Tuesday, May 31, 2005

SIFF diary, part 4

Cape of Good Hope and Missing in America

I'm still in shock over how well the SIFF is going. Of the 6 films I've attended this weekend, I've have yet to see a bad film. A bit of a shock really, since we've been selecting films based on lack of buzz. In other words, I'm interested in seeing the movies that I may not get to see in the future due to lack of distribution or general obscurity. So, we're passing up the big names, like Wim Wender's new film or either of Miike's new movies. But I had read a bit about the film Cape of Good Hope from critics who had seen the South African film at other festivals and from comments IMDB.com so I was confident that it would be a charming, light film.

So far, Cape of Good Hope has been the only film that was a major disappointment.

Cape of Good Hope wasn't horrible, but it was frustrating because of the amazing talent that was wasted. One of the stars was Eriq Ebouaney who we recognized as the villain in Femme Fatal and when he walks into the room, you can recognize him as a star. Eriq Ebouaney was wonderful in Cape of Good Hope, so good that it caused me physical pain to hear him deliver the clunky and trite dialog, like the glue that holds the solar system together is love. Most of the other actors in the film are South African and were also very good, especially Debbie Brown and Nthati Moshesh.

Granted, if I had known that Cape of Good Hope was about an animal shelter, I may have steered clear, but it being an animal lover's film wasn't the problem. The problem was that it attempted to tell half-a-dozen stories about the people of the town without allowing time for any one one story to develop. And it lacked the courage and conviction to really tell the stories of the people of South Africa and instead it touched upon issues of racism, immigration, poverty and class and then would move on in favor of neat and pleasant endings to every story line that never felt genuine. I'm not saying it needed to be a serious film about race and poverty in South Africa, but by taking the easy way out again and again, the result was a very empty feel good movie that wasn't charming, but just annoying for being one dimensional, obvious and very painfully trite.

But Missing in American succeeds in all of the areas where Cape of Good Hope fails. In Missing in America, Jake (Danny Glover) is surprised by a fellow ex-Vietnam war vet (David Strathairn) who unexpectedly leaves his half-Vietnamese little girl with Jake to care for. The film follows the emotionally wounded vet as he grows attached to the little girl, played superbly by Zoe Weizenbaun, who will be in the upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha.

Danny Glover's Jake is familiar territory for the actor as Jake is an independent survivor who lives alone in a shack in the woods. He drives into to town periodically to buy supplies from Kate (Linda Hamilton) with money made from selling chopped wood. Jake doesn't immediately take to the little girl, Lenny, that is left in his care, but as Jake's character warms up to his new housemate, this film could have become a sweet film about a wounded man who is changed forever by the child in his life, but Missing in America doesn't travel down that path. Instead, it using the arrival of a half-Vietnamese child as a catalyst that allows for the exploration into the lives of the mysterious war veterans that live solitary lives in the woods, not able to forget the horrors they experienced in Vietnam. In Lenny's explorations into the woods, she meets their neighbors, some, like Red (Ron Perlman), are still living as if they are in a war zone and see Lenny as a painful reminder of a war that while being 40 years in the past, still impacts their lives as if it were yesterday.

One of the reasons this film stood out in stark contrast with Cape of Good Hope was that Missing in America was everything that Cape of Good Hope wanted to be. Missing in America would have been just as good a film if it had opted for a happy ending where Lenny grows up with Jake. It could have even developed into a very convincing love story between Jake and Kate, because it allowed time for the story to develop and didn't give easy answers. Instead, it was much more interested in the issues unique to Vietnam veterans who are unable to assimilate back into American culture after the war. And I'm not certain that these stories would have felt as authentic in a feel good movie, but at one point I did really want the neat and tidy happy ending.

Missing in America is a very powerful first feature by director Gabrielle Savage Dockterman. This film looked polished and it looked like a big studio film with lovely cinematography and big names in the lead roles, so it was surprising that this film is an independent production that is just beginning the process of finding a distributor. Hopefully, they succeed because Missing In America is a beautiful and powerful film that has Oscar written all over it.

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