit, he would found Watchdog.net and then Demand Progress. Swartz also got in trouble for downloading a lot of JStor's academic journals from MIT, and was going to be the "example" by the US government who were throwing the book at him with 35 years in jail plus millions of dollars in fines. Swartz died by hanging in an apparent suicide in January 2013.

The interviews with Swartz's peers and family are enlightening, and knowing that Swartz will be dead by the end of the movie really brings out the suddenness of the death as he was still ongoing with some of his projects. The urgency of The Internet's Own Boy is told in the dates. Swartz died less than 18 months ago. As the dates start to come up 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, and the names Daniel Issa and Elisabeth Warren pop up, and then SOPA comes through...the knowing audience begins to realize that this isn't a movie in the past. This is NOW. All this happened in the past decade and a half, essentially. This is, frankly, amazing.

Knappenberger isn't out to make a new form of documentary. But, using the traditional form of documentary, he really straightens out a lot of story lines into a straight-forward non-confusing narrative that keeps the praise focused on Swartz's accomplishments and the rage focused on the injustices he was fighting and faced with. There are many story lines that Knappenberger has to weave together while some of them were already ongoing before Swartz entered into their subsequent story, and he does it well.

It's worth seeing this film if only just to learn about the stuff that the internet is doing and why it is important and how it affects you. Swartz was an icon to a lot of people, being a figurehead to many people along the way. He's influential and possibly a bit polarizing. But, to ignore him would be stupid. He was a key person of the underground, and he will be sorely sorely missed.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Willow Creek (2014): Correcting The Blair Witch Project

Willow Creek (2014)
dir: Bobcat Goldthwait

SIFF 2014 Film #15

The found footage genre has a lot of inherent problems to it, 2/3 of them are related to "how did this shot even happen" and the other 1/3 are related to "Why did somebody edit this, nevertheless like this?" In reviewing V/H/S, Film Crit Hulk at Badass Digest wrote about these problems with some pretty intelligent reasoning to why these problems exist and what the problems actually are, and where they stem from. Bobcat Goldthwait seems to agree whole heartedly with Film Crit Hulk, and decided to fix all of the problems by attempting to make a closer-to-reality found footage movie. This time, centered around the search for Bigfoot.

Kelly and Jim are a young couple on the hunt for Bigfoot, intent on making a documentary about the Patterson-Gimlin film, a famous film with supposed sightings of Sasquatch. They travel to the town of Willow Creek, CA which is near the location of the filming of the footage and has made a name for themselves by capitalizing on the Bigfoot fame. They have Bigfoot motels and Bigfoot statues, and home of the Bigfoot burger. Willow Creek is a real town created for fans/believers of Bigfoot.

Kelly and Jim spend the first half of Willow Creek creating footage for their documentary by pointing out city signs, interviewing the locals, eating burgers, and listening to the locals state their opinions of the Bigfoot mythology. But, they're warned not to go to the site of the Bigfoot footage, yet they go there anyways. The second half of Willow Creek is a mini-recreation of The Blair Witch Project that runs through the gamut of found footage cliches.

Willow Creek runs a blessedly short 77 minutes, and is created like an actual found footage tape. The edits are all from the camera starting and stopping, with everything filmed in single takes. The sound is all completely diegetic. There is no art to the style of Willow Creek except that the no art style is exactly the purpose of Willow Creek, thus making it an art of its own. It plays like a home video.

But, it's only 77 minutes. Since we spend half of that time exploring the weird world of Willow Creek, CA, that only gives about 40 minutes to build the tension from 0, and ratchet it up to screaming. The too short running time keeps the tension from building as sufficiently as it should. Much of the built tension focuses on a central set piece that's actually far cornier than it should be, which builds into the question of whether this is satire or not.

Bobcat plays Willow Creek for keeps. The first half is all gentle humor and a bit of "I love these strange people living their life in Willow Creek, CA." But, the second half is all played as if it is genuine horror like The Blair Witch Project. If it doesn't entirely work as a horror movie unto itself, Willow Creek kind of works as a critique of The Blair Witch Project, and simultaneously points to how easy and how hard it is to make a sufficiently good horror movie.

