Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tracks

I expected this to be the story of a young girl feverish with idealism and countless flashbacks of events and experiences that drove her to flee civilization in favor of desolation. Not so much though.

Before the story even begins, Robyn's family has fallen apart. After her mother's suicide, Robyn's father is deemed unable to care for her. After subsequent isolation by time spent in boarding school, Robyn gives little explanation for her plans to cross the Australian Outback on foot. We know that her father explored the African continent during the 20's and 30's, and surely his stories fired a child's curiosity and sense of adventure. The screenplay doesn't portray Robyn's endeavor as a rash decision, but instead as a lengthy process of training feral camels and preparing for the trip.

Based on a best selling memoir by the same name, "Tracks" follows real-life Robyn Davidson's 9 month, 1700 mile journey from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. In 1977, she set out with funding from National Geographic ($4000) and help from a photo journalist named Rick Smolan. According to Robyn, sponsorship felt unnatural but she really needed the money for the walkabout to succeed. As for the trip itself, National Geographic influenced the route -- The magazine wanted a beginning, middle and end, not items high on Robyn's list of importance. But maybe part of "succeeding" in life is realizing that you need to make compromises. In an interview, she noted that one of her goals in going to the desert was "to try to understand some aspects of Aboriginal culture". For a part of her trek, she's accompanied by one of the tribal elders as she crosses through sacred areas.

Given this is a mostly historical account, we know that Robyn completes the trip. The photographer (played by Adam Driver) sent by National Geographic to document the journey first strikes me as bit annoying and manipulative. But then we get to know him a little better, and he's both a passionate and supportive cohort. By the the end of the film he seems more invested in Robyn's success than she is, going thousands of miles out of his way to deliver water cans along her trek through the desert.

More interesting than anything else is what this film taught me about feral camels in Australia. I had no idea there were so many. Thousands of dromedary camels were imported from India and other eastern countries during the period of 1870 to 1900. They were mostly used for riding and heavy work during the colonization of central and western Australia, however when automobiles arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, many were released into the wild. Today there are thought to be about 300,000 roaming the country.

The cinematography is the first and foremost reason to see this film, but acting is a close second. Mia Wasikowska was Robyn's first choice for the actress to portray her. I'm also impressed with the screen writing, it doesn't play at all like a true story. Somewhere out there is a forgotten, May 1978 issue of National Geographic sitting on someone's bookshelf, with photos taken by Rick and an article written by Robyn.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2014
Country: Australia
Language: English
Genres: Drama
Rating: 7/10

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB
Production Notes

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Snowpiercer

Holiday calendar and route of the Snowpiercer.
In the year 2014, climate scientists will finally solve the problem of global warming. Countries of the world will be convinced to seed their skies with large amounts of WD-40 in an attempt to halt rising temperatures. Unfortunately, something goes terribly wrong. In the process of lubricating the atmosphere, our world is plunged into a bitterly cold ice age (or maybe just a really bad snow storm).

But there's still hope for the human race. A young boy with a fascination for model railroads will grow up and build a perpetual motion locomotive. The little engine will pull an obscenely long train of passenger cars on a closed circuit railway encircling the planet once every 365 days. The boy's name is "Wilford" (played by Ed Harris). He's an insane capitalist, and he's here to help. The few thousand, lucky individuals who board Wilford's train just before the world freezes over manage to survive inside of a closed ecological system for 18 years. No one gets on, no one gets off, everything is recycled and ... is that Soylent Green I see on your plate? One of the many mysteries of this film is existence of steak on the menu.

The Snowpiercer is a not a train of equality. It is a free market economy on wheels, where separation of class is conveniently represented by the linkages between cars. At the rear of the train, we have the impoverished workers. At the front of the train, rich capitalists live in luxury and debauchery. For comedic relief, we have Tilda Swinton (a warped activities director named Mason) who wanders the aisles preaching about how passengers should "know your place, keep your place". To drive the point home, she sometimes wears a shoe on her head to illustrate how absurd it is for a caboose to be at the head of the train.

Tanya, Mason, Andrew, Curtis, Grey, Yona (the dumb look on her face is because she's a "train baby"), and Namgoong Minsoo. 

Like any free market economy, there are periodic corrections that must take place. On the Snowpiercer, these corrections take the form of bloody rebellions where car loads of axe wielding, night vision wearing, hooded executioners cull the population and restore balance to the train's delicate ecosystem. I'd like to tell you that there's a point to life on the Snowpiercer, but there isn't. These characters are acting out mankind's last moments on Earth's stage, clinging to a failed economic model once embraced by Western society. There are many points to writer-director Joon-ho Bong's new screenplay however, most of them mocking what our world has become and how it will die.

Some have complained that the director's cut of this film is too long (125 minutes). Nonsense, you just need a more comfortable seat, perhaps in 1st class. The Weinstein Company, US distributor of the movie, is reported to have screened a shortened version that met with colder acceptance from test audiences. Maybe part of what contributes to a feeling of cabin fever is the film's four different sound stages, each built out as either a two-car, three-car or four-car set (click on the images below). Except for an occasional glance outside, audiences are trapped along with cast and crew inside of a narrow tin can for over 2 hours.


Coaches to help you relax: A walk-through aquarium, complete with sushi bar and chef. Fresh fish is served semi-annually. Arboretum with plants and things, a breath of fresh air after your bloody fight to the death five cars back.

Coaches to give you nightmares: The protein car, where all food for the tail section is manufactured. You really don't want to know what's in those purple, gelatinous meals. An elementary school run by actress Allison Pill. With a machine pistol in one hand, and a world map in the other, she'll make sure you get the basics of a good education. You'll learn things like "if you go outside you'll freeze and die". The kids are really excited about her class!

Snowpiercer's screenplay is adapted from the 1982 graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2014
Country: South Korea, USA
Language: English
Genres: Drama, sci-fi, fantasy
Rating: 6.5/10

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Saturday, June 7, 2014

SIFF 2014 Batch #1


ScoreTitleWhat's it about?
6/10
40 Days of Silence
A young girl named Bibicha decides to take a vow of silence for 40 days, a spiritual practice of penance known mostly in Indian and Persian traditions. However, there's something darker afoot here than a religious cleansing. The voices on the radio talk of culturally condoned physical abuse towards wives, and there's the question of whether Bibicha may be pregnant. Who's body is it that's found in the lake? This is filmed on location in Tajikistan. There are long stretches of silence where dialogue is replace by beautiful cinematography.
7/10
The Congress
Your youngest child is ill, your acting career is in the toilet, and your agent is breathing down your neck to sign the last contract you'll ever be offered. A few, lucky thespians will be digitized and live on in cinema as caricatures of their former selves. As for the rest, they'll be sent home without a paycheck. The film industry has moved on. In a dystopian future where the masses take hallucinogenic drugs and live in an animated reality, the physical world around them crumbles and doctors live in blimps above it all. Read the full review here
7/10
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Operating Big Bird is somewhat of a technological challenge. It's not just a suit you put on, it's a one-man puppet you crawl inside of. The right arm is operated by pulley, and external vision is provided by a monitor strapped to Spinney's chest. But I don't think that technical challenge is why Caroll joined Jim Henson's workshop. This film is as much about the Muppets and Jim Henson as it is Caroll and his family. Do you remember Big Bird making a film in China shortly after Nixon's foreign policy helped open its doors to the western world for the first time in decades? This is the story of a man who's great at what he does and loves his craft.
5/10
Jimi: All Is By My Side
Before Jimi Hendrix was big in America, he left New York for London where he launched his career with the help of manager Chas Chandler (former Animal's drummer). This film portrays the 1966 rock star as a quiet, depressive, womanizing individual, one trying hard not to be pigeonholed as the purveyor of any particular music style. The people Jimi rubbed elbows with will blow your mind. Jamming on stage with Eric Clapton in a small club, giving a concert with Beatles in the audience. A good performance by André Benjamin of Outkast.
5/10
The Signal
Two MIT, freshmen, computer hackers ferry a girlfriend cross country towards Caltech. During their drive, a mysterious rival hacker (pseudonym "Nomad") lures the trio into a midnight, backroad detour that subjects the students to a close encounter of the "Laurence Fishburne" kind. Held against their will in a secret, underground military installation, the kids are given loving and tender care by the inhabitants of Area 51. Take the green pill if you decide to watch this film.
8/10
The Skeleton Twins
This is the story of two estranged twins, a brother and sister, struggling with depression and the question of suicide. After the LA brother's botched wrist slitting attempt, sis brings her gay sibling home to recuperate in suburban NY. But there are lots of issues from their past that the twins will have to work through, not the least of which include infidelity, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and unloving or missing parents. The duo's lip synching to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" is only one of this movie's many charms, probably my favorite scene. Read a longer review here.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Congress

