SFIFF: Dom – A Russian Family

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
127 minutes

*****

Most of us have issues with our family, but Viktor Shamanov could give us all a run for our money. Writer/director Oleg Pogodin’s “Dom: A Russian Family” is a glorious epic about a Russian mobster who returns home after a twenty-five year absence to bid farewell to his family prior to retirement. The dense narrative builds slowly, covering more characters than a “Game of Thrones” episode, but Pogodin clearly knows what he’s doing. “Dom: A Russian Family” is as brutal as it is beautiful and it belongs in the same breath as films like “The Deer Hunter” and “The Godfather.”

Viktor Shamanov (Sergey Garmash) is an aging gangster who is ready to retire. Unfortunately in his line of work, there are only two ways to do that: disappear or die. But before he goes, he is compelled to make amends with the entire Shamanov clan, whom he left rotting in their farmhouse in the steppes years ago. The oldest of five, Viktor utilizes his grandfathers 100th birthday celebration to reconnect with each of his siblings individually, including those that are too young to remember having met him. Some regard him with awe, some with big brotherly love and some with resentment making for some pretty intense conversations at the dinner table.

To further complicate matters, Viktor’s enemies have caught wind of the family reunion and plan to crash it. And they’re bringing along plenty of semi-automatic party favors. Meanwhile, a mysterious former paramour called Svetlana makes her way to the farmhouse, determined to rendezvous with her old flame even if she has to walk there in stilettos and a mini-dress.

There are few better settings for a film about a decaying family than a crumbling farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Once upon a time, Viktor supported the Shamanovs with income from his business, but when he went to jail, the money stopped coming and the family has been in decline ever since. Many family members blame Viktor for their problems, but it seems more likely that the men who stayed behind are to blame.

Viktor’s male role models (his father and grandfather) were cruel, hard men. That he was able to retain any compassion despite his upbringing and career choice is a testament to his own character. He escaped while the rest of his family remained on the farm, festering in anger, resentment and disappointment. Viktor’s career as a criminal is an improvement over the Shamanov legacy. The inevitable ultra-violent climax is less tragedy than a long overdue cleanse of a poisoned land.

Essential to a good epic is its ability to keep track of numerous characters without leaving any of them under-developed. Pogodin accomplishes this by introducing them through their relationship (or lack thereof) with Viktor. By the end, we are very familiar with everyone’s motivations and invested in the outcome. Viktor is the most developed character and so much more than a “gangster with a heart of gold.” The genesis of his brutality is evident, as is his commitment to his family. He knows he made mistakes, but he sees no point in dwelling on them. Despite his desire to leave his life of crime behind, he will do whatever he must to protect his family even as he is the one who put them in danger.

There’s a lot of darkness in “Dom,” but it somehow manages to retain the vivacity of a Tarantino film. This is due in large part to Sergey Garmash’s charismatic grizzled squint. Garmash joins the great congregation of mum cinematic badasses and conveys more with one forehead wrinkle than Vin Diesel could in a lengthy monologue. The Russians just may have Sicilians beat in terms of mob awesomeness. They take everything up a notch further than even Emeril would dare. I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “instant classic” before, but for “Dom: A Russian Family,” it categorically applies.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SFIFF Review: Pearblossom HWY

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
78 minutes

****

There are a hundred songs about the compelling desire to “get out of this town.” There’s no shortage of films on the subject either, which is why I was surprised to find a unique, albeit incredibly bleak perspective in Mike Ott’s “Pearblossom Hwy.” “Mumblecore” is a term used to describe a certain level of realism in character-driven independent dramas. But I’m starting to believe that Mumblecore is simply the best way to tell a story. The characters are so authentic that you tend to root for them almost immediately. But this also means you have no idea how it will turn out. Life isn’t a movie but that doesn’t mean a movie can’t be like life.

“Pearblossom Hwy” is a shining example of this exceptional genre. Ott and co-writer/star Atsuko Okatsuka have crafted a small town tale that breaks all the rules that Hollywood has set for dramatic storytelling. Cory (Cory Zachariah) is a sensitive blockhead with dreams of stardom. He films his video selfies as part of an audition for a reality TV show, but we know he’s not going to make the cut. His problems are way too grave to make for good television. His punk band is lucky to get tiny gigs at the local watering hole, and he doesn’t even really have a day-job to not quit. Cory is a small-town kid with big dreams, but it’s only a matter of time before these dreams are dashed. You would not see Channing Tatum playing a character that unnervingly tragic. Cory comes off as one of those naive gay kids from Middle America who winds up on the end of a rope. His potential misfortune looms so ominously that you’re not sure you want to be around when it happens.

