This is my first year attending True/False, and the festival definitely has the buzz of an event that’s about to explode into the mainstream. The energy so far has been incredible – no doubt partly due to Columbia, Missouri’s status as a bona fide college town, but also because the festival has such a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish.
Author Asher Gelzer Govatos
Death: the only thing acknowledged as more universal than government incompetence. The great unknown, the undiscovered country - call it what you will, it waits for us all, sometimes aggressively, sometimes with great patience. Because of death’s omnipresence and power to instill anxiety, humans have always placed great importance in the rituals surrounding it. From the open air exposure of the ancient Persians to the Viking’s ships of fire, societies have devised a plethora of ceremonies to help themselves swallow the bitter pill of a member’s passing. In the contemporary West, though, it often seems like death has been just one more aspect of life to fall prey to the tyranny of the individual: robbed of any communal, religious understanding, funerals have become a hushed, fearful thing.
*Warning* Of necessity, this review contains spoilers about the plot of A Short Film About Killing. Since the film is less about the what and the who than the how and the why, I don’t feel that revealing the particulars will in any sense rob the reader of the enjoyment the film provides. *
What does it take to murder someone - to take a life in one’s hands and end it? Death at the movies is commonplace, de rigeur, yet mostly it occurs in passing, a plot point to be checked off and then discarded. Few films stop and consider the very human cost of killing, much less center around it. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing undertakes this task, telling in a focused way the story of one murder, from planning to execution to aftermath. The film’s casual title belies the intensity of focus and purpose that pulses through this taut, thought provoking exercise
Love & Air Sex occupies a strange place on the romantic comedy continuum. It wears its indie cred on its sleeve - it takes place in Austin, a place where it’s hard to see the forest for the twees - and has the same penchant for raunch as many comedies in that general sub-set. Yet it feels more slick than most, like it inherited some DNA from the traditional rom-com. I would not call it tight structurally, but it has a shape and sense of purpose and feels less rambly than a typical indie film. So it goes a third way, waffling a bit between its two allegiances. That could be disastrous, but the film is charming enough to pull it off relatively well, pulling good parts from its Hollywood and lo fi relatives alike.
My favorite scene from any documentary ever comes in Errol Morris’ debut film, Gates of Heaven. As Morris begins to transition from the first part of his story about pet cemetaries to the second, he stops the movie flat for a lengthy, rambling monologue from an old woman who has been beaten down by life. It only very tangentially relates to the rest of the film, but it’s a scene you cannot take your eyes off. It shows incredible instinct on Morris’ part, an ability to judge what is and is not important in the big picture. Subconsciously or otherwise, I think when I see a documentary by a new director I look for a spark of that same instinct in their work. Though Lotfy Nathan’s debut film, 12 O’Clock Boys, has some problems, it also puts Nathan’s considerable talents as a director on display. This movie surprised and thrilled me, and I’m putting Nathan on my list of filmmakers to watch for in the coming years.
Oof - what a bad, bad movie Besties is. I mean, it’s bad, but the worst thing about it is it doesn’t even have the decency to be bad in an interesting way. This is a film with murder, conspiracy, and Sapphic undertones, but it manages to turn those promising components into a real yawnfest. I found myself checking my watch (proverbially speaking; what is this, 1950?), gritting my teeth, and searching desperately for that speck of light at the end of the tunnel.
If Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless represents a major breakthrough and victory for film, then his follow up Une Femme Est Une Femme feels like the after party: though it lacks some of the heft of its predecessor it shares the same sensibilities, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Godard moves on from the faux-noir of Breathless to deconstruct another genre, the battle of the sexes comedy. Like a racier Hepburn and Tracy, young Parisians Angela and Emile duke it out in high spirited fashion, trading quips and jabs as they dance around the edges of a serious matter - whether or not they will have a child together. Angela, struck by a sudden fancy, wants desperately to become pregnant. Emile, however, wants no such thing, devoted as he is to his socialist activities and - more to the point - his freewheeling lifestyle. His best friend Alfred, however, has no hesitation. He loves Angela, and makes it very publicly known that he would knock her up in a heartbeat.
A funny thing happened on the way to me reviewing True Grit. As I sat down to rewatch it I had firmly in my mind my initial critical impression from seeing it in theaters several years ago. That opinion lined up with the general critical consensus: fun, but unambitious for a Coen brothers film. A mainstream concession from two usually idiosyncratic filmmakers. Lesser Coen. Then I watched the film again, and a light went off. I still do not think that True Grit will be remembered as among the best films of the Coen body, but the film is far from lazy, phoned in, or toned down. It should not be seen as an attempt by the brothers to make a commercially successful film by compromising; rather the film falters because it is ambitious, pushing Joel and Ethan Coen into untried territory. In lieu of a straightforward review, then, I offer this list of ambitious elements in True Grit, and some thoughts on how these choices help or hurt the movie.
The Coen brothers have a real skill for surprise, zigging when everyone expects them to zag. Take their run of films from the mid to late 2000’s. After the underwhelming one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they rebounded by winning their first and only Best Picture Oscar in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. The next year saw them making Burn After Reading, which completely befuddled critics on its release; initially dismissed as fun but light fare, the film has over time gained a cult following. Two years later they made True Grit, their greatest commercial success and as close to a “crowd pleaser” as the idiosyncratic brothers have ever made. Nestled between these two came A Serious Man, a small budget film (by Coen standards - it cost $7 million to No Country’s $25 and Burn’s $37) released without much fanfare. It differs largely in tone from the films which surround it, having neither the dourness of No Country or the lighter touch of Burn or True Grit. Of all the brother’s films it probably has the most in common with 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, minus that film’s noir trappings, but in reality it stands as a singular creation. At once small in scale and breathtakingly ambitious, the film finds the Coens in top form as writers and directors. Many will disagree, but for my money A Serious Man is not only the most Coeny Coen brothers film, it’s also the best, and one of the best American films in decades.
If you are going to make a biographical documentary, it helps to have a figure as expansive and fascinating as Doc Pomus at its center. A man who overcame childhood polio and outsider status to become one of the most influential songwriters in history, Pomus was certainly an important if overlooked player in the rise of rock-tinged pop music in the 1950s and 60s. That alone would not guarantee him as an interesting subject for a documentary, though; thankfully the man himself was interesting and vibrant enough to provide a reason for AKA Doc Pomus to exist.