Monday, May 28, 2012

SIFF 2012, Batch #2

Dreams of a Life

UK, 3/5
Almost three years after her death, Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered lying on the couch at home watching television. Nobody reported her missing or cared that she neglected to pay her electric bill. This documentary is a sad commentary on the disconnectedness of modern society.

Take This Waltz

Canada, 4/5
Margot's life hasn't turned out as the fairytale every little girl was promised. She misses the excitement of falling in love, and can't cope with the "gaps" in her comfortable marriage to a writer of chicken cookbooks. Enter artist, next door neighbor, and rickshaw driver Daniel with promises of witty repartee and erotic sexual encounters.

Rose

Poland, 4/5
Before World War II, Masurian villages were controlled by Germany, but afterward they were lumped in with Poland. Both Rose and the villages are repeatedly raped over the course of this film by their Russian conquerors.

Starry Starry Night

Taiwan, 4/5
A 13-year-old girl learns about the Dutch masters from her art collecting mother and jigsaw puzzles assembled by her family. But when a piece from Van Gogh's Starry Night goes missing, Mei's home life starts to fall apart. Folded paper animals and wooden elephants come to life in this charmingly serious fantasy about the families and friendship of two Chinese school children.

Coteau Rouge

Canada, 3/5
Apparently not everyone in Quebec is of Western European descent, some are born of fish. And not all of Canada is a safe place. Anytime someone makes trouble for a French-Canadian family from Coteau Rouge, they feed their problem to a giant, man-eating sturgeon.

Cloudburst

Canada, 3/5
Two old dikes and a male dancer road-trip to Canada to procure a wedding license. Along the way, there's lots of tequila, swearing, and a near drowning or two. I learned from this film that OWL is short for Old Wise Lesbian, and that Olympia Dukakis has a real potty mouth.

Monday, May 21, 2012

SIFF 2012, Batch #1

The Intouchables

France, 4/5
Affluent, paraplegic paragliding pilot seeks caregiver to neglect and insult him on a regular basis. Prefers ex-convicts or someone with a lengthy criminal record. Medical qualification and prior nursing experience strongly discouraged. Bottom line is, if you can score a doobie and outrun the French police in my Maserati, you're hired.

Your Sister's Sister

USA, 3.5/5
It's the one year anniversary of Jack's brother's death, but Jack's not feeling very celebratory. After raining on some friends' saintlike remembrance of his departed sibling, Iris suggests that he spend a few days alone in the San Juan islands reflecting on his life. Iris is Jack's best friend, but he can't sleep with her because she once dated his brother, so Jack sleeps with Iris's lesbian sister Hannah instead, did I mention that Hannah is unstable and wants a baby?

Elena

Russia, 3/5
With wealth comes privilege and choice. However, it also attracts the envy and desperation of those without. An aging nurse marries her rich, older patient. Both have children from previous marriages, but the man's family is wealthy while the woman's is more like a welfare case. The man is godless, the woman religious. There are cooling towers from a nuclear power plant in almost every scene!

My Sucky Teen Romance

USA, 2.5/5
Still dressed in what appears to be a leather jacket from the 1950's, Edward Cullen's doppelganger stalks prepubescents at the local Holiday Inn's annual sci-fi and fantasy convention. Do not go expecting a well-polished Hollywood film, but instead something shot by high school students with little or no budget over a very short period of time.

Bestiaire

Canada, 2.5/5
72 minutes of watching animals in silence. Sometimes unsettling, sometimes humorous. Some people like to draw them, others like to watch them, and still others (taxidermists) like to stuff them. This film is part of the experimental track at the festival, be forewarned that you WILL be sitting for 72 minutes in silence staring at zoo animals without any dialogue or narration.

Polisse

France, 4/5
The child protective unit of the Parisian police force deals with everything from self-confessing pedophiles to homeless mothers who can't feed or shelter their children to shoot-outs at the local shopping mall. Perhaps that's why the detectives' home lives are so screwed up. The stories in this film are based on actual police investigations.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Adjustment Bureau

The only time congressman David Norris is alone is when he's asleep or in the bathroom. After eight years of politics, the spotlight is becoming hard for him to take, and mooning a bunch of friends at a recent, college reunion hasn't helped his chances of winning New York's 2006 Senate race. As David (Matt Damon) stands in the men's room of his party's hotel headquarters practicing his concession speech, Emily Blunt emerges from one of the bathroom stalls with bottle of champagne in hand. Emily's character (Elise Sellas) is a ballet dancer who likes to crash expensive wedding receptions. She's currently hiding from both hotel security and an irate Ivana Trump. Apparently, fake Czech accents don't stand up well to several drinks and claiming to be Ivana's niece.

