Review: The Future

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For some reason it’s difficult to believe that The Future is only Miranda July’s second feature, and that it’s been six years since her previous one, Me and You and Everyone We Know. That film gathered huge success on the festival circuit and among indie film audiences with its particular brand of twee quirkiness – a quirkiness that fits in with the Sundance crowd but rings a little truer, a little deeper. She’s been busy with short films, performance art, short stories, and spoken word recordings in between, and even though I haven’t seen or heard a whole lot of that work, you can feel it in this film. It feels like an organic outgrowth of July as a writer and performer; not like a long-overdue follow-up to a successful film but merely the way this particular story needed to express itself, so she made a film rather than a book or a performance piece. Because though it would be easy for naysayers to dismiss July as merely quirky, she’s tapping into some very real and meaningful places in the lives of the now thirty-something middle-class artistic-minded people she writes about and to some degree represents.

The Future begins with a narrative framing device that’s likely to offput many – it was my least favorite part of the film, though I did like much of the actual narration as written. The narrator is a cat, voiced by July in the most gratingly annoying voice she could come up with and visually represented by a pair of paws. Paw-Paw is a stray cat that July’s actual character Sophie and her boyfriend Jason rescued and are planning to adopt when he’s out of quarantine at the vet’s. But Sophie and Jason aren’t sure they’re ready for the responsibility and decide they need to do everything they always wanted to do in the thirty days before they go to pick Paw-Paw up. On the surface, it seems like a fairly silly plot, but July is deep in metaphor in this film (and will get deeper), using Paw-Paw as a catalyst to energize Sophie and Jason out of their complacency in decent but unfulfilling jobs with the realization that they’re getting into their thirties and haven’t really even started to do the things they’d always planned to to in the future.

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LAFF 2011: Short Takes Vol. 2

I must confess that as soon as a festival ends, I lose roughtly 75% of my motivation to write about it, even though there are plenty of films I really enjoyed but didn’t have time to cover during the fest. But I don’t want these to get away without any mention, so here’s one last post of LA Film Festival capsule reviews. This pretty well finishes out everything I saw; I do plan to get a full review for Miranda July’s The Future up sometime this week, so I didn’t include it here. As you’ll notice by the ratings throughout the coverage, I really did enjoy almost everything I saw at the festival. My overall top films remain Drive, The Innkeepers, The Dynamiter and Winnie the Pooh, with The Guard, The Bad Intentions, Haunters, Kawasaki’s Rose, Familiar Ground, The Future and Love Crime right behind.

Love Crime


2010 France. Director: Alain Corneau. Starring: Ludivine Sagnier, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patrick Mille, Guillaume Marquet. 104 min.

Love Crime turned out to be the final film of French director Alain Corneau, who died shortly after completing it. He’s known for his crime thrillers, and this fits right into the mold. Kristin Scott Thomas is Christine, an ice-cold executive of an international firm who seems to be grooming up-and-coming exec Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier), partnering with her on various business deals and pitches to clients. They’re an excellent business team, closing multiple deals together with aplomb. They also have kind of a complicated personal relationship that Christine calls “love” – it certainly has a sexual aspect to it, though both women also date men…the same man, actually. Turns out Isabelle is potentially even better at her job than Christine, and soon they’re vying professionally and on cool terms personally. The crime plot that follows is twisty and will keep you guessing, even though you know exactly what happened – it’s Hitchcockian, really, in its ability to tell you who did it up front and still keep suspense very high. Both actresses are great; my only real complaint is that it’s shot rather flat and uninterestingly. Once the plot really got going it wasn’t an issue, but early on when relationships were still being set up, the bland photography and composition was a little distracting. Releasing in the US on September 2, from Sundance Selects.


The Yellow Sea


2010 South Korea. Writer/Director: Hong-jin Na. Starring: Yun-seok Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Seong-ha Cho, Chul-min Lee. 157 min.

