THE TREE

In rural Queensland, Australia, Peter, a father of four suffers a fatal heart attack while driving and hits the enormous tree next to his house. Soon, his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and 8-year-old daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) sense his spirit emanating from the tree. Rather than anthropomorphize the tree, director Julie Bertuccelli wisely uses a more mystical approach–the tree becomes a safe haven for Dawn and Simone to bask in and engage with its newfound Peter-ness. They talk to it as if they were communicating with him, but to the viewer it’s less a fantasy come to life than a chance for the family to continue their grieving process in a way that’s therapeutic and touching, but not maudlin. Conflict arises, however, when the tree begins to overtake the house–root growth underneath blocks the plumbing, vines begin to obscure the exterior and branches start not-so-randomly falling into certain people’s bedrooms.

Although it neatly executes a potentially dippy premise, the film does not hold together as well in its screenplay (adapted from a novel). A few early scenes following Peter’s death reek of tired melodrama and awkward dialogue and an attempt to make a nosy neighbor into a villain adds little weight to the main story. Fortunately, THE TREE exhibits a strong sense of space, not only in its expansive, massive titular object but also in the family’s lived-in, distinct home and its richly drawn and photographed surrounding landscapes. Morgana Davies is also pretty terrific as Simone–she has that same balance of ingenuity and precociousness as Anna Paquin did way back in THE PIANO. And with an always game Gainsbourg anchoring the cast, you’ve got a charming, (if uneven) slice of down-under magic realism that thankfully does not overdo the magic part.

Score (out of 10): 7

DOMAINE

Every year, John Waters programs one of his favorite films for PIFF which he introduces and discusses with the audience afterwards. This year’s pick was a french film starring Beatrice Dalle that he saw at another festival. It has no US distribution and  I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t get a video release either, given that it’s director Patric Chiha’s first feature (and Dalle is far from a household name here). That’s unfortunate, for although I didn’t like the film nearly as much as Waters did, it’s notable for examining an aunt-nephew relationship–a dynamic not too common in film outside of Auntie Mame.

Dalle plays the aunt, Nadia, a somewhat enigmatic, worldly mathematician in her forties. Her 17-year-old gay nephew, Pierre (Isaïe Sultan) is effortlessly drawn to her bohemian lifestyle. She exposes him to cool clubs and bars while he becomes her confidante/protegé and sole link to a family that mostly ignores or flat-out dismisses her. He also maintains a structure (in multiple scenes, we see him leave school for the day and dutifully call her) that proves vital for her. When he starts drifting away, embarking on a fling with a guy ten years his senior, she slowly, subtly unravels, drinking heavily to the point where she checks herself into rehab.

Although Nadia and Pierre’s bond develops as organically as does its gradual disintegration, Domaine itself proceeds at a snail’s pace. However, just when you think you can’t possibly take another scene of the two leads walking and talking without accomplishing much in particular, Chiha will insert a strange, compelling visual diversion like a club where all the dancers unnaturally but hypnotically sway to the music.  A change of scene to the Swiss Alps in the final twenty minutes also gives the film a much-needed jolt.

Instead of appearing as her usual exotic self (best exemplified by her role in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, where she was only referred to as “The Queen of the Western Hemisphere”), Dalle seems more human and fragile while retaining some of her magnetic allure–her transformation is stunning but not showy. With a conclusion that leaves one wondering why it had to stop there, Domaine may end abruptly, but some of the poky scenes leading up to that ending linger long in the mind.

Rating (out of 10): 7

BEGINNERS

Beginners puts a novel twist on the coming out narrative: this time, it’s the father, 75-year-old Hal (Christopher Plummer) who tells his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) that he’s gay. Neither played for farce nor melodrama, the relatively painless process proves something of a rebirth for Hal, who eagerly and amiably adjusts to his new lifestyle. In turn, this inspires Oliver, a single, straight, somewhat morose graphic designer to comes out of his shell a little and date Anna (Melanie Laurent), a charming French woman he meets at a party.

