Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Muppets

The Muppet Show first aired on the 19th of January 1976 and ran for 5 seasons, taping 120 episodes before being cancelled. It's been off the air for 30 years now, but the franchise has spawned several feature length films. The latest installment, simply titled 'The Muppets', is a musical comedy romance starring Amy Adams, Jason Segel and Chris Cooper.

The plot of this film is both simple and dissociative. On one hand, it's about the urgent reunion of Jim Henson's beloved characters from the old Muppet Show, complete with opening dance number, special guest star, musical skits and back stage drama. On the other hand, it's about the dysfunctional adult relationship between Mary, Gary and Gary's "little" brother Walter. Mary and Gary have been dating for 10 years, but Gary still lives (and shares a pair of twin beds) with his brother Walter at a separate residence. On the superfluous third hand, it's a tale of betrayal and corporate greed as capitalist "Tex" Richman (Chris Cooper) secretly conspires with the Muppet hecklers Statler and Waldorf to tear down the old Muppet theater and drill for oil...in the middle of Hollywood.

I was only mildly a fan of the original series. Probably like many children, my enthusiasm for Kermit and friends peaked as a pre-teen and plummeted with the rapid onset of middle school and discovery of girls. It wasn't that the puppets or their eclectic list of guests had become infantile, it was the series's repetitive use of stale gags and lack of timely material. Watching Miss Piggy clobber somebody one more time isn't much more entertaining to me than listening to Sesame Street's Count von Count recite the numbers one through ten, but it is nostalgic.

The new Muppet movie is packed with nostalgia, frivolous cameos, unexplainable screen writing, and a defeatist attitude. The overall tone gives us the impression that Kermit's gone off his meds, evidenced by the frog's hermit lifestyle and electric fence he's erected around his home. Gary's little brother Walter, obsessed with the Muppet Show since a child (and a puppet himself), has little problem persuading Kermit to mount "one last" fund-raising performance and save the theater. However there's a catch: despite a story filled with superstar cameos, no one wants to guest host the show ... so they kidnap Jack Black.

Just out of curiosity, not because I really care:
  • Why no song and dance from Mr. Black? -- You go to the trouble of committing a class A-1 felony against the actor only to tie and gag him back stage. I'm disappointed that Tenacious D didn't get to jam with Animal.
  • Why were scenes of Kermit's incarceration deleted? -- If the producers were trying to spare children the image of an amphibian in handcuffs, there weren't many kids at the screening I attended--just saying.
  • Why was the ending was so contrived? -- Adding a nonsensical (and violent) twist to the last five minutes of a screenplay doesn't make for a clever plot point.

Bottom line is that the frog depressed me (more than usual). The bits and pieces of this film contained some entertaining scenes and musical numbers, but the script as a whole felt like that powder blue, polyester leisure suit my parents dressed me in as a child on Easter. Amy Adams is a beautiful and talented actress, and this movie has a PG rating. Nevertheless, if you've been dating Amy for the past 10 years and are still sharing a bedroom with your brother, there are some important questions you might want to ask yourself.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Cinerama
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Musical comedy romance
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Last Circus

Director-writer Alex de la Iglesia's most recent film opens with a machete wielding man in makeup. Padre-Payaso tonto (Father-Clown fool) is a "happy" circus clown who would rather not choose sides in the Spanish civil war. However, the year is 1937 and a right-wing authoritarian regime is about to take control of Madrid. Denied even a change of clothing, Father-Clown and his big top troupe are drafted to fight the nationalists while still in costume. After single-handedly slaughtering an entire platoon, the fool is captured by Franco's soldiers and imprisoned at a work camp … where he's later trampled to death by a horse.

The opening scenes set the tone for the rest of the film, a brutally absurd, grotesque collage of not-quite-comedic situations and insane acts. Leaping ahead to 1973, we're introduced to the movie's love triangle and three main characters. Sergio is a "happy" clown and star of his circus. He likes to beat his wife in diners and in front of co-workers. Natalia is Sergio's wife, a beautiful temptress and aerial contortionist, a girl who likes it rough. Javier is the "sad" clown. He has a lot of psychological baggage, and did I mention that he's the traumatized son of Padre-Payaso? The fact that Javier's job is to be publicly humiliated by Sergio at every performance is probably not in the best interest of society at large--something's liable to snap in Javier's fragile psyche, and it eventually does.

Javier's obsession with freeing Natalia from her abusive marriage plunges the circus into chaos. After savagely beating Sergio (almost to death) and disfiguring his face beyond the repair of even their skilled veterinarian, the ringmaster is forced to close the big top and open a go-go bar called "Kojak". That's right, the trapeze artists trade in their horses and elephants for a stage backed by giant mural of Telly Savalas.

Meanwhile, running naked through the countryside and hiding from the authorities, Javier is nurturing his psychoses and devouring uncooked deer meat. At one point he manages to fall in with a pack of scent hounds and spends time retrieving shot laden pheasants for one of Franco's hunting parties. But alas, Javier bites Franco's hand and is let go.

The sets and cinematography of The Last Circus are its strong points, they remind me more than a little of the 2008 film Il divo (the politics were foreign but it still managed to entertain with its carefully architected visuals). The image of Javier preparing for battle, bleaching his face with chemicals and using a hot iron to create the guise of rosy cheeks and red lips is both unsettling and bizarre. The screenplay itself does not make for a terribly interesting story, so don't expect an engrossing plot filled with complex characters, pretty much everyone in this story is selfish and insane.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Spain
Language: Spanish w/English subtitles
Genre: Horror drama comedy
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg is a controversial figure. No one will deny that he's extremely wealthy and has succeeded in creating the most popular social networking site to date. Beyond the indisputable lies a fog of inseparable fiction and fact though. I don't know Mark, therefore I can't speak to his personal virtue or true intentions, but The Social Network paints him as a shallow, uncaring, unlikable, socially inept individual. We the audience are the jury, and we're asked to render a verdict based upon the arguments and first-hand accounts provided by the story's characters.

The story opens with Mark's juvenile, yet believable, response to a girlfriend dumping him over his condescending attitude towards her and her friends. In a knee-jerk reaction, Mark begins blogging hurtful gossip about his ex. At the same time (on the same night) he tosses back a few beers and throws together a web site that will allow users to comparatively rank the female students of Harvard. The Facemash site is so popular that its high traffic almost immediately crashes the Harvard network. Clearly, Mark's character craves recognition, but the way in which he attracts attention demonstrates an objectifying anger towards women (and the IT department).

Not long after, and without much surprise, Mark finds himself before the school's administrative board where he's accused of "breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the website, www.facemash.com." The same pattern of misbehaving-accusation-discipline continues for the remainder of the story.

We eventually discover the film to be a series of long flashbacks, chronicling the events from 2003 onward. In present day, Zuckerberg spends his time cooped up in a law office conference room listening to plaintiffs recount their grievances through past events. At times, it's nearly impossible to tell what case we're watching unfold. Changes in clothing and participant seating were the only ways I was able to tell that we'd moved forward or back in the timeline, and even then I wasn't sure in which direction.

With the exception of a few peripheral characters, nobody in this film is likeable. Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) has a gift for narrating his characters' thoughts and delivers a convincing portrayal of someone with Asperger's syndrome (no, I'm not saying that Mark Zuckerberg suffers from that disease, everyone else on the Internet has speculated about that already).

