Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Sutter Keely is a high school senior, class clown, life of the party, and not worried about the future (not one bit). He's got everything he needs, a cute girlfriend, a reliable set of wheels, and a part-time sales job to fund his carefree lifestyle. Oh and we mustn't forget that bottomless flask of whiskey in his coat pocket, it makes everything around him sparkle!

Sutter's girlfriend Cassidy isn't quite as impressed with his lack of ambition. Finally fed up with Sutter's drunken antics, she dumps him not far into the film. But don't worry, in these types of stories, the right person comes along at just the right time.

Enter Aimee, the papergirl. After an all night drinking binge, Sutter awakes to find himself sprawled out on a neighbor's front lawn. He doesn't know where his car is, and since Aimee is presently canvasing the neighborhood, an alliance (or friendship) is born. Although the premise might sound a bit goofy, this is one of the more creative and adorable meet cutes I've seen in a film lately. Director James Ponsoldt provides narration of this scene in a New York Times blog post.

It surprises me sometimes what I choose to focus on from a film. The initial meeting of Aimee and Sutter seemed simple and superficial at the movie theatre. But after reflecting for a time, I believe it succinctly illustrates the complexity of their relationship. What appears at first to be another light-hearted romantic comedy about two fundamentally different teens falling in love, turns quickly into the downward spiral of an alcoholic and their effect on the people around them. The characters are plausible and the acting is believable. This is one of my favorite films so far this year.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Friday, August 23, 2013

Before Midnight

In 1994, two people bound for different destinations chanced to meet on a train disembarking in Vienna. Jesse was headed back to the United States, and Celine was returning to university in Paris. During their overnight layover in Austria, the two strolled through the streets and talked for almost the entire length of the film. Director Richard Linkater's Before Sunrise was the first in a trilogy of feature length vignettes about the blossoming love affair between an American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy).

18 years ago, the couple's conversations were flirtatious, witty and effortless. They didn't know each other and we didn't know them. In the beginning, there was neither regret nor an excess of baggage, only cautious optimism. However, afraid to ruin a perfect evening, the two never exchanged phone numbers and not until the last moments of the film did they agree to meet in Vienna some six months later. It was a meeting that never took place though, because despite Jesse's best efforts, Celine was unable to return.

The second film, taking place some nine years later, is a little less effortless. Jesse's marriage is on the rocks (he seems frazzled) and Celine is just downright manipulative. Ethan's character has written a book about the twosome's first night together in Vienna and is presently on a book signing tour that has stopped in Paris. Which brings us to Before Midnight, the third movie in the trilogy, co-written by Hawke, Delpy and Linklater.

The reason I've recounted so much of the first two films (other than to set the stage), is that I suspect Before Midnight can't be fully appreciated without intimate knowledge of Jesse and Celine's past. It's not the particulars that are important. For example, it doesn't matter how they met, where they strolled, or even what was said. What matters is the progressive change (or stagnation in some cases) of each character's demeanor over the years.

Jesse still notices the cute asses of 20 year old girls, but is weighed down by the guilt of loosing parental custody of his son to an alcoholic ex-wife. Celine has evolved from a carefree, flirtatious Parisian into the busy mother of three and constant worrier (her only spare time to think is while sitting on the toilet at work).

Intelligent, intimate, realistic dialogue between Julie and Ethan are the cornerstone of this movie franchise, it's why audiences keep coming back. But beyond that, Linklater's series of films delve into the subjects of infatuation, love, marriage, and ongoing commitment. These are extremely accessible stories, something that most of the population can relate to. His characters deliver a highly concentrated contemplation of the day to day relationships that many of us live with.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Egyptian Threatre, Seattle
Country: USA
Language: English, with untranslated French and Greek
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, June 30, 2013

SIFF 2013 Batch #2

I submit to you 12 films from this year's festival, 11 of which are worth seeing. The best of this batch are Redemption Street, A Hijacking, and Wolf Children, three very different movies from the countries of Serbia, Denmark and Japan.

