CLOSED CURTAIN, CONGRATULATIONS! and VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR



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I saw three movies at AFI that all began the same way, and I don’t mean on the screen.  For each one, a programmer would introduce them and would wax rapturous to the audience about seeing the film for the first time at a festival, knowing, just knowing, in the first five minutes no less, that this movie was so unique and original, that the writer and director had a real vision, and that AFI just had to bring this movie to Los Angeles.  With that they would start texting the other programmers (which was probably a bit annoying to other audience members, as well as being a bit hypocritical since the programmers would always tell us to turn off our cell phones before the movie started, but anyway, I digress…) and tell them about their discovery.  As a result, a flurry would commence. 
And this made perfect sense since the opening scenes, even the first half, for all three films were quite wonderful.  And then the second half would begin.  And the movie would, let us say, not quite live up to earlier expectations (or in layman’s terms, would start falling apart, or in layman, layman’s turns, it would crash and burn).  And my first thought was, where were all the flurries of follow-up texting then, telling each and every one, oops, sorry, false alarm?  There were times I even wondered if the programmers had actually stayed for the whole film.
Closed Curtain is the new Iranian film from writer Jafar Panahi, who also co-directed it along with Kambuzia Partovi (in an unusual turn for movies, it has two directors, but one writer).  Both filmmakers are under house arrest in their home countries and both have been banned from making movies for the next twenty years.  As a result, Panahi has written and directed two movies based solely in the confined locations of his arrest (I think the phrase “oh, yeah, well…take that” is somewhat appropriate here).  In Iran, self-contained, three-unity films are not just an option, they are sometimes a creative necessity. 
The first film Panahi made this way is a documentary called This Is Not a Film about a director planning a project he is not sure he will ever be able to direct.  His follow up film is this one and the first half is quite intriguing and often riveting.  In a sort of quasi-sci-fi premise, a man (played by Partovi) comes to his second home by the sea smuggling his dog with him because dogs have been named impure by Shariah law and are being put to death.  To save his dog, he has to become a hermit and make sure that no one sees his beloved pet (he even has to throw out the droppings after dark, first checking that no one is around).  But then one night, two people, a brother and sister, suddenly appear, on the run when the police break up a party on the beach.  The brother leaves, but the sister stays.  And then suddenly, the man turns around and the sister has vanished.
This is a wonderful set up for a mind-fuck of a thriller.  It’s edge of seat, original, enthralling.  One has to know what is going to happen and how it will all come out.  Which is too bad since this is something you will never know.  For at this moment, this story line completely stops as Panahi breaks the third wall and enters the frame, but not as a character in the story, but as himself.  And the story now becomes about him relating to his friends and neighbors as well as…
Well, to be honest, I have no idea what the story is about at this point.  It completely lost me.  And it was so unfortunate, because the first half was a story well worth telling.  I have no idea why Panahi suddenly decided he just didn’t want to tell it anymore.  I’m sure he had his reasons, but it was all a mystery to me.  In the end, the second half became a confusing series of scenes that didn’t seem to have any real clear purpose or goal. 
The first half of the dark comedy Congratulations!, written and directed by Mike Brune, is absolutely hysterical.  I mean, it’s a real laugh riot, one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. 
The basic premise is that a child goes missing; but he vanishes basically in front of his mother and guests who are attending a party at the child’s house.  The mother looks away for half a minute and then turns back and her son‘s no longer there.   Actually, that’s not the basic premise, that’s the set up for the basic premise.  The premise is that when the police arrive, they don’t act like a child vanishing in this manner is anything surprising.  They treat it as something that is devastating, but has happened before.  And to make things even more absurd, everyone acts their roles and says their lines as if they are in an episode of Dragnet, with John Curran, as the detective in charge, reciting his dialog in rich, flat tones that would make Joe Friday proud.
I’m not sure that really gives one an idea as to why the whole thing is so ridiculously funny.  But the absurdity of the situation combined with the seriousness with which it is treated is classic black humor.  At times, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  And there are some remarkable scenes, such as the mother (Rhoda Griffis) spontaneously and desperately, even heart-breakingly, reenacting exactly what she did when she realized her child was missing, hoping against hope that might give her the clue to finding her little boy.
But in the end, the second half starts to flounder.  Brune hasn’t figured out a way to sustain what is essentially, in many ways, a one-joke premise that possibly could have been done in less than half the time and still be effective.   I mentioned Dragnet, and that probably is all the screenplay is: a satiric episode of that series that didn’t really have enough going for it to last much longer than a single installment would.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is writer and director Denis Cote’s character study of two women, lovers, both of whom are ex-cons and who begin living together at a remote farm where Vic’s father is suffering the debilitating effects of a stroke, so debilitating he can’t even get out of his wheelchair or speak or take care of himself.  The characters and the acting are rich, so rich, that one is drawn into their world and relationships and intrigued by what their future holds.
But the story has some serious structural flaws.  It begins as Vic’s story (Flo doesn’t show up for thirty minutes or so) and then it becomes Flo’s story as she goes off to pick up men at a local dive while a psychopath from her past shows up seeking some sort of revenge for some sort of motive that is never, ever revealed for some sort of reason (actually, both the pasts of Vic + Flo are a bit Harold Pinterishly unclear at times, which is actually one of the story’s strong points). 
Cote, though, never brings Vic and Flo’s storylines together in a satisfactory way (which is surprising since the set up seems to make it embarrassingly easy for one to do so if one had the druthers for it).  As a result, the story eventually feels as if it’s not really going anywhere.  The ending is a puzzle.  Both women find their legs encased in bear traps, but never try to get themselves out.  And then they become ghosts wandering around.  I guess it’s supposed to be symbolic or be deeply revelatory about the characters’ relationship, but hell if I know what it all meant.
And thus we have it.  Three films with definite potential that for some reason don’t quite get there and it’s a shame.  But after seeing all three movies and thinking over the introductions of the programmers, it sort of reminds me of a scene from the 1942 film Kings Row in which Ronald Reagan wakes up after an accident to find his legs have been amputated.  At first everything seems normal since his upper body is perfectly sound.  Then suddenly the truth washes over him and he starts screaming, “Where’s the rest of me”.   I did keep wondering where the rest of the movies here were.
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