AFI Fest 2015 “Isn’t it great when reality catches up to cinema?”

There’s something about writing film festival intros that makes me uncomfortable and wary. At least music fests have a certain feel to them, a somewhat universal flow throughout the day or weekend that can be tapped into. You can wander from set to set, leave halfway through, arrive 10 minutes before the end and still come away with a palpable feeling or impression of what you thought, of what the crowd thought, what the highlights and lowlights were without it coming from an inaccessibly subjective place. Sure, film fests have some of the clichéd universal troubles — the struggle for tickets, painfully long lines, confused or clueless volunteers, insufferable crowds — but, at least for me, the meat of the story is always what’s projected on the screens. This isn’t to say I go to music fests for the scene, quite the opposite, but the thousands of people there feel more like one fluid being, all experiencing the entirety of the days together, sound flowing from one stage to the next, most acts landing somewhere in the wheelhouse of preference for all but the most casual attendees.

That is to say music festivals are a communal experience where film fests are an isolating one. I don’t mean that as a shot at either — I love both — nor do I simply pop on headphones and drown out those next to me line at AFI Fest (OK sometimes I do, I’m only human) and some of my fondest memories of the festival came from talking to strangers about the fascinating hyperreal hell that is Hollywood & Highland with its horrifying blend of superficial plasticity and spots of genuine historical significance, where the fest has taken place for some 5 or 6 years now, or shooting the shit about fest favorites or obscure German films. So yes, there is something communal about the experience, at least in lines, but with 6 films playing at the same time and over 180 playing over 8 days, one’s schedule and experience is unlikely to be all that similar to anyone else you happen to run into.

Which brings me to the other terrifying requirement of the festival intro — the “summing up” of the fest. Was it a good crop of films? What were the consensus favorites and duds? What were the surprise finds or shocking disappointments? To all questions, I answer that I honestly don’t know. I mean, I saw less than a dozen out of nearly 200 films and even had I taken more time of work or pissed the wife off by living at the fest the whole week, as I did the first three days, it would’ve been physically impossible to see even 20 percent of the crop. Perhaps that’s why I opted for several safe picks, whereas other years I would be a bit more adventurous in my choices. Everyone saw The Lobster, Carol and Macbeth and pretty much everyone loved the first two and were underwhelmed by the latter, yet even that opinion is garnered simply by taking account of laughter, applause and general audience chatter as everyone exited. No, I can call nothing a universal hit or bomb that is not tainted by my own experience.

I am left divided in my line, chiding everyone in the other 5 lines for choosing the wrong film. I am stuck with my own opinions and impressions, the objective floating somewhere in the ether or, more accurately, in each bag in which we placed our 1-5 rating as we walked out of the theater, yet even those are hidden from me. No, my opinions are the only concrete things I’m left with, how the reflection of light struck my retina and the combination of sound and image struck my mind as I sat motionless for hours staring in joyful awe at everything that unfolded on the screens towering over me… so let’s get to them.

The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

As great, if not better, and certainly funnier than his brilliant Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster melds the profoundly sad, unsettlingly hysterical, and outrageously surreal as effectively as perhaps any film not directed by Buñuel or Lynch. Its setup, wherein anyone looking for a mate enters a hotel where he or she is all but programmed for normalized monogamous marriage and is given 45 days to do so before being transformed into an animal of their choice, is like Under the Skin if Lanthimos were the alien and instead of harvesting potential mates, he was tasked with making a metaphorical comedy about the absurdity of human coupling, loneliness, attitudinal fraudulence, disconnection and conformity. The result is a film that staunchly explores relationships and singledom (the second half shifts from the hotel to the woods where singles lifers live survivor-mode, stealthily avoiding the hotel’s inhabitants who hunt them every day to extend their stay), but is ultimately about the innate human desire to be loved and accepted and the absurd impulses that have been biologically ingrained in us because of that. As expected with Lanthimos, The Lobster is utterly bizarre, and kudos to Colin Farrell for carrying the film, especially given it’s the director’s first film in English, yet also his first to show shades of human side, even as it concludes that we humans are an exceptionally silly and sad little species.

Macbeth (dir. Justin Kurzel)

First and foremost, of all the characters in English Literature that need changing, Lady Macbeth must surely be in the bottom 10. One of the screenwriters mentioned in the Q&A that he felt she needed modernizing and in doing so the character is made more sympathetic, but ultimately weaker, less a woman whose agency is forcefully expressed through her husband’s power than one who meekly co-plots and follows. Aside from this misstep, the language of Shakespeare is often incoherent with the Scottish accent and is stripped down, losing much of its original beauty. Now, Kurzel’s version does effectively make the world of Macbeth visceral and physical, although obviously never comes close to heights of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, and uses the backdrop of the Scottish countryside to his advantage, but aside from a handful of stunning shots, the film often drags while its new ways of approaching the text fail to bring anything new to the table.

