Sunday, August 9, 2015

MIFF: Themed short films

I was a bit concerned when I heard there was a short playing before Radu Muntean's One Floor Below, my second MIFF screening, on Friday night. The Romanian thriller started at 6:30, and I needed to be at a showing of Trainwreck -- albeit in the same theater -- at 8:45.

This would ordinarily seem like perfect spacing, but the MIFF guide left it totally unclear how long One Floor Below actually was. The short, Albert, was clearly 16 minutes long, but then the time listed next to the movie was 122. So if taken as a package, that would mean 138 minutes, and me missing the start of Trainwreck by three minutes. Which is okay, I guess, because there are usually 15 minutes of commercials and trailers before most movies. But still, I don't like to cut it that close -- especially since we're discussing Trainwreck in our next podcast, and I would have no opportunity to catch it again between now and the podcast (having a friend in town who's already seen it for the next week).

The reason why the length of the movie was unclear was that a different time was listed next to One Floor Below for its second screening on August 13th. That one said 117 minutes. Then the way it was listed, Albert was actually listed second, which made me wonder if perhaps the short would actually play after the feature -- highly unconventional, but who knows. If that happened, at least I could skip out.

The uncertainty of it all led to small (but obviously manageable) doses of panic.

When I was in my seat at Cinema Kino, I asked the MIFF volunteer if a short was indeed playing before the movie -- because at this point I couldn't be certain even of that. She confirmed. "And then the movie is two hours also?" "Oh no," she said. "The movie is about 90 minutes."

While this relieved me, I decided I should do what I should have done in the first place. I went on IMDB and found that One Floor Below was, indeed, 93 minutes.

Well, I'm really glad Albert didn't play second and that they showed it at all, because Albert was great -- and One Floor Below was decidedly short of that. The amount they had in common, though, was truly phenomenal, making this perhaps the best themed pairing of a short film with its feature length counterpart that I've ever seen. And while I chose to see One Floor Below because of an apparent resemblance to my favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window, if I'd known I would have chosen it for its similarity to Albert.

(And finally the disparity in running times was explained -- the whole package ran 122 minutes on one day and 117 on the other because for this screening, the director of Albert, Melbourne filmmaker Raphael Elisha, was on hand to introduce it. He was charming except for the inexplicable joke he made about film luminaries who recently died, which fell flat.)

So both of these films are about an older man who overhears the arguing of a couple in a neighboring apartment and wonders what he should do about it. The arguing in Albert is of a much more violent nature, with objects being thrown and voices reaching truly terrible volumes and agonizing levels of despair, while the arguing in One Floor Below is of a much quirkier nature. However, it's the second arguing that leads to a murder, or at the very least a suspicious death. I won't tell you what the first arguing leads to, because Albert is a short and that would threaten to ruin the entirety of it.

So the older man in One Floor Below is Patrascu (Teodor Corban), a happily married father of a teenage boy, who is big into his dog, Jerry, and a new fitness regimen he's gotten involved in. He's also the owner of a small business that assists people in transferring the registration of their vehicles to other owners. His life is going along pretty swimmingly, but he makes an impulsive mistake one day when climbing the stairs in his apartment building and hearing two people inside his neighbor's apartment having an argument of a sexual nature. Perhaps thinking he's about to overhear something titillating, he lingers at the door -- long enough for the man to storm out of the apartment. Patrascu quickly covers his eavesdropping to make it seem as though he was putting the leash on Jerry, but the man -- another neighbor, living one floor below that -- recognizes it for what it was. When the woman, Laura, turns up naked and dead in her apartment a couple days later, Patrascu becomes the only loose end who may have known that the man was there -- since that man is married to his own wife and wouldn't have otherwise been expected there.

This is, you will agree, a great setup for a movie. Unfortunately, it doesn't really go the places you expect it to go, or any of the places you would hope it would go if you hoped it would go somewhere unexpected. So where it goes is, indeed, somewhat unexpected, but not in the way you would hope.

I chose this movie because I have loved some Romanian films that have come out in the past decade. If you follow this blog closely, you will know that Cristian Mungiu's two films that I've seen, the "Romanian abortion drama" (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Beyond the Hills, ended up in either my #1 or #2 spot for the year in my year-end rankings (of 2008 and 2013, respectively -- even those films were released in Romania in 2007 and 2012). However, in giving my blanket approval to films from Romania, I'm forgetting that at least one also left me nonplussed. That was Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective (2009), which I guess is a satire, and which got intentionally bogged down in the mundane aspects of police procedure. That was supposed to be the point, but it made for a real slog to sit through.

One Floor Below was sloggish in parts as well. For a 93-minute movie, it has pacing problems, and that's because at the point that the story should be really ramping up, it instead ends. It spends a huge amount of time on very humdrum aspects of Patrascu's life, like walking his dog and going through the day-to-day machinations of his business, in order to show us the normal life that is being interrupted. However, it then doesn't interrupt that life to the extent it seems like it should be interrupted. When you expect the conventions of what's supposed to be a thriller to really kick in, the credits roll. I guess that's kind of a spoiler, sorry -- but I feel like it helps to know that you will be disappointed if you are expecting this film to adhere to the (albeit timeworn) conventions of its supposed genre. In this way it was a bit of a flashback to my second MIFF film last year, the Chinese film Black Coal, Thin Ice. That was also supposed to be a foreign take on a familiar genre -- a cop movie -- but it also didn't obeyed genre conventions and felt like it ended in the middle of a sentence.

So each of the first two movies I've seen this year -- The Lobster and now One Floor Below -- have borne similarities to the first two movies I saw last year, both of which disappointed me relative to my anticipation for them. The deja vu trend has every chance of continuing on Tuesday, when I get into the American film portion of my schedule (just as I did last year) with a film starring Jessie Eisenberg (just as I did last year). The film last year was Kelly Reichardt's terrific Night Moves. This year it's James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace movie, with Jason Segel as Wallace.

See you back here Wednesday to discuss it.

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