Saturday, May 07, 2005

Deep Focus Film Fest: Day 2

The two films for Day 2 of the Deep Focus Film Fest couldn't have been more diametrically opposed.

First up was the Danish drama BROTHERS (BRØDRE). Chris Stults likened it to a "Dogme DEER HUNTER", a three-word description that tells you as much as you need to know as I can in a few hundred words.

Told predominantly through handheld close-ups, director Susanne Bier's intimate film examines the cost of war on the domestic front. Military officer Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is the good son in the family, especially in comparison to his layabout brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Michael has what parents wish for their children--a respected position of authority and responsibility at work and a loving family of his own--while Jannik's established relationships are with the law and the bottle.

Shortly after Michael is called to serve in Afghanistan, a mistaken report returns to Denmark that he was killed when his helicopter was downed during a rescue mission. Perhaps without realizing what he's doing, Jannik cleans up his act and starts taking Michael's place with his brother's grieving family. He and some acquaintances complete the kitchen remodeling that Michael left unfinished. Soon Jannik is regularly staying at their home and becoming a surrogate father to his brother's two girls. There's also an unspoken, and mostly unacted upon, attraction between Jannik and his sister-in-law Sarah (Connie Nielsen).

During this time insurgents have held Michael hostage and forced him to choose between obeying his training and clawing to stay alive. Eventually British troops overtake the camp where he's kept. They deliver him home as a man resurrected but fundamentally changed. Haunted by his actions, Michael struggles to assimilate to civilian life and becomes suspicious of the connections forged among Jannik, Sarah, and his daughters.

BROTHERS' plot sounds similar to PEARL HARBOR, but Bier's psychologically complex melodrama bears little resemblance to the spectacle and saccharine love story of Michael Bay's film. The camera holds on Thomsen, Kaas, and Nielsen's faces for signs of the internal turmoil their characters experience. Neither Michael, Jannik, nor Sarah can be faulted for finding themselves in this complicated scenario, which raises the triangle's dramatic tension to an almost unbearable level. Each of the three primary actors' subtle but powerful performances pull the viewer into their corners at times and then get yanked away by another. Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen balance the needs and motivations of all three so that discerning the best outcome is unclear.

The DV cinematography gives a fuzzy quality to the images, a flourish that emphasizes the characters' confusion. Bier uses a palette of dark tones to express the emotions buried inside them. The three protagonists act and react in primal ways, and the predominance of deep browns, reds, and blacks reflect the raw nature of their interior lives. Only when Michael can finally reveal his darkest secret does the image gain a bright cast, a lovely pink glow that could have come from a Douglas Sirk film. Contrary to convention, Bier cuts from close-up to long shot during Michael's confession. After spending nearly two hours up close with these people, there is no need to see their faces. We know what his admission means.

And now for something completely different...

Probably the hottest title we're showing at the festival is THE ARISTOCRATS. A near-capacity crowd, some of which were already wound up from seeing Jon Stewart in concert at the Palace Theatre, showed up for the Midwest premiere. Rumors had been flying all day that Stewart, who is briefly in the film, would attend the screening. He didn't but the film's co-director Paul Provenza was here to introduce the picture and participate in a post-film Q&A.

In Provenza and Penn Jillette's documentary THE ARISTOCRATS nearly a hundred comedians talk about or put their spin on a dirty joke that has made the rounds among comics for years. The film boasts a who's who of funny people: Drew Carey, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Robin Williams, Stephen Wright, and a whole lot more. Shot over four years on the street, in the homes and offices of comedians, and backstage at clubs, THE ARISTOCRATS compiles a verbal history of a joke so nasty that it has to be passed along.

The joke, which has roots in vaudeville, centers around a man who goes to a talent agent in hopes of getting his family act booked. Their performance contains all things scatological and sexual and then some. The agent asks what the name of the act is, and the man responds, "The Aristocrats."

Many of the comedians admit that they don't think it's a very good joke or, at least, that the punchline is lacking. The humor comes from the joke teller's improvisational ability and the one-upsmanship that it encourages.

It's an understatement to say that THE ARISTOCRATS is not for those with delicate sensibilities. Although it has no objectionable content except for language--but oh, what an exception!--the film's a cinch for an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. (Rather than deal with the logistical headaches that rating brings, ThinkFilm will be releasing it unrated this summer.)

THE ARISTOCRATS is an unrepentantly filthy movie...and a very funny one. Frequently I'm not enthusiastic about this kind of humor, but the creativity and escalating outrageousness the comedians put into the joke is something to behold. The joke allows comedians to show off their unique skills and artistry while saying things that would make the roughest sailors blush.

Provenza and Jillette include versions that run the gamut from the tame, relatively speaking, to the foulest imaginable (and worse) and the verbose to the word-free. It's impossible to remember who tells the joke best, but two of the most memorable performances include a mime telling the joke on the street--that he's wearing a wireless mic pack may be funnier than anything--and a SOUTH PARK rendition.

THE ARISTOCRATS has shown at just four places in the country--Sundance and South x Southwest among them--and as such does not have a 35mm print yet available. We showed it on Beta SP. While I'm not crazy about projected video, it looked good enough. I don't think anyone else minded either as it went over extremely well with the raucous crowd.

I had hoped to share a couple photos I snapped of Provenza in front of the Deep Focus Film Fest audience, but the front of the theater was so dark that you can't see him.

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