MFF 2012 DAY SIX: Romancing in Thin Air – Elena – The Imposter

COMPLETE MILWAUKEE FILM FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE

DAY ONE: Starbuck – Opening Night Party
DAY TWO: Ethel – Come As You Are – Bones Brigade: An Autobiography – V/H/S
DAY THREE: Sans Soleil – Dead Weight – Andrew Bird: Fever Year
DAY FOUR: Inland Empire – Bad Brains: A Band in DC
DAY FIVE: Pink Ribbons, Inc. – 11 Flowers – How to Survive a Plague
DAY SIX: Romancing in Thin Air – Elena – The Imposter
DAY SEVEN: 5 Broken Cameras – Goodbye – High Tech, Low Life
DAY EIGHT: Big Boys Gone Bananas!* – Off White Lies – The Milwaukee Show
DAY NINE: Las Acacias – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
DAY TEN: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Policeman
DAY ELEVEN: Quartet – No God No Master
DAY TWELVE: Mourning – As Goes Janesville – Blackmail – The Ambassador
DAY THIRTEEN: The Invisible War – Klown
DAY FOURTEEN: Old Dog – Little Red – Five Star Existence
DAY FIFTEEN: The Sessions – Detropia

10-2 Tu
06/15

It would appear that I have grossly over-booked myself, and took off last night and this morning, where I would’ve seen Brooklyn Castle, I Want My Name Back and Love Free or Die – none of which had called to me in any special way. That makes four missed films total (out of the 61 I have unsanely scheduled) when combined with Friday’s Act-of-God hindrance that caused me to miss An Affair of the Heart (I don’t know who Rick Springfield is, but when I brought the name up to my music aficionado uncle, he assured me I was not missing much). Fall in Milwaukee is just so goddamned lovely and has always been my preferred time. Still, the barest modicum of involvement in any city driving which is not downright aggressive doesn’t so much test my patience as it blasphemes it. Yes, devoted readership, David was Correct to seek The Big City.

At 2:30, in the Oriental Theater, I viewed Johnnie To’s third film to feature in the Milwaukee Film Festival in the four years of my attendance, 2012’s Romancing in Thin Air, and quite the companion piece of To’s crowd-pleasing (allegedly) dalliance into studio-debt-paying, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. I have not seen 2005’s very popular Election and met To the Gangster with 2009’s Vengeance. Plenty of fun to be had and showed a directorial maturity; mercifully, I had expected less than I got. It’s nice to be pleased. It is not nice to be let down, which happened when I presumed To would provide the same pleasure in his romcoms.

Romancing in Thin Air has the studly Louis Koo playing a superstar actor who is, rather improbably, abandoned at the altar by the even more stunning Gao Yuanyuan. A public paparazzi-fueled bender lands him at the Deep Woods Motel which seems equivocal to escaping to Alaska. Here he flirts with the motel’s owner, played by Sammi Cheng (who is also beautiful but I can’t just keep adjectifying each person that way), a widow clinging to the hope that her husband will one day reappear from his seven year’s lost in those deep woods. The film’s first half hums along in its steady romcom way, but we are then treated to extended flashbacks detailing the story of the husband’s disappearance, lots of somber consideration of the players’ respective feelings, a return to civilization and a few spatial misfires before the couple inhabit the same space at a time when they are ready to hook up. In fact, I can’t help but feel that To’s comedies are so utterly formulaic that they involve little more than a mild rearrangement of characters and settings before the credits roll. This is one of those circumstances where I prayed for the end to come (there is more than one ending). What I personally found most interesting was witnessing the American or capitalistic elements at play in China (or it could merely be To): Americans cameo, the main characters seem to be fluent in English, Pepsi features very prominently, characters eat with forks and even visit a nearby Catholic church. And the scoring is also a hybrid of American romcom music which barely qualifies for the Whatever category.

And a note to the management of the Milwaukee Film Festival. I cannot speak for anybody but myself, but I certainly imagine that audiences are not thrilled to see the Pause icon in the upper left corner of the screen change to a Play icon when the film starts, revealing that we’re merely watching a broadcasted DVD. On top of that (literally and figuratively), the widescreen black bars exist on the cinema screen (which to me feels like an outright affront). Is there some reason why these films are not matted properly before the screening begins? Seriously. This has happened more than once for each year I’ve been at the festival. This time around I’m taking my gripes to the management personally. And I’ll note that if the film had been properly matted, that pesky pause/play appearance would’ve been masked. MFF is the only film festival with which I am intimately acquainted, so I really don’t know if these glitches are business-as-usual.

Now I head into 2011’s critically acclaimed Elena. Expectations are not super duper high, I imagine I will give it three stars, but I also imagine I will enjoy it! Wait a moment – – please wait outside the theater. Yes, it is technically showtime, but we’re having one of our characteristic technical problems and will need a moment to clear things up. Can we offer you nothing while you wait?

At 30 years old (and at 6pm on a Tuesday) I may be the youngest person at this sold-out screening inside the second theater of Fox Bay’s Cinema Grill, where apparently waiters will be buzzing around during the screening and serving the denizens of the bars we’re all sitting at. A new experience, at the least. Whitefish Bay is charming enough, if a bit… nice.

