Burn Your Maps (Jordan Roberts; opening night film): This is a comedy with an earnest message. Wes is a child with a rich fantasy life and imagines himself a Mongolian goat-herder, to the vast dismay of his parents, or at least his father (Marton Csokas). Wes’s parents have marital problems. His mom (Vera Farmiga) finds liberation by travelling to Mongolia with Wes to fulfill his dream. There she meets up with another dreamer, a “retired” nun (Virginia Madsen) who seems a footloose hippie. The film’s big problem is structural. It takes a long time to get to the point where the family travels to Mongolia, and then the lengthy Mongolian scenes aren’t all that interesting. However, it’s funny to find that the supposedly exotic Mongolia has similarities to home, including cell phones, modern rental cars and baseball caps worn by real goat-herders. The movie also overuses the trope of the whimsical and stubborn kid who unites the family.
Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog): This 2015 film about the early 20th century archeologist and influential Brit imperialist Gertrude Bell, a woman well before her time, has great touches we would expect from accomplished indie director Herzog: magnificent desert scenes and rich traditional Bedouin sets and costumes. The problem is that, at over two hours, it’s languorous. Nor does it fully explain the character of the larger than life Bell, who travelled on her own through what was the Ottoman Empire and would soon become the modern Middle East. As an archeologist what did she discover? Instead there are numerous scenes of her (played by Nicole Kidman) on camelback travelling through the wandering sands. Nothing against Kidman, but her character just doesn’t seem rugged enough; that glamorous porcelain face lacks the grit of years of travelling against blinding sandstorms and piercing sun.
Dean (Demetri Martin): This film works the well-worn cliches of New York vs Los Angeles for a new generation, and succeeds. Just like Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall, Dean (played by Martin) is a wry, skeptical New Yorker, aghast at the over-the-top hipster trappings of a “creative class” agency, where his revealing stick drawings (also done by Martin) are much sought. Also well done is the fact that, just like in life, the film’s motto might be: expect the unexpected. For example, (not a spoiler alert), Dean falls for Nicky (Gillian Jacobs, who is stunningly made for the screen; this is a compliment) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) falls for Dean’s dad Robert (Kevin Kline). There’s a lot of truth in the chuckles, and even slapstick, built into this enjoyable film.
The Architect (Jonathan Parker): This is possibly my favorite film so far. It’s a character study of an architect (James Frain) and his clients (Parker Posey and Eric McCormack). Frain as Miles Moss is the ever so uncompromising architect-as-artist, who sucks his clients into designing his dream house. Posey, a housewife with artistic ambitions of her own, is the one who really bonds with Moss, swept away on his lofty, if arguably very true, philosophical musings about what design is all about. It’s fascinating to listen to Moses, a rare character type in films or life, though I met plenty of them in college and, looking back, it wasn’t such a bad thing. McCormack is the practical, rational foil to Posey’s flights of artistic fancy. The film, which, by the way, is also a comedy, works on different levels about art, integrity and corruption.