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Fanny, Annie & Danny (2010)
I've read nine of the critics' reviews on this page, and I'm astounded that, by a 7-2 ratio, they are mostly positive. Likewise, the five user reviews are strongly positive and intelligently written. All that confounds me. I don't often post about any film I see, good or bad. But this one so rubbed -- no, GRATED -- me the wrong way that I feel compelled to mark my irritation. I am a hard-core indie film consumer, well inured to eccentricity and excess, and I'm always willing to forgive and ignore mediocre production values. Here, however, this extremely low-budget production clearly expended it's resources most efficiently. Also, the cast is more than competent, and, in the case of Jill Pixley as Fanny, totally excellent. And I have to give Chris Brown credit for mostly effective directing and a well-worded script. The problem is that the behaviors depicted are exaggerated to such an extreme that they become unrealistic. Dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen both in fiction and in real life. So if you make one the subject of your film, you'd better be showing me something I haven't known or seen before. These characters, while mostly clichés, have potential, but apart from long-suffering and poignantly human Franny, they exist at the most raucous and irritating end of the spectrum. The mother, as written, is a harridan of fantastic (in the sense of unreal) proportion. The actress's performance is precise and well-delivered, but I didn't believe in the character for a moment due to her extremity. The family doesn't exist that would respond to her behavior so benignly. Despite coming from an emotionally constricted family myself, I found this unreal shrillness so difficult to bear I nearly ejected the disc before the film was over -- something I almost never do. My uncomfortableness cannot be justifiably interpreted as the script's success. There was so much potential here for a juicy, darkly comic, even profound family analysis, but the script is simply de trop, leaving it all unfulfilled.
The Return Address (2010)
A straight arrow who perseveres will succeed.
I knew nothing of this exceptional short before stumbling upon it on YouTube. It is currently in the top 50 finalists of the YouTube Your Film Festival, and rightly so. This simple, humane story is told cinematically with little dialog. All we need to know of these characters, both visually and chronologically, is provided within the immediate frame. The 1950s mise-en-scene is immaculately rendered via careful property selection and thoughtful sepia-toned cinematography. The skilled actors offer well-modulated performances in a consistent style. This highly professional effort goes to the quiet wistful truth at the core of nostalgia and delivers a profound satisfaction. I am pleased to be reminded that CGI bombast and massive budgets are not necessary to achieve excellence.
Light-hearted Dark Comedy
For me, this beguiling Panamanian comedy proved to be the crown jewel of a week of screenings at the Nashville film Festival. Abner Benaim, in his first commercial feature, has produced a no-holds-barred farce that is delightfully specific in its evocation of place and universally familiar in its socio-political relevance. He masterfully pushes our tolerance of what is comically acceptable with alternate uses for metal meat tenderizers and loaded weapons in the hands of children. The uncomfortable hilarity of these concrete moments is a justifiable exposition of the dark consequences of social inequity, venality and greed -- evils that know no national borders or half-life. Along with this universality of theme, the film's sophisticated production values, achieved on a budget that in Hollywood would barely cover craft services, could certainly allow this off-shore sub-titled project to succeed financially in northern hemisphere markets. Much of the film's quality must be credited to its fine cast. Aida Morales, with noble poignancy, and Rosa Isabel Lorenzo, apparently in her sole cinematic role, give brazen, perfectly tuned performances as the long-suffering servants in a corrupt politician's household. These besieged characters grab the horns of their dilemma and do not let go until success is achieved. And in very satisfying style, their menacingly wild choice manages to churn up providential outcomes for everyone. I hope this delicious morality tale gets the distributor it so greatly deserves.
Ripley's Game (2002)
Comparisons are Odious but Sometimes Necessary. Slight Spoiler.
Having just seen Liliana Cavani's "Ripley's Game" on DVD, I feel a bit like a duplicitous lover trying to hide the lipstick stains on my collar. The experience was probably doomed to be disappointing, given that Wim Wender's 1977 film "The American Friend", based on the same Patricia Highsmith novel and starring Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley, is one of my all-time favorite films. Nevertheless, I somehow felt open-minded enough to accommodate variant approaches to marvelously fertile source material, and I expected John Malkovich's Ripley would go far toward eradicating the memory of Matt Damon's insipid interpretation of the same character in 1997's "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
Although this is arguably a respectable contemporary thriller, it pales in every department to Wenders' eccentric masterpiece. Presented with a rather straight-forward story-line, it lacks the across-the-board tautness and rich ambiguity that make 'American Friend' so compelling. While Malkovich's sophisticated, dead-pan jocularity may feel closer to Highsmith's literary Ripley, it ultimately proves far less fascinating than Hopper's edgy grin and saw-toothed neuroses. Dougray Scott never begins to approach the subtlety of Bruno Ganz's grudging attraction to Ripley in the earlier film. 'Ripley's Game' is attractively composed and photographed but simply doesn't satisfy like "Friend's" hot primary palette and ominous framing.
*****Slight Spoilers Beyond this Point*****
There's a less-effective sense of place in the new film's Italian setting, nothing as visually emphatic as the waterfront and under-river tunnel of 'Friend's" Munich. Also, some details seem inconsistent. Cavani situates Jonathan and his family in an affluence unlikely for a financially-strapped picture framer, no matter how wealthy his friends and associates might be. Jonathan's first "test" murder occurs in a public aquarium, and I hoped (fervently, but in vain) for the bullet to smash the fish-tank glass and create a deluge to rival the frantic rush through the Paris metro, the locale Wenders chose for this scene. The train episode is very reminiscent of that filmed twenty odd years ago, but in terms of tension and surprise, it never leaves the station. In "Ripley's Game", Tom selects Jonathan as his "protege" after overhearing him bluntly disparage Ripley in public as tastelessly nouveau-rich. The anti-hero of "The American Friend" makes the decision based solely on Jonathan's withering tone when saying, "I've heard about you" as they are introduced. Forgive my own snobbishness when I suggest that the subtler, more rarefied slight establishes Tom's revenge as far more demented and chilling.
Wenders personalized Highsmith's tale, larding it through with psychological uncertainty and disquieting editing. He allowed his passion for the material to make it his own, molding it into a vibrantly convoluted and unique experience. The re-make, by comparison, feels abbreviated and pedestrian. Had Wenders never made his film, "Ripley's Game" would rank higher in general satisfaction. Unfortunately, the second adaptation cannot escape the shadow of the first and ends up being secondary.