Well then. Who could’ve suspected that Elena would begin with the technique that Dead Weight dully drove into the ground?: a rack focus from a close-up of a branch to the tree behind it. The shot is outside the contemporary upper-middle-class home (or compound) of Vladimir and his wife Elena, and we solemnly navigate a few vacuum-like corridors before we follow the daily routine of Elena. As one who really, truly does adore Russia, this realist portrait of modern Russian life was heartily welcome. For instance, when Elena is preparing breakfast in the morning she uses what I believe was a clear, Brita-like water pitcher that was aboil, leading me to think that over there they have handheld kettles that keep water perpetually boiling (those Russians). Cool! Elena speaks delicately with her husband over breakfast about her deadbeat son (from a previous marriage), Sergei, asking Vladimir for the money necessary to keep his family going, specifically Sergei’s up-and-coming deadbeat son Sasha, who we witness much later being quite the young Droog. Vladimir, while a caring husband, cannot stomach helping a man as lazy as Sergei, even if Sergei is her lover’s son. Elena’s frustration is compounded by the fact that Vladimir continually supports his own daughter, Katya, a melancholy, misanthropic, intellectual hedonist played by Elena Lyadova. I would love to see more of this actress, who did very fine work, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s a classic Russian beauty. After Vladimir has a heart attack in a gym pool, the plot’s main catalyst, Katya is morally forced to visit him in the hospital and a very sweet scene endures in which she nihilistically denies him all affection before they somehow smile, laugh, kiss.

This is a film I was quite happy to go into nearly blind. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s direction is formal, deft, voyeuristic. The content of Elena involves a bit of moral ambiguity (the reasons for which I will not elaborate) and Zvyagintsev’s direction takes a smart distance from it. Most of the film unfolds without inflection, and in the last third I do imagine there are a few disparate moral lanes each audience member will be taking. Elena won the ‘Un Certain Regard – Grand Jury Prize’ at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and with the exception of the impenetrably perfect Sans Soleil, is the best film I’ve yet seen at this year’s festival.

“Midnight in the Garden of South Texas”

The final film of the day is a documentary about a changeling scenario called The Imposter, produced by A&E (occurs to me now that A&E has existed for most/all of my life and I have no idea what they’re about). In San Antone, in 1994, a 13 year old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappeared. In 1997 the boy’s family, quite without anymore hope of seeing him, is informed that a young man claiming to be their son has cropped up in Spain. Disbelief abounds, to say the least. It isn’t long before the young man is reunited with his family in Texas, but something is wrong. How much can a developing young man change in three years? What if he is literally unrecognizable? His eye color, hair color, accent and certainly attitude are quite incongruous with all memory of Nicholas Barclay. He hardly speaks, is always nervous and is perpetually clad in cap and shades. FBI investigators are swiftly involved and listen in terror as the young man recounts a tale of kidnapping, rape, torture, brainwashing and even military conspiracy. It is a tale which nobody ever denied stretched credulity. But if the boy’s family is convinced the young man is their son, what can anybody do? Well, they can prove it with fingerprints and blood samples. And then the young man is properly identified as somebody whose name I do not wish to repeat. You’ll see why. This incredible scenario is only the first half of the tale. Much more is discovered with the help of a creepy old kook private investigator named Charlie Parker, who we were all surprised to root for above all other characters.

I had a pronounced, visceral, negative reaction to this film and certain choices made by the filmmakers. As such I am choosing to give it the lowest possible ranking and will not recommend viewing to anybody. From the very beginning, the docu is narrated and even dramatized by the very imposter who committed the crimes, a man we later learn is a career juvenile impersonator and pathological liar – a sort of soulless Frank Abegnale. He sneers, chuckles and bashfully looks askance at the camera as we witness him detail the entire affair from his perspective, in close-up. He also appears personally in the dramatized footage which recreates the story. The Imposter, in my opinion, is absolutely the last person who should have a camera put on him. He clearly loves the entire business. He loves the attention – he’s now a celebrity. He loves explaining how clever he is, how he effectively fucked with a number of vulnerable suckers. He smiles and looks directly into the lens as he says things like, “I washed her brain” and “Didn’t give a fuck what other people thought. I only care about myself.” So I will not repeat this scumbag’s name and give him more press. And I implore you to do the same. Is the film interesting? Sure. But it makes a sucker of every person who watches it. I don’t quite understand why Barclay’s family chose to be involved, as many of them are heavily interviewed and even participate in the dramatizations (somewhat sensational dramatizations which include Zimmer-like Batman scoring). I will say that the boy’s older sister lost all credibility for this viewer when she remarked that she did not understand that they have Coca-Cola in Spain. We can pretty much just write her off from this point. “How did he get to Spain..? It’s, like, all the way across the country.”

written by David Ashley

Seen so far:
Starbuck
Ethel
Come As You Are
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
V/H/S
Sans Soleil
Dead Weight
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Inland Empire
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Romancing in Thin Air
Elena
The Imposter

Ranked:
Sans Soleil
Inland Empire
Elena
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
11 Flowers
Ethel
How to Survive a Plague
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Come As You Are
V/H/S
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
The Imposter
Starbuck
Romancing in Thin Air
Dead Weight

Advertisements