I’m sporadically attending this year’s AFI Fest. For those of you who don’t know, AFI is a yearly film festival based in Los Angeles that typically presents a selection of some of the best films from other festivals around the world in the past year. It’s especially good at finding American independent features and foreign cinema. Tickets are free! but parking is not, so it’s a wash unless you take care to watch a bunch of movies each day.
Instead of doing a separate post for each film, I’m going to do a two-part round-up of shorter reviews covering multiple films. For each movie, I’ll let you know if it looks like it might be worth tracking down each movie or anticipating its future release. It’s mostly good stuff this year!
Thursday, Nov. 6th
There was only one movie on the first day of the festival, the world premiere of A Most Violent Year. It was pretty good! Not a great movie or anything, but not really trying to be.
An 80’s period piece by JC Chandor (who previously wrote and directed All Is Lost, the Redford-on-a-raft movie, and Margin Call, the oh-shit-the-economy’s-about-to-explode movie–no, the other one), A Most Violent Year asks the question, “What would happen if you took the form and structure and circumstances and characters of a mob movie, but instead of your standard boss at the center, put a decent guy?” The results are pretty fascinating as a character study, even if the movie surrounding that character is too rote for my taste.
The story takes place over about 30 days (which makes the title a damnable lie! jklol it’s just a bit misleading) in the life of Abel Morales, whose business is buying, selling, and transporting heating oil. He’s entered into the industry in New Jersey, where his competition is both stiff and probably dirty. Abel tries to run his business clean, but the situation and circumstances make that difficult–as the movie opens, Abel puts down his life savings on a deal which will help secure and advance his company’s position; meanwhile, across town, one of his drivers is robbed and beaten, an ongoing problem that threatens to destabilize Abel’s fledging empire and cause him to lose everything. The film’s central mystery reminded me of both Boardwalk Empire and Carlito’s Way: we watch a man seek power, see him surrounded by obstacles, see him encouraged by everyone around him to take the easy path, and wait to discover if he can resist temptation. The film climaxes with an extraordinary chase sequence–not necessarily because it’s technically impressive, but because of how it explodes outward tension that has been coiling for nearly two hours, and because it presents a thrilling visual metaphor for the protagonist’s unceasing forward drive.
The direction and performances, while good, are nothing to write home about, and although I understand why people might have anticipated some Oscar buzz for this (especially after American Hustle, which this movie only resembles superficially as an 80s crime piece), I don’t think it really deserves any. That’s not backlash or anything; one of the reasons I try and go into movies as blind as possible is so that my opinion is my own and not in reaction to anyone else’s. I definitely achieved that here. But, although A Most Violent Year is presented in the form of an arthouse drama, and although it has a good performance at its core (Oscar Isaac as the lead), it’s too simplistic and on-the-nose about its themes to really achieve greatness. The movie is a totally valid experiment within the genre, but the experimental result is that a different protagonist does not change the movie around him enough. You have to push the boundaries of the gangster film a lot further than that in order to make an impression (The Wolf of Wall Street is a great example of doing just that), and A Most Violent Year simply does not. I doubt I’ll remember much about it in a couple of weeks, but that’s okay! It’s an entertaining movie that kept my attention all the way through, and I’ll also forget how much they wasted Albert Brooks or how boring Chastain was or whatever. Before the film, Chandor mentioned how much of an honor it was for him to be able to make a living as a storyteller, and I think he would agree with me that it’s enough for him to have made–not the best story–but a story worth telling.
Worth seeing? Yes.
Friday, Nov. 7th
Three movies on this day, all of which had some kind of horror elements to them, but they saved the best for last.
A Peter Straub character once called “The Red Badge of Courage” a ghost story in which the ghost never appears. This is equally true of The Midnight Swim, my first movie on Friday.
Filmed in Iowa and helmed by young indie director Sarah Adina Smith, The Midnight Swim is found footage horror by way of indie drama. The story concerns three daughters who have recently lost their mother, who drowned (or drowned herself?) in the lake behind their family home. It’s this home that these women return to after years of absence, hoping to reconnect with one another and say goodbye to their mother. Her absence is felt in every frame, as each daughter finds different ways to try and deal with the loss–Annie by selling the house, Isa by loving the lake (and having a fling with a boy she meets there), and June by quietly filming everything. We experience the film through June’s camera–not because the director set out to make a found footage movie, but as though she independently discovered the technique while seeking a way to express the character’s point of view.
Into this emotional mix, Smith throws a bevy of omens (a shawl, dead birds, a videotape), folk tales, the Pleiades, and other symbolic and metaphoric examples of grief, loss, renewal and rebirth. The soundtrack/score (the two are interchangeable) provides a sense of tense expectation that builds throughout the film before being released in unexpected fashion, twisting the film’s horror tropes into something at once universal and deeply personal. This isn’t a great movie–the pacing is poor, the performances skilled but too elliptical, the filmmaking too reticent–but there’s a fascinating heart here nonetheless.
Worth seeing? Yes.
About my second film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, I’m not going to say much. I didn’t like it at all, and it seems cruel to rag on an independent feature that has little chance of seeing distribution.
The film is essentially an indie version of Malick’s Days of Heaven. A man, nicknamed “Shoulders” for all the weight he carries on them, is hired on as a farmhand by an older man and his attractive, half-wild daughter. An attraction develops between the newcomer and the daughter, of course, and the cows moo and the father looks on grimly, and the farmhand’s wife presents a complication, and it all ends in a bizarre burst of violence. This rote story is filmed with a frustrating unwillingness (or inability) to show images or tell a story with necessary clarity, particularly towards an ending both underlit and underwritten. As the girl, Sophie Traub is excellent, lovely but not mild in the least; she deserves a better film for her talents.
Worth seeing? No.
The third and final film of the night was a midnight horror flick, It Follows, directed by David John Mitchell as the follow-up to his non-horror teen piece The Myth of the American Sleepover. I haven’t seen that film, but now I very much want to, because It Follows is one of the best horror films of the last five years. Maybe ten.
Thrillingly, It Follows creates a brand new monster, and uses it both to chilling effect and to explore the double-edge sword of sex, which connects us to others even as it ushers in a terrifying new adulthood. You should really go in as blind as possible–the movie takes it time revealing its premise, and I wish I hadn’t known it before watching. As vaguely as possible: protagonist Jay, a 19-year-old girl living in the Detroit suburbs, has sex with a boy while on a date, only to be told later that something has been “passed” to her. It, whatever “it” is, is coming for her. And it won’t ever stop.
Stylistically, the movie gives off a gorgeous 1980s feel, drawing from Blue Velvet and especially Carpenter’s Halloween (autumnal suburban streets, a pulsing synth score), but is designed to feel timeless, with an Archer-like mix of periods in the technology, costuming, and production design. Every frame of the movie is committed to exploring the physical and emotional ramifications of its story, and there are moments here as fine and as scary as any I’ve seen. The film shoots its menace with strict adherence to directional movement within the frame, with the basic composition and staging combining in a vision that will creep you out utterly the next time you see it in real life (it happened to me in the parking garage after the movie! *shudder*). And the young actors in the ensemble exhibit a strong bond and resolve as they try and help Jay out of her situation, providing counterpoint to the main plot’s regressive message–sex and love can be deadly, but they’re also what helps you keep going.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling it, so I’ll leave off for now. But take it from me, It Follows is a great horror movie. Thankfully, it has distribution and will be in theaters sometime in 2015. Go see it then.
Worth seeing? Hell yes.
Sunday, Nov. 9th
The first movie on Sunday was the fest’s only animated feature, the exquisitely beautiful Irish fairy tale Song of the Sea.
Remember when everybody got excited for The Secret of Kells? This is the movie that one should have been, a film of beauty and adventure and broad but powerful emotions. It’s full of mystery and invention, brilliant design and luminous art, understanding both a child’s and an adult’s perspective and empathizing with both. No pop culture jokes here, no celebrity voices (outside of native Irishman Brendan Gleason as the father), and no sneering Disney villains. This is a gorgeous movie with a gentle heart where people are troubled, not evil, and have only forgotten their better selves, a glowing inner spirit that waits, dormant, to be awoken.
The story, about a young boy and his silent sister, a grieving father, and the faeries of old Erie, ranges far and wide, drawing on the Irish legends of giants turned to stone, old men beneath the earth, foo dogs, the wicked Owl Witch, and especially the story of the Selkie, a creature at once human and seal, part of the land and part of the ocean, whose song holds power. Told with skill and humor, it draws you into a world at once magical and familiar, a world of singing faeries and fighting siblings, a world you’re loath to leave.
Nine years in the making, Song of the Sea is the real deal, and it will be a crime if it is not one of the nominated animated films at this year’s Oscars. If you’re at all a fan of animation, children’s movies, or the feeling of wonder, Song of the Sea is not to be missed.
Worth seeing? Definitely.
Next up is Reality (not to be confused with the 2012 movie). This is the new one by Quentin Dupieux (who also did Wrong and Rubber).
Narratively, it’s the cinematic equivalent of staring at this:
Or like a non-linear, meta version of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Several stories intertwine around a film being made, a precocious child, a weird cooking show starring a guy in a creepy rat costume, and a director proposing a different movie to a producer (who tells him, “Find me an Oscar-winning groan and I’ll sign”). Each story proceeds logically until it gets to a point that doesn’t make sense, and your brain tries to leap the gap–picture a man deciding he’s in a dream, only a different character is the one who wakes up. Etc. Odd details abound, the whole movie is scored to one repetitive Philip Glass track that comes in and out, and the cinematography is flat, with dulled colors. It’s a deadpan surrealist thing, and while it was funny and entertaining enough, there wasn’t really an emotional throughline (the way there is in, say, the equally illogical but much more inventive and moving Holy Motors).
Worth seeing? Sure.
Next up was Haemoo, a a Korean suspense drama that takes place almost entirely on a fishing boat. It’s co-written and produced by Bong Joon-ho, one of the top Korean directors and the man responsible for The Host and Snowpiercer.
The boat has a captain and a small, six-man crew, all of them hurting for money; the captain decides to take on a job shuttling illegal immigrants from China instead of fish. Things go bad, and our allegiance slowly shifts from the captain to the youngest member of the crew, who feels obligated to protect a young woman among the passengers. In that generational struggle, the use of a sea-fog for both plot and symbolic purposes, and the effective conjuring of tension and suspense, the movie reminded me of Val Lewton’s Ghost Ship. Most interesting is that the film is based on a play (in turn based on true events); you wouldn’t know it at all from the movie, which makes a very cinematic meal of the ship’s confined spaces and slow transformation from forlorn fishing vessel to a blood-swabbed horror. Suspenseful, engaging, and not really overlong even at close to two hours, this Korean film felt like classical Hollywood entertainment, the sort of action/drama that America doesn’t really make anymore.
Worth seeing? Yes.
Finally, another midnight screening, also from Korea: A Hard Day.
This one’s two-thirds Insomnia-esque thriller (but not moody), one-third The Trouble With Harry-style black comedy (but not dry). The story concerns a corrupt police detective who gets into a hit-and-run accident and tries to hide the body, with increasing complications. The twists and turns of the plot are very entertaining, especially the payoff of Chekov’s C4. On the other hand, the pacing is a little slow at points and the main character isn’t quite as relatable as he should be. Overall, though, it’s a good, fun movie with a nice punchline. (It takes place over more than one day, though, so false advertising there.)
Worth seeing? Yes.
That’s all for now! Check out Part 2 of my 2014 AFI recap for more more cool movies you’ve probably never heard of.