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.