One of the biggest annoyances in this movie for me is the name dropping of technology. I don't enjoy the over-stated, over-dramatization of insider terminology and technical mumbo-jumbo unless (maybe) it's tongue-in-cheek. The fact that you're registering your domain name with Network Solutions, or talking us through how you're using the wget command to download images of girls, or how you keep having to "break out" your favorite Perl script in order to crawl Harvard's college web sites is going to be lost on the majority of movie goers. More writers and directors should take a lesson from films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Lisbeth Salander doesn't cram what she's working on down our throats, but quietly lets us watch over her shoulder in case we're interested in what she's hacking and how she's going about it.

It's a great movie with a lot of good acting. Just remember, before taking everything you see or hear at face value, stop and consider that people are more often judged based on public opinion rather than facts or concrete evidence (even in a court of law). As one of the female lawyers puts it to Mark near the end of the screenplay, "I’ve been licensed to practice law for all of 20 months and I could get a jury to believe you planted the story about Eduardo and the chicken." Whether Eduardo was ever cruel to a chicken, we may never know, but now I've got you thinking about the possibility.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: DirecTV
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Biopic Drama
Rating: 3.75/5

Official Site
IMDB

P.S. The Winklevoss twins are a digital illusion.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Life in a Day

In 1937, a British anthropologist named Tom Harrisson, along with poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, collaborated to create the Mass Observation project. The project's goal was to record everyday life in Britain using a group of approximately 500 volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. These three men wanted to create an anthropology of their society, a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. "These diaries were then organized into books and articles with the intention of giving voice to people who weren't part of the "elite" and to show the intricacy and strangeness of the seemingly mundane," according to Life in a Day's director Kevin Macdonald.

Although the original motivation for making this film was to mark the fifth anniversary of YouTube, Macdonald admits that his inspiration was Harrison's project from the 1930's. The film's premise is simple. On July 24th, 2010, a date chosen "practically at random", people from 192 countries around the world were asked to take out their digital video cameras and answer three questions: "What do you love? What do you fear? What's in your pocket?" The videos were then uploaded to YouTube and edited together to produce a 95 minute documentary.

In terms of social relavence, producer Ridley Scott's documentary is a soft sell of life on earth. The movie is a pleasantly distracting piece of entertainment, however it's social sampling is not representative of our planet's inhabitants. It's a lopsided experiment in modern art, not a cinematic masterpiece. But what were you expecting? Afterall, instead of observing a population as a disinterested third party, Life in a Day is asking people to observe themselves and essentially report on what they think is important. The term 'narcissistic' comes up quite a bit in reviews and analyses of this film.

What's interesting to me is not the finished product, but the logistics and process by which the film was produced. There was no script and, aside from the temporal progression of morning to night and the answering of three questions, there wasn't much structure. In an interview prior to July 24th, Macdonald did sound like he already "knew" what kind of footage he'd be looking for, but would not comment for fear of prejudicing the camera operators.

Before watching this film, I was under the impression that all of the content was provided by YouTube users, but that is not the case. At least one set of footage (the Korean man riding his bicycle around the world) was donated by another filmmaker who happened to be in Nepal at the time. In order to obtain videos from the third world and places with no Internet access, producers spent £40,000 to purchase 400 HD cameras and mail them to 40 countries.

All told, the footage used in making Life in a Day ranges from extraordinary to ridiculous and mind numbing--I guess I don't get into watching someone film their elevator trip to and from the parking garage as much as some people. Noticeably in low supply were scenes of meals, work, and cats.

The musical score was also somewhat of an experiment. Written by British composers Harry Gregson-Williams and Matthew Herbert, the movie's soundtrack is fashioned from audio uploaded by users. People were asked to record four sounds: a single clap, a single note sung until running out of breathe, the taking and exhaling of a breathe, and (optionally) a favorite noise. I enjoyed William's and Herbert's compositions more than the photography.

The finished product premiered on January 27, 2011 at Sundance where it was streamed live over the Internet. This was also the closing night movie at SIFF 2011, but we skipped it in order to see a couple of other films (a good decision). But wait! the British are now making their own film called Britain in a Day. I like the BBC, maybe I will like their rendition of this experiment a little better.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: USA, UK
Language: Too-many-to-list w/English subtitles
Genre: Documentary
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

I rented this movie to watch on my latest cross country plane trip, mainly because it received the 2011 Palme d'Or at Cannes. I hadn't read any reviews, was in a rush to get to the airport, so I threw it on my iPhone and called a cab. In retrospect, I probably should have taken 5 minutes to read a synopsis of why it won.

The cinematography is breathtaking (even on a 3.5" screen). As the story goes, director Terrence Malick doesn't like the look of CGI so he recruited special effects people Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) and Dan Glass (Batman Begins, The Matrix Reloaded) to create a variety of stunning effect sequences for this film using chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography. The musical score is equally moving, featuring everything from classic guitar to choral groups to enormous pipe organ.

This is one of those stories that begins at the end, but quickly rewinds to the beginning. The movie opens with the arrival of a letter and a mother in tears. One of her sons is dead. The scene then switches to an airport tarmac where a troubled looking man holding a telephone receiver is trying to hear the voice on the other end. The news he receives isn't good. However, when I say "rewind" to the beginning, I mean to the beginning of time.

During the first quarter of the film, we bear witness to the birth of the universe, take a tour of our solar system, and watch the volcanic cooling of planet earth. I felt as if I was sitting in a planetarium and the voice of Carl Sagan might, at any moment, comment on the "billions and billions" of stars above us. When single celled organisms and jellyfish came on screen, I began wondering if the monkeys and monolith weren't far behind. Fortunately, we skip the whole evolution of man, which is probably a good choice given that god's existence is already in question and Darwin's buddies might be hard to explain. We are treated to hammerhead sharks, dinosaurs kicking one another, and what appears to be a worldwide tsunami after the impact of a rather large meteor. Oh, and don't let me forget the Loch Ness Monster waddling out of the sea.

After about 30-40 minutes, the people story begins. The setting is 1950's Texas and Mr. and Mr.s O'Brien (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are raising a family of three boys. None of the film's dialog seems for the benefit of the audience. What we glean about these people comes from the short snippets of their daily lives that we're allowed to observe. The audience is occasionally privy to the characters' thoughts, giving us more insight into mother, father and eldest son's inner philosophies. The Tree of Life is more like a collection of memories and feelings than a conversation.

The father believes that you can't be all-good and succeed in this world. Bad things happen to good people, life is not fair or just. Which brings up the question: "Where is god? Why does he let bad things happen? Why doesn't he care?" The father teaches the boys to fight at a young age, and rules his household with an iron fist. Mr. O'Brien may have invented the phrase "children should be seen and not heard". Mom is a bit more forgiving, telling her children to love everyone. Without love, your life will pass you by in the blink of an eye. And the kids, they're probably just confused as hell.

But, I have some lingering questions:
  • What's up with that wavering light in the darkness that keeps popping up between scenes?
  • Why does Jack (the eldest son) raid his mom's lingerie drawer, then float one of her slips down the river?
  • Why was Sean Penn cast for a tiny role as the grown-up version of Jack?
  • Why didn't I think to watch this movie on the laptop underneath my seat rather than my iPhone (D'oh!)
See this film on a big screen with a good sound system if at all possible.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: iPhone
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

Semi-official Site
IMDB

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Margin Call

The summer of 2008 seems like a long time ago. The "new normal" of falling housing prices and 9% unemployment and a Republican congress hellbent on making the situation worse had not yet come to pass. As I recall, it was a time of hope and excitement about an electrifying young politician on his way to the White House. But in the span of a few days during that otherwise heady summer, the bottom fell out of the economy. Margin Call is an attempt to capture the kind of story that lies at the root of why the 99% are occupying Wall Street and cities around the country.

The basic plot is straightforward. A Wall Street firm goes through a brutal round of layoffs, and one of the victims (Stanley Tucci), hands over a program he’s been working on to a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) who has managed to survive the cuts. The analyst decides to take a look, finishes the work his former boss had started, and realizes that the firm is overleveraged to a disastrous degree. It’s late in the evening, but he alerts his boss, who in turn calls in his boss, who in turn calls in his boss ... all the way up the chain to the company’s CEO (Jeremy Irons). Before work begins the following morning, they’ve established a plan to purge the problem from their books and save the firm at the expense of practically every other person in the country.

The characters struggle with the ethics of their decision and come to terms with the fallout of their plans, and while watching the movie, you’re drawn into the complexity of characters who could easily be black and white caricatures of the Wall Street set. And sure, they are: there’s the young associate obsessed with how much each of his betters at the firm makes in a year, and his boss with the $200K sports car who spends more a year on hookers than most American families make. But there is also a manager grieving for his dying dog and the earnest discussion about whether the plan they’ve hatched is the right thing to do.

This is what makes the movie really good. It’s not just that the characters have complexity, but that they have just enough humanity that you can empathize with them to the point where you have to keep reminding yourself that, human and frail as they are, in the final analysis these are not good people.

The opening scene is probably easy to dismiss, but it sets the tone for the whole of the story going forward. As each employee is laid off, he’s brought into a windowed conference room so that all of his colleagues can watch his humiliation at being fired, treated like a criminal, and given an offensively ungenerous severance package. The heartlessness with which the employees are treated by the firm is established as the driving force in each of the survivors, even as they come across a likeable and fully realized. Everyone realizes that what they are doing is terrible, but the money they are going to make from it eventually overcomes any moral pangs they might have. The speech Jeremy Irons gives Kevin Spacey about the necessity of their plan sounds reasonable, until you realize that it is essentially a more elegant version of Wall Street’s “greed is good” rant. The employees that have to execute on the margin call are made aware of the plan and its implications, but they’re complicity is bought with the promise of millions of dollars in bonuses for successfully toppling the economy.

The story is fast. Everything takes place within the span of 24 hours, and the intensity builds from the first moments to the very end. It’s gripping. But it’s also an excellent way of understanding why the occupiers are so mad, and why there needs to be an accounting of those who did this to the country.

- Paulette McKay

Venue: AMC Pacific Place 11, Seattle, WA
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, thriller
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Artist

The year is 1927 with the great depression looming on the horizon. George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) is a silent film star and his performances play to packed houses. However, he gives more curtain calls to his straightman terrier than his co-star wife. He is vane, a trait that may cause his eventual downfall. Talkies are the future of motion picture, at least that's what his producer (played by John Goodman) tells him after the two watch a screen test of Valentin's wife singing into a microphone on camera. But George is stubborn, he's an artist. He knows what art is and it definitely doesn't include the introduction of audible dialogue to cinema. George won't talk and the studio he works for refuses to make any more silent films.

Director Michel Hazanavicius's two previous films were OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, both starring Jean Dujardin in comedic portrayals of a James Bond-like secret agent. Dujardin's nack for flamboyant movement and expressive facial gestures work well in the silent context. I liked the OSS movies, they played as opening and closing night films at SIFF, but I couldn't help feeling that his character (or the actor himself) was a little too flamboyant for that part. Dujardin won the 2011 best actor award at Cannes for his role in The Artist, an honor that was much deserved. He reminds me of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), only with a more manic depressive persona.

Hazanavicius borrows from several famous scenes in other movies. The man sitting in an armchair, watching one of his own films and reminiscing about glory days, out-drinking even Hunter S. Thompson in the process. The dog who fetches help when his master goes insane and lights the film on fire. And by the way, Jean's co-star terrier (played by dog actor Uggy) is a scene stealer.

As for the evening's venue, this was the grand reopening of one of Seattle's oldest movie houses, the Uptown Theater. About 11 months ago, AMC decided that the 1920's era Uptown could no longer compete in today's marketplace so they closed its doors. SIFF spent the better part of last year trying to broker a deal to buy the venue and re-open it as an art house theater. Prices are reasonable, SIFF members pay as little as $5 for a ticket. Compared to the Regal Cinema at Northgate Mall (where adults pay $14 for The Three Musketeers in 3-D or $17.50 for Puss in Boots in 3-D IMAX) the Uptown is quite a bargain.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: SIFF Cinema Uptown Theater, Seattle, WA
Country: France
Language: French w/English subtitles
Genre: Silent b/w comedy drama
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Night Watch

"The world within the world" is a popular theme in fiction. People like to imagine that there's more to their dreary lives than is visible (e.g. dark matter). Everyone's familiar with Harry Potter and his make-believe universe of witches and wizards that runs parallel to the Muggle world. Night Watch is the first in a trilogy of movies (the second being Day Watch) about an alternate reality in which ancient forces of Light and Dark maintain a centuries old truce and police each others actions. It's based on a series of novels by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

Alongside normal people, live a society of "Others". Others are human beings with supernatural abilities ranging from extremely long lifespan to shape shifting to psychic surgery. Some even have tendencies toward vampirism, but must obtain a license before feeding on the general public. The words "good" and "evil" are used interchangeably with "light" and "dark" in a few places. The substitution of evil for dark doesn't sit well with some of the Others. The two forces are not disjoint, some are next door neighbors and even friends. Destiny is not predetermined. When one is found to be an Other, they must choose sides and decide between light or dark. Kind of sounds like somebody wants to serve you a slice of turkey, doesn't it?

The story begins with our main character Anton Gorodetsky (played by Konstantin Khabenskiy) secretly visiting a witch to contract the dark-magic abortion of his girlfriend's "unwanted" pregnancy. It's here that we learn of the grey area between good and evil. Flash forward twelve years to present day Russia and an older Anton is now part of the Night Watch, an organization whose job it is to police the actions of Dark Others. Anton's current field assignment has him working under cover, drinking blood and tracking vampires when something goes terribly wrong. Anton is forced to kill one of the Others that he's been shadowing, an action that will have consequences far into the next sequel.

Despite the presence of vampires, there is no teenage romance (I'm looking at you Bella Swan). There are a few, well timed comedic moments which effectively diffuse the story's gloomy mood, but Night Watch is primarily a horror drama. I liked filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov's choice in cinematic special effects. Sudden shifts from fast-to-slow motion and quick zooms in-and-out give scenes a surreal quality and the characters a superhuman appearance. The soundtrack of alternative, hip-hop, and metal Russian rock complements the wardrobe department's choice of rough and worn looks (field personnel typically wear coveralls and clanky tool belts).

