Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Festival Reviews #8: Various


(Markus Schleinzer)

Markus Schleinzer’s Michael is a well-made, if not entirely original, “thriller” of sorts. The film screened on Friday night at the Philadelphia Film Festival as part of their Graveyard Shift series, which tends to favor genre films, but which also sometimes surprises by slipping in a more esoteric and interesting film that festivals in Philadelphia don’t usually cater to. In the case of Michael, the film could have fit in just as easily anywhere else in the festival if it wasn’t for its subject matter: five months in the life of a pedophile who holds a young boy hostage in his basement. While this may sound sensational, it is handled by Schleinzer with a detached and minimalist tone, which helps imbue the film with an overwhelming sense of tension and unease. This is Schleinzer’s first film; he has worked with many well-known German and Austrian filmmaker as casting director, and the similarities to Haneke are undeniable, particularly Haneke’s late ‘80s/early ‘90s work such as The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video. Michael, despite its subject matter, is actually more subdued than a Haneke film, which works in the films favor. And what this film lacks in originality as far as story and themes it more than makes up for in cinematography, sound design, and mise en scene. The stark lighting, perfectly composed frames, and naturalist soundtrack work perfectly with the material. Michael is an intriguing and very well made film from a filmmaker who seems to understand how to put together a film.


(Martin Donovan)

Former Hal Hartley leading man Martin Donovan steps behind the camera for his first film as writer, director, and star with Collaborator: an interesting if ultimately uneven and, unfortunately not terribly well-written genre hybrid. Donovan’s film is certainly a noble failure, as the film tries to and often does defy its genre conventions, but at the same time it relies a little too heavily on clich├ęd dialogue and some clumsily handled sequences. The film is a welcome relief from the typical stale American Independent films and Donovan is trying to make something unusual and its tonal and genre shifts are sometimes interesting and even worthwhile, but it suffers the same fate many actor directed films suffer, which is that it becomes too much of an actor’s film, especially during the climactic scene, and doesn’t quite fully explore the conventions it wishes to defy. If more scenes had been well-written and if Donovan had allowed himself to expand on some of his cinematic ideas instead of paying so much attention to the performances, I think this film could have been much more successful than it was. As I said, I think it’s an interesting failure from one of the most intelligent and thoughtful actors around. I would certainly love to see Donovan make another film.

Actor, director, writer Martin Donovan and actor David Morse were on hand for an introduction and Q&A after the film. This was certainly a nice addition and probably helped fill the crowd out (the theater was more packed than I had initially expected). The questions from the audience were typically insightful and uninteresting, but Donovan did his best to answer them with charm and humor, which helped. Even though there was a nice sized crowd, I can’t say they were a particularly great crowd to watch a film at a film festival with. The people behind us sounded like they were on a date and wouldn’t shut up or stop kicking the seats. Several people were gasping at simple plot shifts, which was rather obnoxious. I always figure the best audiences will be at film festivals and then I go and find that in most cases that’s really not true. I am beginning to think that people have forgotten how to watch movies in the theater. Everyone seems to think they are at home on their couch instead of in a dark room with strangers who want you to be QUIET.


(Cristian Jimenez)

Bonsai is yet another film which proves that the most interesting cinema is no longer coming from America and Europe, but from places like Central and South America which were never considered cinematic powerhouses. This is a visually beautiful, narratively adventurous, and subtly executed film about art, love, relationships, and identity. Perhaps I have a soft spot for films about people trying to make art about their own experiences and getting lost in the work, but this film handles its subject and its shifting timeline with a refinement that seems to be lacking in European and American independent film. Jimenez’s shots are wonderfully composed and the elliptic and fractured narrative allows the audience to engage with the film more closely, letting us piece together plot points and ideas as we wish. Bonsai is the kind of cinema I liked to see; a film that doesn’t feel the need to over explain every idea and character, but allows room to breathe and grow with the viewer. Jimenez has proven to be a filmmaker to watch with a keen eye for mise en scene, composition, and elliptic storytelling. I am constantly blown away by South American cinema these days, and I look forward to these films far more than the typical French, American, or Italian fare which often looks and feel like a rehashing of the same bland nonsense. Latin American films are moving beyond the limits placed on them over the last 50 or so years (especially in Chile with Pinochet) and really trying to do something interesting and use storytelling in a new way.

I have to say I was disappointed by the turnout for this film, though. It was on a Sunday at noon, which from my experience hardly ever draws a large crowd. There was not even an introduction from anyone at the festival of any kind. I sometimes feel films like Bonsai get buried in this off time positions and get little or no push from the festival or from local newspapers and magazines. It is sad because I think a film like this is what going to a film festival is all about: a challenging and interesting film from a new director that you probably won’t be able to see in Philadelphia any time soon. I wish there had been more promotion and more people. I hope that people seek this film out, but more likely it will be buried under the rubble of the more well-known films of the festival.

The Day He Arrives

(Sang-soo Hong)

Another oddity from South Korean cinema, The Day He Arrives is a structurally ambitious and unusual film that ultimately does not come together. I found a lot in this film to admire: the long takes, black and white photography, elliptic narrative, and unexplained tonal shifts, but there was a lot about the film that was unappealing. It was a difficult film to find your feet in; it feels like it never really came together all that well. It perhaps relied too heavily on the ambiguous narrative. The film was oddly uncompelling despite its stylistic eccentricities, as much of the dialogue felt flat and underdeveloped. The films is also very male centric, which seems pretty typical of Asian cinema in general, and therefore the women seemed like stereotypes and were completely undeveloped and seemed stiff and one dimensional.

While a film like Bonsai is able to balance its style with its content to create a compelling and engaging film, The Day He Arrives feels a bit like artifice like the filmmaker had some interesting stylistic ideas and quickly threw some scenes together to fit into the odd structure, narrative, and tone. The narrative effect was decidedly Eastern in style and there was a feeling of the story often doubling back on itself, a constant reincarnation of the same story and events. I was interested and slightly intrigued, but ultimately felt very little about this film. I recommend it this film as something unusual and different from what you may typical see, but overall I find it to be a failed experiment.

Like Bonsai, The Day He Arrives was on a Sunday afternoon and the turnout at was mediocre for a film you surely won’t be seeing at the Ritz anytime soon. Again, there was no introduction and the audience was subjected to an endless loop of the festival trailer and corporate sponsor for twenty minutes before the film began; I am surprised no one shot themselves in the face having to watch the same cheesy trailer over and over again. I don’t understand the way festivals seem to give complete precedence to some of their films over others.


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