Friday, May 03, 2013

Independent Film Festival Boston 2013 Day 03: Soft in the Head and A Hijacking

I grumble about how late these festival posts are going up - and now that we're approaching the weekend and its four-plus-movie days, that's only going to slow down - but there was a benefit to that here. Friday night, I liked Soft in the Head a lot less and A Hijacking quite a bit more, so it was good to give my thoughts a little more time to marinate. The reviews, I think, are better as a result, although the analysis does sort of push away the initial reaction that people tend to want as a movie recommendation.

Then again, my first reaction for Soft in the Head involved the word "retarded".

Specifically, I said that it was going to be a challenging review to write because I'd need to find non-offensive synonyms to describe one of the movie's characters. Which probably makes the use of that word even worse, because then you're using it to specifically describe people rather than as just a vaguely insulting thing. I tweeted this, and found it kind of amusing that both the production company and lead actress Sheila Etxeberria favorited/retweeted/followed. Were they taking it as a compliment, that the character of Nathan was such an believable evocation of someone with cognitive challenges? It certainly wasn't (only) meant that way; it was meant to convey frustration, too. Of course, they may have been mocking - "look how terrible this person that still says 'retard' is!". Or I may be reading way too much into folks just clicking on my tweet a couple of times.

I guess Nathan is meant to be autistic, although I only really know that because the film's website describes the character as "borderline autistic", which understates the matter; there are some scenes where that's the case, but as a whole he seems much more handicapped than that. Interestingly, the festival program's description of the movie also gives a description of Etxeberria's Natalia that doesn't really jibe with how I saw her. I find both of those cases kind of interesting, in that neither may be a deliberate attempt to influence how the audience views what's going on but they can't help but do so, and I think that's sort of cheating. Sure, reviews and criticism do the same thing, but with both of these at least quasi-official, it's easier for the viewer who reads them to mentally integrate them into the movie, maybe making it something that the film, taken completely on its own, is not.

"Soft in the Head" Q&A photo DSCN02571_zpsb472ab93.jpg
Nathan Silver, Nechama Kessler, Carl Kranz, and Sheila Etxeberria

Folks showed up, which was nice. Writer/director Nathan Silver is the fellow with the eyepatch, along with his mother and two of the main actors. It wasn't really a great Q&A - they answered the expected questions about improvisation, shooting in sequence, how many are actors and how many are real-life analogues that the filmmakers found and cast all right, but otherwise, things kind of rambled. That's fitting, I guess, as this was a movie with a simple outline that evolved rather than being carefully constructed, so there just weren't going to be definitive answers. Still, it often seemed indulgent, and I wondered a bit whether the light crowd had a fair number of friends and family members, just from the level of familiarity displayed (and at times required) during the session.

Silver had another movie playing the festival the next day; I opted for something else. And, sadly, nobody came from Denmark to do a Q&A after A Hijacking.

Soft in the Head

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

I don't feel bad about not particularly liking Soft in the Head, but one of the reasons I don't like it bugs me. I look down on its characters, which means I probably look down on their real-life analogues who are less fortunate than I am, and I don't want to be that guy. Understand, the movie has a ton of other problems, but that it's about folks who don't look like movie stars with five o'clock shadow shouldn't count against it.

Natalia (Sheila Etxeberria) is out on the street after a smacking-around and ejection by her boyfriend; she stops by her friend Hannah's family dinner, makes a scene there, and eventually winds up in the apartment of Maury (Ed Ryan) - not as a one-night stand, but because he has cots in his living room for folks he finds in the street. Hannah (Melanie J. Sheiner) does take her in, but her brother Nathan (Carl Kranz) has a crush on her, which causes all sorts of problems what with him having mental issues and her not being Jewish. And, well, a hot mess.

Most of the characters in this movie are a bit of a disaster - Natalia, Nathan, some of the folks bunking out in Maury's apartment - and it's not necessarily just having made bad choices, but something baked-in. At least one character is clearly mentally ill, Nathan is at the very least in the Asperger's area of the autism spectrum (frustrated viewers may use less charitable words). And while that does make them different from what one typically sees on-screen, it doesn't necessarily make them interesting. Nathan, as he's portrayed, is not likely to make a decision that the audience can really spend much time considering, and Natalia is impulsive to the point of randomness. How do you tell a story with that?

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Kapringen (A Hijacking)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2013 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

Unless a filmmaker is exceptional at drawing things out and tossing in new perils when the previous threats are starting to wear thin, compact is a very good thing for a thriller to be. Another exception is when the tension is actually built out of waiting for a response; the audience actually needs to feel it drag a bit then. That's why a funny thing happens with A Hijacking - its crisp, efficient 99-minute runtime winds up making it feel taut and impressive as one initially watches it, but somewhat hollow as it winds down.

MV Rozen, a Danish-flagged cargo ship on the way to Mumbai, has been taken by pirates off the coast of Africa. Though advised to hire an outside negotiator by expert Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), CEO Peter Ludvgsen (Søren Malling) takes on the job himself - this is, after all, what he does. On the other end of the satellite-phone link, cook Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk) is pressed into service as the voice of the crew by the pirates' negotiator, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), since the captain is in rough shape. It is, as all involved soon learn, a situation designed for stalemate.

The film deserves a fair amount of praise, and a great deal of it deserves to be laid at the feet of the cast. It's a talented ensemble, and nobody playing a major part takes the easy way out by playing their character as a villain or falters at making their character someone the audience can understand, no matter different his background may be from the viewer or the other characters. Pilou Asbæk plays the guy that the audience can most likely easily relate to, an everyman whose job just happens to be in the middle of the ocean, and he quickly establishes Mikkel as an affable fellow (even if he's not completely even-tempered) in the scenes before the pirates board, giving him a solid foundation to become frazzled, frightened, and angry later on. Søren Malling does a nifty trick, giving Peter a level of hubris that is undeniable without it crossing the line to arrogance or callousness. It would be easy for this hard-nosed one-percenter to become the "real villain" of the film, but he doesn't, and that's not just what writer/director Tobias Lindholm has him do but how Malling does it. Abdihakin Asgar, meanwhile, manages a neat job of playing Omar right on the line between being a reasonable person and being a guy whose job is to seem like a reasonable person. Lindholm doesn't follow him the way he does Mikkel and Peter, but that we can buy into him when we know his function is impressive.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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