SIFF [30] Short Takes, volume 6

sfvsix14maggieautumnleavesSunday, June 6

It’s been a dispiriting last several days at the movies, and I haven’t felt like writing. The pleasures I’ve had have been chiefly from the festival guests I’ve met, such as Carey Schonegevel, director of Original Child Bomb, and the charming Italian actress Lidia Vitale, who plays the stern magistrate Giovanna Carati in The Best of Youth. Ms. Vitale couldn’t be more unlike the authority figure she portrays; she and I had quite a relaxed visit in the W Hotel bar. More on this later . . .

Aside from Hero, Zhang Yimou’s thrilling concatenation of calligraphy, crossed swords, and overlapping narratives in third-century China, and aside from the first hour or so of the South African film Stander, I’ve been underwhelmed. I missed Born into Brothels and Eric Rohmer’s Triple Agent; unfortunately, I did see Nina’s Tragedies, Vodka Lemon, Orwell Rolls in His Grave, and Walk on Water. There really isn’t much to say about this quartet of duds, other than to wonder aloud why they were ever booked for the festival. Or the on-going mystery of why movies with a lot of buzz (yet no advance screening for press) are run at the smaller venues, creating less than ideal viewing conditions (provided that you could even slip inside the theatre), while the roomy Pacific Place hosts uninteresting work in half-empty houses. If this is by design, it’s a perverse way to conduct business.

I’ll say this much about Orwell Rolls in His Grave (the titular nuance doesn’t give the show away, does it?): it is the worst, most inept, and amateurish documentary I’ve seen since that heinous piece of fakery Why Vivaldi from last year’s Port Townsend film festival. Orwell Rolls, made by Robert Kane Pappas, consists of preaching to the choir, synthesized horror movie music that sounds inappropriate, and a bevy of questions that answer themselves, i.e., “Has the mainstream media become an anti-democratic force in the U.S.?”

I can’t share in the hoopla that surrounds Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room. It isn’t a terrible movie, yet its observed ironies aren’t the catch of the day. Do we really need a clown correspondent from MSNBC who believes the whitewashed bilge he’s hired to produce is based on “200 years of freedom,” and thus superior to the scrappy, uncensored Al Jazeera reporting? After The Corporation, a documentary that pulled no punches, Control Room feels flaccid, and not just because Noujaim grants equal time to Bush apologists. Nothing changed in the way I view the war crimes perpetrated by our government against Iraq. For whom, then, does the New York Times’ A.O. Scott toll this grandiose blurb? “You are likely to emerge from Control Room touched, exhilarated and a little off-balance, with your certainties scrambled and your assumptions shaken.” Without fear of being shaken or scrambled, I’ll just assume that Scott and his editors take their readership to be comprised exclusively of Rumsfeld-doting patriots, as if the same persons who snag a copy of the Times sit as vessels in front of Fox News.

Thursday, June 10

Rather than pick up where up I left off (with quotes from the pickled Christopher Doyle) or, worse still, recount all the bombs I’ve sat through since Thursday last, I’ll continue instead with the cinematic beacon of the week, an unheralded and excellent comedy from Belgium called 25 Degrees in Winter. There’s still one screening left of this, on Sunday June 13, and then it’s gone. Unlike the other films in the small handful this year that I can say I love, there isn’t a U.S. distribution yet in place for 25 Degrees, and there may not ever be, though certainly this film surpasses by leaps and bounds 99% of the schlock in art-house drag.

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Deeply serious and splendiferously funny, 25 Degrees in Winter takes the opposite tack of stateside humor. The comedy in Stéphane Vuillet’s debut film springs from the resourcefulness and independence of his characters. It’s a movie about people who are fairly bright, and it left me helpless with laughter, much more than pseudo-ironic potshots at the conveniently stupid (i.e. the American cinema) ever could. Vuillet elicits from his actors—this is a great gift—a sense of how our minds make connections, often through casual circumstances, to hurtful yet ultimately liberating truths.

