12 December 2012

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 26

Just hearing the concept of Undocumented Executive, writer-director Brian Kosisky's first narrative feature, is enough to make you a little nervous, because it feels like something that could be absolutely brilliant, but is probably uncomfortable and obnoxious: an illegal immigrant from Mexico, Jesús "Jaqi" Gutierrez (Tony Guerrero), manages to accidentally become a high-ranking executive at a financial company, while attempting to secure a job painting the offices there. The reality is that the film isn't at either extreme: it's awfully cute and fun and occasionally there's a line where you can't ignore that this movie about Mexicans was made by a white dude. But those moments are generally rare.

For the most part, Undocumented Executive is fun and light without being particularly revolutionary in any way, and it's hard to imagine that anybody involved intended it to be otherwise. As such, there's a steady level of effectiveness from which the film doesn't veer too strongly in any direction, and yet the overall feeling of the movie is of a very erratic one indeed, and this has to do with the film possessing exactly one extraordinary strength and exactly one crippling flaw, and they do war with one another over most of its well-paced 90 minutes such that everything that goes basically, but unspectacularly, right doesn't feel as prominent. The strength is Guerrero himself, giving a boyish, even caricatured performance of a wide-eyed, easily confused man who is kept just back from being portrayed as an idiotic clown; and not, entirely, because of Guerrero himself, for the script does clearly like Jaqi, even as it's not ashamed of making jokes at his expense. The actor goes much beyond that, though, winningly humanising his character and refusing to play him as just a poor moron buffeted around by fate, but as a curious enthusiast whose ignorance has nothing to do with natural stupidity and everything to do with a surfeit of idealism.

The crippling flaw is that, having put this very appealing character in a satisfyingly contrived farcical situation, and spending the first third of its running time setting him up and surrounding him with cleanly-defined stock characters - Melissa Ponzio's performance as a self-loathing chicana who works with Jaqi, deserves his job, and helps him pretend to be more competent than he is for her own ends, results in a particularly likable female lead who, happily, doesn't have to do double-duty in any forced romantic side-plot - Undocumented Executive spends the next hour plunging headlong into a Conflict-Driven Plot, involving Jaqi's wicked boss Ken Worthington (Clayton Landey), who's using Jaqi as the patsy in a plot to defraud pretty much everybody, while screwing the company's undocumented laborers just for extra evillness. Points for keeping everything thematically tied-together, but it leaves the film stranded in territory that has felled many a comedy in the past, particularly in the high-concept '80s, the era from which the film is taking most of its narrative cues. Namely, we have a film designed from the ground up to be a bubbly character comedy, and which is spectacularly winning when that's all it tries to be, that frequently lurches into an actual real-world drama - and at least Undocumented Executive avoids the even worse trap of being serious about its conflict, which is always presented here in strictly comic tones.

Still I found the film to significantly lose focus and become markedly less fun to watch whenever it paid more attention to Jaqi's crime-fighting mission than his simple attempts to fit in with his very weird version of the American dream. On the whole, the comedy lands and the characters are good company for the little time we spend with them, but I find myself in the odd position of hoping to see Kosisky's next feature reveal a bit less ambition, because he's good enough with light entertainment that the rest of it is a frankly unnecessary distraction.


* * * * *

On the reverse side of the world from pleasantly typical comedies, we have Fabrizio Federico's Black Biscuit, which is, at its simplest definition, an experimental narrative with a rather heavier emphasis on the "experimental" half ot the equation. It was made according to the rules of the young filmmaker's Pink8 Manifesto, which follows the shape of plenty of other "back to basics" manifestos, but never mind that. You can borrow a couple of notes from Dogme 95, for example and not necessarily be copying Dogme 95, and Lord knows that Black Biscuit doesn't end up looking like Dogme 95, or much else.

Experimental and deliberately rulebreaking though it be, the film isn't entirely devoid of narrative shape: in a very broad way, it's about a young man named Chet (Federico himself, playing the lead in accordance with one of his rules), who we meet as a nude artist's model, taking a job as something that's not quite a male prostitute but comes awfully close to it in order to get by, and finds himself descending into self-doubt and self-hatred. There's more than a bit of obvious autobiography in there, though the film does enough to obscure its own plot that we cannot possibly accuse Federico of just putting himself and his friends up on the screen mostly intact, like the trend has been in American urban indies since the mid-'00s

In fact, what the film is, I can hardly describe, partially because the film itself keeps shifting identities throughout its running time. Frequently, it's a sort of collage between images that mean one thing and sound that apparently means another, or sound that comments on the image in some ironic or comic way. Sometimes, it's clearly attempting to be unclear solely to be frustrating, and to require that the viewer confront their motivation in watching this or any other movie (it's packed, especially in the early going, with posters and snippets of audio and other references to vastly more mainstream pictures which it's implicitly setting itself in opposition to. Sometimes, it's attempting to capture in something awfully like vérité style the texture of life as it is lived by the disenfranchised, or the simply unhappy and alone. In all of these ways, it is effective, though not (by necessity), coherent as such.

Good and bad aren't really comments the film particularly cares about, so it's not very useful to say that this bit is good or that bit isn't, but I will say that the film causes trouble for itself that it doesn't have to, by spending an unexpected amount of time being, oddly enough, too clear: passages here and there where the film is less focused on creating a specific emotion or mood in the moment than on following-through on the implications of its story and character arc. The points where it most resembles a normal, run-of-the-mill movie, that is; this backfires because it invites the viewer to think of this not so much as an experiment in challenging the dominant style of narrative filmmaking than as a failed attempt to engage in narrative filmmaking: instead of being intriguingly abstract and character-driven, these sequence just play as capriciously sloppy.

(Nor does Black Biscuit do itself any favors by stretching all of its experiment across 127 minutes: there came a point well before then where I found myself feeling quite saturated with everything going on, and increasingly uncertain about where if anywhere this was meant to be building).

But again, you can't call a movie bad that does this much to circumvent that kind of language, any more than you can call it good. It's energetic and disorienting, at first excitingly strange and, increasingly, wearying; and I suspect that all of this is intentional. It's a film about being bodily shoved outside of one's comfort zone, and that goal is met with great success: that it feels very much like a movie made up of moments than a whole piece is simply part of that process, though it leaves it rather hard to make any definitive statements about the project other than "that existed" and "I am not going to forget about that, anytime soon". Whatever mischief Federico is up to here, there's nobility in that.

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