Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Karlovy Vary Film Festival Highlights: Comedy Pt. 2

The comedies presented at Karlovy Vary in July highlights the variety of the selection that spanned national cinemas. The relatively main stream Away We Go and the off-the radar Serbian feature Devil’s Town speak to the selection’s sometimes divergent quality as well as the Czech festival’s uncanny ability to unearth unexpected gems of world cinema.

"Away We Go" dir. Sam Mendes (USA)

With a few exceptions, director Sam Mendes has defined himself auteur fascinated with the often torturous dynamics of married life. Last year, he followed his Oscar-winning American Beauty, about a husband's midlife crisis gone awry, with an even bleaker adaptation of "Revolutionary Road." Starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, the latter film suggested that the true love promised at the end of Titanic was nothing but a futile dream. Mendes' latest picture Away We Go is far lighter in tone, though as intensely attracted to the harsh realities of relationships. It is a poignant, often charming comedy about the fears parenthood can spark in young couples whose overall impact is tempered by overly broad comedic performances that effectively undercut the soft and subtle work of its two leads.

The film follows Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), two self-proclaimed "fuck ups," who lay about lifestyles are suddenly disrupted after Burt discovers that his partner is pregnant. Soon after, Burt's parents decide to pack up and move to Belgium leaving the young parents without any means of support. Framing their newfound solitude as their chance to start afresh, the pair goes on a cross-country search for a new home. As they meet up with various unhappy acquaintances, the voyage strengthens their bond while forcing both to confront their deep seated insecurities.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph share a hilarious chemistry playing two characters suffering through mutual angst, buoyed only by the comforting presence of the other. Their easy relationship is effortlessly evoked during the single long take opening where Burt discovers Verona's pregnancy during a routine act of cunnilingus. Rudolph seems slightly detached during the first few opening moments making her self available less for her own sexual desire than as a favor to her enthusiastic spouse. Lying under the sheets, Krasinski projects a happy befuddlement when exclaiming "You taste different!" using only his intonation to underscore the pair's close bond. A sense of shared nonchalance permeates all their intimate interactions thus lending Burt and Verona an often remarkable sense of authenticity.

The stars navigate just as deftly the moments of distance between their characters, and both showcase the strain of a relationship between two emotionally stunted individuals. Verona detests the thought a marriage - a conviction that causes the much enamored Burt no end of stress and even humiliation. When asked by two friends if he has ever proposed, Burt quickly responds "I ask her all the time to marry me, watch!" He proceeds to pose the question only to be swiftly rejected. Although both actors take on jovial airs in the scene, Rudolph grows ever brusquer with every proposal reinforcing the impossibility of a ceremonial union. Krasinski slowly reveals what his character perceives as a fundamental lack of commitment to be painful and even terrifying

By toning back his typically sumptuous style, Mendes perfectly complements his leads elegant, rich performances. Such understatement amplifies the overuse of caricature as comedy in the film's supporting roles. Since many of the characters that Burt and Verona visit during their travels come off as wildly eccentric to the point of unbelievability, much of the world feels oddly empty. Played by the usually more subdued Maggie Gyllenhaal, the hippie mother LN embodies this unfortunate narrative trend. LN attempts to convert the soon-to-be parents to a parental philosophy that paints strollers as a negative and complete sexual frankness with children as the ideal. While eating with her family at dinner, she announces that she had "the most wonderful orgasm" when her first son was born. Gyllenhaal utters the frank reminiscence with ham-fisted reverie. LN stands as a dated feminist character that wears outs her welcome in the first 5 minutes, but stays in the film for another 20.

Only occasionally do supporting characters have any psychological depth including a married couple whose happy façade breaks down to reveal a seemingly inextinguishable grief. Their attempt to explain the mechanics of it an ideal family life using pancake and syrup as a model slowly morphs from offbeat parental advice to a lament over lost youth. That such intriguing characters defined by a restrained melancholy humor appear so rarely, highlight the film's poor narrative decisions. With its weary optimism, so unlike Mendes' earlier films, the flawed Away We Go does contain real insight about the despair and confusion that the passage into adulthood can bring.

