Wednesday, May 05, 2010

IFFB 2010 Day Four: Pelada, War Don Don, The Freebie, I Am Love, and The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Graphing the number of films one does/can see at a film festival generally reveals Saturday as the most potentially exhausting day; you can start early and end well after midnight. Everyone I talked to who was maxing out a pass saw five movies on the 24th, but a brief look at the festival's schedule indicates that six may have been possible: Start the day in Somerville, but after War Don Don, do Putty Hill instead of The Freebie, then head to the Brattle for Dirty Pictures and Philip the Fossil. It's a much riskier plan, one that sort of depends on the T being prompt and Dirty Pictures maybe starting a bit late, but it gets you away from The Freebie and I Am Love, although for all I know, Saturday afternoon/evening was going to be a disappointment no matter what.

The Freebie wasn't actually bad; for a lot of its time it's actually pretty good. For most of the movie, the central premise being kind of dumb doesn't really bother me, but I suspect that I'm immune to the screenwriting technique of "hanging a lantern on it" - having the characters acknowledge something is unlikely or unexplained doesn't make me excuse its improbability, it just makes the shortcoming fester. So when Annie's sister tells her that trying to add spice to her marriage by taking a night to sleep with other people is a bad idea, it simply becomes impossible to think anything other than "come on, you know this is foolish" for the rest of the movie.

Director/star Katie Aselton was there for a Q&A afterward, and she once again proved that, should I ever be involved in making a movie that goes on the festival circuit, I should be kept far away from any microphones. I, myself, would be unable to keep from yelling "of course the end is meant to be ambiguous, and, no, I'm not going to clarify anything or offer any hints, because if I wanted you to know, I'd have made it definitive in the film!" Fortunately, Ms. Aselton is far nicer than me.

I Am Love, though, was just miserable. It was co-presented by Chlotrudis, so the host pointed us out while thanking sponsors and such, meaning that everybody in the audience knew who was to to blame. To them, I just want to say: I was not consulted. I started wanting out in the middle of the interminable arty sex scene with cutaways to insects and flowers, and actually muttered "you've got to be ----ing kidding me" when the climactic moment turned out to be a main character slipping and banging his head. Sadly, I was surrounded, and escape was impossible.

My immediate response was that I had to get to the Brattle to see The Good, the Bad, the Weird right away, because after I Am Love I had a tremendous need to see some shit blow up. Kim Ji-woon did not disappoint, and I highly recommend anybody in the Boston area reading this within a week of it being posted get themselves down to Kendall Square and enjoy this "kimchee western", because it is almost pure fun.

The only minor disappointment I have from seeing that is that seeing it involved skipping Drones and Cell 211 at the Somerville, which do not have scheduled openings in the Boston area. It comes down to a matter of how I've got no problem walking home from the Brattle at 1:30am, but getting home from the Somerville Theatre involves a much longer late-night walk or a cab, and that just wasn't happening.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #5 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

"Pelada" means "naked" in Portuguese, but this is not that kind of movie. Instead, the title refers to a slang term for pick-up soccer, fitting because when played that way, it's often the game stripped down to its essentials: Kicking a ball around whatever open space is available, improvising goal markers. Because of the game's fervent and worldwide popularity, there are peladas going on all the time - and the filmmakers were looking to get into as many of them as they could.

(Yes, I'll be using "soccer" despite the fact that the game is called "football", "futbol", or some variation wherever they go. I'm American, and so are they. Laugh at us now, everyone else, and get it over with.)

As the film opens, Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham are self-described has-beens despite only being in their mid-twenties. They were star athletes in college, but injuries and the end of the WUSA kept the pros from calling their names. Gwendolyn is pursuing writing and Luke is hanging billboards while contemplating law school, until discussions with filmmaker friends hatch the idea of a world tour, seeing how soccer is played by people around the world. The project comes together, and they're off, first heading to South America, then Europe, Africa, East Asia, and finally Iran.

This is an awesome thing to do, and the only people who don't wish that they'd done something like it when they were younger are the ones who were who actually did or don't have very much "when they were younger" to look back on. They've done their research, so they know about some games that they can't miss, such as a regular Sunday afternoon game in Rio played mainly by folks old enough to be their fathers. Other times, though, they'll be caught by surprise, such as when they find a bunch of folks capable of some fancy footwork in Shanghai (China does not have a very distinguished history in the international game).

Full review at EFC.

War Don Don

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

"War Don Don" was what they shouted about ten years ago in Sierra Leone to announce that a vicious civil war (one barely reported abroad) was over. The end of a war, however, is seldom accompanied by an outpouring of magnanimity by the victors. Someone is going to pay for all the blood spilled, and whether that blame and punishment is meted out fairly is very difficult to determine, even when a great deal of effort is being made to do it right.

In Sierra Leone's case, the first person in line was Issa Sesay, a battlefield commander of the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF waged a bloody campaign against the government for roughly a decade, and their list of crimes is all-too-familiar for those familiar with recent African history: rape, murder, use of child soldiers, cutting off the limbs of civilians. The RUF's primary leader was Foday Sankoh; Sesay's brief command was marked by surrendering and dismantling the group. Since Sankoh died in prison, Sesay was the highest-ranked RUF leader to be tried for war crimes in the new courthouse built in the capital of Freetown at great expense.

