The 48th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival reaches its midpoint, bringing it with it favourites from Cannes, Tribeca, Sundance and beyond. And while my most anticipated film of the festival proved something of a let down, two beautifully shot American films stand out above the rest. Of course with four days still to go, there’s plenty of time for surprises. Keep your eyes on this space for more reviews, and one very cool interview, yet to come.
THE CONGRESS (Dir. Ari Folman)
While I’m saving the bulk of my thoughts for a full length review to be published somewere down the line, it’s safe to say that director Ari Folman’s follow-up to the devastating Waltz with Bashir is a disappointment, although not for a lack of interesting ideas or imagery. A strange, ambitious half live action, half animated send up of everything from corporate greed to Hollywood dishonesty to society’s pharmaceutical dependence, the picture’s chief failings are an uncompelling narrative, and an inability to consistently focus its barbs. More to come.
PRINCE AVALANCHE (Dir. David Gordon Green)
After a trio of Hollywood misfires in the form of Pineapple Express, Your Highness and the nigh unwatchable The Sitter, David Gordon Green returns to his indie roots with Prince Avalanche, an enjoyable if largely insignificant slice of life dramedy film about two men painting lines on a road.
Adapted from an Icelandic film by the name of Either Way, Prince Avalanche transplants the story to rural Texas, circa 1988, a year after the area was devastated by forest fires. The peculiar Alvin (Paul Rudd) is part of a reconstruction crew charged with repairing the roads, and has enlisted the reluctant help of his girlfriend’s younger brother Lance (Emile Hirsch). In a lot of ways the pair couldn’t be more different. Alvin loves nature and just “enjoying the silence”, while Lance spends all week desperate for the weekend, when he can drive back into town and “get the little man squeezed”, as he puts it. Yet over the course of the film, with no one else to talk to, their bickering turns slowly into friendship.
It’s thanks largely to the simple, accessible chemistry between Rudd and Hirsh that film is, for the most part, a success. Both actors have already proven themselves in dramas and comedies alike, and here are given the chance to dabble in both. Rudd, lanky and moustached, captures Alvin’s awkward pompousness without ever making him a caricature, while Hirsh’s juvenile Lance bubbles with hidden insecurities. The duo’s petty squabbling, much of which feels improvised, gives viewers plenty to laugh at, even as more intimate discussions get at an endearing emotional undercurrent.
It’s only when Gordon Green strays into artier territory that the film starts to get into trouble. A desire to instil the film with an illusion of profundity it neither possesses nor has any really need of make itself felt in the form of lingering nature shots that seem really self conscious and grow tiresome pretty fast. Perhaps the director is overcompensating in his attempts to make up for his painfully generic mainstream output of late. Whatever the reason for these pretentious little interludes, they’re unnecessary, and take away from what is otherwise a pretty entertaining little film.
BLUEBIRD (Dir. Lance Edmands)
Two families are rocked by misfortune in Lance Edmand’s grim, absorbing, emotionally exhausting debut feature, Bluebird. A snowy, blue-collar town in northern Maine provides the backdrop for the tragedy, one that is set in motion after Lesley, a school bus driver played superbly by Amy Morton, fails to notice a sleeping child before locking the bus up for the night. By the time she returns to work and finds him the following morning, the boy has slipped into a coma.
Edmands, who previously worked as the editor on Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, demonstrates a natural understanding for character and tone. Scenes play out unhurriedly, as Lesley, her lumberjack husband Richard (Mad Men’s John Slattery) and their teenage daughter Paula (Emily Meade) struggles with what she has done. Then there’s the boy’s deadbeat mother Marla (Louisa Krause), so uninvolved in her son’s life that she failed to notice his absence. In a lesser film, such a character might have been depicted as the villain, but Bluebird paints in far more ambiguous colours. If viewers pass judgement, they do so on their own
As compelling as the character work is the aesthetic of the film. Martha Marcy May Marlene cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes captures the whitewashed vistas of Maine (where Edmands grew up) in all their desolate beauty. Combined with the obvious grain of the thirty-five millimetre film stock, the look and locale lend the film an oppressive sense of isolation, one that’s impossible to escape from unaffected.
For more on Bluebird, check out my interview with writer-director Lance Edmands, here.
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL (Dir. François Ozon)
Since premiering at Cannes, critics have described Young & Beautiful with phrases like “a searing examination of emerging adolescent sexuality” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point).
Rubbish. Despite its arthouse trappings, the latest film from French director François Ozon, about a beautiful teenage call girl, is basically just an excuse to revel in sexual taboos. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Young Marine Vacth gives an excellent performance as Isabelle, a seventeen year old Parisian high-schooler who, seemingly on a whim, begins a career as a high-end prostitute. For a time the film follows her encounters with various older clients while struggling to keep her activities a secret from her family. But as the season starts to turn, Isabelle’s double life begins inevitably catching up with her.
Elegant filmmaking belies the story’s underlying shallowness. Any examination of Isabelle’s psychology, or of society’s attitudes toward the sex industry as a whole, is as brief as it is superficial, although to his credit Ozon never lapses into judgements or moralisations. And really, how could he? The truth is, people are interested in sex, particularly when that sex is transgressive. Ozon, whose previous films include the similarly sexualised In the House and Swimming Pool, is acutely aware of our carnal preoccupation, and is all too happy to exploit it.
None of this is to say that the movie isn’t good. The actors are strong, the cinematography is handsome, and pulpy as it is, Ozon knows exactly how to prey on the fascinations of his viewers, crafting scenes that are uncomfortable while at the same utterly enthralling. Just don’t believe the hype. Insightful storytelling this is not.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (Dir. David Lowery)
Taking its cues, at least to begin with, from classic American outlaw pics from the nineteen sixties and seventies, David Lowery’s richly woven, beautifully photographed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints wears its dramatic sincerity on its sleeve.
Set in seventies Texas, the film tells the story of Ruth and Bob Muldoon (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck), two star crossed criminals desperate to reunite after latter escapes from prison.
Possessed with moody lyricism, Lowery’s screenplay is sparsely plotted, yet avoids pretentious pitfalls thanks to its heavy investment in character. Bob is the definitely more idealistic of the duo, whereas Ruth is a somewhat wearier – probably as a result of the four years as a single mother while Bob was doing time.
Mara and Affleck capture effortlessly the beat-up humanity of their down-trodden characters, and foster an immense sense of empathy that makes their misfortune that much more heartrending. Ben Foster and Keith Carradine, meanwhile, are both excellent in their supporting roles, as a would be suitor for Ruth and Bob’s surrogate father, respectively.
Visually, the film is sublime. Bathed in natural light, often just as the sun is setting, the film’s graceful camerawork and inconspicuous editing practically begs to be compared to the work of a young Terrane Mallick. Badlands is obviously a massive influence in both plot and style. Here’s hoping Lowery manages to steers clear of the pomposity of Mallick’s more recent stuff, and that he doesn’t make us wait two decades for his follow-up.