The Artist, Attenberg, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Carré Blanc, The Color Wheel, Coriolanus, The Dish & the Spoon, Dragonslayer, Extraterrestrial, Green, Headhunters, I Melt With You, Jeff Who Lives at Home, Silver Bullets, Sleep Study, Snowtown, Wuss
By Don Simpson | November 2, 2011
AFI FEST 2011 presented by Audi will take place November 3–10, 2011 in Hollywood, California at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Chinese 6 Theatres at the Hollywood & Highland Center, the Egyptian Theatre of the American Cinematheque and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Originally launched as FILMEX in 1971, this year will mark the 25th edition of the Festival as AFI FEST, the American Film Institute‘s annual celebration of international cinema from modern masters and emerging filmmakers.
It is worth noting that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes AFI FEST as a qualifying festival for the Short Films category of the annual Academy Awards and AFI FEST is the only film festival in the United States to hold the prestigious FIAPF accreditation.
To prepare you for the overwhelming venture of determining what you should see over the next nine days in Hollywood, your ever-faithful friends at Smells Like Screen Spirit have already reviewed several of the films screening at AFI FEST 2011 in order to provide you with a sneak preview of what is to come…
The Artist is a movie-lover’s delight, managing to achieve the rare feat of transporting its audience to another time and place, of injecting a couple of hours of pure magic into an otherwise mundane day. And isn’t that why most of us fell in love with movies in the first place, for their ability to take us away from the real world to a better place, even if for only an hour or two?
Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari provokes the audience to study Marina as if she is one of Sir David Attenborough’s subjects (we are prompted to “[escape] imaginatively to live in another creature’s world”) as Marina discovers that she is a sexual being and explores the related implications. We clinically observe Marina’s advanced communication techniques (she speaks in Greek, sings in French, plays strange rhyming word games with her father, and makes animal noises for no particular reason), her wildly expressive movements (she and Bella walk/dance in carefully choreographed movements), and her obscure musical tastes (her favorite song is Suicide’s “Be Bop Kid”) in order to develop a novel ethnographic hypothesis explaining what the behaviors of this virgin sub-species of Homo sapiens might possibly mean to humankind.
It is overtly obvious just how fanatically Panos Cosmatos loves fantastical cinema — specifically science fiction, fantasy and horror. Cosmatos flashes his geekdom with vague and fleeting allusions to Luis Buñuel, Kenneth Anger, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, and Andrei Tarkovsky, just to name a few; yet he never goes as far as referencing any specific scenes from cinema’s past. Beyond the Black Rainbow is for all intents and purposes a stylistic mash-up as if Cosmatos thought about everything he ever loved about cinema and placed it in a blender. The resulting aesthetic — which exists somewhere in the acid-drenched ether between the worlds of psychedelic and avant garde — is going to be a tough pill for the masses to swallow, which leads me to believe that Cosmatos never intended for this film to be consumed by the mainstream.
The dystopian world (which is captured with the grace and tranquility of Andrei Tarkovsky by cinematographer David Nissen) takes place in what seems more like a parallel world rather than our future. Though seemingly non-related to our reality — therefore rendering it stripped of relevant political rhetoric — Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s mesmerizing first feature recalls the bitingly literate social commentary of Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley and Franz Kafka…with a little Terry Gilliam (circa Brazil) thrown in for good measure. If anything, Carré Blanc represents a future that could have been imagined during the 1950s by a Western society that was scared to death of Socialism.
A somewhat sardonic portrayal of modern society, everyone in the world of The Color Wheel seems bigoted, jaded and petty. Whether or not Sean Price Williams’ lusciously framed black and white cinematography compliments this tone or plays in juxtaposition to it is up to the viewer to decide. As Jean-Luc Godard did in the early 1960s, Perry reveals a willingness to utilize certain genre-specific narrative techniques. While J.R. and Colin’s rapid-fire dialogue is delivered with slapstick precision, it is most surprising to see The Color Wheel coddle up with the contemporary rom-com genre; heck, even an occasional lowbrow sight gag is not out of the question — such as a character who wears a “Who Farted?” t-shirt while reading The Bible. Then again, what is not funny about someone wearing a “Who Farted?” t-shirt while reading The Bible?
Ralph Fiennes’ approach to Coriolanus seems to be one of disorientation. As if delivering the antiquated prose of Shakespeare into a modern setting is not jarring enough, Fiennes utilizes an international cast, who speak unabashedly in their native accents. To top it all off, Fiennes juxtaposes the displaced dialogue and voices with the shaky kino-eye of neo-realist cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, Battle in Seattle) in order to convey a pseudo-documentary aesthetic. As the unreal and the hyper-real clash, no survivors are taken.
Alison Bagnall (who co-wrote Buffalo ‘66 with Vincent Gallo) takes a fairly extreme risk allowing Gerwig to portray Rose’s turmoil and anguish with intense sincerity during some scenes while playing the same emotions for comedic affect in other scenes. Bagnall also reveals a real (or reel) knack for never allowing The Dish & the Spoon to veer too far into the realm of overly precious tweeness. Recalling Blue Valentine, an all-so-cute song and dance scene is one of the lighthearted highlights of an otherwise emotionally emancipating film. The Dish & the Spoon is incredibly sincere and brutally honest in its portrayal of the highs and lows of relationships — especially in its representation of the rage and sadness that are closely associated with romance. Also check out our video interview with Alison Bagnall.
