SFIFF57: Closing Night, Alex of Venice, Night Moves, I Origins
Noah Cowan has only been San Francisco Film Society Executive Director for about ten weeks, but in that short stay his presence has lit a fire under an already lively film community. Last night, at the Closing Night screening of Alex of Venice at the Castro Theatre, Cowan addressed the crowd from the same podium he did when festival began two weeks ago, thanking Programming Director Rachel Rosen and her team for putting together a fantastic lineup of films, thanking the festival staff and volunteers for their hard work, and thanking the audience for partaking in the festivities. His enthusiasm for the future of the festival and SFFS–community building, educational programs, the fall Cinema By The Bay series–was echoed by the buzzing crowd. The future looks bright for the longest running film festival in the Americas.
Rosen then took the stage to introduce the night’s guest of honor, actor Chris Messina (The Mindy Project), whose directorial debut Alex of Venice would close out the festival. Also in attendance were stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Don Johnson, and Katie Nehra (who also co-wrote the screenplay), and producer Jamie Patricof. A soul-searcher family drama, the film follows Winstead’s Alex, an environmentalist attorney so preoccupied with work that her husband (Messina), feeling neglected and trapped as a stay-at-home dad, takes a sabbatical from the family, leaving Alex to take care of her aging actor dad (Johnson) and ten-year-old son (Skylar Gaertner).
Winstead is given a lot to work with in the role of Alex, as the material requires her to explore myriad colors of emotion as a mother overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment, isolation, a scattered home life, and a hefty workload. She rises to the occasion and emerges as the film’s greatest asset. Johnson, who’s been enjoying a second wind career-wise as of late, is on the money as usual, but it would have been nice to have seen a few more layers of texture added to his character in the unpolished script, which gets hung up on family drama tropes every time it starts to build a bit of momentum. Messina shows major promise as a director, and with a couple more films under his belt could be great.
Also screening on the last night of the festival across town at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas was Kelly Reichardt’s latest, Night Moves. Jesse Eisenberg (in his second festival appearance, the first being The Double) and Dakota Fanning play Josh and Dena, a pair of environmental activists who, with the help of an ex-Marine accomplice named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), blow up a dam in Oregon, and then wade through the dark world of paranoia, guilt, and suspicion that descends upon them following their extreme, costly actions.
Reichardt, lauded for minimalist, meditative pictures like Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, has fashioned a dark psychological thriller in Night Moves, her most accessible film to date. She still gives her actors a football field’s worth of emotional ground to cover with understated, revealing long takes and deceptively deep dialogue, but compared to how hushed her previous efforts were, this film seems to move along briskly. Some of the night time photography is bone-chillingly gorgeous, and this may be Reichardt’s most visually refined film to date, but the script slips off the edge in its third act, providing little food for thought. Still, we’re still left with the thick, atmospheric imagery and fine performances to chew on, which is more than enough to warrant a watch.
I Origins the latest effort from Another Earth director Mike Cahill, takes an excellent, heady sci-fi premise and mucks up the execution, resulting in a disappointingly half-hearted picture. We follow Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a young scientist with an obsessive fascination with eyes and their origins. His life’s work is to end the debate between scientists and religion by proving that eyes are a product of evolutionary development, not Intelligent Design. He takes close-up photos of people’s eyes regularly, and meets the love of his life (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) at a party while using the eye-photo line as an icebreaker. She’s a spiritual soul, though, and isn’t on the same page when it comes to his work in the lab, unlike his lab assistant (Brit Marling), who with Ian unlocks a mystery that could change the world.
Far-fetched isn’t always a bad thing, especially when it comes to sci-fi; unbelievable plots can work as long as the drama is convincing and the filmmaker convinces us to invest in the characters’ plight. Cahill falls short in this regard, beating the spirituality vs. pragmatism drum too loudly stretching the one-dimensional characters so thin you begin to wonder where the story is going with all the scientific jibber-jabber and rudimentary existential debates. After the film’s predictable, overwrought, dud of an ending, it’s unclear what exactly the film is trying to say. What’s the big idea? There’s some poignant statement or metaphor buried underneath the piles of pseudoscience jargon and fleeting moments of serendipity, but Cahill fails to mine it.