Monday, July 12, 2010

When We Leave

A young woman (25 yo) leaves a physically abusive husband in Turkey and returns to Germany with her young son in tow to live with her parents. Unfortunately, she is not out of danger. When she finally takes a new boyfriend, her family basically puts out a contract and instructs her brothers to assassinate her. Some cultures don't afford much value to women and view them as possessions rather than people.

I wonder if the merging of two disparate cultures is possible without considerable conflict. In the case of this story, "Western" and "Turkish-Muslim" values aren't compatible. In recent years, we've seen quite a few films that are a melds of German and Turkish at the festival. It's an interesting combination and I've really enjoyed the stories.

The performances are competent and believable. The cinematography and general production quality is good. I liked how the choice of musical score, it nicely sets the cultural mood. There's nothing original about the plot, but if you can get past your anger towards Umay's neanderthal family, then it's a compelling story worth seeing.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Mood: Sweet and depressing
Screen size: Any
Language: German and Turkish w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official Site

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Extra Man

Want to learn how to freeload and eat semi-well by dating elderly women and filling a place setting at people's dinner parties? Itching to try on some girl's delicates because you like to cross dress? We follow the life of a very young, recently unemployed prep school English teacher as he moves to New York and takes up residence with one Kevin Kline. It's the struggling writer scenario, taking place in present day Greenwich Village.

I'm really not sure what this film was trying to say. Maybe it was trying to teach us tolerance and kindness towards everyone, no matter how high their voice or how odd their disposition. I think it was supposed to be an off-beat comedy meant to shock everyone, but there was very little to laugh at (or be shocked by). Some of the characters were superfluous and uninteresting, such as Kevin Kline's mechanic manservant friend.

Opening and closing night galas at SIFF often screen what I term "safe" films (ones with a couple of big name actors but very little artistic or thought provoking punch). An exception to this pattern was Miranda July's You and Me and Everyone We Know a few years back. That was a truly good movie, and it had some really funny scenes.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Comedy Drama
Mood: Attempted shock, positive, hopeful
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Letters to Father Jacob

A pardoned, female convict named Leila moves in with an elderly, blind priest. She has been employed to read his letters, and to help him answer some of them (the rest she throws down a well), and to occasionally bully the postman when there is no mail. She once attempts suicide, considers stealing from the padre, and doesn't talk much.

The cinematography is why you should see this film, so my giving away any of the plot is unimportant. Many films are too long, and some are too short (very few are too short). At 75 minutes running time, Father Jacob sounded more like a novella than a feature, but it's just the right length. We were lucky enough to see this at one of the morning press screenings during the festival. I like press screenings because they're quiet and make it easier to appreciate subtle art.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Drama
Mood: Reflective and resigning
Screen size: Any
Language: Finnish w/English subtitles
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Micmacs

It's the timeless re-telling of a tale involving two warring crime families who have been pitted against each other by a third party. The third party seeks revenge for the murder of his father and mother. No wait ... that's the plot of Lucky Number Slevin I'm describing. Micmacs is very similar, just substitute "weapons arms manufacturers" for "crime families" and you'll have a good idea of how the story unfolds.

I like some of the sets used in this film which could be described as toy box fantasies for children. Perhaps I was distracted by all of the shiny objects, but the movie's character development seemed shallow and briefly touched upon. One of the actresses, Julie Ferrier, has an onscreen physical presence that I don't often see nowadays. She reminds me a little of Giulietta Masina in the 1954 film La strada. Jean-Pierre Jeunet also directed Amélie and Delicatessen.

My counts may be a little off, but here are some statistics of what you can expect to see:

2+ scenes featuring a mime imitating robot movement
2+ scenes of a contortionist hiding in a refrigerator
2+ scenes involving anti-personnel landmines
lots of A-Team-like stunts in which no one is physically injured

Venue: Egyptian Threatre, Seattle WA
Genre: Crime comedy w/romantic overtones
Mood: Surreal and quirky
Screen size: Any
Language: French w/English subtitles
Rating: 3.0/5

Official Site
IMDB

Friday, June 25, 2010

Soul Kitchen

Zinos Kazantsakis runs a small diner in his Hamburg warehouse. The bags of frozen chicken patties and french fries he serves probably come from a local grocery store or Costco (if they have any of those in Germany). His business model is simple, give the customers what they want. It gave me hope about starting my own restaurant someday, all you need is a microwave, deep fat fryer, and a few big refrigerators! But sanitation conditions aren't good, and the health department is breathing down his neck, demanding bribes or they'll close down his restaurant.

