Monday, May 4, 2009

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

My biggest day of the festival, 6 movies. So let's not screw around, here are the reviews

First up I saw a special added screening, the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, DEPARTURES. I have to steal the two word description I overheard from another fan afterwards--"beautifully manipulative". In a way, the title is ironic, because DEPARTURES is often about returning. Kobayashi is an accomplished cellist, but financial problems cause the symphony to close. With no good prospects, he decides to return home, live in his old family home (his father left when he was young, and his mother passed away a few years back), and just get a regular job. He finds an ad for "Departures"--good salary and no experience necessary. He figures it's a travel agency or something. Turns out, it's a mortuary. Or rather, it's a business that performs highly ritualized preparations of bodies for encoffinment. At first he's mortified (more so when he his first task is to star as a corpse in a training video). But gradually he sees what his boss does and learns to appreciate it. He takes families at their weakest moment, and by treating their loved one's body with great care, he comforts them. It's not just preparing a body for proper encoffinment, it's preparing the family (often families with unresolved issues) to properly say goodbye to them. Unfortunately, as Kobayashi grows to love his job (and takes up music again with his small childhood cello), his wife discovers exactly what he does and is horrified. That, and the reappearance of his father, fuel the final act of the movie. All along, it's shot beautifully and the story unfolds with with a deep sense of human tenderness. Oh yeah, and just as important, it's really, really funny, and a little twisted.

Next up was a very, very Swedish film, HEAVEN'S HEART. We start with Lars and Susanna getting their divorce finalized. Flash back 9 months prior, when they're having dinner with their friends Ulf and Ann. Over dinner and much wine, they talk about a friend who was unfaithful and now going through a divorce. Although none of them would be unfaithful, the discussion takes some surprising turns--most notably Susanna plays devil's advocate and suggests maybe the infidelity was a case of true love. Ulf jokingly agrees with her, and the whole discussion unnerves Lars and Ann. Of course, talk and nerves will, months later, lead to infidelity, heartbreak, secrets, and the divorce preordained in the opening scene. It's all done with very rational, sensible conversations that boil over into explosions of passion or anger. Great performances by all in the 4 person cast, and it even milks some laughter and gasps from the audience. Proof that 4 people talking can make for a gripping story.

Next up I moved slightly over in Europe--this time the Netherlands--for CAN GO THROUGH SKIN, one of the more challenging films I've seen in the festival. Marieke is a young woman getting drunk on wine and bemoaning her boyfriend who dumped her. She invites a friend over and orders a pizza. But the pizza guy is a maniac who attacks her in a brutal scene that ends with her running naked through the streets on a cold Amsterdam night. After the trial, she leaves to live in the country and get away from it all. And then it gets weird, as she sort of loses her mind. She meets the neighbors and will be pleasant one minute and angry the next. Her house is filthy and decaying, and she makes fitful but unsuccessful attempts to clean it and fix it up. She has long chats with a confidante on the Internet, who advises her to take matters into her own hands. And maybe she does. She either has her attacker tied up in the attic where she can torture him, or she's imagining it all. Actually, it's pretty clear that's a hallucination. Everything else is up for interpretation, though. Did she really save a bag of sick kittens just to shoot them later? I don't know, and that's kind of the point. After an act of extreme violence, the whole world falls apart.

So then I returned to the U. S., in particular Oakland, for a cheerier film (although still a film with drug use, insanity and death), EVERYTHING STRANGE AND NEW. It's a story of three guys, their wives, their children, their mortgages, and everything else they live for that sucks the life from them. Wayne is the main character, and peppers the movie with comic ponderings of malaise (e.g., his mortgage has left him with too little money to do anything but sit around his stupid house). He loves his wife (although they fight sometimes) and his two sons (although he's still amazed he's really a father). In that much, he's doing better than his drinking buddies Manny (who's got a good wife and kid, but also a drug problem) and Leo (who's got a crazy wife who is divorcing him). Visually stylish, turning a few miles of Oakland into anywhere in the U. S., using comedy and sadness (Wayne spends bits walking around as a sad birthday clown), reality and absurdity, it creates a picture of family life that's recognizable and fantastical at the same time. Even the title comes from a line from "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", evoking promises of great fantasies that never materialize.

Next up was the ultimate road movie, starting in Switzerland, NOMAD'S LAND. I admit I'd never heard of Swiss travel write Nicolas Bouvier before, but he wrote a book called "The Way of the World", documenting his travels from Switzerland through (what was then) Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and ending in Sri Lanka. Filmmaker Gaël Métroz sets off to recreate Bouvier's journey, and film himself doing it. But of course things have changed a lot since then, and his journey will be more dangerous. From the start, early on he falls from a rickety wooden bridge and wakes up on the back of a horse after being rescued by villagers. This becomes the recurring theme of the journey--as much as he's an outsider (and he's definitely always an outsider), he's constantly being rescued by friendly strangers. A movie not about point A or point B, or even really the path in between. It's a story about putting oneself in an unfamiliar place, trusting in the locals, and letting that completely change you. Also, some pretty remarkable camerawork, considering there was zero crew, Métroz shot it all himself.

And finally, the night ended with the very strange THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE. Religion...corporate malfeasance...janitorial services...male pregnancy...art (theme of the festival)...rock and roll...contrition...and cookies. That's about half the topics in this wide-ranging mind-fuck comedy. Dory is the Datameister, a religious seeker and office drone. After blowing up at an annoying co-worker, he finds himself out of a job. A friend hooks him up with a janitorial services company Spiffy Jiffy, where a band of crazies clean offices at night when no one can see them. Chief crazy is Oliver, who considers himself an artist. Their favorite office to clean is a market research firm because A) they always have great samples in the trash, and B) one of the researchers is a total hottie. The new product under test is a self-heating cookie (mimics the fresh-from-the-oven taste). They become the new unwitting test subject, and experience a side effect unique to males--cramps, constipation, and finally a bright blue fish shooting out of your ass, flopping around for a bit, and then dying. I loved it, it was hilarious, and if you find that description disgusting, all I can say is "I'm Sorry."

And that was last Saturday, day 10 of SFIFF.
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