Monday, May 30, 2011

Hooked

This is the tale of some Russian teens who like to play video games (and paintball). The youngsters enter a cyber game tournament and do so well that they're rewarded with complimentary copies of a new video game...which melts their home computers BUT also gives them superhuman abilities in fighting, driving and shooting. Without hesitation, the boys and girl go on a rampage, assaulting and killing a squad of 30 heavily armed commandos with only paintball guns, all to save one of their friends who is about to be burned to death by a gang of car thieves.

Then, this big airship appears from out of the clouds, lands, inducts the kids into a super secret crime fighting organization, and takes off again. On their first assignment working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (I don't remember what the organization is really called), the kids are sent to assassinate one of their employer's competitors in the fuel cell business. Apparently the secret organization they work for isn't good after all, they're just a bunch of capitalists whose real goal is to corner the market on palladium...which they're planning to use in building hydrogen fuel cells that will enable cars to get 1000 kilometers per gallon. This is when the gamers' morals start to kick in and the kids begin taking sides (good vs. evil).

When the teens are later sent to hijack and blowup a Turkish ship that's trying to escape with the remaining hundred copies of the video game which turned them all into super humans in the first place, the story starts to get a little silly.

I salute the writers of this screenplay--There is no hesitation from the characters to shoot and kill anything that moves (even busloads of innocent bystanders aren't safe). The two romantic encounters of this film are quite funny and had the audience laughing. I didn't think the acting was particularly good, but the actors put a lot of energy into their roles.

Reasons to see this movie:
  • It's so bad that it's good? (I'm lying, it's not)
  • You often fantasize of leveraging your gamer skills to become a real life mercenary.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: Russian w/really bad English subtitles
Genre: Action, sci-fi, romance
Rating: 2/5

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

SIFF 2011, Batch #1

The First Grader

Kenya, 2.5/5

This is the true story of an 84 year old Kenyan man (once a Mau Mau freedom fighter) who wants to learn how to read. He buys some books, dons a uniform, and walks up to the front gates of the local elementary school. This was filmed on location and the children in the movie are the school's actual students. The director said he brought only 8 people into the country, that the rest are local talent. The kids do a great job.

Outrage

Japan, 3/5

The original title "Creative Ways to Kill and Mame Your Yakuza Associates" was too long and got nixed after the test screening in Kyoto last year. This film provides a humorous look into the politics of a Japanese mafia turf war (from the perspective of Takeshi Kitano). It's a light story, though very violent, so bring lots of Kleenex to sop up the pools of blood.

Hermano

Venezuela, 3.5/5

Two Venezuelan brothers play for the same soccer team, and run with the same gang. They both want to be professional football players, and they're well on their way when someone guns down their mother.

Every Song Is About Me

Spain, 2.5/5

"No they're not, you're delusional. Don't look at me like that!" All kidding aside, this film is about young love, romance, poetry, beautiful barmaids from Venezuela who want to get married, and architecture (but that last one is a stretch).

Some Days Are Better Than Others

The film effectively weaves together the lives of three people in a way that's not immediately obvious nor annoying when the connection becomes evident. The dialog is a bit strained in places, overstating the obvious on a few occasions, however not to a point of ruining everything. My wife often uses the phrase "show me, don't tell me" to describe problems of this sort. I liked the characters, and the acting performances weren't bad.

Some days are better than others with regard to the festival. I couldn't quite motivate myself to make it to Pacific Place for the first press screening of the morning, but this film was a pleasant surprise. Though the movie has some problems, it shows promise. Matt McCormick has directed several features over the years, but I have not seen any of his others.

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

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Perfect Sense

I wasn't looking forward to watching another Ewan McGregor film this week. Watching highly recognizable actors play any role in a film can be distracting. For a well written character, I prefer an unknown individual who's not dragging a load of superstar baggage down the street in their wake. One exception to this rule might be Ben Kingsley, who I can watch on screen for two hours and not even recognize until the credits appear (go figure).