Favorite moments:
  • The yellow, utility truck that Anton and his buddies ride around in, rocketing up and down city streets with flames shooting from its tail pipe. It's more like a terrifying amusement park ride than a taxi service. The members of Night Watch aren't cowards, but this truck scares the crap out of them. Fearful passengers scream at regular intervals.
  • Stuffed owls that come to life, turn into strange girls, and then worry about current clothing styles. Give her a break though, she's been locked in a drawer and hasn't read any fashion magazines for the past 60 years.
  • Ancient battlefields, superimposed over the rooftops of apartment buildings, and surrounded by a vortex of circling crows, CAW, CAW, CAW! If crows scare you, avoid this movie.

But I don't like the trailer, it's not representative of the film. Watch it if you must.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Russia
Language: Russian w/English subtitles
Genre: Action horror drama
Rating: 3.75/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Zombie Girl: The Movie

You know those reality shows where you feel like the camera and director are part of the story? I didn't get that impression with Zombie Girl. In fact, I'd much rather talk about the movie that Emily Hagins was making (Pathogen) than the documentary itself--the filmmaker's presence was unobtrusive.

In 2005, a sixth grader somehow persuaded her parents to help her make a movie. When it happened, dad was probably sitting on the living room couch playing banjo, and mom was very likely on the phone to her child's pediatrician, trying to have her daughter's Ritalin prescription revoked. Making a short, let alone a feature length film, is not for the fainthearted and I wasn't sure whether to feel inspired or intimidated by this story. It's true that Emily relies a lot on her parents, especially her untiring mother, to bring the two year movie-making project to fruition, but don't think for a moment that Emily isn't the one driving every aspect of the process. I've often considered making a short film. I usually get as far as listing the steps and then decide to take a nap instead. Here's how Emily addressed some parts of her small budget indie piece:

  • Script writing: Emily wrote the script when she was 10.
  • Capital funding: Mom and dad plus a $1000 grant Emily applied for (est. total of $7000).
  • Cast and crew: Classmates, street people, anyone with time and a pulse.
  • Filming, sound and lighting: Emily and a handheld camera, mom holding the mic boom.
  • Props, wardrobe & makeup: Lots of trips to the thrift and hardware stores.
  • Post-production: Synching of sound and video was a problem.

Some of the folks interviewed for this film (critics, filmmakers, venue owners, parents) seemed surprised that a 12 year old girl would be interested in horror. Actually, I think if you're making a feature length movie your first time out, horror is a good choice. Although it's one of my least favorite genres, it has an arguably low bar to entry. After all, when was the last time you saw a zombie with more than one word of dialog? or wearing elaborate period dresses (wait, someone's making Pride and Prejudice and Zombies into a movie). I haven't seen Emily's movie Pathogen yet, but will probably take a look. I'm a little surprised that it's not posted somewhere on the Internet.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Documentary
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

The time is 690 AD and the place is mainland China. Eight years earlier, Detective Dee led a revolt against the empress regent Wu Zetian who assumed power after the previous emperor's untimely death. Some say the emperor died of liver disease, but others believe he was assassinated by the mysterious and magical Imperial Chaplain on orders from the regent. Detective Dee is still serving a life sentence in maximum security for his open opposition to the regent. Whatever the truth, Chinese politics seems complicated.

Flash forward to the eve of Wu Zetian's coronation, but something is amiss. Two of her loyal subjects have spontaneously combusted after visiting the observation deck of a giant, hollow statute which is under construction (think Chinese Status of Liberty). The laborers who are building this 600-foot tall Buddha (right next to the palace, seriously?) are superstitious and afraid. Without much explanation, the regent orders her old foe (Dee) freed from prison and hands him his badge back. Literally, she hands him his badge back. Detective Dee is on the case of the combustible officials!

"Detective" is a curious word. I studied the imperial dynasties of ancient China just like everyone else in my high school, but I don't recall there being a badge-toting police force in pre-Christ Asia. This film attempts to overlay western law enforcement practices onto a significant period in China's past. Wu Zetian was a real person and the only woman emperor in Chinese history, ruling during the Second Zhou Dynasty from 690 to 705 A.D.. The pairing of modern forensics with an ancient backdrop is not one of the film's problems, that part works. It reminds me of the third season of Moonlighting when Maddie and Bruce Willis led their fellow cast members in a perverted variation on The Taming of the Shrew. I'm sure there are more up-to-date examples of fantasy episodes for TV, but I haven't watched much television since the 80's...

Detective Dee doesn't have the witty repartee of shows like CSI Las Vegas, but we do get a crime fighting team consisting of the ex-detective, an albino cop, and the "emperor's bitch".


The good:
  • Infinity Monastery, where the Imperial Chaplain and his herd of talking deer live. I kid you not, antlered spotted deer with red forehead tattoos guard the monastery and impale all trespassers with Confucianisms.
  • Characters named "Donkey Wang", the imperial doctor and practitioner of acupressure transfiguration. He can't turn himself into a cat like Harry Potter's professor, but a change of sex is not out of the question.
  • Boat rides into the underground caverns of Phantom Bazaar. Reminiscent of Disneyland's Pirates of the Carribean, but with the chilling horrors of It's a Small World.
The bad:
  • Wire-Fu fighting, especially when it doesn't measure up to past movie greats like House of Flying Daggers.
  • Tens of thousands of poison arrows, along with scores of assassins, that can't seem to kill anything except for a small, caged parakeet who never hurt anyone.
The ugly:
  • Tight camera shots of fast action sequences -- I can't see that microphone boom you're trying to hide...
  • English translation errors -- that monster-sized Buddha ain't really "66 yards tall", is it?

It's a little long at 122 minutes, so if you manage to see it on a big screen (and you should try to), I'd recommend a weekend matinee with lots of popcorn and one of those oil-barrel-sized caffeinated soft drinks.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Landmark Varsity Theatre, Seattle, WA
Country: China and Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin w/English subtitles
Genre: Action, fantasy, murder mystery, drama
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Machinist

Trevor (played by Christian Bale) is a machinist. He also has insomnia and hasn't slept for the past year. He is emaciated (probably because he hasn't opened his refrigerator in that long either--inside is a secret, shhh). Which brings to mind the first question any insurance gecko with a cute, Cockney accent might ask of the shop supervisor: "Mate, why do you have some shattered bloke running the lathe?"

The shop's dismemberment premiums are going up, you can feel that as soon as the little lizard starts scribbling in his notebook. Early in the film, Trevor's co-worker Miller (played by veteran limb-contributor Michael Ironside) calls Trevor back to watch him sink his arms deep into the dirty, inner workings a scary piece of machinery. If you know anything about actor Michael Ironside, if you've seen any of his more celebrated roles, you know what's coming next. Personally, I count at least 5 instances where old Ironside ends up with a missing appendage on screen (Total Recall, The Machinist, Starship Troopers, Highlander II, and Guy X).

There's a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing and symbolism in this film. Do you like mysteries that challenge audiences to sort out what's fact or fiction before the final unveiling of some twist ending, but like me are a dimwit when it comes to ferreting out the signposts along the way? If so, then this film is for you!

If, by the time Trevor takes his waitress's little boy on the Route 666 ride at the amusement park, you haven't figured out the entire plot, strap on your seat belt and fear not. Pay close attention as your RED sports car cruises past a half-familiar sequence of horror dioramas. I'm not saying you should turn off the TV and go for a walk after your drive, but you could.

