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

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Twilight Samurai

The film takes place right before Japan's Meiji Restoration, circa 1868. The need for Samurai is quickly disappearing, and imperial rule is about to be restored to Japan. This is not an epic movie with elaborate costumes and choreographed fighting. Set in a small village, the story follows a group of low-level samurai in charge of food stores. Instead of wielding swords, they spend their days updating accounting ledgers and inventorying warehouses.

The film's protagonist, Iguchi Seibei, is a humble servant of the Tokugawa Shogunate. His retainer is small, his clothes stink, his wife has died from tuberculosis, and his two young daughters are motherless. After a long day of looking after the stores, Iguchi doesn't have the time (or energy) to go out drinking with his samurai co-workers. Instead, he must hurry home before twilight to care for his family and work odd jobs to support his household.

But Iguchi's dismal life begins to change for the better after the return home of a childhood friend, Tomoe. Tomoe is sister to one of Iguchi's closest friends and has just been granted a divorce from an abusive drunk. After winning the 2003 Japanese Academy Award for best film and recommendations from several critics and friends, I figured it was time to see it.

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

SIFF
IMDB
Wikipedia