Thursday, September 27, 2007

­BFF: The Poet

Closing night of the Boston Film Festival offered me a choice between director Frank Whaley and star Freddie Prinze Junior introducing New York City Serenade and writer Damian Lee doing the same for The Poet. Suffice it to say, I feel I chose poorly, even if I did meet a cute and friendly girl there (and chickened out from getting her name because I nearly said "hey, that's my youngest brother's favorite band!" when talk of Trade led to Kevin Kline led to Life as a House which apparently had a soundtrack by Guster. I'm old.). She was a little annoyed with the festival organizers, since she'd dropped $10 on one of the fifteen to thirty-minute short programs that was supposed to start at seven and hadn't by The Poet's 8pm start time.

I've tried not to be unkind to the people running the festival - they didn't put together a very impressive event, and the well-attended screenings tended to be either stuff that was shot locally or stuff for which they gave away a lot of tickets. Part of that's self-serving - I'd like a media pass next year, after all, and would hate to burn any bridges should the festival actually get good again. Part of that is me just not wanting to make a film festival about personalities, even if personalities are part of the experience.

But it's tough to let Creative Director John Michael Williams off the hook where that's concerned. Absolutely every film he introduced was really excellent, which is what you have to say, but he certainly didn't sell it like Mitch Davis does at Fantasia. Mitch seems genuinely excited about every film they screen and lets it show - I remember when they screened Citizen Dog and he had us all upset about how Miramax was keeping Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger in a vault and chanting "Wisit Rocks!" even though I suspect many of us (myself included) had never heard of the guy.

Guys like Davis radiate sincerity and enthusiasm. I'm not saying Williams isn't sincere, but here's the thing: The audience laughed at The Poet. This was a serious drama that wanted to really move the audience and we snickered at how clumsy and ham-fisted it was. And then Williams comes out afterward to introduce the director, and he's still acting like this is the greatest thing to happen to film ever. Which, I suppose, he may honestly have believed it was. And most of the people laughing bolted before the Q&A (or even before the film ended), so there probably wasn't much point of acknowledging them, I guess. It just made the continued effusive praise seem more like kissing the butt of one of a director who was willing to show up at this festival than legitimate praise.

Maybe I'm just spoiled by Fantasia, where everybody running the festival seems really jazzed about everything they're showing, or how Ned Hinkle (at the Brattle) or Clinton McClung (late of the Coolidge) are able to not avoid overselling films before they run and seem to have the pulse of the room afterward. Or, much more likely, I'm making too much of a non-event (the crowd and the programmer disagreeing on the merits of a film). Still, it made for an odd atmosphere, at least for me.

The Poet

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

You're not supposed to laugh at movies like The Poet. It's serious business, after all: Polish Jews running from the advancing German army! A good young man caught between his own loving, artistic heart and the brutality of his country! Sure, it's not like we were roaring or yelling at the screen, but let's face it: Once the audience is snickering, you've failed.

The story of Oscar (Jonathan Scarfe) and Rachel (Nina Dobrev) is supposed to be grand and tragic - Oscar is a poet, but during World War II he was doing intelligence work for the army in Poland, which finally made his father (a general) proud. He comes across Rachel during a snowstorm that arose rapidly, bringing her back to his home to nurse back to health. They fall in love almost immediately, despite the awkward question of Rachel's fiancé Bernard (Zachary Bennett). Oscar helps the two escape, but the Jews only make it to the Russian frontier, where paths will cross once again.

There are problems with this film from the very start, many stemming from its insistence that we like Oscar early on. I'm sure that we're supposed to be coming to a more complete understanding of him or seeing him as growing because he's in the German army and that makes him unsavory by default, but that plan backfires badly: His first poems (voiced over like a high-schooler who just wishes people understood) are about the injustice of war, his mother (Daryl Hannah) outright tells us and his father (Kim Coates) that he has a soul that should not be tainted by this evil, and he has no visible reaction when he finds the Star of David in an unconscious Rachel's locket. So the net effect is that we wind up respecting Oscar less, since despite all the film's attempts to portray him as basically good, he's still helping the Nazis invade Poland. Scarfe doesn't do much to further our interest; his performance is as bland and wishy-washy as the character.

There is some chemistry between him and Nina Dobrev, but their relationship doesn't ring very true - it's love at first sight, although that's a little creepy when that first sight comes with one of the parties unconscious. One of the movie's weaknesses is portraying the passage of time, so we've got no real idea how long Oscar and Rachel take to actually fall in love. It certainly feels like they're professing their devotion with Rachel ready to ditch Bernard within about a day (to be fair, it's something of an arranged marriage). Neither Dobrev nor Bennett is quite so wooden as Scarfe, but neither really manages to grab the movie and make the audience care about their fate, though Dobrev comes close.

What's particularly frustrating is that toward the end, we get glimpses of what could have been more interesting movies. Dobrev's transformation from pretty naïf to pragmatic cabaret singer in a Nazi camp is more or less jumped over, and the fallout from the cabaret segment leads us over the Russian border - and I would have happily watched a movie about the woman leading the local cell of partisans. These are much more interesting characters than Oscar, but the film has a frustrating habit of returning to its title character, culminating in an ending that just boggles the mind.

I can appreciate that Damian Lee wanted to do something better than the direct to video dreck that has made up the bulk of his career, but I'm not convinced he has the skills for it. I know Roy Scheider is better than his stilted segment as a rabbi who officiates over an impromptu wedding (with a conveniently perfect wedding dress!), for instance. The courtship between Oscar and Rachel is, as mentioned, awful, and I've got to think that Kim Coates and Daryl Hannah could do even better if there was a little meat on the bones of their characters, rather than them just being personifications of the two directions Oscar is being pulled.

Sure, The Poet likely has more redeeming value than most of Lee's other work - he does have Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe on his résumé, after all. That's damning with faint praise, though, and Black Book is out there if you want to see a really good Nazi-Jew love story.

Also at EFC.

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