Director (and graphic designer) Mike Mills’ own life inspired the story which translates into something personal and intimate but thankfully not self-indulgent. The smart, non-chronological sequencing and out-of-time soundtrack almost bring to mind a modern-day Annie Hall. Although Mills is far more introspective than Woody Allen, he graces the film with touches of offbeat humor–most noticeably in Hal’s dog, a Jack Russell terrier whose ingenuous onscreen captions give the proceedings a sprightly kick when they threaten to turn too angsty.

Such angst between Oliver and Anna late in the film muddles and nearly slows it down (which is why Allen rarely made films longer than 90 minutes). However, there’s still much to love. Plummer seems far more comfortable here than he did in the middlebrow claptrap of The Last Station–his sense of discovery is infectious.  McGregor, so often cast in showier roles, conveys Oliver’s sensitively without seeming like a simp and makes for as strong of an anchor as he did in The Ghost Writer. And for Mills, this is a considerable leap from his first feature (the promising but uneven Thumbsucker). Beginners never feels insincere, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Score (out of 10): 9

TABLOID

After watching Tabloid, you wonder why it took so long for someone to make a film about Joyce McKinney. Her fascinating, stranger-than-fiction life story aside, she just blooms in front of the camera without giving off the pretense of putting on a show. A natural storyteller dripping with southern charm, she’s immensely likable even when she comes off as delusional, a chatterbox, a gossip or an all-out nutjob.

An ex-beauty queen with an I.Q. of (supposedly) 160, she became tabloid fodder in late ’70s England after being accused of tracking down her estranged boyfriend (a Mormon), kidnapping him, shackling him to a bed and raping him. McKinney’s account dominates, but we additionally hear from not only one of her accomplices, but also a UK tabloid that bought her tale and a competing tabloid that pieced together a contradictory story. In the end, what actually happened is likely somewhere in between all of these versions (Mark Lipson, the film’s co-producer refers to it as a “Looney Tunes Rashomon“). I didn’t fully believe McKinney’s take but I couldn’t entirely discredit her either, and the film gets much of its philosophical weight and entertainment value out of this conundrum.

Actually, we do see a few film clips of McKinney from not long after the scandal, but it’s a blatant vanity piece as she appears on horseback, the camera lens smeared with vaseline while she attempts to tell (waves her hair) “my story”. Thankfully, Errol Morris is absolutely the right filmmaker for the job. Returning to the type of quirky human interest studies he all but abandoned over the past decade, he playfully but shrewdly peppers the screen with word graphics (one of the best is “spread eagled”) to satirize and enhance the story’s sensational nature.

In a way, McKinney could be Morris’ quintessential subject: an eccentric but driven individual whose take on human nature is decidedly different but not necessarily destructive. Morris also has a wealth of material to draw upon, for not only does he present and dissect the case of the “manacled Mormon”, as an added treat, he shows us what McKinney’s been up to recently. Let’s just say it has made her tabloid fodder once again, and it ends Tabloid on a giddy, gleefully over-the-top high note.

Score (out of 10): 10

ANOTHER EARTH

Less a traditional piece of science fiction than a moody indie drama seasoned with sci-fi trimmings, Another Earth is not easy to categorize. The sci-fi stuff boils down to this: a planet parallel to our own in every possible way has been discovered, and that’s all we know about it. The real focus is on Rhoda (Brit Marling), a young aspiring astrophysicist whom upon first hearing of this new planet crashes into a car stopped at an intersection, killing all its inhabitants save one, who falls into a coma. Some time later, she seeks out the survivor (now out of the coma), John (William Mapother), a composer whose family was in the car with him. She means to apologize, but in realizing that he does not know who she is, Rhoda gets cold feet and poses as a maid. She begins cleaning his house on a regular basis and the two slowly become friends.

On paper, the Rhoda and John narrative sounds derivative. In practice, the sci-fi presentation often seems lazy (particularly in how a wacky radio DJ breaks the new planet news to us). However, all of those contrivances began to fade away the more I watched. Director Mike Cahill excels at drawing viewers in and sustaining their interest via the film’s sound design, careful pacing and evocative cinematography. He also has a real find in Marling (who also co-wrote the screenplay). Vulnerable yet calm and intuitive, she reminds me of Sarah Polley circa The Sweet HereafterAnother Earth ends stunningly with a twist bringing its disparate themes together. Cahill and Marling will likely make better films, but in its best moments, this one transcends all labels, “moody indie drama” included.

