By Karina Longworth
Here are some quick reviews of two SDFF films that I watched via screeners before touching down in Denver, and the one film I managed to see in town before succumbing to jet lag/altitude exhaustion. Oddly and entirely accidentally, all three films have something to do with aging males and their identity crises.
Karl Rove, I Love You
A self-mocking psuedo-documentary from the mind of Dan Butler (a journeyman supporting actor best known for a recurring role on Frasier), Karl Rove, I Love You has far less to do with the titualar “ultimate supporting actor” than with the personal fallout of engagement in our super-polarized political culture. What begins as a documentary on Butler as the archetypical “invisible” character actor (he’s consistently compared to Philip Seymour Hoffman, only “less famous”) morphs into a document of Butler’s mid-life crisis passion project, a one man show designed to expose the world to the “Real” Karl Rove. Butler begins the project wanting to hit the Bush administration where it hurts, but slowly comes to empathise with Rove, turns his show into a mildly-satiric love-letter, and alienates his single-minded friends and collaborators in the process.
Not always laugh-out loud funny, but well-paced and consistently engaging, Karl Rove, I Love You uses the natural conflict between (pervasively and unquestioningly liberal, and largely openly gay) Hollywood and (socially conservative but morally ambiguous) Red State actors to explore how angry obsession can offer the same kind of madness, identity salvation and pure pleasure as romantic passion. But more interestingly, it’s also about breaking down a black-and-white cipher and finding a whole person. It always feels more like a sitcom than a credible documentary (and the last twenty minutes really push the limits of disbelief), but it’s just creepy enough to work.
Starting Out in The Evening
Andrew Wagner’s second feature unfolds in comfortably-worn indie drama territory: New York academics and struggling artists collide cross generations, their almost complete lack of self-awareness failing to keep them from brutally criticizing and actively manipulating one another. From the moment aging author Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) and ripe young grad student Heather (Lauren Ambrose) meet to discuss the latter’s thesis on the former, it’s clear that the relationship will eventually take a turn for the uncomfortably intimate, but Ambrose and Langella make each moment on that path feel startlingly real.
Less successful is a subplot concerning the midlife relationship pains of Leonard’s daughter Arial, played by Lily Taylor. The character of a baby-hungry dancer-turned-yoga teacher seems like an extreme break from type for Taylor, and it’s great to see her nail such a woman’s physicality. But Taylor’s line readings feel surprisingly awkward, which is a liability when Arial’s neuroses keep the final act going long Leonard and Heather’s last moment of contact, which would seem to offer the film’s perfect punctuation.
A Toronto 2006 vet just now making it to this side of the continent, Prague is a Danish film set in the titular Czech city, with a sensibility that calls to mind the black comedy moments of the new Romanian masterpieces, with the blunt edge of social tragedy traded out for the wrenchingly personal. Mads Mikkelsen stars as Christoffer, a disaffected 40-something who travels with his wife of 14 years to Prague to claim the corpse of his estranged dad. Christoffer’s suspicions over his wife’s infidelity soon come to head just as the complexities of his father’s life in Prague begin to become apparent, and Christoffer is forced reevaluate his philosophy of life in a matter of days. Prague essentially squeezes the entirety of Christoffer’s midlife crisis into a week away from home, but it never feels as glib as that might sound. Mikkelsen is initially no less of a hardcase here than he was as the the blood-weeping bad guy from Casino Royale, and watching him progressively crumble is truly affecting.