One of the inherent “problems” faced by the avid, obsessive film festgoer — and it’s mostly a happy problem — is the sensation of the blurred clock. Your sense of time passed or day versus night becomes foggy and twisted, and you know that you’re in the clutches of the condition. Take, for instance, the Saturday night/Sunday morning succession of two of the better films of the first blush of SBIFF ’12, of wildly varied natures.
Bleeding over from late Saturday night past the midnight hour was the surprisingly strong American independent film Think of Me, an emotionally moving and stylistically impressive piece of work by writer-director Bryan Wizeman. Lauren Ambrose does a masterful job portraying a single mother in Las Vegas, waking up on the “other” side of Vegas. She struggles to support her young daughter down on the lower rungs of the 99 percent but with dignity intact, and when tempted to alleviate her fiscal woes at a personal cost, the tension is palpable, as it is in the film generally. But there’s a strong heart and naturalistic artistic vision which keeps this small, alluring film engaging.
Fast-forward several sleeping hours to Sunday at 8 a.m., and the cinematic brunch fare was lighter and frothier, thanks to Brit-in-Hollywood director Sara Sugarman’s deliciously quirky post-punk comedy Vinyl. The film is spun off of the true story of a rock-and-roll hoax perpetrated by punk veteran Mike Peters and his band The Alarm in 2004, hiring stand-ins half their age to lip synch and sucker punch the ageist curtain in rock. Vinyl has plenty of pluck, verve, and punchlines, not to mention a fiendishly catchy simpleton anthem in “Free Rock and Roll.”
After the Sunday morning screening, after the movie had transported us to a weekend night mood, Sugarman herself was on hand and explained that the film — despite its remarkable polish — was shot digitally and on the fly (“Let’s do it punk,” she decreed), and made all the smoother by the exceptional cooperation of the Welsh people and the lack of Hollywood style bureaucracy. “Limitation is what gives art style,” she commented. “We had no style, and that was our style.”
A happy expectation in the SBIFF program fields is the opportunity to catch sight of foreign Oscar bid films, most of which will never lighten the screens of our local big screens (big screening still being the most natural way to do film). What we don’t expect, in the typically glossier and more feel-goodly turf of most foreign Oscar entries, is a film as dark or as stylistically bold as the Belgian film Bullhead, a late-breaking addition to the festival schedule which will no doubt be one of the stronger films of the festival.
Who knew that the world of Belgian and Flemish meat and cattle-raising, with the complications and violence of the “hormone mafia underworld” could make for such a powerful film? Meat, muscle, animal instincts, and the wheel of vengeance are elements in the narrative mix of this tale of a particularly angry, testosterone-pumped and bullish man (Matthias Shoenarts, certainly one of this fest’s star performances), whose raging bull tendencies we learn about as the story progresses, forward and backward.
Writer-director Michaël R. Raskam has created a masterful example of a crime saga from a realm removed from the same-old-same-old of Hollywood’s crime genre clichés, and more generally, he has made a film that excels in the art of brewing tension, with consistent elegant visuals and a subversively subtle music score by Raf Kuenen lending added mythic creep factor to a story underscored by impending violence and retribution. It may not have the right stuff to woo the feel-goody Academy members, but Bullhead is, more importantly, a stunning example of the potentially expressive muscle of the medium.
Should Hollywood decide, for whatever reason, to do an American remake (like the ludicrously unimaginative, déjà vu remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Martin Scorsese would be the man for the job.
Speaking of niches of life and conflict little-known to the average citizen, another of the festival’s bold contenders this year, the French film Free Men, does a stellar job of telling the story of figures involved in the Parisian Mosque during wartime. Director Ismail Ferroukhi skillfully brings us into the story of North African Arabs in Vichy France, using the sanctuary of the Mosque to protect Jews and resistance fighters, with some ear-grabbing Algerian music given generous screen time and helping paint the cultural scenery of a perilous and paranoid time.
Sentence fragmented, thoroughly enjoyed films of the first weekend dept.: Heat Wave, Think of Me, Vinyl, Bullhead, and Free Men.
Monday’s highlight: aforementioned cine-visionary Martin Scorsese, in the house at the Arlington. With the sweet and smart Oscar contender Hugo, the vet director is in non-raging and family-suitable form this year.