Friday, May 18, 2007

JFF 2007: Friday, May 18th

I decided to forgo any evening showings and just do three screenings during the middle of the day. I have to say, the quality of what I saw (combined with the aforementioned YouTube attention this week) has put me in a mighty fine mood. We start with a quintet of animated shorts before moving on to a documentary and a feature.

Everything Will Be OK - This short starts off with above average stick figures walking around on an off-white background and looks like something from Liquid Television back in the day: Pretty goofy and harmless. The simplicity of the beginning, which includes several focuses of action going on at once through fuzzy white circles against a black background, really fools you. As we learn more and more about Bill and his condition and how that's changing his life in very odd and unfortunate ways, the animation changes. We get blasts of color and photography of real objects such as runnels of rain on glass. Things go psychotic when characters heads turn into insects and Bill breathes fire onto passers-by. It's surreal and very compelling.

Something like this can become very self-indulgent with takes going on too long, but the pacing felt just right. My favorite moment was one of much needed quiet in the middle, where Bill sits on a hospital bed, running his hand over his head (Bill's unexplained problem may be a tumor). This was an excellent start to the film festival: Out there enough to please the serious movie fan, but accessible enough to those who aren't used to this sort of thing.

One Rat Short - What wondrous things we can see with CGI. Since 1995 when Toy Story opened (damn, is it that long ago?!?!), everybody has gotten into the CGI feature game to the point where there is a glut of smart-ass talking animals at the theater. Very few of them, however, have Pixar's flair for storytelling, and the makers of this short have it as well.

It's a dialogue-free story of a city rat becoming involved with an empty chip bag, a cute white lab rat, and a tenacious red-eyed lab robot. This short just breezes along, and I mean that literally, as they take full advantage of CGI's POV freedom to follow the bag any where the eddies and currents of the city takes it. It's a mirror of the short itself which proceeds ever so gracefully. Very satisfying.

Post Nasal Drift - No IMDb link for this one. It looks like something that would have been made if David Lynch had gone into microbiology. We basically get to see all sorts of microscopic creatures crawl about on various human body parts and eat each other. Sometimes new creatures sprout from the corpses, sometimes new creatures sprout from others' slime trails. And the eating continues. It's the circle of friggin life, and it's quite depressing and tedious. Moving on.

Shut-Eye Hotel - Ah, that's better. Good old Bill Plympton. The last short I saw of his was actually at last year's festival (called Guide Dog). He's lost none of his talent or wit since his work started popping up in bits and pieces on the Comedy Channel back in the early 1990's. This one is short and sweet (maybe a little too short) as a pair of cops investigate a series of murders that all occur in the same hotel room.

Things get surreal and there's some lovely touches of humor (keep an eye on that blinking sign). And though the animation is distinctly Plympton's, he's never done a film noir themed short to my knowledge, so it's nice to see his trying different things. Rock on, Bill!

Destiny Manifesto - When politics gets preachy. Things are never as simple as some people would have us believe, and that's on both sides of the aisle. This short draws parallels between the frontiersmen of old (and their treatment of Native Americans) and soldiers now in the Middle East (and their treatment of Arabs). Despite the existence of Gitmo (the fault of Bush) and Abu Ghraib (the fault of Bush and a collection of soldiers willing to be complicit, even eager, in those activities), a large part of the army there just wants to help, and painting with this wide a brush doesn't help matters any. The fact that goes on too long doesn't do itself any favors, either.

Monster Camp - Here was something I was reluctant to see. I've done my share of gaming, thank you very much. D&D, Rifts, Cyberpunk and, most notably, Shadowrun. As for LARPing (which stands for Live Action Role Playing and is the subject of this documentary), I have dabbled in it without much interest. I can certainly see the appeal, but I never thought it was for me. The subjects of the documentary, which participate in a one-weekend-a-month LARP called NERO, have found it very much to their liking and go all out.

The danger with this sort of subject is the fine line one must tread as a filmmaker so we laugh with these people more than we laugh at them (and this group doesn't make it easy on themselves). It helps that the folks that go to NERO seem to be a more diversified lot than the gamers I used to know, especially in terms of gender. Many of the players come across pretty sensible and even likable. It also helps that the filmmakers have Carter to turn to occasionally.

Who is Carter? Oh, you'll remember Carter if you see this. Carter is the hopeless geek that acts as a black hole to suck amounts of geekiness from everyone else so they look a lot more normal in comparison. And when I say "hopeless", I mean it. The guy happily admits to entering his fifth year as a High School senior. Why? I'm guessing because he's playing video games all damn day instead of going to school and doing his work.

Carter elicits no sympathy from me. I had a dear friend in college that actually looked and acted a lot like Carter. Also like Carter, he was book smart but not smart enough to devote enough time to studies in order to get passing grades. By the time he reached the end of one semester with four F's and an Incomplete, his parents pulled him out and hauled his sorry butt back up to Maryland. Dude brought it on himself. Gaming does not deserve that much of your time.

It's time consumption that burns out Shane, the head of Seattle chapter of NERO. LARP is described at the beginning as a great alternative to traditional roleplaying in terms of the passion of the players. To which I could only think: Don't blame the system, blame the players. Pencils and paper is certainly a lot less stressful and time-intensive and certainly doesn't require the taking out of insurance policies on your players. No wonder Shane is completely fed up by the end of it.

Alright. Anti-LARPing rant over. But when you get right down to it, this documentary is easier to connect to general audiences now than fifteen years ago. As it points out, most of the players are also World of Warcraft players, which claims 8.5 million members worldwide. All of these are not just nerds, but also regular working stiffs that don't still live with Mom. The Internet has allowed us to tap our inner geek and make doing that OK. And LARPing is OK, too. Just don't miss any classes because of it.

Once - Ah, now here was a sublime piece of cinema. On the streets of Dublin, we meet a guy and a girl (they never receive proper names). He's a singer/songwriter who busks on the street when not working in his father's vacuum cleaner repair shop. She is a Czech immigrant with a two year old daughter and is looking for work. She takes an interest in his music and a friendship forms between them which grows as she compels him to take his talent to the next level.

This films is first and foremost a valentine to music and the creation thereof. The two leads are not only talented but also very charismatic. These two qualities make the audiences' joining their journey all the more effortless. He (Glen Hansard) looks at times like a red-headed Hugh Laurie and sounds like a cross between David Gray and Thom York. She is an endearing creature who has a more delicate voice like the lead singer for Portishead. Together, they make beautiful music together (forgive the cliche, but it works).

I'm not going to say any more about it, frankly. I want people to go see it knowing as little as I did. It has been getting rave reviews and has been picked up by Fox Searchlight, so it may even make it out to the smaller towns. You'll thank me for telling you to see it, and then you'll go straight out and buy the soundtrack.