Safety Last! (dir. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)

Shown as part of AFI Fest’s slowly expanding Cinema’s Legacy section and presented with a newly composed live electronic score, Safety Last!, from 1923, was an absolute joy to see on the big screen with a responsive crowd. Shown at the El Capitan, one of Los Angeles’ most commercial (obviously, it’s owned by Disney) restored movie palaces, the organist playing for 20 minutes before the show transported everyone away from the madness of the fest and unending Hollywood bustle just outside its doors. Containing one the most iconic images of silent comedy, that of Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock 12 stories up (and yes, the shot the inspired the similar one in Back to the Future), Safety Last! proved itself much more than a one-feat film. The first half is hardly adventurous and follows Lloyd mostly at work as a fabric salesman in a large department store where he struggles to make good so he can afford to bring his wife to live with him, but its subtle visual misdirections as Lloyd struggles to appear as the branch manager, rather than a worker bee, once his wife shows up unannounced, are consistently hilarious. Amid the ever-increasing divide between Lloyd’s actual reality and false fronts, Safety Last! takes shot after shot at consumer culture and materialism, but never sacrifices a single laugh to do so. The climb itself is a masterful feat of physical acting and comic timing, surpassed only by the best works of Chaplin and Keaton. That it literally had the audience gasping and exhaling worriedly over 90 years after its initial release is a testament to Lloyd’s craft that says more than words ever could.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (dir. Kent Jones)

How does one make a documentary about one of the most influential books about cinema that also happens to be segments culled from Francois Truffaut’s famous seven day interview of Alfred Hitchcock? The book is cinematic through its extensive use of stills to illustrate the movements of Hitchcock’s camera and editing, and there is the backstory behind the interview to explore, but fortunately critic-director Kent Jones thoughtfully weaves clips of Hitch’s films and the backstory within a set of universally fascinating conversations with contemporary filmmakers (Scorsese and Bogdonavich, of course, along with Linklater, Desplechin, Fincher, Wes Anderson, Assayas and James Gray), who discuss the rigorous methods the director employed, the care with which he constructs each scene and his vast influence on generations of filmmakers from all backgrounds. Its major flaw is that it’s far more enlightening for the casual Hitchcock fan, spending such a large chunk of time on Vertigo and Psycho (and rightly so to some degree) that films like Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes, and even Rear Window barely get a mention, let alone analysis. That said, it is effective for what it is and while Hitchcock/Truffaut the book remains a far more insightful examination of Hitchcock’s style, the film offers more than enough entertaining inside stories and critical analysis of his films to recommend to any fan of the master’s work.

The Treasure (dir. Corneliu Porumboiu)

As much as I’ve loved, or at least admired, the works of fellow Romanian New Wavers Christ Piui and Christian Mungiu, aside from his first feature 1208 East of Bucharest, all of Corneliu Porumboiu’s films have left me shrugging. The Treasure is yet another slog deconstructing genre and audience expectations, something I’m typically all for, but he does so to the point that nothing constructive is left. Obviously a film named The Treasure about two neighbors who search for a treasure potentially buried in their grandfather’s backyard, carries with it certain expectations and boy, does Porumboiu make you pay for that. His film is meticulously paced yet utterly lifeless, delaying the inevitable merely because he can, yet even the twists at the end are neither intellectually nor cinematically engaging. It’s allegorical value is not worth sitting through a half hour sequence of a man walking with a metal detector and FWIW, and I say this as a defender of the hour-long drinking sequence in Satantango, so proceed at your own risk.

Dheepan (dir. Jacques Audiard)

