SFIFF Review: Counting

(The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival ran April 21-May 5.)

counbtingCounting is a difficult film to pin down. But that’s precisely what makes it so engaging. All films are art to some extent (for better or worse). But typically, the narrative is the main focus. In Jem Cohen’s latest film, the art is the focus, made all the more so by the lack of narrative and the frequently incongruent audio. Shot primarily in New York City, Moscow, Istanbul, and Sharja, Counting often feels like a travel diary wherein the traveler is the camera itself and Cohen is a ghost who pops up from time to time.

The film is broken into 15 parts, each beginning with a title and ending with the date and city in which the footage was shot. Sometimes the segment has a postscript such as in part 2: “A Day is Long”… “But a lifetime is short.” The titles are a mantra – something on which to ruminate or puzzle over during the segment. You begin to notice recurring motifs such as travel (planes, trains and automobiles) – but always with the camera trained out the window to catch the passing scenery; frequent shots of new construction contrast with neglected buildings and sidewalks; people hustle and bustle through the streets, passing static vagrants and paying them no mind; nature pushes through concrete, fighting for the right to exist; cats abound…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Restoration

posterrestorationHorror fans (myself included) know that it’s tough to keep the water in the well fresh. We tend to be very forgiving about this, however, because our love for the genre is pure. Zach Ward’s feature directing debut, Restoration, is built with a familiar framework. A young couple buys a house, which turns out to be haunted by the ghost of a little girl who perished under mysterious circumstances. But Ward is clearly studied. He understands, and utilizes, that winning formula. And then he makes it his own by adding a few twists and turns and spending some time on character development, so that you really feel for the protagonists by the time you reach the heart-pounding third act.

Becca (Emily O’Brien) and Todd (Adrian Gaeta) have just moved to town for Becca’s residency at the local hospital. Something our presidential candidates have failed to address during their campaigns is the fact that lower-income people are always stuck buying the haunted fixer-uppers. Fortunately, Todd is handy, so he takes it upon himself to make the place livable while Becca goes off to work the most stressful job in the universe, dealing with trauma patients. One day, Todd finds the world’s creepiest teddy bear hidden inside one of the walls, and hidden inside that is the 30-year-old diary once belonging to a little girl named Katie…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Pop Meets the Void

newpopWilliam Cusick wrote, directed, and starred in Pop Meets the Void, a genre-bending feature about a musician who constantly floats between fantasy realms and alternate realities. At least, I think that’s what is happening. The true reality of the protagonist is never explicit. He could be a slovenly, bearded man recording demos in his squalid basement apartment. Or he could be a clean-shaven office drone with half-hearted musical aspirations, a daughter trying to break into acting, and an existentially conflicted wife. He could instead be an international musical sensation, longing to return to a life of obscurity. Or possibly all of these versions of himself exist only in the mind of a man trapped in a sort of musical purgatory, attempting various methods of suicide when he’s not, NOT composing.

Pop Meets the Void is not as confusing as it sounds, but it definitely leaves much open to interpretation. The narrative takes a backseat to the visuals and satirical dialogue. Each realm has a distinct look (and not just because of changing facial hair), but they’re all tied together with ever-present rainbow fractal motion graphics. Sometimes the graphics accentuate the background. Other times they take over the entire frame. It’s more than eye candy but less than a feast; A snack for the eyes, if you will…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Before the Sun Explodes

beforesun “Nobody means to be horrible. They just are horrible.” This observation by a minor character could be the thesis of Debra Eisenstadt’s emotionally challenging third feature, Before the Sun Explodes.

Ken (Bill Dawes) is a middle-aged stay-at-home parent and stand-up comedian who had a taste of notoriety in the 90’s and has been struggling to reclaim it ever since. Diana (Christine Woods), his wife and the family breadwinner, has given up on him. And it’s hard to blame her, since he’s still peddling the same tired, misogynistic material he used when he was single. His b.j. jokes do not land anymore; even the crickets remain awkwardly silent when he’s on stage. He barely even believes in himself, as he argues with Diana about following his dreams of pitching a TV show based on his stage persona. So when Diana kicks him out of the house in a drunken rage, he’s completely at a loss about what to do…

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