Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cleveland Film Fest: St. Patrick's Day

Cleveland parties like no city I've ever seen for St. Patrick's Day, not that I've been in that many cities on the day. Having been caught unaware by the local celebration last year, I was more prepared to beat the mass of people flocking downtown and taking up all the closest parking spaces. A festival worker gave me a tip as to when would be a good time to arrive. I got up earlier than I would have liked, but it was worth avoiding the hassle of parking a long distance from the festival.

I used the extra time to have some coffee and write. Although I arrived more than an hour before my first film, I misremembered the starting time. I walked in during the opening credits of ANGOSTO (LA NOCHE DE LOS GIRASOLES). I knew I didn't miss much (if anything relevant), yet I had the nagging feeling that I lacked a key bit of information. It turned out that I wasn't out of the loop, but that may have contributed to my feeling that the film wasn't leading to anything.

ANGOSTO is told in six chapters, each of which focuses on a different character to advance the story of violence and revenge. While there is some slight reversing in time to begin the chapters, the story unfolds linearly.

Local resident Beni (Fernando Sánchez-Cabezudo) discovers the entrance to a cave near his rural Spanish town. The community hopes that the find might generate tourism, especially if prehistoric paintings exist on the cave's walls. They call in Esteban (Carmelo Gómez), a speleologist, to explore the location. His girlfriend Gabi (Judith Diakhate) makes a surprise visit to the town along with the replacement photographer who is to follow Esteban into the cave. While they go about their surveying work, Gabi bides her time in the hills, whereupon a stranger attacks her. This event puts the rest of the film in motion.

Writer-director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo does a good job of developing several characters and keeping the story moving forward even when he has to backtrack to find the entry point to shift perspective. A well-made film with strong performances, ANGOSTO hooks you with the question of what will happen next. That it doesn't lead to anything (as far as I'm concerned) makes it ultimately feel like an exercise in style. Perhaps the film is intended to be a comment on the vicious circle of violence and revenge, but I'd like something more concrete than what we get here. As with BABEL, I can admire the filmmaking skill in linking everything, but would it kill these films to have meaning?

ANGOSTO has held up reasonably well upon reflection, and it certainly was a far sight better than my next film. The running time is a shade over two hours, not 100 minutes, which put me up against the start of LOOKING FOR LEONARD. In retrospect I would have been better off skipping this French Canadian dud.

The festival chose director Matt Bissonnette as "Someone To Watch" and is showing LOOKING FOR LEONARD, his debut film co-directed with Steven Clark, and his latest WHO LOVES THE SUN. After watching the excruciating LEONARD, I switched my plans to see his follow-up.

Montreal slackers Jo (Kim Huffman), her boyfriend Ted (Benjamin Ratner), and his brother Johnny (Darcy Belsher) break up their boredom by robbing convenience stores and dry cleaners. They're not getting rich, but it pays the bills. Ted and Johnny are getting tired of the smalltime stuff and want to begin robbing banks.

Meanwhile, Czech immigrant Luka (Joel Bissonnette) arrives in his new home country to find his furnished apartment not to be entirely what he expected and his promised computer job non-existent. He observes Jo brazenly shoplifting and decides to give her some pointers on how to be less conspicuous. They hit it off and go back to her place, but something goes wrong that will changes their lives significantly.

First-time writers are instructed to write what they know, but so many new filmmakers get seduced by trying to recreate what they've seen in the movies that they end up making something completely phony. Maybe Bissonnette knows the life of petty crime, but I doubt it. More likely he's familiar with the fiction writing class that Jo takes with her friend Monica (Molly Parker). There's not a single honest moment in LOOKING FOR LEONARD, just a bunch of low budget indie fallback ideas of what might sell.

There's a lot of talking, but the dialogue isn't funny or interesting. Lines are larded with unnatural sounding vulgarities. This is a film in which the characters definitely don't know how to swear. The story is a non-starter which makes LEONARD'S 87 minutes feel like twice that. While apparently set in contemporary times--references to a Suzanne Vega song, PRETTY WOMAN, and computer work peg this at least as being in the 90s--the fashion and set decoration suggest that it's set a couple decades earlier.

The title refers to Leonard Cohen, a Montreal resident whose BEAUTIFUL LOSERS Jo is reading. He's seen in some archival footage, but such scenes and his connection to the film are metaphorical. The characters aren't looking for Leonard Cohen but rather meaning in their lives.

