Not every day at a film fest yields winners. On the contrary, some reveal their auteurs as wieners.

Okay, that’s unnecessarily flip. Normally, I try to give some credit to struggling directors, and find the good even in the bad. I also felt a bit bad at having walked out on some of the previous programs – a practice I find unforgivable if reviewing a single film for assignment, but more acceptable if the article being worked on is a multi-film piece, like a festival wrap-up.

I was sorely tested, however, by SPIRIT. Good God, I wanted to walk out almost immediately, when it opened with a title card on black that was held way too long while some truly awful music played. The music in this thing sounds like it was composed on a late-‘80s Casio keyboard that is occasionally attempting to approximate nursery rhymes, superhero themes, and karaoke backing music for the worst kind of Asian pop music.

I wanted to walk out again during almost every other scene after that. SPIRIT is a horrible, horrible movie in which every aspect of the production fails. If a 12 year-old kid made this, I would consider it a disappointment, though I believe the director’s considerably older. I would like to tell everyone involved that they should give up on any kind of movie career now, to spare us the pain and them the wasted time in their lives. I’m actually slightly angry at the festival for accepting this movie, because if this gets in there can be no logical basis for rejecting anything.

I’m going to try to describe the plot to you, and frankly, it’s gonna sound like one of those “so bad it’s good” movies like THE ROOM. Just bear in mind that it’s really poorly shot, the acting is so wooden it gives you splinters, and the terrible soundtrack is assaultive, which kept me from much ironic enjoyment. Maybe on DVD with some beers handy, it could be fun to laugh at.

Our hero is a half-Asian kid named Stone, who, on his first day of high school, accidentally runs into the middle of a low-rider stand-off between black thug Dante and Latino thug Carlos, both of whom are always being followed by a cop in a mustard-colored blazer. Stone looks to be in trouble, but impresses our two thugs by pogoing up and down on his bike, so they let him go. Dante and Carlos are fast friends after this point.

At school, Stone is approached by a gorgeous freshman cheerleader named Gwen, but he’s a total dick to her. Why? Because he wants the blonde bimbo who’s dating the football team kicker, Seth. Gwen later explains to her friends that she’s “totally in love with Stone.” Why? “It’s his spirit.”

Side note: the school English teacher is named Ms. Steinbeck. Also, this is the kind of movie where someone rubs their stomach to accompany the line “I’m starving.”

Gwen tells Stone he should run for class president. Stone agrees when he realizes it’ll get him into student council class with the bimbo, Yvette. But Yvette’s sister is Nicole, Stone’s opponent, and she persuades Yvette to string Stone along and distract him, ultimate goal being to break his spirits and sabotage his campaign.

During a football game, Stone realizes that Seth is a lousy kicker who can’t win the game, so he cleverly crafts a plan to keep Seth distracted, while he starts a chant for Hector, a short Latino who was a championship soccer player, but somehow the coach doesn’t know this. Seth is delayed when two of Stone’s friends hold the bathroom door shut for a while, then distracted when Gwen walks up and says “Why don’t you go get a few condoms and show me what you got.” Hector is put into play and wins. Seth is pissed, and finds out Stone was behind it.

Then Stone goes to a party that Yvette invited him to. Gwen goes too, because she heard Stone wanted to meet a “special lady,” and assumes it’s her. At the party, Stone, briefly blinded by a pompom, ends up kissing Gwen when he thinks it’s Yvette. Then Yvette shows up, Gwen is sad, and Stone is lured into a closet where Seth kicks his ass. Seth then goes outside to where Stone’s bicycle is. It’s totally at his mercy, so what does Seth do? Carefully lets the air out of the tires, then kicks the handlebars. Later, we’re told that this amounts to totally doing a number on the bike. Yup.

You know what? I’m not gonna summarize the whole thing, but here are some of the things that happen later...

-One of Gwen’s friends suddenly starts shooting up heroin for one scene, without explanation (and she apparently already has it in liquid form ready to go). At the end of the scene she stands up, totally fine and without any apparent ill effects.

-Gwen is momentarily fooled by Seth coming up behind her, putting his arms around her, and pretending to be Stone, even though Stone is substantially shorter and has hands that are considerably darker than Seth’s.

-When Stone wants to steal something from Yvette’s locker, it’s lucky for him that it’s the only locker in the whole school with a giant sign on it saying who it belongs to.

-Stone’s seemingly gay dad takes him fishing and tries to explain dating via a metaphor of lures versus worms, and tells his son that you have to find someone who sees the worm in you. “You know what you catch?” he asks his kid. “Love.” Later Stone will leave the family dinner in a hurry with the excuse: “There’s a fish...I mean a girl...that needs to be caught.”

Next up was ROOM FOR RENT, a low-budget movie from Jamaica, which kicks off with a decent reggae theme tune sung by someone called Manasseh. Unfortunately the score gets Casio-like after that.

It kicks off with a comedic car-wash sequence, where the guy doing the cleaning only wants to work on a woman’s car and not one owned by a dude. Then there’s some stuff about kids in a car jockeying for the front seat and saying stuff like “Vamoose, man, vamoose!” Then a female real estate agent is trying to sell a crazy guy some house in Waterford, which is clearly a part of town that sucks but he’s determined to live in...

And then the DVD stopped, and reset. Menus came up, things were clipped, the film starts again. Fortunately, the projectionist fast-forwards a bit. And then it stops again. Same deal.

I turned to the only other person in the theater. “Let’s give it one more shot,” he says. We do. It stops again. Three strikes, I’m out. With no-one left in the theater, who knows if the projectionist tried again.

The makers of the marching band documentary FROM THE 50-YARD LINE actually got a marching band to show up and perform outside, working the crowd and selling tickets like crazy. Me, I went to see a French movie about domestic violence instead. Several teens came into the same theater. I really didn’t want to assume what their tastes were , but when their (loud) conversations indicated that they were there for marching band, I politely told them it was next door and they were missing it. They thanked me.

And that brings me to PLEURE EN SILENCE (CRY IN SILENCE), a film by J.G. Biggs. Domestic violence dramas bring up a question – why don’t we call these movies “torture porn”? You go to a movie like this knowing you’re going to see women get beaten up, so how is that worse than CAPTIVITY? I know some will argue that one is titillation and the other isn’t, but really, the ultimate goal of both is catharsis when the crisis is resolved one way or another – often by revenge, in both cases.

I’m not dissing Biggs. Just asking a general philosophical question.

This movie is apparently based on a true story. Introduced in the present day in color, a young woman named Ida Beaussart recalls her childhood, especially the time when her older sister Kristina left home, sending their abusive father into a state of constant rage. Ida back then was nicknamed “Dada” by her mother, and “Mongolien” (Retard) by her father. Lest there be any ambiguity over the father’s character, he has a framed picture of Hitler on the wall that he makes all his daughters “sieg heil” to every morning, after which they sometimes transcribe passages from “Mein Kampf.”

From this point on, the film essentially becomes an eight-fold repetition of the same sequence, unfolding over eight days. Dad smacks Ida repeatedly at the dinner table. If mom chimes in, she gets smacked. Ida wets her pants. Ida sniffs glue. Ida’s sister Francoise, who is daddy’s girl, beats and berates Ida, sometimes at dad’s encouragement. Dad smacks Ida and mom some more. The performances are solid here, but a lot of the smacking is so frequent, unmotivated, and so exaggerated with sound effects that at times it feels like Moe from the Three Stooges wrote the script (“Oh, a wisenheimer, eh? Nyuck nyuck, moron!” – not actual dialogue from PLEURE EN SILENCE, but not far off). There’s no sense of why anyone ever put up with the father, who’s so completely evil; given how cartoonish a villain he is, it’s tempting to suggest that the appropriate way to deal with him would be to tattoo anchors upon one’s forearms and chug a can of spinach.

Let’s be clear – this is emotionally harrowing. It’s hard to watch young girls get beaten over and over and not have visceral reaction. But it is also repetitive, and lacks the crucial dimension many such stories have, which is to show that the abuser occasionally has moments of contrition or humanity that let you understand why his family or neighbors might not turn him in. But a Hitler-obsessed rageaholic who tells his family that he plans to murder them...well, it just makes no sense that they wouldn’t all run away the moment he leaves the house to go to work.

Minor question: If this is 1989, would the family really still have a rotary-dial phone? And why is it black and white – we had color footage in the ‘80s.

Anyway: good acting, cinematography, and actor-direction. Story needs work.

Morgan Freeman’s supposed to show up to the awards gala tonight. I’ll believe that when I see it.


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