In steps Zinos's ex-con brother who needs a job in order to stay out of prison. Zinos's girlfriend tells him she's moving to China, and he's thrown out his back. No longer able to cook, it looks like the end of the business. It's one problem after another, but despite all of these obstacles I wasn't left feeling hopeless. Go figure.

This is the third film I've seen from Director Faith Akin. It is not at all like the serious dramas of his I've watched in the past, but based on my limited exposure I would characterize him as one of the most promising and original directors working today. His 2007 movie The Edge of Heaven is one of my all time favorites.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Romantic comedy
Mood: Humorous and heartfelt
Screen size: Any
Language: German and Greek w/English subtitles
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cairo Time

Juliette runs a magazine in the U.S. and misses her husband. Tareq owns a coffee shop in Cairo, but used to work for Juliette's husband at the U.N. Juliette hasn't seen her husband in a long time, so she flies to Cairo to spend time with him, however he's off on assignment in another country and she's left to attend embassy functions alone. Juliette seeks out Tareq, who is kind enough to show her the sites. There is no sex, so don't get your hopes up, but you know where all of this is heading.

I heard someone call this a "chick flick" while standing at the bus stop after the movie. I really don't know what a chick flick is, but the phrase offends me. Perhaps it's a slow-paced story with romantic overtones, beautiful cinematography, and not a lot of kick boxing or gun fire? By that definition, I agree it was a chick flick.

This was made on location, and there are lots of exterior shots and panoramas of Cairo (which are beautiful). One of the audience thanked the director for filming it in Egypt. I guess other cities are often substituted for Egypt in movies, partially because it's difficult to get permits and a censor is assigned to each project. The Egyptian government is worried about exposing the filth and poverty of the city to western audiences.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Romantic Drama
Mood: Neutral
Screen size: Bigger is better
Language: English
Rating: 3.75/5

SIFF
IMDB

Cargo

Set in earth's future, a young doctor-type woman hires onto a large cargo ship to earn extra money so she can afford moving to a newly colonized planet where her sister's family awaits. The cargo ship is rickety, weathered, and unremarkable. Its destination is roughly 4 years away at some space station with a high number for a name (25 maybe?). The earth is no longer habitable and humans are working "hard" to colonize other worlds. Everybody lives in dismal conditions on huge, overcrowded, rotating cities that orbit the earth.

For a low-budget outer space flick, it wasn't bad. There was nothing original or compelling in this film though. The premise, characters, plot development and interwoven themes struck me as a collage of other sci-fi works from years past (The Matrix and Wall-E are just a couple that come to mind). The acting was adequate, not phenomenal. The ending was goofy, if not predictable. But for a low-budget outer space flick, ....

Maybe the film is best described by a list of keyword phrases:

sky marshall
secret mission
virtual reality
naive doctor
hyper-sleep
long voyage
misunderstood terrorists
robin hood
environmental disaster
unknown cargo

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Sci-fi suspense thriller
Mood: Suspenseful and sleepy
Screen size: Bigger is better
Language: German w/English subtitles
Rating: 3/5

SIFF
IMDB

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Countdown to Zero

It's a reminder that nuclear weapons are still a threat. Those of us that grew up during the last of the cold war have seen these warnings many times before, but it makes you realize that as long as countries keep refining uranium, there are people who will use it and it will eventually get used. There are lots of short interviews with famous individuals and political leaders. Three possible avenues to detonation of nuclear weapons are contemplated throughout: accident, miscalculation, or madness. Personally, I vote for madness, the other two choices just sound dull.

I liked the cinematography more than anything else. The production quality was good. It was the second film from director Lucy Walker I watched at this year's festival (the first being 'Waste Land'). She also made the 2002 documentary Devil's Playground which I highly recommend.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Documentary
Mood: Worrying
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hipsters

It's a Russian musical about jazz music and hipster clothing, teenage exploration of alternate lifestyles, general rebellion against the party line, all taking place during the 1950's. This is a really fun film, something I don't believe I've ever said before about a Russian movie. The colorful costumes, swinging music, and characters' energy are emotionally uplifting.

This was winner of the audience award for best Feature Narrative at the 2009 Anchorage International Film Festival, a festival whose motto is "Films worth freezing for". It also looks like it won most of the 2009 Golden Eagle Awards from the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Russia, an organization whose motto could be "Титульная страница" but I can't really tell because their entire web site is in Russian.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Coming of age, musical drama
Mood: Rebellious and colorful
Screen size: Bigger is better
Language: Russian w/English subtitles
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

Winter's Bone

You're a 17 year old high school student. Your family is dirt poor, your father has jumped bail and disappeared, your mother is catatonic, and you have two young siblings to take care of. You'd like to run away and join the army, but that ain't gonna happen. If that's not bad enough, everyone in your neighborhood is in the drug trade of manufacturing crank. No, this isn't the slums of a big city, this is the Ozarks. Oh, and did I mention that the bail bond company is about to evict your family from their home?

One of the best entries at this year's SIFF, it's been making rounds at the other big festivals as well (Sundance, Berlin, Palm Beach, SXSW, etc). It's scheduled to get a limited USA release starting on June 11th. According to the Landmark Theaters web site, Los Angeles is the only place it's currently playing.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Thriller
Mood: Tense and bleak
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Rating: 4.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Land of the Deaf

A boyfriend's gambling addiction and debt manages to ensnare a young woman in the world of organized crime. Held as collateral while her boyfriend slips out to raise the money he owes the casino, Rita begins regretting her decision to try and help. Moments later, a deaf stripper named Yaya appears to help Rita escape the floating card palace and an unlikely friendship is born. With Yaya as her often untruthful guide, Rita begins exploring new careers in prostitution and informing for deaf gangsters.

Director Valery Todorovsky was on hand to answer questions, but I did not stay for the Q&A. That's not entirely true, I overheard the first question as I was leaving the theater... Question: "Was the time period when this movie takes place the beginning of crime in Russia?" Moderator's response: "I think they had crime before that in Russia."

This film was winner of SIFF’s 1998 New Directors Showcase competition, years before I ever started going to the festival.  Even though it's over a decade old, I can find nowhere to rent or buy the DVD.  This year, director Valeriy Todorovskiy has returned to Seattle with the new musical Hipsters which I highly recommend.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Drama comedy
Mood: Backwards and inside out
Screen size: Any
Language: Russian w/English subtitles
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Apparently, insects are big in Japan. Literally, they're very big. The giant beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths in this film are fascinating, whereas the giant hornets are just plain scary.

'Beetle Queen' is part of the SIFF's experimental category. It's more an experience than a recognizable plot. Through visual observation, we learn a little bit about the pet insect market in Japan, and how it's lucrative enough to finance the purchase of a Ferrari. We see how people copy bugs with their helicopters, umbrellas, etc. It made me wonder if bugs aren't better pets than animals with respect to the environment.

The movie's running time needs shortening, perhaps a reduction from 90 to 70 minutes.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Experimental Documentary
Mood: Happy and philosophical
Screen size: Any
Language: Japanese and English w/English subtitles
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Waste Land

An artist (Vik Muniz) known for creating portraits out of a variety of materials returns to his native home of Brazil to photograph garbage. Vik hires waste pickers from the world's largest landfill (Jardim Gramacho) to collect artifacts from the dump and lay them out on a warehouse floor so that they can be photographed. The photographs are eventually shown in a local museum and flown to London to be sold at auction.

This film is more about the lives of the pickers than it is about art. The pickers are given a chance to step outside of their unappreciated, low income lives and be part of an artist's creative process.  After Vik leaves to go home, will the pickers be better off?  You'll have to see the film and decide for yourself.

There was a documentary a few years back called 'Manufactured Landscapes' that contained footage of enormous landfills in China.  Viewed from a distance, the color, scale and repetition of the waste was beautiful.  I really wish there were more landfills in the world, and that none of us recycled, because there would be more raw material to use for making art...

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Documentary
Mood: Cautiously positive
Screen size: Bigger is better
Language: Portuguese and English w/English subtitles
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

Monday, June 7, 2010

Cell 211

A prison riot traps a new guard inside the cell block with murderers and psychopaths and his only choice is to pretend he's one of the prisoners in order to survive. And somehow, his young pregnant wife (who lives nowhere near the prison) manages to get entangled in all of this--I'm still scratching my head about that "twist".

The plot is predictable and the characters are simple, but I liked it.

