Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Home

A middle-aged doctor dies, leaving behind his wife and children. He awakes to find himself in purgatory. Though he's not a bad person, apparently certain forms of debauchery are synonymous with suicide. After serving penance by roaming this hellish landscape for some undefined amount of time, Dr. André Luiz is rescued by people wearing white sheets and granted entrance to a futuristic city referred to only as "Our Home".

Our Home is more like a way station than it is Shangri-La. If you've ever seen the 1991 romantic comedy Defending Your Life starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep, the purpose and layout of the cities in both films is similar--each is a holding area where people's souls either wait to be reincarnated or move on to a higher plane of existence.

This is Brazil's biggest budget film in history, 20 million Brazillian reals (12.4 million US dollars). For frame of reference, that's roughly how much it cost to make Terry Gilliam's 1981 film Time Bandits. The reason for making a comparison is to point out that 20 million probably doesn't buy you a lot in terms of special effects these days. Despite all of their good intentions and hard work, much of this movie looked 20 years behind what I suspect American audiences have come to expect from space and fantasy films.

There are some interesting twists to writer Wagner de Assis's retelling of life after death though. (1) Housing seems scarce, so inhabitants of Our Home must "rent" rooms in shared residences. (2) Family bonds transcend corporeal existence, so you get to keep the same parents and children if you're reincarnated (woo-hoo!). And by far the strangest matter-of-fact, (3) some of mankind's greatest achievements in technology (e.g. computers, paddle boats, Viagra) were invented in Our Home and carried back to earth by reborn souls.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: Portuguese w/English sub-titles
Genre: Sci-fi drama
Rating: 2.75/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official site

Friday, June 24, 2011

Beginners

During the 2011 festival, we attended the Gala screening of this film and a special Tribute to Ewan McGregor afterward. If you've ever had reason to question who Mr. McGregor's fan base really is, I submit that by standing in the front doorway at one of these events, you will leave with the marks of several hundred shoes imprinted on your forehead from a demographic of mostly 25-45 year old women.

Beginners is the weaving together of two stories, the first of which is about Hal (Christopher Plummer). After 45 years of marriage and the recent death of his wife, he is finally starting to come out of the closet. Other than being a little puzzled as to why a gay man would spend 45 years in a heterosexual relationship, the news doesn't seem to phase his son Oliver much. We follow Hal in his excitement as he races to replace his entire wardrobe, experiments a little with clubbing, and makes the purchase of almost every book ever written on the subject of being gay (see photo above).

The second story, which takes place shortly after Hal's death, is about the first month of a relationship between Oliver and Anna (Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent). Distraught over the death of his father, Oliver dresses up as Sigmund Freud one night and goes to a Halloween party where he meets (and psychoanalyzes) a mute, silent-film actress named Anna.

For beginners, the talking dog schtick works. After Plummer's death, McGregor inherits his father's dog Cosmo and for the remainder of the film plays soft-spoken straight-man opposite a Jack Russel Terrier. In the [one-sided] conversations between Oliver and Cosmo, Ewan's character shares with the audience his inner monologue.



When you're a beginner, everything is new and exciting. The hard part comes once the beginning is over. For Hal, his uncloseted beginning needs no follow through because he simply gets old and dies. For Oliver and Anna, there will be no casualties (except perhaps their relationship) to provide a means of escape.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: English w/English subtitles (like Anna, the dog is also mute)
Genre: Romantic comedy
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
IMDB

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mother of Mine (Äideistä parhain)

Since many [good] films are timeless, I've decided to begin picking my way through some of the favorites of past film festivals. 'Mother of Mine' played at SIFF 2006. Set over the course of World War II, most of the story takes place on a small farm in the Swedish countryside. During wartime, parents often send their children away to safe havens far removed from the fighting. In the face of WWII, Finland sent roughly 70-80 thousand of their boys and girls west to hide out in Sweden as Russian troops began invading from the east.

After his father's death, 10 year old Eero Lahti is packed onto a ship and sent away to live with Hjalmar Jönsson and his wife Signe (complete strangers, but better than the alternative of a children's home). "Mother Signe" rejects Eero from the moment she lays eyes on him--Signe was hoping instead for a little girl. Meanwhile, back in Finland, the boy's natural mother is busy dating a German officer and contemplating whether she even wants her son returned at the end of the war.

Some of the story's events were a little disorienting until I "refreshed" my knowledge of WWII alliances:
  1. Winter War (30 November 1939 -- 12 March 1940)
    Russia attacks Finland.
  2. Interim Peace (13 March 1940 -- 24 June 1941)
    Russia signs peace treaty with Finland.
    Finland and Germany form defense agreement.
  3. Continuation War (25 June 1941 -- 19 September 1944)
    Russia attacks Finland (and their German allies).
  4. Moscow Armistice (19 September 1944)
    Russia signs peace treaty with Finland (again).
  5. Lapland War (1 October 1944 -- 25 April 1945)
    Finland tries to give Germany the boot and all hell breaks loose.
Eero's foster father (played by Michael Nyqvist) might look familiar to some people. I recognized him from his portrayal of journalist Mikael Blomkvist in 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' trilogy. The characters, acting, directing, musical score, and especially the cinematography in this film are superb. It's a slow-paced, introspective piece with just a little bit of mystery. This would have been a great movie to see on the big screen.

