AFI Fest 2011: The Dish & the Spoon

Greta Gerwig both should and shouldn’t become a major star. She should because she’s amazing and her talent ought to be recognized outside of the indie film world where she’s already a well-known and respected name. And she shouldn’t because if she did, she might not have time to make charming little one-off films like this one. She’s already starting to break into the higher levels of indies, with Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress under her belt (and a supporting role in the non-indie No Strings Attached, which I didn’t realize until looking her up right now), but she’s honestly at her best in things like The Dish and the Spoon. A group effort between writer/director Alison Bagnall (who has acted, like Gerwig, in a few Joe Swanberg films), writer Andrew Lewis, and actors Gerwig and Olly Alexander, the film is slight but somehow enchanting despite the standoffishness of the main character and a few odd plot turns.

The film opens with Gerwig driving down the freeway in pajamas and an overcoat, sobbing loudly. She stops at a convenience store for donuts and beer (yeah…) and has to scrounge change from the car to pay for, even then only managing because the clerk takes pity on her obviously pitiable state. She’s running away from the husband she’s just found out cheated on her. I mention so much detail in this opening scene because it’s the little moments, the scenes like this that are the most charming in the film, and provide the bulk of it. Not much actually happens, but the way each moment is treated makes it special. She stops at a lighthouse and comes across a young British guy sleeping there, having traveled to the US under somewhat false pretenses and found himself without a place to stay. The unlikely pair team up, her because he has money and she craves company, him because he finds her fascinating. They balance each other well, and their random interactions with each other are the highlight of the film – in fact, they’re the basis of the film, which was made after Gerwig and Alexander met, hit it off, and wanted to make a quick film together in between other projects.

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TIFF & AFI Fest 2011 Review: Oslo, August 31st

Though I don’t completely subscribe to the “Auteur” theory in all its finer points, I do tend to look at films as having directorial stamps on them – not just from common stylistic points of view or as vehicles that cover similar themes, but as works that have a certain quality about them. For example, when I see a movie like Joachim Trier’s debut film Reprise, I take note of the name of the helmer because there’s a certain something about the film that appeals to me and an attention to detail that shows the person “in charge” cares about the entirety of the work. So when I noticed that Trier’s second film Oslo, August 31st was to screen at this year’s TIFF, it immediately made my short list. It’s a very different film than its predecessor as it was shot quickly, for little money and eschews the many flourishes and stylistic touches of his first film. However, it still fits nicely next to Reprise because there is not only a deft touch with its characters and a strong sense of place, but also an overall confidence about its story.

Based loosely on the French novel “Le Feu Follet” (which Louis Malle turned into the 1963 film of the same name – better known to English speakers as The Fire Within), the film shows a day in the life of one particular troubled person, but it also illuminates an entire city at the same time. The very beginning of the film shows home movies of a still smallish Oslo, but in the present day the city seems to be growing quite nicely as many cranes litter the streets signifying new construction. As Anders wanders from friend to job interview to his family’s old house, we get to see a large chunk of a lovely, restful city – a stark contrast to Anders himself. You know that friend you have that just can’t seem to get it together? While everyone has their ups and downs, this one particular person always seems to be in the worst shape (or at least that’s what they tell you)? That’s Anders. He can’t pull himself together and has already tried to kill himself once while in rehab. “I’ve always thought happy people must be morons” is one of Anders philosophies and gives a good indication where most conversations with him will likely lead.

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AFI Fest 2011: Pina

Even though I’m fairly vocal about my dislike of 3D, I remain open to the possibility of interesting and appropriate uses of the technology. Last year I was quite entranced by Werner Herzog’s use of 3D to illuminate the Chauvet caves in Caves of Forgotten Dreams, and I was hopeful that Werner Herzog’s dance-filled tribute to choreographer and dance director Pina Bausch would be similarly effective in using 3D to show the depth and movement of the dancers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, but the movie is definitely a visual feast with or without 3D.

Wenders has been planning to make a film with and about Bausch for some time, as the two have been close friends for quite a while, but he says he couldn’t figure out how to do the kind of film he wanted to about dance until 3D came along as an option. Then as he and Bausch were working on the film, she died suddenly and he abandoned the film, only to be convinced by the members of her dance company to finish it as a tribute to her. So what we see is a collection of dances, performed both on a stage and in various outdoor locations around Germany, interspersed with very brief interview snippets from various members of the company about Pina and their time working with her.