> 5 : worth seeing
= 5 : take it or leave it
< 5 : don't bother

ScoreTitleWhat's it about?
6/10
Orange Honey
A young military clerk goes about his routine duties, typing up absurd court decisions and scheduling the daily execution of convicted subversives in Franco's 1950s Spain. But all of that is about to change, because unbeknownst to Enrique, his fiancé (and boss's daughter) is a key player in the Spanish underground. The festival wouldn't be the same without seeing 3 or 4 entries inspired by dictator Francisco Franco's wacky regime.
6/10
Naked Harbour
Finnish cinema is sometimes less subtle, though more enjoyable, than a swift kick to the head. For many of the characters in this film, a cerebral hemorrhage might be preferable to the mental anguish they're forced to suffer. First, a bullied boy with few friends is separated from his dog after the child's mother has his beloved pet put to sleep (the animal annoys her). Then, a lonely girl looking for attention and fame is lured into the making of a hardcore, handheld porn flick. After that, a father and son dressed as Santa Clauses commit armed robbery to pay off a loan shark. There are several more parallel plot lines, but you've suffered enough for one day.
7/10
Redemption Street
The war that resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia was devastating. After the fighting ended, war tribunals were established to hunt down and prosecute the individuals who perpetrated heinous crimes against both civilians and members of opposing forces. This is the story of a young prosecutor who, though a gifted investigator possessing keen intellect, is politically naive with regard to the surviving power structures that the war left behind. It's a mystery, thriller and great drama all rolled into one.
6/10
7 Boxes
Set at night in Asunción, Paraguay's Market #4, the logistics of filming this movie are as interesting as its plot. The market is a dangerous place, not only for the characters in the story, but for film crews as well. A young wheelbarrow porter named Víctor is offered $100 US to babysit 7 crates for a few hours by carting them around the market and eventually returning the boxes to their point of origin. Victor's misplaced motivation for taking this job is rooted in his desire to purchase a cell phone with built-in video camera so that he can upload his face to YouTube and become famous. Needless to say, this is a dark comedy.
6/10
Camion
An aging widower and commercial truck driver is involved in a head-on collision, killing the female occupant of a small car. After the accident, sons Samuel and Alain travel home to cheer up their father and help him contemplate a new career. It's a slow moving character study of the 3 men with no real plot twists or grand resolution. It's a reasonable and realistic film, much like the demeanor of Canada in general.
6/10
The Artist And The Model
An aging artist in German-occupied France decides to give his quest for the perfect sculpture one last shot. Armed only with a shotgun and a beautiful young girl, Marc Cros re-opens his dusty workshop in the foothills of the Pyrenees and begins to sketch. Whether Marc can remain completely disjoint from the war going on around him remains to be seen though.
8/10
A Highjacking
After a Danish cargo ship is hijacked by pirates off the coast of Africa, the company's "hands-on" CEO attempts to negotiate the crew's release. It's not that the CEO's a bad negotiator, quite the contrary, but pirates aren't like typical businessmen. Time is often a factor in big business, and closing a deal quickly can be a necessity. However, in the world of kidnappers and pirates, time is a way of wearing down the corporate negotiators who's sailors are being held hostage.
6/10
Papadopoulos & Sons
America is still the land of opportunity, where the son of a Greek immigrant can build a prepared foods empire. But when Harry Papadopoulos over leverages his thriving businesses in order to build a commercial plaza, the economy unexpectedly goes bust and financial lenders are forced to call in their debts, rendering Harry broke and his family out on the street. Yet, even in times of monetary dispair, it's possible to find happiness and laughter in the re-opening of your family's old fish & chips shop. What I took from this film is that the lower middle-class is happier than the lower upper-class.
6/10
Haute Cuisine
In the fall of 1988, a small farm owner and self-trained cook named Danièle Delpeuch was asked by the French government to become the personal chef of President François Mitterrand. For years, she ran a small kitchen at the Palais de l'Élysée, preparing traditional, home-cooked meals for the aged politician and his guests. In this film, the part of Danièle is played by a character named Hortense Laborie. Apparently, cooking for the president of France was such a stressful experience that Danièle first forgot her real name and then fled to the Antarctic for a year to hide out and recover.
8/10
Wolf Children
This is the story of Hana and her unconventional love for 4-legged beasts. While attending university, Hana happens to fall in love with a classmate who turns out to be half wolf and half human. The remainder of the film addresses the problems associated with raising multi-species offspring. Japanese storytellers often impress me with their ability to combine fantasy, practicality and historical reference. Read the full review here.
4/10
Yesterday Never Ends
Set in the not too distant future, Spain's economy and banks have failed for the 4th or 5th time (I lost count). Europe is no longer going to bail out the Spanish speaking country to its south and everyone is moving to Germany, leaving tens of thousands of homes abandoned. Meanwhile, a long divorced couple spend the entire film at a deserted mausoleum, discussing the failure of their marriage and death of their child that resulted from cut-backs in emergency services (the child's death, not the marriage). There, I've just made this movie sound 10 times more interesting than it actually was.
6/10
Jump
Several lives and their stories cross paths over the course of a new year's eve in this fast-paced, north irish action-drama. The various plot lines are competently interwoven to produce a cohesive and surprisingly understandable piece (despite the Derry accents). It's about a spoiled crime boss's daughter named Greta and her inability to commit suicide. She has this strange fascination with a particular bridge, upon which we find her in both the film's opening and closing scenes. The in-between moments amount to your run of the mill "girl meets boy, boy steals large sum of money from girl's father, girl's friends accidentally run over boy with their car and hide his body in the trunk, car gets stolen, everything works out in the end."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wolf Children

This is the story of Hana and her children, and the household furniture they gnaw to pieces. Hana is an ordinary woman, a college student at one of Japan's big universities. My guess is that she's studying philosophy, but nothing about her school curriculum is made clear. Her children and their father, on the other hand, are a little more complicated in terms of scientific classification. Hana's mate and their offspring have the ability to transform from human to wolf form and back again in the blink of an eye.

Writer-director Mamoru Hosoda's new film is rich in hand painted animation as well as a multi-faceted storyline. His ability to balance blissful joy with absurdly black humor, and to instill in the plot both a sense of fantasy and practicality, make this movie both predictable and unexpectedly entertaining at the same time. That last sentence sounds like one big contradiction so let me illustrate what I mean.