The Yellow Sea opens by explaining Yanbian, an area within China that has a large number of displaced Koreans, and the plight of Ku-Nam, a Chinese-Korean man whose mixed heritage marginalizes him with both Chinese and Koreans. Facing financial trouble and worrying about his wife, who was supposed to send money back from her job in South Korea and has not, Ku-Nam accepts a job from the local crime boss to carry out an assassination over in South Korea, which requires a dangerous and illegal crossing over the Yellow Sea. But predictably, stuff goes wrong, and he ends up being chased by the police, the mob leaders (who he thinks ordered the hit but apparently did not and are upset it happened), and the middleman who smuggled him across the Sea. Then all these groups of people get into it with each other. I honestly had to look up a bit of the plot to recount it here, because I was zoning in and out a bit during the exposition and setup (festival tiredness, not the film’s fault). But once the film gets going, it’s pretty incredible, and I certainly didn’t zone out during any of the adrenaline-pumping, almost non-stop chases and knife fights (no guns) till the breathless end. The most amazing thing is the chases (both on-foot and car) are shot really close and edited quickly, but somehow they managed not to be incoherent the way most American action scenes are – I felt the visceral rush of Ku-Nam narrowly missing being hit or caught, or cars slamming into each other behind him, but I never felt disoriented. I want to watch it again just to try to analyze how they achieved that effect. No US distribution.


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Review: The Guard


[The Guard opens in limited release in the US today, so we're bumping our LA Film Festival Review. It's definitely one of the best comedies I've seen so far this year.]

If you’ve seen the dark-comedy-with-a-streak-of-philosophy In Bruges, the name “McDonagh” may not be wholly unfamiliar to you, as that film brought Irish playwright and director Martin McDonagh to international attention. The Guard is directed by his brother and frequent collaborator John Michael McDonagh, and besides the obvious use of wonderful actor Brendan Gleeson in both films, they also share some of the same sense of humor mixed with morbidity, though The Guard ratchets up the comedy a bunch, becoming one of the laugh-out-loud funniest movies I’ve seen all year.

Gleeson plays a Galway policeman who really doesn’t give a crap about his job, and spends most of his time on the first case we see ridiculing his young new partner, both for his earnestness and because he’s from Dublin. No color or national origin is safe from non-politically-correct jokes in this film, not even the Galway cops themselves. When an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) shows up investigating a drug trafficking case, it becomes clear that Gleeson’s murder case is connected, and the two start working together, despite their initially strained relations. It would be easy to expect the film to be about race, given the setup in the trailer and the premise of a bigoted Irish cop working with an African-American, but this film cannot be so easily pigeon-holed, and ends up being far more of a character study (albeit an uproariously funny one) of Gleeson’s character.

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LAFF 2011: Winnie the Pooh

With Winnie the Pooh opening in theatres this week, we’re bumping our review from the LA Film Festival. Harry Potter isn’t the only film to see this weekend; if you’re over the Harry-hype or your kids aren’t old enough for Potter yet, please check out Winnie the Pooh.

When it was first announced that Disney was going to do a hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh movie, specifically harking back to their 1970 Winnie the Pooh films (shorts collected as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), I greeted the news with both interest and apprehension. Interest because I’m a fan of hand-drawn animation and Winnie the Pooh, and apprehension because there are a lot of ways Disney could’ve screwed this up. As it turns out, the only possible criticism I could see leveled at the new Winnie the Pooh film is that it’s too perfect an imitator of the original films. However, I would not make that criticism myself, because I loved the originals, and I loved this new addition to the Disney Winnie the Pooh corpus.

After a live-action opening introducing us to Christopher Robin’s room and his stuffed animals (almost the same opening that tied together The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), the narrator jumps us straight into the Hundred Acre Wood, reading from an on-screen storybook about Pooh waking up and feeling a rumbly in his tumbly. But what initially seems to be just a literary framing device, tying the film we’re about to see to A.A. Milne’s original tales, turns out to be a much more involved conceit, as Pooh and the other characters talk back to the narrator and the actual words on the page of the book often become part of the story. This is rather precious, to be sure, but blurring the lines between stories and narrators, or between the story on the page and the written material itself, is an element of storytelling that grabs me every time, and I was charmed immediately.

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LAFF 2011: Short Takes Vol. 1

Look for longer reviews of some stuff soon (including The Guard and Another Earth), but in the meantime, here’s a few capsules for some more LAFF screenings, before I get too far behind. After three 4.5 star reviews in a row, it’s going to look like I just like everything and have no critical acumen anymore, but I’ve just been saving up all the lesser ones. But even these I rate Above or Well Above Average. I really have enjoyed every film this festival, to one degree or another. Either LAFF programs really well, or I’m really good at picking good films out of the program. Or I’ve lost all critical acumen. Whatever.

