Moriarty @ AFI Fest, Day Two: PRODIGAL SONS, TIME CRIMES, STILL ORANGUTANS, And PINDORAMA!!
Published at: Nov. 5, 2008, 8 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Wow, after all the talkbacks and e-mails I got from that first batch of AFI Fest reviews, I can see that you guys are really on pins and needles here.
< / sarcasm >
It’s that time-honored truth that only things that have a huge amount of marketing muscle behind them get any attention from you guys, but that’s sort of the opposite of why I personally got to a film festival. I love the idea that you can spend a whole day at a festival seeing things you’ve heard of, things you’ve never heard of, and things no one will ever hear of again. That mix is what’s exciting about a full day of festival viewing, and Monday was a four-movie day for me (which means, according to the lovely Mrs. Moriarty, that I “suck”), so I rolled into the Arclight at the absolute last possible moment, about ten minutes before the start of the first film of the day.
I had my first quasi-celebrity sighting of the fest at the concession stand while I was getting my Diet Coke: the waitress from IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, which we’ll discuss more when I get around to reviewing A QUIET LITTLE MARRIAGE later in the festival.
The first film for me on Monday was a documentary, and even for a Monday morning, it was a solid turn-out. I knew very little about the movie sitting down, and that’s good. I don’t think a short festival synopsis could have really done justice to the dense novelistic narrative snarl of PRODIGAL SONS, a movie about Kimberly Reed’s efforts to come to terms with her past, her family, and her identity. This could easily have just been a film about Kimberly, who started life as Paul McKerrow, the middle of three boys in a family growing up in Helena, Montana. As Paul, he struggled with gender issues for most of his teen years, despite outwardly seeming to lead a charmed life as a star quarterback on the high school team and an honor-roll student. The film starts with Kimberly, now working in New York as a film editor, heading home to Montana for a 20th high school reunion.
Like I said... for most documentaries, a transgendered person going to a high school reunion would be all the story you’d need. Hell, that sounds like a set-up for a Miramax Oscar-bait movie. But things complicated Kimberly’s story... things like the relatively muted and accepting reactions of her former classmates, none of whom seem to bat an eye at her transformation. Or, more importantly, things like her older brother Marc, a slow-motion train crash who she’s spent the last decade avoiding altogether.
It’s hard to blame her. Marc was adopted because Kim’s parents thought they couldn’t have kids of their own. So of course, as soon as they got Marc home, they got pregnant. And even though the family seems to have cherished all three of their sons (they had a second baby a few years later), Marc always had some identity issues of his own, being the only one who was adopted. He was a wild kid, a self-described “party animal,” constantly defining his own success or failure based on the accomplishments of Paul. Then, at the age of 25, Marc was in a traumatic car accident where he suffered a massive head injury. Several operations and a partial lobotomy later, Marc’s a bit of a nightmare, prone to sudden and occasionally violent mood swings.
Since she and Marc went through school the same year (he was held back a year in pre-school), he comes home for the reunion as well. He’s also got major news: he’s made contact with his birth mother, and they’re planning to meet. Kimberly sees this as a defining moment for Marc, and she hopes to use the reunion as a new beginning for both of them, making her film about each of them embracing their new identities and becoming friends as adults. Fat chance. Real life rejects our best efforts to force it into a familiar shape, and PRODIGAL SONS is packed with moments where reality shakes off Kim’s original plans. For one thing, Marc’s violent rages aren’t just some tic you can laugh off as an eccentricity. He’s obsessed with the past, prone to talking for hours aout things everyone in the room already knows. And at the root of it all, he’s blindingly angry about being adopted, about playing second-place to Paul in school, about his accident, about his medications, about his youngest brother being gay, about his middle brother being transgendered, and about his adoptive father being dead.
Marc’s got no job, no real responsibilities or drains on his attention, so all of his failures are still fresh for him at all times. When you’re knocked sideways out of time by an accident, the world can get away from you, and Marc is a man adrift. He desperately wants to reconnect to Paul, even if he has to go through Kimberly to do so, but he doesn’t really understand how to do that. When you’re a transgendered lesbian, you are probably safe in thinking that you’re the most memorable member of your immediate family, so when I say that Marc trumps Kimberly from frame one, that should give you an idea how much larger than life Marc appears. I thought he looked familiar when he first showed up onscreen, but I couldn’t imagine why...
... until they finally connected the dots on Marc’s birth mother’s identity. Rebecca Welles. As is, Orson Welles. As in, Rebecca Welles was the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Quite the gene pool to find out you’re wading in, eh? As soon as they said that in the film, I couldn’t help but notice how much Marc looks like Hank Quinlan from TOUCH OF EVIL, but even more than the resemblance, I felt like I’d seen him somewhere specific. When Marc and Kim take a trip to Croatia to meet Oja Kodar, the woman who was Orson’s constant companion towards the end of his life, they run into another film crew working on a documentary about Oja called SEARCHING FOR ORSON (which I reviewed at the AFI Fest in 2006), and that film features an interview with Marc that you actually see them filming in this movie. It was sort of like having a BACK TO THE FUTURE II moment as one film folded into another. The most haunting idea in the film comes when Marc passes around photos of Paul in high school for the film crew of SEARCHING FOR ORSON, and their shock is palpable as they laugh incredulously. Evidently, that’s a huge faux pas in the transgendered community. Many of them choose to sever all ties to their past, going so far as to burn their childhood photos completely. Marc’s baffled by Kim’s reaction to the photos, and Kim finally realizes that part of Marc’s anger towards her comes from the idea that she worked desperately to abandon her identity as Paul, while Marc would have done anything to be Paul. Kim’s rejection of who she was can be seen as a rejection of Marc’s values and ideals. It’s a wrenching idea, and once Kim realizes it, she’s able to finally reach some peace in her attitudes towards Marc.
Even when things get out of control between them (and they do at several points in the film, including one harrowing POV beating that visibly shook up several people in my theater), Kim’s new understanding of Marc’s demons makes it easier for her to support him, finally seeing past the madness. It’s a beautiful film with a lot to say about forgiveness and empathy, and one of the most interesting films I’ve seen yet about transgendered life. By focusing on the family story instead of just hammering an issue, it becomes inclusive and very moving. Right now, there’s no theatrical distributor in place, but I hope that changes. There’s a lot of America that would benefit from realizing how much this family resembles their own.
I’ve been dying to see Monday’s second film for a year or so now, ever since TIME CRIMES played at Fantastic Fest 2007 to great acclaim. Everyone at the fest last year seemed to love the film, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo made such an impression on everyone that they had him back this year to show his short films. You’ll be able to see the film this month when Magnet/Magnolia releases it as part of the Six-Shooter Films seres they’ve put together, the same series that presented LET THE RIGHT ONE IN last month. And just like that film, TIME CRIMES is worth making an effort to see as soon as possible. It’s a smart, creepy jet-black comedy of errors about how easy it is to fuck up the fabric of reality as soon as you start monkeying around with time-travel.
So, yeah... it’s an important issue movie.
Karra Elejalde plays Hector, an average guy who is trying to enjoy a quiet weekend in the country with his wife Clara (Candela Fernandez). He’s been having a little trouble sleeping, and he is hoping to relax. All that changes when he’s sitting in his backyard, goofing around with some binoculars, and he catches sight of a gorgeous young woman (Barbara Goenaga) in the woods on the hill above his house. When he sees her taking off her sweater, he decides to head up the hill for a better look. A stab in the arm by a crazed loony with a heavily bandaged face, and the next few hours completely change his life, culminating in him accidentally stumbling into a time machine that’s being tested by a lab tech named Chico (played by Vigalondo himself). That results in him taking a trip back in time to just before everything began...