Early in the film, one of Hana's children devours a packet of silica gel granules (you've seen these little inserts, about the size of a packet of sugar, often packaged with moisture sensitive merchandise to absorb stray water molecules). Well, the wolf child begins vomiting and Hana is terrified, afraid that the silica is poisonous. Not yet fully in command of the situation, Hana picks up her little boy and begins running toward a nearby medical clinic only to be confronted with a veterinarian's office on the other side of the street. The dilema is then whether to take the boy to a vet or to a medical doctor. I don't blame Hana for her indecisiveness, there really aren't that many books written about the raising of wolf children.

After the accidental death of her husband and increasing harassment from social services (the authorities want to know why her children have never been vaccinated), Hana decides to pack up the family and move to the country. With the help of her new neighbors, she manages to become a successful farmer. But Hana doesn't deserve all of the credit for her newly found green thumb. As it turns out, the children like to pee on the foliage surrounding their farm and the scent of wolf urine drives away other animals. See, I told you that there were practical aspects to this film!

In pre-modern Japan, wolves were worshipped as sacred. Farmers left offerings near the animals' dens in the hope that these canines would protect the peoples' crops against foraging animals such as deer and wild boar. However, with the spread of rabies during the Meiji restoration period (beginning in 1868), the wolf was deemed a threat to ranching. Subsequent bounties and direct chemical warfare against the animals resulted in their complete extinction by 1915.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese w/English subtitles
Genre: Animation, drama
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Fifth Season

In a small Belgian village deep in the Ardennes forest, a farming community gathers together to celebrate the end of winter. Led by 20 foot tall effigies of a man, a woman, and a tractor-sized milk cow, the townsfolk ceremoniously drag their discarded Christmas trees though the streets and up a barren hillside to the site of what will be a giant bonfire. Not far away, on a wooden platform trimmed with strings of white lights, a large group of villagers perform a pagan ritual almost resembling country line dancing.

As the sun begins to set, a life-sized stick figure of old man winter is heaped onto the enormous pile of dying evergreens. It is customary for the teenager most recently turned adult to light the bonfire. The boy who is picked for this task is an unsympathetic youth with a heartless attitude toward his fellow man. When his torch is touched to the heap of wood and nettles, nothing happens. The trees do not ignite; Nature has refused the people's sacrifice.

After the failed bonfire, everything pretty much goes to hell in a handbasket. Bees vanish, newly planted crops refuse to grow, and cows stop producing milk. As we cycle through the four seasons, climate changes accordingly, but nature's life cycle seems to have ceased. Except for an abundance of insects, which some people start canning as one would vegetables or fruit, food sources all but disappear.

The only humor, if you could call it that, comes during the absurd moments of this film. In one scene and in a fit of rage, the migrant beekeeper begins throwing boxes of plastic flowers into a nearby stream. The artificial flowers were meant to brighten peoples' hopes, but apparently it's not working, at least not for the beekeeper.
And then there's Fred the rooster. I can't leave without saying a few words about the dysfunctional bird who doesn't like to crow. The film opens with Fred standing at one end of a small dining table. At the other end is Fred's owner who is trying to prepare the rooster for the town's crowing competition. But as frustration builds over the course the film, Fred will be chased with lawn mower, quoted a long list of chicken recipes, and eventually beheaded by a masked man wearing formal attire.

The Fifth Season is set in the present day, yet incorporation of technology and machinery is kept to a minimum which makes the story almost timeless. It's told in a format that's more fairytale than screenplay. For much of the film, we observe the characters' actions and reactions to the mounting evidence of nature's abandonment. That's not to say there's an inadequate amount of dialogue, just that conversation isn't frivolously used to propel the plot.

Come for the poignant and beautifully composed cinematography. Run screaming because not every apocalyptic movie has a happy ending.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Country: Belgium
Language: French, Flemish w/English subtitles
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, June 1, 2013

SIFF 2013 Batch #1

As we enter the 17th day of this year's Seattle International Film Festival, I present to you some quick observations of movies I've screened so far. Whether it's been our careful selection of what we chose to attend, or the overall quality of festival entries, most of what I've sat through has been very entertaining.

A few notes about the scoring system this time:

> 5 : worth seeing
= 5 : take it or leave it
< 5 : don't bother

ScoreTitleWhat's it about?
5/10A Gun In Each HandMiddle-aged men, most of whom have been through a divorce, lack the ability to communicate with their spouses or even other men. It feels like a series of dramatic shorts, tied together by everyone ending up at the same dinner party toward the film's conclusion.
6/10After LuciaAfter her mother's tragic death, a teenage girl moves to Mexico City and enrolls in a new high school. Her father, still riddled with grief, attempts to start a new job as a chef. Neither endeavor goes well. The father quits, and the daughter is abused by her "friends" after a video of her having sex with one of the other students is uploaded to the Internet. She is beaten, raped, urinated on, and force fed a disgusting birthday cake by her sadistic classmates.
6/10Atraco!In mid-50s Madrid, loyalists of exiled Argentinean president Juan Peron try raising money for his relocation to Spain by pawning the jewelry of the president's late spouse Evita. When Franco's wife falls in love with gems, Peron's men are obliged to steal the jewelry back before Carmen can add them to her collection. Bumbling antics ensue.
5/10ByzantiumA luke warm story about 2 female vampires (mother and daughter) who are bored out of their minds after living for only 200 years. They are pursued by a male brotherhood of blood suckers who intend to punish the women for their violations against the vampire code of conduct. Apparently it's not okay to make a female vampire, and definitely not okay for a vampire to have children.
7/10Ernest & CelestineMice are the tooth fairies who a steal everyone's deciduous teeth in this charming, off-beat, French tale about tolerance, art and a bear that commits a series of heinous crimes.
5/10Forbidden VoicesFemale bloggers from Cuba, Iran and China speak out about the totalitarian regimes that control their countries. Their reward is physical beating, arrest, and imprisonment. But these women, often the only eyes and ears on the ground, are helping to draw attention from western powers and place pressure on repressive governments to change.
6/10Goltzius and the Pelican CompanyAn unapologetically pretentious film from director Peter Greenaway about a troupe of writer-actors who take to the stage to re-enact six of the sexual taboos from the Christian Old Testament. If you have any aversion to strong language, nudity or bodily function, you might want to skip this movie. Otherwise, the visuals are incredible, so enjoy!
5/10I Declare WarWar is not a democracy, there are rules of engagement, and there is a chain of command that must be followed. In the woods behind their houses, a group of young teens have been playing long running games of capture the flag for quite some time. The latest battle turns into a bloody coup when one army's general is murdered by a soldier under his own command. And then their's the new girl, who seems to have an agenda completely detached from the game's actual objective. The movie is original, whimsical and humorous. Everything is make-believe, except for the guns; They do give the kids real machine guns so that they don't have to go around saying "bang-bang".
6/10In a World...In a world of movie trailers and voice overs, Don Lafontaine was the king. Since Don's passing, no one has used the phrase "In a world..." to introduce a film, but all of that is about to change. It's a pro-feminist flick.
7/10In the FogThis is the story of three men: a saint, a doubter, and a villain. Set in western Russia during World War II occupation by Germany, a group of railroad workers sabotage the tracks of a passenger train and are hanged for their crime. One member of the group (the saint) is set free by the Germans, thus painting him a collaborator and traitor. The saint is being used as bait to draw out the resistance.
6/10JinJin is a Kurdish freedom fighter and she's tired of fighting. One night in the mountains of Turkey, she hugs a female comrade goodbye and disappears into the night, abandoning her unit and heading for civilization, perhaps to visit her uncle. Director Reha Erdem is known for visually stunning films, and this is no exception. What is disturbing to me about this story is that almost every man Jin encounters tries to rape her. Civilized people are more barbaric than wild animals, but that shouldn't be a surprise.
5/10LastingIt's hard to make a relationship last, especially when you're a college student whose boyfriend has killed a man and you've just found out that you're pregnant. A boy and girl chance to meet and fall in love during one of their summers working on a farm in Spain. We learn how normality can be turned upside down by a single, unforeseen event.
7/10Much Ado About NothingJoss Whedon decided to celebrate completing one of the most successful super-hero movies of all time by filming a movie with his longtime collaborators in his own home. A literal and yet very modern adaptation of the Shakespeare classic, the movie shows off the actors' depth of understanding of the material and expert comedic timing.
7/10PopulaireA romantic comedy about a French girl from a small town during the 50's who dreams of becoming a secretary. Her one qualification, other than good looks, is that she can type. For no reason I can discern, the girl's new boss begins training her to compete in speed typing contests. It's a fun flick, good comedic dialogue and timing, not the least bit heavy.
5/10Putzel Walter Himmelstein (affectionately known as Putzel) plans to take over the family business when his uncle retires, a smoked fish shop that he grew up working in. However, Walter's uncle is experiencing what appears to be a mid-life crisis, so it's unclear for much of the film who the fish shop will actually be sold to. And then there's the bartender that both Walter and his uncle fall in love with. None of these characters are worth caring about.
3/10ShadowedA group of 20-something friends hike into the forest on a two day camping trip and are all murdered, one by one. Go figure. The camera and sound are alright, but the dialog, acting and directing could use some help. This was a Kickstarter project. Hopefully it was a good learning experience for the film makers. Just to make it clear, this is not my least favorite film at this year's festival.
8/10Stories We TellCanadian writer/director Sarah Polley ruthlessly interrogates family and friends to try and uncover the identity of her real father. This film is a documentary, and I jest about her ruthlessness. The story is cleverly constructed using firsthand interviews as well as reenactments of past events by actors filmed with a Super-8 camera.
9/10The Broken Circle BreakdownEven if you can't understand Dutch and don't like reading subtitles, the musical soundtrack in this feature is well worth your time. Basically, it's a boy meets girl story. Elise runs a tattoo shop in a little Belgian town. Didier plays banjo in a bluegrass band and idealizes America. Elise joins Didier's band, the two fall in love and have a little girl. Unfortunately, their daughter becomes extremely ill which causes Elise and Didier's relationship to fall apart.
8/10The DaughterAfter the murder of 6 girls in a small town, Russian police still have no leads on the perpetrator. The story revolves around a young woman named Inna whose new friend Misha falls victim to the killer. Shortly after her friend's death, Inna's father confesses the identity of the murderer to the town priest, but of course the priest is bound by confessional confidentiality and cannot inform the police, even though one of the victims was his own daughter. What a dilemma.
7/10The Fifth SeasonA small farming community gathers together to celebrate the coming end of winter. The townsfolk perform a pagan dance, fabricate an effigy of old man winter, try and convict him, and then place him atop a giant pile of discarded christmas trees that they intend to light on fire. But the wood won't burn. The gods refuse to accept the sacrifice.
7/10The Fruit HuntersThere are more varieties of fruit on this planet than one person could sample in a lifetime, and some of these plants grow only in a sole micro-ecosystem. This is a well rounded documentary that follows the people and organizations who try to preserve fruit species in the face of deforestation and urban sprawl. It also addresses the pitfalls of big business monoculture.
6/10The Spectacular NowSome people aren't able to live in the here and now, but not high school senior Sutter Keely. Sutter's problems are that he has absolutely no plan for the future, and that he's an alcoholic. After being dumped by his steady girlfriend, Sutter awakens the next morning on a stranger's front lawn to find Aimee the neighborhood paper girl staring down on him. Aimee isn't like his last beau, she's geeky and nice. For the remainder of the film, we get to see Sutter's life slowly disintegrate while he helps turn Aimee into a lush.
8/10What Maisie KnewA 7 year old girl is repeatedly forgotten, misplaced and devalued by her narcissistic parents during a bitter divorce battle. Read the full review here.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Paprika

