SFF2011: The Future, Target, End Of Animal, Stake Land

As the rain continues to pour down, the festival is still haunted by iffy projection difficulties. A screening of the documentary El Bulli was struck with a missing audio track resulting in apparent mass walkouts (a refund was strangely only offered to those who didn't stay for the duration). I also noticed a quite significant (for the anal retentive like me) mark on the projection screen in the top left hand corner at the state theatre. Quite distracting...
While today wasn't as strong a day as the previous for me, there were still quite a bit of interesting viewing to be had. An early screening of Miranda July's sophomore film, THE FUTURE proved well worth getting up hungover and sleep-deprived for. July's film has been in many ways as divisive as Sleeping Beauty with many finding her 'twee' sense of magic realism painfully cloying. Having very much enjoyed her first film, Me, You and Everyone We Know, I was tentatively looking forward to this despite my variable tolerance for overt quirk and cutsiness.
I can happily report than I really enjoyed THE FUTURE. The story follows a couple, both aged 35 who decide to adopt a dying cat from an animal shelter. They are told, as they sign the papers, that if the cat is well taken care of it may live up to five more years, a duration that brings anxiety to the couple as the responsibility of caring for something for that period of time begins to dawn on them. They have 30 free days before they can pick up the cat. 30 days of freedom.
Some of July's touches really define the term 'twee', particularly her tactic of having the cat itself narrate the film from a cage in the shelter (I really didn't enjoy that element but it may be due to the fact that cats and I are mortal enemies) but her unique approach to magic realist touches not often seen in American films really work well for the viewer willing to approach the film without cynicism. I found a lot to like in THE FUTURE especially July's attention to the techno details of modern young life. One short scene showing the couple's anxiety during the moments before their internet connection gets cut off was amusingly authentic. I could relate wholly to these characters who in many ways reminded me of another film I was recently fond of about 30somethings that also divided audiences, Away We Go.
The next film of the day, TARGET was much less successful. This Russian epic is only just starting its run of festivals and we were treated to one of its first few public screenings having not even premiered in its home country yet. Scatted adjectives in my notepad included the words: meandering, unfocused, uninteresting and just plain pointless. For a film with such grandiose ambitions (rich Muscovites travelling to a techno-fountain of youth and dealing with the repercussions of what it actually means to become 'forever young'), the stories it ends up telling are remarkably bland. Everyone is unlikable, has affairs and are just generally unpleasant people. By the time we got to the second or third pointless sex scene set to a jarring opera song I really wanted to get the hell out of the theatre.
If you go back over my list of anticipated films for this years festival you will see that TARGET featured, primarily based upon a singular critics review for the Independent who saw it in Berlin. That critic's name is noted (Jonathan Romney by the way) and will be disregarded in the future as TARGET really is a great disappointment that hopefully will soon be forgotten.
Third film of the day was another in the increasingly hit and miss Freak me Out segment of the program. Korean rapture drama END OF ANIMAL which begins strongly with a mysterious man jumping into a taxi that is driving a woman somewhere. The man alternates between antagonising the woman and obscurely counting down to an unidentified event. When he gets to zero we see a flash of light and the woman wakes up alone in the taxi. We soon learn (this is not a spoiler by the way) that the rapture has literally just occurred.
As the woman tries to make her way to a rest stop she comes across several people who are basically the dregs of humanity and have been left over to fight over the scraps of civilization after the 'good' people have ascended. Of course the plot isn't as literal as I am describing it. For those that tune into the film they will find a moody and threatening atmosphere, almost Lynchian at times. For me though, END OF ANIMAL just went on and on with no real purpose. Minimalism as a stylistic choice (and evident low-budget necessity) is no excuse for a lack of narrative drive as the film slowly descends into repetition and ultimate silliness. Some reports from twitter were positive so this is surely a case of 'your mileage may vary' with this one (I've been waiting all festival to drop that saying. You will hear it again too).
The day finished with a strong but straightforward piece of American genre filmmaking, STAKELAND. Jim Mickle is a great new voice in independent American horror cinema and STAKELAND is his most ambitious film yet. Essentially the film has nothing particularly new to offer. We open in the near future where the world has been overrun by vampires. Mickle's vampires are not the clean, sly and sophisticated characters we are used to seeing but rather a more primal, visceral monster that takes many cues from zombie films. They are monsters that come out at night and are killed by a stake through the heart but that is about all they share with the common vampire myth we are familiar with.
I know it's a probably cliched comparison but Mickle's film has an strong affinity with Romero's zombie films. Our two protagonists, Mister the grizzled, experienced vampire killer and Martin. the young teenager he rescues after the vamps kill his whole family, travel north through America, with the goal of reaching the mythical New Eden (possibly Canada), a place where no vamps are rumoured to be. The film itself plays out pretty episodically as you would expect, with out travelers alternating between fighting crazy human cultists and periodic vamp attacks.
STAKELAND is a very solid genre film that amazingly and creatively utilises its low-budget to present quite a convincing picture of a world in disarray. This isn't ground breaking stuff but it should appeal to more experienced fans of genre films that are looking for a well-executed, exciting night at the movies.