Saturday, May 25, 2013

CUFF 2013

This past April marked the 10th anniversary of the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) and the festival celebrated it by having the strongest lineup in their history. The remarkable aspect about the selection was that it felt like someone read my mind in booking the films. 7 titles from my must-see list played at the festival. I had been eagerly waiting to see Berberian Sound Studio, Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Pieta, Sightseers, The Act of Killing and Upstream Color. So I was delighted CUFF booked them. Unfortunately in the end, I could only see 5 of those titles:

Berberian Sound Studio (2012, UK, Peter Strickland)
Upstream Color (2013, USA, Shane Carruth)
Pieta (2012, South Korea, Kim-ki Duk)
The Act of Killing (2012, USA, Joshua Oppenheimer)
Computer Chess(2013, USA, Andrew Bujalski)

I also missed out on Clip, Vanishing Waves, The Rambler and The Final Member, films that got really strong word of mouth buzz.

Here are some brief notes on the films, arranged in order of preference.

1) The Act of Killing

Even though the documentary is rooted in Indonesia, it is universal in depicting how men kill with the aid of media and politicians. The depiction of torture/killing could easily be set in Latin/South America/Africa while the media manipulation applies to most nations. But no individuals will ever admit their crime with such brutal honesty as those in The Act of Killing, making it a living digital document. The killers walk about the city freely, sometimes boasting about their murders. Such honesty ensures the film hits like a ton of bricks but it is one of the most essential and relevant docs ever made.

2) Computer Chess

A playful look at various computer programmer personalties, ranging from the very shy to those whose supreme confidence borders on arrogance. The black and white visuals coupled with the video footage give the film a 1980’s look and feel, at a time when computers were bulky machines that required some effort to transport from room to room. The humor is derived from the collection of eccentric personalities and as a result, the scenarios feel natural and not forced. As a bonus, the film also literally depicts HAL's birth.

3) Berberian Sound Studio

An eerie slow-burning film that smartly uses sound manipulation & cues to abstract a horror genre. As a result, one can appreciate the few elements that make a horror film nerve racking and terrifying. This aspect is reinforced by the decision to not show the film-within-film, thereby letting viewers fill in their own worst images.

4) Upstream Color

A multi-shaped puzzle that assembles the look and feel of a Lynchian nightmare with a Malickian landscape. The film manages to find a balance between sci-fi, horror and nature by rapid fire editing and a score that contrasts the mood of the images that the viewer is seeing. The film’s two editors, Shane Carruth and David Lowery, cover a lot of ground in the opening minutes. One can make 2-3 features from the opening 20 minutes of Upstream Color. After the fast paced opening, the film settles down a little, allowing viewers to get a brief footing before heading off in a different direction altogether.

Credit must be given to Andrew Sensenig whose wordless performance speaks volumes and lends the film a graceful covering. Also, Upstream Color also extends Godard's quote: "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl" plus some pigs & worms.

5) Pieta

I believe Kim Ki-duk made this film on a bet. He must have wagered with friends that he could make a sloppy film in a few days and throw enough heavy references to fool critics into thinking the film meant something. And his ploy appears to have paid off with the top prize at Venice 2012, even though festival rules prevented The Master from getting that prize. Still, it is hard to imagine that jury, which consisted of Michael Mann, Matteo Garrone, Pablo Trapero, Marina Abramovic, Ursula Meier, Ari Folman, Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Laetitia Casta, Samantha Morton, could not have picked any other film if they could not select The Master. Maybe the jury picked Pieta to prove a point that if they could not pick the best film in the competition, they would pick the worst. But given the praise Pieta has gotten in some quarters, it does feel like maybe some in the jury gave the prize on merit.

The entire film feels like a joke on the audience. Pieta contains shocking scenes for no reason other than to get a reaction from people while the acting and editing give it a B-grade appearance. As painful as the experience proved to be, I managed to get through it. Thankfully, the many other stellar films at CUFF quickly washed away the experience of Pieta.


Sam Juliano said...

Sachin, I have heard from one person recently that PIETA was a painful experience to watch and that the film was exceedingly mean-spirited. It is playing in NYC, and I nearly saw it a week ago. Since I missed my chance I haven't really gone out of my way, with some favored films opening. FRANCES HA has also opened in NYC and in another theater in northern New Jersey, and it's one I do want to see. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO has been exceptionally reviewed of course. As a long-time chess player I am very interested in COMPUTER CHESS, and based on your stupendous assessment alone THE ACT OF KILLING is surely essential.

Great round up!

Sachin said...

Thanks Sam. I do recall you missing PIETA and was really tempted to say something :) but figured best for you to still see it. I read plenty of negative reviews but wanted to verify myself.

Not much about Chess is revealed in COMPUTER CHESS but some talk of moves and strategy. The people can't play themselves in the film but have to wait until their computer spits out a move. Which does ensure humor.

Yes, ACT OF KILLING is indeed must especially since it provides plenty of talking points.

Sachin said...

Typo. Meant must see.