Score (out of 10): 8

MAGIC TRIP

If nothing else, see Magic Trip for its amazing archival footage of Ken Kesey and his “Merry Band of Pranksters” (including Neal Cassady, above) on their infamous 1964 cross-country bus trip. They filmed hours and hours of footage along the way, but never edited it into a complete, watchable film as the sound was out of sync and mostly unintelligible. Directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have molded this footage into a documentary, with new narration and interviews with some of the original participants (some of them voiced by actors) serving as its soundtrack. The trip’s purpose was to travel from San Francisco to New York to see the 1964 World’s Fair and get a record of the country along the way; that most of the Pranksters took liberal doses of LSD transformed the whole shebang into something more, anticipating and indirectly birthing the counterculture movement.

Instead of focusing solely on the trip, the film puts Kesey front and center. We get lengthy tangents about Kesey’s middle-class upbringing, his fame as author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and his participation in a CIA-financed study on the effects of psychoactive drugs, which inspired his literary work and led to him exposing the Pranksters to LSD (among other drugs). Kesey’s narrative fully registers, but as the focus shifts to the other Pranksters, it’s occassionally difficult telling them apart. As for the actors doing the voiceovers, some fit the actual person onscreen far better than others. As always, Gibney is an entertaining, if somewhat impersonal director–sort of like a hipper Ken Burns. Despite the engrossing footage and attractive frame it’s placed into, Magic Trip meanders on a bit too long and feels muddled by its end. Although it has no pictures, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test remains this trip’s definitive account.

Score (out of ten): 6

MANGUS!

Ash Christian’s debut feature Fat Girls wasn’t a great film, but it wasn’t bad for being written, directed and produced by a 21-year-old (he starred in it, too). A tad slapdash but often hilarious, it positioned him as someone to watch. It also featured Ashley Fink, who now plays a fat girl with delightful aplomb on Glee.  Sadly, Christian’s long-awaited follow-up is far more slapdash than anything else. The titular character, a musical theatre-obsessed teen (Ryan Boggus) is dead set on playing Jesus in his high school’s annual production of Jesus Christ, Spectacular!, a bargain-bin version of the similarly titled Andrew Lloyd Webber chestnut. When a crippling accident boots him off the production, he seeks his trailer trash family’s help in reclaiming his dream role.

Since Waiting For Guffman already gave small town musical theater a definitive skewering (as did, to a lesser extent, Hamlet 2, whose similarly themed “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” puts the musical numbers here to shame), there’s already a feeling of the well having run dry regarding the premise. I can overlook that, but not shoddy production values (where the story requires much more), lame jokes or one-note characters–even the John Waters cameo doesn’t deliver. Heather Matarazzo (who co-produced) has fun wearing a blonde wig and skimpy outfits and the always dependable Jennifer Coolidge is effortlessly amusing as Mangus’ low-rent psychic mother. I still think Christian has loads of potential, but if he wants to emulate a trash connoisseiur like Waters, he either needs to be even more outrageous or exhibit a little more discipline.

Score (out of 10): 4

GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE

Serge Gainsbourg was an unlikely pop star. He certainly didn’t look like a matinée idol. At the height of his career in late ’60s France, his cultivated persona was that of a dirty old man who had barely turned 40. And yet, he was a brilliant songwriter and performer, plus his willingness to continually experiment successfully proved his breadth of talent. How else to explain his professional (and sexual) dalliance with an icon no less stunning than Brigitte Bardot?

Such an outrageous life deserves more than a middle-of-the-road biopic. Director and comic book artist Joann Sfar’s attempt to distill Gainsbourg’s into one emphasizes this from its opulently animated opening credits onward. Moving from glimpses of the man’s childhood as a Russian jew in Nazi-occupied France to his early attempt at a painting career and subsequent stumbled-upon fame as a musician, Sfar nearly always retains an element of fantasy. His most audacious (and fully realized) conceit is “The Mug”, a larger-than-life-sized caricature of Gainsbourg with exaggerated features (elongated nose and ears) that intermittently follows him around and acts as a guardian devil of sorts. That he’s not just a figment of Gainsbourg’s imagination but a figure other characters see and interact with gives an idea of how loopy and unconventional the film often is.