I liked the movie as a mental exercise enough, but the borrowed plot points from The Blair Witch Project really kept me from enjoying it as a horror movie, plus the movie was too short to really pull me out of the distanced first half into the fully engaged second half. It's a miss, but it's a narrow miss that I can easily see would be polarizing between the "This was stupid and corny and pointless crowd" and the "this was genuinely scary" crowd.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead (2014): Nazi Zombies - Excessive Edition

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead
dir: Tommy Wirkola

SIFF 2014 Film #14

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead is the sequel to the Nazi zombie cabin-in-the-woods horror comedy out of Scandanavia. Dead Snow was a clever meta take on the genre, which poked loving fun at the cabin in the woods formulas as well as the zombie formula, all the while maximizing the horror, the comedy and the gore. Dead Snow was clever, hilarious, and witty, especially since it came before Cabin in the Woods (unlike Zombeavers).

Dead Snow 2: Red Vs Dead smartly abandons everything that made Dead Snow what it was. A straight continuation from the final moments of Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2 moves out of the mountains and into the lowlands. The lone survivor, Martin, now down one arm, is chased by the Nazi zombies who cling to his car. But, because he had a spare coin in his pocket, they come after him again. And, in a series of incidents, Herzog (the lead Nazi) also loses his right arm, before Martin's car goes flying off a cliff into the hinterlands.

The hospital that found Martin attached Herzog's arm to Martin, and Herzog attached Martin’s severed arm, thus forming the basis for the feud. With Herzog's zombie arm, Martin achieves zombie super strength, and both have the ability to resurrect dead people to form zombie armies. To further complicate matters, Martin is joined by the Zombie Squad, a group of adult geeks whose whole life is wrapped up in the zombie culture, and they desire to kill zombies.

Herzog had initially been on a task from Hitler to take over a town, now is going to finish up his mission and march on the town again. Stopping by a museum to grab a tank and some weapons, he continues on his march. Martin, however, also hit the museum, and decides to resurrect Russians to combat the Nazis, thus recreating WWII in zombie terms. You have the Americans, you have the Russians, the locals, and the Nazis.

The wit in Dead Snow 2 isn't in the reuse or meta parody of horror or horror comedy tropes. The wit stems from Dead Snow 2’s willingness to go as far as possible as frequently as possible. There are instances of comedic cruelty to zombies, and the violence and gore factor of Dead Snow 2 is constantly as far over the top as you can imagine. From dead kids to smashed heads to intestines a plenty, Dead Snow 2 never says no to a drop of blood in the film.

Coming in at 100 minutes, Dead Snow 2 doesn't feel bloated at all. Just about the time you’re wanting the final battle to kick in, the final battle does kick in. The developments and pacing come in swift, and Dead Snow 2 feels more like an ode to Peter Jackson originality than Sam Raimi parody. Dead Snow 2 has more in common with Dead Alive than with Evil Dead, even keeping the sardonic cruel wit that Peter Jackson brought to his early work.

Dead Snow 2 isn't a dumb movie. It’s smart and witty and trashy and just about the perfect midnight movie. It doesn't run too long. It doesn't let its pacing drag, keeping the audience from falling asleep. The violence and gore factor are over the top. It's quite brilliant in how clever it actually is.

Required Viewing.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Way He Looks (2014): A Blind Coming Out Story

The Way He Looks (2014)
dir: Daniel Ribiero

SIFF 2014 Film #13

I am so fucking sick of coming-of-age LGBTQ films where nobody is really evil, and all the tension is from coming out of the closet and getting your first boyfriend. I realize that this is a legitimate genre, and needs to be updated for every generation that comes of age, but…goddammit, I am so fucking sick of it. It’s my problem, and it’s not the fault of any specific movie, but if I never see another teenager struggle for their freedom while also coming out of the closet, I’ll be a happy happy faggot.

The Way He Looks adds in the complication of the main teenager, Leo, being blind and thus giving him overprotective parents who seek to protect him given his disability. But, otherwise it runs through the usual gay teenage tropes. It gives him his teenage female best friend, who kind of has an unrequited crush on him. It gives him a new interloper best friend, whom he is intended to fall in love with. It gives him the bullies who make fun of him and call him gay before he even comes out. It gives him a desire to escape the town he lives in. It’s all so…done.

That being said, The Way He Looks isn’t BAD so much as it is TIRED. If you’ve seen the usual coming-of-age stories, then The Way He Looks will hold no surprises. The best scene is the mid-credits tag that has nothing to do with anything. The second best scene is Leo learning how to shave from his father, as his father talks with him about a student exchange program.

The Way He Looks isn’t poorly constructed either. It has the semi-soft, twee, limited-palette, limited focus dreamy look that so many indie movies have had in recent years. That look is fine, if you’re into that, but I’m starting to get tired of it after seeing so many many movies look so so similar. They’re all looking at sweet emotions that are just so touching.

