Saturday, February 20, 2010

PIFF Day 10: Two excellent and two decent films

I caught four films today, and two deserve more discussion than I can give them right now, but here's a start.

I'm not a Disney junkie by any means, but found "Waking Sleeping Beauty" (6.5) interesting primarily as a tale of corporate politics that felt strangely familiar. It's an insider look at Disney animation studios from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were brought in to remake the company into the profitable machine that turned out such hits as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," "The Little Mermaid," and "The Lion King." There are some interesting peeks into the creative process, particularly with regard to the music, and the political infighting is genuinely fascinating (especially accompanied by mean caricatures drawn by angry animators--that revenge must be sweet). What amazed me most, though, was watching this group of geeky white males at work--you would never imagine such a group being the masterminds behind these projects--and also the film's utter lack of consciousness about the homogeneity of the players. There is hardly an ethnic minority in sight and, though from still photos it's apparent that lots of women worked at the studio during this era, not a single one is interviewed. How did no one notice this?

One of the real finds of the festival so far is "A Town Called Panic" (10), which must be seen to be believed. The first feature-length film of two Belgian animators, it is an absurdist stop-motion animated tale starring a dashing plastic toy horse and his hapless housemates, a plastic toy cowboy and Indian, both on awkward little stands, living in an idyllic village improbably called Panic. The jerky movements of these figures suggest what naughty kids might play at when adults aren't looking--except these kids picked up a few ideas the adults didn't expect them to overhear. Beginning with the daily toilette of Horse, Cowboy, and Indian, in which all three shower and brush their teeth, and continuing through a manic adventure that includes a botched internet shopping order, a raucous party, a romance between Horse and a sultry equine music teacher, a journey to the center of the earth, the discovery of an alternative underwater universe, and a giant robot penguin who hurls perfect snowballs from one universe to the other, the film is endlessly inventive and laugh-out-loud funny. Each detail is riotously imagined, the voices and dialogue are a hoot (I especially loved the constant shout of the plastic farmer next door--and hearing the dialogue in French punctuated with American slang made it somehow more amusing), and the action is joyously frenetic. Even if you don't normally go for animated films, give this one a try--it's utterly original and fun.

"Welcome" (8.5) is perhaps the best film about illegal immigration that I've seen; though I liked "Dirty Pretty Things" and "The Visitor," this film is not so heavy-handed as the former and delves much deeper than the latter. Set mostly in Calais, it tells the story of Bilal, a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee who has travelled for three months on foot to northern France and is desperate to get across the English channel to his girlfriend, who has immigrated with her family to London. He is uneasily befriended by Simon, a middle-aged swimming instructor whom he enlists to train him so that he can swim across. Simon, whose soon-to-be ex-wife Marion works with an organization that provides aid to the many refugees who congregate on the border, seeks at first to impress her by aiding Bilal--but his reasons become more complex as his eyes are opened to the experience of the community of illegals who are his neighbors. Simon puts himself increasingly at risk because the French government treats harshly not only immigrants but those who seek to help them. This is the kind of film that rarely comes out of Hollywood--which is to say, it doesn't oversimplify a complex situation and doesn't tie everything up neatly. I hope it gets wider distribution.

Finally, "The Shock Doctrine" (5), based on a best-selling book by the same name, is fine as far as it goes, but I had the feeling I'd have been better off reading the book. It seeks to explain how elite corporate interests exploit moments of extreme crisis and cultural upheaval to push an unregulated, free-market idealogy. But a lot of footage and examples are crammed into the film's 82 minutes, to very conventional effect that doesn't take any real advantage of the medium or add much to the analysis. May be worth seeing if you want an introduction to the book or are not going to read it, but not spectacular.

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