Perfect Sense is a depressing story. It's about a chef (Ewan McGregor) and an epidemiologist (Eva Green) who are just beginning a relationship. The film is 2 parts apocalypse, 2 parts epidemic, 2 parts romance, 1 part zombie, and a really big squirt of Tabasco. People all over the world inexplicably begin to lose their sense of smell. Not long afterward, everyone looses their sense of taste. Then, the entire population looses its hearing. At that point, one of the scientists delivers the single line you never really want to hear: "I think it's OK to panic now." We never learn what causes these illnesses, but we do get a front row seat to the fall of civilization.

I loved movies like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Stand, and the Andromeda Strain. They gave us a detached view of viral apocalypse, sometimes exciting, at other times funny or even educational. In this film, there aren't any national guard troops shooting at people. There's no race against the clock to isolate and cure the virus. Events take place, not over a matter of hours, but over the course of months. Neither the CDC nor god is mentioned once (well, I could be wrong about that).

McGregor narrates a series of photography slide shows throughout the movie illustrating how real people in society are coping with their loss. Those interludes provide an injection of empathy that make the events we are witnessing seem all that more real.

Foodies might be interested in how chef McGregor and his kitchen staff change their menu to emphasize texture, temperature and color once everyone's sense of smell and taste have vanished.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: English
Genre: Romance drama (maybe toxin or virus)
Rating: 3.5/5

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kosmos

From out of a snowy, barren landscape, a man appears. He's running, though from what we do not know. The valley ahead holds a large town, modern in convenience but ancient in design. Just before reaching the town, the man (Kosmos) hears the screams of a girl (Neptun) from the other side of an icy river. Neptun's younger brother has fallen into the swift waters and drowned. Kosmos pulls the boy from the river and revives him with his mysterious, healing powers. Grateful for this heroic feat, the townspeople welcome Kosmos as an honored guest (a gesture they soon live to regret).

Throughout the film, there's a constant sense of "us" and "them". The townspeople fear outsiders, or more specifically, they see them as a threat to the "pristine" way of life they've built. Kosmos, through some very confusing dialog (reminiscent of biblical scripture), reminds the town's inhabitants that it's not possible to barricade off the outside world--evil and good know no borders.

Kosmos and Neptun turn out to be kindred spirits, painting one another with red nail polish and courting each other with the calls of wild birds. Neptun's father works in the slaughter house and does not approve of his daughter's liaison. A clock tower's minute hand stutters, and the filmmaker's camera follows a flock of wandering geese through cobblestone streets at tail level. The pounding of artillery resonates throughout the movie as the town's military strives to maintain a secure border.

The cinematography in this piece is beautiful. The writing may not be for everyone though. If what you seek is a formulaic, obvious-from-the-start story with cookie cutter characters, disappointed you may be. Watch the trailer to get a better flavor of the film's imagery.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: Turkish w/English subtitles
Genre: Fantasy, fable drama
Rating: 4.5/5

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Official Site

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Another Earth

On paper, this film should not work. Much of the plot is a recycled cliche. Aside from the lead actress, there's little or no character development. The premise of a "mirror" earth and moon is preposterous and presented in a way that completely ignores all physical laws. Combine those weaknesses with several over-telegraphed scenes and the repetitious over saturation of set content (more sci-fi books, planets and empty bottles are not better) and you'd expect this production to sink deep into the realm of silly. But as a whole, it sort of works though I don't know why.

Rhoda Williams (played by Brit Marling) has just been accepted to MIT. Looking at her bedroom, I'd say she wants to be an astrophysicist. But Rhoda is reckless, likes to drink and drive, and manages to kill the son and wife of some Yale professor in a head-on collision. That incident pretty much ends her life when she's sent to prison for 4 years. On the same night of the accident, Earth #1 discovers the existence of Earth #2 (an important fact that spawns an even more important plot point towards the conclusion of the film).

Marling's performance is very solid and I enjoyed it. She's also the screenwriter for this film. See it and keep an open mind, try not to be too critical and just absorb the planet rays from the other Earth.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Dreamy, regretful and hopeful
Language: English
Genre: Drama, romance, sci-fi
Rating: 3/5

SIFF
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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Win/Win

Standing in line, there was a movie poster of Win/Win on the wall next to me. The photo was of Paul Giamatti and some high school wrestler sitting atop gymnasium bleachers. My first thoughts were: "What does an Amsterdam brokerage firm have to do with interscholastic athletics? and Does Paul Giamatti really speak Dutch?"