Tristan Patterson’s documentary makes no attempt to cast any judgments about Josh “Skreech” Sandoval; he merely provides us with a countdown of events for the audience to make their own determinations. This is (dare I say) the genius of Patterson’s film: Sure his directorial perspective has chosen ten distinct moments in Sandoval’s life, but the images remain uncannily free of directorial opinions. (I also believe that Sandoval is too zonked out to be influenced by the presence of the film cameras; his actions seem perfectly natural and instinctual for him.) Sandoval’s lifestyle is never glorified by Patterson, but is not necessarily condemned either; that said, I suspect most sane audience members will walk away from DRAGONSLAYER scared shitless that Sandoval is not quite as unique as we might hope. What would you do if your teenage daughter started dating someone like Sandoval? (That is probably slightly more frightening to parents than having one’s son turn out like Sandoval.)
Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes was my favorite film of Fantastic Fest 2007, so I entered the Fantastic Fest 2011 screening of Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial with astronomically high expectations. Shockingly, the two films are night and day: Timecrimes is complex and heady, yet maybe a wee bit overly ambitious; Extraterrestrial is incredibly simple and restrained. Extraterrestrial is nothing like I expected it to be, but that is not necessarily a bad thing…
Writer-director Sophia Takal has cited my favorite Robert Altman film — 3 Women — as an influence on Green, which could explain why I like Green so much. Both films approach female relationships — specifically female jealousy — with a certain level of obliqueness. Atmosphere and environment play an important factor in both films too. Specifically for Green, the densely forested environs are not only suffocating and ostracizing but they also lend Green a spooky and menacing horror film aesthetic. Something always appears to be lurking in the woods. Maybe it is jealousy? Maybe it is something more? Green is a purely psychological horror film — the violence is all in the mind — and one of the best I have seen in ages.
Adapted from Jo Nesbø’s best-selling novel, Headhunters is an incredibly taut thriller that surpasses the recent Scandinavian sensation — the Millennium trilogy. (Speaking of… You might notice Diana watching The Girl Who Played with Fire on television or recognize some aerial shots from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that director Morten Tyldum co-opted for Headhunters.) Immaculately paced and conceived beautifully, Headhunters is a perfect example of why Scandinavian thrillers can often be much more effective than Hollywood ones. (Do not fret if you prefer Hollywood thrillers — Summit Entertainment has already acquired the rights to produce an American remake.) This is partially because Scandinavian cinema conveys a uniquely cold and uncomfortable tone that seems impossible for Hollywood to match. Scandinavian cinema also seems to assume that its audience is more intelligent than Hollywood cinema does; Headhunters, for one, never panders or over-explains things and it always assumes that we are giving it our undivided attention.
Thomas Jane apologized to the Austin Film Festival audience for having to suffer through such a dire piece of cinema, but there are plenty of reasons why our suffering is worthwhile. First of all, Eric Schmidt’s cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking, as it places us in the lucidly experimental dreamscape of the protagonists’ perpetually drug-addled minds. I Melt With You is more of an experimental visual trip than a formal narrative, playing like a long music video with dialogue interspersed between the songs. Secondly, the unleashed whirlwind of performances — especially by Thomas Jane and Rob Lowe — are truly inspired, or at least impeccably intense; this is method acting at its finest.
At first I was a bit surprised by the tearjerker ending of Jeff Who Lives at Home, mainly because it seemed like such a blatantly Hollywoodesque attempt to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. But as time passed, it dawned on me that Jeff Who Lives at Home is essentially commenting on the concept of writers and directors playing god, albeit with significantly more subtlety than The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction. As the Duplass brothers toy with Jeff, they simultaneously play with the viewers’ emotions, thus reminding us of the highly manipulative powers of filmmakers.
Silver Bullets is the most stylistically playful of Joe Swanberg’s films, at least since Hannah Takes the Stairs. Swanberg tinkers not only with the visual aspects of cinema but with its narrative conventions as well. I have never really thought of Swanberg as an editor, but he does a beautiful job tying together Silver Bullets’ concurrent stories in an overtly artful fashion. Despite being completely unscripted, Silver Bullets is dramatically more complex than Swanberg’s previous efforts; it is also his most cohesive and coherent, especially in terms of purpose. Silver Bullets represents a clean break from Mumblecore (a genre not known for profound messages) for Swanberg — he has a lot to say, and the messages are relayed loud and clear.
Sit back and observe the dark secrets that John Merriman is able to unlock from within Kerri Lendo’s dream state. Pretty wacky, huh? Well, just you wait because this surreal little short film has much bigger tricks hidden up its proverbial sleeves. Let us just say that Sleep Study has more layers than your average onion, and as you peel off the layers you will cry tears of joy. Was that a little too much? Way too much? Really? So, I should probably tone it down a notch…or two? Ah, screw it!
For being about Australia’s most notorious serial killer — John Bunting — Snowtown is a surprisingly restrained and contemplative film. True, it does delve quite graphically into the very darkest recesses of brutality; but rather than showcasing (glorifying) violence in order to merely shock and awe the audience, writer-director Justin Kurzel is much more interested in coercing the audience to relate to Jamie and therefore sympathize with him. We are wooed by John just as Jamie is. It is difficult not to believe, at least at first, that John means well; that he is merely trying to protect Jamie’s family. Early on, his logic almost seems reasonable; but that is only because John gently eases us in… Kurzel certainly reveals no doubts in Jamie’s version of the story, but that does not mean it is accurate. For that very reason, I recommend approaching Snowtown with an open mind. Remember that this is a very specific perspective of John Bunting’s story — whether or not you believe it is totally up to you.
Wuss is a masterful work of sound and vision, clearly exceeding the production values of most independent cinema. Clay Liford’s uniquely desaturated, nearly monochromatic aesthetic visually binds his two features together, while clearly separating himself from most other filmmakers. I bet if Wuss was produced in Hollywood, it would certainly include bright, cheery and over-saturated cinematography and a Billboard Top 40 soundtrack, but judging solely from Earthling and Wuss, that is not how Liford sees (or hears) the world. Also check out our video interview with Clay Liford.