Festival Wrap Up: BAMcinemaFest ‘14
By Johnny Pomatto
Originally started in conjunction with Sundance, BAMcinemaFest has become its own beast and the best film festival in the five boroughs. I spent several days last week soaking up the efforts of some of New York’s best up and coming filmmakers. Here’s a rundown of everything I saw!
APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR-My favorite film of the festival was Desiree Akhavan’s APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR, a breakup dramedy that is as hilarious as it is totally relatable. Akhavan stars as Shirin, an Iranian-American bi-sexual who is spared the nerves of coming out to her liberal but traditional parents when her latest relationship comes to a painful end. Incredibly wise about the emotions of breakups, Akhavan takes a fresh approach by dividing the story into vignettes that jump around the timeline of the courtship, relationship, and aftermath. It’s no wonder this film is getting comparisons to “Annie Hall,” as the tone does indeed range from emotionally raw to tinges of the absurd, particularly in a hilarious subplot involving Shirin teaching a film production class to 5 year olds. This is a funny, sexually frank, and fascinating examination of relationships, identity, and culture. This movie made me excited for the future of Akhavan’s career. I might also add, that preceding the film was Janicza Bravo’s new short film PAULINE ALONE starring Gaby Hoffman, who seems to be justifiably everywhere these days. Bravo’s short “Gregory Go Boom” won a top prize at Sundance this year and like that film, PAULINE ALONE is a glimpse into 15 minutes of a mysteriously strange and unforgettable character. I can’t wait for Bravo to make her first feature because thus far, I’ve never wanted one of her films to end.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS-When he made “Drinking Buddies” last year with some bonafide Hollywood stars, I feared prolific and deeply independent director Joe Swanberg could be on the dangerous road to the mainstream. Instead, what he’s done is reign in some more mainstream actors into flexing their raw, improvisational, indie muscles and has once again made a true gem. Swanberg stars as a version of himself, along with Melanie Lynskey as his wife, and his real life baby (a happy accidental scene stealer) in this autobiographical tale of family. Things don’t get broadly outrageous when Swanberg’s sister (the wonderful Anna Kendrick who is proving to be a great muse for the director) comes to live with them. Instead we get a very realistic portrayal of the differences and similarities that make a family alternately love and hate each other. Perhaps my favorite Swanberg film to date, my only complaint is that at 78 minutes the film is much too short. I would have happily stayed with these characters through the New Year and any other holidays that followed.SNOWPIERCER-The fact that on the same day “Transformers 4” opened on 4000 screens, Bong Joon-Ho’s spectacular SNOWPIERECER only opened on one is representative of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood. Ten years ago this would have been a summer tent pole, but I guess now it’s too cerebral for the masses to want to see these days. Taking a cue from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” here we have an immense train, forever circling a frozen, apocalyptic world, and containing what little remains of the world’s population. At the front of the train, the rich live in lush first class cars where life is a party that never ends. In the rear of the train, we have the underlings, led by Chris Evans, who are taught to know their place, but are ripe for revolution. Trying to stop them in their attempts to reach the front engine is the glorious Tilda Swinton (above), having an absolute ball in what is sure to go down in history as one of our finest screen villains. SNOWPIERCER may disappoint a bit at the end with a conclusion that raises a few more questions than it answers, but getting there is still one hell of a ride.
HAPPY VALLEY-Like he did with his previous documentary “The Tillman Story,” Amir Bar-Lev tackles a story that has already generated much outrage but treats the subject in a gentle way. HAPPY VALLEY follows the aftermath of the Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. Though you may think you’ve heard far too much of this story already, Bar-Lev’s film explores and pursues many interview subjects and details of the story that you probably wouldn’t have thought of unless you were local to the situation. Much of the film focuses on the individuals who are eager for life (and the football season) to resume and go back to normal. This is one of those docs where no matter what side of the issue you’re on, you’re likely to come away from seeing it thinking that the film is on your side, as it treats every view with an open mind. One of the best docs I’ve seen in some time.
THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY-If Terrance Malick directed a dirty joke about a farmer’s daughter, you might get a film like Josephine Decker’s beautiful but bizarre THOU WAS MILD AND LOVELY. Joe Swanberg stars as a man who works as a hired hand on a farm. Robert Longstreet is the farmer who gives him an evil eye as his daughter (Sophie Traub) attempts to seduce him. The ominous imagery seems to be preparing us for something crazy, and the film doesn’t disappoint with a disturbingly shocking ending, but it still feels a bit rushed and the end credits start to roll just as you’re starting to understand what’s going on.
EVOLUTION OF A CRIMINAL-Darius Clarke Monroe’s autobiographical documentary tells the fascinating story of the bank robbery he committed at age 16 and the consequences of his actions years later. His efforts of redemption are emotional and earnest. While we undeniably want to see the bank robbery, Monroe might spend a bit too much time with re-enactments and too little on the explanation of the aftermath of the robbery. This was one that the Q & A really helped put some of the gaps in perspective. Still, an undeniably powerful story.
APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT –Amanda Wilder’s documentary about a New Jersey “free school” where the curriculum is entirely decided on by its 9-year-old students is pretty fascinating, but feels like its focus is a bit too narrow. We get to know two students and a teacher very well and follow them for a year, but don’t have much understanding of whether the school was successful or not by the end of the film.
THE MEND-Josh Lucas stars as a ne’er-do-well who makes himself at home in his brother’s Harlem apartment and then won’t leave. John Magary’s film gives us some nice performances from Lucas, Lucy Owen, and Stephen Plunkett, but is oddly paced, spending far too much time on some scenes, and not nearly enough on others. It’s kind of like “True West” if nothing really happened.
I ORIGINS-Mike Cahill’s follow up to his dreadful stoner sci-fi flick “Another Earth” is just as stupid as its predecessor. I’m not high enough to properly summarize the plot, but it involves Michael Pitt and Brit Marling accidentally proving reincarnation while studying the human eye. Cahill certainly has his fans out there, and I wish them well, but to me, this is the film equivalent of that person talking to you at the party who just won’t shut up.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes
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