Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bottle Shock

We saw this at closing night of the 2008 film festival. Whether or not you're a wine enthusiast, this is a fun movie with a long list of talented actors. Set during the early days of California wine making, the plot revolves around the famous blind Paris wine tasting of 1976 that was orchestrated by English vino merchant Steven Spurrier. Though parts of the story are set in in Paris, much of the film is shot in California's wine country, and a good portion of those shots are of the characters' beat-up jalopies cruising country back roads.

Bottle Shock (at IMDB)
Judgement of Paris (at Wikipedia)

800 Degree Pizza Ovens & WALL-E

Someone recently sent me a link to a New York Times article about pizza making. Or rather, about a passionate individual who circumvents the cleaning lock of his electric stove to achieve the high temperatures necessary for baking a pizza--I am jealous. For the past few months, we've been experimenting with baking pizzas at home, sometimes with discouraging results when the toppings overcook before the crust has had a chance to rise. Making dough seems fairly straightforward, the ingredients are simple and it's mostly just attention to detail. But baking is a pain, as most conventional home ovens don't seem to be up to the challenge of ultra-high temperature.

A New York Expatriate’s Magnificent Obsession: Pizza
Jeff Varasano (at Serious Eats)

However, there is hope. This afternoon, I watched a film called WALL-E and learned that pizzas can be grown from seeds. Perhaps I will start growing pizzas on my back deck. I've listened to a lot of hype about this movie in recent weeks. The film is extraordinarily well made, entertaining, socially conscious, and worth seeing.

WALL-E (at IMDB)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Picks for Week 4 of SIFF 2008

The Wave (at SIFF)

A German film based on a novel by Todd Strasser. In turn, the novel is based on a real life high school classroom project that occurred in 1969 Palo Alto, California. From what I understand, the project spiraled out of control and unexpectedly spawned the seeds of fascism--good demonstration, but bummer of a result. The the teacher (Ben Ross) and two of his students attended the screening at SIFF to answer audience questions and talk about their experiences. I heard a rumor that this film does not yet have a U.S. distributor, but that would be a shame.

Phoebe in Wonderland (at IMDB)

An unidentified mental illness plagues a small town troop of child actors. Elle Fanning's character Phoebe is definitely obsessive compulsive, that's a fact everyone can agree on. But is she right for the part of Alice in the school play? Some of the characters in this film are a bit one-dimensional, but the script plays to a satisfying conclusion and tackles several social issues along the way.

The Secret of the Grain (at IMDB)

An aging, selfless shipyard worker decides to switch careers, though not entirely by choice. His dream is to create a floating restaurant. Maybe the dream is more for his friends and family than for himself. This is the story of couscous and fish, and a dinner party gone terribly wrong. What I found most interesting about this film was the enormous volume of dialog between its characters. All of the scenes are shot as complete, real-time sequences--encounters between individuals are filmed from beginning to end, not merely snapshots. Maybe that doesn't make sense, but see the movie and you'll understand.

The Unknown Woman (at SIFF)

This reminded me a little of Nikita, Luc Besson's 1990 film. But the protagonist in Giuseppe Tornatore's most recent movie isn't an assassin...for the most part. This is the story of a Ukrainian woman who moves to Italy, trying to escape her sordid past and tracking down something she once lost. To do so, she will have to masquerade as someone she's not and gain the trust of her new employers by whatever means necessary.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Picks for Week 3 of SIFF 2008

Choke (at IMDB)

A light dark comedy about a sex addict and his dying, grifter mother who suffers from acute dementia. Set in a place that closely resembles colonial Williamsburg, there are goats, a couple of twists and turns, and few dead ends to the plot that seem superfluous. But, the film eventually weaves its way to a relatively sane conclusion. This movie is definitely off-beat.

Encounters at the End of the World (at IMDB)

Director Werner Herzog's newest film is a documentary about life at the South Pole--Human life that is. Much of the movie is narrated by Werner as he films the residents of McMurdo Station and the surrounding landscape (both above and below the ice). These are the types of people you'd expect to find living in an off-world settlement, maybe on the moon. There are some penguins in his movie, but Herzog seems more concerned with uncovering the birds' tendencies towards insanity rather than exploring their cute and cuddly behaviors. And we learn about icebergs, really big icebergs.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Battle in Seattle

I watched this at opening night of the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. Many of the actors (including Charlize Theron) attended the screening and participated in a question and answer session afterward. It played previously at the Toronto Film Festival last summer, and in some other venues. It's currently scheduled for a general USA release in September of 2008.

If you lived or worked in downtown Seattle during that week of 1999, or were one of the WTO protesters, or just loathe the WTO in general, then this may be a movie for you. It was a good choice for opening night, because a Seattle audience is uniquely equipped to energize such a screening. And, it was a fun experience (the movie, not the riots). But, now I will review what I've been avoiding saying for the past couple of weeks.

The film is a mess. Good intentions aside, the story is chronologically told in an ominous and overly dramatic style that doesn't befit the actual events. The filmmaker splices a generous portion of archival news footage into the movie, but in a way that made the film feel choppy and fractured. I know that parts of Battle in Seattle were shot in Vancouver BC, but the contrast of Seattle and Vancouver streets only made it feel that much more fractured. There are some competent acting talents cast in this film, but they're grossly underutilized.

The reporter: reminded me of a magnetized pinball, bouncing from scene to scene, attracted to flashpoints in the conflict. The mayor: came across like a deer caught in someone's headlights, over and over again, I kept expecting him to pull a bottle from his desk drawer and start drinking. The governor: was a good portrayal of an angry, mob boss.

This film felt much like a 2 hour, network television show, complete with at least three peripheral love lines. See it if you must, but if the WTO is what really interests you, avoid this movie and spend some time researching that organization and the 1999 Ministerial Conference on your own.

WTO Seattle Collection (at UW)
WTO History Project (at UW)
WTO Accountability Review Committee (at City of Seattle)

P.S. It would be nice to see a good documentary of the 1999 riots. Perhaps in a format of half archival footage and half interviews with city officials, demonstrators and residents. Perhaps sprinkled with an in-depth look into the architecture and impacts of the WTO. Perhaps a non-biased look at the events (if that's even possible).

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2008
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Rating: 2/5

Monday, June 2, 2008

Picks for Week 2 of SIFF 2008

Captain Ahab (at SIFF)

Ever read Moby Dick? Ever wonder why Ahab was so obsessed with a particular white whale? This 2007 film from France follows Ahab's life growing up in the woodlands of northeastern America. We see him as an orphan, moving from place to place. There's singing about drunken sailors as well as some short news reel footage of whaling from that period. Queequeg and Starbuck appear only towards the end of the film, but there's no sign of Apollo or Admiral Adama.


Let The Right One In (at SIFF)

There are both advantages and disadvantages to having a 12 year old girlfriend who's a vampire. But for the right boy, she might be the right girl. This is the most touching vampire movie I've ever seen, probably because it's really not about vampirism. It's about finding someone you can trust and who accepts you for who you are, and about the loneliness associated with living with a disability. Minus the horror, blood, guts and gore, this would be a good movie to take a 12 year old to see (but don't, adults only). It's Swedish with Swedish subtitles.

Ben X (at IMDB)

The director of this movie told us that Belgium doesn't have the money required to make big budget films. However, he was preaching to the choir. Most of us who attend film festivals already know that a mountain of cash isn't what makes a film great. This story is about an autistic, teenage boy who is bullied to an extreme by his classmates. Its intensity and sense of looming disaster makes it hard to watch. The director's continual use of images from the boy's online role playing game is effective and plays a central role in the story's telling. The ending is not what I expected, but sometimes it takes a tragedy to get peoples' attention. This is definitely something worth seeing.

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (at SIFF)

This was part of the new directors showcase at the festival this year. The film is acted almost entirely by young children, and directed by someone that's barely an adult herself. Most people don't understand the impacts of war, or how it touches the roots of a society. This film is a good educator. Also, it's a pleasure to watch.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Picks for Week 1 of SIFF 2008

Elegy (at IMDB)

How many films have you seen about a romantic relationship between a Professor and one of his students? or from another perspective, between an older man and a younger woman? So many that I've lost count. This adaptation of a Philip Roth novel explorers how its characters face mortality by examining their insecurities and...oh hell, it's a great movie, go see it.

Mermaid (at SIFF)

A Russian movie, complete with Russian sailors. It reminds me a lot of Amélie, The Fifth Element, and The Science of Sleep, but as a coming of age tale. Alisa doesn't have a strong grasp of reality, but does it matter? As a giant cell phone and pint of beer is how she roams the streets of Moscow working her "day" job. She wants to be a ballerina. She kills off her ice cream craving grandmother in comical fashion. This will be one of my favorites at this year's festival.

Vexille (at SIFF)

Set in the mid 21st century, Japan has isolated itself from the rest of the world and embarked on creating an ultra high tech society. There are sand worm made of metal, wastelands and walls around cities, and a navy strike force sent in by the Americans to expose a rising threat. The biggest problem I had with this anime was the melodramatic relationships between some of its characters, they detracted from the script and movie as a whole. Also, I'm not used to fluid CGI animation, I grew up watching drawn stuff. If you can get past those elements, it's well worth seeing.

Ballast (at IMDB)

How much do you disclose about a film in a review? There are a couple of subtle facts which evade the audience for quite some time in this movie. It's about a brother and wife dealing with suicide in a very small town. In fact, I would not call it a town, it's just a zip code. It's minimalistic and slow, very slow, but well worth seeing. I hear that it played at Berlin and Sundance, so take that into account.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

AKA (courtesy of IMDB):
De l'autre côté Belgium (French title) / France (festival title)
A másik oldalon Hungary
Ai confini del paradiso Italy
Akri tou ouranou, I Greece
Al otro lado Spain
Do outro lado Portugal
On the Other Side International (literal title) (English title)
Taivaan reunalla Finland
Vid himlens utkant Sweden
Yasamin kiyisinda Turkey (Turkish title)
Auf der anderen Seite Germany

Fatih Akin's new film is part of this year's emerging masters series at the film festival. I saw one of his works "Head-On" at last year's festival and really enjoyed it. He has a knack for weaving together parallel story lines in a way that doesn't seem unbelievable, and surprises me even when it shouldn't. Have you ever crossed paths with an acquaintance at a distant airport somewhere, as you're hurrying to change planes? It might be someone you haven't seen in years, or someone you live two blocks from. I think it's those kind of real life experiences that add plausibility to his screenplays.

Most of the movie felt like it was in English, but I don't think it was (just felt that way, not sure why). This was Germany's official submission for the 2008 Academy Awards. In addition to its German backdrop, much of the film takes place in Turkey.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Wackness

The first time I saw Ben Kingsley, he was wearing a white robe and in his late 30's. The movie was of course was Gandhi. That was only the second film I'd ever been to that had an intermission. The first being Reds, which approached the grueling 200 minute mark and had me squirming in my seat, desperately wishing for an end to the damn revolution. What can I say, I was in high school at the time, and accustomed to those 90 minute action hero masterpieces and goofball comedies that serve to lobotomize suburban audiences. Still, Reds is way too long.

But Wackness wasn't like that. At 110 minutes, I wasn't feeling the least bit drowsy. Kingsley's performances are always entertaining, yet perplexing at the same time. I've not seen many other actors with his range. From one film to the next, I often don't even recognize him by the characters he plays--I mean that literally, I had trouble convincing myself that he was the one playing the drug addicted psychiatrist (perhaps I just need glasses).

Set in summertime Manhattan of the mid-90's, it gives the feeling that change is inevitable if not hard to swallow. Swallow it, you'll be glad you did. The look and feel, as well as much of the musical score, is hip-hop. The river of drugs that flows throughout this film reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Wackness (official site)

Or, go see a great documentary about Hunter S. Thompson in which Johnny Depp sits at a bar and reads from the journalist's works (118 minutes):

Gonzo (IMDB) The Wackness

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Last Mistress

Today kicked off press screenings for the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival, although I didn't see much in the way of press. The audience was mostly composed of the same die-hard pass holders you see from year to year. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend the first two films, but the third on today's docket was a French release from 2007 entitled "The Last Mistress" (or by it's French name, "Une Vieille Maîtresse").

To begin with, the retitling of the movies confuses me, as the original title of a foreign language film often makes more sense than its re-marketed counterpart. For example, there was a film at last year's festival originally entitled "La Vie Promise", but the subtitles had it billed as "Ghost River". Yes, there was a river in the film. No, the word "Ghost" made little sense. Perhaps I'm just not good at interpreting the symbolism of some works, but the title "The Last Mistress" had me wondering: "Is it about the last mistress he'll ever have? or maybe, Is she the most recent in a series of mistresses?"

But, back to the film itself. Set in Paris of the 1830's, Catherine Breillat's adaptation did not move me. It felt like an outline, of a book I have not read. The acting was not bad, and it was not brilliant, it was...dreamy? If there was a musical score, I missed it. The sex scenes were plausible and perhaps enlightening as to the characters' personalities, but I left feeling like I'd just watched an R-rated episode of Masterpiece. There wasn't enough suspense or explanation--I would very much liked to have seen more exploration of the 10 years Ryno de Marigny spent with Vellini. As films go at a festival, it wasn't bad.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Band's Visit

The middle-east peace process is lost on me, because I don't understand the history or its players. In the same vein, I don't really understand the American Oscars very well. Until last year, I was operating under the assumption that the foreign language category of the Academy Awards simply required films to originate from a foreign country.


But that's only one of the requirements, the others being:

  • Each country can submit only one film for consideration
  • Host country must demonstrate it had artisic control over the making of the film
  • English cannot be the predominant language spoken in the film
The Band's Visit was one of those films that didn't meet the requirements. Even though the movie is filmed in Israel, a substantial portion of its dialog is English. The English is not gratuitous however, it provides a communications bridge for the primarily Arabic and Hebrew speaking characters. As long as the English content is appropriate for its context (e.g. isn't injected for the sole purpose of avoiding subtitles), I'd like to see it allowed.

The film is worth seeing, but may not be for everyone. Its slow pace and subtle humor are often without dialog altogether--Much of the story is told through the characters' movements and facial expressions, which is refreshing. And there is a rather eclectic mix of supporting music.

Venue: Varsity Theatre (I think)
Mood: Awkward
Art/Entertainment: 51% / 49%
Country: Israel
Language: English, Arabic and Hebrew
Genre: Drama comedy
Rating: 3.5/5

The Band's Visit (official site)
When Good Foreign Films Miss the Oscars (NPR story)
Special Rules for the Best Foreign Language Film