BAFICI actually officially started on April 12th, which I don’t understand because nothing really happened that day except for an opening ceremony and a single free outdoor screening of some animated movie (I think?). To me it’d make more sense to open the cinema doors that same day instead of making a big announcement and then waiting a full day before people can start bingeing on indie films from all over the world. Anyway, here are the films I watched during those first three days of the festival– my hope is to jot down my thoughts on every single festival movie I catch this year, so they don’t slip through the cracks of my increasingly dilapidated mind palace. Yes, I have a mind palace. Like Sherlock. Except mine is just crowded with useless movie trivia and empty boxes of Chinese takeaway. Don’t judge.
(Also, full disclosure: I missed my first screening of the festival– Laura Checkoway’s documentary “Lucky”– due to waking up with a mystery hangover. I call it a “mystery hangover” because I didn’t have a drop to drink the night before. What a ripoff. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, on with the bleating.)
A narratively disjointed Argentine film that has a lot going for it, but even more working against it. The plot follows Diamond Santoro, a washed-up former rock star who travels through life in a sort of catatonic haze, reacting to everything from a distance. He travels to Peru to complete a journey laid out by his younger brother Nicolas, whose death at the height of their success pushed Diamond into early retirement. He reconnects with his brother’s former girlfriend, who has taken up residence in Peru, and heads into the Amazonian jungle in search of a mystic shaman to perform an ayahuasca ceremony… for some reason. On the way, he finds himself involved in a bizarre, genuinely over-the-top tale of drug trade, murder and revenge that feels plucked out of an entirely different movie.
This is one of those movies that take some time to process. That sit and stir inside of you, like the mystical brew that serves as both a McGuffin and a deus ex machina for our troubled protagonist. The good: this film is gorgeously shot. The crew made the best out of the natural scenery, every shot in the jungle is rich and vibrant with color. The cinematography makes this a genuine pleasure to watch. Also, the film’s outstanding sound design makes for an intoxicating and surreal experience, at times bleeding the sounds of the Peruvian amazon with rock, cumbia and the cacophonous thumping inside our protagonist’s brain. The bad: the plot is idiotic, unbelievable and ninety shades of campy. The dialogue is terrible– stilted, melodramatic and awkward. The acting is absolutely horrendous, especially from the lead, who is wooden, stiff and deeply unlikable throughout. All in all, I guess this is a worthwhile watch, but fails to connect as anything other than a novelty. Not a good film to start the festival on. It’s a shame, too, because it really could’ve been great with a better cast and without all the ridiculous plot contrivances.
20,000 Days on Earth
There are a few things that I am simultaneously deeply interested in as well as incredibly annoyed by: Cats. Pearl Jam. Essay-length dissections of classical pieces. Tumblr. The ongoing tug-o-war between Perenially Indignant Social Justice Internet Activists and the Idiotically “Edgy” White Dudes of the World. But the one thing that I find most irritating, yet can’t ever resist listening to, is musicians talking about the creative process. Seriously, if you ever find yourself thinking “hm, I just really feel like listening to some overblown pretentious psychobabble right now“, go look at youtube videos of songwriters discussing how songs come to them: it’s always a cavalcade of self-aggrandizing, utterly meaningless platitudes, describing absolutely nothing at all; a desperate attempt to add a layer of mystique to what they know in their heart of hearts to be a very mundane, very boring process. Most musicians just lack the eloquence to describe why songs form the way they do, why the melodies hang or bend in a certain way, why this particular combination of chords sounds like the world is about to crumble beneath the singer. Most musicians can’t explain where it all comes from. Most musicians aren’t Nick Cave.
“20,000 Days on Earth” is an examination of Nick Cave’s career, weaving together strands from the many lives he’s led into a rich tapestry of ghosts, songs and memories. But it’s also a Nick Cave mixtape– not a literal one, of course, but feelings and ideas and themes and concerns plucked together from throughout his career and made into a kind of demo reel of neuroses. And it’s also an examination of the process of songwriting– where the ideas come from, how we stomp them down, how a song takes shape, how we can stretch them some more, why they matter, why they take hold. And it’s about performance– the fleetingness of it all, the theater, the sexuality. And it’s about memories. And it’s about dreams and actions and reactions and consequences. But more than any of that, it’s a breathtaking film, deeply inspiring and satisfying. Just absolutely amazing and revelatory and thrilling throughout. So glad I saw this on the big screen.
