Jumping right in for a 5 movie day. First off was the computer animated THE BATTLE FOR TERRA, a labor of passion, if not quite talent. Okay, to be fair it's a kid's movie and I probably have no business expecting great moral complexity. But I'd think I could get more than the simplistic 'can't we all just get along' of this story. And there's more. I know I shouldn't rag on a film that's obviously an indie labor of love, but since they went for CGI (and 3D, when it's released May 1), I have to say that the animation is only impressive if you've never seen Pixar (or even Dreamworks). They also run afoul of one of my big animation pet peeves--casting famous names instead of real voice talent. Luke Wilson, Brian Cox, Danny Glover, and Rachael Evan Wood are all fine actors, but voice acting is a different skill and if you cast career voice talent you get a better performance for much less cost. In the Q&A, they made a big deal about a short Mark Hamill cameo, but didn't seem to realize he's built an impressive voice acting career in the years since STAR WARS. I'd much rather listen to him star and limit Luke Wilson to a cameo. I do have to mention that David Cross was a bright spot as far as named talent. Beyond that the story is kind of cliche (earth is uninhabitable, humans find a suitable planet for terraforming but that would involve killing the local (intelligent but peaceful) inhabitants. When a stranded human is saved by a local, he is tries to stop the war and find a solution for peaceful coexistence. As cliche as the story is, the dialogue is even more so, and clunky to boot. I have to say, as an animation fan and a secret fan of children's films (and someone who shed tears at WALL-E) THE BATTLE FOR TERRA was a major disappointment. But what do I know?
So then I saw a kid's movie (or at least a movie about kids) that's more my style. IT'S NOT ME, I SWEAR! is the wacky adventures of a 10 year old suicidal hellraiser. As the movie opens, Leon is hanging from a tree--by his neck, tangled in the ropes of gymnastics rings. His brother and mom cut him down in time, but this is the sort of thing that happens to him. When he's not almost dying, he raising hell, egging the neighbor's house, breaking into another neighbor's and trashing the place, falling for a strange girl, and pining for his mom. Oh yeah, his protective mother has left to live in Greece, and his father is so wrapped up in political causes he can't see his nose in front of his face (to the point that when Leon fakes poor vision to explain his poor grades, he can't see that Leon is too blind to eat when wearing his ridiculously thick glasses). Oh, and this is all a comedy. Not just comic relief, comic and dramatic (even scary) at the same time. There's a saying (I think credited to Woody Allen) that 'comedy is tragedy plus time.' Well, this is a movie that presupposes that time and lets the comedy come out at the same time as the tragedy. Awesome. And director Philippe Falardeau was so funny in the Q&A that I have to look up his previous movies.
Next up was a Mexican movie, and the most formally challenging film of the day. LAKE TAHOE (which has nothing to do with it's title) is told entirely in static shots, with long dark transitions (sound, but no image). Juan is driving along the outskirts of a sleepy seaside town in the Yucatan when he crashes into a pole (the crash is not shown onscreen). He's fine, but his car won't start, so he has to walk into town to find a mechanic who can fix it. Instead he meets a town of eccentrics. The first auto shop is closed (although the owner is there, it's just his day to sit and watch the world rather than work). He finds an old mechanic, but he's paranoid, thinks Juan is there to rob him, and holds him (under doggy-threat) until he can call the cops. But when the phone doesn't work, he decides to go ahead and help. Juan needs a new part, and in his search he finds a young mother who wants him to babysit so she can go to a concert, and a hotshot young mechanic who's big into kung-fu movies. Meanwhile, we learn why he was driving to this town anyway, and about a significant loss in his family. The static, very neutral shots and the dark interludes invite/challenge the audience to fill in the gaps themselves. And the languid pace (no one ever hurries) reminds us that being around is more important than getting anywhere. After all, we all have the same destination eventually.
And then a lighter, crowd-pleasing comedy, the art and music send-up (UNTITLED). Adam Goldberg stars as atonal (i.e., noise) music composer Adrian. He plays noise concert (banging on pianos, crumpling paper, kicking a bucket) to a small group of grad students, his parents, and his brother Josh. His brother is actually a successful painter--that is if you measure success by sales and not by critical acclaim. His swaths of calming colors with circles are popular in hotel lobbies, but he can't get a gallery show, even if he's dating a gallery owner. That would be Madeline, whom Adrian first dismisses as way to trendy until she starts raving about his concert. Now there's an attraction, and she brazenly seduces him (turns out at least she didn't think she was dating Josh). Adrian goes along, both for the sex and because her savvy convinces a collector to commission a piece from him. Every character in the film overflows with pretension (Vinnie Jones is great as a wild taxidermy-art provocateur who "reinvents" himself every day). Everyone gets an equal skewering--artists, gallery owners, dealers, atonal musicians, collectors, critics. But director Jonathan Parker does it from a place of insider's affection (he has dabbled in atonal music and collected abstract art, and assured us that there are parts of the art scene even stranger than what he showed). This movie does have a distributor, the Samuel Goldwyn Company will give it a limited theatrical release in the fall, starting in New York and San Francisco. So if you live there, keep your eyes out for it.
And finally, I ended the night with a Bulgarian communism noir comedy, ZIFT. Using classic noir voice over to pull diverse comic tangents (fecal humor, urban legends, fond reminiscences of a glass-eyed cellmate) it tells the story of Moth, imprisoned in 1940 for a murder he didn't commit. Now it's a couple decades later, and he's being released early as a model reformed prisoner (he started a communist movement in prison). But no sooner is he out than he's abducted by Slug, his ex-accomplice and now police officer who wants to know where the diamond they stole is hidden. Wacky hijinks ensue--torture, bathhouse chases, poison, etc. An action noir that goes everywhere and nowhere, and kept me surprised and laughing the whole way (at least, as long as I could stay awake. It was late at night and the 5th movie of the day, so I did have to fight off drowsiness).
And that's day 3 at SFIFF.