Dispatches from the MSPIFF—Part Seven

This past Saturday was the last night of the MSPIFF, and looking at the Best of the Fest schedule this week, I realize that if I don’t want to disrupt my life for a third week in a row, I am going to have to concede to seeing only twenty-one films rather than the thirty I’d hoped to see. Having missed six of the festival’s seventeen days—for one reason or another—meant there were a lot of movies I couldn’t see. But since I saw two-thirds as many films in two-thirds the number of days than I had originally planned, I consider myself having seen thirty in spirit. (Wink.)

Now that the festival is officially over, the audience rankings have been posted. Looking them over, I see that most of what I’d seen, and almost all the ones I’d loved, were in the bottom half of the list. In fact, Stray Dogs, perhaps my favorite of film of the fesitval, was the twelfth lowest rated film (out of over 200). On the other hand, the documentary Alive Inside was the second most highly rated of the festival, so I don’t feel completely at odds with the world.


Concrete Night
***1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Johannes Brotherus as Simo in CONCRETE NIGHT

Johannes Brotherus as Simo in CONCRETE NIGHT

The Apocalypse lowers over this dark dream of a movie. Simo, a teenage boy just emerging from childhood, lives with his mother and his older brother Ikka, who is soon to be imprisoned for dealing drugs. Moody yet charismatic, Ikka holds a spell over his kid brother, undoubtedly strengthened by being Simo’s father figure. Persuaded by his mother, Simo joins Ikka on Ikka’s last night on the town before heading off to prison, and he hangs on Ikka’s every word, which is unfortunate, because much of what Ikka says is a meaningless stew of cynicism, braggadocio, and inebriation with a decidedly apocalyptic bent, shorn of hope, openly spitting on hope, in fact. Ikka’s is a world view that clashes with a more mystical way of knowing that is expressed by one of their neighbors, a gay artist with whom Simo has an unhealthy obsession. That view sees the world as perfect, not tainted or fallen, not in need of a cleansing transformation as the apocalyptic worldview does. In an apocalyptic worldview, the neighbor tells Simo, it is as if life were a dream, a statement that reveals just what worldview grips Concrete Night, with its dreamlike imagery, captured in lush black and white except for a few scenes slightly tinted with color. Throughout Simo and Ikka’s long night, things seem broken, ruined, and decayed, the moment Simo breaks away from his family while running errands to go swimming with a friend the only relief from all the oppressiveness, and even that takes place on and around what appears to be a refinery that dominates the landscape where Simo lives. If Concrete Night is a nightmare, it is a beautiful nightmare, one that is something to behold as you slowly drown in it.

Pine Ridge
** (out of 4 stars)
pine ridgeOne has to admire the ambition of this film: in less than an hour and a half, director Anna Eborn wants to sketch a portrait of the Pine Ridge reservation near the badlands of South Dakota by simply following a handful of its residents with a camera. Unfortunately, as a filmmaker, Eborn is not quite up to the task she sets for herself. We follow people for a while before abruptly switching to others. None of the segments offer satisfying portraits of the people being filmed—at most we’re given tantalizing glimpses of lives we want to know more about—and the film offers no context for who and what we’re seeing. It’s instructive to contrast Pine Ridge with Manakamana, another documentary screened at the festival that also films people without contextualizing them (you can read my review of Manakamana in my post “Dispatches from the MSPIFF–Part Five”). Manakamana had a formal austerity that Pine Ridge lacks. Its form was actually the context in which the people revealed themselves to the degree that they did (or didn’t). But in Pine Ridge, there’s a formal openness that too often feels like randomness. Who are these people? Why are we following them? How did the filmmaker choose these particular people to be her subjects? There seemed to be at least one organizing principle of the film: the portraits are all of teens and young adults. Why this is, though, is unclear. By the end of the film, I wanted to know all of these people better than I did. I suppose it could have been worse—I might have left the theater feeling I had gotten to know them in their entirety or I might not have even given a damn.

The Unknown Known
***1/2 (out of 4 stars)

The Devil himself in THE UNKNOWN KNOWN

The Devil himself in THE UNKNOWN KNOWN

The Unknown Known, Erroll Morris’ latest documentary in which he interviews former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, has been understandably compared with Morris’ earlier film The Fog of War, Morris’s interview with Robert McNamara. But to me, it also bears a strong resemblance to his underrated documentary about the prison abuses in Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure. That film ended with experts poring over photos of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to determine if prisoners were indeed being abused or if they were being treated according to standard operating procedure. If the fact that only experts could figure this out weren’t damning enough, the experts concluded that, in some pictures, it was too hard to tell. What was allowed, it seemed, was so specific that what wasn’t didn’t differ from it by much. The indeterminacy generated by specificity rears its head in The Unknown Known in the form of Donald Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes,” the tens of thousands of memos he sent out in his role as Secretary of Defense. Some viewers will be frustrated with The Unknown Known because of how little Rumsfeld reveals about himself and the Iraq War. But as the structure of the film signals, Morris is really interested in Rumsfeld’s snowflakes, in Rumsfeld’s obsession—a word that Rumsfeld suggests Morris himself is obsessed with—with definitions and procedures that are so specific their boundaries become porous because nothing quite conforms to them. Rumsfeld is not playing post-modern games with the slipperiness of the signifier. Rather, I think he has a frightening faith in the fixity of meaning that he feels allows him all kinds of leeway when those definitions do not pertain to him and his actions.

Tom at the Farm
**1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Xavier Dolan as Tom in his film TOM AT THE FARM

Xavier Dolan as Tom in his film TOM AT THE FARM

Xavier Dolan is something of a wunderkind. By the age of 24, he has completed four feature-length films. That’s quite an accomplishment, and if Tom at the Farm is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him. Based on this film, though, I would say he has some room to grow. One can see his talent and all that it promises in this sometimes thrilling, though ultimately outlandish film. Set in rural Quebec, Tom at the Farm tells the story of Tom, a young man from Montreal, who discovers that his boyfriend Guillame has died and drives to Guilliame’s family farm for the funeral. There he meets Guy’s friendly though somewhat catatonic mother Agathe and his handsome but violently homophobic brother Francis, who tells Tom, in an alarming nocturnal visit, that Agathe is unaware that Guillame had been gay and believes, instead, that he had been in a relationship with a woman named “Sara.” All of that seems to tell a somewhat overblown tale of homophobia in the heartland that’s just this side of a sitcom as Tom pretends to know Sara and tells Agathe about her. But things get weird as Tom becomes enthralled with Francis, who physically and psychologically terrorizes Tom. As the film works out their twisted relationship, the film is both suspenseful and more than a bit hard to buy. By the film’s conclusion, we’ve had quite a workout, but just what we were working toward and why remains frustratingly out of focus.


Blue Ruin
*** (out of 4 stars)

Macon Blair as Dwight in BLUE RUIN

Macon Blair as Dwight in BLUE RUIN

Dwight had been living as a homeless man in Delaware until a local police officer informs him that the man who killed his parents is being released from prison. Then, all hell breaks loose as Dwight, like a somnambulist on a mission, gets his revenge. Blue Ruin isn’t a deep movie. We hardly know the characters, and aside from the futility of revenge, there doesn’t seem to be much of a theme. But that hardly gets in the way of the film’s pulpy pleasures, as both sides of what promises to be a relentless, bloody feud jump into situations that are clearly over their heads regardless of how much thought they seem to have put into them. The action scenes are suspenseful and evocatively filmed. And there’s just enough irony in the film to keep the violence from being too horrifying while being real enough for the audience to see that the stakes are high for all concerned. If, as in last year’s Blue Caprice, the title refers not only to the existential condition of the main characters but also to the car driving the action, so to speak—Dwight’s blue car seems held together with rust—then all does not bode well at the end of the movie, in spite of the superficial sense that there is ultimately a way to leave the carnage behind.

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