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AFI Fest 2011: Attenberg

This is my first exposure to the films that seem to be constituting a Greek New Wave (largely made up of this film plus the ones directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who also appears here as an actor), and if it’s any indication, I’m very excited to see the rest. In the lineage of the French New Wave by way of the more anxious Czech New Wave (and more austere Romanian New Wave), Attenberg takes its time telling a relatively simple story, but I enjoyed every minute I spent with it.

The film opens with Marina and Bella meeting in front of a rundown whitewashed wall and engaging in the longest, most awkward French kisses ever, a fascinating and rather disgusting display of something not at all like sexuality. Bella, the more worldly-wise of the two, is trying to teach Marina about the ways of the flesh, an area about which Marina seems curious mostly because people expect her to be and not because she herself is interested in it at all. Whatever reaction she does have to it is negative, yet it continues to come up through either Bella’s or Marina’s initiation. Thankfully, the film doesn’t really try to psychoanalyze Marina to find the source for her repulsion.

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AFI Fest 2011: Le cercle rouge (1970)

Usually I skip repertory screenings at festivals to focus on the newer stuff that I might not be able to see elsewhere, but when I saw that Artistic Director Pedro Almodóvar had programmed Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime drama Le cercle rouge, I couldn’t resist. I’ve been meaning to see this film for quite a while, ever since I saw and loved Le samourai, but despite a nice Criterion release and it even being on Instant Watch for a while, I didn’t get around to it. Seems like when that happens, I end up with the perfect opportunity to see it on a big screen in a great place like the Egyptian Theatre. Melville is quite simply France’s master of crime dramas (no disrespect to Chabrol or Clouzot, who tended a bit more toward the mystery/thriller aspect anyway), and this film combines elements of crime drama, police procedural, and heist film together perfectly into an intricate slow burn building to its inevitable climax.

Initially, there are two major strands of story. Detective Mattei (André Bourvil) is escorting a suspect, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté), on a train when Vogel manages to escape. Meanwhile, Corey (Alain Delon) is being released from prison, but not before being tipped off by a corrupt prison guard about a really great potential job. Corey shakes down a mob friend of his for some money, which sets the rest of the mob on his tail. Vogel happens upon Corey’s car as he’s trying to evade the police dragnet and gets in the trunk, which Corey notices but protects him. The two decide to work the tipped-off job together, bringing in former police sharpshooter Jansen (Yves Montand) as well. So the mob is after Corey, Mattei and the police are after Vogel, the internal affairs department is after Mattei for letting Vogel escape, Jansen is recovering from the DTs, they’re all harrassing a nightclub owner who has mob connections as well as ties to Vogel, and in the midst of all this, Corey, Vogel, and Jansen are planning a major jewel heist. Yes, it’s really complicated, but never once was anything confusing.

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AFI Fest 2011: Coriolanus

Sometimes I think there are reasons why some Shakespeare plays remain largely unknown among his vast repertoire – I have never read Coriolanus or seen it performed, but assuming this is a fairly faithful adaptation in terms of the text itself, it’s just…not that interesting. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs) is a great military leader in Rome (here modernized in everything but language, and acting styles to some degree) whose contempt for anyone not born patrician makes him no friend of the commoners rioting over their lack of food. After a successful war against the invading Volscian army, he’s granted the honorific “Coriolanus” and encouraged to run for the consul, which he does, even briefly gaining the support of the commoners before a pair of conniving tribunes double-cross him and, with the support of the crowd, call for his banishment. He joins the Volsci, becoming the right-hand man of his former blood enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to attack Rome, until his wife and mother (Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave) beg him to stop.

All of the twists and turns in the plot seem to come out of nowhere, with people changing sides or points of view at the drop of a hat. The script is probably abbreviated from Shakespeare’s play (the film runs just over two hours, about an hour less than most Shakespeare done in full), which might explain some of the disjointedness, but unfortunately it also feels longer than it is. It’s hard to relate to Coriolanus, who has a highly developed sense of honor but is also a total dick a good portion of the time – his shifts from speechifying the commoners to get their support to denouncing them as unworthy to vote are practically bipolar, and so is the crowd’s instant reversals from distrust to support to anger. These may all be problems inherent to the source material, but the overwrought and unintentionally comical acting styles in this section don’t do anything to help it.