First of all, do you know who Robin Wright is? Maybe you remember Princess Buttercup, the girl looking for true love in The Princes Bride. What about Audrey Dunn, wife to Bruce Willis's character in Unbreakable? She also played Erika Berger, publisher and lover of Mikael Blomkvist in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And of course, there's her more recent hit series, House of Cards on Netflix. If you still don't know who I'm talking about, don't worry. Soon, you won't be alone.

Ms Wright's acting career is about to take a decade long downturn. She'll pick all of the wrong parts, turn her nose up at anything science fiction, and lose big at the box office. The upside to all of this is that she'll have more time to spend at home with her son (Aaron) and daughter (Sarah).

Home is a converted DC-9 hangar just beyond the perimeter fence of a medium sized commercial airport, tastefully furnished and much cozier than it sounds. It's a residence chosen because of her son's love for flying kites and watching heavy jets take off. The reason for all of these quirks (in career, abode and familial indulgence) can be traced back to a degenerative disease, one that will slowly render Aaron deaf and blind by the time he's 30.

In the midst of her son's medical bills and degrading health, the film industry is about to go digital. I'm not talking about digital vs. 35 mm prints, I'm referring to the elimination of actors in favor of scanned copies, duplicates that retain a movie star's voice and appearance. Writer-director Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) uses digitization as a metaphor illustrating society's increasing disconnectedness from reality, and he doesn't stop there. The film and pharmaceutical industries will eventually merge in this futuristic plot to provide us with drugs that trigger an irreversible and completely immersive, animated view of the world around us. Yes, you will someday be able to live in a cartoon.

Israeli born director Ari Folman takes aim at both medical drug research and dealing with the dictatorship of big studios within the film industry. Imagine how much Miramount (the fictitious studio holding Robin's contract) will make at the box office with tireless, unaging actors. And then eliminating the box office altogether by replacing it with hallucinogenic drugs. The only person in this story that could potentially benefit from the future is Robin's son, who won't be able to interact with reality anymore anyhow. Treating symptoms in favor of providing cures and prevention, that is the reality in which we exist.

The Congress is based on the 1971 novel The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem. The characters and setting have changed, but it's an interesting update of the original. Which actors and locations would you choose for shooting this movie you call your life?

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2014
Country: Israel, France, Germany
Language: English
Genres: Drama, live action, animation
Rating: 7/10

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

Milo is an actor, or at least he tries to be when he's not waiting tables. You can't get theatrical work in L.A. without an agent, and Milo has neither. After a failed, bathtub suicide attempt, Maggie appears at her brother's Los Angeles hospital room with a bag of cookies. The two haven't spoken in nearly 10 years and Milo doesn't seem to want his sister's help (at least not with baked goods).

Milo and Maggie are twins originally from suburban New York. Suicidal tendencies run deep in their family. A father that jumped from a bridge and depressive mood swings by both brother and sister are hammered on throughout this story. It isn't until midway into the film that we understand why these kids are so messed up. After a drop-in visit from their unaffectionate, new-age mother we start to appreciate why their father offed himself.

And then there's that whole subject of long term estrangement from one another. Both characters posses darker, self-destructive sides that they need, though don't always want, each other's help with. Whether that help comes in the form of betraying a secret told in confidence or diffusing a morbidly serious situation with humorous banter is something that helps keep the story less than predictable.

When I saw two former Saturday Night Live alums up there on screen, I cringed at first. But Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader walk the line between drama and comedy, knowing on which side to fall and when. Too often, the transition from stand-up to a movie career results in the production of disappointing, slap-stick. Is it that some actors don't have the range necessary for more dramatic roles, or are they being exploited by producers and studios who aren't giving these people the opportunity to expand into other genres. I suppose like any complex formula, it depends.

If forced to describe this movie in a single sentence, I'd say it's "You Can Count On Me", but with actors and writing from the other side of the tracks.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2014
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, dark comedy
Rating: 4/5

SIFF
IMDB