Christian Bale can play crazy with the best of them. Sometimes he thinks he's a vengeful bat, sometimes a POW pilot vacationing in pre-war Laos, sometimes an ex-boxer who's taken one too many hits to the head. I can't fault any of the acting performances in this film, nor can I complain about the cinematography or run-time or make-up.

However, from the screenplay's first moments, it's made abundantly clear to the viewer that circumstances are not as they appear. The screenplay (or direction, or both) patronizingly takes audiences by the hand and shows them the truth. I'd rather come to the realization that I'm lacking a full understanding of the story's true nature on my own. I'd rather be that dimwit who can't figure out what's going on until the last 10 minutes of a film (or have someone explain it to me after the fact).

Perhaps I'm being overly critical, it's worth seeing so decide for yourself.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Spain
Language: English
Genre: Mystery, thriller
Rating: 3.5/5

IMDB

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monsters

What if NASA and the ESA launched an unmanned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa with the intention of collecting some harmless samples for return to Earth. And what if, on its way home, the probe crashed into the Pacific Ocean and unleashed a plague of big, purple, tentacle-wielding sea monsters.

Six years have passed since that unfortunate accident, and this is Andrew Kaulder's big break as a photo journalist. His trip to Mexico is turning out better than expected. The alien migration has come early this year, catching a lot of tourists off guard and south of the border, but for Andrew it's the right place at the right time. Photos of live aliens and dead children bring the biggest bucks, though neither is easy to come by. And then the phone rings with a call from Andrew's editor: "Andy, there's been a change in plans. The boss's daughter Samantha is in Mexico on vacation. She was injured in an alien attack last night. Listen, I need for you to go to the hospital and make sure she's alright. Next, I need you to get her to the coast and onto the next boat home."

Wait a second, let me get this straight. The oceans are filled monster amphibians and the only two options for travel past the infected zone of northern Mexico are by land or by sea? Surely I missed the explanation of why there aren't any commercial aircraft ferrying people to and fro in this near-future world. Along with some gaping holes in the film's plot, the story unfolds not unlike the campaign mode of your average video game (rescue the girl, battle aliens, follow the map to safety).

I wasn't expecting a lot, but was surprised by the movie's high production quality. I thought that their choices in CGI effects were tasteful and integrated well with the film's live action--everything except for the angry, flailing, purple octopus atop an apartment building, trumpeting as it swats away fighter planes. I'm pretty sure that (and the movie's name) was intended to poke fun at the whole monster movie genre. And even though writer-director Gareth Edwards cast Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able partly because of their real-life relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend, I'm not sure that decision paid off with any bonus in on-screen chemistry.

See this film, not for it's overall vision, but for its scenic vistas:

  • A slumber party at the top of a Mayan pyramid (inspiring).
  • A giant, hundred foot tall concrete wall separating the U.S. and Mexico (humbling).
  • Walking through a bombed-out border town with gas mask on (creepy).
  • Leaving a 2 dollar hooker alone in your hotel room with all of your belongings (stupid, just plain stupid).

Over their summer break, the reviewers at Ebert Presents have been running some 30 year old episodes of Gene and Roger discussing the genesis of particular movie genres. That got me wondering about Monsters in terms of what originally kicked-off the romantic + sci-fi + unwanted + immigrant + extraterrestrial + joint + mexican + american + urban + warfare storyline.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: UK
Language: English and Spanish
Genre: Drama, sci-fi, post-alien immigration
Rating: 3.25/5

IMDB
Magnolia Pictures
Official Site

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Senna

I'm not a big fan of professional sports. Aside from a few yearly outings to see baseball at our local ballpark, I don't follow anything except for Formula 1 which I began watching about seven years ago. For those of you not familiar with the sport, it's a mash-up of several disciplines including engineering, sponsorship, driving and politics. The interplay of these roles is what makes F1 fascinating.

Nowadays, electronics play a large part in car design and the viewing of any given race is akin to watching a manned space mission. Team engineers in a row of computer-filled trailers monitor the real-time telemetry of each car throughout race weekend. Twenty years ago, when Ayrton Senna was beginning his career, radio communications between the car and the pit had not yet achieved that level of sophistication.

During the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994, there were three spectacular crashes, the likes of which are uncommon. Two drivers were killed that weekend, one of them Senna. During lap 6, race leader Ayrton Senna lost control of his Williams FW16 on the Tamburello corner. His car left the track and slammed into the concrete retaining wall at over 130 mph. Having suffered severe neurological damage, Ayrton was airlifted to Bologna's Maggiore trauma center where he was pronounced dead a few hours later. How the crash occurred has never been fully explained, but the preceding link (published by the BBC) walks through what the Williams team discovered after examining the car’s on-board computer. But this movie is not about Senna's death, it's about his career in F1.

This is one of the better edited documentaries I've seen in recent years. There are no actors. The entire film is pieced together from archival footage and narration is provided through interviews with Senna, his family, friends, other drivers, and the recordings of various F1 race commentators. It's a biography of his life, both on and off the track, told from the cameraman's perspective. We learn of his relationship with god, his passionate nationalism for his home country of Brazil, and the charitable foundation he started.

I wouldn't recommend paying to see this movie in a theatre. The picture quality is poor, and there's nothing special about the sound. You're better off renting it when it releases to video stores or watching it online. If you know nothing about F1 racing, live in the United States and have access to the Speed Channel, I encourage you to watch at least one weekend of racing (practice, qualifying and the race itself span three days) before viewing the film. The film stands on its own, but the contrast of past and present will enhance your movie-going experience.

And keep your eye out for Bruno Senna, nephew of Ayrton. He's driving for Renault during the 2011 season.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Varsity Threatre, Seattle WA
Country: UK
Language: English and Portuguese
Genre: Documentary, biography, sports
Rating: 3.75/5

Official Site
IMDB

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tales From Earthsea

I'm a long time fan of Studio Ghibli and their hand-painted animation. Two of my all-time favorite films are Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service. This is my least favorite of the 10 (or so) movies of theirs I’ve seen to date. I have not read any of the Earthsea books, but that should not be a pre-requisite to enjoy any film.

For Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki), this is the first film he’s written, storyboarded and directed. I can’t say there was anything new or compelling about the story or artwork. I’ve heard that Goro originally avoided anything to do with animation in his career, because he didn’t want to be compared to the accomplishments of his father. However, both the animation and characters were unmistakably identifiable as Hayao and Ghibli.

The character development was sparse and the story's setup was missing. Basically, a plight is afflicting the lands. It's feared that said plight is due to a weakening of the "balance" (of what, we're not told). The prince kills the king, steals his sword, and runs off into the wastelands where he happens upon Archmage Sparrow Hawk (who the prince tags along with for the remainder of the film). There are old sorceresses with big round faces, flying dragons, and a very graphic limb dismemberment scene near the end of the movie. This might not be a good film for young children.

