All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
1) WORK SO HOPELESSLY INCOMPETENT, BY EVEN THE MOST BASIC DEFINITION, THAT IT HAS NO BUSINESS SCREENING IN ANY FILM FESTIVAL ANYWHERE, MUCH LESS BEING CONSIDERED FOR A FRICKIN' AWARD: This batch of entrants includes such films as The Burning Desire, a piece of in-house promotional material by the Texas A&M Athletic Department masquerading as a documentary about that football team's 1999 season (which was apparently magical for reasons I could not begin to give two shits about; the piece really is little more than a recruitment tool that someone thought they might as well pop in the mail to a semi-local festival); Point of Death, a sub-infomercial-grade camcorder effort about "different cultures' concepts of death and dying," which begins with random shots of Houston landmarks and campuses and really starts cooking when four inaudible non-actors start babbling around a fold-out table at the front of what looks like a community college teaching auditorium.
3) OH, YOU SO CRAZY! OR, STOP IT, YOUR "QUIRK" ISN'T WORKING, JUST SHUT THE HELL UP AND GO AWAY: It almost feels unfair to lump these two together, since they clearly emerge from differing circumstances, but I can't help it. Production disparity aside, the result on the reception end is almost exactly the same. On the super-low-budget "regionalist" end, there's Pastor Shepherd, a post-Napoleon Dynamite quirkathon with barndoor-broad caricatures walking around an alien goofscape. It's about a wide-eyed adult naif whose behavior is pitched somewhere in the Devil's Triangle between Jim Bakker, game show host, and Asperger's case. He's trying to sell freeze-drying service for deceased pets. But he eventually decides to become an online evangelist. And, lo and behold, the film is an extension of / origin story for the "real" Pastor Shepherd and his singularly unenlightening "satire" project, Prayer Hour. Wacky wacky! He meets a girl, tries to be normal, mom's a nutter, etc. etc. On the well-appointed, high-production-values end of things, we have a Canadian film, St. Roz, about a church in Hamilton, ON that gets a statue of St. Rosalind from Poland, and a zaftig would-br writer trying to cope with her overbearing millionaire mom who is......a Jenny Craig / Tony Robbins style fitness / lifestyle guru-slash-weight Nazi. Her name? Minnie Barr. Guess what? The St. Roz icon has magical powers, related to the weight loss plot, but I'll say no more. Not a single joke works in either film. But I will say, if St. Roz represents cultural production in Hamilton, please, NHL, let them have a team fer chrissakes.
4) THERE'S SOME POTENTIAL, BUT IT JUST AIN'T THERE YET: Two foreign films (well, one of them was semi-foreign . . . "transnational" is really a much better word) had some good ideas, displayed some visual panache, but also reflected their makers' inexperience and severe lack of resources. But I definitely saw some talent, and I do hope these guys keep at it. The first was a Bengali film by way of Austin called Bodhisattva by first-timer San Banarji. The story centers on a young woman named Maya, whose father is the title character, an industrialist of some stripe (seems to be in import/export) currently trying to break a strike with his unseen "Communist" workers. (The guy oozes smug malevolent privilege without ever veering into caricature.) He sends Maya on a trip to India, partly to get her away from the trouble, partly because she's a thorn in his conscience. She stays with an old school friend and her husband (he's a struggling filmmaker, providing the secondary plot), and Maya begins to sow discord in her new environs. Banarji doesn't have complete control over tone or visual elements (the meetings with the film producer, in particular, are amateurish), but he understands the value in letting still, simmering environments do the talking. More than once I thought about Jia Zhangke, which is a damned good thing. The other film was more ambitious but far less accomplished, but once again, there is potential there. Bambara Walalla is a Sri Lankan epic of sorts, seen through the eyes of a boy who begins by killing the stepfather who molests his sister (who hangs herself), all in the first ten minutes; then after prison he starts putting life (and his anguished land) back together again. The tone is awkward, as though first-time director Athula Liyanange could not decide whether to adopt a mythic, stylized tone of poetry and ritualized speech, or something more akin to "normal" cinema. If he hasn't already, Liyanage would do well to examine the films of Vimukthi Jayasundara, although I'd have to assume the Sri Lankan film scene is rather small (if not close-knit). VJ provides the model for how to treat material material at the juncture of personal and national anguish. But again: don't give up.
