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SFIFF 53 Day Five: The Way of Nature, Between Two Worlds, Morning, Wholphin Waters

SFIFF 53 Day Five: The Way of Nature, Between Two Worlds, Morning, Wholphin Waters

San Francisco’s Meredith Brody reviews The Way of Nature, meets Leland Orser and goes Wholphin.

The festival begins at 1 p.m. today, with only one film on offer, The Way of Nature, and I’m so there: it’s a languid, beautifully-photographed documentary about quotidian life on a farm in Sweden. Beginning in elegant, snowy winter, the four seasons unfold wordlessly, elegantly, somewhat predictably. We see many animals being born, lots of machines employed, cute shots of dogs (one snoozing atop his master, napping on an uncomfortable-looking wooden bench, draws “aws” from the audience. In fact, the dog and baby animal sequences usually get appreciative murmurs). Dripping icicles and glimpses of crocuses herald spring; summer features bright flowers; turning leaves, berries, and mushrooms transition into fall. The film is both poetic and prosaic, soothing and invigorating. Only near the end do documents hanging on the wall of the farmhouse casually reveal that the snoozing farmer has won awards for cultivating domestic breeds that otherwise might become extinct.

A couple of trusted friends have touted the Sri Lankan film Between Two Worlds to me as containing the most ravishing images they’ve seen. And the audience is congratulated during the screening’s introduction because we’re the only ones to get to see it in Theater 2, the Kabuki’s biggest screen. But the experience is spoiled for me because the film is noticeably out of focus. I would have a bit of trouble getting into the story anyway, as it jumps around both temporally and stylistically.

I finally go out to find the projectionist. Long minutes afterwards, the film jumps into sharp focus. I look at my watch. We’re twenty minutes into the 86-minute running time. (Parenthetical comment: the movies at this festival seem uncharacteristically short, very few breaching the two-hour limit, and lots clocking in around 90 minutes or less. No afternoon-swallowing Tarkovsky, no marathon screening of a multi-part documentary, no 2 ½ hour Terry Malick movie or 207-minute Kurosawa revival. Even the Rivette was 84 minutes – but then it seemed to be missing large chunks, here and there.)

I admire the way the film is shot, but I’m less enthralled with the complicated and for me unsatisfactory story-telling. A man escapes from civil war raging in a city to an equally dangerous countryside, with interludes by the sea and events that happen out of logical order or keep recurring. A q and a session with director Vimukthi Jayasundara, whose first feature, Sulanga Enu Pinasa, won the 2005 Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or prize, leaves me equally confused and unmoved.

I’m quite moved, however, by the uniformly excellent performances in actor-director Leland Orser’s Morning, starring himself, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Laura Linney, Elliot Gould, Jason Ritter, Kyle Chandler, and the stolid-faced Gina Morelli, who opens and closes the film, riding a bus from downtown LA to Pasadena to care for the broken couple that has sustained the worst loss parents can face. (The title can be heard as Mourning.) I find myself wishing that Laura Linney was my therapist, Elliot Gould my doctor, and Gina Morelli my housekeeper.

The day before I’d met Orser before the Walter Murch address, and a casual mention that I’d taken my 8-year-old nephew to see Iron Man elicited a memory, triggered by its director, of his friend Jon Favreau. Orser gestured towards the beautiful Tripplehorn and said that he, Favreau, and Tripplehorn had all worked together in Peter Berg’s Very Bad Things. “A year later, we were all in Toronto, the three of us, working on three different movies, and Favreau and I were sitting in the lobby and Jeanne walked by and he nudged me and told me she was now single…and we’ve been together ever since!” An example of the instant intimacy engendered in brief encounters.

Afterwards Orser and Tripplehorn were joined onstage by the San Francisco born, bred, and based producer Todd Traina, who’s known Orser since childhood, when they were at the Cathedral School for Boys on Sacramento Street. Orser brings Jason Ritter onstage from the audience, unwittingly presaging his surprise appearance at the next event I attend, billed as “A Drunken Evening with Derek Waters and Wholphin.” (Inbetween, I drop by the Filmmaker’s Lounge, where I’ve been told karaoke will be on offer. I think my leg is being pulled, but no, I walk in on Deputy Director of the San Francisco Film Society Steven Jenkins singing what he later tells me is a Pulp song, when I compliment him on the performance. “It’s out of my range,” he says, modestly.)

Wholphin is the eclectic DVD magazine that comes forth quarterly from the amazingly prolific Dave Eggers-headed culture machine that also encompasses McSweeney’s, The Believer, writing classes, and a pirate store. Wholphin editor Brent Hoff and the heretofore-unknown-to-me comic writer/actor Derek Waters (hey, you can’t keep up with everything) introduce a selection of Waters’ short films.

They open (alas) with the best of the evening, the most recent of Waters’ Drunk History films, in which “an intoxicated retelling of a historical event is intercut with a verbatim reenactment” in which well-known actors in period dress mouth the words of the drunken storyteller. John C. Reilly and Don Cheadle are funny even before they open their (exquisitely synchronized) mouths as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and every time the audience hears female comedian’s Jen Kirkman’s frequent interjections of “fuck” or “fucking” issuing from their mouths, they get a(n easy) laugh.

Maybe I’d be having more fun if I was up in the balcony, where there’s a bar (one of the perks of the Kabuki), but I find the evening mildly tedious rather than the mild debauchery I was promised. Still, there are moments of unexpected pleasure, such as when Waters launches into a wild (and painful-looking) dance onstage after apparently losing a bet to Hoff (that more than ten people would attend – the room is packed). And also when Jason Ritter, a surprise guest (whose mother’s LA house provided frequent locations for the Drunk History films), bravely attempts a live improvisation onstage to a semi-incoherent Drunk History shouted from the balcony about a French aviator who invented the wristwatch so he could fly his plane without having to pull a pocket watch from his, well, pocket.

I need a drink. Or some solid sleep before tomorrow’s screenings, anyway.

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