Monday, August 1, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch #4

 Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (d. Rodman Flender)
In an age of pervasive access to celebrities everywhere from the so-called mainstream media to paparazzi and Twitter, the kind of access that Rodman Flender offers the audience of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is nothing short of astonishing. The film follows the comic and talk show host through the summer between his removal from NBC’s Tonight Show and his new gig hosting a late-night show on TBS. During that time he felt wronged, he felt furious, but rather than stewing in his own misery he fed his energy into a rapid 30-city tour of stand-up and freewheeling absurdity interrupted by toe-tapping musical numbers. Flender’s cameras follow Conan with remarkable access, capturing a hugely talented man and consummate entertainer who simply can’t stop cracking jokes, can’t stop moving, can’t stop interacting with everyone he sees, can’t stop being hard on himself. The energy of the film matches his. Flender keeps a close watch of his subject, making this behind-the-scenes slice of showbiz documentary turn into something of a tense and exhilarating entertainment. The tour is a precarious and ultimately successful comedic dance in which Conan risks pressing up against the limits of his stamina and talent. The film is a hilarious, musical experience that moves well past the pat platitudes of public persona and presents a celebrity as a richly complicated person.

The Guard (d. John Michael McDonagh)
            Brendan Gleeson is a small-town Irish law enforcement officer who seems to have a good heart under his rough exterior. He goofs around, runs his mouth off to his big-city superiors, and visits prostitutes and takes some drugs from time to time. But he also loves literature and music and often visits his terminally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan). He finds his mostly comfortable, uncomplicated life, upended when an F.B.I. agent (Don Cheadle) tracks three dangerous international drug dealers (Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and Mark Strong) to this corner of the world. Perhaps these criminals have something to do with a recent baffling murder and a strange disappearance that has Gleeson stumped? He reluctantly works with this interloping American to sort through the tangle of mystery. It sounds like a standard buddy-cop movie and indeed there’s fun patter between Gleeson and Cheadle, but it’s also a nicely drawn character piece placed comfortably within a pitch-black comic thriller. The script is rich in character detail and the performers rise to the challenge, putting the details together to form deeply felt characterization. The film, with it’s quick shifts between splashes of violence and impolite jocularity, feels like it should be too clever for it’s own good, like a late-90’s Tarantino rip-off, but writer-director John Michael McDonagh, brother of In Bruges’s writer-director Martin McDonagh, has an agreeable confidence with his feature debut. He stylishly pulls together a great deal of familiar elements and combines them into a film that’s engaging, surprising, funny, exciting, and even a bit moving. It just plain works.

L’amour Fou (d. Pierre Thoretton)
After the passing of legendary French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, his longtime partner Pierre Bergé arranged an auction of their massive collection of art. L'amour fou follows the preparations for this event while Bergé reflects on their life together. Pierre Thoretton’s film casts a slow, subtle spell in passages that throw lovely, evocative slideshows backed with music or sound effects on the screen or entrancing sleepy sequences in which the camera merely wanders through the rooms of YSL’s homes. There's a sense of restraint to the film that holds the whole picture back. It has no interest in exploring Laurent's art or methods on anything other than a superficial level and, though his soft voice is quite lovely, Bergé only reveals a certain amount of their personal lives, leaving maddening and mysterious gaps from the exclusions. L'amour fou has beauty and patience but little desire to use these qualities to truly explore it's central subject of the way art accrues value and the value of artists. It's lovely, artful, and inert.

Rabies (d. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado)
When the policemen in the world of Rabies, the first Israeli horror movie, eventually find the crime scenes, they will have a hard time tracing the reasons behind the carnage left behind by the end of the film. But as it unravels, it utilizes the tight nightmarish logic of screwball comedy to create a nightmare of deadly dangerous scenarios that collide and escalate in surprising and inevitable ways. At first, things look to be shaping up to be a fairly standard slasher picture. There are two missing persons, a brother and a sister, lost in the middle of nowhere in an exceedingly dangerous forest in which lurks a cold-blooded psychopath. A standard horror cast starts to assemble around them: a kind park ranger, a group of goofy teens, and two bumbling cops. What happens to these people in the woods becomes a bloody mess with predictable swiftness but what surprised me was the way first-time directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado pivot away from genre cliché and find that there's some surprise left in playing around with familiar horror conventions. This is a film that succeeds on its own wry nihilistic terms in which every character can be infected with the deep, dark potential for violence that lurks within everyone and every situation.

Troll Hunter (d. André Øvredal)
            Three Norwegian film students – an interviewer (Glenn Erland Tosterud), a cameraman (Tomas Alf Larsen), and a sound technician (Johanna Morck) – head off into the wilderness to track a half-glimpsed man accused of poaching bears. When they catch up to him they’re surprised not to find a rogue criminal hunter but merely a bored government functionary who is tired of his long-held position as Troll Hunter. It turns out that Norway has a population of trolls that are hidden from the populace by nothing more than a few bureaucrats. It’s a secret that has yet to be revealed simply because no one seems to care about asking the right questions. This found-footage monster movie is a straight-faced delight, calmly, sneakily hilarious, that doesn’t have scares so much as surprises. There are plenty of scenes of hunting that feel like padding and the structure – the group repeatedly hunts down a new troll species and must find a way to escape danger – feels at first glance too predictable. But just when I thought I had a handle on what the film is up to, it wriggles away and ups the ante. As the titular hunter, Otto Jespersen delivers a masterfully understated comedic performance. As for the giant trolls themselves, they’re cleverly straddled between cartoonish and menacing with exaggerated schnozzes and befuddled countenances paired with creepy booming sniffs and impressive pounding footsteps. That writer-director André Øvredal positions the world of the film between matter-of-fact mockumentary satire and cleverly detailed monster lore parts invented and parts folk-tale references (one troll is found under a bridge, naturally) is what makes this a particularly inspired and comic thriller.

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