Cory’s best friend, Anna (Atsuko Okatsuka) has a demeanor that could be confused for stoicism but is more likely numbness or an emotional armor. She needs both in her line of work, which is, of course, prostitution. By day, she helps her uncle with his gardening business. By night she trolls truck stops and seems to attract the creepiest of johns who insist on videoing their encounters. There isn’t a Richard Gere among them. We don’t know Anna’s age, but she looks like a child. This makes it all the harder to watch her put herself in these situations which are, at best, degrading. She’s an intelligent girl who has convinced herself that this is her only option for fast cash and a plane ticket to Japan to see her ailing Grandmother.

It’s clear why Anna is drawn to Cory. They’re both emotional orphans. Cory’s older brother Jeff is convinced there’s only one way to be a man. That’s to serve your country, get a job and bed women. Because Cory doesn’t meet any of these qualifications, Jeff is simultaneously concerned for and disgusted by him. Anna gets no support from her family who, including her Grandmother, all believe that the most important thing for her to do is study for her upcoming U.S. citizenship test. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle and they treat her like an obligation. This isn’t a Reese Witherspoon movie. These kids aren’t just stuck in their small town because they haven’t found themselves. They have nearly insurmountable financial constraints and are basically one bad month or one familial bust-up away from being homeless.

The film does take a little while to hit its stride, though Ott uses a jarring transitional sound effect between scenes, which brings a sense of dread to the slow beginning. But the real story starts once Jeff takes Cory and Anna to San Francisco to meet Cory’s biological father. Jeff not so secretly hopes the old man will serve as a warning for Cory to shape up. What Cory and Anna find is not an escape but instead a clearer picture of the sort of freedom they may never have.

“Pearblossom Hwy” is powerful stuff and it haunts you long after the credits. Their issues will never be resolved or else it will be years before anything truly changes for them. Cory writes silly yet earnest rebellion songs with his band that amount to little more than punk rock greeting cards. He uses his fervent anti-conformity act to distract from the closet he’s hiding in, not only from his homophobic marine brother but also himself. Anna only cares about becoming an American citizen because it’s what he grandmother would have wanted. It comes down to seeing her grandmother one last time or taking the test to make her grandmother happy in her final hours. It’s a tough decision and one that is eventually made for her.

Don’t hold your breath for a happy ending, nor for any ending really. This is just life. There is nothing for them beyond the constraints of their zip code. Yes, it’s bleak. But sometimes the awful truth is a florid breath of fresh air. They don’t write too many songs like that, but they should.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

2013 San Fran International Film Fest Wrap-Up

Spring is a funny time for a film festival. I understand that the host cities want to show off during the most temperate season; San Francisco is beautiful year-round, but Spring is the only time it’s not nestled under a blanket of clouds. Such is the nature of film festivals; you end up spending an awful lot of time inside dark theaters. When you leave a screening, the sun admonishes you for your insolence.

Fortunately, SFIFF makes it easier for you to make the most of the festival and the city at the same time. Currently in its 56th year, SFIFF is spread out over fifteen days and, thanks to the many screens at the Sundance Kabuki Theatre, they are able to keep things pretty contained. There were never any screenings scheduled before noon, so you can always get a couple of hours of exploration in before it’s time to sit on your butt. The SFIFF lineup is comparable to other major film festivals, but the lengthy duration makes for a more relaxed experience. I was only able to stay for a week, but in that time I managed to see sixteen films as well as make the most of my time in the City by the Bay.

The festival kicked off with “What Maisie Knew” and ended with the third installment of Richard Linklater’s “Before [Whenever]” series. Either SFIFF has an excellent programmer or I’m just getting better at choosing films to screen. I saw way more great films than bad ones.

THE BEST:

“After Lucia” – Beautifully acted, but so brutal that I’m still a little traumatized. Tessa Ia gives a staggering performance as the teenager who decides not to bother her recently widowered father with the trivial matter of being literally tortured by her classmates.

“Dom: A Russian Family” – Time will likely prove this the definitive Russian gangster film.

“Ernest & Celestine” – Based on the stories and water color illustrations by Gabrielle Vincent, it tells a poignant tale of the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, whose kind are the sole mortal enemies in an anthropomorphic animal world. Friendship despite adversity is one of the greatest messages that a kid’s film can impart because it teaches children that the black and white rules set by authority aren’t always wise or informed.

