SFIFF57: Palo Alto, The Skeleton Twins, Last Weekend, Stray Dogs
A 3rd generation filmmaker of one of cinema’s most lauded families, Gia Coppola impresses in her debut feature, Palo Alto, an adaptation of a book by James Franco (who’s also in the movie) that captures the listless, limbo-like haze of high school through interweaving stories of several troubled teens. While the film technically falls into the “teen drama” column, its authentic, unapologetically filthy depiction of adolescence sets it apart.
Photos Courtesy Adam Clay
Much of Palo Alto‘s authenticity stems from its cast, all appropriately aged (this is important) and all quite…normal looking. It’s a good thing, as most teen movies’ stars are too prettied up to be relatable. Jack Kilmer, son of Val (who makes a brief, comical appearance), and Emma Roberts lead the brilliant cast, who all convince as conflicted, bored, lustful youths partying, getting in trouble, and goofing around in parking lots. Coppola, a photographer whose work impressed Franco enough to entrust the stories of his hometown to her, has a natural eye for composition and color, capturing the intensity and urgency of teen life with her luscious, moody imagery. Each character is chaotically emotional and has a unique set of inner conflicts to reckon with. This is the best representation of modern teens in memory.
SFIFF57 offered up another debut feature, this time from co-directors Tom Dolby and Tom Williams with the world premier of the Lake Tahoe-set Last Weekend. A family drama about an affluent couple (Patricia Clarkson and Chris Mulkey) hosting their spoiled adult children and their significant others for a weekend in their home on the sparkling lake, the film has its moments but is hampered by a script that needs more sharpening. Watching entitled rich folk complain about everything while feasting in paradise is a joke that gets old quick.
Photos Courtesy Adam Clay
The film, which has almost zero plot to speak of (not a knock), is completely fueled by the contentious family dynamics. The savvy young cast, which includes Zachary Booth, Alexia Rasmussen (Proxy), Joseph Cross (Milk), Devon Graye (Dexter), and Jayma Mays (Glee), all approaching their prime, embody their bratty roles tastefully, never going overboard or outshining each other. Clarkson and Mulkey guide them along, and the fresh faces keep up without a stutter. Cross and Clarkson share some particularly venomous scenes together, epic mother-son spats that steal the show. Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods) and Rutina Wesley (True Blood) play nothing roles that amount to a well-acted waste of time.
Tsai Ming-Liang made a Miyazaki-like announcement at the premiere of his new film Stray Dogs in Venice that the stunning film about an impoverished family would be his last, to the sadness of many arthouse aficionados. The lauded auteur is leaving the cinema world on a high note, however, as Stray Dogs is as gorgeous, boundary-pushing, and incomparable as his previous work (What Time is it There?, The Hole).
As has become his signature style, Tsai presents his tale in a series of fixed, ultra-long shots whose uncompromisingly elongated form reveals intricacies and shifting emotion unseeable by way of conventional quick cuts or even shots like Scorsese’s Copacabana classic. Spectacle is not the objective here, with the shot lengths surpassing the ten minute mark in some cases. Tsai paints a dark, stark portrait of a family living in squalor on the streets of Taipei. We see the children bathe in a dingy public restroom, the father hold up advertising signs at a busy intersection in the pouring rain. It’s a haunting, gut-wrenching film, and one whose beauty lies not just in Tsai’s immaculately composed shots, but in the 4th dimension of time itself. And you don’t even have to shell out an extra ten bucks for 4-D glasses!
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival so far has been Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, which from movie stills ostensibly appears to be a star vehicle for SNL all-stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, but actually turns out to be an unexpectedly affecting sibling drama peppered with funny moments for the comedians to please loyalists. Hader and Wiig play the titular troubled siblings Milo and Maggie, each with self-destructive tendencies.
After ten years of not speaking, Maggie invites her brother to stay with her after a suicide attempt. She’s in denial about her dissatisfaction with her marriage to the cheerful Lance (Luke Wilson) while Milo, an emotional wreck more aware of his fatal flaws, struggles to tie up loose ends in his past life while trying desperately to keep Maggie afloat in her failing marriage. It would be fair to categorize The Skeleton Twins as a dramedy, though the dramatic element is more intensified here than your average Apatow effort. It’s a dark movie, and Hader and Wiig’s comedic chops translate well to the emotional spectrum of acting (Wiig’s already proven this, but this is Hader’s first dramatic leading role). In fact, the laughs sometimes outstay their welcome, as the comedic scenes are egregiously tailored to the actors’ signature personas and distract from their better, dramatic character moments. This one’s definitely worth keeping on your radar.