LAFF Capsules

Here are short responses to three of the films I saw at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. I’ll be posting longer reviews of more films later this week. -Doug

A Week Alone (Celina Murga, Argentina)

Murga’s debut 2002 feature, Ana and the Others (miraculously available on DVD and Netflix instant play) is one of the most endearing films to have come from the New Argentine Cinema. It’s a naturalistic portrait of a young urban woman who visits the small town of her youth and explores–through an assortment of casual, Rohmerian conversations–the ways in which things have changed. Murga’s followup (“discovered” and presented by Martin Scorsese, who recently chose Murga for a Rolex internship) is a similar slice-of-life character examination, but with a more critical slant. Set in one of the many gated communities that sprouted around Buenos Aires in the wake of Argentina’s 2001 economic meltdown, the film records the interactions of a group of children and their visiting cousins, ages 6-16 years old, left to their own devices for a week. Murga is adept at capturing her fine ensemble cast, charting the children’s volatile combination of energy, fragility, and physical boredom inside labyrinthine houses with immaculate lawns crawling with faceless security guards. The manicured landscapes shimmer with saturated artificiality, but it’s Murga’s attention to duration and time, minimal plotting, and easygoing structure that slowly gets under your skin. This is a slow boiling drama, one that loses itself so completely in the carefree world of its characters that it comes as a shock when events take a destructive turn in the final act, highlighting the way isolated living can dissolve normal social and moral bearings.

Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

I think Miyazaki is one of the most gifted animators of all time, but unaccountably, Ponyo is second-rate material. Yes, it’s geared toward a very young audience (a ten-year-old will likely be bored), but its real problem is that it lacks emotional conviction or a sense of discovery. After a promising pre-credit ocean sequence, the nominal plot revolves around a little boy in a seaside town who falls in love with a mermaid whose magical transformation into a girl creates a tsunami that sets the two in search of the boy’s mother. No doubt Miyazaki fans will praise the moments of visual beauty (crashing waves depicted as vast, undulating creatures, or a flooded town turned into an underwater kingdom) but there’s no denying that the characterizations are razor thin at best, motivations and relationships are vague, dramatic tension is kept to a minimum, and the film as a whole exhibits a complete lack of suspense.

Miyazaki seems more interested in depicting slapstick than developing personalities, and the film as a whole could have been written by children instead of for them. That’s not to say it’s completely bad–a six-year-old might very well enjoy the movie. Its seaside setting, sweet sentiment, and lack of violence or wanton destruction could provide an antidote to the crassness of, say, The Clone Wars, but it’s no less a disappointment to see such a master of visualization and theme reduced to treading water. You’re better off staying home and renting Miyazaki’s masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), a key example of children’s entertainment that doesn’t forget that intrigue and enchantment have to be earned.

Turistas (Alicia Scherson, Chile)

Judging from a brief Google search, I seem to be one of the few critics who actually reviewed Scherson’s debut film Play (which, unlike in the US, was actually distributed in the UK), and I recently rewatched it and fully stand by my positive assessment. It’s an usually vibrant, witty movie full of offbeat humor and a generous spirit, and I’ve been excited to see what Scherson had in store for us next. Turistas it is, but a great film it’s not; in fact, I’m not even sure it’s a good one. Aline Kuppenheim offers a nuanced portrayal of Carla, a 30-something woman in a perpetual haze, unsure of what she wants in life. Setting out on vacation, she casually informs her husband of a recent abortion, and, shocked, he leaves her by the roadside near a national park, where she camps for a few days in an attempt to clear her head.

The beginning of the film, with its carefully observed tensions, is enjoyably Antonioniesque. But soon the film drifts into the realm of quirky, relaxed seriocomedy as the indecisive protagonist heads an indecisive film that wanders through scenic landscapes and flirts with themes of self-discovery and the breakdown of facades, but never really coheres into anything very compelling. Unlike Play‘s eccentric characters, whose peculiarities lend that film buoyancy and depth, the supporting characters here seem random and indulgent; a friend commented that this feels more like a first film, and he’s right. On the other hand, Scherson’s sharp eye delivers images and juxtapositions that are often evocative in their own right; it’s a sensitive film with an inquisitive and edgy tone, but it never really pays off.

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