It’s both a light treat and a major distraction that the town I go to college in is finally getting a film festival of it’s own. On the one hand, it’s a chance to raise awareness of the cinematic arts to locals who otherwise wouldn’t care. Even film majors show a scant interest in seeing indie films playing locally. On the other hand, April is the quickest rush of the spring semester, escalating towards final papers and exams, and not without it’s stream of headaches. I was willing to allow myself the distraction for Monadnock International Film Festival, but having made it through the other end, it’s a clear example of first time jitters for both the films and the organizers.
As you’ll read in my film-by-film analysis, many of the premieres this weekend could have been chosen better on the part of the programmers. In theory, all the regular markers of a small festival are present: the foreign Oscar favorite (War Witch, the one film I regret missing), the 35mm classic (Rules of the Game), the crowd-pleasing comedy (The Kings of Summer), the light indie comedy (Somewhere Slow), the fragile indie drama (It Felt Like Love), the foreign eco-documentary (Polluting Paradise), a shorts program, and an invigorating feature indicting prejudices to receive the festival’s Jonathan Daniels Award (The Central Park Five). However, more is learned in practice than in planning, and this was quite the learning curve.
I was worrying at a point that my entire opinion of this festival would be a cynical one, and I even got taken to task by one of the short filmmakers for my blunt 140-character response (Said director’s film actually won the short prize, and his film was amongst the liveliest of the lineup). It’s still nice to be reminded of Anton Ego’s Ratatouille speech every once in a while, but competitive festivals in particular tend to bring out a cynical mood in the viewer. My experience of the weekend was salvaged between a handful of inspired film choices, the eagerness of the local community, and a kickin’ after party celebration with programmers and filmmakers alike. It certainly excites me to help in forming next year’s festival experience.
A year after it’s release, our local theater gets The Turin Horse? It took us 74 years to get The Rules of the Game! Though some might scoff at the presence of an old film in the festival environment, this was perhaps the only sure thing of the weekend. On the Sight & Sound Best of All Time list since it’s inception in 1952, expectations were pretty much satisfied in advance. It was certain to be great, but I’m always wary about precisely how great. The “A-” designation should articulate that I don’t think it’s of quite the high caliber those who voted it up on the Sight & Sound list do, or at least not yet. That need not degrade it as the original comedy-of-manners that inspired many a satisfying cultural critique across the ages.
Often the case with films both past and present, attentions are centered around the woman, in this case Christine, who finds herself the object of aviator Andre Jurieux’s naive affections, in spite her husband Robert de la Cheyniest, who is carrying on an affair with Genevieve. It quickly becomes clear that the chess game of war is being hysterically paralleled with the domination of women. Women trading themselves freely between in a weekend bidding war is reason enough for concern of dehumanizing elements, but the women here are often more in control of their desires than the men. Perhaps the film’s most central scene, a hunting party where birds and rabbits are herded towards the slaughter, shows the women taking arms alongside the men in tearing nature senselessly apart.
Perhaps not a war film in the strictest sense, The Rules of the Game nonetheless has a lot to say about it. Amateurish poacher Marceau and gamekeeper Schumacher’s violent chase throughout Robert’s estate is a prime example of the immature motivations behind killing, but even more telling is the nonchalant reaction of the house-guests to this potentially catastrophic gunfire. It’s not until (*SPOILER*) a celebrity is shot down (*END SPOILER*) that people actually take any notice. The real master of these games is Jean Renoir, both behind and in front of the camera as the flirtatious and happily indulgent Octave. His motivations are free of consequence, though he may be the most deserving of guilt here, if also tellingly the most tragic. I look forward to analyzing the film and these dynamics further upon many a future viewing.
Perhaps last year’s most interesting review at the site for a film that didn’t really gain much attention was G Clark’s review of The Color Wheel, which he diagnosed with a dangerous case of what he called “Lena Dunham syndrome” (Definition: “Presenting the worst qualities of the millennial generation and expecting the audience to commiserate”). I admire the articulation of a noticeable trend, even if it is a condemnation, but I’ve come to notice an inhibition even more dangerous, and I can only address it as Community Syndrome. Definition: Endowing each of it’s characters with an endless supply of blunt and situationally nonadjacent phrases that force laughs onto the audience based entirely on how unexpected they are in the context of the scene.
I must pretext with the fact that I like Community. For three years, it used this formula to build hilarious dynamics that nevertheless felt honest to the characters. Then the show got canceled. Sorry, I mean that creator Dan Harmon got canceled, and thus everything that made the show work in the first place. Thus the show had it’s formula backlash against it, with all the crazy phrases of it’s characters suddenly reading as dishonest, and not entirely that funny. This was a trend I first noticed in last year’s Bachelorette, which had some absolutely game female performances punching out jokes at an infrequent ratio. The Kings of Summer is a lot like that, except neither it’s jokes or it’s characters are all that interesting.