My favorite Jacques Audiard film is still his breakthrough third feature, Read My Lips, a brutally effective ode to Hitchcock, so suffice it to say that the closer he gets to “issue films,” the less interesting I find him. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, presumably because they felt he was overdue, Dheepan shows flashes of brilliance and is anchored by a wonderful central performance by virtual amateur/newcomer Jesuthasan Antonythasan, but long stretches of this feel like a generic, albeit effective, human interest drama about the immigrant experience in France. Capitalizing on a perfectly timed release (Audiard brags, “I came up with this idea five years ago. Isn’t it great when reality catches up to cinema?”…a great quote, although hardly true as the modern immigration crisis in France has been an issue in France for decades and has been explored in cinema since at least 1995 with Matthieu Kassovitz’s far superior La Haine), Dheepan’s compassion can easily be mistaken for profundity, but the film’s true flaw is its insistence on forcing genre into the third act. The gangsters who live around Dheepan and his “fake” wife and daughter played much better as a backdrop to their story of surrogacy and survival in a new land than as a central driver of the narrative. What appears to be building into a quietly effective character piece, exploring the effects of Dheepan’s violent past in the Sri Lankan guerilla warfare the trio left behind and his steadfastness in protecting and constructing a supportive family unit, devolves into a jarring and rather silly bout violence and an even more absurd ending, which taints much of what came before it. Ultimately, it’s a pretty good film, but perhaps Audiard’s weakest to date.

Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

Gone are the wink-wink nods to Sirk and Fassbinder in Todd Haynes previous take on the 50s melodrama, the brilliant Far From Heaven, the coy emotional coldness of [Safe], and the playfully ironic post-modernism of I’m Not There, but in their wake is an emotional directness and lucidity that has not until now been part of Haynes’ expansive repertoire. Carol is quite simply a women’s picture, but there is nothing simple about it. None of its individual parts seems particularly impressive on paper — the hazy cinematography, Cate Blanchett as the experienced, yet married, metropolitan lesbian to Rooney Mara’s crystalline doll, the men behaving as prototypically 50s men do — yet Haynes taps into the hyperspecificities of a forbidden, secret love to such an achingly tender degree that I feared Mara’s character would literally shatter into pieces. Unlike Far From Heaven, critiques of the milieu and gender/sexual roles fill out the background only coming to the forefront when they threaten to dissolve the intense love between Carol and Therese. The juxtaposition of the wintry New York environment, made distant and hazy as if seen through a crystal snowball with Edward Lachman’s wondrous 16mm cinematography, with the warmth of the couples embraces, while not exactly original, are remarkably effective. Ultimately, it is the smallest of gestures that convey the power of their love — a grasp of a shoulder, a glance from across the room — creating a language of desire that is as fascinating as it is impenetrable.

In the Shadow of Women (dir. Phillipe Garrel)

Perhaps the polar opposite of Carol on the relationship film spectrum is Phillipe Garrel’s slight, but amusing and ultimately rewarding comedy of a husband and wife, who are each cheating without the other’s knowledge. The title, In the Shadow of Women, is painfully ironic, as much of the film probes the male psyche in uncomfortable and unnerving ways. Pierre, after discovering Manon has a lover of her own, begins to mentally torture her in the cruelest of ways, while Manon, ultimately figuring out that Pierre is cheating as well, begins to crumble beneath the heavy hypocrisy of her husband. Garrel plays everything deadpan, so the line between cruelty and comedy is never quite clear and while parts of this play out as a farfetched male fantasy, Pierre’s epic assholery is the butt of more than enough jokes to justify what he is able to get away with. Shot in crisp black-and-white with minimalist sets, In the Shadow of Women is able to concisely say in just over an hour what most romantic comedies today fight to say in over two.

My Golden Days (dir. Arnaud Desplechin)

Arnaud Desplechin’s narrative style always take his films down avenues and alleyways that most other directors would have never explored or would have been left on the cutting room floor if they had, yet his ability to tie all of his wild narrative strands together, never too tightly or loosely, is what makes him, at least in my mind, one of contemporary France’s greatest directors. When I heard he was making a prequel to his wonderfully neurotic third film, My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into An Argument (the greatest title in the history of cinema?), I’ll admit to being skeptical of yet another coming-of-age film set decades ago. Fortunately, even its bookended scenes from the present defy expectations and by the end, Paul Dedalus is perhaps even more of an enigma than he was before. The third, and by far longest, section of the film, Esther, contains the emotional core of the film, with Paul and Esther’s new love and long distance relationship remaining the central focus throughout, yet Desplechin detours to a surprisingly sweet friendship between Paul and his professor and mentor, his international identity swapping and also explores his brother’s own neurosis as well as his cousin’s and friend’s own sexual escapades with Esther while he’s gone. Esther’s own depression is presented with an impressive clarity giving her character a life of its own rather than merely remaining a reflection of our protagonist, but of course, Desplechin is so manic, he can’t help but explore other avenues, both comic and dramatic, that give My Golden Days an organic, lived-in feel that defies the trajectory of the typical coming-of-age film. To the end the festival, it was a perfect palate cleanser to prepare me for the doldrums of Oscar bait and tent pole releases that will barrage us all through the new year.

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