Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CIFF 2009, Day Three: Trouble every day

To varying degress each of the films I saw on this day were concerned with problems in front of us or lurking in the shadows.

-At the Edge of the World (Dan Stone, 2008)

Countries: Antarctica, Australia, United States
Genre: Environmental activism documentary
Synopsis: Anti-whaling activists pursue Japanese whaling ships near Antarctica.

Notes: The Sea Shepherd organization takes aggressive action to stop whalers, who they insist are violating international treaties under the guise of killing the creatures for research. Their efforts, on display in this approving doc, involve using two ships and a helicopter to scan the sea for the whaling fleet and then using smaller boats to drop lines in the water to seize up the whalers' propellers. Oh yeah, they're not above ramming the other ships. Some consider the group eco-terrorists. They sail without a nation's flag,which effectively make them a pirate ship. (The group claims that whaling interests pressure countries to strip them of the flags they have flown under.) Also, while it's not fully clear why, there's tension between Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. Regardless of one's opinion on the matter, this is dangerous work being undertaken, and the film's strongest element is the camerawork that shows with startling immediacy how risky the mission is. At the Edge of the World speaks more about the mission than eco-politics, and honestly, that's what makes a more interesting film.

Grade: B-

-Welcome to Farewell-Gutmann (Bienvenido a Farewell-Gutmann) (Xavi Puebla, 2008)

Country: Spain
Genre: Workplace drama/dark comedy
Synopsis: Three human resources employees have the tables turned on them as they compete for their deceased boss's job.

Notes: Tagging this as a black comedy may be somewhat generous as the film's deadpan tone doesn't have (or shoot for) much in the way of laughs or jokes. It makes some efforts at humor in the form of bleak recognition and suspicion of corporate culture but is a little more serious-minded than what most think of when they hear "comedy". The most immediate comparison that comes to mind is Neil LaBute's body of work, although Welcome to Farewell-Gutmann lacks the delight in cruelty and sense of furor that his films possess. With its talky, performance-oriented style, Farewell-Gutmann plays like a play, but there's little to take from actors whose characters are unpleasant and, more egregiously, uninteresting. Ten mintures or so into it I felt like I had this film pegged as a non-starter. If the schedule had permitted walking out to see something else, I would have.

Grade: D

-The Last Days of Shishmaref (Jan Louter, 2008)

Countries: Netherlands, United States
Genre: Anthropological and environmental concern documentary
Synopsis: Climate change is expected to wipe away an Alaskan island community in a decade or so.

Notes: This frustrating doc observes the lives of the approximately 500 residents of the small Alaskan village of Shishmaref. The film spends the bulk of its time looking at the people's subsistent and poverty-filled way of life, yet the thrust of it is that global warming is causing storms and erosion that will lead to the sea swallowing the place in ten to fifteen years. The only information regarding the enviornmental impact comes from an ABC news report, a Climate Channel piece, and a segment of Al Gore on Oprah, all of which echo one another. The Last Days of Shishmaref is made in the traditional neutral approach (even though it obviously isn't).

The story is told through watching and listening to the affected people, but after awhile the lack of outside information and perspective becomes glaring. Where are people who could speak to what is happening and what might be done? Blame is leveled at the Bush administration, but the film doesn't detail what is needed and why it would cost $180 million--or $100 million, depending on the source--to move a 500-person community that has unpaved roads, no running water or sewers, and no roads into it. The film is nicely shot and gives a sense of the Shishmaref people's removal from society and distrust of the larger culture, but it provides an incomplete view of the problem and its solutions.

Grade: C-

-Three Blind Mice (Matthew Newton, 2008)

Country: Australia
Genre: One crazy night dramedy
Synopsis: An evening of shore leave changes everything for three Australian sailors.

Notes: The overlapping dialogue and freewheeling style borrows from Altman and, most recently, Rachel Getting Married, but its biggest shortcoming is fleshing out the characters through the slow leak of information. One of the sailors has been harmed by others in the navy---tortured might be a more apt way of putting it--but rather than building to something like Rachel's rehearsal dinner scene or the revelatory moment in A Celebration, Three Blind Mice stumbles along with minor nonsensical moments. The characters aren't developed enough to care about what happens to them. It doesn't help that none of them are particularly likable. The night's forward momentum keeps the film reasonably engaging. In general it's solidly made but at arm's length.

Grade: C+

-Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig) (Henrik Ruben Genz, 2008)

Country: Denmark
Genre: Secrets in a small town noir/dark comedy
Synopsis: A new marshal finds out how that residents of a small Danish town have their own way of dealing with things.

Notes: The oddball locals, the mix of noir and black humor, and the lighting are strongly reminiscent of the Coen brothers' films. If only the screenplay had the rigor and jokes. Terribly Happy gets by for awhile on its resemblance to Fargo and the like, but this riff on small town provincialism doesn't hold enough surprises or laughs to distinguish itself. The stretched out ending doesn't help either.

Grade: C+

-Tokyo! (Michel Gondry, Bong Joon-ho, and Leos Carax, 2008)

Countries: Japan, France
Genre: Omnibus film
Synopsis: Three directors make Tokyo-centric shorts.

Notes: Michel Gondry's delightful first segment about finding one's place in the big city is the kind of funny, creative, handcrafted item that's become his stock in trade. As with the sweded films in Be Kind Rewind, the short film within Gondry's short is a hoot. Leos Carax's middle segment is a weird but tolerable story of a sewer-dwelling creature that terrorizes the city. Bong Joon-ho's concluding short about choosing separation from and feeling loneliness amid a large population provides a nice capper.

Grade: B

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