Monday, September 08, 2008

TIFF 2008: Day 5

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader, 2008, USA)
A blend of Holocaust drama and magical realism, this film redefines the term “hit and miss.” At times it's an intriguing tale of Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum with a vacillating accent), a magician with amazing powers who saves a man's life only to end up serving as his “dog” in a WWII death camp. Adam plays the fool for Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe) to keep himself alive.

This tale is cross-cut with Adam in 1961 Tel Aviv where he's confined to a mental institute with other Holocaust survivors. This section shifts from Patch Adams bathos to Awakenings pathos (though Robin Williams is no where in sight) with its host of “wacky” psych ward patients and Adam as their savior. The hospital staff loves him – some more carnally than others. Everything changes when Davey, a feral child with whom Adam can relate, is admitted. Adam makes it his mission to save Davey and, by doing so, Adam will redeem himself.

Not surprisingly, this film's blend of light-hearted spiritualism and ponderous Holocaust drama makes it feel like a schizophrenic in need of some meds to calm the disparate chorus of voices from Noah Stollman's screenplay and Yoram Kaniuk's novel. Adam, Resurrected is better than director Paul Schrader's last few films (which isn't saying much). It works best as a drinking game—take a slug whenever any of the major names in the Old Testament are uttered and you'll get one heck of a buzz before Act One is barely over.

Dungeon Masters (Kevin McAlester, 2008, USA)
This 90-minute documentary walks a fine line between expose and exploitation. Beginning at Indiana's GenCon—a gathering of gamers—the audience is introduced to three dungeon masters (also known as “game masters”) from distant corners of the United States who lead wildly different lives. The only things they seem to have in common are their love of Dungeons & Dragons, their wild imaginations, and their social ineptitude.

While there are relatively normal people who engage in roleplaying of various kinds (World of Warcraft, Second Life, LARPing, Renaissance Fairs, etc), they're not good fodder for an interesting movie. The success of Dungeon Masters rests on its three subjects: Scott, the stay at home Dad and his dream of becoming a writer and Cable TV Public Access host; Richard, the highly closeted homosexual who runs a highly controlled campaign (he's notorious for killing off his players), and Liz, the young divorcee who hides behind obsidian skin paint as a “dark elf.”

As the story progresses, it seems like Fate is constantly rolling the twenty-sided die for double damage against our heroes. Liz keeps searching for love while Scott's writing career can't get off the ground. The loosest cannon of the bunch; just when it seems that Richard couldn't share anything more unusual, he unleashes yet another tidbit out of his bag of holding until you wish he was a plant—an actor putting on airs of righteous indignation about his players not taking him seriously, his family life, and his penchant for naturalism.

There's little more to Dungeon Masters than the slices of these three lives. There's no omniscient narrator discussing the retreat into fantasy as a common defense mechanism for fringe-dwellers. There's no “known expert” going on about the strata defining Cosplay versus LARPing or the need some gamers have for denigrating other “brands” (like those “Magic: The Gathering” pussies). Even amongst an ever-growing geek culture, the subjects are still laughable. This may stem from their lower socioeconomic position (one lives in a trailer, another in a ramshackle apartment) or from their Geek Pride, appearing in public in costume.

While we see Liz trying to be “social” while engaging in online gaming, the irony of “communal individualism” remains unaddressed. Director McAlester merely gives his audience enough saftey through distance to laugh at the geek boys and gamer girls with abandon. Yet, we aren't asked if these laughs are purely derisive or if the retarded socialization of the subjects is inherently comedic and “safe” to laugh at.

Note to PR Person – You may want to spend less time gabbing and more time handing out Press Notes, if that's what the huge pile of papers was (and we both know it was).

The Burrowers (JT Petty, 2008, USA)
It doesn't take long for the action in The Burrowers to get underway. Before the credits have even begun a mystery is afoot. The film opens in the Dakota Territories, 1879, with the slaughter of some and disappearance of other members of two Plains families. Of course, those Native savages are behind it... or are they?

A posse consisting of Lost actors Clancy Brown, Doug Hutchinson, and William Mapother (more commonly known as The Kurgan, Victor Tooms, and Tom Cruises Cousin) mount up and look for the missing Stewart women. Though not at the lead of the posse, it's Coffey (Karl Geary) that's desperate to find Maryanne Stewart (Jocelin Donahue), his beloved. What they find, instead, is a string of strange holes and a comatose woman buried a few inches under the ground.

Initially, The Burrowers may seem like a prequel to Tremors (which was already done in the fourth installation of the series) but there's a lot more going on. In the skilled hands of writer/director J.T. Petty (S&Man, Soft for Digging), the film is a fun ecothriller with solid pacing, characters, and a clever revelation of its title creatures. With its superb production and cult cast, it's hopeful that The Burrowers will be the first mainstream hit for Petty.

Detroit Metal City (Toshio Lee, 2008, Japan)
There's a fatal flaw in Toshio Lee's Detroit Metal City and it's as plain as the cat nose on Peter Criss's face. The film begins with country bumpkin Negishi (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) going to the Big City (Tokyo) to pursue his dream of being a trendy pop star. Nevermind his mushroom haircut and that he holds his hands to his chest like a boxing nun puppet. He inspires his Pop Music Study Group with his mantra, “No Music, No Dream.”

Suddenly we see Negisha some unknown time later. He's on stage playing guitar for an rapt crowd. The only problem is that he's the pasty-faced frontman, Sir Krauser, for leading Japanese death metal band DMC, Detroit Metal City. “How did I get here?” Negisha muses in voice over. How indeed?

There's no reel missing. The film merely makes this tremendous leap. Out of costume, Negisha is still the whining wannabe pop singer but how he got the gig as Sir Krauser remains a maddening mystery unsolved for the remainder of the film. Where some might chart this incongruous leap into the limelight as the bulk of their film, and others might choose to explain it via a well-placed flashback, that it's never discussed at all in Detroit Metal City becomes such a distraction that it hinders further possible enjoyment of the film.

The rest of Detroit Metal City shows Negisha struggling with his dual identity, treating it more like schizophrenia than a stage act. The action drags though the conclusion is obvious as soon as Jack Il Death (Gene Simmons) is introduced. Can you say “Battle of the Bands”?

Interminably silly, it's a saving grace the Detroit Metal City boasts a toe-tapping soundtrack. Otherwise, this farce would simply be intolerable.

1 comment:

Michael Guillen said...

I much admire your clever review of Adam, Resurrected, which left me so aghast I could barely speak--let alone write--afterwards.

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