Woohoo! The Maryland Film Festival is this weekend (May 6-9). I was able to get a sneak preview of 3 of the films.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Likely to be one of the most buzzed about films of the festival, Dogtooth plays like some strange marriage of M. Night Shyamalan and Lars von Trier. It is dark—horrific at times—and, yes, perversely funny.
In Greece, an upper middle class family lives in a veritable fortress. Only the father goes to work. The three nearly grown children—two girls and a boy—are never allowed to leave the grounds. They know next to nothing about the outside world—they have no television, no telephone (the mother keeps one hidden so she can call the father if necessary), no Internet. They think airplanes are toy-sized, that cats are dangerous creatures who want to kill them, and that children can only leave the house when one of their adult dogteeth falls out.
In an example of the film’s sly sense of humor, the father asks the family if they want to hear “Grandpa sing.” He proceeds to put a Frank Sinatra record on the phonograph. Of course, since Frank is singing in English, the father is able to misinterpret the words to “Fly Me to the Moon” as a paean to the virtues of family and security.
In another scene, the two girls dance to celebrate their parents’ anniversary. But their dance is peculiar, stilted, off—the dance of people who have never seen dancing before.
On the surface, the family is sedate, almost blissful, but the children are seething with hormones and repressed anger.
When the father decides to bring in a prostitute (more accurately, a coworker he pays off) to sleep with his son, her outsider presence inexorably disrupts their hermetic world.
Dogtooth falls slightly into a category of film that I generally hate: the kind that encourages you to laugh—and then punishes you for laughing with a burst of unspeakable violence or perversity (see Michael Haneke’s Funny Games). But I must say, I was riveted by this film. The intentionally off-kilter direction, by Giorgos Lanthimos, adds to the sense of disorientation. At times, he shoots the family from strange angles—just legs or torsos. He wants to fully immerse us in the uncanny solitude and strangeness of their world. He succeeds.
Rating: 3.5 stars
This smart, droll indie plays like Bridget Jones for the Tribeca set. After a bad break up, recent college graduate Aura (writer/director Lena Durham) moves back to New York to live with her annoyingly self-possessed 17-year-old sister and aloof artist mom (played, respectively, by Grace Durham and Laurie Simmons, the filmmaker’s real sister and mother). Aura is a bit lost and a bit of a doormat, but she mostly handles things with an unflappable equanimity. In the course of the film, Aura steals her mom’s diary; crushes on a not so bright chef; reconsiders an old friendship; gets into a strange “friend zone” with a passive aggressive wannabe filmmaker; and tries to figure out who she wants to be when she grows up. We’ve never seen someone like Aura in a movie before—she has cellulite! she says mean things just because!—and I love the lack of vanity Durham brings to this explicitly autobiographical work. By the time the film is over, you feel like Durham was your college roommate, or at least your favorite Facebook friend. I’m kind of hoping there’ll be a sequel.
NIGHT CATCHES US
Rating: 2.5 stars
This solemn melodrama, about uneasy race relations in 1976 Philadelphia, is marred by a somewhat stilted script, but buoyed by excellent performances and a nifty R&B soundtrack (by the Roots). Marcus (The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie) has come home to Philly to attend his father’s funeral and to reconnect with old friend Patty (Kerry Washington). They were Black Panthers back in the day—now she’s a lawyer who represents Pathers pro bono as she raises 10-year-old Iris (Jamara Griffin); he’s estranged from the Panthers, who think he’s a snitch. The rightetousness of the Panther movement has faded, but the “kill the pigs” sentiment still resonates strongly in this neighborhood, particularly with Patty’s angry young cousin Jimmy (Amari Cheatom). Director Tanya Hamilton does a good job recreating a once-proud neighborhood that has lost its way, and she understands the difficult choices faced by those who decide to leave old friends behind for greener pastures. Still, the film’s plot requires a lot of exposition (mostly recounted to poor young Iris) and Night Catches Us never fully catches on.