Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Wisconsin Film Festival

So, this is the first film festival I've ever really been to and it was a pretty interesting experience.  It was held in Madison, WI which is a great city and where I went for my first year of college.  The size of the festival is a good medium between a smaller unheard of fest and a mega-fest with celebrities (like Sundance or Toronto).  A lot of pretty big indie movies played without the media hoopla over it.  Most of the audiences were made up of Madison artists and hippies and surprising very few UW students.  I highly recommend anyone to go next year or to look out for one near your hometown.  There were definitely certain styles and themes that were pretty common-- namely, movies shot handheld with soft, philosophical themes and character studies where not much happens in terms of plot.  This is usually something I really enjoy but seeing it done so many times made me kind of realize that every young indie filmmaker is pretty much making the same film.  It is very difficult to set yourself apart and those that do are destined for great artistic success and fortune.  Maybe.  Anyway, below are some reviews of the films Natalie and I saw during the weekend.

WIFF - Daytime Drinking

Along with Frost/Nixon this is the best film that I’ve seen over the past two years.  From the moment the film begins we are taken on an adventure that never has us wondering, “Is this movie almost over?”  The film was written/ directed/ edited/ shot/ produced/ composed by one guy, a 33-year-old writer who was constantly losing at screenplay contests so decided to write something that he could just shoot himself.  The results are staggering.  The film begins with four friends getting drunk and trying to help mend their friend’s broken heart.  One suggests that they take a trip down to a rural city outside of Seoul where they’re having a market festival.  The men agree and the revelry continues.  The next day, the broken-hearted guy arrives in the town to find it completely empty and that his friends have blown-off the trip without telling him.  The premise propels our hero into a series of misadventures as he meets some hilariously bizarre, completely relatable characters.  The hero is somewhat of a blank slate for the color of these characters—he’s too nice to tell people to fuck off so he’s caught in awkward situations, somewhat kin to Larry David’s schtick but in a more charming way.  The ending is equally pleasing and I can’t imagine a more satisfying execution of it.  The film was shot on digital video and cost only $7,000 to make.  Many of the cast also served as the crew on the shoot.  There are some major technical guffaws such as some scenes out of focus or shooting at really low shutter speeds to compensate for the lack of light, but these really didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film.  Some of the best scenes were when the camera was simply left far away and didn’t move for about 3 to 5 minutes with no cuts at all.  I barely even noticed it because of the quality of the acting and the writing.  Overall, this is a must-see movie for anyone who loves independent film (though try to ignore my gushing and see it as if you didn’t know anything about it).  I’m definitely going to buy this film when it’s out on DVD and really study it.  Five out of five. 

WIFF - Dry Rain (short)

This was an interesting short film shot on 35mm in Montana, which provides some stunningly beautiful scenery.  It’s about a permanently down-on-his-luck father and his prodigy son, on the lam at the border of Canada after the father “cased” the boy’s house to kidnap him.  He keeps correcting his son that they’re on a vacation and that he’s not kidnapped.  The tone of the film is semi-serious and somewhat dry and kind of gasps its way through to the end.  Eventually the father lets the boy off by the border and the kid calmly walks to the border guards.  It’s not really clear what we’re supposed to be feeling at the end—just an interesting character study of a father trying to figure things out and his kid trying to make it easier for him.  It’s good in that the dynamics of the relationships are unique and realistic.  Three out of five.

WIFF - Kai's Place (short)

This film was shot in Korea on 35mm and that’s pretty much why it’s getting any festival play at all.  The director was there (25 and from Canada) and explained how a film school he contacted in Seoul was willing to lend him all the production equipment and crew if they could use his work as part of their reel.  Added to that, his grandparent’s owned a farm in the country so that became his second location.  The film itself was massively derivative of “Lost in Translation” as the young Kyle walks around Seoul-- a stranger in a strange land.  One or two moments of humor, but then the film jumps into the unrealistic, attempting to satisfy the director’s need to feel like a poet, complete with girl staring out the window baring her soul—after knowing this guy for about 2 hours.  Some good things were that the cinematography was top-notch and the main actress was beautiful, but other than that it was a whole lot of technique and not much story.  And the boom mic was visible in two of the scenes.  Seriously.  A generous two out of five.

WIFF - Free Lunch (short)

A pretty good short film shot in LA about a rich white kid who decides to earn a “real” living by operating a lunch truck around the city.  Interactions with locals, traveling to some of the seedier sides of the city, and problems with the truck are all requisite, though realistic elements in the story.  The movie is carried by the enthusiasm of its lead actor though some of the supporting roles are cringe-worthy.  The best part of the film is watching the protagonist drive his lunch cart to his parent’s million dollar home in the suburbs to ask for some money.  Shot simply and uninterestingly, the film succeeds in that it pulls the audience into its protagonist’s dilemma (doing something meaningful) and continues to surprise through to the end.  Four out of five stars.

WIFF - Momma's Man

This movie was a lot like “Treeless Mountain” in that It was really sensitively told, well-acted, quiet and ambiguous, and pretty boring.  I was pretty surprised later to find all the good reviews for it, though the few negative ones echoed what I felt.  I later learned as well that the director cast his real parents to be in the film, and that his father is a famous avant-gard filmmaker (surely something interesting to critics) so I felt like some of the praise for this movie was undeserved.  The film follows a 30-something man who returns home to NY and finds it difficult to leave.  Back home waiting for him in LA is a newborn baby, a frazzled wife, and some business problems.  The man strolls down memory lane, reading old journals, singing old songs he wrote in high school and playing with old toys.  As seen in other “indie” movies, this one was overly ambiguous as you didn’t really know the specifics of what type of business he was doing in NY in the first place and what specifically, his problems are back in LA.  It’s also clear that he’s going back to LA so I was just impatiently waiting for him to work his shit out and then leave.  The climax is somewhat unbelievable and not convincing for me.  It really came down to the main actor who was slovenly and lazy and though realistic, I didn’t pull for him at all.  He kind of made the bed he was sleeping in so it was hard for me to empathize.  Two out of five stars.

WIFF - 24 City

There’s an interesting story behind why we saw this movie.  Natalie and I traveled across Europe last summer and found out that the Cannes film festival was going on around the time of our stay in France.  We made a detour in our itinerary to hang out down there.  After a tumultuous day involving the riding of a motor scooter around the highways of Nice (never, EVER ride a scooter around Nice) we ended up at a posh Chinese restaurant in Cannes.  At the table next to us were two Asian gentlemen, having what seemed to be a dinner meeting.  I guess hopped up on adrenaline from the day I began peppering these guys with questions about how cool the festival was and if they saw a lot of the movies and whether they saw any stars, etc. etc.  It turns out the small Chinese guy was a film director and he seemed pretty annoyed at the questions.  He just kept chain-smoking his little cigarettes and acting cool.  His friend let us know that he directed this film and I guess it wasn’t good enough to make it into Cannes to be considered for awards, so he was probably a little bitter at this American tourist acting like we were equals.  Anyway, that’s pretty much the reason we went to see this movie.  24 City is pretty much about different people that have lived in Chengdu, which seems to have been a manufacturing powerhouse during the Vietnam War.  Different factories have come and gone throughout the last 50 years, each one going through the cycle of success, decline and inevitable disuse.  The interviews were filmed at interesting angles and the music and editing was very dissonant which was fine but it felt very self-conscious.  The director mixed real interviews in with actors playing parts, which gave the feeling that every interview was a fake one.  I don’t think it’s wise to ever mix and match—K Street, that HBO series by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney attempted the same thing with similar effects.  All in all it was a really slow, languorous movie with some good moments (a mother that loses her child in the crowd of a pier) but not very well woven together for a satisfying ending.