Friday, April 24, 2009

IFFB 2009 Opening Night: The Brothers Bloom

Wednesday was an outright crazy day, in large part because of Tuesday. I had tickets for Tuesday night's Sox game, you see, but it got rained out and rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Walking away from the park with Matt (who got out of work just in time to see the game called off), I hit upon the idea of getting up very early, doing the telecommuting thing until about noon, and then walking down to the ballpark. Sure, I'd miss a meeting, and I knew the IFFB was starting at the other end of the day, but (a) it's a meeting that lasts five minutes when things are going right, and (b) it'd be a one-movie day! And the alternative is paying a hundred bucks to do nothing but eat a ballpark sausage in the rain (note: price does not include sausage and $4 Coke). And screw that!

So, I got on my computer at 6:15-ish, and plugged through til roughly noon, surprisingly getting things done (normally, when I work from home, I feel like the only way you can call the day productive is if you measure in terms of laundry). I got to the park in the middle of the first, saw a pretty great game, and then spent forty-five minutes hemming and hawing about whether to stay during the rain delay. I left a little after 3:30, wound up taking the green line because, on days when the Sox have a day game, the #47 bus never comes, and had just enough time to stop at the Million Year Picnic for the week's comics before hopping the #96 bus to Davis Square, picking up my press pass, and then getting into a line that probably would have wrapped all the way around the Somerville Theatre's building back to where it started if it had turned that last corner.

Fortunately, I had no trouble getting a seat, though I wound up abandoning my second row center spot to sit with some other folks. It turned out to be a great night - the IFFB folks are right up there with the Fantasia crew in terms of getting the crowd psyched for the festival, the movie itself was fantastic, and Rian Johnson gave a lively Q&A. I haven't seen Brick, but it looks like I'm going to have to. I'm also fairly psyched to hear he's working on a science fiction film next; it's always great when guys with a unique vision do that.

As usual, I wish I'd hit IMDB before seeing the movie, because my eyes went pretty wide at the list of Rinko Kikuchi's credits. Yes, she's got an Oscar nomination for Babel, and she was great there, but she apparently shows up in small roles in The Taste of Tea, Funky Forest, Survive Style 5+, and Arch Angels. She's in a few movies that I'm really curious to see - Mamoru Oshii's Kill! anthology, the Japanese version of Sideways, and Shanghai. She's got voice-acting credits for Genius Party and Sky Crawlers; ironic, given that she's near-silent in this one. Everyone else, I knew they'd been in stuff I liked, but I hadn't realized just how great her filmography was.

Recommendations and Plans for Friday & Saturday

I'm not sure how often I'll be able to post during this festival, but I hope I can keep to just running a couple days behind. Anyway, here's what I've seen (either earlier or at other festivals) and what I plan to see:

Friday: Children of Invention is very nice, with the director getting some nice performances from some very cute kids. Also, if you're from the Boston area, there's some moments that may amuse you more than outsiders (like the kid standing in Downtown Crossing, calling information to ask how to get to Chinatown). Make Out With Violence was one of my favorites at SXSW; my EFC review is here. I plan to see Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, In the Loop, and Pontypool.

Saturday: Mine is a good little documentary about the pets scattered to the four winds by Hurricane Katrina (EFC review here); Monsters from the Id is well-intentioned but ultimately kind of scattershot (EFC review here). From Inside rubbed me the wrong was at Fantasia last year (EFC review here), just too dark for dark's sake for my tastes. Best Worst Movie is a ton of fun with just a couple of bits I would have left out, and both the Brattle Theater and former staff member Caitlin Crowley show up, which is fun. The animated shorts package includes "I Am So Proud of You", Don Hertzfeldt's follow-up to "Everything Will Be OK" (it's funnier than "OK", but not as scary), and a new PES short, which is always fun.

As to what I'll see... Man, I've got no idea. I have 12 or 13 films I want to see, none of them play later, and I'm going to max out at 5. Plan A is Crude, Automorphosis, The Burning Plain, Last Son of Havana, (maybe) Animated Shorts, and Grace. Plan B is Still Walking, Nollywood Babylon, The Vicious Kind, Bronson, and Grace. Plan C is The Answer Man, La Mission, I Need That Record, the Animated Shorts, and Grace. Or some combination thereof.

