Sunday, November 07, 2010

AFI Fest, day two

I know that film festivals are the places to check out the kinds of difficult, uncompromising and experimental movies that would never make it to mainstream audiences, and I do like seeing those. But I also love genre movies, and I appreciate that festivals like AFI don't shy away from programming thrillers and horror movies and things like that, because those films can be just as exciting and artistic as more personal works. Today I happened to catch three genre-style movies, all of which succeeded to some degree, while the two art movies I saw were decidedly less satisfying (although both had their moments).

The highlight of the day (and probably the festival so far) for me was the Belgian thriller Pulsar, directed by Alex Stockman and starring Matthias Schoenaerts, who's apparently a big star in his native country. Pulsar sort of updates the techno-paranoia of movies like The Conversation and Blow Out for the wi-fi age, and moves its conspiracy focus from the criminal to the personal. Schoenaerts is great as a guy who's convinced someone has hacked into his personal computer network and is using it to screw up his relationship with his long-distance girlfriend. Pulsar becomes more and more surreal toward the end, but it always remains grounded in its depictions of jealousy and fear of betrayal, as well as in its illustration of how dependent we are on technology to connect us to one another.

There was much less ambiguity and artiness to the other two foreign genre movies I saw today: Pretty much none, in fact, in the Russian thriller The Weather Station, one of those noir-type movies in which small bad decisions spiral out of control until nearly all of the characters end up dead. You could pretty much translate this movie word-for-word and have it be an American studio picture, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It has a few too many absurd twists, and it gets really melodramatic toward the end, but overall it's an entertaining, fast-paced thriller with a nifty setting (a remote weather outpost). The Spanish horror movie Julia's Eyes (right) actually is a studio production (from Universal), produced by Guillermo del Toro, so it should have no trouble finding an audience. It's a pretty creepy movie with a cool gimmick in a protagonist who is progressively losing her sight, and it loses points only for dragging on too long (with, again, a twist or two too many) and for getting overly sappy at times. Still, I found it more exciting than the last horror sensation del Toro brought over from Spain, the overrated The Orphanage.

So the foreign movies I saw were all pulpy genre exercises, while today's American movies were indulgent art pieces. Actually, Alistair Banks Griffin's Two Gates of Sleep has some slight genre elements, with enough of a central mystery that one audience member at the post-screening Q&A asked Griffin to explain what happened at the end (he refused, saying only that there were "clues" astute viewers could decipher). Mostly, though, it's a slow, nearly dialogue-free account of two hillbilly brothers on a long trip to bury their dead mother in a location whose significance I could never discern. Griffin shot in the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana, and the cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes looks phenomenal. There's just enough of a story to make it frustrating that Griffin leaves so much out, though, and lead actors Brady Corbet and David Call can't quite fill in the gaps to make up for those shortcomings.

Also frustrating but not nearly as bad as I expected it would be was Cam Archer's Shit Year. I hated Archer's first feature, the solipsistic Wild Tigers I Have Known, when I saw it at CineVegas a few years ago, and Shit Year shares some of that movie's penchant for endless navel-gazing and nonsensical ponderousness. But it's saved at times by the wonderful lead performance from Ellen Barkin, who plays a burned-out actress depressed by her recent retirement and the end of her affair with a much younger co-star (complete non-presence Luke Grimes). Archer still indulges in laughable dream/fantasy sequences that belabor the emotions Barkin conveys with just her demeanor and delivery, and he's still completely spastic and undisciplined when it come to structure. But in the mostly straightforward narrative scenes, Shit Year is insightful and melancholy and affecting, and the grainy black and white cinematography by Aaron Platt is outstanding.

No comments: