AFI Fest 2014: Part 2

In All, Movies by Kyu

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 doing 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!

Tuesday, Nov 11th

There were two AFI movies on Tuesday, starting with Over Your Dead Body, the new horror film from Takashi Miike.

That sounds really exciting–“The New Horror Movie From The Director of Audition!!!”–but you have to remember that Miike has directed upwards of 90 movies in the course of his career, an average of three a year. He’s like the Japanese Soderbergh, with exactly the same result–you’re probably never going to get a bad one, but masterpieces will be pretty rare. Producing competent movies at that speed is a real feat, but nobody can make great movies that fast over and over again. Such is the case with Over Your Dead Body, a well-made film that feels tossed-off. The story itself is limited in such a way that if, like a normal filmmaker, this was going to be his project for the next two years, I doubt he would have made it. A friend of mine hates the description “slight” in film discussions, but that’s what this movie is: too simplistic in story, too limited in ambition. What’s there is fine, but it’s not really enough to make a meal out of.

The story is one of those “the lives of actors start to reflect the play they’re in” tales (or maybe vice versa), which is funny because I spent part of the time comparing the movie to Birdman. One of the things that makes Birdman work so well is that it reduces the on-screen play that they’re in to two or three scenes that are repeated over the course of the movie. Conversely, about 90% of Over Your Dead Body is the play, as the film alternates long scenes of the (exquisitely filmed) play with shorter, more elliptical scenes of the actors’ relationships. The play itself is a period piece about a cruel and faithless samurai who murders a woman’s father when the man will not give them permission to marry; the irony is that the samurai never seems happy to be married, and grows to resent and hate his wife. Eventually a neighboring family asks the samurai to marry their daughter, and plot to get his current wife out of the way. The slow drama is more or less mirrored by the lives of the actors playing the samurai, the wife, and the daughter, with the lead actor treating his counterpart callously and cheating on her with the actress playing the daughter. Supernatural forces are hinted at, and there’s a wonderfully creepy (and fantastically bloody) scene involving horrific madness and mutilation, but it’s ultimately too little, because the atmospheric tension of the play does not readily transfer to the contemporary narrative. Character development has to be mostly inferred through thematic connections, and, while the filmed play is gorgeous (the sets and costumes are beautifully constructed, lit, and shot, and the way the whole stage moves on a lazy Susan provides a lot of visual interest), the “real” portions of the movie are by contrast rather boring to look at. Perhaps this is by design, but it doesn’t make the relationships and emotions of that part of the film any easier to discern. Finally, the twist ending is nonsense, and reduces the movie as a whole. Is this worth watching? If you’re a real Miike fan, maybe, or if you’re more compelled by slow, Edo-period drama than I am; otherwise, I’d say give it a miss. He’ll have another one out soon. (OYDB came out in Japan in August, and his next one literally comes out this Saturday. It’s not a race, Miike!)

Worth watching? Not unless you’re really interested in the subject matter.

Next up was Tu Dors Nicole, a black and white French slice of life movie. Your enjoyment of it will depend on whether all of the words in that sentence filled you with dread. I found it delightful.

Other than the animated Song of the Sea, this is the most beautiful film I saw all festival. Lush but naturalistic black and white cinematography pervades the film, drawing you into Nicole’s lazy summer. “Tu Dors” translates to “You Are Sleeping”, and that’s precisely Nicole’s problem. Afflicted with insomnia, it seems as though her sleeplife has invaded her days, causing her to move through her summer as if underwater–lethargic, unambitious, alternately depressed and angry. Psychologically, insomnia is a symptom of a more general malaise; it’s hard to sleep when you feel as if you did nothing of value all day. Nicole does little of value, working a dead-end job at a thrift store (although we see she has excellent sewing skills and could probably find something better) and ignoring the chores her vacationing parents left for her in favor of lounging, swimming, and watching her older brother’s band play in their living room. She moons over the new drummer, she tries to avoid Martin, whom she used to babysit and who is in love with her, and she plans a foolishly expensive trip to Iceland, perhaps just because it sounds cold and far away. But isn’t Iceland green, and Greenland where all the ice is?

The film’s sound design is excellent and often whimsical (in the film’s best comic invention, puberty has dropped Martin’s voice but hasn’t gotten to the rest of him, so that a 12-year-old child is dubbed over by a deep-voiced man), and it’s directed with a careful casualness that sometimes has Nicole disappearing off the edge of the frame, as if she can scarcely be bothered to be in her own movie. It’s hard to describe what makes the movie feel so perfectly attuned to the needs of its story and characters; perhaps the best way to put it is that at one point I thought to myself, “This is good, but I really wish it had more music” and the movie right that second cut to her brother’s band playing. This excellence carries through all the way to the end, which doesn’t try to provide any forced catharsis, but does suggest that Nicole will finally be able to do something, and even if it’s the wrong thing, that’s still better than nothing.

Worth seeing? Definitely.

Wednesday, Nov 12th

I saw two and a half movies on this, my last day at the festival. The first was Faults.

An interesting exercise in tone, Faults starts out funny, with the comic antics of the severely pathetic Dr. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), and gradually becomes something much, much darker. Dr. Roth’s mustache and dress make him look very much like Donald Sutherland in the 70s (Don’t Look Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and he comports himself with a rumpled dignity even when trying to scam a $5 meal out of a hotel restaurant. He’s fallen on hard times, but he used to be one of the top “deprogrammers,” gentlemen who in the 80s specialize in kidnapping people who had fallen under the influence of cults and using techniques of mental manipulation in order to get them to renounce their potentially dangerous belief in “the group.” As the story begins, Roth is approached by a middle-aged couple who would like to hire him to deprogram their daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is in this movie because she’s married to the writer/director), whose life is being controlled by a cult called Faults. To say that Roth is underprepared for such a challenge would be an understatement, but hey, he needs the money. The rest of the movie takes place in an anonymous motel room, and is essentially an extended test of Roth’s own will and faith in his methods. Could the supernatural powers Winstead’s character attributes to Faults be real?

This is mostly a two-hander, although a few character actors pop up in supporting roles (including Lance Reddick, who post-The Wire seems to always be hired for his ability to portray menacing intelligence), and so it would be utterly awful if Orser and Winstead weren’t up to the task. Thankfully, they are and then some, both performers throwing themselves heedlessly into very tricky roles and finding great success there. The technical aspects of the film are all quite good, particularly the editing and smart, restrained script, which keep up the pace without getting too repetitive (something a lot of independent films have problems with). My main problem with the movie is the twist ending, one of those that’s obvious if you think about the premise for five seconds but also one of those twists that needs a lot of groundwork in order for the movie to sell it; the result is that the end drags quite badly. Still, it’s an interesting and entertaining story, well-told–so much so, in fact, that the movie might have been better off playing its narrative straight through to a less complex but equally dramatically satisfying conclusion.

Worth seeing? Yes.

Last but not least, The Duke of Burgundy, the new movie by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio).

One of the audience members in the Q&A for this movie called it “an homage to a genre that never existed,” and that seems apt, although Strickland said he drew inspiration from filmmakers like Jess Franco and certain exploitation movies of the ’60s. Certainly I’ve never seen anything quite like it, even in structure, as the movie alternates between scenes of a relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), scientific lectures on the behavior and identifying marks of butterflies and moths, and expressionistic shots and montages of light, shadow, and insects. It’s all supposed to mirror or act as metaphor for the central relationship, but the connections were a little obscure for me at times, particularly in the climatic montage, which seemed to be taking the story in a direction belied by the actual ending.

At any rate, the main story is mostly enough to carry the film. Strickland warned that the movie might drive some couples to divorce, and he’s not wrong–his refined, elegant portrait of a lopsided BDSM relationship is enough to make anybody look twice at themselves or their partner. To be fair, younger sub Evelyn is not only selfish and demanding but boring as well, asking Cynthia to work through a single detailed scenario (Cynthia playing the cold, aloof mistress in fancy clothes and Evelyn her put-upon maid) day after day in exacting repetition, to the point where Evelyn has written out cue-cards and dialogue for both of them. (One instruction reads something along the lines of, “When I come to the door and ring the bell, make me wait somewhere between one minute and five, only no longer or I’ll get bored and frustrated, but also don’t open the door after only one minute because that’s no fun either, and…”) Not only is she “topping from the bottom” but, to make matters worse, Cynthia doesn’t seem to enjoy the game at all, but goes along with it because she loves Evelyn. One starts to wonder who’s really controlling whom.

This is a dense, observational film, with little spoken and much conveyed through images, reactions, and sound. It demands rigorous attention, patience, and interpretation. In other words, it demands study, just as the women in the film study their butterflies. Like those, both Evelyn and Cynthia are beautiful creatures pinned and trapped under glass, Evelyn by her desires and Cynthia by… Evelyn’s desires. Restrained yet sensual, erotic and engrossing, The Duke of Burgundy is a bold and playful cinematic treatment of love, sex, and kink. But it will appeal to and resonate with anyone who’s ever felt like half of an uneven pair. Or anybody looking for something they haven’t seen before.

I did go to one other movie that night, Turkish coming of age story The Blue Wave, but found it so utterly boring that I walked out halfway through, so it wouldn’t be fair to review it.

Festival recap!

Bad/boring: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Decent/good: A Most Violent Year, The Midnight Swim, Reality, Over Your Dead Body
Very good: Haemoo, A Hard Day, Faults, The Duke of Burgundy
Excellent: Song of the Sea, It Follows, Tu Dors Nicole

That said, the best movie I saw while the festival was going on wasn’t even at the festival–Birdman. I don’t know if that says more about the festival or Birdman, though.

At any rate, I’m sure I’ll be back at AFI Fest next year. See you then!