Was the movie better because it was spoken in Spanish and had a cast of foreign actors I've never heard of? If 'Cell 211' had been in English with a well known American cast, would I have liked it less? Perhaps we're sometimes more forgiving to foreign films, and perhaps a re-release of Event Horizon dubbed into Italian could be this summer's comedy hit. Afterall, it was pretty funny the first time around (seriously).

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Action Drama
Mood: Suspenseful
Screen size: Any
Language: Spanish w/English subtitles
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Hedgehog

This film has lots of advocates at the festival. It's a good movie and worth seeing, but it's not my favorite so far. It deals with suicide and death, so it's not for young children, but might be appropriate for young teens. It teaches that life is precious and that its disappearance has an adverse effect on those left behind.

We witness the tenants' lives of a small, upper class apartment building through the eyes of a young girl named Paloma. Her family doesn't understand her. They want to send her for psychotherapy. Paloma starts hanging around with the building's woman concierge, one of the few people she respects and can identify with. The concierge begins to form a romantic relationship with one of the building's new tenants and then... I don't want to spoil the ending.

The characters' personalities are overly transparent and simple, but I think we're viewing people from Paloma's perspective. The animation sequences of the little girl's drawings are fun to watch.

All of this is based on the book 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Comedy Drama
Mood: Happy though tragic
Screen size: Any
Language: French w/English subtitles
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

Skeletons

Think of Terry Gilliam directing Penn and Teller (Bennett and Marcus in this case) in a low budget film. Two men travel from town to town with their Ghostbuster equipment, revealing the "skeletons" in peoples' closets and making their customers sign lots of ridiculous release forms. Bennett and Marcus seem to work for some clandestine international organization, but that part is never explained.

This is probably the first movie I've ever sat through the question and answer session for before seeing the actual film. The director was talking to the audience and I happened to be at the theater to pick-up my wife from a late night showing, so I sat and listened.

Apparently it was relatively easy to deposit a small boat in front of the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant and film some of the scenes. The crew came up with the idea for a scar on the colonel's neck (which makes it look like someone tried to cut his throat) while sitting in a pub. The director's brother wrote the musical score, and the director's son played the part of the boy.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Comedy Drama
Mood: Absurd and positive
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

Mao's Last Dancer

This is the story of Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer who chose to stay in the United States after a visit to the Houston Ballet company as an exchange student. To avoid defection, he married Elizabeth Mackey (an American dancer) hoping that China would recognize international marriage law, but the Chinese government revoked his citizenship anyway.

I don't attend many ballets, but the dancing was enjoyable. The film had a definite 70's look and feel to it. This is probably the most "watchable" entry I've seen at this year's festival, but not a powerful piece of art. It has placed high on some festival goers lists. Expect to be entertained but not impressed.

The acting could have been better. The numerous ballet performances required casting people with substantial dance experience (e.g. Chi Cao, Amanda Schull, Madeleine Eastoe). Li Cunxin's English improves as the years pass, which was a nice touch. I was a little surprised to see Kyle MacLachlan and Bruce Greenwood in this movie (maybe because I don't associate them with biopics).

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Biopic
Mood: Neutral
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Marwencol

An artist (Mark Hogancamp) suffers brain damage and loss of all past memories. In the process of re-learning everything, he constructs a scale World War II town in his backyard. The town's inhabitants are G.I. Joes and Barbies, many of who represent people in his life that he can't remember. The town isn't a static model though. Mark moves the dolls around to create stories and takes photos of each scene.

All of what he's done is remarkable, but what I found most interesting was his ability to express very realistic and emotion filled scenes with lifeless objects. His original technique for photographing the village was also a bit awing. Without a functioning light meter, he used trial and error along with multiple rounds of film developing to get the right look. Someone recently asked if you need an expensive camera to take really go photos. No, you just need patience, practice, and a good eye.

There are some other points worth noting about Mark's recovery from brain damage. Before the injury, his ability to draw was incredible. Afterward, his hands are too shaky to draw well so that's why he took up modeling and photography. Before the injury, he was an alcoholic. For now, he has no urge to drink. What's retained and lost by the loss of memory is fascinating. He liked cross dressing before the attack, and enjoys it now as well.

