Starz Denver Film Festival: Day 5 – 7

The best laid plans of horses and men…

Of Horses and Men
Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in an uncomfortable place Of Horses and Men (2013)

Most film festivals boast a couple hundred features, an equal amount of shorts and a handful of panels to attend. Out of all of these, only two, possibly three are truly great. Of Horses and Men is one. A remarkable film that should not be described, only praised.

Difficult to describe, impossible to forget should be sufficient enough. The story concerns a small community that inhabits a remote Icelandic Valley. In this valley, men and horses exist side-by-side in a sort of symbiotic harmony. Without the horses, the humans would starve, lack transportation, and entertainment. Without the humans, the horses would lack attention and affection. I don’t know if that is enough to count as a symbiotic relationship, but Of Horses and Men makes it seem like it is.

Of Horses and Men is a series of vignettes, each one starting with the close-up of a horses’ eye as punctuation. After three of these vignettes, we get a close-up of a human’s eye with a horse reflected in it. These two species are very closely connected, and that connection is palpable in each scene. There are times where the humans feel so close to the horses that a love connection (no, not that kind) is made.

The movie concludes with the title card that everyone has no doubt been waiting for: No Horses Were Harmed in the Making of this Movie. They should have opened with it. Not that there is an intolerable amount of animal cruelty, but there are some deaths. There are also human deaths as well. It is implied that one of the horses will be castrated, and we shudder. However, one of the men is very graphically blinded while cutting wire, and we laugh. No species is spared.

The hero of the piece is a Swedish girl (Maria Ellingsen) who is far more capable than the men in the valley, possibly because she is the only one not drunk all the time. She is not treated as “one of the guys,” she is treated like an equal, an important distinction that seems to exist only in European cinema.

But let’s not forget the absurdity of a man riding a horse into the freezing cold sea to swim to a nearby ship to buy alcohol. And how casually the crew handles it. Apparently this is not the first time. That in itself is delightful.

Written & Directed by: Benedikt Erlingsson
Produced by: Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
Starring: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Charlotte Bøving, Helgi Björnsson, Sigríður María Egilsdóttir, Maria Ellingsen
Music Box Films, Not Rated, 81 minutes, Nov. 16 & 17, 2014

Love on the run

Peter Vack & Natalia Dyer "I Believe in Unicorns" (2014)
Peter Vack and Natalia Dyer in I Believe in Unicorns (2014)

I Believe in Unicorns is Leah Meyerhoff’s NYU thesis film, and stands as an example of the quality that Tisch can produce.

The story follows a teenage girl, Davina (Natalia Dyer) who lives partly in a dream world where stop-motion unicorns gallop in the wild while she is overtaken by vines and undergrowth. She falls for an older boy, Sterling (Peter Vack)—a rebel with Daddy issues—and the two of them skip town and live on the road.

I Believe in Unicorns is a personal story and Meyerhoff weaves in incidents from her life (a mother stricken from MS) and from her actress (obsession with unicorns). The stunning debut from the writer/director is really three films in one: one narrative, one experimental, one emotional. In a Q&A following the screening, Meyerhoff explained her process: principal photography was done on Super 16mm with the two leads and lasted three weeks. Then Meyerhoff received a grant from Tribeca and set out with her cinematographer (Jarin Blaschke) to capture a series of time-lapse and experimental photography that are woven through the film primarily as insert and pillow shots. Finally, Meyerhoff accomplished the stop-motion animation over the course of two months in her living room, visualizing Davina’s internal struggle. All three meld together beautifully and create something unique, personal and profound.

Written & Directed by: Leah Meyerhoff
Produced by: Heather Rae
Starring: Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Amy Seimetz, Julia Garner, Toni Meyerhoff
Animals on Parade, Running time 80 minutes, November 16 & 17, 2014

Sophie Traub "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" (2014)
Sophie Traub in Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

While not being an out-and-out horror film, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely stays very close, while remaining ethereal, dreamlike, yet, of the Earth.

The story follows Akin (Joe Swanberg) as he leaves his wife and child behind to work on a rural farm run by the gravely and unsettling, Jeremiah (Robert Longstreet). It is unclear why Akin leaves his home to earn as a farm hand, but I gather that he is incapable of keeping, or at least focusing on, one thing at a time. Akin falls for the farmer’s daughter, Sarah (Sophie Traub), or at least develops a sever attraction to her, one that takes on a very real, very erotic feeling.

