Monday, February 20, 2017

VODepths: 'American Fable,' 'Chasing Bubbles,' 'Deadly Virtues'

American Fable (Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, dir. Anne Hamilton) I saw this movie at the Las Vegas Film Festival last June, when I was sort of surprised to see that it had been a favorite at other, more prominent festivals, because it struck me as the kind of amateurish first feature that gets into second-tier festivals and then disappears (it's now being released by IFC Films, although without much promotion). It's a weird sort of pseudo-fable (per the title) set sometime in the 1980s in the rural Midwest, about a young girl who befriends the banker sent to foreclose on her family's farm -- who happens to be held captive in an old silo after being attacked by her father. Their relationship, patterned after fairy tales in which children are lured in by imprisoned witches and monsters, makes no sense in the context of the story about economic struggles and familial tensions, and Richard Schiff, generally a welcome presence, has no idea how to play his character, who is a combination of a pragmatic corporate climber and a beguiling trickster. There are some lovely shots of Midwestern countryside that show a bit of writer-director Anne Hamilton's influence from her mentor Terrence Malick, but the acting is awkward and often flat-out bad, the story is a haphazard mix of social realism and ethereal wonder, the period setting is completely unconvincing and pointless, and none of it amounts to anything at the end. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Chasing Bubbles (documentary, dir. Topher Cochrane and Alex Rust) I've complained before, both here and elsewhere, about low-budget films that feel like watching someone else's home movies, and the documentary Chasing Bubbles, funded on Kickstarter and distributed for free online via Kentucker Audley's No Budge and elsewhere, is the epitome of that annoying byproduct of widely available filmmaking technology. Director Topher Cochrane crafts a loving tribute to his friend Alex Rust (who's credited as co-director thanks to the use of his copious personally shot footage), but the result is of value only to Rust's friends and supporters, an entirely insular collection of vapid vacation videos. A successful day trader who came from a wealthy family, Rust decided in 2008 to quit his job and sail around the world, despite having no sailing experience. He seems like a nice (if obliviously privileged) guy, and he clearly had a great time during the three and a half years he spent traveling on his boat, picking up various friends (both new and old) along the way. But there's nothing more than a rich, entitled bro's vacation footage, artfully edited, going on in this movie until the very end, after the sailing trip is over. Spoiler alert, I guess: Rust died about a year later, while on another trip, but not even in some ironic or poignant way that recontextualizes the preceding footage. He was a friendly guy who had a good time and died too young, and everyone who knew him liked him. That makes this a lovely way for his friends and family to send him off, not something that should play to a general audience. Available on No Budge.

Deadly Virtues: Love. Honour. Obey. (Megan Maczko, Edward Akrout, Matt Barber, dir. Ate de Jong) This unpleasant piece of torture porn from the U.K. came out on home video overseas two years ago but is just now making its way to the U.S. It reminded me a bit of the equally distasteful Mexican thriller Honeymoon, which I wrote about in this space last month, and which is similarly bare-bones and similarly exploitative and ugly. In this case, a man invades a suburban couple's home and holds them hostage for a weekend, torturing and imprisoning the husband while forcing the wife to playact a relationship with him. The filmmakers frame this as some pseudo-feminist empowerment narrative, which is blatant bullshit and borderline offensive, really. Aaron (Akrout), the psychopath who breaks into the couple's house, threatens rape, ties them up, cuts off the husband's fingers and makes the wife model fetish outfits for him, is really just there to teach Alison (Maczko) to stand up for herself and leave her abusive husband Tom (Barber). Sure, Tom cheating on Alison and smacking her around is bad, but there's no way that it's worse than torture, maiming and sexual assault. This kind of false moralizing doesn't work in Saw movies, and it certainly doesn't work in this low-budget production, which also suffers from terrible sound (the dialogue is often difficult to hear), mediocre performances and bland visuals. Any serious impact the story might have had gets thrown out during the absurd climax and even more ridiculous coda, setting up the main villain as some sort of savior of trapped women. Neither he nor the movie can credibly fill that role. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Triskaidekaphilia: '13th' (2016)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I've been putting off watching Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th despite its critical acclaim (and recent Oscar nomination), because social-issue documentaries are easily my least favorite movie genre, and I usually don't have much to say about them. Even in these politically turbulent times, I do my best to avoid politics both in my writing and in my personal life, and focusing on the cinematic merits of movies like 13th is often difficult when their political message seems to be all that matters to viewers and critics. If not for this project, I might have simply passed on the movie entirely.

I can't say that I regret watching 13th, but I can't say that I got much out of it, either, from a cinematic or a political perspective. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but also established the legality of forced servitude as punishment for a crime, and DuVernay takes that as the origin of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans in the U.S. The movie starts, then, just after the Civil War and goes through the present day, which gives it a lot of ground to cover. DuVernay's focus on the idea of mass incarceration allows her to narrow her scope a bit, but the movie still makes plenty of digressions and jumps around in time, sometimes getting lost along the way.

A lot of the historical material may be a little basic for anyone with a working knowledge of U.S. history, and the message is most powerful toward the end of the movie, when DuVernay connects current rhetoric (including from Donald Trump, who was still just a presidential candidate when the movie was produced) to the more inflammatory and blatantly racist words and actions of the past. Her point about the expression of racism simply taking on different forms over time comes through most clearly in the final stretch, when she strongly connects current events to episodes from the past that most people agree were inexcusable.

Cinematically, the movie is straightforward and unadventurous, combining talking-head interviews (featuring scholars, activists and politicians) with archival footage. At least DuVernay doesn't try to include entertainers or artists among her interviewees; everyone she talks to is authoritative and involved with the subject they're addressing. She even allows a handful of conservatives to offer counterarguments, and while she's obviously opposed to what they're saying, she doesn't just set them up for Michael Moore-style takedowns. For people who know little about the history of race relations in America, the movie is relatively informative, although I wonder if any of those people will actually watch it. More likely, it's allowing people already familiar with these ideas the chance to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side. There's nothing wrong with feeling proud of your views on the world, but that's different from great filmmaking. Should this movie be shown in schools? Sure. Should it win an Oscar? Definitely not.