Sunday, June 15, 2008

3 Indy Films

A few weeks ago I saw "Reprise," a Norwegian film about a group of male friends in their twenties, two of whom have just finished writing novels. As the film opens, they stand at a mailbox and each drops his manuscript into the slot, initiating a narrated flash-forward of what might happen next. But then the movie pauses and goes back, because maybe that isn't what happens next. It plays out now, at a more normal leisurely pace, but you know you are along for an interesting ride, where time and truth are somewhat negotiable.

Luckily, this playfulness in structure and time never overwhelms the story, resulting in an exercise in form over substance. There is, in fact, quite a great deal of substance: really strong acting, especially by the two leads (who I read were not professional actors), and an interesting and engaging plot about the two and their circle of friends. I also found the setting interesting: Oslo is a city I know nothing about, and so had a natural curiosity about. It was also refreshing to spend time somewhere that hasn't been seen a million times in movies, to the point where cinematic shorthand (The Eiffel Tower! The Statue of Liberty! The Golden Gate Bridge!) is all that's needed to set the scene.

It's a fun and lively and smart film (the protagonists are literary geeks and novelists! Not young athletes or struggling actors or rock musicians!) and I recommend it enough that I might go see it a second time.

"Operation Filmmaker" is the story of a young Iraqi film student who appeared on an episode of one of MTV's less-brain insulting documentary shows. After seeing his brief segment, Liev Schreiber decides to offer him an internship on "Everything Is Illuminated," Schreiber's directorial debut, which is about to start filming in the Czech Republic. (Part of the experience of seeing this, for me, is also seeing behind the scenes footage of "Illuminated," a somewhat mournful experience as it was a movie I eagerly awaited, having loved the novel it was based on, only to be disappointed.)

Of course, Schreiber can't just hire the guy, he also hires a documentary filmmaker to join them and film the intern's experience. So, as I imagine is not unusual, we have cameras filming cameras filming. And of course, we have an intimate view of Muthana Mohamed, the young man who is now thrust into a world alien to him, even as everyone and everything he knows back home in Baghdad is being destroyed. What you sense that everyone wanted was a heart-wrenching story of a kid who is so grateful for this opportunity that the scrambles and hustles and puts everyone else on the set to shame with his passion and eagerness to please. But no, we quickly find out that Muthana is not really a likable guy. He's lazy, insulted by the menial tasks he's asked to do, and unprepared to handle doing his own laundry, let alone to manage the endless process of securing and renewing work visas and funding to keep himself employed and out of Baghdad.

As the film goes on, the documentary filmmaker becomes a character herself, coming out from behind the camera to try to help Muthana, and then to try to extricate herself from the endless cycle of providing that help. There is the obvious parallel to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, to the point of borrowing the phrase "exit strategy." You also see how many well-meaning Americans fall in love with the idea of helping, until their ideal becomes reality and not as pretty as they'd imagined.

"My Winnipeg" is a film by Guy Madden, with whom I'll admit I was not familiar prior to this film. I saw the trailers several times at IFC and it intrigued me: a man finds himself unable to fully leave his hometown until he exorcises his past by diving in and reliving it. He hires actors to play his family as they were in his childhood, rents out his old home, and sets out to set himself free.

I think if I were more familiar with Madden's work it would have been a different experience for me. Reviews I've read since refer to the film as a lyric and visual poem, and I agree. The whole actors-as-family bit (which is what drew me) is but a minor piece of the entire process he goes through of re-imaging Winnipeg, through archival footage, animated drawings, and newly staged scenes filmed in blurry black and white. My memories of the film are very much about the images - specifically one of horses frozen in a lake - and not of anything that happens.

This is different for me; I prefer narrative fiction to poetry. I wanted to know more about his family than the two or three set pieces we see enacted (but less than the repeated image of a large naked woman's pubic-haired lap, ostensibly his mother's.) There is a long passage in the start of the movie where Guy (or actually, an actor as "Guy") keeps nodding off to sleep on a train filled with other falling, sleeping people, and he repeats a mantra of phrases that are Winnipeg to him. I have to admit I dozed off a bit myself.

The reviews are overwhelmingly positive (93% on rottentomatoes), so I accept that it's just not my taste.


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