A Six-Pack from The Aspen Filmfest

September, 2016, Drama


A Six-Pack From The Aspen Filmfest

The Aspen Film Society celebrates its 38th anniversary this week and it comes equipped with a new executive team responsible for both selecting the program and managing the event. Of the 20 movies to be presented between today and Sunday evening, (11 feature films, 9 documentaries) I’ve chosen to see a half dozen:  what follows are my thoughts on each.

1. Trespass Against Us

Michael Fassbender’s career contains any number of brilliant roles (Steve jobs, 12 Years A Slave, Shame) along with some of more dubious quality (Slow West, The Counsellor) but his decision to portray a bitterly conflicted Irish Traveler marks a bad career choice. He plays Chad Cutler, a professional thief for father Colby (Brendan Gleeson) in this never credible, garishly hyperbolic examination of a small group of wandering gypsies who plague the English countryside.

Ethnologists believe The Irish Travelers are a distinct ethnic group, possibly of Romani origin, who separated culturally from their Irish cousins more than a thousand years ago. Small numbers of this tribe have migrated over the years to Great Britain and the American branch of this secretive, hermetically sealed clan was the subject of 1978’s King ofthe Gypsies. Sadly, that film caricatured its subject just as this one does.

Despite the solid performances by Gleeson as Fassbender’s father and Lyndsey Marshal as his much put–upon wife, Fassbender’s struggles to distance himself, his spouse and their two young children from this nomadic band of criminal misfits doesn’t strike a credible moment from its opening scene its final fadeout.

Replete with boringly, frenetic car chases, near-lunatic characters and dialogue of mind-numbing banality, TrespassAgainst Us ends with a starry-eyed evaluation of its indecisive hero that could serve as the feel-good ending in any number of tepid chic-flics.

Blame first-time director Adam Smith & screenwriter Alastair Siddons’ cliché-ridden script.

2. Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

This documentary examines jazz musician Daryl Davis, an African-American with an unusual hobby; he meets, befriends and then attempts to convert members of the Ku Klux Klan.  Combining solo interviews of Davis with conversations featuring some of the Klan members he’s come to know, this rather leisurely examination of one black man’s efforts at bridging the racial divide begins with a simple question: How can you hate me if you don’t know me?

Davis obviously spends a great deal of time listening to the Klan members with whom he meets and his interactions with them are pretty predictable; dressed in their luridly-bedecked robes, the Klansmen find it hard to respond to Davis’ rather innocent question and his ability to remain unflappable in the face of their inane answers.

Davis is a physically imposing man with a gentle voice who approaches people in a polite manner; he’s already convinced more than two-dozen senior officials into leaving Klans across the country and they’ve given him their official robes when they resign. Davis insists he wants to open up a Klan museum devoted to the memorabilia he’s accumulated.

There is some old footage in the film from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that briefly reviews the Klan’s history and a vivid confrontation with members of the “Black Lives Matter” group who castigate Davis for being a contemporary Uncle Tom catering to his own image rather than joining their protest moment against the systematic abuse and killing of young black men. Those segments aside, Accidental Courtesy emerges as a travelogue-style testimonial to one man’s obsession and despite the movie’s obvious intention, it provides little to provoke a viewer’s interest. Even its 90-minute running time is too long.

3. Soy Nero

Rafi Pitts, a much-honored member of Iran’s “New Wave” of movie directors, developed the plot of this film and co-wrote its script with Razvan Redulescu, a Romanian screenwriter. Both have established credentials in the world of European cinema and this effort, co-produced by a group of Western European entities that support EU films, purports to present a picture of the United States Army’s “green card” program which encourages young men who wish to obtain legal residency by serving in the armed services.

The film follows a Mexican teenager illegally brought to this country by his parents and raised in Los Angles who visits relatives in Mexico and then finds himself unable to return to the U.S. legally. Soy Nero follows his surreptitious return to see his old brother before enlisting in the Army to become a U.S. citizen.

