Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CIFF 2009, Day Five: All in the family

Four days of film festival attendance have pretty much turned my brain to mush. Fourteen hours, six films, and some scattered thoughts...

-Dunya & Desie (Dana Nechushtan, 2008)

Countries: Netherlands, Belgium
Genre: Cross-cultural, coming-of-age crowd-pleaser
Synopsis: Best friends search for their identities through their pasts.

Notes: Set in Holland, the film features polar opposite best friends. Eighteen-year-old Dunya comes from a conservative family of Moroccan heritage trying to arrange her marriage while Dutch native Desie is something of a wild child who casually picks up and drops boyfriends. Like Bend It Like Beckham, it's a comedy in which the cultural outsider wants to become more like those in her adopted homeland, much to the consternation of her traditional parents. Dunya & Desie can be broad and predictable, but I found it to be a pleasant break from weightier fest fare.

Grade: B-

-It's Not Me, I Swear! (C'est pas moi, je le jure!) (Philippe Falardeau, 2008)

Countries: Canada
Genre: Coming-of-age dark comedy
Synopsis: A boy misbehaves in order to restore normalcy to his fractured family.

Notes: This offbeat kid's eye-view of the effects of divorce and family dysfunction features a ten-year-old protagonist with sociopathic and suicidal tendencies...and it's supposed to be mostly funny. Amazingly, director Philippe Falardeau pulls it off due to a strong lead performance from Antoine L'√Čcuyer. He indicates that there's a good kid fighting to get out, but with all of the unhappiness around him, acting destructively is the only way to rid of his sadness and gain the attention and love he desires.

Grade: B+

-Boogie (Radu Muntean, 2008)

Country: Romania
Genre: Male crisis movie/a day in the life drama
Synopsis: A run-in with old friends causes a man to assess his life as a husband and father.

Notes: Consider Boogie to be the Romanian response to Hollywood's male crisis movies. The film takes its title from the main character Bogdan's nickname, which suggests his untamed youthful days. Meeting up with two old pals while he and his pregnant wife are on a seaside vacation with their young son leads to a spousal argument and Bogdan evaluating what his life has become compared to his still unattached friends. The guys prod Bogdan into being who they used to know, although it becomes apparent that they wish they had what he possesses. It's an austere, well-observed film that maintains Romania's recent track record for uncompromising realism.

Grade: B+

-Prom Night in Mississippi (Paul Saltzman, 2009)

Country: Canada, United States
Genre: (genre)
Synopsis: A Mississippi high school is challenged to hold its first integrated prom in 2008.

Notes: Charleston, Mississippi native and current resident Morgan Freeman offers to pay for the school's prom if they will have just one dance rather than separate events for white and black students. Prom Night in Mississippi has some affecting moments in how it shows students who seem willing to get past the racism of their parents and grandparents yet feel constrained by their small town elders' attitudes. The subject matter lends itself to scenes that elicit strong reactions--the lone interracial couple's interviews can be heartbreaking--although overall the doc plays like a less substantial version of The Order of Myths, another nonfiction film exploring current segregation perpetuated in part by tradition.

Grade: B-

-Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008)

Countries: Germany, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Russia, Poland
Genre: Anthropological drama
Synopsis: A family struggles with life on a Kazakh steppe.

Notes: To my eyes, films this "real" make it impossible to determine where documentary ends and fiction begins. (I've come across some notes that call Tulpan a narrative feature, but some of this is surely documented reality.) Similar in style to The Story of the Weeping Camel, the film settles into a family's yurt and watches the problems these people face. Pregnant sheep are delivering stillborn lambs. The head of the family's single brother-in-law returns from the navy and tries to find a wife in an area with few young, single women. As a depiction of a way of life, Tulpan can be a pretty amazing film that peaks with a sheep birthing scene. To emphasize the anthropological and documentary elements would be to overlook the humor in the film. Tulpan shows the difficulties these people face, but it also finds room for laughter at a rambunctious child, a cranky camel, and the sailor's overblown tales of sea creatures.

Grade: B

-Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke, 2008)

Country: Mexico
Genre: A day in the life deadpan comedy
Synopsis: A teenager has a minor car wreck and tries to get someone to repair it, but everybody he meets wants a favor of some sort.

Notes: There's definitely a strong directorial vision at work in Lake Tahoe, but as with other deadpan comedies I've run into at the festival, I'm just not in tune them. The film is gorgeously photographed and eventually peels back an emotional core that seemed missing previously. I just wish I found it funnier.

Grade: C

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