In 1954, Philip K. Dick wrote a 20 page short story entitled 'The Adjustment Team' upon which this film is based. Dick's story begins with a lazy old dog who falls asleep and fails to bark at precisely the right moment. As a result, the dog's owner is not summoned outside for an early morning car ride to work, and does not partake in the scheduled "adjustment" to his life and the inhabitants' lives of sector T137. In congressman Norris's case, divine intervention fails to prevent him from catching the cross-town bus, and from bumping into bathroom stowaway Elise a second time.

Philip's stories are responsible for the inspiration of many well known films including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. I don't blame Mr. Dick (or the dog) for this film's failure to impress me. After all, a good premise and a handful of talented actors aren't enough to carry an intriguing idea.

In a nutshell, this film is a contest between free will and fate. The question posed is whether two people, Elise and David, should live as successful singles or as a mediocre couple. Some people might tell you that their romance ruins this science fiction thriller, but I enjoyed the witty flirting of the two actors, their onscreen chemistry is charming and one of the film's strengths. There are religious overtones, interdimensional doorways and hats.

- Ron Shaker

Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Sci-fi, romantic, action thriller
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

It's not easy to get a look at Oscar nominated shorts before the awards are handed out. Fortunately, SIFF and Landmark Theaters here in Seattle have been playing most of the documentaries, live action, and animated candidates this past week.

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement

USA, 2/5

An 85 year old black barber recounts cutting Martin Luther King Jr.'s hair. James Armstrong was one of the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, and probably more excited to see Obama elected president than Barack's own mother. An important message about overlooked activists and the long road to a black presidency.

Saving Face

Pakistan/USA, 4/5

A London doctor returns to his home country of Pakistan to surgically reconstruct women's burned and disfigured faces. It's not uncommon for men to throw battery acid on their wives. Meanwhile back in parliament, the congress debates passage of a bill to punish instigators of these crimes with life imprisonment.

Incident in New Baghdad

USA, 3/5

In July of 2007, U.S. attack helicopters shot at and killed a group of Iraqi insurgents. Among the collateral damage were civilians including two journalists from Reuters and some children. Army Specialist Ethan McCord was patrolling on foot that day and one of the first people to reach the aftermath.

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Japan/USA, 4/5

Humans seem to find comfort and strength in the longevity and resilience of plants. Even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, devastating tsunami, and nuclear disaster, the Japanese people are a very composed lot. The thousand year old cherry tree and 16th generation caretaker round this film out with a sense of continuity and hope.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The decades long cold war between western and communist worlds was in its waning years. For those of us lucky enough to grow up during that time period, it wasn't just a chapter from a history book. There was the occasional nuclear attack drill, or television movie about dying from radioactive fallout. Aside from the odd coup or miscalculated invasion, this conflict wasn't fought by air or by sea but from behind the locked doors of agencies like the CIA and the Circus.

The year is 1973 and British intelligence has fallen from American favor. After the botched defection of a Czech Army general in Budapest and capture of the operation's MI-6 agent, it's becoming increasingly clear that there's a leak at the highest levels of the Circus. The two men least likely to be double agents, Circus chief 'Control' (John Hurt) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced to resign over the debacle. Timing could not be worse though. Some of the officers who Control suspects as possible moles are about to begin feeding Langley secrets obtained from a communist informant known as "Witchcraft", an intelligence source that neither Control nor Smiley believe is reliable, but who some at the Circus think will foster a better relationship with the CIA. You would think that a room full of spooks would recognize when something's too good to be true.

Mr. Smiley isn't quite ready for retirement though, so the devout civil servant picks up where his boss and old friend Control left off. The aged master spy sets off to uncover his agency's mole, one of four men he's served with for a very long time. Sometimes casting gives away the identity of a cloaked villain, but not in this case. My suspicions of the mole's identity did prove correct, but only because said actor was afforded more on-screen time than the other suspects. What impresses me most about Gary Oldman (as well as other actors in this film) is his ability to act a scene with little or no dialogue, yet say volumes.

