Monday, May 04, 2009

IFFB 2009 Day Four: Still Walking, Nollywood Babylon, Lost Son of Havana, and Grace

Saturday was a beast of a day to schedule; going in, all I really knew was that I would end with Grace at the Brattle, since that was the only midnight movie option. In the end, I chose Still Walking over The Answer Man because the latter is scheduled for a release this summer, even if it is smack dab in the middle of Fantasia. I figure that's just the New York/L.A. release date and it will hit Boston a couple weeks later, when I'm home. I asked whether the various guests would be around for the second showing of Last Son of Havana, was told they probably wouldn't be, and decided to go with this screening. There were a couple other decisions, but Nollywood Babylon looked kind of interesting and would give me time to have a burger between screenings.

Last Son of Havana was the festival's centerpiece film, the type we don't really get a lot of opportunities for in Boston - the sort that attracts celebrities, media attention, and the like. The Brothers Bloom was a packed house; Last Son was a packed house where I'm sitting five seats away from Luis Tiant and Fred Lynn, a couple rows from Peter Gammons, and the Farrelly Brothers and Chris Cooper were in the house. There had been rumors that some Red Sox players would come, but the game against the Yankees ran forever - there was a lot of checking the score on mobile phones in the line and in the theater.

I wonder how much films like these bring outside attention to the festival; it's a very different crowd, people just there for the one film. Hopefully some come back or spread the word.

Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Among my moviegoing friends, I have gained a not-undeserved reputation for lacking patience with French dysfunctional family dramas. I contend that this is a bit unfair; while I did, in fact, bang my head against the back of my seat during the likes of A Christmas Tale and The Secret of the Grain while muttering my wishes that the characters do something, it has nothing to do with the subtitles. I do the same thing when watching English-language mumblecore, after all. These friends naturally assumed I hated Still Walking, but that's not the case. I rather enjoyed it.

Why is this? The setting, perhaps. Where watching American or French people stew in their own resentment just frustrates me, as I have too clear an idea of how I would not put up with that sort of situation (at least in my mind), Japanese culture is just different enough that it excites my curiosity. Yokohama is also a neat-looking city, as photographed by Yutaka Yamasaki. Yet I think the biggest difference is something else - I don't get the sense that most of the characters in Still Walking have surrendered to their issues; family relationships are tricky, but not a trap.

The family here is the Yokoyamas. Patriarch Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) is a retired doctor in his late sixties. As the film starts, his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is preparing food with their daughter Chinami (the singly-named You) while Kyohei stays in his office, pretending to attend to patient records despite his clinic being closed. Chinami's husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) soon arrives with their children Satsuki and Mutsu. Also on the way is second son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), along with wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and stepson Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). First son Junpei died a twelve years ago, rescuing a floundering swimmer, and the family is gathering to mark the anniversary. There are, of course, tensions lurking between the Yokoyamas. The house shrine features a photograph of Junpei in his lab coat, highlighting Kyohei's disappointment that Ryota did not also follow in his footsteps and inherit the clinic, instead choosing a career in art restoration. There's prejudice against marrying a widow, and somewhat self-righteous debate among the other family members over whether or not Ryota and Yukari having children of their own would be a good idea.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

Nollywood Babylon

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Asked to name the top three film industries in the world, nearly everybody would come up with the United States right away. A good chunk would probably mention India next; the word's gotten out in the past few years. After that, though, most people would likely rattle off a half-dozen or so countries - Japan, China/Hong Kong, France, South Korea, maybe Russia, Italy, and the U.K. - and likely give up before even considering Nigeria. That's because "Nollywood" isn't particularly concerned about exporting, but dominates its native land.

Nollywood's birthdate is given as 1992, financed by electronics merchants in Lagos, the country's largest city. It's a direct-to-video business - though Lagos is a city of fourteen million people, there are only three operating theaters, and none of them show Nollywood movies. It thrives because it's good business - deliver something the audience wants (films that speak directly to African audiences) for a cost low enough to make it profitable. That means shooting on video, quickly, and with perhaps a less-than-experienced cast and crew.

