AFI Fest, Day 6
My constantly-shuffled schedule finally caught up with me, and a slot that was reserved for The Turin Horse opened up (don’t get me wrong, I’d watch it again in a heartbeat), and I got to see the Duplass brothers’ latest film, Jeff Who Lives at Home. The Duplass brothers are a filmmaking team I admire but who have never given me a fully satisfying experience – their debut, The Puffy Chair, was a pretty audacious breath of fresh air when it came out, and their next film, Baghead, was an interesting experiment in bringing an element of horror and suspense to the mumblecore genre, but neither quite brought it all home in the end. Cyrus was a complete misfire. It was widely criticized for being too cruel in its treatment of its characters, much less the audience, but that was hardly the issue – the issue was that they used montage to cover holes in their scenes when their improvisatory technique clearly didn’t yield a consistently engaging result. It was choppy, and could never quite land a punch.
So at the start of Jeff, I was really excited. It was really onto something. The characters were still familiarly the Duplass’ – distinct in both their charm and deep pettiness – but the scenes were much more electrifying that any in their previous three films. It helps to have actors as good with improvisation as Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Judy Greer, but they also came up with this great shambling premise – Jeff (Segel) heads to the hardware store to complete a simple task, but gets distracted on his own self-made mission, on the same day his brother Pat (Helms) finds out his wife (Greer) is cheating on him. Their paths intersect, and they’re off and running, revisiting familial crises and butting heads at every turn. Jeff may be lazy and lack ambition, but Pat is a complete type-A tool, and while it may be a pretty standard familial set-up, it’s a nevertheless effective one.
And then the film goes completely off the rails. What started as a really honest, harsh look at not just modern relationships, but more importantly the completely screwed-up way people think modern relationships are supposed to work, suddenly becomes cheesier than a Cameron Crowe film. And I love Cameron Crowe films. I don’t want to get into details too much, but there’s a crucial turning point, and everything following it felt like something out of a different film altogether, made not by the Duplass brothers but by those people who make the fake movies that characters in romantic comedies and Hollywood satires watch that have implausibly happy endings. If it had slightly more self-awareness, I’d say the Duplass brothers are giving a massive middle finger to all the people who thought Cyrus was too cruel, but it really seems like an earnest effort, and it’s just too disjointed to possibly work. If Cyrus was a studio film that still felt like a genuine Duplass brothers film, Jeff Who Lives at Home is a studio film with the slightest input from the brothers. Paramount Vantage will distribute it next spring.
After that, I was off to the only shorts program I decided to attend, and unbeknownst to me it was an all-animation block. As with any shorts program, it was a bit of a grab bag, with many feeling hopelessly tedious but several really catching my eye. There was a film called Night Hunter that used animated cut-outs (including Lillian Gish as the protagonist!) to tell a nightmarish, Kafkaesque story of a woman in a cabin transforming into a bird. Another, called To Die By Your Side, co-directed by Spike Jonze, was this bizarre, crude film that used pieces of felt to represent famous literary characters falling in love and…having sex! Because why not.
One Minute Puberty was exactly what it sounds like, and was a blast. Dr. Breakfast was easily the silliest of the bunch, about a man whose zest for life leaves him after breakfast, and two deer tend to his well-being for the rest of the day. But without a doubt, my favorite was The Eagleman Stag, which was a black-and-white (emphasis on the white) stop-motion film about the life of a taxonomist. It had this great existentialist vibe, sort of like a more comedic Synecdoche, New York.
I then hopped in line to return to the same theater for Alps, one of my most-anticipated films at the festival. Anyone who saw Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film) knows what an insane experience he created – terrifying and hilarious and ferociously its own monster. Alps was, sadly, mostly an excuse to revisit the tone of that film without the narrative purpose motivating it. The characters’ behavior in Dogtooth was absurd, but explicably so – the protagonists, teenagers, were confined solely to their home by their over-protective parents, who told them the world outside was poisonous. In Alps, characters behave much as they did in Dogtooth, but why? They’ve theoretically been living in the same world as the rest of us. Alps has an amazing premise – it’s about a group who, for a price, will stand in for recently deceased loved ones to aid the healing process. Rarely does Lanthimos take this to its natural conclusion, choosing instead to play it surprisingly safe. He draws a few terrific scenes from it, particularly towards the end, but this has neither the fully-developed world view of Dogtooth, nor the fine craft that made it such a satisfying artistic experience. And I wouldn’t be so make such specific comparisons if the film didn’t so urgently invite them. Kino Lorber will distribute it next year.
And finally, there’s The Loneliest Planet. Julia Loktev’s debut film, Day Night/Day Night was an interesting, minimalist exercise about a suicide bomber toying with her destiny as she prepares to detonate a bomb in Times Square. I was thrilled to have seen it, but it never really found its purpose as a feature-length film, and I’m a guy who loves minimalism. The Loneliest Planet, however, is another story altogether. It’s leagues ahead of that film in how it creates and executes tension (when it finally arrives), has a much more thorough thematic and emotional undercurrent, and a more finely-tuned aesthetic. It bumps Loktev up from a promising filmmaker to a full-fledged, must-see talent. It’s a leap similar to that which Kelly Reichardt made in 2008 with Wendy and Lucy, and it’s always an exciting moment when a film like this lands.
The film is about an American couple who goes backpacking in the Georgian (as in the country) mountains, but I’d hate to give away much more than that. Beautifully shot, It treads similar waters as Gerry aesthetically (though don’t worry, it has more cuts), and I was really impressed with the way Loktev shifted focus to the characters with her blocking and camera placement within a single shot, but it has a much more fierce narrative undercurrent than that film. Here, survival is pretty simple, but to what end? It’s a thriller in only the broadest definition of the word, but only someone with no emotional reservoir would find the classification ill fitting. IFC Films will distribute it next year.
At the Q&A following the film, Loktev and lead actress Hani Furstenberg talked about the difficulties and thrills of shooting deep into mother nature, Loktev’s intuitive casting process (she put Furstenberg and co-star Gael Garcia Bernal in made-up scenes set abroad to view them as tourists), and the surprising revelation that almost none of the film was improvised. I was stunned. I can’t remember the last time I saw scripted scenes shot with that kind of breathing space and acted so naturally. She also discussed her rule of never shooting the sky to give a film that takes place in the mountains the feel of a chamber piece, and while I’m not convinced it was all that effective (the environment feels pretty wide-open anyway), it’s an interesting insight and I’m always curious to hear the “rules” filmmakers set for themselves.
And that was Day 6. It’s always disappointing when filmmakers in whom you’ve taken an active interest don’t deliver, but when a day ends with a film as good as The Loneliest Planet, that’ll do. And as the programmer who introduced the shorts program said, there are few other venues that will unveil works as inventive and distinguished.