This is Jeff Malmberg's directorial debut, though he's produced and edited a number of past films. The history of the town is compelling. Watching the movie was like walking through 3-D storyboard and having the writer explain the content and back-story of each frame.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Documentary
Mood: Positive
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Rating: 4.5/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official Web Site

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ratings

In the midst of this year's festival, a lot of people are posting ranked lists of the movies that are playing. Depending on the reviewer, ratings are sometimes quite specific to their tastes. In cases where someone has the same taste as you, their rankings can be useful in determining which films you will like or dislike. Otherwise, not so much.

No film is perfect, they all have problems. I try to rate films based on my appreciation of their artistic merit and then my personal likes or dislikes. A movie's originality and ability to hold my attention are important.

Here are some things I look for in a film:

* How original (or formulaic) is the story?
* How good is the acting?
* How good is the cinematography?
* How good is the musical score?
* Is the running time appropriate?
* Did it entertain me (and hold my attention)?
* Would people who watch a lot of film like it?

About music: Due to cost of licensing music, the final theatrical release of a film may have a different soundtrack than the festival version. It's especially true for low budget independent films.

About documentaries: This genre can be very formulaic, but that's OK. I expect to come away from a documentary with a greater understanding of its subject matter. A film that covers a subject for which I hold little or no interest but still manages to entertain me is usually an indication of a good movie.

About numeric ratings: I use a 1-5 scale with 0.5 increments. 10 point scales frighten me, so I don't use them. If I rate something > 2.5, then it's worth seeing.

Opinions can change over time. Rating a film the minute I walk out of a theater doesn't work well. I often miss a lot of the meaning and symbolism. Comparing notes with someone else who also saw the film can, to a limited degree, change my opinion of it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Stigmata

What's black and white and red all over? With the exception of the ending, the film is shot in monochrome. There are nuns, a traveling carnival, a one-eyed villain complete with eye patch, lots of liquor, and oh yes there will be blood.

Bleeding from both face and hands, the movie's protagonist is evicted from his apartment and loses his job. Whispers that he is a saint with supernatural healing powers spreads throughout the town. The next logical course of action is for him to take up work as a side-show freak. The cinematic imagery is great. Dialogue is sparse but effective (the film's main character is definitely the strong, silent type).

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Drama
Mood: Neutral to depressing
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Angel at Sea

Every now and then a film comes along that I never want to see a second time. Not because it's bad, very much the opposite. But because it's so dark and depressing that it's not something I ever want to experience again. I don't know if the father in this film is manic depressive, bipolar, or just vanilla insane. He's verbally abusive to his employees, drives his son to develop a stutter and attempt suicide, and in his spare time enjoys torturing small animals and running over cats with his car (he makes the son keep count ..3..4..5).

The cinematography is excellent, and so is the acting. The mentally ill behavior of the father's character and its effect on his wife and children is disturbing. There's very little dialogue or explanation of the setting, but I think it takes place in Morocco. There is no happy ending.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Drama
Mood: Very depressing and disturbing
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB

The Penitent Man

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Mood: Neutrally idiotic
Rating: 1/5

I've struggled for a few days on what to say about this film. On one hand, it's nothing I'd ever recommend. On the other, it's a study of what not to do. It has been one of the most discussed movies of the festival in our home, mostly because I can't stop complaining about it. It has no redeeming qualities, but I've compiled a list of other people's positive remarks for you to consider:

Remark: "At least it was nice to see exterior shots of Seattle in the film."
Response: "No it wasn't."

Remark: "Both production quality and sound were really good."
Response: "Yes, I can see and hear everything, but I really wish I couldn't."

Remark: "Lance Henriksen's performance was good."
Response: "Sure, but how did they get Lance to even do this film?"

SIFF
IMDB

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Robber

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Drama
Mood: Somewhat depressing
Rating: 3/5

Are passions for bank robbery and marathon running really all that different? One of those pastimes is potentially more destructive than the other. Opportunities for a different path in life repeatedly present themselves, but the main character doesn't seem to be able to change. On one level, this is a story about addiction to an endorphin rush. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Martin Prinz, and based on actual crimes committed in Austria.

SIFF
IMDB

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ahead of Time

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2010
Genre: Documentary
Mood: Very positive and uplifting
Rating: 4/5

An examination of a photo journalist, accomplished author, and the youngest woman PhD of her time. The use of her former collegues' descendants as interviewers gave the film a very personal feel. If you're interested in the history surrounding the resettlement of Jews after World War II or the accomplishments of extraordinary women, this is for you.

SIFF
IMDB