Clandestine terminology is part of what gives espionage stories their charm, but if you're not familiar with John le Carré's 1974 British spy novel, you might want to skim over the Circus Guide at some point. 'Circus' is the in-house name of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and refers to the location of its headquarters at Cambridge Circus, London. On the other hand, Ferrets, Housekeepers, Debs, Scalphunters, Coat Trailers, Shoemakers, Wranglers, Lamplighters and Cousins are all words you'll need to look up on your own, if I tell you I'll have to kill you.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: AMC Pacific Place
Country: France, UK, Germany
Language: English, Russian, Hungarian, French
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Melancholia

Melancholia: a distinct mood disorder, identified by unremitting depressed state of mind, vegetative dysfunction, and psychomotor disturbances, verifiable by neuroendocrine tests, and treatable by electroconvulsive therapy and tricyclic antidepressants. Also, it's the name of a mega planet 10 times the size of Earth and on a collision course to wipe out all of humanity.

Melancholia has a long medical history and goes by many names. Treatments have evolved over time, I'm not sure that electroshock is still prescribed. It sounds like a debilitating disease, but which state of human existence is the "correct" one? By definition, a pathology is the functional deviation from the medical norm, or perhaps from society's expectations. Director Lars von Trier considers himself a melancholic and the primary objective of this project was not the production of a film, but von Trier's exploration of depression and a means of getting himself back on track emotionally. It always helps to combine goals.

The movie opens with Justine's visions of the end of the world, a sequence of beautifully composed, ultra-slow motion scenes that capture the moments leading up to Earth's destruction. Lars has lived with an anxiety of doomsday for much of his life and believes that the human race is alone in the universe. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a melancholic with the same disposition as Lars. The upfront disclosure of our planet's fate sounds like a plot spoiler, but it's arguably necessary in order to achieve the film's secondary goal--a character study of how Justine, her sister and her brother-in-law react to certain death.


The trio's story begins a few months earlier on Justine's wedding day. She's hours late to her own reception, a catered evening at a Swedish castle on the cusp of an 18-hole golf course. Family tensions are high and Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is trying desperately to keep the guests from one another's throats. Though Justine is the depressive of the pair, her mood seems to calm during the weeks following the wedding. As Trier explains, the sisters' demeanors are reversed--melancholic people are often most functional when circumstances are dire, and "normal" people tend to fall apart. Yet others, like Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), are convinced that the scientists are right (or at least not lying) when they say that Melancholia will fly past the Earth and keep on going. John is clearly in denial.

You might be asking yourself "where did this planet come from?" Like another 2011 movie, Brit Marling's Another Earth, Melancholia has been hiding behind the sun. Unlike Marling's pretentious and often cheesy screenplay, we are not introduced to the new planet by a family gathered in their living room to watch the live, television broadcast of first contact with a doppelganger-filled world. Not surprisingly, von Trier's treatment of this plot point is much more sophisticated. Audiences gradually gain knowledge of the characters' predicament through devices such as matter-of-fact conversation or Claire's viewing of the phenomenon's Wikipedia page. The color, lighting and overall cinematography is dreamlike and beautiful. Emotionally, there is a draining finality to the story that made it difficult to watch.

If you're a festival follower, or just listen to entertainment news, you may recall the controversy stirred at 2011 Cannes by Lars von Trier's comments about the Nazis. Honestly, other parts of that interview were more bizarre than his proclaimed understanding of Hitler. Part of the problem is that von Trier sometimes neglects to fully explain his comments (I had no idea why he brought up the idea of making a 4 hour porno flick until I did some research and discovered that his next project may be about nymphomania). After being added to the festival's "unwelcome" list, Lars publicly apologized for his statements, only to revoke that apology a few months later. The mortified look on Dunst's face during the original interview says it all. I worry that these incidents will prevent the film from being nominated for any Oscars, which looks to be the case if its exclusion from the SAG and Golden Globe awards is any indication.

There is a real celestial body in our solar system named Melancholia, but it's an asteroid, not a mega planet. For more information, visit NASA's web page describing the orbit of 5708 Melancholia. As for the film's title, it's in reference to the planet Saturn and its association with one of the four ancient temperaments: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: DirectTV On-Demand
Country: Denmark
Language: English
Genre: Drama, sci-fi
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB