Saturday, February 27, 2010

PIFF Day 13 - Gritty good and gritty bad

"Down Terrace" (8), like "The Sopranos," portrays dysfunction in a crime family where the stakes might just get you killed--but the brand of gritty realism and dark humor in this first film by British director Ben Wheatley feels more like the work of director Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies" and "Happy Go Lucky"). The set up is that Bill and his son Karl have just been released from jail and are determined to figure out who ratted them out to the police. An array of family friends and potential suspects come through the ordinary-looking household that father and son share with wife and mum Maggie, and each visitor (including a despised lackey, Karl's pregnant girlfriend, and two menacing hatchet men, one of whom brings his toddler along on jobs), becomes a target of Bill, Karl, and/or Maggie, in some combination,though not for any particularly good reason.

I loved every minute of this dark film. Once you settle into the bumbling rhythm of how they talk and relate, these Brits are surprisingly funny--man-child Karl swings from petulant to apoplectic at the slightest discomfort, Maggie's perpetually beleagured look barely hides her vicious instincts, and Bill slathers on the charm seconds after he has coldly concluded that someone is a worthless piece of garbage. One monologue in which Bill extols the idealism that characterized drug-dealing in his youth and his supposed commitment to "goodness, truth, and beauty" is particularly hilarious. The self-delusionment of these three is profound--it's a peculiar combination of appalling and funny and keeps you hooked as their behavior becomes increasingly chilling, until it slowly dawns on you just how sinister they really are. Eventually you realize that there actually is no limit to what they will do; the most vicious behavior might arise without warning in the most mundane circumstances--and with absolutely no evidence of shame in the aftermath.

This perceptive, canny film reminded me of a family I know from the inside out but frequently despair of describing--the dynamics here are similarly destructive, but with guns and hammers thrown into the mix. Watching the film made me feel strangely validated, as weird as that may sound, because this truth (in a fictional guise) is so much stranger than fiction. It's hilarious and profound.

Not words I'd remotely apply to "Strongman" (2.5), a documentary about Stanley "Stanless Steel" Pleskun, the self-described "strongest man in the world at bending steel and metal." I fear that films like "American Movie" and "Anvil: The Story of Anvil" have convinced filmmakers less talented than the ones behind those films that hapless losers will make great documentary subjects. It turns out that it's not easy at all to make an engaging film about a person so limited by his intelligence and ability as is Stan, who can leg-press two-ton trucks and bend pennies with his fingers but doesn't have a clue how to turn those skills into a show that would be remotely entertaining. Likable though Stan is, his world, peopled by even bigger losers, is just plain depressing--and the long shapeless scenes of pointless dialogue show this director to be as talentless at filmmaking as his subject is at turning the odd skills he has honed into something actually marketable.

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