Tomboy


2011 France. Writer/Director: Céline Sciamma. Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Levana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani. 82 min.

Moving into a new neighborhood means new kids to play with, and a chance for ten-year-old tomboy Laure (already androgynous with cropped hair, tank top, and shorts) to pretend to be a boy with her new friends. Introducing herself as Mikael, she passes quite well, playing sports with the boys and hanging out with new friend Lisa in a perhaps more than friendly way. But summer won’t last forever, and keeping her increasingly elaborate attempts at being a boy a secret from her friends and her parents is getting harder. The film is slow and contemplative, giving a lot of time just to the children playing (and to Laure playing with her little sister Jeanne at home, providing a counterpoint to the more rough-and-tumble play with the neighborhood boys) and to Laure’s internal but weighty struggle with her own identity. I wanted the film to go a little bit deeper into the gender politics involved, but it stays fairly aloof, content to observe Laure without making any real statements of its own, which is also fine, but didn’t feel as profound as it seemed to want to be. Zoé Héran is really good as Laure, but it’s the precocious Jeanne who steals the show. Gorgeous cinematography and a good use of shallow depth of field make the film more watchable, but also lend a sense of profundity that the film doesn’t entirely earn. Releasing in the US in Fall 2011 from Rocket Releasing.


Haunters


2011 South Korea. Writer/Director: Kim Min-suk. Starring: Gang Dong-won, Ko Soo, Enes Kaya, Abu Dodd. 114 min.

One of the festival’s all-too-few Beyond screenings (basically like Midnight Madness, except the screenings aren’t at midnight, heh), Haunters introduces us to the extraordinary young man Cho-in, who can exert control over anyone he can see. His gift, his prosthetic leg, and his abuse upbringing mark him as an outsider, and that’s how he lives, using his gift to protect himself and get by. But when he robs a financier’s office, he meets his match in Kyu-nam – the one man who can resist his control. Kyu-nam takes it on himself to stop Cho-in, who constantly sends armies of bystanders to fight Kyu-nam, but Kyu-nam always manages to break free. It’s an intriguing set-up, because without his gift (and thus without other people around to control), Cho-in is basically helpless, only able to limp at a slow pace due to his leg. It’s actually a super-hero/super-villain story, but on a very intimate scale – sort of an Unbreakable but with more cool fight scenes. The director was a co-writer on The Good, the Bad, the Weird and has also worked with Bong Joon-ho – this film is much smaller than those, but still shows a lot of promise, and I enjoyed it very much. A lot of fun to watch, and a good bit of subtext to chew on. No US distribution.

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LAFF 2011: The Dynamiter

Every festival I look for one little indie feature to fall in love with; it’s kind of a crapshoot choosing low-budget indies with no distribution, no known actors (or non-actors), first-time directors. You can get some real duds, or things that have promise but end up disappointing. But you can also find some gems, and playing the scheduling dice at festivals is often the only way to find them. Last year, The New Year was the tiny indie I fell in love with at LAFF. This year, The Dynamiter is likely to wear the distinction.

Fourteen-year-old Robbie Hendrick is the de facto head of his Mississippi family, caring for his 8-year-old half-brother Fez and his nearly-senile grandmother in the absence of his mother, who has left them temporarily for reasons never fully explained. He never knew his father. Forced to grow up early, Robbie isn’t a model citizen, stealing from classmates when he gets the chance – but the principal allows him the opportunity to write an essay or story over summer vacation rather than kicking him out of school. That essay becomes a series of letters to the teacher that Robbie speaks in voiceover at intervals throughout the film, which have a homespun poetic quality to them that I found extremely moving. Meanwhile, his older brother Lucas comes to hang around, having been kicked out of college (on a football scholarship), and generally provides a negative influence.

