Sunday, May 1, 2011

IFF Boston 2011 Round-Up Pt. 1

Four days in and IFF Boston has fully enveloped Davis Square. Muscle cars named Medusa breathe fire behind the Somerville Theatre, a gigantic queue of people snakes around the building and several blocks down Dover St. The theatre foyer is finely-tuned chaos, not unlike a Mumbai intersection. But oh, the films! 47 screenings thus far, and another 20 scheduled for today makes the ominous weather a little less troubling. Not that my complexion can carry a tan on normal days, but during the film-fest, I considerably more nocturnal. I've enjoyed 4 movies so far, and have another 4 scheduled today, but before I forget, I want to jot down a few thoughts on each, should any of you have the chance to see them in a larger release.

The Trip - Dir. Michael Winterbottom
I'm not sure if knowing that The Trip was already a successful BBC miniseries helped or hurt its charms. On one hand, it feels a little cheap to know that a TV series has been trimmed and stitched together to support a 2-hour running time, but on the other, Michael Winterbottom is an accomplished director and if anything, this film should be a potent distillation of the originals hilarity. As it turns out, I was right on both accounts. The film is quite funny and doesn't necessarily feel cobbled together, but at the same time, doesn't possess any semblance of an 'arc'. It is, by my accounts, a series of fancy meals and car-rides in which Coogan and Brydon riff off one another for 110 minutes. There are pitch-perfect Woody Allen impressions, an amazing spoof of 'costumed dramas' ("WE RISE AT DAYBREAK") and Brydons terrible yet endearing Al Pacino impression he cannot help himself from lapsing into. As a series of scenes, it is a riot, but as a film, its could use a bit more focus.

Green - Dir. Sophia Takal
Green opens with a scene that is does not ingratiate itself with the audience. It features Sebastian extolling the virtues of Philip Roth and flippantly dismissing his girlfriend's claims to the contrary. They are from Brooklyn, and I believe them. The couple then move to a sublet in West Virginia, where Sebastian intends to write an article on sustainable living for a blog. It plays about how you would expect, but is sufficiently frustrating due to the intentionally loose plotting, which lets Sebastian to ramble uninterestingly simply to fill a scene. Things improve when Robin (director Takal) enters the picture and a bizarre will-they/did-they? love triangle begins to take shape. Robin is more naive then dumb, but nevertheless, it takes a long time to warm up to her drawl and personality. I understand what Takal was trying to do by dropping a woman into the story who is at first the butt of inside jokes for the couple, and then a palpable threat, but it could have been better handled with a little more direction. The strong score and eerie shots of the woods add a fantastic sense of foreboding, but the story never meets it there, and eventually gets in over its head. I think Takal has talent and am interested in what she does next, but she could stand to put more trust in herself.

How To Die In Oregon - Dir. Peter Richardson
In 1994, Oregon became the first state to pass the Die with Dignity act, a law that makes it legal for terminally ill individuals to take their own lives (under supervision of their doctor) when their quality of life has diminished. In the 16 years since, 600 people have gone through with it. God did not smite them from on high, and no one was killed by their family in an inheritance grab as Republicans feared. Richardson makes it quite clear that this is not suicide, as suicide involves people with functioning bodies but whom are clinically depressed, whereas dying with dignity patients have complete mental faculties, but irreparably failing bodies. The first hour of the movie hops between several affecting stories, but these eventually coalesce into the story of 54 year-old Cody Curtis, a wife and mother of two with inoperable liver cancer. Her story arc starts with simple meditation on the principles of Death with Dignity, and shows her making preparations with her family, but takes a new shape as she exceeds her prognosis and 'Death with Dignity' becomes more of a dark cloud hanging over her family than a calm and logical way out. In less capable hands, the story could have unraveled, but Richardson strikes a wonderful balance between the celebration of life and the acceptance of death, never reveling in either too long to feel exploitative or uncomfortable. I wish the pacing of the film had allowed for the other subplots stretch to the end as well, if only for some small relief from Cody's story, but I can understand if he wanted to give the Curtis family the attention and concern they deserve. In any case, it's a powerful film.

Puppet - Dir. David Soll
When a documentary sheds light on a topic that you knew nothing of or had deeply seated misconceptions  about, it is an amazing thing. What King of Kong did for videogames and Wordplay did for crossword puzzles, David Soll's Puppet does for puppetry. As it turns out, puppets haven't always been a gimmick to shut up a whiny child. Every culture on earth has revered puppetry and it wasn't until the days of television and film that they began their descent into the margins. While Jim Henson and Sesame Street have performed small miracles in reviving puppetry, they also reinforced the notion that they are not to be considered a serious art. The puppetry that Dan Hurlin and his team perform in Puppet can best be described as an amazingly intricate dance, and seeing what goes into it makes it even more astonishing. I will resist delving into the plot of Hurlin's show, if only to say that it surrounds a photographer/hermit who finds himself literally shrinking as portrait photography as an art form metaphorically does. I will confess to being someone who never gave puppetry any serious consideration alongside other forms, but now feel like a complete boob. The level of craft necessary to breathe life into an inanimate object (and not just life, but personality and humor as well), cannot be overstated. And in many ways it is even beyond acting. Many times, an actors mannerisms and body language may simply be coincidental and unconscious, but with puppets, every shrug and sigh is the complex product of three puppeteers working together as one. Puppet does exactly what a great documentary should do: introduces you to something new, and makes you fall in love.

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