... and as anyone who knows anything about time-travel movies is aware, that is always the start of terrible complications. Working on what looks to be a fairly low budget, Vigalondo weaves an intricate and fiendish story about how bad choices escalate. He uses a grand total of four characters (or six, depending on how you count) to spin a story that manages to be scary at times, funny at times, and that always manages to be very human no matter how outrageous the ideas it’s dealing with. It’s impressive, and it’s accessible, and if there were any justice in the world, a film this rewarding and clever would be a monster commercial hit. So, yeah, of course they’re talking about remaking it. And even with someone I respect as much as David Freakin’ Cronenberg possibly directing it, I just don’t see the point. TIME CRIMES is pretty much as good as SF filmmaking gets, on any budget, in any language.
I walked over to Amoeba and picked up the new DVD collection of THE LITTLE RASCALS between the second and third films, then headed back over for the first of two Brazilian films on the schedule for the night. I was intrigued by the title STILL ORANGUTANS and by the idea that it was all shot in one take. That’s always one of those technical challenges that sounds impressive, but I have yet to see someone do something with the notion that’s engaging on a level beyond just being a stunt. RUSSIAN ARK is a fascinating museum piece, but I have trouble even calling it a movie. So I sort of walked into this film with a bit of a “prove it” attitude.
And, to a large extent, director Gustavo Spolidoro did. Working from a book by Paulo Scott made up of 14 separate short stories, all set in or around the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. In adapting the book, screenwriter Gibran Dipp chose to interweave them, one character handing off the film to the next like a relay instead of just having it all be unconnected. And, yes, the entire film is indeed one long continuous shot, from start to finish, taking place on a train, in the streets, inside various homes and stores, always moving, always roaming, eventually bursting into an exuberant run. It’s restless and exciting and the stories are all written in haiku. Imagine if Altman had tried to tell SHORT CUTS as one long continuous take. That’s the sort of energy this film has.
The film does some very big and broad things, including the finale which actually had me laughing out loud at the audacity of it. Quinceñeras are a big deal in Latin American culture, a girl’s coming out party, and this one’s certainly memorably staged. But everything that comes before it has a great crackling energy to it that made this one of the quickest sits of the festival so far. STILL ORANGUTANS whipped by, a colorful blur of ramshackle life that is worth checking out.
That same sort of rough and tumble joy of living is at the heart of the last film I saw on Monday, a documentary called PINDORAMA: THE TRUE STORY OF THE SEVEN DWARVES. Captivating title, eh? Check out the trailer:
Yeah. The film is exactly that, but for about 100 minutes or so. It’s impossible to look away. This family of performers, some by blood, some by marriage, some who just ran away with the circus while it was in town, is absolutely riveting to sit with. The soundtrack, all of it that same sort of Brazilian busking with lyrics that celebrate the Pindorama circus, is charmingly shaggy, a perfect match for the work by Roberto Berliner, Lula Querioga and Leo Crivellare. These three directors have managed to get close to this entire extended family, close enough to let you smell the greasepaint and the sweat and the sawdust. And instead of deglamorizing the circus or making the family into a spectacle, a freakshow that shares a last name, getting this close actually normalizes them. I don’t care who you are or how open minded you are, the sight of an entire family of dwarves both running and performing in a circus is surreal. But by the end of the movie, you’re so used to the physical quirks or oddities of each of the brothers and children and wives and girlfriends that you’re not really looking at them anymore.
The love of performing and the dedication to the gypsy lifestyle that is required for a successful circus performer is a big part of this film. The difficulties of managing any family-owned-and-operated business are part of the film. The particular challenges of operating as dwarves in a world built for big people is certainly a part of the film. And more than anything, pure joy is a part of the film. This is a film that believes in taking what pleasure there is from life, each day, each town, each show an opportunity for joy. It’s beautiful and huge-spirited. I’m genuinely pleased to have taken a chance on this one. I have no idea what sort of theatrical life there is for a film like this, but I hope a broader audience eventually gets a chance to see this, on video or cable or somewhere. I have a feeling audiences would love spending time with Charles, Claudio, Cleidy, Cleidomar, Zuleide, Gilberto, and Rogerio just as much as I did.
I’ve got a couple of three-and-four film days in a row coming up, and I’ll be back with more reviews then.