Kathleen Hanna: The Punk Singer
My first exposure to Kathleen Hanna was actually through a pretty vicious put-down in the form of the NOFX song “Kill Rock Stars”, from the album So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes. This song painted her as an embittered, hateful “feminazi” (a term I grew to loathe, but which made a whole lot of sense to my 14-year-old self) who saw no solution to the world’s problems other than exterminating the male species. I now realize this is pretty much the same caricature that virulent Men’s Rights Activists try to paint feminists as– which is not to say that Fat Mike is an MRA (he’s clearly far from it), but back when the record came out, that was the level of discourse surrounding gender issues in the punk world. At 14 years old, I took Fat Mike’s words to be gospel truth– after all, he was pretty much the king of that small group of punk bands I found myself obsessed with during my early teens. And for many years, that’s the image I had of her: a humorless man-hater with nothing productive to say. Man, fuck you Fat Mike.
“The Punk Singer” is not a “rock doc”. It’s an honest look at the life and times of a polarizing figure in the music business who dared to point a finger at the hypocrisy in a subculture which claimed to be about freedom, inclusion and justice, and was deemed a killjoy and a pariah. It’s about empowerment, about activism, about anger, but mostly (and most effectively) it’s about the sheer devastating awesomeness of the music she made (and continues to make) and the causes she agitated (and continues to agitate) for. Perhaps a little too adoring of its subject matter, but nonetheless as magnetically compelling as she is. A fantastic film.
Mujeres Con Pelotas
I really shouldn’t try to speak for every festival enthusiast on the planet– I’m sure most of them are careful and thoughtful when they assemble their film festival itinerary. And hey, I am too, for the most part. But every once in a while I’ll buy tickets to a movie for no other reason than it happens to fit a movie-sized hole in my schedule, and it’d be awkward to just sit around and wait for 90 minutes in between features drinking coffee or something. This is why I bought a ticket to “Mujeres Con Pelotas”, an Argentine documentary about women’s football (that’s “soccer” for you Americans). Not really a topic that would’ve inspired much interest in me, but it fit my schedule nicely, so I took a chance. And taking a chance on an unknown movie, unsure of what you’re about to step into, is one of my favorite things about this film festival. Sometimes you strike out. When that happens, it’s kind of a bummer, but it never really feels like a waste because at least you got a story out of it. When it pays off, though, it’s a wonderful surprise. And this one paid off.
The story of women’s football in Argentina is actually pretty fucking interesting. There’s a lot of punk rock, DIY spirit in it. Argentina, of course, is a famously football-obsessed country. It also happens to be a woefully chauvinistic country. Women’s football is seen as an oddity, a novelty, even an abomination, and the talk surrounding it is laced with thinly veiled misogyny. This zestful little documentary sheds light on a part of Argentina’s sports history that is seldom televised, often dismissed and inevitably derided. It does so with humor and heart. A real treat. Glad to have caught it.
… And then sometimes the gamble doesn’t pay off. Sometimes you walk into a movie theater without knowing much about what you’re going to see, but sort of expecting to at least derive some measure of enjoyment, or at the very least bemused confusion, out of the screening. And sometimes you feel your heart start to sink as you realize with horror, within 10 minutes or so, that the movie you’ve stepped into is just an incredibly fucking tedious, laboriously mediocre piece of work. You yawn and you roll your eyes and you groan as you see, with stunning clarity, what the filmmaker was shooting for, and how badly they got it wrong with their ham-handed approach. But you’re pot committed at this point, you’ve psyched yourself up for it, so you sit there and you power through a story so tepid and inconsequential, you might as well just see where it goes.
And maybe it’s when you’ve let go of the notion of actually watching a good movie that you can start to appreciate the quiet, unassuming pleasures of a film like this. “Tres D” is an Argentine movie– from Cordoba, to be precise– which tells the story of two friends who work as press for a film festival in Cosquin. My first impression of this film was that it was unbearable film-festival navel-gazing, punctuated by incredibly tiresome conversations between world-weary film snobs talking about the nature of film festivals. It’s a masturbatory affair, with little in the way of an actual, discernible story, but after a while I kind of surrendered to its quiet charm. The lead actress, Micaela Ritacco, is a veritable charm factory, and genuinely fun to watch on camera. Even if we’re watching her do absolutely nothing. Perhaps after a little while it just starts to feel like you know these characters, in their permanent stasis, so it just feels like hanging out with old friends. There’s a strange comfort in that. In the end, this didn’t feel like that much of a waste of time… but I wouldn’t watch it again.
Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie
What I used to love about Kevin Smith films when I first got into them, back when I was 13, was that they were clever. At least that’s how they came off to me at the time. Every character had an impressive lexicon, they spoke in long uninterrupted monologues peppered with pop culture references and a dash of stoner philosophy, they shared a common universe– characters from one movie would reference characters from another, which appealed to the comic-book continuity geek in me. It was fun to keep track of those interactions. And the ancillary backbone of Jay and Silent Bob, even at their stupidest, were like a Greek chorus of sorts. They never struck me as unnecessarily idiotic, even though they clearly were, because they were surrounded by other elements that had more depth to them and balanced it all out.
Left to their own devices, though, the shtick wears thin fast. And I understand, that’s the point, this is a movie based on a comic book that was supposed to be about these two idiots becoming superheroes; it’s supposed to revel in its idiocy, but this was just way. too. fucking. much. The jokes were painfully, excruciatingly dumb, the animation crude and amateurish, the voice acting… um… functional, I guess? Listen, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself. I laughed a few times (mostly at Ralph Garman’s over-the-top performance as a supervillain who is literally just a giant, talking penis). But it veered a little too heavily into the obnoxious, irritatingly sexist and homophobic side of Smith’s oeuvre, which the character of Jay embodies perfectly– which I guess means that’s the point? And I guess it means it’s effective? I don’t know. It was dumb. I laughed.
Oh, God, this one hit me hard. A movie that is confident enough to let itself take sharp turns from comedy to drama and back again, and to stray into the murky waters of absolute despondency and take up residence there for extended periods of time. Where characters don’t exist merely to serve a dramatic function but to inhabit moments, and to let these fully-formed surprisingly-realized personalities (personalities which would be cardboard cutouts or caricatures in lesser films) react to their surroundings, and let that be the movie instead of trying to manufacture drama. This movie is real, it’s honest, it’s uncomfortable, it’s incredibly fucking sad and it’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious, and it can be all those things and not feel like a nightmarish mess because of three main factors: 1) the script, which is clever and thoughtful and thoroughly lived-in, 2) the direction, which allows for some breathing room amidst the darker passages and never loses sight of the “comedy” part of its description, and 3) the cast, overflowing with warmth and charisma.
There’s a general sentiment, often repeated by so-called screenwriting gurus, that your movie shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone. And, you know, that’s good advice, for the most part, a lot of writers would make an absolute mess of things if they tried to truly capture the vastness of the human experience in 90 minutes. But when a movie can be as relaxed as this one, when the emotional palette of a film is so wide to actually approach the dynamic range of real life and it really does feel like you’ve been given a glimpse into the life of a real group of people, it’s a powerful thing. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Absolutely beautiful.
The Image Revolution
Not really sure what I expected out of this other than… I dunno… something better. This lightweight, utterly characterless documentary about one of the most overhyped comics movements in the medium’s history falls flat on its stupid face. It looks and feels like a DVD featurette, with little in the way of creativity in its storytelling: basically just a bunch of talking heads with some archival footage and a scarce few artistic flourishes. Nothing about why Image resonated with people when it did, nothing about its style-over-substance approach, nothing about the lasting impact it left on the industry (if it did leave an impact at all). Also, I counted a total of one woman on screen– at least, one woman who wasn’t a brightly colored illustration.
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
Breathtaking. Probably my favorite festival movie so far. A really interesting story told in an unconventional, but powerful way. This is par for the course for the Zellner brothers, whose brand of offbeat humor and startling fatalism have always resulted in very effective and memorable films, but this is a gigantic step forward for them in terms of execution, production values and scope. It tells the story of Kumiko, a timid office girl in Japan, who is something of a scavenger, rummaging around the city for treasures. One of the treasures she finds is a VHS copy of the Coen brothers’ classic film “Fargo”. Upon watching it, she develops and obsession with the money that Steve Buscemi’s character hides in the snow, and, not quite able to tell the difference between fiction and reality, decides that it is her destiny to travel to Fargo and find that hidden “treasure”.
Like other films in this festival, this one is quiet, sad, but oddly beautiful in its own way. A pleasure to look at, with lush sceneries that the Zellner brothers had never really approached before, rich with humor and a sweetly sad tale at the heart of it, It’s the kind of movie I hope to find every year in this film festival, and, like the titular character, it’s worth rummaging through the garbage to find something this beautiful.