Thursday, March 23, 2006

Wrapping the Cleveland Film Festival's eighth day

It can't, it won't, and it don't stop. At least not until Sunday night. Continuing with updates from my viewing at day eight of Cleveland's film festival...

The Hungarian film THE PORCELAIN DOLL has striking visuals courtesy of saturated colors (minus one section in black and white), a quality I'm guessing is courtesy of computer enhancement. If not, bravo to the cinematographer. Regardless, it's a distinctive, good-looking film. The whimsical opening credits lead one to believe a zany comedy is to follow. It doesn't. Instead the three fables that follow use magic realism to tell cautionary or woeful tales. The stories unfold among a group of Hungarian farmers, played by the same actors who may or may not be the same characters from one story to the next. There's no through line with the three pieces either. Also, THE PORCELAIN DOLL is largely dialogue-free, which increases the film's dramatic inertia.

The Canadian mock documentary THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF GUY TERRIFICO succumbs to the same problems that other Christoper Guest/THIS IS SPINAL TAP wannabes face. I have no idea how much was ad-libbed and how much was scripted, but depending on the actor or real-life musician, the performances feel too rehearsed or too free form. Guest's movies look effortless but are surely anything but. The pretenders like GUY TERRIFICO aren't skilled enough to recreate that kind of improvisation.

The film traces the mysterious life and presumed death of Canadian outlaw country singer/songwriter Guy Terrifico. In addition to his bandmates, manager, and lover, interviewees include Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and members of Blue Rodeo as themselves. Terrifico seems modelled on Gram Parsons, although the character could just as well be the generic boozer and pill-popper.

THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF GUY TERRIFICO is straight-faced about the music. It isn't jokey, but since the film is intended to play as comedy, it seems like an odd choice. The recreated vintage footage is very well done, but it amounts to nothing more than a long empty gag. That it ends on a serious note is indicative that the filmmakers never found the proper tone for the material.

Up to this point I’ve seen 21 films at the festival but nothing that has knocked my socks off. The unlikely de-socking came via THE MIGHTY CELT. The drama draws its name from the Irish hero Cucchulain, which is also the name that a boy gives to a greyhound he’s training for races. The boy, Donal (Tyrone McKenna), works for Joe (Ken Stott), an unpleasant dog trainer who’s constantly criticizing the youngster for being too soft. (Joe obviously cut out any softness in himself. If a dog proves itself unworthy on the track, he takes a hammer to its skull, puts it in a bag, and dumps it in the lake. Not exactly OLD YELLER, is it?)

Donal is the son of Kate, a single mother played by Gillian Anderson. She hasn’t seen Donal’s father in ages. Like her brother, he’s a likely victim of Northern Ireland’s war more than a decade prior. O (Robert Carlyle), Kate’s old flame and one of her brother’s fellow warriors, returns to town looking to move on from the violence that was part of his younger days. His decision is viewed as traitorous by some of the townsfolk, including old Joe.

THE MIGHTY CELT might have been a great movie for children, but the occasional use of some strong language and one intense scene is likely to put off most parents from letting their kids watch it. This is an unflinching film that examines what it is to be decent and what the cost of retribution is.

Like the greyhounds that factor prominently in it, THE MIGHTY CELT’S storytelling is lean and muscular. The accents may be hard for
American ears to understand at times. (I struggled at times.) Anderson’s Irish accent sounds authentic, at least in that hers is as thick as the others. Anderson and Carlyle have some nice scenes together as their characters get reacquainted.

I need to do a little research to determine if my read of THE MIGHTY CELT is supportable. Assuming I have the details correct, it plays out as a veiled allegory for the state of Northern Ireland and what is the best way to move forward after years of conflict. Is it proper to toe the hard line and continue to shed blood, or is strength found in not partaking in retaliation and vengeance?

The last film of the day for me was the Thai pic MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE. A shy cab driver becomes enamored with one of his regular pick-ups, a gorgeous prostitute who doesn't mock his preference for the golden oldies radio station he listens to in the taxi and the past in general.

The film is full of lush romantic longing between these two people living hard, lonely lives. Although not explicit, MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE addresses the real issues that prostitutes would face every day (depersonalized sex, STDs). The hooker with a heart of gold is a common film character, but in almost every instance the duties and consequences of their employment are glossed over.

Deep into its 105 minutes MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE takes some strange, unforseen turns. We find out some revealing details in the taxi driver's background, but nothing can prepare the audience for a couple bizarre moments in it.

MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE appears to be making a strong argument for the ways of the past and living in the past, but in throwing some third act curveballs into the mix, such a viewpoint isn't as rose-colored as it seems. The idealized past is shown to be an illusion that can hold people back, although the basic values are worth retaining. MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE'S ability to surprise is as valuable as its evoking of deep, unspoken love.

The schedule was much more accommodating to posting on Thursday's screenings than Friday or Saturday likely will be. Keep checking back. Hopefully I have a couple more entries left in me while up north.

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