The movie is framed, in large part, around watching Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen shoot one of the dozens of Nollywood movies he's directed. He's one of Nigeria's most popular directors, and we get a front row seat to just how bare-bones Nollywood filmmaking is. The crew is very young - many don't look to be out of their teens - and Imasuen points out that they will likely move up in the industry quickly, maybe even directing movies themselves within a couple years. Sometimes folks on film crews get mistaken for gangsters.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

The Lost Son of Havana

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

If The Lost Son of Havana were fictional, there's a good chance that people would call its screenplay ridiculous. After all, it features the World Series, the Negro Leagues, multiple incredible returns from injury, baseball bringing about a reunion of fathers and sons, escapes from Cuba, and a comedic return. It is, more or less, everything a person might try to fit into a baseball movie, and the fact that it's all true doesn't diminish director Jonathan Hock's work at all.

It's worth remembering Hock's name, because it will probably be overshadowed in any promotion by the producers, Bobby and Peter Farrelly. The beginning of the film has a bit that's off-the-wall funny enough that the brothers should absolutely consider poaching it for a feature: In order for the documentary crew to travel with baseball great Luis Tiant on a trip to Cuba to visit old friends and family for the first time in 46 years, they must come in with a baseball team playing a goodwill exhibition game in Havana suburb PiƱar del Rio - and while Tiant is allowed to come as a coach, the filmmakers must play. Tell me there's not a movie funnier than The Heartbreak Kid in there.

That's not the movie Hock's making, though. The initial levity of the game passes, and the filmmakers get to the main business of why they came: Following Tiant into Havana as he returns to his old neighborhood to seek out the family and friends he left behind when in 1961, at the age of 20, he followed his father's advice and opted not to return to Cuba after Fidel Castro took power. The people he meets on his quest are interesting: There's Juan Carlos Oliva, brother of Minnesota Twins star Tony Oliva, who played ball as a youth, was a tank commander in Castro's army, and later became a coach. There's a childhood friend by the name of Fermin, who displays a fascinating mix of sentiment and envy when he encounters Tiant. And there's his family; his aunts are sometimes unable to stand and embrace him, but there are plenty of members of the younger generation to fill out the house.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston After Dark)

When a child is born in a fantastical serial, whether it be television, comics, or movie sequels, there is almost inevitably some plot twist that ages him/her rapidly, or jumps the audience forward in time, or otherwise presents us with a walking, talking, parent-resenting tween/teen/adult because, as the writers will tell you, babies are boring. I've never thought that necessarily had to be the case, but Grace is pretty good evidence that they're right and I'm wrong - although it's got both enough other problems and enough things that work that I'm not quite willing to concede the point yet.

Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd) is excited to become a mother, and is determined to do right for her baby. Her husband Michael (Stephen Park) is a little unsure about Madeline's plans to give birth at a midwife's office rather than a hospital, which only makes sense with her organic vegan diet and all the other principled stands that go with it. Michael's mother Vivian (Gabrielle Rose), a judge, is by no means unsure; she's upset enough that this hippie chick has somehow taken her son away from her, and a child means there will be no getting rid of her. Not satisfied with Madeline using midwife Patricia Lang (Samantha Ferris) as their obstetrician, she tries to force family friend Dr. Richard Sohn (Malcolm Stewart) on the couple. The topic seems moot after an accident on the road, though Madeline insists on carrying the baby to term. During the birth, she somehow seems to will the stillborn Grace back to life, but as she finds out during her first feeding, something is very strange about this little girl.

When you start a movie like Grace, there's a number of obvious hurdles, and writer/director Paul Solet doesn't get past them with the greatest of ease. A baby needing blood rather than mother's milk is a problem which shows up more or less immediately, and that sort of puts the storytellers into a corner. Newborns are, after all, not especially active creatures; unless you give the kid some sort of superhuman capabilities, it can be tough to build suspense in a who-lives-and-who-dies way. The story also relies pretty strongly on an idiot plot (when baby wants blood, call the doctor) compounded by convenient difficulties.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

No comments: