EEFF: Generation Um…

Alex Cassun has bravely embarked upon an indie film featuring everyone’s favourite Dude, not that one, the other one

Undeniably, not the sort of thing most folks would volunteer for. 

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Mark Mann‘s Generation Um is a challenging, deliberately-paced film about introverted and mostly unlikeable characters doing questionable things. It isn’t a mumblecore movie (as some are calling it), but it is a movie about misunderstanding, so it seems fitting that critics have miss-categorized it. (I’m looking at you, Variety and LA Times.) If you don’t like slow moving character studies then you probably won’t find much to love about Generation Um, but I do, and did.

John (Keanu Reeves) just celebrated his 40th birthday. He lives in a slummy New York apartment with his obese cat and his 20 (or so) year old cousin Rick (Jonny Orsini). He spends his time with Mia (Adelaide Clemens) and Violet (Bojana Novakovic), a couple of hard-partying ladies in their early 20s, and he avoids pretty much everyone else, including his fretting mother who only wants to wish him a happy birthday. John wanders the city drinking coffee in the day and booze in the night. He has a million mile stare and doesn’t talk much, and when he does it tends to be nonsensical pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo**. New York is expensive and John relies on a variety of means to pay the bills, some of which are probably illegal. He mopes because he doesn’t know how to break the mindnumbingly repetitive cycle. Hell, not even the occasional blowjob in the local pub’s bog can put a smile on his face, for fuck’s sake! John drags his sad-sack face around the city, eating cupcakes and milling about his bedroom until we get to the first turning point, about 30 minutes in, when he follows a crowd of balloon-toting weirdos to a park where they perform a Country Western cowboy hoola-hoop dance… thing. Some idiot sets his camera on the ground and walks away. John, being an opportunist, gets himself a new video camera and narrowly escapes the Cowboy mob in the movie’s one and only action sequence.

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John proceeds to record squirrels in the park before turning the camera first on himself and then on Mia and Violet, roommates and BFFs who prance around in their underwear and stare deeply into mirrors as though trying to conjure the deeper meanings of the universe. They’re also really into sex, drugs and rock and roll. John follows them around their house as they take turns telling stories that may or may not be true. They’re the stars of their own reality TV show, and they reveal details of their lives with an un-bashfulness that can only have come from growing up with the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo instead of mindful parents. The characters seem to exist by floating from one moment to another, stuck in a big swirl of bland repetition, and the audience is tugged along for the ride. John doesn’t seem too interested in breaking free. If this was rehab, he’d be somewhere between recognizing he has a problem and dwelling on potential ways to escape the cycle, but still miles away from any meaningful action. John, Mia or Violet are lost souls who love and need each other despite getting to this point from vastly different avenues. None of them are keen to rock the boat, but I don’t get the sense that any of them are particularly afraid of drowning, either. It’s a fragile balance, and one which requires a lot of trust.

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A few small surprises arise as the histories and relationships are revealed, and there is even a twist ending of sorts. It’s quite a bit lower on the whoa! scale than, say, if John revealed he could see dead people, but it’s impact on the story is no less important. What the final 5 minutes does is give new context to everything we’ve seen. What had felt like a loose, rambling story suddenly tightens and you realize, looking back, that everything is in the movie for a reason and it builds to the only logical conclusion. The best endings are those which are both surprising and completely obvious, and the finale here was an expertly executed maneuver which I fear the subtlety and beauty of was lost on the critics who dismissed the movie as aimless.

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Mann‘s experiments with blocking put the focus less on the characters and more on the details of their surroundings — in most cases, those spaces tell us more than any movement or dialogue could. The editing is nicely done with humorous moments coming on the back-end of shots that are deliberately held for a half-beat too long. The movie isn’t quite linear but it’s not quite non-linear, either. Mann deliberately dislodges the audience from time and space, and if you feel a bit lost well then welcome, brother. It isn’t a stretch to think the audience should have been given Hello My Name Is… stickers upon arrival.

Reeves has played similar characters in the past but not to this degree and his performance holds the film together. Bojana and Adelaide are promising young actors who buy into their roles and give wonderful and completely unglamorous performances. As with the characters they embody, there is a lot of trust going on here, and it pays off.

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Generation Um might be in my favorites list at the end of the year, or it might not. Who knows. At times we are treated to well-lit sets and nicely composed shots, and other times the camera shakes like we’re filming a Bourne movie and some of the dialogue comes across like first year university students who’ve just discovered Nietzsche. But what I do know is I want to watch the movie again, and I’m going to tell my film-loving friends to do the same.