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AFI Fest 2011: Extraterrestrial

Nacho Vigalondo’s previous film Timecrimes was a refreshing take on the very common sci-fi sub-genre of time travel, and this time he throws his hat in the ring of another very common sci-fi sub-genre, the alien invasion film. But as you might expect if you’ve seen Timecrimes, there’s not much about this film that’s common. And that’s a very good thing.

A man awakens naked in a strange apartment, figures out there’s a girl there and he probably just slept with her, but can’t remember much more than that. Must’ve been a good night of partying, he figures, and prepares to leave after an extremely awkward conversation with her that reveals she doesn’t remember much either – not even that their names are the cutesy Julio and Julia. Then the power cuts out, they look out the window, and see a gigantic spaceship hovering over the city, and all the streets nearby seem deserted. Turns out the ship turned up the night before and everyone evacuated except the two of them and a neighbor who clearly has a thing for Julia, so they kind of stick together by default. Then Julia’s boyfriend Carlos shows up.

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AFI Fest 2011: This is Not a Film

Director Jafar Panahi was at the AFI Film Festival a few years ago presenting his film Offside, a well-regarded drama about an Iranian girl breaking all the rules and pretending to be a boy to attend a football game, something that girls are forbidden to do in Iran. This year, he could not be here, and indeed, could not legally make this film, because he has been placed under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for 20 years, with a potential of up to 6 years in prison for making subversive films. This (non)-film documents a day in his life at home while he waits to hear the results of his appeal, chafing under his restriction from his life work and also testing the limits of filmmaking itself.

Since he’s not supposed to make a film, Panahi calls his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (he cheated a bit to get this part in the film) to come over and film him telling the story of the film he was planning to make. Meanwhile, he fills Mirtahmasb and us on how he submitted the script to the government to get the necessary approvals and permits, but was denied, even after making some requested changes. Soon after he was placed under house arrest and banned from filmmaking, screenwriting, and giving interviews for 20 years – but, as he points out, there was no mention of acting or reading an existing script.

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AFI Fest 2011: A Biased Preview

This year’s AFI Fest kicked off last night with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, and I head to my first screenings tonight. There will be very little sleep over the next week as I overload on cinema from around the world, catching up on films praised at other festivals and trying to find a few hidden gems on my own. I probably won’t end up going to most of the big-name galas, despite my excitement for some of the titles, due to the difficulty of procuring passes to these things (trying the rush line is an option, but takes up so much time I’d miss other screenings to do it, something I’m not always willing to do for films that will be out in a few weeks anyway). If you’re in the LA area, there’s still time to reserve tickets to various screenings at the AFI Fest website. A lot of things are still available, other things aren’t right now, but they always release more tickets the day before the screening online, or at the box office the day of, or you can wait in the rush line and there’s a good chance you’ll make it in. Here’s the list of what I’ll likely be seeing (getting some major things I won’t be out of the way first). You can see the full lineup here.

All the trailer links open in a lightbox, so you won’t have to leave the site to watch them. Synopsis text stolen shamelessly from the AFI website.

BIG-NAME FILMS I WON’T BE SEEING HERE

Some of these are gala screenings I’d hoped to see but ended up not being able to get tickets, a few others are ones that fell to the vagaries of scheduling because as much as I wanted to see them, they were against ones I wanted to see more. The good news is most of these are going to be easily available in regular release within a few weeks, so it’s no great loss.

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Country: USA/France
Synopsis:Silence is golden in director Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful and dialogue-less black-and-white feature about Hollywood’s bumpy transition from silent films to “talkies.”
My take: Let’s see, a B&W silent film made in 2011 set in Hollywood during the late 1920s? This movie was friggin’ MADE for me, and the fact that it’s gotten raves at every festival so far this year doesn’t hurt, either. Most anticipated not just of the festival, but of the year.

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Carnage

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Country: France/Germany/Poland/Spain
Synopsis:Razor-sharp and acidly funny, CARNAGE strips away the thin veneer of civilization to find the savage heart beating just below the surface. Adapting Yasmina Reza’s smash comedy play “God of Carnage” to the screen, Roman Polanski assembles a dream cast to portray two sets of New York City parents locked in a showdown after their children clash on a playground.
My take: Polanski plus these four actors piqued my interest already (as well as hearing very positive feedback from the play), but seeing the trailer sealed the deal. This looks HILARIOUS in the best way.

Watch Trailer

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