Sunday, March 17, 2013

Potential Buried Treasures: Beauty Is Embarrassing, Alps, and Sound of Noise

As I mentioned before, I'm generally not very good about actually seeing the nominees for the Chlotrudis Society Buried Treasure award, in part because I hate watchinig movies like they're homework. I could be seeing something I'm really interested in, or doing something else, after all. But, since I made the effort to get one movie nominated this year, I decided not to make someone else see a movie to vote on the award if I wasn't willing to do the same.

It does somewhat skew the perception of the movies, though. I strongly suspect that I would have hated Alps anyway, but would I have disliked it quite so much if I didn't resent it for making me put off watching Justified? Probably not. I also think I would have liked Beauty Is Embarrassing a bit more if I had found it on my own, perhaps fitting it into my IFFBoston schedule last year. It's actually the sort of documentary I want to see more of in that it's informative and positive rather than an attempt to sway one's opinion or elevate a guy who makes a mess of his life - but when I have to watch it, those elements make it seem sort of slight.

It probably also didn't help that somewhere between Amazon sending a stream out, my computer decoding it, and it traveling down an HDMI cable to my TV, the picture seems to get too dark. This wasn't really a problem with Sound of Noise, but there were large chunks of Alps where I really can't see what is going on.

Still, it got me able to see enough to vote by the Friday deadline. The awards ceremony is this afternoon at the Brattle Theatre; if you're in the area, it's a kind of fun show, and with any luck, we'll see A Simple Life win the Buried Treasure award (with Oslo, August 31st also an acceptable victor).

Beauty Is Embarrassing

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2013 in Jay's Living Room (PBS Independent Lens, HD)

Wayne White seems like a nice fellow, thoroughly well-adjusted and funny without the wackiness necessarily seeming too much like a put-on. That may make Beauty Is Embarrassing a relatively unique entry in the genre of artist documentaries, which all-too-often ask the audience to believe that because someone can use a paintbrush or guitar, their substance abuse or self-centered nature is somehow interesting. Of course, this means that it's up to White and his art to keep the audience interested, and, well, they're nice enough.

White is probably best known for designing the sets of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, a cramped, surreal, and wonderfully silly environment that netted him three Emmy Awards. That was twenty years ago, but he's been keeping busy since, often with a series of words painted on found landscape paintings. He's also worked in cartooning, puppetry, and animation.

There's not necessarily a lot of drama in White's story; he started drawing at an early age, and while each step he took in his life moved him further from his Tennessee roots, he generally seems to find some measure of success and contentment in college, New York, and Los Angeles without much bitterness toward what he's leaving behind (though it doesn't happen overnight). Director Neil Berkeley does find a certain amount of tension there, mainly during a return home and reunion with a fellow artist who stayed there - not so much tension between them, but White seeming a little more reticent and with interview comments about the southern paternal figure being something he always rebelled against and something that makes it into his work. There are some entertaining plays on that - a scene where he dances a barefoot jig after saying nobody considered him particularly southern until he left the south which is as much a play on Yankees' stereotypes as a swipe and the big Lyndon Johnson mascot head he and son Woodrow build plays into - but it's worth noting that they were literally manufactured for the movie.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Alpeis (Alps)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 March 2013 in Jay's Living Room (Chlotrudis Catch-up, Amazon Streaming)

It's not crippling for a movie to have a peculiar, almost preposterous premise; the weird ones are often the best kind. It helps a lot if that premise is realized in an exciting manner, though, and Alps sucks any possible thrill from the telling that it can.

The story follows four people in Athens - a gymnast (Ariane Labed), her coach (Johnny Verkis), a nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), and a paramedic (Aris Servetalis) - who form a group called "Alps" (the paramedic calls himself "Mont Blanc" as the leader) that offers a service in which they impersonate a dead loved one for a few hours every week. Of course, there are already existing tensions within the group, and sometimes it can be easy to lose oneself within this sort of role-playing.

It might be easier for the audience to lose itself if director Girogos Lanthimos didn't play everything so completely straight, though. The aliases acknowledge that this arrangement is peculiar, and there is naturally a point where things start to fall apart, but for most of the film, the characters go about their business as if this was perfectly ordinary, with the audience observing how they go about it but never seeing how it bumps up against more traditional means of mourning a loss. Sometimes, treating the outré as ordinary allows an audience to connect it to an absurdity in ordinary life, but the closest this movie comes is letting the audience compare the Alps' drilling with how the coach torments the gymnast, but that sort of student-coach relationship is hardly the sort of thing that requires an unusual metaphor. Instead, not letting the strange thing be strange just means there's little to do but watch the details.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Sound of Noise

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2013 in Jay's Living Room (Chlotrudis Catch-up, Amazon Streaming)

A little bit of IMDB link-following as I prepared to write up The Sound of Noise has me somewhat more curious than usual about how it played and was perceived in its native Sweden. Was it a Six Drummers feature with a lot more plot than their usual shorts, or was it considered a funny detective movie with antagonists that fans of goofy percussion might recognize? It doesn't really matter, as the end result is great fun, but I'm curious nonetheless.

It's not the drummers that get the movie started, though, but Amadeus Warnebring (Bengt Nilsson), the head of Malmo's anti-terrorism squad, which would be impressive to most families, but he comes from a family of musicians, with his brother Oscar (Sven Ahlstrom), a conductor and one-time child prodigy, much favored over tone-deaf Amadeus. When he recognizes the ticking outside an embassy as not a bomb but a metronome, he doesn't realize that perpetrators Sanna (Sanna Persson) and Magnus (Magnus Borjeson) are planning a four-act opus of musical anarchy, "Music for a City and Six Drummers", with four other comrades (Marcus Haraldson Boij, Johannes Bjork, Fredrik Myhr, and Anders Vestergard) joining in.

Amadeus Warnebring is an interesting creation; a lot of movies would make the cop who hates music because of something in his past a cartoonish monster, receiving either his comeuppance or an unlikely conversion at the end. Amadeus is sympathetic, though; the scenes where he is unable to connect with his family will likely strike some as familiar, as will the idea of not loving something everyone assumes you should even though, yes, you "get it". Nilsson plays his part straight, but doesn't make him so uptight that audiences can't like the guy, and is pretty funny when the action starts to drive him around the bend.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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