*: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
**: One of my favorite scenes is when John is in a cafe with military buddy Charles (Daniel Sunjata). John’s musings about his apartment building’s left and right turns reminded me of the scene in The Dreamers where Michael Pitt is fascinated how his lighter fits perfectly on the table cloth.

 

 

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EEFF: Burn It Up Djassa

Alex Cassun is a US film maker living in London. He’s poured over the East End Film Festival‘s programme in hopes of finding some gems. You can follow him on the twitter machine here

Burn-it-up-Djassa

Directed by the wonderfully named Lonesome Solo*, “Burn It Up Djassa” is a Scarfacian tragedy of a poor and disgruntled youth who rapidly gains power, even more rapidly blows it all, and then rapidly dies violently. Recounting the story is the poetry slamming Narrator (Mohamed Bamba) who witnessed the relatively epic rise and fall of the titular character (although we never do see him in the action). Played effectively by Abdoul Karim Konate (and referred to at various points as “Dabagou”, “Tony”, “the Cigarette Hawker”, and “The King”), Djassa lives in a small house in the ghettos of Abidjan ** with his sister Ange. They are looked after by older brother Mike, a Lieutenant for the local police crime squad. Adults now, Mike still checks in on his siblings who he has helped raise since childhood.

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The ghetto is a rough place — as it is — but life seems generally ok if you can put up with the heat, the horseflies, and the constant background noise. Mike makes a decent living, Tony scrapes by selling cigarettes, and Ange works at a hairdresser. The community seem happy enough — friends get together to play cards and to drink and to sleep with prostitutes. There are a few song and dance interludes, which despite not really being importance to the story were the highlights of the first hour. Enter 25-year-old Tony, bored and angsty. He has a chip on his shoulder and wants people to remember his name. One night while fag-mongering in the back alleys he barges onto a card game and a run of luck nets him some quick cash and new friends. According to The Narrator, this begins Tony’s run up the criminal ladder.

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Trouble kicks in when Tony’s luck runs out and he resorts to gambling away his wares. His new friends don’t seem so friendly now. Worse still, Ange trades in her boring hairdresser gig for a lucrative spot in the local prostitution circuit. After a particularly good night she pops into the corner shop where she is recognised by a john who accuses her of stealing his watch earlier that week. As the tension calms a bit, hotheaded Tony arrives, the situation boils over, and he shanks the john and races off into the night with sister in tow. The following morning, upon hearing that the stabbee has died, Tony freaks out and is seemingly devastated. But inexplicably the next thing he does is go for a joyride in a cab with a couple of friends and the trio proceed to hold him up at gun point. One thing leads to another and older brother Mike leads an investigation that ends in a shootout with Tony dead, fulfilling the Narrator’s earlier warning about people coming and going but the ghetto remaining the same.


Where the story fails is… well, the story. There isn’t enough to propel it forward, and the long stretches of what should be quiet, reflective moments don’t fill the space as intended. If ‘Djassa‘ was a 20-minute short I’d heap praise on it for the layered Shakespearean elements, the fun musical interludes, and the heart and ambition despite crippling lack of budget and resources. At 70 minutes, the ambition part is still there, obviously, but until the final act arrived there was a constant queasy feeling that it was going to collapse in on itself at any moment. The Narrator infuses it with a much needed vibrancy but he’s essentially redundant — whatever info he throws our way, we’ve either already just seen or we’re just about to. Visually there are enough pretty images but whether it was a stylistic choice or a logistical necessity, the entire movie is composed of invasive close up shots of one of our three principles, rarely straying off to see anything beyond, giving us little context to their surroundings, to the people who inhabit their world, or the reasons behind any of their actions. The subtitling added confusion as long passages went without translation. The cast seemed to be mostly amateurs or non-actors who did a fair job and who had fun with the experience. Konate played the Angry Young Man very well, and showed a lot of range. Adelaide Ouattara as Ange was hit and miss — in the quieter moments where she wasn’t reaching for high drama she was the best thing on screen. The real standout here, though, was Mamadou Diomande as elder brother Lt. Mike, who carried the emotional brunt of the story and who made the best of a few unfortunately, unintentionally goofy scenes. When it’s revealed that his brother is the killer he’s been searching for, the anguish on his face is heart-wrenching. It was a powerful performance, and I’m hoping Mamadou finds his way onto the big screen again before too long.

Despite all this, the filmmakers should be proud of what they put together and I’d be interested to see what Mr. Solo comes up with next.

* (I’m hoping that is his real name, not a pseudonym.)
** (The largest city in the Ivory Coast — thanks wikipedia!)