Now, lets meet the characters:
  • “Sparrow Hawk” – Archmage of Earthsea. A powerful wizard who complains to sales ladies at the fabric store about the lousy thread count of materials he wants to use for making a new cloak.
  • “Arren” – The boy prince who stabbed his father and stole the magical sword. Suffering from split-personality disorder and sudden fits of rage are the least of his problems. Arren has that confused look upon his face reserved for Ghibli boy characters who don’t understand the leading little girls in their stories.
  • “Theru” – The [ungrateful, bitchy, tantrum-prone] little girl who Arren rescues from slavery. In return for his bravery and sacrifice, she detests him. She has that bitter attitude reserved exclusively for spoiled, little Ghibli heroines. Just call her dragon lady.
  • “Tenar” – Sparrow Hawk’s “woman friend”. Forever obedient to the Archmage’s wishes, often distrustful of his work ethic, and continuously mumbling disapproval under her breath for Sparrow’s wanderlust as he borrow’s Arren’s horse and disappears over the next hill.
  • “Lonkie” – Arren’s trusty steed. Everyone keeps calling this thing a horse, but it looks more like a donkey crossed with a llama.
  • “Cob” – The evil wizard who wants to live forever. He [or she] dresses and wears make-up like Brandon Lee’s character did in The Crow. I think maybe it’s a she, since actress Yûko Tanaka is the voice for the Japanese version. But in the English release, it’s dubbed by Willem Dafoe? I’ve got to say, Mr. Dafoe looks pretty good in a pair of women’s flats.

The trailer below is for the English release. I don't like it as much as the Japanese version.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Japan
Language: English
Genre: Animation
Rating: 3/5

IMDB
Official Site




Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ondine

Syracuse is an Irish fisherman from the village of Castletownbere on the southwest coast of Ireland. His nickname is Circus, short for Circus Clown. His ex-wife is an alcoholic, and so was he for many years until their daughter Annie (Alison Barry) experienced kidney failure. When that happened, Circus decided to clean up his big top act. As the town's priest puts it to Syracuse in one of their confessional duets, "Misery is easy. Happiness you have to work at." His and his daughter's lives seem bleak and both are in search of escape.

Then one day, as Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is trawling for fish, he nets what appears to be a drowned woman. After untangling and resuscitating her, she cannot remember (or will not say) who she is or where she comes from, only that he may call her Ondine. Ondines (Latin: Onda; meaning 'a wave') are elementals. In German mythology, Ondine was a very beautiful and immortal water nymph. It was said that the only way for Ondine to gain a soul and become mortal was to fall in love with a man a bear his child.

The big question in this film is whether Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) is really a Selkie (a creature from Irish and Scottish folklore, similar in some ways to a Mermaid). If she does turn out to be one of these mythical creatures, then the story is a fairytale. If not, all bets for happiness are off and we may be headed for a brutal reality in which there's no happy ending. All three of the main characters in this film would like to loose themselves in a fairytale--Annie is dying, Syracuse is going to lose his daughter, and Ondine is running from a terrible past that is about to catch up with her. So, that's just what each of them does for the most part--lie to themself and believe that they can change reality.

According to director Neil Jordan, the idea for his screenplay evolved from the first image of a fisherman finding Ondine's body in his net, "those initial images suggested both a fairytale and an awful, harsh reality." Something that I found interesting, is that all of the locations in the screenplay exist. Jordan scripted the film such that all scenes could be filmed within five kilometers his house. Castletownbere is a real, working fishing village far from the path of tourists and places like McCarthy's bar are just part of the landscape.

Alicja Bachleda is somewhat of an unknown to me, I've not seen any of her other films (Trade, Summer Storm), or listened to any of her pop-music albums, but her performance here was excellent. After reading about how the water was freezing cold and that most of the time she was wearing just a knitted dress, I hope no one got hypothermia (at least she had a stunt double for the dangerous scenes).

Alison Barry, a ten-year-old girl from County Cork with no previous acting experience, was cast in the role of Annie. Her character's know-it-all attitude, precocious use of obscure vocabulary, and overzealous belief in Ondine's fairy powers annoyed me and shattered any dreamlike mood the film managed to achieve. Perhaps that was the director's goal.

I liked Stephen Rea's deadpan portrayal of the town priest.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Ireland
Mood: Mysterious
Language: English
Genre: Drama, fairytale, romance
Rating: 3.5/5

IMDB
Official Site



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Film with Me in It

Mark (Mark Doherty, who also wrote the film) is an actor who can't get a break, or a job. His brother is paralyzed and unable to speak. His girlfriend is ready to leave him. His dog is too bored to go for a walk. He's behind on his rent, and his apartment is falling apart in parallel with his life. The landlord isn't much inclined to fix the bathroom door that locks people in or the kitchen light that flickers constantly or the windows that slam shut without notice.

Fortunately, Mark doesn't seem too bothered by these setbacks. He and his unemployed, alcoholic, gambling-addicted best friend (the always entertaining and frequent Simon Pegg sidekick Dylan Moran) are too focused on who will play themselves in the movie they are writing, in which someone maybe commits a crime, or doesn't, but which will be epic. And Mark is genuinely shocked that, in the midst of all of this, his girlfriend doesn't see the wisdom in his booking an evening at a four-star hotel to get their relationship back on track. He's as helpless as he is hapless, it seems, and not someone cut out to deal with a crisis. But this is a black comedy, so of course there will be a crisis.

Or two.

Or three.

Or so.

Black comedies are a strange genre. They're not generally funny as such, but they work best when the calamities pile on absurdly enough that you can you can't help but laugh, even as the main characters dig the hole deeper and deeper. And as that happens, whether by the hand of fate or the hand of the heroes, otherwise normal people start behaving in increasingly abnormal ways, and the hole gets that much deeper. The comedy gets blacker, and you're supposed to feel uncomfortable. And then something else happens to make things worse.

As fate plays increasing crueler tricks on the pathetic Mark, at least he has his best friend along to help him consider the options for dealing with the crisis, like how believable a movie the story would make. And to remember the bleach.

- Paulette McKay

Venue: Netflix streaming
Country: Ireland
Language: English
Genre: Black comedy
Rating: 3/5

Irish Film Board
IFC Films
IMDB

Friday, August 19, 2011

4 months 3 weeks and 2 days

This film was hard to watch, but not because some scenes are poorly lit, or because all of the characters speak Romanian. No, I am fluent in Romanian. And can see in the dark. What was hard to witness was the exploitation of a young woman seeking a late-term, illegal abortion. Well, that and the recognizably human fetus laying on the hotel's bathroom floor three quarters of the way through the film. But, let's rewind for a moment to see how we arrived at this situation.

After a 1957 decree legalizing abortion in Romania, that country saw an accelerated decline in its crude birth rate until, in 1966, it reached an alarming low of 14.3 childbirths per 1,000 people per year. The reason for concern was that diminished procreation of that level is barely capable of replenishing the dying generations. At the time, some politicians believed that the change in law was directly responsible for the drop in births. However, according to a paper written by Manuela Lataianu with the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, this was just one of several factors that contributed to the decline.

In 1966, Decree 770 criminalizing abortion was passed. That abrupt change in policy produced more dramatic and long-term effects than the original legalization. One of those effects was a substantial increase in dangerous and illegal abortions.

The film opens with a dizzying exchange of favor trading and merchandising as Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) runs from floor to floor trying to purchase a pack of cigarettes for her roommate. Her building resembles a thriving underground market of consumer goods where a random knock at the door might reveal lines of make-up products, shampoo, or perhaps cases of chewing gum. You get the impression that there weren't a lot of retail stores in Romania at that time.

Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) sits on the bed waiting for Otilia in the college dorm room that the two share. She has an exam in one of her classes today, but she won't be going. Instead, she's reserved a hotel room for the next three days. That's where she will go to meet Mr. Bebe, the man who will help her with her problem for a price. Only, he doesn't want money, he wants something much worse in return. What Mr. Bebe doesn't know is how pregnant Gabita really is. On the phone she told him 2 months, but in reality it's been long enough for the procedure he's about to perform to be considered murder.

There is a second thread to this story, one involving Otilia and her boyfriend. On the evening of Gabita's abortion, Adi (Alexandru Potocean) summons Otilia to his father's birthday party. His family seems very entrenched in pre-capitalist, communist ideals which Otilia does not share. For obvious reasons, she does not want to attend. This is the end of the golden age of communism in Eastern Europe.

And don't forget to visit the Transilvania Film Festival ! I did not know they had one.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Mood: Breath holding
Language: Romanian w/English subtitles
Genre: Suspense drama
Rating: 4.5/5

IMDB
Official Site




Monday, August 8, 2011

Séraphine

Have you ever heard of the female painter Séraphine Louis (a.k.a Séraphine de Senlis)? She was a self-taught artist living in France between 1864 and 1942. Much of her work is of flowers, leaves and fruit. Whereas some painters "simply" try to reproduce the physical attributes of flora in still life, Séraphine somehow endows her creations with animalistic qualities--leaves scurry to and fro like large insects, peaches stare back at us with piercing black eyes, and bushes parade their plumage not unlike a peacock.

As with any biography, a writer is better off focusing on a particular time period in their subject's life. Director-writer Martin Provost has chosen to chronicle Séraphine's beginning in 1912 when she's first discovered by the German collector Wilhelm Uhde. Séraphine has been working as a maid for many years at this point. As a respite from his hectic life in Paris, Wilhelm decides to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Senlis where she does one hour of cleaning every morning. Purely by chance, Wilhelm sees one of Séraphine's paintings and immediately recognizes her potential.


If not for Wilhelm's attentions, Séraphine would likely never have been discovered, died in obscurity, and her paintings lost forever. There are only two characters of consequence in this film, Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau) and Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). Neither is uncomplicated. The painter suffers from chronic psychosis, and will eventually die in a psychiatric hospital. The collector will become her patron, but abandon her twice, once in the face of war and a second time for reasons unexplained.

Yolande Moreau's portrayal of this woman is impressive. I can't imagine another actress playing this part. Watching Moreau's character apply brush to canvas was one of the most entertaining parts of the film. It also never occurred to me that some painters start with plain white and mix their own colors by adding organic substances (such as blood?). This is definitely worth seeing.

An excerpt from the press notes at Music Box Films, some important historical events that will help you to better appreciate the movie:

  • 1864 -- Séraphine is born on September 2 in Arsy-sur-Oise. Her father is a small time clock maker and her mother is a farm girl. As a child, Séraphine divides her time between school (she is said to be a good student) and the fields (she is a shepherdess).
  • 1877 -- When she turns 13, Séraphine is sent to work as a maid in Paris. She will later be hired by an institute for young women where she will initiate herself to art by observing the drawing teacher’s classes.
  • 1882 -- At 18, Séraphine is hired as a servant by the nuns of the Saint-Joseph-de-Cluny convent where she will stay for 20 years.
  • 1902 -- Séraphine begins working as a maid.
  • 1905 -- It was her guardian angel, according to her, who suggested to Séraphine that she draw and later, that she paint. Very pious, Séraphine is familiar with these kinds of visions and "voices" that will accompany her until the end of her life.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Art/Entertainment: 35%/65%
Language: French w/English subtitles
Genre: Biopic drama
Rating: 3.5/5

IMDB
Official Site

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Whistleblower

In 1999, Nebraska police officer and divorced mother of three Kathryn Bolkovac decided she'd like to travel and see the world. Her grandfather was Croatian, immigrating to the United States in the 1920s, so eastern Europe sounded attractive. When her police department received a recruitment flyer from military contractor Dyncorp promising generous pay and high adventure, she packed her bags and joined the elite brotherhood of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

What she finds in former Yugoslavia is not what she expects. It's not that her expectations are unreasonable though.

  • She expects that the 45-nation U.N. police force is comprised of highly trained and dedicated officers. In reality, not everyone has a law enforcement background (or even a driver's license). Though it's hardly mentioned during the film, Bolkovac and her "skilled" colleagues donate a portion of their days to teaching peacekeepers from underdeveloped nations how to write reports, use computers, and drive.
  • She expects that her fellow peacekeepers are of the highest moral caliber (or at least not a band of thugs and felons). In reality, many of them are patrons of the local brothels where a blind eye is turned to human trafficking and kidnapped women are held in never-ending servitude. With the exception of a few local police that aren't corrupt, Kathryn has no allies and begins to fear the other members of the mission who are supposed to have her back.

Shortly after arriving in Bosnia and donning a blue jumpsuit, Bolkovac (played by Rachel Weisz) is promoted to the position of human rights investigator. She spends the next year interviewing and photographing over 100 women, visiting them in hospitals, and modeling an impressive variety of subtly different blue jumpsuits.

Eventually, Bolkovac is ordered out of Bosnia and cut loose from the U.N. mission. In real life, she filed a lawsuit in Great Britain against DynCorp for unfair dismissal. On August 2, 2002 the tribunal unanimously found in her favor. Nowadays, she's an advocate for the public awareness of human trafficking, no longer an activist.

There are actually two threads to this movie, one about Kathryn Bolkovac and her struggle to uncover the truth regarding peacekeeper involvement in human trafficking, and another about how two of the girls are sold into the slave trade by one of their uncles. We learn over the film's course that it's not uncommon for young girls to be tricked into servatude by family members or people that they trust.

This movie landed filmmaker Larysa Kondracki the audience award for Best Director at SIFF 2011. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that was largely due to the accessible nature of the film (no subtitles, big name actors) and not because it was the best directed movie at this year's festival. The cast is impressive, but the writing feels like a 118 minute long television movie-of-the-week.

  • Rachel Weisz -- much too "beautiful" for a war-torn country (someone mess up her hair)
  • David Strathairn -- much too "good" for someone in internal affairs (more anger David, more ANGER!)
  • Vanessa Redgrave -- a plausible UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (tea and crumpets anyone?)

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: David vs. Goliath
Education/Entertainment: 20% / 80%
Country: Canada
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3/5

SIFF
IMDB

Interview with Weisz and Bolkovac (starts at 37:10)

After the Wedding

The film opens on the streets of India. The scene is one of movement, a sea of people and cars surrounded by a parade of brilliant colors. The vibrance of mid-day almost makes the poverty pleasant to look at. The pick-up truck in which we've been riding pulls up and stops in front of a crowd of small children and a Danish man begins handing out bowls of food.

Twenty years ago, Jacob Pederson was a drunk. His intentions to save the world were many, but he couldn't make good on those intentions. After an act of adultery, his girlfriend left him and returned to Denmark. He's finally put all of that behind him though, and is now helping to run an orphanage. But the orphanage isn't doing well, in fact they're almost out of money. Their last chance to keep the orphanage open is a rich, Danish philanthropist.