Written and directed by Josephine Decker, Mild and Lovely is grounded 100% in the Earth and carnal pleasure while remaining a floating veil that covers the reality of these character’s desires. It is unsettling, partly because it never gives the viewer a sense of grounding (the camera constantly moves in and out of focus, searching), and partly because we are never quite certain what we are going to see around the corner. Much like a horror movie where the monster is hiding in the shadows, the monster of Mild and Lovely is here, we just can’t quite focus our attention on it.

Directed by: Josephine Decker
Written by: David Barker & Josephine Decker
Produced by: Laura Heberton, Laura Klein, Interests Lavalette, Russell Sheaffer
Starring: Joe Swanberg, Sophie Traub, Robert Longstreet, Kristin Slaysman
Third Room Productions, Running time 94 minutes, November 15, 16, 17, 2014

Gather ’round the table

"Mile High Magic" (2014)
Mile High Magic (2014)

Magic: The Gathering has been a viable card game for twenty years now, and Denver is one of its biggest gaming centers. Every Friday, people from every walk of life enter Above and Beyond for a tournament, which can function as either a gateway to an obsession, an entry-level to a tournament career, or just a good time with friends. Like most hobbies, it is expensive and the people who play take it very seriously.

Director and editor Karen Cruz follows a half a dozen Magic players as they describe the game and their attraction to it. Cruz smartly does not try to explain the complex game of Magic—no explanations of mana, 20-sided die, or the difference between Green Decks and Red Decks—instead focusing on the obsession and identity the game creates. The doc follows a familiar path with the state tournament functioning as the climax. Cruz spends a little amount of time with her subjects away from the game, but it’s too much in some cases (a boy speaking of a break-up) and not enough in others (explorations of how this expensive hobby is funded). It’s not a doc designed to convince the viewer to go out and buy a pack of Magic cards, but to depict a culture foreign to many.

Written & Directed by: Karen Cruz
Produced by: Neal Duemke, Ray Cruz, Vincent Cruz
Starring: Nick Bonham, Samantha Mellen, Aaron Cornellier, Richard Vaughn, Carl Godwin, Barron Long
Broken Science Productions, Running time 91 minutes, November 16 & 23, 2014

Williamsburg murder mystery

Alia Shawkat & Sophia Takal "Wild Canaries" (2014)
Alia Shawkat and Sophia Takal go snooping in Wild Canaries (2014)

It’s a Williamsburg Murder Mystery as Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Barri (Sophia Takal) fight to keep their engagement going while solving a conspiracy/murder mystery. With some help from Noah’s ex, Eleanor (Annie Parisse) and Barri’s closest friend, Jean (Alia Shawkat), the two warring lovers will attempt to uncover a murder plot that starts with rent control and ends so convoluted Raymond Chandler would have loved.

Wild Canaries is a funny send-up to The Thin Man series as well as current rom-coms, yet it lacks one intangible quality that keeps this from being a top-tier narrative. The acting is good, the pacing is well executed and the writing is all there, but it still shows its hand with certain amateurish approaches. Partly the fault of the sound design and the score, partly the digital sharpness of the image, and partly the production value. Not that it distracts too much, but it makes its presence known. However, the rest is so good (and quite engaging) that I feel the principal cast and crew have very bright futures ahead of them.

Written & Directed by: Lawrence Michael Levine
Produced by: Kim Sherman, Sophia Takal, E. McCabe Walsh
Starring: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, Jason Ritter, Kevin Corrigan
Little Teeth Pictures, Running time 98 minutes, November 15, 16, 17, 2014

Love and death

Wagner Moura "Futuro Beach" (2014)
Wagner Moura in Futuro Beach (2014)

Told in three parts in two countries, writer/director Karim Ainouz explores the emerging sexuality of two men, both united in loss.

Futuro Beach (Praia do Futuro) begins in Brazil, amidst waves endlessly lapping against the sand while Konrad (Clemens Schick) and his friend go for a swim. The undertow is strong and drags Konrad’s friends to his death, despite any effort the lifeguard, Donato (Wagner Moura) can provide. Konrad then turns to Donato in grief and the two begin a hot and aggressive love affair. They move to Berlin, where the movie’s color palette shifts from lush and vibrant to cold and steely blue. Their relationship hits a bump or two before the story transitions back to Brazil, this time coated in a dense and hazy fog.

Well shot and acted, Futuro Beach suffers from the same sort of issue most vignette movies do, and that is one section inevitably stands out over another. In this case, it is the first section, partly because of the atmosphere it creates. Many movies make picturesque scenes looks lovely, but few can actually put the wind in your hair and the grit of sand between your teeth.

