Thursday, March 5, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 8

An easy day--just 4 movies. Of course, one was a 4 hour and 12 minute epic with constant foreign language voiceover narration. More on that in a bit.

First up was a Russian film, The Bet, based on a Chekov short story. A simple dark comic story of obsession, arrogance, and mania. Maxim works for Viktor. One night at a party, they debate the death penalty vs. life imprisonment. Viktor believes in the death penalty (essentially that life imprisonment is nor more than an extended death penalty). Just to be contrary, Mxim takes the opposite position, insisting that life even behind bars is worth living. A night of drinking leads to a bet. Maxim will be "imprisoned" in Viktor's guest house--he'll be fed and clothed but can never leave. If he survives 15 years Viktor will give him 15 million dollars (or whatever the Russian equivalent is, it was translated at 15 million dollars). If he doesn't, he works for Viktor for free--for the rest of his life. Really, really high stakes. It's expected that Maxim goes a little stir crazy, even in the first month. What's more interesting is that Viktor starts going a bit crazy trying to defeat Maxim. This movie really should have been better, but a lot of the simple technical aspects got in the way. I don't usually mind hand held "shaky cam" work, but this was particularly jarring and not for good effect. Particularly silly is a "whoosh" sound effect accompanying a camera pan. Really? That doesn't make much sense. All the time I'm supposed to be concentrating on Maxim going crazy or Viktor going crazy, and instead I'm thinking about how the cameraman is going crazy.

Next up we travelled to Australia for Bitter and Twisted. With a name title like that, I certainly expected it to be funny, and it was in fact a dark, dry comedy (sort of, I guess it was technically a drama). It's a story of how one traumatic event has lasting impacts on everyone. As we open the movie, Liam Lombard is dying (looks like from an overdose, but I don't think that was every explicitly said). His family watches the paramedics try to save him, to no avail. Now the father is a fat slob, struggling in his job selling cars, and unable to get it up for his wife. This makes her feel unattractive, and after a lot of complaining she goes out to a bar and picks up a much younger man. Meanwhile their surviving son has become close friends with a local boy. Perhaps very close friends. But there's some question of whether he's gay, because he also hits on Liam's girlfriend. She hasn't been the same either, carrying on an affair with an older married man. They also have a surviving daughter. She doesn't seem to have too much wrong with her, although her mom is worried that she's starting to have sex too early (she swears she isn't, and that whole plotline goes nowhere). Yeah, their tragedy is laid bare with a very dry sense of humor. It's three years past the incident, so it's no longer appropriate for there to be a whole lot of wailing and crying. Society says they're supposed to be over it by now, but they obviously aren't.

Then there was the screwball relationship comedy, Two Million Stupid Women. Which is more like 2 women being stupid times a million. It's Melissa's birthday, and she's excited because it's the first time she's had a boyfriend on her birthday (more simple math--that means she's never kept a relationship an entire year). She goes to meet her boyfriend, only to find his cock in some other slut's mouth. So instead she's going to have the birthday from hell, starting by getting excruciatingly drunk with her best friends Anna and Todd. In a drunken rage, she keeps insisting that the bartender (also a friend of theirs) tells her she's "stupid, pathetic, and should leave him alone". When he obliges, she finds it oddly cathartic. So she hatches an idiotic plan to hit rock-bottom (and thereby start over as a smarter dater) by tracking down all her ex-boyfriends/hookups and getting them to say the same thing. The mantra, "You're stupid, pathetic, and should leave me alone" dominates the movie. It takes a predictable course, as humiliation after humiliation is dumped on her, to the point where it strains the relationships among her, Anna, and Todd as well. The movie has a lot of good wild comic energy, although sometimes more flailing than funny. A little overwritten, and sometimes overacted, but still pretty funny.

And finally, that 4+ hour foreign language epic I alluded to earlier, Historias Extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories). At its purest, this is a story about stories, and how everyone has one. In particular, Mr. X, Z, and H are the heroes of three interlaced (but not intersecting) stories.

In the first, Mr. X is walking to his new boring job when he witnesses a murder (or an attempted one). A man gets out of a tractor. He's carrying a briefcase which he hides under a hay bale. Two men drive up in a truck. They get out, talk to the tractor man for a while, then one goes back to the truck, picks up a rifle, and shoots tractor man. They leave (without finding or taking the briefcase). Mr. X walks up, finds the briefcase. Tractor man stands up and pulls a gun on him. Mr. X takes the rifle (left by the man from the truck) and shoots tractor man, killing him.

In the second, Mr. Z is taking a new job in a manager role for The Foundation. His job is boring as hell, except when he gets to go on the road. Then he follows the map and clues left by his predecessor, and finds out the man was living a secret life (or many). Mr. Z gets wrapped up in the mysteries of his predecessor.

And finally, in the third story Mr. H is hired to travel down a river and photograph monoliths left as part of a project by a corporation. Unfortunately, another man was hired to blow up all those monoliths.

All three stories have sub-plots of tangential characters, and everything is told with an omnipresent voice-over narration (making it a bit of a marathon of reading for 4+ hours, since it's in Spanish with subtitles). I don't want to give away the plot, because first it would take too long and second it's almost beside the point. It's really a movie about stories and how to tell them. Everyone in the movie has a story, and interlacing the three stories proves to be a powerful, almost hypnotic experience.

It's tempting to think, since the three stories are unconnected, that it could be re-edited into three ~80-90 minute movies. And it could, but it wouldn't be at all the same. There's a fascinating tension in exploring the stories from every angle. The opening scene I described in story 1 is repeated in long, medium, and close up shots. There's an interesting interplay of cutting between the stories. One will be getting very interesting, and then it opens a new chapter following a different story. On the one hand, you're frustrated because you wanted to follow the first story more, but on the other hand you're reminded of how exciting the other one is. And really, it's this tension, the juggling of all the stories, that keeps everything interesting and makes the 4 hours fly by. I mentioned it's tempting to think of re-telling everything as three movies. But it's exactly that interplay that would make that not work.

Oh, and one final point. This whole movie (other than the physical prints of the film) was made for about 50,000 dollars (or euros, I'm not sure which. Either way, very impressive).


mrgn said...

Great write up for Historias. The point you make, that it would not work as 3 seperate movies, is a good one. It reminded me strongly of a novel called 2666 by Roberto Bolanos. If you're feeling up for a challenge (a rewarding one) you should check it out.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, none of these stories were very interesting...certainly not enough to endure 4 hours of subtitle reading while listening to monotonous voice-over and mediocre, at best, visuals.