Chattanooga Film Festival 2016: Day 2

taxi_art8_1laurelDay 2 of the festival (see here for day 1, which also includes some background on the fest) kicked off with an early candidate for my favorite film of the weekend, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. Taxi was a backup choice for me originally, one made because I was exhausted from the night before and wanted a slightly later start to the day, but it’s a film I’m really, really glad I ended up catching. Panahi is a fascinating figure – officially banned by the Iranian government from making films, he’s continued to make them since that decree was passed, with Taxi his third act of defiance. His first, This is Not a Film, was a fascinating piece of rebellion pieced together while under house arrest, but Taxi feels like something more substantial. Posing as a cabdriver, Panahi picks up passengers throughout the day, an episodic framework that allows him to incorporate and comment upon Iranian daily life in a fascinating, quiet way. Whether he’s discussing the rules of filmmaking with his young niece, meeting with DVD bootleggers, or listening to passengers argue about the draconian death penalty enforcement in Iran, Taxi remains captivating, fascinating, and incredibly revealing while being a more gentle act of rebellion than you might expect. Panahi is proud of his country, but worried about it, and his careful staging and engaging conversations allow him to express both beautifully and thoughtfully. It’s a simple film, but a beautiful one, one that’s equal parts love letter to cinema, window into Iranian culture, and captivating cinema verite social rebellion. I couldn’t love it more. Rating: *****

tumblr_noah1qr5jo1ty8gw9o1_500Next up, the wonderfully bizarre Men & Chicken, which takes a very basic crowd-pleasing formula – man discovers his family and tries to accept both them and himself – and turns it into something incredibly bizarre and hilarious. Trying to explain the film’s texture is a work in futility; suffice to say, it’s the kind of film where men attack visitors to their property with pots and stuffed wildlife, characters have detailed schedules for their, um, self-maintenance, and the family branch might be a little too tightly bonded with their livestock. All of that sounds like Men & Chicken should be gross and crass, but instead it’s just constantly hilarious, if incredibly dark and odd. If you can get past the weirdness, you may realize the basic nature of the formula, but chances are, you’ll be laughing hard enough and captivated by the wonderfully odd characters that you won’t mind much. And if that doesn’t grab you, how about Hannibal himself – Mads Mikkelsen – as a pathetic, aggressive loser? Or the chance to see the film by the man who got chosen to helm the long-gestating adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower? (Trust me, it’s a wildly bizarre choice based on this film. And yet, it’s one I’m okay with – this looks great and is paced/timed about perfectly.) Rating: **** ½

imageBy contrast, the wedding horror film Demon – a loose adaptation of the Jewish dybbuk folktale – is a frustrating, if sporadically effective, experience. It’s a wedding drama, which gives directors a lot of leeway – lots of characters, lots of drama, easy comedy, and so forth. And the idea of a horror film set against the backdrop of a wedding is a great idea, and one the film occasionally uses well, juxtaposing the nightmarish horrors involving the groom with the jubilant celebrations outside. But more often, it just feels unfocused and unclear, as though it’s implying so much and leaving so much unstated that it just becomes a blank slate. It’s tempting to view the film through the prism of the director’s suicide five days before the premiere, in that the film as much seems about isolation and hidden guilt as anything else. But ultimately, it never quite comes together, and the ending is a pretty weak fizzle. Rating: ** ½

CFFI’m going to be a bit diplomatic about the Secret Screening I caught during the afternoon, which was basically a first draft of an upcoming release. By all accounts, we were the first audience to see the film, and the director explained that he was still making changes and cuts and trying to shape things. That being said, I’m not sure he’s got an easy task ahead of him. The film, which got sold to us as The Changeling meets The Big Chill, largely revolves around an actor trying to lay a friend of his to rest, only to find that there’s a presence – maybe malevolent, maybe not – haunting him. There’s a neat idea in here somewhere, and a couple of good moments that are emotionally rich or scary, depending on what the film needs. But the big problems are twofold: 1) the film feels really, really long and draggy, even at 80 minutes, and 2) the lead actor, who basically has to carry every single scene, often on his own, lacks any real sense of presence or charisma. It’s a bad problem for a film like that to have, and that’s a shame, because there’s some promising pieces to be found. Here’s hoping he can shape it into something more satisfying. Rating: N/A 

getmovieposter_krisha_2What came next, though, blew me away on pretty much every level. Krisha is only the first film Trey Edward Shults, and that’s a staggering fact to keep in mind while you watch it, because it’s got a level of technical assurance, confidence, and strong voice that many more experienced filmmakers never achieve after multiple films. Krisha is the story of the title character, an older woman (mid-60’s) who’s been invited to join her family for Thanksgiving, after what seems like a long time apart. Exactly why it’s been so long, and why there’s so many layers of tension, will become clear over time, but even from the early going, it’s clear that Krisha is a damaged soul, one who’s made some rough choices in her life and is trying to atone for them now. Schults films the first half of the film in some dizzying long takes, giving you almost an Altman-esque sense of movement and conversation at all times, as he weaves in and out of family conversations and begins establishing various story threads. It’s a virtuoso performance, and one that grips you pretty instantly, but if anything, he’s matched or blown away by his lead actress, Krisha Fairchild, who owns the role to a staggering degree. On some level, this basic family drama about family grudges and the past, but it’s done with a beautiful sense of style, and more than that, a raw emotional intensity that’s hard to get away from. The performances are wonderfully naturalistic, and the dialogue often feels almost like it’s improv, due to how natural and off-the-cuff it feels. All of which gives the film a brutal emotional punch that will devastate you. It’s easily the best film I’ve seen so far here, and it’s going to be hard to top it. Rating: *****

baskin-posterFinally, the day ended up with a screening of the already infamous Turkish horror film Baskin.  Labeled as a “Turkish torture porn film”, Baskin has gotten a lot of attention by being a horror film from a country that doesn’t produce much of it, and being so successful about it. By and large, that’s a sentiment I can get behind, even if I ultimately found the film more derivative than I would have hoped. After a short dream sequence to kick things off, Baskin follows a small squad of police officers that gets called in to investigate a situation at an abandoned building and ends up stumbling across a cult that seems like something Clive Barker and Rob Zombie might have co-created, one that worships suffering and pain. Things, as you might imagine, go badly from there. Baskin makes the slow burn work wonderfully, building tension to an almost unmanageable level before letting everything blow up, and the use of shadows, ominous mood, a phenomenally unsettling location (seriously, the mental hospital in Session 9 can’t match this play for unspoken horrors and mood), and music really can’t be understated. Director Can Evrenol has a good eye and a nice ability to get good performances out of his cast, and that first half to 2/3 of Baskin is intense and unnerving. When everything finally cuts loose and goes nuts, though, the film ultimately feels less interesting than you hoped it would be, settling into something that feels like it could have been tacked onto the already bizarre final act of Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. There are still glimpses of a more ambitious, stranger film in there, with some Lynchian dream sequences that are phenomenal and an unexpected ending that raises all sorts of questions about the film. It’s a solid, intense, disturbing horror film, but one that still feels like an author who’s relying on others to be his voice; here’s hoping he starts finding his own soon, because the parts that are unique here are really, really unique. Rating: *** ½
IMDb: Jafar Panahi’s Taxi | Men & Chicken | DemonKrisha | Baskin
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