28 June 2007

PIFF '07

Reviews from this year's Provincetown International Film Festival...

Tommy O'Haver's film raises a question I rarely ask of cinema (unless I'm screening shorts, of course): "Did this really need to be made?" It's based on a true story: in 1965, single mother Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) not only kept a teenage girl, Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page), locked in her Indianapolis basement and tortured her, but also encouraged her own children to do the same. Framed by a recreation of the subsequent trial against the Baniszewskis, the film recounts how Sylvia first came to live with the family, and brutally details how a combination of jealousy, drug abuse, and maybe even some mental illness resulted in a shocking, landmark child abuse case.

Keener gives a magnificent, understated performance that intriguingly teeters on the brink of nearly making Gertrude a sympathetic figure. Page also continues to show she's a young actress to watch. In fact, the entire film is competent and seems artful, but it's also exceptionally difficult to sit through, at times coming this close to being a snuff film. Some will argue that it has worth as a cautionary tale to the horrors of torture and abuse, but I don't completely buy that—what we get out of AN AMERICAN CRIME is a great performance, a haunting story and an exhaustive litany of atrocious behavior that proves…some people are capable of horrendous things? See the film once for Keener, but only true masochists will want to sit through it a second time. (2.5/5)

The title is actually the name of a small record label in the film that bills itself as a "talent search company". Salesmen are hired as "record producers" and trained to audition aspiring musicians whom they encourage to sign up, make a CD and become a star. It also sounds too good to be true, especially when the musicians themselves must put up 30% of the production and distribution costs.

We follow two freshly minted producers: Martin (Pat Healy), who's nebbish, agreeable, young and white (sort of resembling a Gen-X Bob Newhart), and Clarence (Kene Holiday), who's black, older, and far more gregarious. The label sends them to second-tier cities like Birmingham, Alabama to audition hopeful amateurs; naturally, they have to do this in their own hotel room and often without any financial support from the label. The film's hook is that the people auditioning are, with at least two exceptions, the genuine articles—they're actual musicians who responded to a facetious ad placed by the filmmakers. It's a novel idea that plays out beautifully: the actors get to flex their very capable improvisational skills, while we get to explore the parallels between the scams perpetrated within the film and those by the filmmakers.

Pairing up Healy and Holiday seems like an obvious ploy for yin-yang interaction, but both actors successfully enliven their characters. Holiday, in particular, evolves from a sitcom-rote figure to a thunderous, near-tragic entity: his climactic speech to Healy is highly affecting, far-reaching and unsentimental in how it pauses to consider the world beyond the film, not to mention the necessity of some scams. The film drags when the focus shifts to Healy's relationship with his artist girlfriend, but THE GREAT WORLD OF SOUND is mostly enjoyable and more than merely clever: an abiding sense of melancholy favored over cynicism gives it its soul. (4/5)

Markie Hancock's middle-class childhood in Altoona, PA was typical in every way except for one: she was raised as a Fundamentalist Christian. Later, as an adult, she came out as a lesbian and renounced her faith. This documentary is an autobiography of sorts and for the first half, it's your standard low-budget, self-indulgent video essay, combining voiceover narration with ancient home movies, diary entries read aloud to the visual accompaniment of stock footage and the like. Hancock's story takes an interesting turn, though, as she begins to incorporate interviews her family. Her older sibling has also renounced his faith, while her parents and her younger sibling are still devout. What emerges is a portrait of a family ideologically divided, yet one that struggles to uphold a semblance of unity despite that rift. Lucky for Hancock, her family is mostly willing to be candid about how they feel. While making this film is clearly therapeutic and validating for her, for us it's nearly as insightful to watch this dynamic play out and feel its repercussions, both positive and negative. (3/5)

Sterlin Harjo's first feature arrives nearly a decade after SMOKE SIGNALS promised a wave of Native American cinema that never really amounted to much. It's another coming-of-age, leaving-the-Reservation tale, this time set and filmed in Oklahoma. The main character, Cufe (Cody Lightning) has just buried his father who had committed suicide. After the funeral, Cufe visits Miri (Tamara Podemski), his estranged older sister, who moved away to Tulsa a few years back. Predictably, he discovers a whole new world in the big city, although he also learns more about the difficulty his sister has had distancing herself from her past.

Workshopped at the Sundance labs, this strikes me as a prototypical Sundance film, particularly one from the days before the festival overflowed with big business and hype. It's sweet, earnest, a little dull but honest. Lightning is an adequate if not all too charismatic lead. However, Podemski deservedly won an acting award at Sundance this year and Jeri Arredondo, who plays Cufe and Miri's mother, is just as good. (3/5)

This dyspeptic British comedy regarding a family funeral for a deceased patriarch shouldn't work at all. It has too many characters to respectfully consider, an abundance of outlandish plot twists, and a steady current of lowbrow humor. And yet, it averts disaster (and occasionally soars) simply because it's funny, and consistently so at that. Frank Oz can be hit-and-miss as a director (for every gem in his discography like the underrated WHAT ABOUT BOB, there's a STEPFORD WIVES), but here he's completely suited to the zany pace, nimble construction and delightfully dark tone of Dean Craig's screenplay. The large ensemble cast features a bevy of Brits young and old, but the most inspired work comes from American actors Alan Tudyk (FIREFLY) and Peter Dinklage (THE STATION AGENT): to reveal anything more about their characters would spoil the fun. DEATH AT A FUNERAL is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and I could ramble off a long list of smarter and more nuanced comedies I've seen—but I couldn't tell you the last time I've laughed so hard watching one of them. (3.5/5)

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