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