AFI Fest, Day 2
Preparing oneself for the inevitability of not being able to see everything is key to attending any film festival. The first round of disappointment comes at the scheduling phase, at which point you realize that three things you’re dying to see are all playing at the exact same time while several timeslots contain only films you’ve never heard of. The latter part of that is the joy – you end up forced to see work you’d never go out of your way for otherwise – but the former is what gets you.
The second round of disappointment comes when the digital print for a tiny indie movie is corrupted and the filmmaker demands they restart it from the beginning, making you arrive late and unable to get into the big gala for the new Roman Polanski film. But luckily, there’s always something waiting in the wings.
If today’s round of programming ended up having a common thread, it’d be one ready and willing to take the coarsest sandpaper right to your soul. I started off the day with a little Australian flick called Snowtown. The Aussies made a fair dent in asserting just how horrible the world can be last year with The Square and Animal Kingdom, but even combining those two into an unholy monster of bad karma and psychopaths couldn’t prepare you for Snowtown. Justin Kurzel’s debut feature is a bit of a mess – there are several cues to the passage of time that are very ill-defined, to the point where I wondered halfway through if maybe they switched the reels – but its slow, meditative descent into a man-made hell is so exquisite, terrifying, and exhausting that it’s hard to fault it too much. It’s about a famous serial killer case in the late 90s, told from the perspective of the young boy who is inducted into the master scheme. It’s without a doubt the most unpleasant experience I’ve had at the movies all year, and as such, not a movie I’ll be mentioning to everybody, but if you’re up for a trip deep into the heart of darkness, keep an eye out. IFC has it, but hasn’t set a date – I’d imagine next spring or summer.
After that…things got a little tricky. Better known for its gorgeous, massive Rigler theater, the Egyptian also houses a little 200-seater named after Spielberg. Restless City provided my first cause, and impressed though I was with the facility in a theoretical sense, I was less thrilled with the projector that broke down (slowly and painfully) fifteen minutes into the film. That, combined with a cell-phone happy guy two seats down and a snorer directly next to me did not provide the least distracting environment, which especially hurt a mood piece like Restless City, which, at a fraction of the budget, has enough style to lend Drive some. It’s a familiar story – a young, naive immigrant tries to navigate a jaded, cynical world, culminating with him helping save a prostitute from the clutches of her chosen line of business, but director Andrew Dosunmu has such clear passion for both his aesthetic and chosen milieu (the African immigrant population of Harlem) that it becomes more than a little infectious. It’s too slight to ever find proper distribution, but I’d be interested in seeing anything Dosunmu does next.
The rest of my evening was defined by lines, first to attempt, and fail (after over an hour of attempting, at that), to get into Carnage, and later to attempt, and totally succeed, to get into Rampart. Between those two points, I ducked into my back-up film, Markus Schleinzer’s Michael. For those who unaware, Michael concerns the goings-on of the titular character, who works a Dilbert/Office Space-style day job and comes home to the boy he has locked in his basement. And the film is very up front about this, though thankfully not as up front as it could have been if so inclined (we get the idea with great clarity without seeing anything too unpleasant). Instead, it lets its premise do the talking, and the most banal scenes between the two leads (scrubbing a floor, decorating a Christmas tree) become deeply unsettling. But it’s also unexpectedly hilarious, both in specific moments (Michael singing along to a disco version of the Bobby Hebb classic “Sunny,” overheard dialogue of a slasher porn film) and in an overall karmic worldview. Strand Releasing has it for distribution, which means it’ll be a little tricky to see in theaters after this week (it plays again at 1:45 on Monday), but will almost certainly end up on Netflix instant. No word on release date.
And, as previously alluded, Rampart wrapped up my day. I liked writer/director Oren Moverman’s debut feature, The Messenger, quite a bit when I saw it at the end of 2009, but didn’t give it a lot of thought for long following that point. It’s a fine film as far as it goes, as I’m fond of saying. Rampart, however, is quite a different beast. It’s almost a monster movie wrapped in a police procedural. Following a disgraced cop as he tries to navigate the tricky waters of internal affairs following some messy business is nothing new (Where the Sidewalk Ends, anyone?), but Moverman (who co-wrote this time with none other than James Ellroy) found a way to make it all his own. Casting Woody Harrelson in the lead did most of the work for him, certainly – Harrelson gives a performance that will surely get tagged as “overacting” and “condemning his own character,” and that’d be too bad if he didn’t make for such a compelling presence. As the total synthesis of every bad cop you’ve ever seen turned up to 11, he owns this film, and he knows it.
But Moverman’s no slouch, and through his choice of camera angles (during whole sections of conversation, we might only see the back of one participant as the block the other) and weird cutting rhythm, he creates a really wild energy. I couldn’t yet say what he was going for with it, but I’ll tell you, between that, he and Ellroy’s crackling dialogue, and the outstanding performances all around (you know who else is in this film? Everyone), it made for an irresistible experience. That it also turns into this really cool contemplation about guilt and the search for absolution is no small potatoes either.
Another day, another batch of really, really good movies. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t bummed as hell to miss Carnage, especially since I could have caught Michael later, but that’s the way these things roll sometimes. I’m not going to make any wild promises for tomorrow, even though my line-up is pretty bullet proof (two films I don’t expect will garner big crowds, followed by plenty of time to wait for the third). I’ll also hopefully get my first full piece up dedicated to the best film I’ve seen so far. As always, you can follow me @railoftomorrow on Twitter for constant updates and opinions.