Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Serendipity's opposite

Sometimes you are excited to see a film, expecting to really like it, and then are disappointed. It happens. It is the reverse of serendipity, that I wrote about earlier.

Yesterday I saw "The Real American - Joe McCarthy". I was disappointed. The film was okay, but not what it should have been.

The documentary part was well done, what I didn't like was the use of actors and dialogue to 'recreate' scenes from McCarthy's career and life.

This technique is relatively common on television these days and has been used in other documentaries. Generally, I don't like the technique, though sometimes it has worked (and even though I myself have been an actor in such).

When dealing with historical figures, even from the recent past, there are two choices that I believe can work: straight documentary or a 'fictionalized' narrative film.

(A film screening at this year's festival is such an animal: "The Conquest" which deals with Nicolas Sarkozy's rise to the Presidency of France. This narrative film works because you know that you are seeing a 'dramatized' version of the historical facts.

Moreover, a 1977 made-for-tv movie, Tail Gunner Joe, with Peter Boyle as McCarthy received four prime-time Emmy nominations.)

In the case of this McCarthy film, the mixing of documentary and dramatized scene recreation just did not work for me at all, partly because it was not very well done. The scenes felt clumsy and unconvincing. Juxtaposed against real footage (Joseph Welch's denunciation of McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings, for instance) they just came off as lame and unreal.

I am not certain why the director, Lutz Hachmeister chose this technique, but I wish he hadn't.

Those of my generation are very familiar with the McCarthy story, and of course the brilliant "Angels in America" portrayed McCarthy's accessory evil doing, Roy Cohn. That story is disturbing for what it meant - and did - to America. A documentation of the events and circumstances of that time would be valuable not just to those of us who remember the time but to a younger generation that may not be familiar with it. That story can be instructive as we all try to navigate the current political landscape (or battlefield, if you will).

The archival footage and stills and the interviews with a wide range of people about McCarthy would have made a good documentary on their own. The interviews included the likes of Ben Bradlee and Haynes Johnson as well as Ann Coulter with a jaw-dropping statement that Joe McCarthy was a great American hero. We just did not need these recreations. They made the film much less potent than it could have been and thereby not as valuable.

Serendipity does not always happen.


One of the reasons to attend the Starz Denver Film Festival (or any film festival for that matter) is the serendipity factor: seeing films that surprise and delight you or move you or make you think or disturb you or....well, you get the idea. Film Festivals allow you to see films that otherwise would not be available to you; films that are not likely to have a commercial release where you live (or anywhere) or otherwise available.

I try to see such films. Big commercial product will make it to the movieplex, but documentaries, foriegn films, small indies probably won't - though the sleeper that gains an audience through the film festival circuit is a great delight.

Year after year at the Denver Film Festival I see films not knowing whether they will be good or bad (hopeful but not sure); whether they will surprise and delight me or leave me cold. And while I go into a film hoping for a gem, I can be disappointed. But I can also go into a film that I selected just because I had an open slot and the film looked sort of interesting but I was not necessarily expecting to see a gem, then it turns out to be one - that is serendipitous.

That happened last night with the Bosnian film "Cirkus Columbia".

Why would I think a film about a dysfunctional marriage/family situation, set in Bosnia at the beginning of the civil war would be an endearing romance - and more; a real gem?

But it is. I am so glad I saw the film.

It is the end of the Communist era in what was becoming the former Yugoslavia; the member states were breaking off. A husband and father returns to his Bosnian village from Germany after an absence of twenty years. He brings with him a younger woman he wishes to marry after disposing (through divorce, presumably) of his current wife. His first action is to unceremoniously evict her from her home and in the process having her arrested by his cousin, the mayor.

The story proceeds from there, with characters developing out of what could have been caricatures and unexpected romances evolving. All of this against the backdrop of ethnic Bosnians preparing to fight Bosnian Serbs; anti-communists preparing to fight the remnants of the Tito Communists. But nothing is black or white; people are neither completely evil or good and love prevails in unexpected ways. And sometimes one needs to capture the joys of the past to help navigate an uncertain future.

FYI, the title refers to a carnival ride that is a powered Merry-Go-Round Swing.

Films like this are why I do go to the Festival and seek out films not knowing what the screen will share with me.

Take chances with films at the Festival and hope for the gem, you will be greatly rewarded.

And see this film if you can.

And if you are able, then sometime afterward, find a swing or a merry-go-round or with any luck a merry-go-round swing and share that with someone you love.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Anomalies - but that's not bad

Starting the second week of the 34th annual Denver Film Festival. So far I have seen a Japanese film set in Paris (Yukiko), a Finnish film set in Brittany/France (le Havre) and a Dutch film with a French title (Bon Voyage).

Does that make them anomalies? Sort of. Does that make them bad? Hardly. They are all well worth seeing.

There have been others of course (12 films through Sunday) and on the whole a good festival so far.

I was not crazy about "Like Crazy" (opening night film) but after that, I would recommend almost everything else I have seen.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" may end up being the stand-out film of the festival. It just grips you. It is a bit like passing a bad automobile accident - you just can't look away or stop watching.

The easy comparison, of course, is that it is a 'Manson-like' story. And there are those parallels, but it is much more than that. It is a disturbing view of a disturbed character, surrounded by other characters who have their own varying levels of emotional issues. It is unsettling and compelling and always waiting for the 'shoe to drop', because while you don't know what will happen next you are certain that something will and it will probably not be good.

Look for Oscar nominations for this film, including one for Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, it is an amazing performance.

"Joanna" is equally disturbing but for different reasons and in a different way. This Polish film set during the Nazi occupation features outstanding performances as well. It reminds us of the brutalizing effect that tyranny has and how it can turn the innocent against each other with the brutalization not just coming from the oppresors.

"Wish Me Away" is a moving documentary about Country Music Star Chely Wright, who in May of 2010 chose to come out as a lesbian. A courageous move that she is currently paying a serious price for. But as she says, she had to - not just for herself and her own sanity and peace, but for all the young people who are struggling to understand their own identity and deal with constantly being told that they are evil because of their sexuality.

the best line in the film comes from a Minister - a spiritual advisor - that Chely has contacted to help her through the process. He is with the Interfaith Alliance and he tells her at one point that the worst meanness he has seen comes from people being mean for Jesus.