There are probably some things I should fill you in on. When Jacbo's girlfriend left him, she was unknowingly pregnant with their child (a daughter). After she returned to Denmark, she married a portly billionaire (good for her) and settled down. Now the billionaire is terminally ill (bad for him), but he's keeping that fact a secret from everyone ... until after the wedding.

I liked this film for many reasons. First and foremost, the characters are well written and behave as you'd expect them to. There aren't any random plot twists that contort the story and force us to re-evaluate how we feel about anyone. To me, sudden character modification is a cheap trick used to build interest in the absence of a well written story.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Netflix streaming
Mood: Awkward and regretful
Art/Entertainment: 30%/70%
Language: Danish w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3.75/5

SIFF
IMDB

Monday, July 25, 2011

SIFF 2011, Batch #3

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

United Kingdom, 2/5

105 minutes of atonal sounds comprising the film's soundtrack nearly drove me insane. The large scale sculptures and processes by which Anselm Kiefer creates his art are interesting to see. If the film was shortened to a 25 minute loop and played in one of the side rooms of a local museum exhibit honoring his work, that would be appropriate.

We are the Night (Wir sind die Nacht)

Germany, 2.5/5

A trio of feminist vampires welcome a new girl into their coven. They're all rich, beautiful, and devoid of men. They race each other around town in exotic sports cars, live it up at a 5-star hotel, and treat themselves to midnight shopping sprees at the local mall. Their lifestyle is pretty much every little girl's dream, the end.

The Poll Diaries

Germany, 4/5

On the eve of WWI, 14-year-old Oda Schaefer arrives at the house of her father, an ostracized German doctor who likes to experiment on people. It's impolite to visit someone without bringing a gift, so Oda brings two--the corpse of her mother and a two-headed fetus in a jar (her father's lab is full of similar oddities). It's a period piece that combines the best parts of The Addams Family, The Sound of Music, Frankenstein and could well have been directed by David Lynch.

Detention

USA, 3/5

Some of the most creative and entertaining opening credits I've ever seen. They go on for a long time, much longer than you'd expect. This is a teen slasher movie in the same vein as Scream.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Silent Souls

After Miron's wife Tanya dies, Miron asks his best friend Aist to help him bury her according to the rituals of the Merja culture, an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero, a picturesque region in West-Central Russia.

Disclaimer: I am not a historian.

From a historical perspective, the Merja were a Finnic people who inhabited central Russia before the Slavic conquests (circa 1000 AD). Although it's not known exactly what became of them, some were assimilated into the Russian empire during the 17th century. "Near present day Jaroslavl areas of Rostov and Pereslavl, there are large lakes, Nero and Plescheevo, which are mentioned in ancient Russian chronicles as the Merja's lands." It is one of these lakes that is the final resting place of Tanya's body, where Miron and Aist place her atop a funeral pyre and stand in silence as smoke billows across the water.

The film has a slow but deliberate pace, and there is very little dialog. The camera follows the two men as if a third person. In one of several long, uninterrupted shots, we ride along in the car's back seat as the two scavenge supplies for the funeral. However, in what feels like an after-funeral epilogue, we eventually find ourselves in the Russian equivalent of Costco, standing and staring at aisles of electronics. I guess the Merja are not so different from Americans in that they like to go walk around Costco when they're bored and buy things they don't really need? (I'm kidding. Well, not about the Americans.)

Director Aleksei Fedorchenko has made a couple of previous films, one a fake documentary revealing that it was actually a Soviet who first walked on the moon.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Slow, symbolic, nostalgic
Art/Entertainment: 90%/10%
Language: Russian w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official Site

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kabei - Our Mother

The year is 1940 and Japan is at war with China. Apparently there are people at home who would openly oppose Japan's aggression and not classify the fighting in China a "crusade" (as the emperor's regime refers to it). The rederick on the street is that Japan will soon conquer all of Asia, and then defeat the United States and England. After Germany takes over Europe, Japan will confront and defeat Germany to at last rule the world. That's the rumor at least.

Shigeru "Tobei" Nogami is a professor whose books are repeatedly rejected by the censors. One night, the thought police arrive at his home and "detain" him indefinitely for his "anti-government" views. I don't know whether he's a communist, but the officials keep referring to him as a "Red". Clearly, there is a lack of free speech in pre-war Japan.

Everyone in this film has a nickname, so make note of the following:

Kobei (the professor)
Tobei (the professor's wife)
Teru-bei (the professor's artist daughter)
Hatsu-bei (the professor's doctor daughter)
Aunt Hisako (the professor's artist sister)
Yama (the professor's former student)

Venue: Netflix streaming
Language: Japanese w/English sub-titles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official site

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Let the Right One In / Let Me In

"Hi, my name is Eli. I'm 12, more or less, but I've been 12 for a very long time. I can't remember where I was born or what happened to my parents. Everyone thinks I'm a girl, but I'm really not. I enjoy solving puzzles. I also like to stay up all night and sleep all day. Eating candy (or food any kind) makes me sick and have to throw up. If I don't drink human blood, then I get sick and start to smell funny. I can't come into your home unless you invite me."

In 2004, a Swedish writer by the name of John Ajvide Lindqvist published a novel entitled 'Låt den rätte komma in'. The book was about a vampire girl named Eli and her friendship with a 12-year old boy named Oskar. A few years later, Lindqvist adapted his novel to a screenplay for the movie 'Let the right one in'. Of all the films I saw that year, this was my favorite. I should preface my adoration for the film by saying that I'm not a big fan of vampire tales. However, either by choice or against my will, I've managed to sit through a fair number of that genre over the years. (By the way, Wikipedia maintains a long list of vampire fodder in case you're not sure what you've missed.)

In 2010, Matt Reeves wrote and directed an English remake entitled 'Let Me In'. I assume this was an attempt to tap the bloodthirsty (and over-saturated) American market, and not designed to improve upon or reinterpret the story. Both the original and the remake have almost identical plots. With the exception of some bad quick-motion special effects and added gore in the remake, I wouldn't recommend one film over the other.

The story's relationship between the two children is both innocent and symbiotic. Eli is a centuries-old vampire trapped in the body of a 12-year old girl. However, don't let appearances fool you because she's stronger than she looks (especially when she's ripping someone's head off). Oskar's a bit more timid, but after the purchase of his first pocket knife, you can tell he's well on his way to becoming a serial killer. Despite a backdrop of horror, Eli and Oskar spend most of their time together like regular 12-year olds, just hanging out and talking or listening to music.

It's been a while since I watched the original, but none of the secondary characters in the remake are very sympathetic. The boy's mother is a religious fanatic, his neighbors are exhibitionists, and some of his schoolmates have intentions to mortally wound him. The parade of teenage victims, as well as the police detective investigating their murders, are nobody we'll miss...and they will go missing. With the exception of a couple sad scenes, the story is upbeat and has a happy ending :)

Let the Right One In (2008/Sweden)
Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2008
Language: Swedish w/English sub-titles
Genre: Drama, fantasy, romance
Rating: 4.5/5

SIFF
IMDB
Magnolia Pictures

Let Me In (2010/UK/USA)
Venue: Netflix streaming
Language: English
Genre: Drama, fantasy, romance, horror
Rating: 4/5

IMDB
Official site