Frame of Mind: AFI FEST 2011
Greed, blackmail, sex, and...butter. These are the four components that make-up Director Jim Field Smith's quirky movie aptly titled Butter. Set in the oh-so-americana State of Iowa, where State Fairs do indeed still exist, there is the royal family of butter carvers, the Picklers. Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) has been the Iowa State champion of butter carvers for the past fifteen years, his crowning achievement's include 'The Last Supper' and 'T-Rex Eating Girl', plus the impressive 'Shindler's List'. It is his wife Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) who has been by his side the entire time, making sure Bob achieves greatness, and doing her part to maintain the utmost of poise as the First Lady of butter carvers.
The AFI FEST presented by Audi is fast approaching (3-10 November, 2011), and with much of the program already announced, a healthy number of interesting titles are already trailing good word of mouth from other North American and European fests. One such is Alex Ross Perry’s second feature The Color Wheel, winner of the Narrative Award in Chicago: following the oddball backwoods Pynchon riff Impolex (2009), he this time ditches surrealism and heads straight for mumblecore land.
After well-received stops at Cannes, Toronto and New York, the fourth feature from I’m Gonna Explode director Gerardo Naranjo is set to represent Mexico in fine style at AFI Fest presented by Audi, starting November 3, 2011.
Torn from the headlines, Miss Bala pitches beauty queen aspirant Laura into the murky world of the Tijuana drug cartels – it’s the title of Miss Baja California she’s going for, but bala means “bullet”, plenty of which are expended before the end of the film. The real-life Miss Sinaloa (also named Laura) was indeed arrested for her association with the Mexican drug gangs, but this is no docudrama. Laura here is an innocent, drawn into the underworld through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and buffeted from dangerous situation to dangerous situation by the twin expediencies of self-preservation and having no other choice.
Emerging from the recent trend of independent horror in British cinema, Ben Wheatley’s small-scale gangster massacre Down Terrace made a bit of a splash last year. His latest, Kill List, ups the horror ante and finds a natural home in the AFI FEST’s Midnight Movies strand this week (festival runs November 3-10).
A rather appealing if throwaway cat and mouse thriller, Headhunters introduces us immediately to the forcefully charming persona and slick art-thievery methods of its protagonist, Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie). His criminal activities subsidize a career as über-successful corporate headhunter, but he makes no bones about having overextended himself for the sake of his Nordic model-beautiful wife, ostentatiously luxurious lifestyle, and 1m 68 height (5’6”).
An exquisite salmagundi of moral grey shades, A Separation explicitly hands off judgment to the audience in the opening scene, as Simin and Nader sit before a judge and address directly to camera their cases for and against divorce. She wants to emigrate, to raise their daughter, Temeh, away from the difficulties and repressions of Iran, whilst he does not want to leave his Alzheimer’s suffering father, but must provide consent for the daughter to travel. They agree to a temporary separation whilst this is worked out.
AFI FEST 2011 Film Review: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
It’d be best to be prepared before going into this, for a long slow evening. Amongst the various aims of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film is the conjuring of the strange all-night atmosphere experienced by a group of officials in search for a dead body, based on the experiences of his co-screenwriter, Ercan Kesel, a doctor who partook in a similar investigation when serving in the same remote village region as depicted in the film. Another of Ceylan’s aims is an explicitly Chekhovian tapestry of apparent banalities, everyday concerns, and the passing of time, that will bring various of the characters unhurriedly to life, and add up incrementally to a portrait of something like life itself.
This is really a one idea movie, but it’s a very good idea (taken from a short story by Tom Bissell). Nica and Alex are young travelers in Georgia, engaged to be married, who depart on a trek with mountain guide Dato. And then Something Happens. To explain the Something would be to spoil the impact of the film, but one of its major problems is that to create that impact, for the first half of the film virtually nothing happens at all. The second problem is that virtually nothing happens afterwards either.
