Cinequest 18 final day: AFR, Empties, and Take

The title of AFR refers to the name of the current Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This drama, made in the style of a documentary (the label mockumentary doesn’t seem right), explores an alternate reality where Rasmussen has been killed with a car bomb by a radical man named Emil who was killed by police during his capture. It blends real news footage with new footage, mostly in the form of interviews with friends and relatives of the two, into a coherent story that does feel like a real documentary.

To be completely honest, I say coherent without complete evidence, since I was tired and missed enough to not be sure, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. What I did see was occasionally disturbing but a little too frequently on the boring side.

A previous screening was the North American premiere. I’ll give it a higher 2 stars out of 4 stars.

Empties is a little Czech comedy about a 65 year-old literature teacher who retires because his students stress him out so much he has a nervous tic. But he doesn’t want to sit around at home with his linguist wife, so he tries out a few other jobs. Throughout he maintains a keen appreciation of women, including often having dreams about them. The one woman he does not notice much is his wife, which, though treated lightly, adds a little bit of bittersweetness to the feeling of the film.

The film includes some great cinematography of Prague, and good performances from a large number of minor characters. How they fit into the story I’ll leave vague, since I don’t want to give away much of the story. I would definitely recommend it.

I’ll give it a higher 3 stars out of 4 stars.

Lastly there was the closing night movie, preceded by the festival awards, back at the California Theater. Festival founder Halfdan Hussey kicked it off with a joke about the frequent sound problems of the last couple of years by using a bullhorn as a backup to the apparently non-working microphone.

Then he awarded a Maverick Legacy watch to his brother Jens Hussey, who has been on the Cinequest staff for 9 years, most recently as the head of public relations. He said, “It’s nice to get a prize for quitting.”

Halfdan then invited all the filmmakers who were still in town up onto the stage, and gave out the awards. I wrote most of them down, but they have since been officially announced, so I won’t repeat them here.

The closing film was Take, starring Minnie Driver as Ana, the mother of seven year-old Jesse, who is struggling in school. Their lives intersect with Saul (Jeremy Renner), a small-time criminal. The story is told in a style that’s kind of a combination of the scrambled time-line of 21 Grams with the different perspectives on the same events of Rashômon.

The film was really hard to watch. At times it felt a little too obvious, but on the whole it is well done and affecting. Driver was good, though I can certainly imagine some other actresses being even better (such as Naomi Watts, speaking of 21 Grams). I would definitely recommend the film if you can handle challenging material filled with a sense that even though things suck now, they are likely going to get even worse.

The writer/director (Charles Oliver) and a producer (maybe Chet Thomas) answered questions for quite a while after the screening. Note that there are definitely some significant spoilers in here:

  • The director wanted two strangers, who only see each other for a moment, imaging each other’s lives.
  • “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
  • They are currently wrapping up a distribution deal. The release will start with five cities, including San Francisco, with more if the initial cities perform well.
  • The film is not set in a particular time, just sometime in the last 10 years.
  • Can someone really meet with a prisoner just before execution? The director spent several hours at San Quentin and learned that, yes, it is possible, and has even happened.
  • The writer/director wrote the script in the non-sequential order it appears, and then put it in sequential order to make sure that the stories worked. In editing they had to change the earlier pieces to be longer because otherwise people could not get oriented.
  • It was shot in 27 days in 32 locations.
  • The director would love to come back to Cinequest.
  • The darkness of this film make it a hard sell.
  • The original title was Crossing Paths. The director offered people $100 for a better title, and his wife came up with the dual-meaning title.
  • The writer/director thinks Ana left her husband, but isn’t completely sure.
  • The director had worked with the same cinematographer for years, and he (the cinematographer) introduced the producer to the director.
  • The film was shot on 35mm, and there are only three prints.
  • The director had never seen print problems like we saw (big frequent yellow splotches for pretty much an entire reel) before.
  • Different worlds had different looks, created with both in camera and in the digital intermediate.
  • The director intends for us to conclude that the two main characters have imagined each other’s pasts, so much of the film is in that sense not really real. This goes back to the first bullet above.
  • The director worked at a mini storage facility for a while, and was also a teacher.
  • Jesse was based in part on the director’s second son, who isn’t quite as hyperactive as the character or the young actor who played Jesse.
  • They did five takes of the kidnapping scene, the fourth one of which had everyone in tears.

I’ll give Take a higher 3 stars out of 4 stars.

All seen 3/9/2008.

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