That's a bunch of great movies, anyway; if you're in Boston, try and catch a few.

The Brothers Bloom

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The Brothers Bloom is a magic trick of a movie, done close-up by a magician who has not only shown that there is nothing up his sleeves, but who is in fact only wearing a vest so as to make the whole question moot. It brazenly informs the audience how it will end just as it's getting started, and happily declares that everything the to follow will be slight-of-hand and trickery, but manages to amuse and delight for all that.

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are con artists, and have been for a quarter-century, when they were (respectively) thirteen and ten; a delightful prelude with Max Records and Zachary Gordon playing the brothers as children shows Stephen discovering his skill at planning an intricate con using Bloom as the leading man. Now, though, Bloom is wondering whether he has been playing parts so long as to no longer know who he is, and quits. Stephen tracks him down and asks him to help scam one more mark: Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a pretty heiress from New Jersey who, due to her unusual upbringing, is something of a hermit in her castle-like mansion. As usual, their assistant Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) is along to assist with logistics; they also run into a couple other con artists, a Belgian calling himself The Curator (Robbie Coltrane) and their one-time mentor, Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell).

The script for The Brothers Bloom is self-referential enough to not just wink at the audience, but to wink at itself winking at the audience. Early on, it sets up a clever in-joke that is likely to sail right past much of the audience, except that writer/director Rian Johnson has a character pick up on it and blurt it out, and then ends the scene on a perfectly in-character joke rather than by patting himself on the back about how clever it is. The movie proper starts by showing us the end of one of Stephen's novelistic plots, not just foreshadowing how the next one will play out but reminding us how reference in movies and literature plays on the audience's expectations. The opening scene is narrated by famed con artistry expert/magician Ricky Jay, a fitting choice for that sort of fairy tale. All of the characters are constantly fiddling with playing cards, whether it be practicing card tricks or playing a variation of solitaire where all the cards are face-up.

For all the cleverness, structure, and self-reference Johnson presents us with, the film is never anything close to dry. Everything is brightly-colored, taking place on beautiful sets and locations, and crisply edited: Sometimes, Johnson will zip through a montage at a speed that is right on the border of too quickly, barely giving the audience time to start laughing at a bit before building on it; other times, he'll linger on a shot long enough to call attention to what is happening in the background. Of course, when he does that, it's not really in the background, is it, since that's where our attention is being focused? There's something funny going on almost constantly, running the gamut from rapid-fire banter to silent comedy.

The silent comedy is mostly supplied by Rinko Kikuchi, who is little-known in the west but has been in a whole bunch of fun Japanese films in the last few years. She somehow manages to catch the absolute perfect vibe for Bang Bang, cool and apparently detached at some points but playful (if not audibly giggly) at others. It's a brilliant comic performance, no matter who she is tasked with playing off.

Most of the time, it's Mark Ruffalo, who is pretty much brilliant here. Stephen is equal parts devil-may-care and hard-core planner, so quick-witted, manipulative, and aware of his own genius that we should, by rights, think he's a smarmy prick, but instead he's somehow charming. He manages to convince us with relatively few words of just how much Stephen loves his brother, even in scenes that superficially read as selfish. It's a great, standout performance which will probably get overlooked when awards and lists get made because it's so funny.

You can probably say the same thing about Rachel Weisz, for that matter, although she gets a few more showily dramatic moments and plays a character who is more obviously strange. She's still a delight to watch, making Penelope outright burst from her shell. Weisz is great at physical comedy, and does a wonderful job of making us believe both that she doesn't have much experience with the outside world and that discovering it is the Greatest. Thing. Ever! She's the perfect match for an balance to Adrien Brody's Bloom, who is dour and jaded and, in his own way, is just as inexperienced with real life as Penelope.

There's an upbeat score from Nathan Johnson, and I love the costuming (not enough people wear hats in this day and age). What makes the film a true delight is that even when it goes to darker places, it's often to show just how much the characters like one another. It's plain fun to watch Penelope and Bang Bang together, while Bloom genuinely seems like a perfect fit both with Stephen and Penelope. For all the tricks in the story, and as disreputable as these sorts of characters often are, the charm and good feeling is genuine.

(Dead) link to review at EFC.

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