With the rise of modern civilization, dreams have lost some of their mystique and taken on a more clinical feel. Sleep imagery is no longer recorded for posterity, but instead dissected and examined in an effort to better understand the individual.

Doctor Atsuko Chiba is a research psychologist. Her team of scientists at the Institute for Psychiatric Research have developed a device called the DC mini which allows her to enter a patient's mind and interact with their unconscious to help discover the source of an anxiety or neurosis. Paprika is the alluring 18 year old alter-ego of Atsuko; She's the projection of Atsuko that people see in their dreams, the girl who takes troubled minds out for drinks at an Internet cafe and then to a movie.

In his 2006 movie Paprika, Director Satoshi Kon takes psychoanalysis to a new level, one in which therapists no longer interpret a patient's dreams through second hand account, but instead witness a person's unconscious struggle first hand. Although the DC mini has not yet been approved by the government, the chief of Atsuko's lab asks her to begin using it to treat one of his old schoolmates. The patient is Detective Toshimi Konakawa, a man that is plagued by a recurring dream of being trapped in a cage at the circus, surrounded by a mob of angry people, all wearing Toshimi's own face.

Not long after Paprika begins her treatment of the detective, one of the DC mini prototypes is stolen by what is presumed to be a terrorist, and that's when the cop and shrink team up to try and solve a potentially nightmarish crime (pun intended). One of the dangers of the DC mini, and perhaps why the government has been dragging their heals on approval, is its ability to wirelessly broadcast dreams into a person's mind (whether the recipient is asleep or awake). None of this bodes well for Atsuko's boss, who goes on a nonsensical tirade, jumping out of a second story window after someone shoehorns a crazed parade full of trumpeting frogs and walking toasters into his brain using the stolen device.

Over the course of the film, Paprika's storyline gradually degrades from concrete to abstract. Not unlike the interpretation of a dream, the film's second half is hard to decipher and it is often unclear whether we're viewing the character's unconscious thoughts or the waking world. I've watched the movie twice, once dubbed in English and once in Japanese with subtitles, but still don't understand all of the surreal imagery. Perhaps not every frame of this anime has a purpose, or perhaps Paprika's murkiness is a reason to see it more than once.

After a nightmare, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it was all "just a dream". But what is life if not a dream we all share, one that everyone eventually awakens from.

The story is based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2007
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese w/English subtitles
Genre: Animation, mystery, sci-fi
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Maisie Knew

A 7 year old girl and her nanny answer the front door of their posh, Manhattan apartment to take delivery of a pizza. It's dinner time but, in the background, a man and woman are screaming at one another. The screamers are the little girl's parents and tonight's performance of bickering and insults is nothing new. What the girl knows is that her parents are making her nervous, and that her home life has become both unpredictable and stressful.

The nanny's name is Margot (Joanna Vanderham), and her little charge is Maisie (Onata Aprile). The audience never learns more about Margot than her having a cousin with a beach house, but it's clear from events that she's a good person and really cares about the child.

In the coming weeks, Maisie's parents will file for divorce and enter into a bitter custody battle. Her narcissistic, musician mother will go on tour and her unaffectionate, businessman father will move to London. Somewhere in the midst of all that, dad takes the nanny as his wife and mom marries a bartender named Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). It's evident that their re-marriages are ones of convenience, entered into only as chess moves designed to sway the court's decision about custody of the little girl.

For some of us that were "raised" by absent parents, left with strangers, repeatedly screamed at for no reason, and used as pawns in the sick games that narcissistic adults play, the escape from a nightmare such as Maisie's is to grow up and build a life where we feel safe, far away from the people that hurt us. There's often no happy ending to situations of neglect. But during the last quarter of this film, there's a silver lining that emerges and strikes me more as a child's fantasy than a likely outcome of the divorce. Maisie's newly appointed step parents, Lincoln and Margot, repeatedly find themselves caring for Maisie during the unscheduled absences of the girl's mother and father. The bartender and nanny form a friendship that blossoms into a romance, and Maisie finds refuge in their joint care.