The film is composed in the manner of a three act play; (1) Nero’s border crossing and subsequent conversation with a man who gives him a ride to L.A. (2) a day and night spent with his brother who’s masquerading as a well-heeled resident of Beverly Hills and (3) an extended fire-fight and forced march with the surviving members of his small unit in Iraq. Each sequence is enlivened by acutely-observed dialogue that’s representative of certain social “types” as astutely played by the respective actors involved. Nero first suffers the rants of a gun-toting American father convinced our country’s being manipulated by unnamed secret powers, then the young man experiences the debasement of his older brother who’s told him he’s a fool to seek American citizenship and finally, private Nero spars in the profane point/counterpoint chatter of the others members of his small unit charged with guarding a border post in an unnamed middle eastern country. Violence, death, social disintegration and Nero’s dream of a safe, bright future in this country follows…</p>

Soy Nero hammers away relentlessly at a central theme;  America’s materialistic values, coupled with it’s paranoid and manipulative view of other countries causes it to cruelly manipulate young men seeking nothing more than the opportunity to legally pursue the American dream.

Soy Nero is a smug piece of left-wing, anti-American propaganda that has yet to find an American distributor. It’s over-long and over-wrought in its depiction of American life. Avoid it at all costs.

4. Always Shine

First-time director Sophie Takel demonstrates assured skill as she shepherds a pair of aspiring young actresses in this disturbing tale about the precarious hurdles of supposed best friends who take a weekend getaway in The Big Sur. Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) and Caitlin FitzGerald (It’<i style="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">s Complicated) stalk each other verbally in a cat and mouse plot neatly crafted by screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine. He develops a delicate, psychological metamorphosis for his leads; Takel’s sure–handed direction, evocative cinematography and an eerie score make this moody examination of the fault line between competition & friendship at once intimate and terrifying. With more than a few references to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Ms. Takel seems destined for future success behind the camera while both Mackenzie and FitzGerald will surely get a lot more work in front of it.

This 85-minute exercise in choreographed tension is a real winner.


5. 11:55

Writer/director duo Ari Issler & Ben Snyder revisit the showdown plot made famous by Gary Cooper’s lonesome sheriff in High Noon. In this gritty, contemporary version, a Marine vet returns to his seedy neighborhood in an unidentified East-coast inner-city in order to confront the biggest sin from his drug-dealing past. Actor Victor Almanzar (also credited here as co-writer) quietly blends strength, self-awareness and honor into his performance as a returning hero who must face the consequences of his previous life. He’s surrounded by family and friends wonderfully brought to life by actors who embody the virtues and faults of inner city America as they circle the hero with conflicting advice on how he should handle the confrontation with an enemy bent on revenge. John Leguizamo and Julia Stiles appear briefly, but the rest of the cast appears to have emerged from nowhere to make this exciting action movie a terrific showcase for their combined talents. And in sharp distinction from so many melodramas, 11:55 has the good sense to package its tension into a compact 80-minute running time.

If this movie doesn’t find its way into a theater near you, watch for it on Netflix or Apple.

6. Burn Country

Iranian-born actor Dominic Rains provides the sole reason for sitting through the nearly interminable 102 minutes of this self-indulgent exercise by first-time director Ian Olds, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Felton. It traces Rains’ character from the hills of Afghanistan to a small town in northern California where he’s been promised a job working for a local newspaper. Unable to return to the land were he was born and convinced that be cannot become comfortable in his new one until he enters deeply into his new community, Rains takes on the job of writing the “police blotter” which brings him in contact with an gaggle of characters that appear to have been lifted straight out of a Haight-Ashbury communes - - or from Charles Manson’s harem.

James Franco and Melissa Leo lead the supporting cast in a meandering plot that begins in confusion and ends in all-out frustration for the audience. Self-indulgent and full of ponderously delivered dialogue, Burn winds up being a pretentious exercise not worthy of a middling film school grad.







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