Chief Prosecutor David Crane describes Sesay by recounting how he looked into the accused's eyes and saw a man with no soul; his defense attorney Wayne Jordash finds him personable and intelligent. But Rebecca Richman Cohen's documentary is only tangentially about Issa Sesay; it is, rather, about the process of prosecuting war crimes. It is, according to the defense, an unfair process, concerned more with politics than actual guilt and innocence: The (primarily) American and British donors who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building the court did not do so to see acquittals, and it is very much in the country's interest to project stability by convicting the leadership. The prosecution also has much more funding, and can take extraordinary measures to protect its witnesses' anonymity.

Full review at EFC.

The Freebie

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The Freebie is one of those DIY-style movies (it's too well-spoken and clean-looking to be referred to as "mumblecore") where no writing credits appears; the cast is working from producer/director/star Katie Aselton's outline. Everyone's got their own process, I guess, but a screenplay might have avoided the awkward situation where an improvised scene has a supporting character saying "this is a stupid idea" and the film having no actual response for that.

The stupid idea in question is married couple Annie (Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) deciding to give each other one night to go out and have sex with another man/woman. They are, you see, generally happy, love spending time together, and still find each other attractive; they just haven't made love in months. This, they figure, will put some spark and excitement back into their marriage.

It is obviously a stupid idea. The ways in which it can go wrong are numerous and immediately obvious to anyone with half a brain, and even if you buy that these characters have to do something to spice things up, one would think that they'd try things that involve them actually sleeping with each other first. But, no, the outline apparently runs (1) awkward dinner conversation (2) talk about having one night with other people (3) the big night (4) afterward, and the parts of the story that would really tie things together were never really puzzled out.

Full review at EFC.

Io sono l'amore (I Am Love)

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2010 at the Somerville Theater #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Star ratings are an arguably necessary evil, but should be the last thing on a critic's mind as he or she writes a review, let alone watching a film. So I'm not just chagrined, but kind of ashamed, that while I was watching I Am Love, I was thinking something like "four... three... two (three... two and a half... two)... and only because it looks so nice." Still, being aware of a film becoming a crushing disappointment isn't nearly as bad as actually being a crushing disappointment.

It starts off well enough. Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) is overseeing a Milano dinner party being held in honor of her father-in-law. There is much preparation downstairs in the servant's quarters, and some upstairs, as Emma's husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) teases their son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) about losing some sort of athletic competition to a chef. The chef, Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) stops by later, making an impression on Edo - who wants to open a restaurant with him - and Emma, who is emboldened when she learns that her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) is finding herself attracted to women... Especially since Tancredi and Edo find themselves busy after their grandfather steps down from the family business.

I Am Love starts out strong, with luxuriously extended and stylized opening credits that evoke a different era, right down to how the serifed "MILANO" fills the entire screen. There's a beautiful contrast between the busy preparation of the servants and the regal, almost decadent leisure of the wealthy hosts and guests - so wealthy that Edo's new girlfriend, Eva (Diane Fleri) is looked upon with some disapproval because her family is merely rich. There's a certain fascination in seeing how these two worlds interface, with Emma managing the household staff and trusted, longtime maid Ida (Maria Paiato) serving as a confidante for the entire Recchi family.

Full review at EFC.

Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom (The Good, The Bad, The Weird)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2010 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston: IFFBoston After Dark)

A few years ago, I saw a movie called A Bittersweet Life at Fantasia and loved it, saying it was the sort of action movie John Woo and Chow Yun-fat used to make before they came to Hollywood and got all neutered - and that was without realizing that it was from the same filmmaker who made the excellent A Tale of Two Sisters, Kim Ji-woon. It didn't even show up on US home video, but I figured that maybe that would be rectified when his big-budget, smash-hit follow-up, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, got its theatrical and Blu-ray release. I was offered a screener in September '08, but said, no, let someone else have it, I'll see it when it hits the big screen in a few months.

Then MGM's lawyers got involved, saying it was too obvious an homage to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Still, the story has a happy ending: A year and a half, a dropped conjunction, and who knows what other concessions later, Kim's "kimchee western" is finally hitting U.S. theaters, and it is well worth the wait.

The story starts off sounding complicated, but it's really not. It's the 1930s, and a Chinese bank has promised to turn a map to Manchuria's greatest treasure over to the occupying Japanese forces. Of course, the bank is run by weasels, so they hire a nasty Korean bandit, Park Chan-yi (Lee Buyng-hun), to rob the train transporting it and steal it back. What they don't figure on is another bandit, the eccentric Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), robbing the same train. Though, to be fair, they should have expected bounty hunter Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung), who has pursued Chan-yi all the way from Korea, to interrupt. Now, there's treasure to be found, uneasy alliances to be made and broken, and a whole lot of bullets to be shot.

And good lord, is there a lot of amazing action along the way. Let's start with the train robbery. Some filmmakers will quietly give us the lay of the land before launching into the action; others will present us with a disjointed mess. Kim Ji-Woon frog-walks us through the train, jumping right into the action while giving us just enough time to know what's where. Then things start happening at a frantic pace; you've got two bandits, a bounty hunter, the folks transporting the map, and a Mongol horde in, on top of, and around the train, which is moving, then not, then moving again. Things are happening fast, but the action is always clear. That's no small feat, considering just how much Kim is throwing at us.

Full review at EFC.

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