Reviews From Cinetopia International Film Festival 2014

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Joshua Burge in Buzzard

A week ago I was lucky enough to attend Cinetopia, a film festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I received a free pass to see any of the movies I wanted to see (and ended up seeing a lot), and in return I reviewed a few of them for the festival’s site (cinetopiafestival.org).

To be completely honest, I was not expecting much beforehand from this particular fest; after all, It’s only three years old and located in the Midwest. But never doubt Ann Arbor. What I was treated to instead was a surprisingly robust slate of impressive films, both independent and foreign, documentary and fiction, comedy and drama. In addition, every film I saw was at the very least relatively new, and a few are films that will probably get more attention when they reach more audiences later in the year. The fact that I liked (almost) every single film is a testament to the effort Cinetopia put in to choosing their line up, and I’m super excited to see what they’ll snag in the coming years.

Since Ann Arbor is a hub for hipsters young and old, it was unsurprising that the films almost either a) focused on marginalized segments of society, be it the gay, the disabled, or the mentally disturbed. b) about as far from mainstream storytelling as you can go, in many cases to the point of being straight-up bats*** insane. Here are my short reviews, some of them written for the Cinetopia site, and some of them my previously-unpublished thoughts.

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Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig in The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins

Opening night featured by far the most high-profile film of the festival, The Skeleton Twins starring Bill Hader, Kristin Wiig. The twist is that these two SNL alums play twins who are deeply disturbed, and while much of their dialogue is humorous, they have to give what are essentially dramatic performances. After all, the movie begins with both of them attempting to kill themselves.

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The Skeleton Twins

It’s a black comedy, which is always hard to balance tonally, but Bill Hader as a gay failed actor is the anchor that keeps the whole thing always in limbo between hilarious and heart-wrenching. As a friend of mine put it, he’s basically a realistic Stefan. This performance will likely change the way people perceive him. It’s almost weirder to see Burrell play it straight after being a live-action Homer Simpson for the last several years. Another oddity is that, in a movie starring Hader, Burrell, and Wiig, the most laughs actually come from Luke Wilson, who nails his comic relief role. Wiig has proven time and time again to be Hader’s perfect comic match, and when the two of them get to have a few scenes of comedy with just the two of them, this is still very apparently true. But Wiig has a hard time keeping up with the dramatic side of the material; compared to Hader, she can’t seem to sell her deep internal pain, and her character becomes a big emotional blind spot.

But the blame can’t be laid all on Wiig, because the script itself also fails to fill in enough of the blanks to really make the character’s extreme actions believable. The movie spends more time focusing on the character’s eccentric behaviors rather than how and why they got that way, and as a result by the time we are supposed to receive the film’s emotional payoff, it feels rather unsatisfying. Still, this is an impressive dark comedy, with a near-perfect laugh-to-sadness ratio.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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Mitchell Kezin and Wayne Koyne

Jingle Bell Rocks:

[The following was my review previously published at cinetopiafestival.org, and may be more stuffy than my usual writing as a result. Reader discretion is advised].

“Jingle Bell Rocks is a warm and fuzzy documentary covering the fairly obscure subject of Christmas music and the very obscure community of Christmas music collectors. Often self-effacing but always reverent towards both the music and its most ardent fans, the film moves back and forth between educating audiences on the history of American Christmas music over the decades, and exploring how it has become such an obsession for some.

One could argue that the project may have worked better as a short subject. But director Mitchell Kezin, seeming to have realized that the subject itself has a rather limited audience, mitigates the issue admirably through the use of sleek visuals and a wide array of well-known musicians who have made important contributions to the genre. And who knows, you may even discover the true meaning of Christmas music.”

Score: 3 out of 5

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Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard

Buzzard

[The following was my review previously published at cinetopiafestival.org, and may be more stuffy than my usual writing as a result. Reader discretion is advised].

“Joel Potrykus’ deliriously idiosyncratic Buzzard tells the story of Marty, a similarly idiosyncratic small-time scam artist whose life slowly starts to unravel, bringing his sanity along with it. This deliriously daring, genre-bending thrill ride easily transcends its decidedly low-fi production values. This is thanks in large part to Potrykus’ script, which — again like its main character – is hilariously snarky and oddly charming, while consistent conveying a strong undercurrent of frustration and dread.

A large chunk of credit must also go to lead actor Joshua Burge. With his distinctive look and considerable acting prowess, Burge brings the unhinged Marty to vivid life. He assures that all eyes will be glued to him at all times, even when Potrykus dares the audience to look away. With a one-of-a-kind style and several memorable scenes, Buzzard already feels like a surefire cult favorite.”

Score: 4 out of 5

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Dawid Ogrodnik in Life Feels Good

Life Feels Good

[The following was my review previously written (but not published) for cinetopiafestival.org, and may be more stuffy than my usual writing as a result. Reader discretion is advised].

“Polish drama Life Feels Good tells the true story of Mateusz, a man born with cerebral palsy who can not speak and moves by flailing around on his back. The two actors who play Mateusz, first young Kamil Tkacz and then Dawid Ogrodnik, are both stunningly, silently expressive, with eyes that always seem to convey an enigmatic blend of frustration and determination.

The film’s episodic structure feels natural, as Mateusz’s lack of autonomy sees him constantly moved from place to place. However, his story is treated neither as oppressively dour, nor as cloyingly inspirational, but something comfortably in-between. Mateusz is wonderfully fleshed-out and refreshingly flawed, thanks to witty voiceover narration which offers insight into a mind that can’t express itself out loud. One could argue it’s a simplistic film, and perhaps it is, but from that simplicity arises a quiet compassion, and eventually an explosion of emotion.”