I often find it interesting how film premises debut in pairs (recall in 1997: Volcano + Dante's Peak, 1998's Deep Impact + Armageddon, 1999's Joan of Arc + The Messenger, 2000's Mission to Mars + Red Planet, and 2002's 8 Women + 9 Dead Gay Guys = confused movie goers). The simultaneous release of two movies with identical name (yet completely different plot) is rare.

Win/Win is the story of a young analyst working at an Amsterdam investment bank during the recent, global, economic upheaval. Ivan is somewhat of a savant when it comes to patterns and numbers and predicting trends. That, along with his high level of energy and confidence, catapults this character into an upward spiral of success as those around him plummet to their death. The protagonist of this film is moral and caring of those close to him, but a little bit detached from the action and effect of his daily financial transactions--to Ivan it's more like an enjoyable and challenging game.

I liked the lead role played by 27 year old Oscar Van Rompay, as well as this feature debut by director Jaap van Heusden. Some of the camera angles and cinematographic techniques were interesting (for example, Ivan's game of hopscotch in the courtyard). The film requires a bit of energy to sit through, but has a rather short running time of 84 minutes.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Manic, energetic and tiring
Language: Dutch w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3/5

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Venice

Eleven-year-old Marek dreams of a trip to Venice. He even owns a portable, fold-up model of the city. In his spare time, the boy likes to memorize Venetian street names and nag his parents to take him to Italy the "next time" they go. Why the f&@% he wants to visit Venice, no one ever says--Maybe Venice is just a fairytale vacation he will never have, whereas WWI will soon be his and everyone else's reality.

This movie opens with Marek's alcoholic mother and visibly nervous father picking him up at boarding school. The boy is whisked away to an aunt's farm in the Polish countryside where he has been sentenced to spend his summer vacation. As other aunts and cousins arrive at the farm, the mood is almost that of a family reunion. The mood is almost festive.

However... keep in mind that Poland is part of Eastern Europe, and Eastern European dramas rarely end happily. I think the last scene of this film where a crazed Russian soldier-turned-piano player sprays the room with bullets and kills the last character we even care about sums up my point nicely :)

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Unclear, bleak and depressing
Screen size: Bigger is better
Language: Polish, German, and Russian w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Circumstance

Marjane Satrapi introduced people to modern, Iranian culture with her graphic novel 'Persepolis'. In some ways, Maryam Keshavarz's film 'Circumstance' is a live action version of what Satrapi describes about her life growing up. We're taken into backroom black market music stores, private dance clubs, ultra strict schools, and extorted by the morality police--It's always seemed ironic to me that the morality police can [and must] be bribed.

This is the story of Atafeh, Shireen, and Mehran. Mehran is Atafeh's brother. Atafeh and Shireen are lovers. Mehran is a musician and recovering drug addict who joins the morality police. Mehran becomes obsessed with Shireen. The three are living together in Atafeh's and Mehran's parents' house. For some reason, Mehran has outfitted the house with CCTV cameras and is monitoring everyone's movements. The circumstance of their living arrangement seems like a recipe for disaster.

I like how the movie is shot, and I appreciate the plot more as time passes. Oh, and in their spare time, the young women and their friends like to dub porn and other movies into Persian (that's the humorous part of the film).

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Serious, maybe rebellious, I don't know
Screen size: Any
Language: Persian (I assume) w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Future

A young couple must wait 30 days to adopt an injured cat. These are their last moments of freedom before they become "animal parents". But, they're not responsible people. They forget to pick up the cat from the shelter and it's euthanized. Maybe I've given away too much about the plot, but the cat's demise is foreshadowed early on.

