Sunday, March 27, 2011

Outbound; Pariah (New Directors/New Films)

The combined quality of the two films I saw on this double feature, my first day at this year's ND/NF (the 40th anniversary edition), surpasses anything that I saw at last year's New York Film Festival (also hosted at Lincoln Center), suggesting that this may be ultimately the more worthwhile event. This is a festival where you can not only listen to the directors and casts talk about their works, but also meet them. The NYFF supplies distance between you and the creator of the art and thus makes it a bit less enjoyable.

"Outbound" (or "Periferic," as it's referred to in Romanian) by Bodgan George Apetri stands as an out-and-out masterpiece on the director's first go at full-length filmmaking. Technically flawless and brilliantly controlled, it lets us in on the story of Matilda, played by Ana Ularu, a Romanian cross between Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez in appearance but a much superior performer than either. She wants to leave Romania on her day leave from prison. She goes to her married brother Andrei (Andi Vasluianu), her sexual client Paul (Mimi Branescu from "Tuesday, After Christmas"), and her son Toma (Timotei Duma), trying to get cash and everything necessary to leave and never come back. As she moves along, the film beautifully unfolds, giving us details about the characters that ultimately form a fractured understanding. In this way, it is a cousin of "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle," also shot by Marius Panduru and also about prison.

The film's formal prowess can be noted at any moment. It opens with one of the most arrestingly hypnotic images I've ever seen (involving rain), and cycles through follow shots, long takes, jump cuts, flashes of light, and more, displaying an incredible visual stylist at work. The cinematography, editing, and lighting all reach immense heights, but that's not the only great thing about this film. The actors pick up the slack and (for the most part) deliver excellent performances. If you could dock this film points for anything, it would be for the symbolism (like naming the proverbial ferryman out of Romania "Vergil") and parallels (the mother and the son), but in my opinion these add something to the film, perhaps a bit more of a pulse to connect with. And the handling of the ending may disappoint some, though to me it gives the film its most successful conclusion possible. "Outbound" is all you could hope for with a debut and one longs for Apetri to go onwards with his powerful skill, even though he could stop right here and have already had a worthy career. A

I also saw Dee Rees' short-film-adaptation "Pariah" in its New York premiere and first screening since Sundance, where it was picked up for massive distribution by Focus Features. For much of the running time, the movie is superb, a different kind of success than "Outbound." The film is told with an objective point-of-view, which provides the film with a nice flow but also may contribute to the movie's ultimate splintering off. We most prominently follow the symbolically named, closeted gay teenager Alike (Adepero Oduye), a great student who tries to navigate the social landscape of a New York where sexual orientation is over-classified. Her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker) is the most genuine person in her life, but she is shunned by Alike's mother (Kim Wayans). Speaking of Alike's family, only her sister (Sahra Mellesse) is supportive of her. Her overworked parents, nurse mother and detective father (Charles Parnell), pick up signals of her true nature but desperately want them not to be (though less her father than her mother, the former coming to accept, the latter stubbornly anti-gay). Her mother tries to set Alike up with another friend, Bina (Aasha Davis), but that turns out to be what neither mother nor daughter expected.

Despite being tritely scored, this is a strongly acted and written work, with many great scenes. It is magnificently photographed by Bradford Young (who won an award at Sundance for it), using focus in dazzling ways, and utilizing movement and camera placement to capture everything. (It must be said, however, that a friend nearly got sick at the film's constant motion.) This is complimented by the top-notch editing work by Mako Kamitsuna. But the film just doesn't go all the way, as the English teacher in the film urges the lead to do. It pulls back and goes for less of an ending than it probably could have, or perhaps doesn't validate its ending enough, or something. Whatever the case, "Pariah" doesn't jell above a scene-by-scene level. I don't mind that much, though, as it is plenty engaging and directed with talent, and I hope it success with audiences and awards bodies when it arrives in theaters towards the end of the year. B+

I will return on next Saturday to see Athina Rachel Tsangari's "Dogtooth"-esque trip "Attenberg" and Matthew Bate's Sundance competition documentary "Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure."

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