Directed by: Karim Ainouz
Written by: Karim Ainouz & Felipe Bragança
Produced by: Geórgia Costa Araújo & Hank Levine
Starring: Wagner Moura, Clemens Schick
Strand Releasing, Running time 106 minutes, November 15 & 17, 2014

Sari & Alexan "Walking Under Water" (2014)
Sari and Alexan go Walking Under Water (2014)

Writer/Director Eliza Kubarska captures the space between documentary and narrative with the story of Alexan and his nephew, Sari, two of the last members of the Badjoa people.

Alexan is a compression diver and fisherman who feels more a home under water than he does above it. A very poor man, he requires little more than cigarettes, a boat, and a working engine. He may not have them all at the same time, but he is working on it.

Alexan is teaching Sari the art of diving, which takes a considerable amount of energy and patience. When Sari takes a crack at it, he panics with the compressor hose and cannot breath. Alexan tries to calm him down and get him on the straight and narrow, but it’s not easy. Diving is not something that everyone is cut out for.

Sari’s father also used to be a diver and doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. He has his reasons, he lost a portion of his arm while dynamite fishing. He wants his son to go to school or, better yet, work at the resort.

The lack of money and the encroaching tourist industry is what threatens these people’s lives. The resort employs the natives, but only temporarily. The natives are squished together, practically living on top of one another, while the resort continues to expand, slowly choking them out. Kubarska does not belabor this point and instills this conflict in one magnificent shot: the natives on one side, on the other a white couple walking down a long, well maintained dock.

Walking Under Water is a moving document of a subject I had no knowledge of, with stunning, absolutely gorgeous underwater photography. There is one scene that has lingered with me, and will no doubt stick with most viewers: Alexan and Sari traveling the sea when they come across a Badjoa neighborhood comprised entirely stilt houses. They have no yards, no grounds, no foundations and no electricity. Just rickety boards lashed to planks that make up the idea of a house. Entire families live here, and probably have lived here for generations. Their stories are material enough for another movie in itself.

Written & Directed by: Eliza Kubarska
Produced by: Monika Braid
Starring: Alexan & Sari
Rise and Shine World Sales, Not Rated, Running time 76 minutes, November 17 & 19, 2014

We are what we do

Joy Of Man's Desiring
Joy of Man’s Desiring (2014)

What does it mean to define a life? When I was a teenager, I was perplexed by how people talked: “I’m in accounting;” “I advertise;” “I’m the West Coast Operations Manager.” Why would someone define their life by their work and not by their passion? Why not: “I’m into architecture;” “I like to play guitar;” etc.? After a couple of decades in the work force, I now understand. Our work defines us. It brings us a sense of identity. We take pride in it, we identify with it, we question others about it and we introduce people based on it. It makes sense; we spend more time working than we do with our loved ones, hobbies. and passions. At the end of the day, the work is what lasts.

This abstract concept is explored in the equally abstract, Joy of Man’s Desiring from Canadian director Denis Côté. Existing between documentary and narrative, Côté explores the relationship between man and machine, operator and operation.

Running a scant 70 minutes, Joy of Man’s Desiring contains little dialog, but the words are chosen carefully. The repetitive shots of the machines at work, and the workers that operate them are what matters.

Joy of Man’s Desiring is not a movie for the everyday viewer, but it is one that anyone can fall into. There is a rhythm here, and once you find it, the rest will click and a real beauty will open before your eyes. It took me about 15 minutes. My mind wandered, I drifted a little, and then suddenly, I snapped into it. The rest of the movie floated by with pleasantness and ease.

The real joy of Man’s Desiring is the amount of static shots and long takes Côté and cinematographer, Jessica Lee Gagné, employ. This allows for the eye to drift around the screen, letting each viewer search for the significance point in a frame. The long take of the break room immediately stood out to me. In the foreground, a beautiful brunette eating lunch alone. Why was she eating alone? What was she eating? What was her job here? Did she enjoy her work? What’s her story? The more I thought about what her, the more my eye drifted around the room, wondering what all these people and their individual stories.

Joy of Man’s Desiring is more than a simple document of a factory and the people who work in it. It is an exploration into the wants and desires of the people who operate these rhythmic machines. What the movie shows us is small, what it reveals is universal.

Written & Directed by: Denis Côté
Produced by: Sylvain Corbeil, Denis Côté, Nancy Grant
Starring: Guillaume Tremblay, Hamidou Savadogo, Ted Pluviose, Olivier Aubin, Emilie Sigouin
Films Boutique, Not rated, Running time 70 minutes, November 18 & 20, 2014