Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunday Day 3: Mad Genetic Scientists, Evil Unionized Teachers and Guilty Rich Folk

Five movies in one day is a common enough festival occurrence but I can't say I recommend it. It's fun to chat with fellow film fans when lining up for festival screenings but it can be highly embarrassing when someone asks you "Nathaniel, what did you see today?" and you can't remember. Speaking hypothetically [cough].

Yes, I did have to look up what I saw yesterday in order to share it with you now. Let's take them in ascending order of preference.

Waiting for Superman
This documentary about our nation's education crisis was riding a solid wave of buzz when I saw it. I can't share in the enthusiasm I kept hearing on buses and in lines. It's an easy familiar sit, using talking heads, animation interludes, and familiar TV history moments in the pursuit of its thesis. It's hard not to feel for the struggling adorable kids and parents that the film follows, though one has to wonder why the filmmakers chose to follow so many of them given how much statistical ground and educational ideologies the film also wants to cover (the sidebar issues are forgotten and revived haphazardly throughout). These kids are dreaming of college but statistics are against them. Most of them will end up in poorly performing middle schools and and "dropout factory" high schools. A lot of salient points were raised but this was one of those documentaries that left me wondering how much they'd left out in order to make their point, especially because the last act plays like a commercial for charter schools and constructs a clear movie villain out of teacher's union. C-

This horror/thriller was part of the 'Park City at Midnight' series. If you've ever been to a film festival you'll know that the midnight section is basically the punk rock bin. The films are meant to be raucous, offensive, strange or violent. They dream of "cult classic" status. Splice follows a romantic couple (played by Sarah Polley & Adrien Brody), who appear to be rock stars of the genetic engineering world. They even dress like they're about to perform for a club's worth of inebriated worshipful fans when they head in to the lab.

Sarah Polley makes a new friend. Literally.

The film kicks off with a smartly filmed "birth" sequence. The scientists create "Ginger and Fred" (hee), two lumpy slugs created from mixed and matched DNA. I won't bore you with the sci-fi gobbledy-gook science or spoil the icky surprises. Let is suffice to say that things don't go the way the scientists plan and their corporate sponsors ask them to redirect their efforts elsewhere. Our rock star engineers pretend to do just that. Meanwhile they continue playing god, making an animal human hybrid they name "Dren". Movies always punish scientists for playing god so you know where this is going. The best I can say for the feature is that Dren is spectacularly disturbing. Director/co-writer Vincenzo Natali manages to sustain a level of creepiness surrounding this... thing... that's pretty impressive. If anything Dren becomes more and more disturbing with familiarity, something you can't say for most movie monsters. Unfortunately, the other parts of the movie don't play as well: the acting seems stilted but insufficiently stylized, the humor often falls flat, and some important backstory details are only brought in as plot devices. But still... creepy. C+

Bran Nue Dae
This wacky Australian musical is about an aboriginal boy who doesn't want to stay in his religious boarding school. He'd rather be at home romancing his girl. This is not okay with Father Benedict (Congratulations hambone Geoffrey Rush. For once, you're not the most over-the-top thing in one of your films!) who chases after the runaway. Bran Nue Dae is contagiously enthusiastic but I wish it were better. It's sloppily assembled and its over the top antics begin to grate before it wraps up. But it is fun. I'm not denying that. It's particularly great counterprogramming at a film festival since film festivals aren't known for "silly". And 24 hours later I'm still humming the sardonic spirited closing number
There's nothing I would rather be than to be an aborigine.
And watch you take my precious land away..."
There's nothing like musical comedy so long as you're in the right mood for it. B-

Did you ever see the Oscar nominated short Two Cars, One Night? It simply watched children in parked cars, and the way they communicated as they waited for their parents to finish up with adult activities in a local bar. This feature from the same director Taika Cohen is inspired by that wonderfully suggestive short. You're still dealing with the way children react to the adult world that confuses them and the way they treat each other. Your protagonist this time goes by "Boy" (played by the wonderfully expressive James Rolleston, pictured right). He's obsessed with Michael Jackson and his own loser father, who he idolizes. When his father returns from a stint in prison, Boy's world is upended and he's forced to grow up a little, even though he's already essentially parenting his little brother and a swarm of cousins whose parents are never at home.

The film gets a good dose of laughs from its 80s era obsession (
E.T., a number of hit American TV series, and the whole Thriller phenomenon) but Cohen also has a finely tuned visual comic sensibility as a director. He knows when to let a joke play out, when to cut away and when to let loose with imaginative childlike flourishes. He's not as successful at directing himself (he plays the often buffoonish father) and though the film sometimes struggles to find the right balance between comedy and pathos, it's a sweet well rendered coming of age story. Future sleeper hit status awaits. B

Catherine Keener is a giver. Oliver Platt not so much

Please Give
This comedy is quite a rebound for writer/director Nicole Holofcener. It's not that her last feature Friends With Money didn't have its charms but it amplified what can sometimes be schematic in her work: her titles are right on the nose with the characters as variations on its theme. On the other hand this obviousness has its charms. Why conceal your theme when it's so unusually specific and delivered with such a distinct voice? Please Give manages the neat trick of being sharply unsentimental and also loving and, better still, very funny.

Holofcener's chief muse Catherine Keener is front and center as a well off antiques dealer. She's constantly beset by guilt and assuages it with generosity. She and her husband (Oliver Platt) are waiting for their ancient next door neighbor Andra (a wonderfully tart Ann Gulbert) to die so that they can have her apartment but they throw her birthday parties to make nice. What makes Please Give such a generous movie is how fond it is of all of its characters and their hangups, too. Keener and Platt work well together as a couple who've lost the spark, their marriage flatlining into a friendship and business partnership. Even better are Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet (pictured) who play dissimilar sisters reacting to the "vultures" waiting for their grandmother to kick the bucket and dealing with issues of their own. Highly recommended. Especially if you like talky neurotic comedies. B+


Jim T said...

I'm happy there at least one film you really liked. It (Please Give) does seem interesting.

Are you going to share any thoughts on I Am Love?

adelutza said...

I Loved Bran Nue Day. And Lourdes.


Jim T -- i shall try. although it's always hard to carve out time from the festival to write... especially when no one comments. It's more fun to watch the movies. ;)

and i liked Boy a lot too. enjoyed bran nue day. Anything within the B- and up range generally means i'm glad i saw them or they at least had interesting worthwhile elements.

DJ said...

Blue Valentine has gotten a couple of positive reviews and one mixed-negative... but Gosling and especially Williams are getting raves.

Unknown said...

NAT - Are you going to get to see 'The Runaways?' I've heard from a number of sources now that Michael Shannon is fantastic and potentially a 2011 Oscar contender-- and, what's this? That Kristen Stewart can act? And Dakota Fanning can sing? Madness!

gabrieloak said...

Gosh, I don't want to see Catherine Keener married to Oliver Platt.

Wayne B said...

Amanda Peet is actually great in a movie? Colour me shocked. Can't wait to see this one, Hall was excellent in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Nathaniel, just for the record, I'm not commenting since I have nothing to contribute - obviously I've seen none of these films. But I've been reading every word and regularly returning for Sundance updates, so don't mistake my [and perhaps others'] not commenting for not caring. The reviews are very very appreciated.


Wayne... i'm in the minority but i think Amanda Peet is a good actress. Maybe I skipped her worst movies?

Y Kant... thanks. noted.