After that disaster I skipped the late afternoon session. The African film BAMAKO had been on my radar, but despite the generally strong reviews, everything I've read about it makes it sound insufferable. Another Columbus critic at the festival saw some of it but walked out on it yesterday. That was all the excuse I needed to take a break. I considered going to THE OLD GARDEN, the latest from Im Sang-soo, but I wasn't that taken with THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG to feel like Im's film was worth the likely 112 minute slog. Since Tower City Center was swarming with people, so I needed the extra time to get something to eat anyway.

RED ROAD was next. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works for Glasgow surveillance firm City Eye. With a bank of monitors in front of her, she is constantly on the lookout for crimes on the streets. One day she recognizes Clyde (Tony Curran). He has some connection to her past, although what it is remains unclear to the audience for much of the film's duration.

Jackie obsesses on Clyde being released from prison back into civilian life and watches his moves via the monitors. She goes further and begins to follow him in person. Eventually she inserts herself into his social circle. He doesn't recognize her at all, which begs the question of what Jackie's fixation is on him.

Like ANGOSTO, RED ROAD displays terrific skill in its construction and excellent performances by its lead characters. Dickie's daring work brings to mind Emily Watson's immersive acting in BREAKING THE WAVES, and Curran conveys menacing charm that keeps Clyde unpredictable.

Director Andrea Arnold has made a rigorous character study akin to the films of Lodge Kerrigan. It's not without merit, but the question is if the key bit of withheld information is worth the long wait. I don't think it was, especially since a reasonable assumption can be made about what the secret is.

This may be a case of where preconceptions based on the festival program description led me to expect a different film. I wouldn't call it "an intense thriller".

With the day's three films all treading water in narrative terms, A GRAVE-KEEPER'S TALE (MAATI MAAY) was a nice change of pace. The residents of an Indian village warn their kids of the Ghoul, an evil female spirit who tends to those buried in a children's graveyard. One look at her could be deadly. Like the other kids, Bhagirath fears her evil eye. He asks his father Narsu about the Ghoul and is stunned to hear that she is his mother. The bulk of the film is devoted to Narsu telling Bhagirath how the once beautiful woman became shunned from their community.

I acknowledge that there is a culture gap I have with India, so perhaps my feelings that A GRAVE-KEEPER'S TALE is more radical in its messages promoting education and questioning traditions of inequality aren't accurate. Whatever the case, this simple film entertains and informs.

I know I vowed not to attend the midnight screenings, but it felt more appropriate to see the Norwegian slasher film COLD PREY (FRITT VILT) at the witching hour than at noon. It's a wonder that Lionsgate hasn't picked this up for domestic distribution because it's a far sight better than most of the horror films released here these days. It's a thoroughly mainstream piece of filmmaking...and the most entertained I've been out of the nine films I've seen at the Cleveland fest.

Five snowboarders hole up in an abandoned ski lodge when one of them breaks a leg going down the mountain. Unable to get cell phone reception and too far from their car or a town to walk to help, they settle in at the shuttered hotel for the night. Little do they know that they are not alone. Dwelling in the basement is an axe-wielding serial killer responsible for many other disappearances in the area.

The scenario is boilerplate horror film, but director Roar Uthaug livens up the proceedings with some novel twists on the formula and an emphasis on character development. More often than not the victims-to-be aren't distinguishable aside from one stock trait, but COLD PREY builds backgrounds and motivations for each one outside of their basic desire to endure the circumstances.

It's also great that the snowboarders behave intelligently, for the most part, and are decent people. The current wave of horror favors obnoxious characters whose survival is cheered against, a dispiriting quality I've noticed in the hours I've logged seeeing all this crap. Uthaug understands a fundamental truth of horror: it's scarier if you are invested in the characters and want to see them live.

On the other hand, the killer is a device rather than a monster with a complicated origin tale. It's refreshing to have a film dispense with mumbo jumbo psychology attempting to provide some awful and mundane history for the villain. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING and the BLACK CHRISTMAS remake provide evidence that knowing the reason for the killer's genesis doesn't make him scary. Nevertheless, there's a surprise about his background at the very end that is a nice touch.

Performance is often negligible in films like these, but Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is worth recognizing as the heroine Jannicke. She projects toughness, sensitivity, and smarts. It's silly to guess about her career prospects, but if this were a Hollywood film, I think it would provide an avenue for more serious roles.

While there's plenty of blood shed, COLD PREY doesn't rely on a lot of graphic violence to jolt the audience. Maybe this looks better to me because in recent years I've seen so many bad hack 'em-up films trying to outdo each other in the gore department.

And with that, I called it a night.

Prior Cleveland International Film Festival entries
-Back at the Cleveland Film Festival
-The rest of my March 16 recap

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