As a matter of fact, they’re quite often offensive. Following three boys who decide to abandon their parents to live off that land in the middle of the woods, the film tries to put us on their side by way of how many witty remarks than can make each minute, more than once coming off as racist, sexist, homophobic, or simply inexplicable. Keep an eye on Moises Arias, because his manipulatively hilarious weirdo Biaggio is going to vault his career more than any of the other boring male leads. The film supports their immature attitudes by making it too easy for them to sustain it, and throwing the superficially pretty blonde to break up the friendship between these boys in the most facile way imaginable. You know the thing the “smarter” character says never to do in the wild? Well the protagonist ignorantly does that, and we’re somehow supposed to care if he lives or dies.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does so much to mask how crass and inconsolable these characters are and how mean-spirited it’s comedic attitude is, throwing in pretty sunstroke cinematography that becomes uglier as it goes along, partially based on how the story doesn’t deserve it. Juxtaposition of scenes by editor Terel Gibson is similarly tone deaf, at one point mixing together two scenes whose emotional wavelengths are absolute opposites. The film’s two most compassionate performances tellingly come from TV veterans Nick Offerman and Alison Brie, though even they succumb to the film’s baseless style of humor. A friend said after the screening that it might have passed if it were a short television length episode. The next day we saw a short film by Vogt-Roberts, Book Club. There is no justification for this painful schtick at any length.
It’s strange how safe I felt going into It Felt Like Love, a film I knew so little about, but trusted on the basis of a Sundance film about a young girl, directed by a female director. It’s a generalization I wish I’d never made, as the film wasted no time in proving itself as vague as it’s title. The girl in question, played by Gina Piersanti, is entirely preoccupied with being a slut, aspiring to fill the role that her trashy best friend is in. It’s a film about the naive American girl dependency on finding a hot guy and living with them forever… that isn’t Spring Breakers, which I haven’t even seen yet. When that film comes around my own corner, I have no doubt the comparisons will fly in Harmony Korine’s favor, for me anyway.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s script offers little to no character definition from either Gina’s character, Lila, or the boys she flaunts herself on. One might argue that’s the point of Hittman’s focus, showing the male skin as armor to cover their hollow soullessness, but there is no grand revelation underneath. It’s a wannabe Fish Tank in a lot of ways, transposing it onto a Brooklyn backdrop with a ruder, possibly more abrasive atmosphere, but no motivations to take itself over to the dark side. Speaking of the dark side, the end dance sequence aspires to reach the sacrificial crescendo Darren Aronofsky achieved in Black Swan. Needless to say, Lila in neither a Nina Sayers or a Mia Willaims. She wants to be too much, and therefore ends up as nothing.
As Ken Burns took the stage to present his latest film, as much his as co-director David McMahon’s, and even more so daughter Sarah Burns’, he primed the audience by saying he didn’t hope they’d enjoy it. Instead, he hopes they are enraged by the film, and it’s easy to see why. Those not familiar with the case of the Central Park Five will slowly find themselves not only enraged by, but silently co-opted into the injustice at the film’s heart. The Central Park Five‘s mix of images with testimony recalls Bart Layton’s The Imposter, though without that film’s reenactments, and it’s Ken Burns’ first without overt narration, because the film’s personality ought to belong to those who have been prosecuted wrongly by the events depicted.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana were accused of the rape and assault of a white jogger in Central Park, news that gains even more of the public and media fervor based on it’s cross-section of race, and as is often the case, the police were trusted more than they probably should have been. Like the story of the West Memphis Three, this is a film about appearances being the sole reason for prosecution, but with even less to go on. The sole concrete evidence linking these five men to the murder is the fact that they’re black, which immediately makes them more suspect than white people. Intense interrogations ensue, and sympathy is ratcheted up for these men thanks to it’s invigorating editing.
Even as events took the turns we knew they would, my heart was bolted to the back of my seat needing to see these men through their struggles. Perhaps swaying my own opinion of the film more than usual was the post-film presence of two of the Central Park Five, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana. Though the five are still in court against the police who still won’t admit they were wrong in the first place, it’s a heartening bookend to their trials that they were strong enough to come forward and talk, and that they both have families after the entire ordeal. It was the perfect finish to the festival, and it will be impressive if they maintain it with next year’s Jonathan Daniels award winner. Now while we’re talking about scandals, how was this not even shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature? Your loss, Academy.