Devil's Town dir. Vladimir Paskaljević (Serbia)

While Away We Go and many of the other comedies wrestled, often to their detriment, with different tones and comedic stylings, the Serbian Devil's Town melds the miserable with absurdity to superb effect. So powerfully does the rich production employ humor to form its damning critique of Serbian society that the film testifies to the dynamism of Eastern European cinema showcased so thoroughly at Karlovy Vary.

By focusing on a broad cast of characters struggling modern-day Belgrade, the film's world has an unexpected texture. The ensemble includes the poor, like an angry taxi driver who sees only bourgeois arrogance around him, and the wealthy, like a Mafia boss that obsesses about his son outperforming him at a high-end bordello. Many of the Belgrade citizens face personal crisis in a stifling society whose structure appears to leave all, except for the most corrupt, in a hopeless limbo. Devil's Town exposes the far-reaching malaise that appears in all parts of city life using bitter and very poignant comedy.

A scene where a long retired gynecologist visits a bordello reflects the film's many pained performances that contain an absurd edge. The elderly doctor hires a prostitute not for sex, but to perform a routine examination. After he announces with informed certitude that "everything looks all right," he suddenly breaks his decorum and tearfully remembers his youth and career. All this painful reflection leads to a crippling heart attack. Played with a convincing desperation, the actor brings to vivid life a bizarre moment where the quintessentially impersonal sparks a deluge of deeply personal memories.

Where such quiet scenes contain an unexpected poignancy, Devil's Town gamely presents comedy defined by a manic and deranged energy. As much as the doctor suffers because his emotional hang-ups, his vacuous son has no such difficulties. His father's brush with death is simply another opportunity to garner funds for his wildly ambitious series of films that will culminate with Serbia: The Final Truth. Consisting mostly of close-ups of the actor's wide-eyed face, the wannabe filmmaker’s sales pitch meticulously details every aspect of production for his bed ridden parent. The diatribe ends with a brief break down of the film's score consisting of one note from a harmonica and a lot of high-pitched screams. In a winningly off-kilter fashion, the scene also satirizes, on a meta-level, artistic attempts to deconstruct the Serbian experience.

First-time feature director and screenwriter Vladimir Paskaljević maximizes the awkward tension between characters using clever aural and visual cues. When a young girl goes to tell her father of her mother's plan to move to America, he attempts to give her some stern fatherly advice. Since her dad has become a monk sworn to silence, he uses computer software to explain his displeasure. The mechanical, emotionless voice emanating from his laptop gives his many pleas an added pathetic quality while simultaneously unveiling the limits of his supposed religious conviction. Paskaljević permeates the film with visual gags that highlight the callousness of modern Belgrade. While a rabbit keeper explains the finer points of bunny slaughter to a new employee, a small picture of Bugs Bunny hangs in the background. Such juxtapositions speak ever so subtly to a demented culture which the filmmaker mines for all its humorous possibilities.

That the gynecologist son's first film also happens to be entitled Devil's Town appears to be a recognition of the folly in creating an all-encompassing view of modern Serbia. Yet Paskaljević so confidently executes his vision that the hack's dreams of a Serbian opus highlight the blazing success of the film itself. Devil's Town is an effecting and complex portrait of a society that has foregone traditional values to satisfy petty material desires. Above all, it is a stunning example of comedy at its most vicious and illuminating.

Next Up: The Best Film of the Giffoni Film Festival

The youth festival's sunny Italian confines hosted many dark films

In the next edition of the blog, I will be switching gears to focus on the best film of Southern Italy's Giffoni Film Festival - the child soldier feauture Johnny Mad Dog. Although it is the largest children's film festival in the world, with juries ranging from 3 to 18 years old, the brutal and unforgettable film emphatically demonstrated that Giffoni is one film festival that respects the intelligence of its audience.