“Key of Life” – Though foreign comedies tend to suffer from the hindrance of translation, writer/director Uchida Kenji makes it looks easy with his tale of three lost souls who find themselves by stepping out of their comfort zones and into each other’s lives. The dialog is sharp and the performances are understated perfection, playing the affable screwball characters so straight that the absurd comedy clichés (chance meetings, amnesia, mistaken identity, freak accidents) seem entirely plausible.

“Kings of Summer” – This quirky coming-of-age tale about a troika of restless teenage boys who build the ultimate clubhouse in the woods is going to be the sleeper hit of the season. Megan Mullalley, Alison Brie and Ron “Fucking” Swanson round out the supporting cast.

“Pearblossom Hwy” – An excellent follow-up to Mike Ott’s “Littlerock”, “Pearblossom Hwy” is a uniquely told story of two small-town twenty-somethings whose ambitions don’t stretch too far beyond the need to escape.

“Sofia’s Last Ambulance” – One of those movies you need to see every once in a while to remind yourself that our mess of a country could be so much worse.

“Stories We Tell” – At this point, I can safely say that Sarah Polley is one of the most creative and elegant filmmakers working today. Her third film is a video memoir of sorts that explores perspective and memory through a profile of the mother she lost when she was a little girl.

“Unfinished Song” – This is one of those British Schmaltzfests that is so well acted, you play right into their hands and walk out of the theater with a wet sleeve and puffy eyes. Terence Stamp is an absolute treasure.

“You’re Next” – Adam Winegard’s tongue-in-cheek home invasion Mumblecore Horror film stars a Super Group of well known actors within the sparse genre including Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil. Lionsgate seems well aware of that fact and snatched it right up. Catch it at a theatre near you this August.

THE WORST:

“Big Blue Lake” – Major snoozefest about an estranged actress who returns home unexpectedly and is surprised to learn that her mother has Alzheimer’s. As boring as it is depressing.

“Night Across the Street” – Highly French New Wave influenced final film of now deceased Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. I wouldn’t say I’m glad he’s dead, but at least he can’t make any more films.

“Rosie” – Swiss comedy about a stubborn old lady and her author son who must return home to take care for her, despite the fact that neither of them are too keen on the idea. It’s not nearly as funny or heartwarming as it thinks it is.

THE MEH:

“Much Ado About Nothing” – As a huge Joss Whedon fan, I normally lap up everything he puts in front of me. Shakespeare isn’t such a bad writer either. Unfortunately, “Much Ado” is one of the harder plays to update because the very premise is archaic and misogynistic. The usual suspects of the Whedonverse navigate the language with grace and thoughtfulness, but nothing they do can counter the fact that it’s a romantic comedy about arranged marriage and female “purity.”

“Outrage Beyond” – The person who introduced this film claimed that it wasn’t necessary to see the first “Outrage” film to follow the story in the sequel. Regardless, I had the nagging sense I was missing something throughout. Maybe it was a bad subtitle translation, but exciting camera work and over-the-top violence aside, this film left me beyond wanting.

GOLDEN GATE AWARD WINNERS:

Best Documentary Feature – “A River Changes Course”, Dir. Kalyanee Mam (Cambodia/USA 2012)

Best Bay Area Documentary Feature – “The Kill Team”, Dir. Dan Krauss (USA 2012)

New Directors Prize – “Present Tense”, Dir. Belmin Sölyemez (Turkey 2012)

Honorable Mention – “La Sirga”, Dir. William Vega (Colombia/France/Mexico 2012)

FIPRESCI Prize – “Nights with Theodore”, Dir. Sébastian Betbeder (France 2012)

Best Narrative Short – “Ellen Is Leaving”, Dir. Michelle Savill (New Zealand 2012)

Best Documentary Short – “Kings Point”, Dir. Sari Gilman (USA 2012)

Best Animated Short – “Kali the Little Vampire”, Dir. Regina Pessoa (Canada/France 2012)

Best Bay Area Short, First Prize – “3020 Laguna St. In Exitum”, Dir. Ashley Rodholm, Joe Picard (USA 2013)

Bay Area Short, Second Prize – “More Real”, Dir. Jonn Herschend (USA 2012)

New Visions – “Salmon”, Dir. Alfredo Covelli (Israel/Italy 2012)

Best Family Film – “Luminaris”, Dir. Juan Pablo Zaramella (Argentina 2012)

Family Film Honorable Mention – “I’m Going to Mum’s”, Dir. Lauren Jackson (New Zealand 2012), “Jonah and the Crab”, Dir. Laurel Cohen (USA 2012)

Youth Work – “The Dogmatic”, Dir. Lance Oppenheim (USA 2012)

Youth Work Honorable Mention – “Last Stop Livermore”, Dir. Nat Talbot (USA 2012)

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).