Score: 4 out of 5

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Robin Wright and Paul Giamatti in The Congess

The Congress

The Congress is undeniably one of the most conceptually ambitious movie I’ve ever seen, maybe only rivaling Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Like Synecdoche, the merciless assault of brilliant ideas is both the film’s greatest asset and it’s greatest detriment. The Congress definitely feels like the kind of dream movie that director Ari Folman always wanted to make if he was given enough money, and after his first feature Waltz with Bashir became a critical success, that’s exactly what happened.

The movie stars Robin Wright (from The Princess Diaries, Forrest Gump, and most recently playing a fictional version of herself who is guilty about not becoming a bigger star when she had the chance. She is offered a chance at redemption, but the catch is that she has to sell herself — her image, her voice, her persona — to a movie studio, as the future of the entertainment industry is digitally-inserted stars, meaning that Wright has the chance to be young forever (at least on the big screen).

Flash forward to after she has signed herself over to the fictional studio Miramount, and the future is even weirder — the technology now exists to enter a new realm, fully animated, where people can transform themselves into any character (or person who sold their rights). Wright is invited to this new world, and the rest of the movie is gloriously 2D-animated in a trippy style that feels at once modern and classical. Wright then discovers Miramount’s plot to permanently animate humanity and keep them alive forever in this hellish entertainment/reality hybrid.

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Ari Folman’s The Congress

You may have noticed that this kind of sounds like two different movies — one a sly satire of the film industry and insight into the lives of actors, the other an existential science fiction movie. You’d be right. The Congress is basically two genius movies squished uncomfortably together into one crazy package. Maybe Kaufman could have made it work better, but this is only Folman’s second major film, and his first film using major stars. As a result, the cast which features legendary actors such as Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti and of course Robin Wright, oftentimes have very atypically stilted performances, obviously the result of Folman’s lack of directing experience.

But the movie is worth watching for its amazing animation and its individual ideas, which eventually build to final act that feels truly mind-blowing. You won’t see anything like The Congress for a long time, I presume, so it’s imperfections well worth enduring.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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Jan Bijvoet in Borgman

Borgman

[The following was my review previously published at cinetopiafestival.org, and may be more stuffy than my usual writing as a result. Reader discretion is advised].

Borgman is a gleeful exercise in withheld information. Camiel Borgman, on the run for reasons unknown, forces himself into the life of a wealthy family in the Netherlands, as the starting point of the vague, nefarious plot he is a part of. A lot of things happen from there, but writer/director Alex van Warmerdam is insistent on not openly explaining Camiel’s plans or his past; no whats, whys, or whens.

Many will certainly feel isolated by the lack of exposition, but the film is undoubtedly more effective and haunting for it. As events escalate, the film simultaneously grows darker and more humorous, a bold feat. Borgman is especially noteworthy for its performances from frustrated housewife Marina, played by Hadewych Minis, and Jan Bijvoet as Borgman himself, cold and calculating while still oddly charming. Confidently directed and beautifully shot, Borgman is a deliciously bizarre, playfully pitch-black head scratcher.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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The Case Against 8

The Case Against 8

Another high profile movie, this time a documentary from HBO, The Case Against 8 is an emotionally-powerful and utterly engaging film that covers the legal battle against California’s Proposition 8, which took away the rights of gay couples to marry, and even took away the marriage status from gay couples who had already married prior to the proposition.

As the title says, the movie does not pretend to be unbiased, but it’s surprising that it does give some time to the voices of those in favor of Prop 8…that is, before completely crushing their flimsy logic under the sheer weight of the emotional testimonies of those who have had such a basic civil right denied to them.

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The two couples of The Case Against 8

The documentary perfectly balances an educational overview of the case for those uninformed with the gripping personal stories of the two couples who testified in court, and the two famous lawyers who brought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. All of the characters are charismatic, and more importantly, very human. It is worth noting that the movie not only demonstrates a victory for equal rights and those who are marginalized for being homosexuals, but for bipartisanship, something that is also very important to see at this point in time.

The movie’s one big issue is the same as many documentaries that focus on court cases: trials can be frustratingly repetitive, and thus the documentary can seem to go in circles as a result. While the frustration here rightfully mirrors the frustrations of those whose rights were on the line, since most already know the outcome of the case it deflates the sense of urgency just a bit. Still, there is no mistaking that for all it’s flaws, The Case Against 8 is an essential documentary, a thorough and powerful look at a monumentally historic moment.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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Emily Foxler in Coherence

Coherence

[The following was my review previously published at cinetopiafestival.org, and may be more stuffy than my usual writing as a result. Reader discretion is advised].

“Coherence is a conceptually fascinating and utterly unique film, for better or worse. What begins as a routine dinner party between a group of friends with a somewhat complex history turns into a mind-bending trip down the always-tricky rabbit hole of alternate universes.

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James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence

Given the plot’s mind-boggling complexity, it’s likely that even the most talented of filmmakers would have a difficult time keeping everything…well, coherent. It is (unfortunately) unsurprising then that the film includes numerous unfortunate instances of clunky exposition about quantum mechanics. This puts the actors in the unenviable position of having to deliver this exposition, resulting in dialogue that frequently feels stilted.

The film looks wonderful though, utilizing handheld camerawork for a natural sense of immediacy without resorting to some sort of found footage gimmickry. Fans of challenging science fiction may very easily be able to overlook the spotty execution that comes with such a staggeringly ambitious project”

Score: 2.5 out of 5

– Sam

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