Miranda July's first feature film (Me and You and Everyone We Know) had some hilarious scenes, but this new feature has a dreamy, drugged feel to it. I found the characters' lives depressing, and their self-destructive actions unbelievable. "What if I just quit my job, or What if I have an affair, or What if I ... etc." If you've ever considered radically altering your life just to see what happens, maybe this movie will provide you with some ideas of how to go about that.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Absurd and depressing
Screen size: Doesn't matter
Language: English
Genre: Drama comedy
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Submarine

This film is a good mix of levity, gravity and absurdity. It's sweet and sour without a bitter aftertaste. It's not too mainstream, nor is it too fringe. The actors looked familiar, but it wasn't until afterward while searching IMDB that I realized from where (Jane Eyre, An Education, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980, and The Sarah Jane Adventures).

This is the story of 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). Oliver wants to lose his virginity to a bully-loving, pyromaniac psychopath named Jordana (Yasmin Paige) before his next birthday. Actually, what Oliver really wants is to have Jordana shrunk down to microscopic size and pilot a tiny submarine through his veins. This story isn't as shallow (or deep) as I've implied--The relationship between these kids is sort of complicated. Jordana hates romance, precluding development of a sappy love story. Throw in the potential for illness and death and the teenagers' lives aren't that carefree.

Throughout the film, Jordana wears the same red jacket in most scenes. I realize this is an important plot point (for reasons I will not divulge), but it also adds an extra bit of realism to the character. Recall how growing up you often recognized people from a distance, not by how they moved, but by the color of their jacket? I thought it was a nice touch.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Release date: June 3, 2011 (USA)
Mood: Warm, funny, eclectic
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Genre: Comedy drama
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
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Official Site

Amador

The tagline could read "Dead people are useful in many ways." I wouldn't describe this film as a black comedy, because there's very little humor--Perhaps all of the jokes were too subtle for me to appreciate. The movie starts with a young immigrant woman (named Yolanda) leaving a dear John letter for her boyfriend. Unfortunately, and with the help of socialized medicine, she soon learns that she's pregnant and decides not to leave her lover--She's trapped.

To make more money to buy a new refrigerator, Yolanda (Sonia Almarcha) takes extra work caring for an elderly, sick gentleman named Amador. Amador's daughter and son-in-law are busy building a house in the country, so they hire Yolanda to house-sit their father.

The running time of 112 minutes is far too long. Once the old man dies (and it happens rather early in the film), any charm or witty conversation dies with him. We spend much of the middle half of the film watching Yolanda silently trying to come to terms with a rotting corpse and her secret pregnancy.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Painful, funny
Screen size: Any
Language: Spanish w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Paper Birds

This is the story of a vaudeville troupe trying to reassemble their stage act and put the Spanish civil war behind them. In the process, they adopt orphans, forge papers, and try to forget the loved ones they've lost. Your friends are sometimes your family. There is a plot twist that took me by surprise, and not everyone's allegiances are what they appear.

'Paper Birds' won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Film at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival. We were fortunate enough to see it at the donor's screening a few weeks before the festival officially started.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Sad, playful
Screen size: Bigger is better
Language: Spanish w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
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Official Site

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Project Nim

It was the 70's, and the premise was simple. Raise and nurture a chimpanzee like a human child, teach it sign language, and then sit down over tea and have a civilized conversation. What could go wrong? First, let's name the chimp 'Nim Chimpsky'. Second, lets find a young, financially independent hippie mother who's willing to breast feed the chimp and serve as its role model. Since it's the 70's (and we all want to be free spirits), lets give the chimp some marijuana and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Since no one in his foster family even knows sign language, there's really no reason to create a lesson plan or take any notes. The lack of forsight about how the chimp will mature and pose an increasing risk to his keepers' safety is mind blowing. For all of you kids out there that want to grow-up and be scientists, this movie demonstrates how not to carry out an experiment. Nim's story is fascinating in the same way a train wreck is.

This is the third film from director James Marsh I've sat through. The first was Man on a Wire, a documentary about tightrope walker Philippe Petit who crossed the distance between New York's twin towers. The second was Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980, a mystery thriller about a serial killer. Both are worth seeing.

In all of his films, one thing seems constant. Whether documentary or historical fiction, Marsh likes to explore the interpersonal relationships of his actors no matter how dysfunctional or embarrassing they might be. What surprised me most was the high quality and volume of archival footage and stills used in this production.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Mood: Aggravating
Screen size: Any
Language: English
Genre: Documentary
Rating: 3/5

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