Sokurov concludes his Moloch trilogy, on evil and power, with a loose adaptation of Faust. So loose, in fact that one would be hard-pressed to recognize anything of the original save the name of the protagonist. He’s still a doctor, but poor, neurotic, and, after a while, fixated with a very young girl named Margarete. It is for a night with her, rather than for unlimited knowledge, that he finally signs the Mephistophelean pact late on in the film, and rather than the smooth persuader who will inevitably triumph, this Mephistopheles is a vile, goatish moneylender named Mauricius who ends up buried beneath boulders in a place suggestively described as “far away and very high up”.
Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth caused quite a splash last year, so many were eager to see what queasy weirdness his latest would offer. Alps is barely less weird, somewhat less queasy, and just as opaque. Even more than his last film, it also teeters on the verge of being merely affected.
A real Hollywood oddity, this is a cracking carnival noir charting the rise and fall of hubristic mentalist Stanton Carlisle – Stanton the Great – from cheap clairvoyant-act barker to quasi-religious swarmi, to.. well, that’d be spoiling it, but by the look on Tyrone Power’s face, he knew it had to be.
This is most definitely a film, a wonderful, essential conjuring of something from nothing, a necessity for the film-maker, and the selfless defiance of a repressive regime. The Iranian government has banned director Jafar Panahi from film-making or from leaving the country for twenty years, and at the time of this film’s making, he was appealing a six-year prison sentence; it was smuggled to Cannes on a flashdrive hidden in a cake. For what can a film-maker do if not make a film?
In an alternate universe, a Turin Horse will become the name for a movie that turns out to have nothing to do with its title. Slow-cinema maestro Béla Tarr’s latest (last?) opens with a blank-screen voiceover relating the semi-apocryphal story of Nietzsche’s madness-inducing encounter with a mistreated carthorse, and declares that “of the horse, we know nothing”. Cut to a carthorse, trudging through a hellish swirl of mist. But this is not necessarily the same horse, we are clearly not in Italy, and the film soon lets the animal retreat to the background, in order to focus exclusively on the slow, hard, regular days of the old carter and his daughter. He has an apostle’s beard and a mop of grey curls, frequently backlight-haloed, and the use of only his left arm; she has a hard, handsome face, tight-mouthed and dead-eyed, beneath long wind-whipped hair; and they live a life of emptiness and hardship in a stone croft on a barren plain.
Every year at AFI FEST there are films placed in the Special Screenings section of the program. They are films with distribution in place, and will become available for the general public to see in the coming weeks or months. Jeff, Who Lives At Home was a part of this special screening section and will be opening in theatres in March of 2012 thanks to Paramount Vantage. The newest film from The Duplass Brothers, who have been festival darlings in the past with The Puffy Chair, Baghead, and last year's Cyrus, is in the style of The Duplass Brothers who like to make movies about people and relationships, with an offbeat sly humor. Jeff, Who Lives At Home keeps with their traditional themes, and continues to provide the more subtle, and not so subtle, humor we come to expect from them.
Making himself known as a man who enjoys making movies about damaged souls in uniform, Director Oren Moverman departs from the military of his 2009 film The Messenger to focus on a cop in the Los Angeles Police force in Rampart. Taking place during the Rampart scandals of 1999, scandals that forever changed the Los Angeles Police Department, when police officers were implicated in acts of misconduct, including planting evidence, unprovoked beatings and shootings, perjury, and covering up evidence. These were dark days in the city of Angels, and amidst all of the greater scandal Rampart takes a look at one officer's own personal struggles, on the force and at home.
AFI FEST 2011 Film Review: Carré Blanc (Dir. Jean-Baptiste Léonetti 2011 France, Luxembourg, Russia, Belgium, Switzerland)
As a feature film directing debut, Jean-Baptiste Léonetti's Carré Blanc is sure to make a strong impression on the filmmaking community, and the impressionable audience member who wanders into this dystopian view of the world's future. Shown as part of the World Cinema section at the 2011 AFI FEST, Carré Blanc is a relatively short film by festival standards, at only 80 minutes, but the impact of the film, both stylistically and theoretically, will have you thinking about it for much longer.