Venue: Netflix streaming
Language: Finnish, Swedish w/English sub-titles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4.5/5

SIFF
IMDB
Netflix

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

João is an orphan boy with no last name and a very complicated heritage (that he knows nothing about). All that João really wants in life is to be reunited with his parents. He lives at the Catholic boarding school run by Padre Dinis. Some believe that the Padre is his father, but matters are not that simple. Beginning in [their] present day Portugal, the movie is experienced through the first hand retelling of events by the story's main characters. Nothing is as it first seems, and the story unfolds like the peeling of an onion.

Every character in this film is related in some way, sometimes by blood and sometimes by circumstance. Some have secret (or even doubly secret) identities that are gradually revealed as the story progresses. It's easy to lose track of the relationships, so I suggest paying close attention (and possibly taking notes).

The screen play for Mysteries of Lisbon is adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco's 1854 novel "Os Mistérios de Lisboa" and directed by Raul Ruiz. It is a 4.5 hour long period piece, but isn't as dry or boring as I'd feared. The director has managed to inject black humor into the background of some scenes, making fun of the story's main characters. That may be part of what allowed us to watch the entire film without an intermission.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: Portuguese, French
Genre: Period piece, drama (and a bit of black comedy)
Rating: 4.5/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official Site

Bellflower

Bellflower is a buddy movie, a film about two 20 something slackers from Los Angeles named Woodrow and Aiden. The boys spend their days getting ready for the coming apocalypse by building homemade flame throwers and a weaponized car similar to the V8 Interceptor driven by Mel Gibson in Mad Max. They've even picked out a name for their post-apocalyptic gang: MEDUSA.

One fateful night at the local cocktail lounge, Woodrow is pitted against a cute blonde in a drunken cricket-eating contest. That's where he meets Milly, and it's love at first crunch-crunch-crunch. Dispensing whiskey from the dashboard's built-in liquor tap as they drive, the happy new couple takes off on an impromptu road trip to Texas (Woodrow wants to take Milly to a restaurant that will give them both diarrhea). But it's the second half of the film when the plot gets interesting. Woodrow's and Milly's relationship takes a negative turn, spiraling into jealousy, infidelity, and eventually violence. During the final segment, entitled "no one gets out of here alive", some of the cast go on a murderous rampage.

For the first 30 minutes, I considered walking out of this film. None of the characters have jobs. Money is never an issue. L.A. has no police. Alcohol flows endlessly. None of the people seem real. But after a week or so, this movie grows on you.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2011
Language: English (slacker/grunge dialect)
Genre: Screwed-up relationships that go really wrong
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
IMDB
Official Site

Friday, June 10, 2011

SIFF 2011, Batch #2

Ex

Hong Kong, 2.5/5

Girl quits job, vacates apartment, and then heads to airport for a long trip with current boyfriend--but doesn't make it past the airport cafe without dumping him first. Good thing an old boyfriend happens to be sitting at the adjacent table. Perhaps she can crash at his place and ruin his life as well?

Happy, Happy

Norway, 3/5

After a vaguely unexplained incident of adultery, an unhappily married metropolitan couple moves to the country and rents a house. Their landlords (and next door neighbors) are a pair of sexually frustrated small town shut-ins that don't help the city mice to heal their broken relationship. It's a romantic comedy about coming out of the closet, choir singing, frustrated chain smoking, and running in the snow.

Copacabana

France, 3.5/5

An uptight daughter and her flamboyant, child-like mother aren't getting along. Mom is broke, but wants to help pay for her daughter's uptight wedding. Mommy dearest takes a job in Oostende, Belgium selling timeshare condos and dreams of joining a Brazilian dance troupe. Everything works out in the end, AND it doesn't play like a broken cliche.

A Quiet Life

Italy, 4/5

A film that tackles that age old question: "Can one really retire from the Mafia?" The short answer is: "No. Unless you sever ALL ties with your past, they'll find you." The story's protagonist (and former mass murderer) moves to Germany to open an Italian restaurant and hotel. Eventually, some old "family" from out of town drops by and recognizes him. I'm thinking he should have moved to New Zealand and taken up sheep farming instead.

The Whistleblower

Canada, 3/5

In 1999, Nebraska police officer Kathryn Bolkovac was hired by DynCorp Aerospace for a UN post aimed at cracking down on sexual abuse and forced prostitution in Bosnia. Sometimes a biopic script can't help but play like a made-for-TV movie. It's an interesting film about a serious topic, but you're better off renting it.