One thing I like about this film is that it doesn't spend much time developing characters' back stories, but instead uses their behaviors and interactions to tell its tale. Some of the behaviors seem slightly exaggerated though. For instance, Maisie's parents are often both out of town at the same time, sometimes leaving her on peoples' doorsteps without first checking to see if the folks are even home. Another thing I like about this film is Onata Aprile's performance, both believable and flawless. I'm half afraid that she might end up being one of the youngest people ever nominated for an Oscar.

This story is a contemporary retelling of Henry James' 1897 novel What Maisie Knew.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Countries: US
Languages: English
Genre: Drama, romance
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ernest & Celestine

Bears are big, hungry creatures that will eat just about anything, especially mice. But they won't stop at just 1 or 100 or 1000, they'll eat as many as they can find. At least that's the bedtime story that Celestine's house mother tells her and all of the other little mice.

In this watercolor-illustrated animation from France, bears live above ground and mice below. Each has built a thriving civilization of industry and commerce. There are the affluent business owners, the starving artist, blue collar workers, and the middle-class professional. However, due to a long history of speciesism, the two animals are forbidden to intermingle. Separation is fueled more by unfounded fear than any tangible rationale. Except, of course, that bears really do eat mice.

Celestine's career track finds her in a dental internship, but her heart isn't in it. She'd rather spend her days drawing pictures of bears and mice cohabiting than collecting replacement, false teeth for the teaching clinic where she works. Celestine's liberal attitudes aren't to the appreciation of her elders in the mouse establishment.

Ernest is a pan-handling musician who isn't above foraging through garbage cans or stealing to fill his belly. Celestine and Ernest are kindred spirits, free-thinking artists who chance to meet on one of the mouse's moonlight incursions above ground as a tooth fairy.

This film is a delightful movie suitable for children and adults alike. Though it is subtitled, the hand-painted frames will more than fill your youngster's attention. For the adult viewer, it is a commentary on classism and the division of wealth in western society, as well as a criticism of artificially created markets designed to prey on the consumer and benefit the rich. There are pokes at the national police and judicial system, but the take away message from the film is the importance for tolerance.

It has a happy ending.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2013
Country: France
Language: French w/English subtitles
Genre: Animation
Rating: 3.5/5

SIFF
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Friday, May 3, 2013

Putzel

Definition of putz: A decoration built around a representation of the Nativity scene and traditionally placed under a Christmas tree in Pennsylvania Dutch homes.
Alternate definitions: 1. slang : penis ; 2. slang : a stupid, foolish, or ineffectual person : jerk.

Manhattan's Upper West Side is a significantly Jewish neighborhood, and home to one Jew in particular, Walter Himmelstein (affectionately known as Putzel). Walter has plans to take over the family business when his uncle retires, a smoked fish shop that he grew up working in after his parents were killed in a car crash. His parents' accident isn't a sad memory though; Walter recounts for the audience how he sailed through the car's open window and landed unharmed in a clump of bushes (a story that even made the newspaper). Throughout this movie, bad things happen to its characters, but everything works out for the best in the end.

Walter is not a penis, nor is he a stupid foolish jerk, in my opinion. He is ineffectual though, and lacks the ability to cope with even the simplest of situations. For example, Walter breaks out in hives when trying to cross beyond the borders of 116th or 59th street. He exists in the microcosm that is the Upper West Side and isn't able to deal with the world's existence beyond the boundaries of his neighborhood.

Stereotypes abound in this film. However, instead of overpowering the story, the boilerplate racial behaviors add color to the plot and help guide its progression. There's the greedy Jewish uncle, the persecuted Jewish nephew, a crazy Russian delivery guy, and a hardworking Chinese employee that wants to secretly buy the smoked fish shop with money he's scrimped and saved over the years. And then there's Sally (Melanie Lynskey), the bartender who aspires to be a dancer. She's the free spirited vagabond chick that Walter is destined to fall in love, and the girl that will help him overcome his fears.

There is nothing earth shattering or original in this film. It's a nice romantic comedy that any good Jewish boy could take his date to and not raise any eyebrows.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: SIFF 2013
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Comedy, romance
Rating: 2.5/5

SIFF
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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is set in what remains of a post-apocalyptic North America. It's a time and a place in a dystopian society that likely marks a turning point in its evolution. America's descendants are governed by a totalitarian regime, many of whom are afflicted with a terrible disease that prevents both men and women alike from dressing (or applying makeup) in a sane fashion.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a coal miner's daughter, literally. Well, not literally, because her father was killed in an industrial accident some years earlier, one that rendered her mother depressed and useless. Katniss now cares for her little sister and mum, hunting squirrels with bow and arrow to supplement the family's diet.

Katniss lives in district 12, one of the 13 industrial zones that revolted against the government 75 years ago. As penance for their bloody rebellion, citizens from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18, are required to enter a yearly lottery. From that lottery, two lucky winners are chosen from each district, and all 24 of them fight to the death on TV. But that doesn't add up, does it? If there are 13 districts, then why only 24 participants? What they won't tell you in the movie is that unlucky district 13 (specializing in nuclear technology and weapons) was obliterated by the Capitol during the uprising. A little mystery about a film's backstory can be intriguing, but The Hunger Games leaves volumes unexplained.