AFI FEST 2011 Film Review: With Every Heartbeat (Kyss mig) (Dir. Alexandra-Therese Keining Sweden 2011)
Writer/director Alexandra-Therese Keining's With Every Heartbeat was presented at AFI FEST 2011 as part of the Breakthrough section. Keeping in line with the excellence of Swedish films of the past, and present, Keining presents an intimate portrayal of love being found in the unlikeliest of places and at a time neither person expects--the two people in question just happen to be women, one openly gay and the other engaged to a man. A true triumph for the LGBT cause, the film portrays love as love is in it's natural form, disregarding much of what could have been a proclamation for equal rights on gender issues that only makes its a stronger piece of filmmaking in the process.
The main draw of Hanaan is its ethnic exoticism: a Korean cop in the urban/industrial wasteland of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which is certainly not something you see every day (Stalin forcibly relocated thousands of Koreans to populate the USSR’s Asian republics). The story feels well-worn, however – like something from an American movie, as one character observes of a stakeout – with the ups and downs of drug addiction providing automatic pathos but few surprises.
What with the whole skin transplant element of Almodóvar’s latest, it was no great surprise that in his capacity as Guest Artistic Director of this year’s AFI Festival, he should pick as one of his personal screening choices, the wonderful medical horror film Eyes Without A Face.
It is a most unusual film, in story, tone and the inclusion of a remarkably unsettling face transplant – in part for the slow, tense, medical precision with which it is presented and conducted – which must have been goodness-knows how shocking in 1960 when the film was released.
AFI Festival-goers who caught Nacho Vigalonda’s Time Crimes a couple of years ago knew that it was a good bet to mark their diaries for this year’s screening of his second feature, Extraterrestrial. They were not disappointed.
The irrepressible Vigalonda explained in his introduction to the screening that he was stuck in a long pre-production process and wanted to make a quick little film. That’s just what he did, with even greater economy than Time Crimes, but with just as sure a control over the narrative logic of escalating complications. A man wakes up in the bed of a beautiful young woman, unable to remember a thing about the night before. The playing-out of a stock situation is handled with perfectly judged restraint and deadpan performance (they discover, amusingly, that they are named Julio and Julia, but she’s ditzy enough to forget his name more than once). The awkward morning after is derailed, however, when they notice that there’s no-one outside and that a 4-mile wide flying saucer is hovering over Madrid.
It boded so well. The credits play over a serene beam of moonlight on the water, while an excerpt of Tristan and Isolde tinkles gently; then we’re thrown into a noisy neon Malayan karaoke club/shack, where an unexpected, very public murder is followed by an even more unexpected, somnambulant Ave Maria. But Chantal Akerman, taking Joseph Conrad’s first novel, goes nowhere near such stylish flamboyance again and delivers much that is expected, and much that is unexpectedly unsuccessful.
There’s always some good weirdness to be found in the Midnight Movies strand at film festivals, and my top tip for the AFI FEST sponsored by Audi, starting this week, is the fantastically trippy Beyond the Black Rainbow. Let me be clear: this film has not been picking up fans at previous festivals, with complaints ranging from “deathly dull” and “unnecessarily lengthened student short” to “retro-hipster counterfeit” and “complete crapola”. It’s slow and derivative, with a jarringly misjudged ending, but far as I am from an ’80s nostalgist, I couldn’t help but fall a little bit in love with it.
AFI FEST 2011 Film Review: The Kid With A Bike (Le Gamin Au Velo) (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne 2011 Belgium, France, Italy)
A new film from the Dardennes brother is always cause for celebration, particularly in Cannes where they just keep being given prizes. This year it was the Grand Jury award for their latest, Le gamin au vélo, and it’s been a popular title at numerous festivals since, finally rolling into Hollywood for the AFI FEST this week (November 3-10).
AFI FEST 2011 presented by Audi has announced much of the slate of programming for the festival, running November 3rd to the 10th. Free tickets are available starting October 27th, and on October 26th for AFI members and alumni. There a limited number of passes available for sale. More information about the festival can be found at AFI's website, www.afifest.com.
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