Friday, September 13, 2013

3 Capsule Reviews from SFIFF 2013

Written for Paste Magazine.

Before You Know It (2013)


"Before You Know It" is a gentle film. It walks into the room, welcomes you as a friend, and embraces you. The documentary, which screened last month at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, chronicles the lives of three aging gay men in different parts of the United States. It bears witness to their economic troubles, changing sex lives, struggles to legalize their right to marry the one they love, and many other smaller, more interior battles as they enter a new -- and perhaps final -- chapter of their lives. Director PJ Raval treats his subjects with the empathy required to fully appreciate and understand, for example, the loneliness of Dennis, a 76-year-old cross-dresser living deep in Florida. Dennis' attempts to connect with other, younger gay men seem both necessary for his emotional health and a cumulative weight on his self-confidence and, by extension, his soul. It takes a certain level of openness for a documentarian to properly recognize and convey that hopeless, melancholic feeling without judgment, and for this Raval should be commended. 

When taken as a whole, though, the film is full of flaws. It is at least twenty minutes too long. It leans heavily on its musical cues for unearned emotion, including incessant reuse of the Liars song, "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack." The film seems unwilling to allow its audience members to find their own emotions within the varied and textured stories of these men, and instead insists on certain feelings at certain times, whether you like them or not. These overwrought emotional cues seem anathema to Raval's greater desire to portray the lives of these three men without expectation, judgement or intrusion. 

Cold War (2012)



At their best, Hong Kong action movies can provide a discreet layer of social commentary just below the burning, oil-slicked harbor water that a gun-toting detective speed-boats through. They grapple with the ethics of current Chinese life by playing out morality tales between police and Triad mobs. Like the Japanese samurai genre, they know that a great way to criticize the government is by hiding it in an action movie.

"Cold War," which screened at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival last month, plays out like a state-sponsored counter to everything that is interesting about the HK action genre. The plot is ostensibly about two rival police commissioners, one older and one younger, trying to track down a hijacked police van and the mole that must have informed the hijackers. What plays out is a series of nationalistic speeches and forced plot "twists." Police officials literally stand at pulpits and deliver speeches about the sanctity of Hong Kong law, why Hong Kong is Asia's greatest city and how the younger generation must learn from their elders to uphold the law's greatness. 

This could have been interesting, since it is so diametrically opposed to the genre, but "Cold War" barely even feels like a movie. It's an overwhelming string of cliches. Even its style is infected with adolescent rah-rah excitement for state-run security. It steals shots not from other action movies, but from video games like "Metal Gear Solid" and "Counter-Strike." And, bizarrely, the movie is self-assured enough to set up a sequel. 

Youth (2013)


Most audiences will arrive at "Youth" knowing two things: that Justine Malle is the daughter of the French director Louis Malle, and that "Youth" is an autobiographical look at his death through her eyes. This being Ms. Malle's first film, the inevitable comparisons to her father will ensue, with her style, story and effectively her life being defined in his shadow. The movie, though, as the director said during her introduction at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, is about her, not her dad. In fact, "Youth" would work just as well if Juliette, Ms. Malle’s fictional proxy played by Esther Ferrel, had a mechanic, sculptor or physician for a father. His profession doesn't matter. What matters is Ms. Malle's voice, which is strong and clear, and her almost satirical look at this fictionalized version of her life. 

“Youth” quietly reveals a self-awareness that sets it apart from a straight memoir. Ms. Malle acknowledges Juliette's mistakes, knowing intimately her feelings while also commenting on them. The comments are never entirely present, though, and this is what makes the movie very beautiful. Olivier Ferrari's editing, along with Malle's script (which she wrote with Cecile Vargaftig), often exclude key scenes in a way that keeps the viewer connecting Juliette's emotional dots, deepening her as a character by ignoring what she ignores, avoiding what she avoids. The effect is something less reminiscent of Ms. Malle's father than of another French director, Eric Rohmer, whose subtlety Juliette defends while leaving a movie theater with a potential lover. The lover simply responds, "Rohmer sucks balls." The relationship is clearly doomed.

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