After a 200 mph, cross country train ride seated next to their new mentor and raging alcoholic (Woody Harrelson), Katniss and her teammate Peeta arrive in the Capitol city to crowds of cheering fans. As it turns out, the Hunger Games are more like a political campaign (or beauty pageant) than they are an Ultimate Fighting match. Making a good impression on the game's patrons and finding sponsors to drop you care packages while you're fighting in the arena is important.

Leading up to the beginning of the games, competitors are treated more like celebrities than captives. Let's see, you get your own private entourage consisting of clothing stylist, chaperone and 3-person prep team. While staying in the Capitol, you and your friends will be housed in a luxurious, penthouse apartment that comes complete with a well stocked bar not even Woody can drink his way through. However, the horse drawn Roman chariots and flaming dresses that they parade you around in aren't going to make a difference against the districts who've been training their children to kill from an early age. Sorry, but you're probably toast.

Suzanne Collin's attempt to write a screen adaptation that's "faithful in both narrative and theme" left me somewhat disappointed. It's often the case that books don't translate well to film, but there were problems with this production that could have been avoided. With a budget of 80 million dollars, I expected better set design and general appearance, but much of the look and feel of this movie is cheesy. The white jumpsuits and riot helmets worn by the peacekeeping forces reminded me of that made for television version of Brave New World back in the early 80's. The training facility provided for contestants was nothing more than a big room full knives and targets. As for the characters, both adult rulers of Panem's Capitol and their teenage "guests" are caricatures of good and evil, bullies or victims.

This may be one of those rare instances when I go back and read the book upon which a film is based. Even though the story is targeted at teenagers, many of the author's ideas are relevant to today's society. A fascist state resulting from some unnamed apocalyptic event (I could see that happening). Genetically engineered wasps whose venom causes hallucinations and death (why anyone would make wasps nastier than they already are is beyond me).

May the Schwartz be with you!
May the odds be ever in your favor!

- Ron Shaker

Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Action-adventure, sci-fi, drama
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Prometheus

There are many places this review could begin, but let's start with the premise. Tens of thousands of years ago, galactic travelers visited our planet (and seeded it with life). We know this because of cave pictograms they left inviting us to visit them someday. Now that we've grown up, and are able to build space ships such as Prometheus, it's time to pay them a visit.

In case you aren't aware, the story of Prometheus is set in the same universe as director Ridley Scott's original Alien films. Scott's newest movie is a prequel to the well known series about "Why Everyone Should Avoid Contact with Xenomorphs". The franchise is not without its comedic moments, but this latest installment achieves new levels in terms of dark humor. It's one of those situations where you're not sure if the screenwriters are pulling your leg or trying to be serious. There are a lot of talented actors in this film (Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, and Guy Pearce just to name a few). However, the life choices that their characters make are mind boggling. Let's take a look at a few of their more critical mistakes, by reviewing some important rules that every space traveler should abide by.

The 6 Golden Rules of Space Exploration


Rule #1: Don't touch things that don't belong to you
In some scf-fi horror screenplays, the characters make one or two crucial errors that lead to the mission's demise. But then there's Prometheus, where the screenwriters felt a disaster was inevitable, hence any semblance of caution is discarded the moment the ship lands. If you ever find a pile of dead aliens, rooms full of canisters seeping mysterious black goo, take a moment to consider your options. Don't be like exobiologist Millburn (Rafe Spall), don't try to pet the giant, gastrointestinal worm when it rises up out of the goo to greet you. I can't quite recall the dialog from that scene, but Spall's character might have called the worm "cute" or a "nice little" something before it crawled down hist throat.
Rule #2: Pack light, don't bring the whole house
Creature comforts are part of what makes life bearable. A nice hot shower, some comfort food, a little television, or maybe a jigsaw puzzle to pass the time while everyone else is in hypersleep. When you're light years from home, you probably want a ship's manifest that's heavy on food, water, medical supplies and spare parts. AAA is not going to respond to your distress calls, so self reliance is a necessity, not an option. But Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) has made sure her ship has all the options. For example, instead of proper surgical equipment for women, she's opted for a grand piano, full bar, sofa, chandelier, and pool table. Vickers isn't there to work, her mission is to hold the best damn cocktail party this side of Orion's belt.
Rule #3: Never, ever, trust an android
David is the name given to a series of androids manufactured by Weyland Industries, the funder of this mission. The newest model, 8th in the series, possesses human emotions. He comes complete with an unbalanced ego to match his superior intellect, and as an added bonus, he's terribly insecure. In his spare time, David enjoys re-watching Lawrence of Arabia and fashioning his hair to look like Peter O'Toole's. Are you creeped out yet?
Rule #4: Practice safe sex, try to avoid unplanned pregnancies
It's a long trip, and you're bound to get lonely. But after that astronaut boyfriend of yours is infected with an alien parasite, the least you can do is to use a condom. The love child that results from your roll in the bunk probably won't be a boy or a girl. Sure, there's the Med Pod 720i for emergency caesareans... wait, the pod you're using is only configured for men. If this operation doesn't go as planned, you can blame it on Vickers and her baby grand.
Rule #5: Leave your helmets ON people!
I can't stress this enough. Airborne viruses, allergens, microbes, poisonous gases, radioactive particles, acid rain, mosquitos, lyme disease, falling rocks, and bats! It's mostly for the reasons you can't think of that you should keep your heads covered. However, I'm often wrong and this is a democratic age -- People are routinely free to make bad decisions, so let's take a poll. Helmets on or off?


