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