Maryland Film Festival 2014 Recap #3 (Saturday)

Saturday, May 9:

I made it to three films again today – two narratives and one experimental documentary/animation hybrid – all of them worth watching, to varying degrees and for different reasons.

Club Sandwich

Club Sándwich (Fernando Eimbcke, 2013)

This is a charming coming-of-age story by a Mexican director with whose work I was completely unfamiliar. Hector is a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood who is on vacation – in the off-season – at a hotel with his single mom. They have a close – almost incestuously so – relationship that is about to change radically, even if neither of them realizes it, for Hector is helpless in the face of the powerful new sexual stirrings that rock his body and obsess his mind. When he meets Jazmin – also at the hotel, with her much older (and infirm) father and his new nursemaid wife – a girl just slightly older than he, he shifts his attention and desires onto her. It’s a healthy development, but not one that his mother greets gracefully. Don’t worry, though, for in this sweet-natured and gentle comedy, no one really gets hurt and nothing bad happens to good people. They change, they grow, and we laugh in recognition of our own foibles. A good time is had by all.

Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Jessica Oreck, 2013)

Jessica Oreck – another filmmaker whose previous work had escaped me – has created a fascinating hybrid experimental documentary that weaves poetry, philosophy, folklore, animation and observational footage into a mesmerizing meditation on nature and civilization. I’m still not sure that all of the disparate elements come together into a cohesive whole, but part of me doesn’t care. Many of her images are so lovely that it doesn’t matter. And  at the heart of the picture is a lovely retelling of the Slavic tale of Baba Yaga, complete with beautiful hand-painted pictures of the story. The film opens with a line written by Oreck and spoken in Polish or Ukrainian (2 of the 3 languages in the film, the third being Russian) – “Culture imagines an advantage over the wild” (I may be misremembering) – and then proceeds to fill it’s 72 minutes with carefully considered juxtapositions of cities and nature, people and animals, ruined buildings and glorious architectural triumphs. Shot in Ukraine, Poland and Russia – according to Oreck, who was at the screening – the film also incorporates the poetry of the region in both voiceovers and on-screen text.

What purpose does the story of Baba Yaga serve in all of this? After the children who would be her victims escape back to their village, they discover that it is overrun with soldiers, and then flee back into the woods, where they discover their parents, living in harmony with nature. This evokes earlier documentary footage of Russian villagers gathering mushrooms, and seems to indicate that what we traditionally have seen as wild may, in fact, be where our culture lies. If one has seen any films by Sergei Parajanov or Andrei Tarkovsky, this kind of lyrical approach to nature will be familiar. The film is filled with juxtapositions and resonances like this, and ultimately I’m not sure whether it all works as intended. I do know, however, that I felt transported into a fairytale landscape, myself, while watching, and emerged with Oreck’s words and images seared indelibly into my brain. So something must have been working.

The film plays again on Sunday, and I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

Faults

Faults (Riley Stearns, 2014)

This debut feature from Riley Stearns, director of the short film The Cub, which played at the 2013 Maryland Film Festival, is a comedic – yet very dark and, ultimately, violent – thriller starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who just happens to be Mr. Stearns’s wife). Both Stearns and Winstead were at the screening, and stayed for the Q&A. The film is not without interest, but does have trouble finding a consistent tone: how funny should it be when people are getting killed is a question it never quite resolves. Stearns cites the Coen Brothers as an influence, and you can see some of their twisted comic brio here, but he doesn’t quite master the greatness of a Fargo (but hey, it’s his first feature, so let’s give him a break).

Leland Orser (terrific) plays Ansel, a down-on-his-luck (as in, completely plummeted into a pit of despair) anti-cult crusader who is hired by a father and mother desperately trying to save their daughter, Claire (Winstead), from a shadowy group calling itself “Faults.” Since Ansel needs money immediately, to pay off a debt for funds borrowed from his now-angry manager, he jumps at the chance to both get out of town and earn some (hopefully) easy cash. He kidnaps Claire and brings her to a remote motel for “deprogramming.” And that’s when the fun begins. Who is manipulating whom? And what do the parents really want?

I loved all of the scenes with Orser (which is most of them) – particularly when he feels most at wits’ end – and he and Winstead have a great on-screen chemistry. Winstead nicely plays off of her nice-girl looks and demeanor – as she did in Smashed – but neither she nor Orser are well served by the script when the plot takes a turn for the nasty. The brutality of some of the final moments doesn’t mesh well with the lightness of earlier ones. Still, the film works in many places, even if it is a bit too clever by half and relies too much on exposition-heavy dialogue towards the end. It offers a nice twist at its conclusion, which some viewers may not see coming. Well shot, with smart production design, the film is definitely good enough to make me want to see what Stearns comes up with next (hopefully with Winstead on board again).

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