Rule #6: Psychiatric evaluations for the entire crew
Think about how many times you've seen spacemen go insane. Space sickness afflicts more people than say... hemorrhoids. Just ask any of the Soviet cosmonauts that served on the Mir space station. Prolonged isolation, mechanical malfunctions, and fires take a toll on a person's psyche. To be fair, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) isn't channeling Jack Nicholson's character from The Shining in this scene. She's fighting for her life after a long series of avoidable mistakes. Her delusion was in believing that the creators of mankind would welcome her with open arms.

Most of the offers from Groupon don't really interest me, but a $19, two ticket, two large popcorn coupon for the Cinerama movie theatre in Seattle is a good deal. That's especially true when applied to a $15 per ticket 3-D presentation like Prometheus. And if you've never been to Cinerama, no matter where you live, it's worth the trip. Picture one of the last grand theatres in the country, owned and operated by a cinephile who also happens to be one of the wealthiest people in the world. State of the art projection and sound systems. They are operated as an independent theatre, and show whatever movies strike their fancy. Profit is apparently not the objective, because many of the shows I've gone to see there are mostly empty. And the concession stand isn't the cheapest date, but it also doesn't try to rape you.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Cinerama Theatre, Seattle
Country: USA / UK
Language: English
Genre: Sci-fi, action thriller
Rating: 3/5

Official Site
IMDB

Sunday, April 14, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill

From up on Poppy Hill, one can see the ocean, and all of the ships that pass through Yokohama harbor. Each morning, a young high school girl named Umi raises maritime signal flags (on a flag pole built by her grandfather). Her father's supply ship was sunk by a mine some years earlier during the Korean war. Umi's flags are meant to guide her father home. The year is 1963 and Tokyo's summer Olympics are almost upon Japan. It is a country looking to the future instead of the past, and from that the film's tension is generated.

The story is based on a Japanese manga series written by Tetsurō Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, and serialized by publisher Kodansha from January to August 1980 in the shōjo manga magazine Nakayoshi. I assume you understand most of that, but shōjo is a form of manga marketed specifically toward teenage girls. With that in mind, From Up On Poppy Hill is half love story, between a girl and a boy. An innocent romance begins to bud between Umi and Shun, one of her classmates. Shun enlists Umi's help to protect their school's "clubhouse" from demolition, and the time they spend working together kindles the love that they share for each other. Did I mention that they're secretly brother and sister? No?

One of the last reviews written by renown movie critic Roger Ebert was of this film. In his words, "The latest film from Japan's Studio Ghibli ... is a disappointment." I wish I could disagree. For American audiences, this will not be on the same scale as Spirited Away. But, if you have a little boy that likes boats (and there are lots of boats in this movie), or a little girl that likes strong role models (Umi runs a boarding house, and goes to school, and helps preserve a historic building, and finds time for her boyfriend), then you will enjoy it.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Egyptian Theatre, Seattle
Country: Japan
Language: English dubbed
Genre: Animation
Rating: 3.5/5

Official Site
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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed

The newspaper ad could read: "Man with prosthetic ear seeks alternative girlfriend to hold hands with during botched burglaries and time travel to the past. Must be proficient in firearms, and able to empathize with a tormented soul. Preferably, you still live at home with your parents and have no messy social loose ends to tie up. Oh, and I drive a beat-up 1980's era Datsun 280z by the way."

"Safety Not Guaranteed" is how I've come to think of SIFF's programming choices for films that are set in Seattle. At the 2010 festival, I sat through a movie called The Penitent Man. Some of the film's footage was shot in my neighborhood (Capitol Hill). The story involved time travel, and it was one of the worst productions I've ever witnessed.

Fast forward to last year's debut of director Colin Trevorrow's new film starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. Yes, it was partially set in Seattle, and it did involve time travel, but the acting talent made this movie very enjoyable. Though I felt that the script was fun and engaging, the excellent performances are what really made the characters interesting and worth caring about.

The idea for the screenplay was inspired by an actual ad placed on page 92 of the Sept/Oct 1997 issue of survivalist magazine 'Backwoods Home'. The ad was written by John Silveira, who often supplied fillers when the classified ad pages of the magazine came up short. It was, of course, a joke. The film's writer, Derek Connolly, then created the part of Darius specifically for Aubrey Plaza after stumbling upon a re-posting of Silveira's original ad on the Internet in 2007. It's interesting how plots evolve.

Safety Not Guaranteed was shot in 32 locations over 24 days in Seattle and surrounding areas. Most films and television shows that are set in Seattle are filmed in Vancouver B.C. or some other location. I don't often see film crews closing off our city streets, but there is the occasional exception.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2012
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Sci-fi, romantic, action thriller
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB