Saturday, November 06, 2010

AFI Fest, day one

With CineVegas no more, and the rest of Vegas' film festivals mostly small niche events (although plenty of them are excellent), I really wanted to check out a large-scale general-interest film festival this year, so I'm in Los Angeles for a few days at AFI Fest. I'm attending just as a fan, so I don't have a press pass, and my selections have been dictated by the availability of the festival's free tickets (the entire event is free, which is awesome for people who don't have industry or media connections). Still, I have a pretty full schedule. Here's a quick look at what I saw on my first day at the festival:

The Human Resources Manager (Eran Riklis) I saw Israeli director Riklis' film The Syrian Bride at the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival in 2007, and this movie is similarly balanced between mainstream accessibility and serious examinations of sociopolitical issues. Like The Syrian Bride, The Human Resources manager is concerned with the place where two cultures intersect, as the title character, who works for a large Jerusalem bakery, travels to Romania to represent the company at the funeral of an employee who was killed in a suicide bombing. What's meant as a face-saving measure of course becomes more meaningful, and the manager bonds with the sullen son of the dead woman. It's a little too cutesy at times, but Riklis mostly holds back on the big emotional moments, and instead lets his capable actors quietly demonstrate the coming together of both individuals and traditions.

Free Radicals (Pip Chodorov) This documentary about the history of experimental filmmaking is exuberant and fun (Chodorov himself is an experimental filmmaker, and his father is a TV journalist who spotlighted many of the movement's pioneers in its early days), but it's also a little incomplete and scattered, focusing on only a handful of (admittedly important and influential) filmmakers and jumping around in time. Chodorov's enthusiasm is sometimes detrimental, as he seems to be saying, "Look at all these awesome people I'm friends with!" rather than laying out a real primer on this fascinating movement for people who are unfamiliar with it. But he effectively conveys his excitement, sometimes best of all when he simply steps aside and plays out wonderful short experimental films in their entirety.

Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield) I appreciate unvarnished naturalism, but Porterfield's improvised drama about friends and family coming together for the funeral of a working-class Baltimore drug addict is often realistic to the point of tedium, with scenes of repetitive or simply inaudible dialogue, poorly lit locations and one sequence that takes place almost entirely in the pitch dark. Some of these choices are stylistically impressive (one conversation that takes place between two friends while the camera is on two other friends shows contrasting viewpoints in an understated way), but too many of them feel like Porterfield just lost control of the scene (one karaoke sequence near the end goes on for what feels like years). Some of the acting from the cast of nonprofessionals is disarmingly strong, but nearly as much of it is awkward and forced. Ultimately I felt that the frustrations outweighed the triumphs by too much.

Cargo (Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter) Billed as the first sci-fi movie from Switzerland, Cargo looks impressive given its reportedly tiny budget, but all the resourceful special effects can't make up for a muddled story cobbled together from various sci-fi classics. It starts as a sort of "haunted ship"-type story in the vein of Alien or Event Horizon, and builds up a decent amount of suspense in that mode, even if all the moves are familiar. But the final third shifts gears entirely to do a whole Matrix riff complete with overblown emotional moments, and it's far too cheesy and pompous to be taken seriously. Engler and Etter don't know when to quit, and by the time the movie finally sputtered to an end, I had completely stopped caring.

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