The AFI fest got well under way this last weekend, with the well-received premier of Doubt, heavy religious/moral drama adapted from a hit play, directed by the author John Patrick Shanley and featuring some big acting guns in the form of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s probably pretty good, but I don’t really care that much. Instead I went for some more random-sounding things, and here’s what I’ve enjoyed so far.

The focus of one of the festival strands is Argentina, but Spanish and Brazilian cinema could equally have qualified. In the running for the audience narrative prize, Time Crimes (Los Cronocrimenes, 2007, d/sc. Nacho Vigalondo) proved roundly popular. Looking through his binoculars, middle-aged Hector (Karra Elejalde) notices something odd in the woods. When he goes to investigate, an odd series of events including a naked girl and a man with a bandage round his face lead him to a laboratory on the hill manned by a serious young bearded man where, hiding in a large pod, he finds himself emerging an hour and a half previously.

There are now two Hectors, and by the end there will be three. The crimes referred to are both those against the natural laws of the space-time continuum, and those against morality; outside of conventional time, Hector steps unthinkingly (at first) outside conventional morality in order to restore, or undo, events. Naturally enough, things are revealed to be not as they first appeared, but this element is admirably understated. The navigation of the twists and turns of time travel is deftly handled and perfectly plausible within its own terms, and if some of the replayed scenes have a redundant air, the cumulative effect goes some way to explain Hector’s increasingly annoyed/determined mien. Time travel does not solve problems, it creates them.

Obviously filmed on next to no budget, the film does extremely well with very little, capitalizing in the atmospherics of the dappled woods and the plastic sheeting-filled house, and maintaining a good strong pace. But it is really Eljande’s picture (albeit Vigalondo himself is appealing as the scientist) – with his oddly effeminate bearing and loping gait that harden as the film progresses you may remember him from such crazy Spanish movies as Medem’s Vacas/Red Squirrel/Tierra, de la Iglesia’s Acción Mutante or Almodovar’s Kika; his perpetual aplomb is endearing, and even if he must on a couple of occasions act as a monster he retains full sympathy – by the end he falls victim to a moral irony of his own making. And, as with all time travel movies worth their salt, one comes out feeling distinctly disorientated.

Two films from Brazil have caught my eye so far. The first, Still Orangutans (Ainda Orangotangos, 2007, d.Gustavo Spolidoro) is 88 minutes long and shot in one take. At least so it is claimed, tho I suspect a cut on an empty kitchen. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable achievement, one repeated over five days, the best day’s take being chosen for the film (day 2, as far as I recall). It’s early morning and a commuter train is carrying us into Porto Alegre. The title appears as graffito on the passing wall – it signifies nothing like illumination of the film, apart from reveling in the random. Like Slacker, tho with a smaller cast, the film takes us from character(s) to character(s), including a kid who assures everyone he’s not a street kid, a paedophile music teacher and a drunk couple coming home in a state, larking about and drinking perfume. It is when they have a nap that a striking lighting effect transitions us to evening (like a speed-up sunset) and when the man emerges it is dark (hence the cut). The transition is neat, and the method in general is carried off amply, taking us by train, bus and, finally, convertible. It even incorporates a weird and surprising dream sequence. But occasionally one senses the form as being of more interest than the content, some of the episodes/characters linger too long, and the inconsequentially starts to weigh. We are not seeing a cross-section of the city but a random sampling, few of whom do anything to warrant our sympathy or engagement, and one wishes the sampling were a bit larger – demanding, admittedly, for one-take film, but the technique is carried off with enough style, humour and lack of ostentation that one wishes it were a little bit better.

I’m not a documentary fan and get a bit annoyed at the sheer number of what would otherwise be TV programmes that now masquerade as cinema films. But I could not resist Pindorama: the true story of the seven dwarves, another Brazilian film, about the progeny of Pindoba, one of the nation’s favorite clowns, himself a dwarf and founder of his own circus, the Pindorama. When he died he left it to his children, and they and their own families are at the centre of a successful and happy touring operation (the normal-sized hands grumble good-naturedly that the dwarves sit around and order them about). The dwarves are proud of their size and revel in the attention and, big and small, they all love the circus life; the documentary is as much about family and the life of a traveling circus as it is about the size of its subjects. It is filled with tales of spouses running away with the circus, and the whole company more or less is related. There’s mention of discord, and the ex of one of the sons keeps lurking about and giving the camera dirty looks; we also see an almost-empty big top and one of the performers points out that they are entirely dependent upon other people – the paying public – but in general this is less a probing inquiry than a celebration. With such a subject and articulate, funny and charming participants, it is perfectly engaging.

The festival continues until Sunday 9th with plenty of good stuff still to come (I am particularly looking forward to the latest Beat Takeshi).

images: el condensador de fluzo, oglobo, oglobo