And then, the three that merited (or, that my concentrated viewing merited) full capsules:
Occasionally, you encounter a film that is, it seems, unquestionably "bad" by those definitions that we use to evaluate works of cinema, but that nevertheless exerts some inexplicable hold on you. Clear Blue Tuesday is a film that I found compelling from beginning to end, even as my faculties of aesthetic judgment, both from moment to moment and in retrospectively evaluating the whole, sort of recoiled from the thing. I may as well get the fact that it's a "9/11 musical" out of the way. But simply stating that fact erroneously gives the impression that this category alone, or Lucas's decision to operate within those parameters, constitutes the Big Mistake. And while, in the end, that decision may have been a mistake (it's hard to know how this might've been pulled off any better, in its exact form, with these specific aims), the more serious problems are tonal and micromanagerial. Lucas's each and every creative decision, from her sub-Matchbox 20 power ballads, to her offputtingly quirky Manhattanite comic-relief types (the sci-fi harpist, the sleazy hair-metal dude), to her culminating, all-souls-healing art show finale, just feels wrongheaded to the point of provoking an involuntary cringe. But it's more than this. Lucas and her off-off-Broadway team of singer-songwriters are all so dedicated to creating this post-disaster, Crashoid roundelay of lost souls that, in most cases, Clear Blue Tuesday makes 9/11 incidental in their lives, if that. Apart from a middle-aged professor seriously injured by debris, a man whose marriage is wrecked by memories of an old dead girlfriend, and a young Arab who faces some racial slurs in the immediate aftermath, it's mostly just a lot of young people whining about their love lives, and one sensitive artist (presumably the stand-in for the film's conscience) writhing in the pain of others. It's kind of exploitation of the first order, using the deaths of thousands as fodder for a sub-Rent study in urban alienation. At the same time, there is an earnestness at work here that kept me genuinely on its side, even as I wanted to reach out and shake it by the shoulders. In its own blinkered way, Clear Blue Tuesday is a full-on visionary auteur effort, shooting for an epic grandeur that only people like Tony Kushner or John Cameron Mitchell could have hoped to achieve in this context. But as I think this description conveys, it can't just be dismissed. It's an epic misfire, a clear blue . . . something.
Easily the most accomplished film of the eleven I screened for the competitive section, Father Vs. Son nevertheless faces an uphill battle in finding the audience it richly deserves. The following may sound to some like snark, or dismissal, or worse yet, damning with faint praise, but in fact I mean it as a very strong compliment. This finely crafted lowbrow comedy is precisely the sort of movie that should find a home playing at random hours on Cinemax and The Movie Channel for the next twenty years, and like some of the best specimens of that genre (Back To School, Major League, Role Models), you will stop flipping channels on it and watch it through to the end, every single time. It's not really a "festival film," in the traditional sense, however a berth at the right kind of showcase (SXSW, Cinequest) might've done wonders for it. Essentially, the premise is as basic as a Ding Dong in your lunchbox. Young, successful Grant (Josh Dean) is luckless with women and has given up on love. Following the sudden departure of Grant's mom, Jerry (Paul Wolff), Grant's crass, toupee-wearing, muscle-car driving pop, shows up on Grant's LA doorstep. Through a series of mishaps, they meet not-really-a-stripper Darlene (Heather Stephens), a smart, sassy redhead with whom both Grant and Jerry are smitten. From there, game on. Ballarini, who co-wrote the script with character-actor Wolff (you'll know him when you see him), is not above cheap laugh lines at lesbians or senile old men. FvsS is not a sophisticated or refined film, and is more than happy to pitch one down the middle to the "Two and a Half Men" demographic. But, as evident from the opening montage of Grant's history of dating disasters, Ballarini also understands understatement, the value of the throwaway line ("My sponsor cuts me off at four."), and, perhaps most importantly, actually writing clever dialogue in the service of crafting three-dimensional characters. The three leads of FvsS are broadly drawn in certain ways but also recognizably human. Their humor emerges as much from their frailty as from their clipped irony, and as a result, we actually come to care about the people in this goofy little film. They are more than walking bundles of idiosyncrasies with targets on their backs. What's more, Ballarini displays a command of pacing, rhythm, and the comic potential of mise-en-scene (but not the showy over-reliance upon stagy environs, so common in the post-Wes Anderson era). Will this funky gem, filled with a cast of relative nobodies, find any kind of audience whatsoever? If nothing else, it ought to be a hell of a calling card. If not, at least it's a cool little one-off. Sort of an Oedipal Life Without Dick. Maybe that's redundant.
