Sunday, May 13, 2012

Independent Film Festival Boston 2012.06 (Monday 30 April 2012): The Revisionaries and Headhunters

The Monday on the IFFBoston schedule is sort of an in-between day - it's not a big moviegoing night in general, so few of what are expected to be the big premieres are playing (although the demand for El Bulli last year seemed to catch them by surprise). It's a good night to catch up on short programs and maybe a repeat or two from early in the festival, and not have to walk around that second corner to get to the end of the line.

To take last things first - as I did in reviewing, so that something would be in time for its Boston opening - I quite liked Headhunters, and more than just a little delighted when it ran on 35mm film. A few years ago, I mentioned that most of what I saw at a festival was on video and was told that it was probably just a combination of luck and the fact that I was selecting smaller entries to watch; I don't think that would be the case any more. I wouldn't be surprised if the only two things on film were Headhunters and Beyond the Black Rainbow, both already picked up for distribution by Magnolia and, with Boston dates already booked, playing IFFBoston as a sneak preview as much as anything. I get it - print costs are expensive, especially for independent filmmakers - but 35mm still looks a lot better than HDCAM.

There was also talk about the seemingly-inevitable American remake, which is unfortunate. While there's nothing in Headhunters that specifically precludes Americanization - heck, they could even retain Nikloj Coster-Waldau, who has done a fair amount of English-language work (I'm likely the last one who thinks of him as the title character in New Amsterdam rather than the guy in Game of Thrones) - the fact is, if you're doing one, you're doing it for the people who don't have the flexibility to see something with subtitles. And while the plot likely isn't going to be simplified much - it's pretty darn simple - it will probably get a string of flashbacks added to the end, and two of the most memorable action bits will likely get neutered.

But enough about that. The Revisionaries delivers some Horrible Photography:

IMAG0090, "The Revisionaries" director Scott Thurman  at IFFBoston, 30 April 2012
The Revisionaries director Scott Thurman

Why yes, I was in an even-numbered screen at the Somerville; how did you guess?

Thurman came across as quite a nice guy, soft-spoken with just enough twang in his voice to indicate that he was likely able to put some of his subjects at ease by being a local as opposed to some interloper looking to make them appear foolish. He had a few interesting stories, and said that Don McLeroy wound up taking the movie over somewhat because he really does come across as the most entertaining subject on camera, a goofball whose simple conviction makes him unimaginably dangerous.

That McLeroy is pretty much exactly what he appears to be led to one of the strangest comments of the festival, that McLeroy actually liked the film and appeared with it at Tribeca. I suppose, from his point of view, the movie doesn't come off as alarmist, but shows him and his allies mostly getting what they wanted, with him as a genial everyman leading the charge. In some ways, that may be the most frightening thing about the experience - that McLeroy and others like him are not only trying to push their anachronistic, superstitious beliefs on the world, but think they come out of a movie like this looking good.

McLeroy didn't come to Boston, and while it's fun to think he would have been torn apart if he had, I don't know that we're a more dangerous audience than Tribeca. I did find the overt hostility of the audience during the documentary a bit discomfiting, though. One of the things that makes it really easy to dislike the current generation of Republicans is how rude and didactic they can be, and one doesn't expect the other side to act the same way (which has, arguably, been a weakness); hearing a bunch of people hiss and boo during a movie seems out-of-character, like both sides have now abandoned civility.

I felt a bit sorry for Thurman dealing with the audience at points; he was making a movie that they more or less agreed with, but got lefties saying he wasn't sounding the alarm loudly enough when it comes to the theocracy that the Right is trying to establish and science guys wishing he'd laid out the difference between a theory and a hypothesis better (and wondering why an anthropologist rather than a biologist was the pro-science voice we heard). I tended to gravitate toward the latter crowd, but it is in our nature to be a nit-picky group.

The political nature of the doc makes it a tricky one to review; it has some weaknesses as a film that I may be willing to overlook because I generally agree with its point of view and because it is presented in an entertaining manner. I think I'm all right at evaluating how well-made a film is rather than how well it synchronizes with my world view (I've started a few reviews with "____ is an important subject and thus deserves a better movie than ____" before), but education, and especially science education, is something I care about enough that it's very difficult for me to not phrase things in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys" and make the response to what I wrote about my personal political beliefs as opposed to the quality of the film. I don't know that I entirely managed it, but a quick look around the other reviews linked on IMDB suggests I did better than some.

The Revisionaries

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2012 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2012, digital)

It's easy to hear a phrase like "culture wars" and think that it's over-stating the matter; most people, most of the time, stick to their own thing, grouse that there's not more that reflects their beliefs and tastes, and leave it at that. But as The Revisionaries demonstrates, it's a very real thing, and one of the front lines is the Texas State Board of Education.

This is because the group decides on the standards that textbooks must meet in order to be used by a large population, and since publishers aren't looking to publish multiple editions, this can impact the education of children well outside their borders. As the film starts, in early 2009, the board is attempting to decide the language to be used when discussing the theory of evolution. The focus soon comes to rest upon Don McLeroy, the head of the Board, who is not an educator but a dentist, and a young-Earth creationist at that. He and fellow conservatives like Cynthia Dunbar (who is a professor at Liberty University as well as a board member) are one side of the fight, while the other side is mostly represented by lobbyists like Kathy Miller (Texas Freedom Network) and Eugenie Scott (National Center for Science Education) and witnesses like anthropology professor Ron Wetherington. McLeroy will also soon be facing a re-election campaign.

That director Scott Thurman chooses to focus on McLeroy is kind of unusual; it's fair to say that the film's sympathies lie with McLeroy's opponents, and the usual technique is to follow the heroic underdog. Then again, the "antagonist" in a documentary is seldom as gregarious and willing to grant access as this guy. There's nothing obviously shifty or deceptive about the guy, and that may be why he's so willing to have Thurman's cameras follow him - he genuinely feels that he has nothing to hide, and is so certain of his convictions that he can't understand why his opponents are so mean to him.

Full review at EFC.

Hodejegerne (Headhunters)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2012 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2012, 35mm)

What makes for a good thriller? There are many recipes, but it's the results that matter; the audience should spend as much time as possible excited by what's about to happen, in addition to what's going on in the moment. Headhunters does a legitimately exceptional job of that, letting the audience enjoy the roller-coaster ride its unlikely protagonist is on without playing down to anybody.

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is an Oslo corporate headhunter who between his expensive house, lavish gifts to wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), and girlfriend Lotte (Julie Ølgaard) is living well beyond his means. He finances this lifestyle by moonlighting as an art thief, using intelligence he gleans at his day job and a partner who works for an alarm company - Ove (Eivind Sander) - to get things done quickly and quietly. At the opening of Diana's new gallery, he meets Clas Greve (Nikloj Coster-Waldau), a recent arrival from Denmark who is both perfect for a CEO job he's recruiting for and the inheritor of a piece lost since WWII - although things that look too good to be true often are.

Director Morten Tyldum and writers Lars Gudmestad & Ulf Ryberg (adapting a novel by Jo Nesbø) don't mess around with just how bad an idea stealing that painting is, or anything, really. Headhunters lays most of the information that the audience needs to know out early, and there's not a lot of it - just enough to kick off an entertaining chase. And once that's on, it's one thing after another with nary a moment for Roger or the audience to stop for breath, with the focus tightening to Roger as the movie goes on so that cut-aways don't slow things down. Even last-act revelations (which are actually pretty slick) don't require a pause to explain things.

Full review at EFC.

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