As the adult Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino is absolutely uncanny, both in physical resemblance and musical performance; Laetitia Casta nearly does the same for her playful, vivacious Brigitte Bardot. Only the late Lucy Gordon seems a tad perfunctory as love-of-Serge’s-life Jane Birkin, disappearing from the screen so quickly that her arc with Gainsbourg feels unfinished.

In trying to encapsulate such a rich life with this idiosyncratic approach, Sfar occasionally deploys but does not fully delve into assumed facts and cues that may go over the heads of Gainsbourg neophytes (the words “Melody Nelson” appear repeatedly, but if you don’t know that it’s part of the title of his most revered album, they have no significance). As with many biopics, Gainsbourg’s inevitable decline (he died in 1991) is also not given enough time, weight or explanation in order to fully resonate. Then again, Sfar concludes the film with an epigram explaining that he’s more interested in Gainsbourg’s lies than his truths. When the lies are most convincing, his film is a hoot.

Score (out of 10): 8

WEEKEND

 

In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, two people meet and form a deep bond despite only having a limited window of time to spend with each other. Initially, Andrew Haigh’s film acts as a gay male take on that narrative, only with the sex kicking off the relationship and the courtship following it. After hooking up at a bar, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) awaken hungover in the former’s apartment the next morning. It seems like your typical one night stand, only before Glen takes the proverbial “walk of shame” towards home, the two men discover there’s something more between them than just lust.

At this point, Glen announces he’s moving the next day from London to attend school in Portland, Oregon for two years. He and Russell decide to make a go at getting to know each other better anyway and spend as much time together as the next 24 hours or so will allow. Their personalities clash, as shy, contemplative Russell struggles to find his comfort zone in terms of being openly gay in public, while the more raffish Glen says that he “doesn’t do boyfriends” and masks a vulnerability brought on by a brokenhearted past. Still, we see their obvious chemistry together as they walk all over town, ingest copious legal (and illegal) substances and chat, debate and confide in each other late into the night.

A low-budget indie film like this is a gamble unless you have a deep, incisive screenplay and strong, charismatic actors who also seem genuine. Weekend has both and it soars whenever its two leads are onscreen together (comparatively, the first ten minutes focusing solely on Russell feel tentative). In a time where gay cinema consists mostly of frothy comedies barely good enough to air on Logo, Haigh’s film is a beacon for exploring how ordinary people live and how messy, startling and beautiful it is when they seek and find a certain intimacy with each other.

Score (out of ten): 9

THE PERFECT FAMILY

For film festivals from Cannes to Toronto, it’s usually a safe bet that the opening night film will not be the fest’s pick of the litter. Those selected for the Provincetown International Film Festival (now in its 13th year) have ranged from pleasantly respectable (La Vie En Rose) to WTF awful (Madonna’s directorial debut, anyone?)

PIFF 2011 opener The Perfect Family falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not going to win any major awards–I’m unsure as to how wide a theatrical release it will get later this year–but it deserves more than straight-to-video purgatory. The real draw is an extremely likable performance from Kathleen Turner (a past PIFF honoree who produced the film and also attended the screening). She plays a small town New Jersey housewife who spends much of her time volunteering at her Catholic church–so much that she’s nominated for “Catholic Woman of the Year”. The problem is, in order to win the title (and receive special absolution for all her sins!), she needs to show how devout and, well, perfect her family is; it’s not an easy task given that her husband’s an ex-alcoholic, her daughter (Emily Deschanel) is about to come out as a lesbian and her son (Jason Ritter) has just left his wife and taken up with a younger, sexier manicurist.

It’s a premise rife with potential for broad, lowbrow satire, but first-time director Anne Renton mostly skirts it in favor of a gentler approach that lurches between droll humor, serious drama and the occasional sight gag (such as Turner donning a tacky tracksuit). Consequently, the tone and pacing is a little off at times, as if Renton is content to let her actors carry the narrative by presence alone. Fortunately, Turner is fully up to task:  in easily her best film role since Serial Mom, she carefully underplays what could have been caricature in a lesser, showier actress’ hands. The film also has a most perfect final scene–as long as you don’t watch the credits roll.  Score (out of 10): 6