In a way, Maya is very fundamentally a film written and directed by an actress, treating the theatrical perspective not only as the center of the film's dramatic action but as a kind of existential / epistemological ground zero. The title character (sorry, I will fill in actor names when I find them -- very little info available on this film at present) is a struggling young performer who we see practically chucked out of acting class as a no-talent at the start of the film. Before long she catches the eye of a contemporary playwright while working in a coffee shop; seemingly because of her look and attitude more than her skills per se, he awards her the lead in his newest play, a fact-based drama about his cousin "Nili." She was forced by her parents into having an abortion, and subsequently convinced that her son was alive and being kept from her. Complications arise: Maya and her mentor become romantically involved; Maya spends time visiting a mental ward to research her role; she begins questioning the verisimilitude of the play, instigating a highly personal debate regarding "dramatic truth" vs. "lived truth." The degree to which Bat-Adam, whose partner is Israeli director Moshé Mizrahi, based Maya on her own experiences as an actor staking out her independence vis-a-vis writers and directors, is of course unclear. And there is undoubtedly something self-serving about Bat-Adam's representation of Maya as the emotional seismograph, the sensitive artist who can not only register the pain of others but can in part heal them through the understanding that her mimicry (apparently) conveys. And, as Maya putts along at its relaxed art film pace, its schematism is barely disguised. Bat-Adam is literally "staging" an argument. And yet, what's oddly impressive about the film is that, within this fairly circumscribed agenda, Maya actually feels rather open and even peripatetic at times, open to a kind of wandering attention. Inside the specific elements that Bat-Adam must present, there is a considerable amount of play, to say nothing of a substantial degree of sturdy actorly professionalism. In fact, Maya's rather outsized Method performance (which eventually takes over the play-within-the-film) becomes the lightning rod / point of contention. It's impressive, and carries the day, even though and precisely because it's out of step with the equally impressive mean-and-potatoes thespianism that Bat-Adam uses as its negative space. Maya doesn't avoid broad-stroke cliché, but ends up prompting some patient engagement with those clichés in the service of an inquiry that, in the final analysis, isn't as predictable in its smaller shadings. I absolutely do not want to make any outsized claims for Maya. In the context of a festival like Toronto, this would be CWC filler, "that Israeli film" that most of us skipped. But in the context of Worldfest, it's pretty much unmissable.
At long last, the full review of the film that I unfairly dissed without really giving it adequate attention in the midst of double-festival bulk viewing. And while it is indeed hobbled by significant first-film problems, it also has some good things going for it, and displays a considerable amount of promise. The basic structure of the film is, in itself, rather unspectacular. A twenty-something L.A. couple, Jordan (Jason Britt) and Cassie (Misty Madden) are drifting apart, a distance Jordan senses but to which Cassie won't admit. She's going on an ostensible three-week trip to Nashville to try her (talentless) hand at country music, and despite Jordan having cleared his work schedule, makes it clear that this is her Me Time. (In terms of capability, Cassie's music is a less self-conscious cousin to Zipporah's contributions to the field in Bruce Sweeney's underrated Last Wedding.) During a phone call, Jordan overhears a situation that Cassie wishes to turn to her advantage, but Jordan chooses to "avenge," against Cassie's advice. Jordan's best friend Calvin (Clay) is along for the ride, and somewhat implicated.
Losing You isn't nearly as intelligent a film as it needs to be, at least not in order to accomplish what appear to be its primary aims. On the one hand, Jordan and Calvin's chivalrous cross-country quest is supposed to seem blinkered, the product of the sort of youthful white male Romanticism that gets off on fixing and saving and swaggering for the so-called weaker sex. The film hints at this critique of masculine delusion, but cops out in a sense (I guess you could call it "complicating" things, but I'm not buying) by making Jordan's suspicions correct. Cassie is simply making questionable decisions, and while she does have the free will to do so (and certainly does so with a heavy heart), Losing You inevitably validates the male point of view.
This muddled thinking finds its way into the very bones of the film as well, since the single most bothersome aspect of Losing You is its lead performances. Unlike many low-budget indies, however, the acting isn't "bad," just odd. Britt, in particular, has the inward mien of a younger Joshua Jackson. But Clay's direction of these performances, to be "naturalistic" to the degree of an almost mumbling, late-night- student-union lack of affect, is at odds with the highly deliberate scripting. These words called for acting which wasn't afraid to announce itself as such, even if it introduced a bit of movie-style artifice. Having said that, by far the best things in Losing You are the interstitial business enveloping the primary action, Cinematographer Vishal Solanki has an exceptional eye for landscape, and the road sequences displayed a fine sensibility to big-sky atmospherics. And the two character foils, who could have been silly caricatures, instead livened up Losing You with unselfconscious wit and distance from the film's dominant character types. Leah Myette was sexy and abrasive, without trying too hard to be either, as Jackie the car thief, and Norman Bertrand, who I presume to be a nonpro who Clay actually discovered in a bar or on the Greyhound, was a grounding force as Gerald.
As it stands, I wouldn't necessarily recommend Losing You. It's absorbing enough, but it ultimately gets too many things either wrong, or "right" in the same way as a million other independent films. However, the fact that Clay and company get most of the small things right -- the stuff that you really can never fuss over, that typically either comes or doesn't -- indicates that there's talent here, and it's just a question of maturity, and finding one's own unique voice.