Basically, The Way He Looks has come up too late in many of the tropes it puts out. It’s not bad, if you’re wanting another gay teenage coming of age story, only with no real rebellion. The worst thing that Leo does is sneak out at night to look at an eclipse. Or, maybe it’s drinking a whole bunch of vodka and then going swimming on a class camping trip. But, the rebellion isn’t really all that rebellious. The closest to an actual negative emotion you feel for any of the characters is frustration at their inability to communicate.

The Way He Looks has an interesting point of view in that neither Leo nor his object of affection are really conflicted about their sexuality, but more conflicted about the outside acceptance. Much of the tension comes over whether each of them wants to risk queering their friendship for the risk of dating each other, rather than "I can't <b>REALLY</b> be gay, can I?" and also rather than most of it coming from the bullies or the parents.

There is a new trope that is coming around in the coming out movie where the kid doesn't actually come out to his parents. In both this, and the 2014 Netherlands film <i>Boys</i>, the central figure comes out to maybe 2 friends, but never confronts his parents. There is no blessed acceptance, nor a fiery condemnation. That situation is never resolved in either film, creating the one new trope in modern gay film.

If you want an easy going non-descript coming-of-age story out of Portugal with skinny boys who get naked once or twice, then you’ll probably love The Way He Looks. It’s probably the perfect film during which you could make out (or more) with your boyfriend. But, if you’ve seen all of the coming of age stories, and are looking for a new twist on the genre, or something that maybe even reflects how the youth of today actually looks at the world, then skip it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Lilting (2014): Posthumously Gay

Lilting (2014)
dir: Hong Khaou

SIFF 2014 Film #12

Chinese traditionalism meets English modernism in Lilting, a movie exploring death and homosexuality in the face of conservative parental figures.

Junn, the matriarchal figure of Lilting recently lost her son Kai. In the opening scene, she fantasizes having an ideal joyous conversation with Kai in the nursing home. She wishes she could live with Kai, except that she hates his “best friend,” Richard, whom she detests because she doesn’t understand how Richard and Kai fit together.

The complication of Lilting is that Junn never learned English. She speaks 6 separate dialects of Chinese-based language, but never picked up English. When Richard comes to visit Junn for the first time, they can’t communicate across the language barrier. Junn can only communicate with her new boyfriend, Alan, through intimate behaviors, and not through actual speaking. Richard, however, employs Vann in order to communicate.

Complicating matters further is that Kai had never come out to Junn. She was under the understanding that Richard was just a “friend” and not Kai’s long-term boyfriend. They lived together for years. They have a nice but small loft. When Junn had to move into a nursing home, she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t live with Kai, and resented Richard for the decisions.

Lilting is complicated, original, and tragic enough to move the heartstrings. When Richard struggles with Kai’s loss, but has to mask the depth of his loss to Kai’s mother while also trying to reach her across the void, it’s a genuinely moving emotion that isn’t played for the rafters, nor is it fine tuned to pull the heart strings. Sure, Lilting is suffering from shoegazing cinematic techniques, as it has an overuse of a bland color palette, soft focus, lens flares, and blurry imagery (just to name a few of its borrowed techniques), but the tender subject matter of debating whether or not to posthumously out your dead lover to his mother while also struggling with the desire to not leave her behind actually makes the whole film work.

Ben Wishaw (Richard), Pei-Pei Cheng (Junn) and Naomi Christie have a chemistry that emphasizes the complicated emotions and simmering tensions between the characters. Their work together fills the screen with complexity and raw emotion. But, the other triangle between Peter Bowles (Alan), Pei-Pei, and Naomi doesn’t work nearly as well, and it doesn’t resolve as neatly. The story feels almost as an emphasis for Junn’s stubbornness, and the difficulty that she has even with people she likes, though this could have been better communicated through more scenes with Junn and Kai.

The tragedy and sadness that permeates Lilting is what separates Lilting from all of the other LGBTQ films which are all celebrations of the lifestyle. Lilting is barely about the gay lifestyle, but instead about dealing with the closet as an adult. Its emphasis about conservative stances stemming from traditional behaviors, stubbornness, and a desire to keep everything as it was out of security. Lilting confronts the nature of the need for an adult closet, and how it obscures everything in life. Lilting is about marrying into family, even if they don’t like it. It's about all of these things and it hits all of its marks.