The story of the film is simple, just a few weeks in this kid’s life, but it has a lyrical quality that elevates it into something much more. Robbie seems destined to follow in his brother’s footsteps, doing poorly in school, getting in fights, stealing, etc., but he’s an extremely sympathetic character, trying to do the best he can for his family. He plays in the fields with Fez in the opening scene, perfectly happy to play soldiers and tell jokes with his little brother (the scene is recalled with great affect toward the end of the film), but he’ll also get up before dawn to go work at a gas station for what menial wages he can get to keep the household afloat. And he mentors Fez as well, teaching him manners and courtesy as well as a good work ethic. Despite Lucas’s bad example, Robbie is a fundamentally different person, even if he doesn’t always do the right thing.

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LAFF 2011: The Innkeepers


After his great retro horror film House of the Devil a couple of years ago, Ti West had a lot of expectations to live up to with his new horror film. Would he be able to recapture the sense of freshness that House of the Devil breathed into an extremely overpopulated genre? And would he be able to do it without repeating himself, especially since The Innkeepers is also a haunted house story? The answer to both questions, I’m very glad to say, is a resounding “yes.”

Claire and Luke are the last remaining employees at the Yankee Pedlar, an historic Connecticut inn about to shutter its doors. The two are interested in paranormal phenomena, especially the legends of the inn’s ghost, a jilted bride from the previous century, so they’ve decided to stay in the hotel the whole last weekend it’s open, using a tape recorder to try to capture audio evidence of the ghostly Madeline’s continued presence in the inn. But for quite a bit of its running time, the film is actually far more of a laugh-out-loud comedy, and a good one, than an outright fear-fest, as West takes his time setting up Luke and Claire’s relationship, Claire’s awkward encounters with an actress she idolizes who’s one of the few last guests in the inn (the actress played self-deprecatingly by Kelly McGillis) and generally letting the characters and atmosphere of the inn build up organically.

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LAFF Trailer: The Bad Intentions

One of the films I picked out of the LA Film Fest Guide is The Bad Intentions, a Peruvian film the festival guide describes like this: “Growing up in Lima during the ’80s, Cayetana is an only child who spends her days taunting the housekeepers who look after her and communing with her imaginary friends – a host of long-dead Peruvian heroes. What upsets the nine-year-old girl most is not the threat of homegrown terrorism, but rather the news that her wealthy, valium-becalmed mother is going to have another baby. Convinced her sibling’s birth will bring about her own demise, she begins to morbidly act out her resentments.” I was intrigued even by that, because morbid children usually make for interesting movies. Seeing the trailer only made me more eager to check it out, with a very darkly comedic tone that looks pretty delicious. It’s the first feature for director Rosario García-Montero, and also marks the debut of Fatima Buntinx as the nine-year-old Cayetana; rounding out the trio of debuts, the LA Film Fest marks the films US premiere. I love finding new talent at festivals, and buzz from the fest’s first screening has been positive, so I’m pretty stoked to see it tonight.

Check below the seats to see the trailer.

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LAFF 2011: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The famous image above represents the myth of Pruitt-Igoe, a low-cost housing project in St. Louis from the 1950s and ’60s that has attained legendary status as a failure of modernism, of modern architecture, of public housing, and of government funded programs in general. But is that the whole story, documentarian Chris Freidrichs wondered, and are there more things to learn from Pruitt-Igoe other than “public housing doesn’t work”?

Pruitt-Igoe was built in the early 1950s, a group of several large, multi-story apartment buildings on a 57-acre area of land just northwest of downtown St. Louis. The city had a large low-income population working in the factories and warehouses along the river, which had created a slum that the city wanted to be rid of for health, aesthetic, and business reasons. Pruitt-Igoe was seen as the solution to urban overpopulation, and by 1954 families were moving by the droves from one-room shacks into bright, clean apartments in the brand-new buildings. But as the years went on, the buildings weren’t maintained, vandalism and crime became rampant, and by the mid-1960s, Pruitt-Igoe had gained a terrible reputation, with law enforcement eventually even avoiding the place. In 1972, the place was condemned and demolished, the experiment in low-cost public housing proclaimed a failure. In addition, it’s often looked at from an architectural perspective as one of the last great modernist structures, built on strong towering lines of form following function – when it fell, so did modernist ideals of architecture. But though that’s how Freidrichs got interested in the story, the documentary focuses much more strongly on the social history of the project.

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