Monday, April 11, 2011

2011 Cleveland International Film Festival nuggets

My early spring travels included a visit to the Cleveland International Film Festival, which seems
to pack more people in year after year, at least since I've started attending. This year CIFF overtook all of Cleveland Cinemas in Tower City Center, and the crowds continued to pile into the auditoriums. (I read somewhere that one of the days featured more seats filled at the festival than the Cleveland Indians game that was played across the street. Impressive as that is for the fest--and dire for the baseball team--we're not talking about unique attendees but seats filled over the course of the day.)

Anyway, the change in accreditation this year meant a reduced slate for me. While I wasn't ultimately enthusiastic about a lot of what I picked to see, keep in mind that it is a random sample that is not necessarily indicative of the programming's quality. I've had days at this festival before where I've seen five or six films I've liked. I've had others, as this one turned out, where finding a good one was a challenge. There's a luck of the draw involved sometimes. I drew the short one this time around. So it goes.

-WIN/WIN (Jaap van Heusden, 2010) (The Netherlands)

No, this isn't the Thomas McCarthy-directed dramedy with Paul Giamatti as a high school wrestling coach. Rather, it's a Dutch cautionary tale about the corporate world. Oscar Van Rompay plays a stock broker with unparalleled skills when it comes to trading. Of course, this high stakes world turns out to be more pressure-filled and soul-sucking than our guileless hero anticipated. WIN/WIN is a decent enough film, but it hits pretty much every beat you expect it too. More crucially, the drama doesn't really feel like it earns the expected big statement of an ending.

Grade: C+

-IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE (EU CAND VREAU SA FLUIER, FLUIER) (Florin Serban, 2010) (Romania and Sweden)

The Romanian film scene has been one to keep an eye on for awhile, so this was one of my more anticipated titles of the day. The film centers on a teenage boy who is close to completing his sentence at a juvenile detention facility. Due to a family issue, he makes a rash choice before his time is up and creates a whole new set of problems for himself. This quiet, deliberate film is of a piece from what I know of Romanian cinema, but I can't render a verdict on it. Seeing a full day's worth of films can challenge one to stay awak. In this case, it was the early hours needed to drive to Cleveland for a schedule beginning at 9:15 a.m. that was responsible for me taking multiple cat naps during this. Trust me, I wasn't happy about it.

Grade: incomplete (due to sleeping unrelated to the film)

-SPECIAL TREATMENT (SANS QUEUE NI TETE) (Jeanne Labrune, 2010) (France)

The overlapping qualities between prostitution and psychoanalysis are examined in a film that's moderately compelling at best. The most interest derives from Isabelle Huppert as an upscale hooker who specially tailors sessions with clients and their well-endowed wallets to suit their particular needs. Oftentimes this has more to do with talking than sex, not that intimate physical contact isn't in the equation. The character description alone sounds like a good fit for the risk-taking actress, but she can only do so much with a screenplay and direction that tend to make trite connections regarding how these professions tend to the needs of those in pain.

Grade: C

-THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED(Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion, 2010) (United States and Liberia)

How much does religious conversion count for when considering the past? This powerful documentary about a former Liberian militia commander turned Christian minister certainly puts the question to the test. Once known as the fearsome General Butt Naked because of his penchant for leading his soldiers while nude, Joshua Milton Blahyi is a changed man, or so he claims to be. Of course, he also accepts responsibility for the death, many by his own hand, of an estimated 10,000 people. As great as it may be that he's found God, his debts in the universal ledger are probably too steep to ever be paid off in most people's eyes. Yet there he is asking those he's wronged for forgiveness and trying to improve the lives of some of those he once led.

The best thing about THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED is that it leaves you at the end as uncertain about whether this guy is genuine as you were at the start. Part of me is intensely skeptical of Blahyi's words and motives. Yes, we see his victims and some of their family members forgive him, but it certainly seems like such pardons might be granted out of the lingering fear of the man who terrorized them. He's a physically imposing figure, and his pleading for forgiveness can seem too insistent and self-serving. Religion is merely a different weapon for him to manipulate people with. Nevertheles, there are times when it appears that something fundamental has changed in Blahyi and that he is a living example of the faith he professes to hold.

It's a really fascinating film and one that gives the viewer a lot to wrestle with. Of my limited viewing at the festival, this was easily the best.

Grade: B+

-THE HEDGEHOG (LE HERISSON) (Mona Achache, 2009) (France)

This adaptation of the novel THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG feels like it needed the Hollywood awards season once over to get it into fighting shape and make it a better film. (This has the scent of end-of-the-year prestige picture all over it.) Although based on a well-respected book, the dry screenplay and simple construction are at odds with the shocking nature of the plot. 11-year-old Paloma intends to kill herself when she turns twelve in about half a year. Like the protagonist, director Mona Achache handles it all matter of factly, but the rather large leaps the story requires the audience to make are often unconvincing.

Grade: C

-HAYFEVER (FEBBRE DA FIENO) (Laura Luchetti, 2010) (Italy)

Or proof that film festival fare isn't all heady stuff. HAYFEVER is essentially the kind of romantic comedy/drama you'd expect Touchstone to release, except it's in Italian. Put Vanessa Hudgens in the main female role, and it would be virtually indistinguishable from its American counterparts. Even the indie-skewing soundtrack has a calculated commercial quality to it. HAYFEVER isn't written or edited very well, but as slick product that begs for its influences to be spotted (ROMAN HOLIDAY, EMPIRE RECORDS), it is relatively easy to watch. The ending, though, is one of the biggest miscalculations I've seen in a film in some time.

Grade: D+

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