The movie also brings back the inspired comic actress Carmen Maura, who once made films with Almodóvar, notably Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Maura plays the matriarch of a Spanish émigré family living in Brussels. She wears her hair in fussy, dyed brown curls—a look so wrong for her that it becomes impossibly right—and spends most of the film clad in a matching pink velvet jacket and skirt. Dedicated to her motherless granddaughter, Maura takes her young charge to a bar where a romantic, old black-and-white movie flickers on television, and she projects her own notions of romance onto the images they’re halfway watching. In another scene, Maura relates to a stranger in a doorway the story of her family’s immigration, easily sharing one of her darkest days with a woman she doesn’t know and likely won’t ever see again.

This refreshingly grown-up movie infuriated one of the “critics” from Seattle Gay News. He was visibly angry after the press screening and when I told him I loved it, he stormed off in a huff. That, to me, speaks volumes about the film’s quality. Raphaëlle Molinier’s sharp, uncloying performance as the granddaughter, Tristan Vuillet’s exotic original score, and Walther Vanden Ende’s kinesthetic cinematography (he adores tree branches reflected in car windshields) are first-rate. Describing the director’s visual humor probably wouldn’t explain what makes his subtle, oddball scenes so funny. I just know that when the little girl finds a taxidermic black cat on someone’s desk and doesn’t know what to make of the disturbingly lifelike stiff, I howled. Ditto for the spectacle of a matador surrounded by cows who don’t know what to make of him.

sfvsix10rosscharleneWell, what else have I liked? To varying degrees, James Bolton’s The Graffiti Artist, Ross McElwee’s newest documentary Bright Leaves, the American remake of Nine Queens as Criminal, the aforementioned Hero, and—if you’re feeling voyeuristic—Paternal Instinct are all worth seeking. Bright Leaves doesn’t belong in the same league as McElwee’s masterpiece Sherman’s March or with Time Indefinite either. It’s smaller, less ambitious. “So, I had this dream I was standing in a field,” McElwee’s inimitable narration begins, and it’s good to know that his dream life still informs his moviemaking. The dream provides an excuse to return to his native North Carolina, camera ever present. I love how McElwee never imprisons his subjects. Even when McElwee pulls the camera in close, he’ll move, or allow the person to move, and even if a composition turns nearly static, such as when he focuses on the face of an elderly black woman who plays banjo, he treats her face with dignity and there’s such a sense of the woman’s personality that I never tired of the perspective. Bright Leaves also brings back the ever-delightful Charlene Swansea, reason enough to recommend.

McElwee’s approach to documentary filmmaking finds its exact opposite in Stacy Peralta’s boring, antiseptic Riding Giants, an infernally monotonous film about a fascinating subject—surfboarding. Peralta interviews dozens of surfers from the 1950s to the present, and I never once felt that I knew anything about these braggarts, except that the filmmaker has gone to extraordinary lengths to make them appear cardboard. Riding Giants is also the first film I’ve seen where water (a major character here) wasn’t invigorating. Some of the footage from the 1950s, when the surf culture was a small, relatively undiscovered beatnik pursuit, has a grandeur that even Peralta can’t diminish. He knows that these found shots of a lost generation are his emotional centerpiece in a movie devoid of feeling, and after the closing credits he dreamily returns to them.

sfvsix2maggieheroThank God Christopher Doyle is a brilliant cinematographer. As long as you don’t have to listen to the besotted Mr. Doyle repeatedly saying “fuck” into a microphone (in that desperate, trying-to-cover way of lonely alcoholics) as he so often did in the long course of his June 4 “Master Class,” which was apparently a master class in the art of public inebriation. All was forgiven, looking at Hero’s lush imagery the next night, a film in which even a drop of water from an eave can be an epic moment. There was plenty to support his tipsily apt description of a canvas: “The space is the space here and the space of a dream.”

Technically wondrous and well acted by Thomas Jane and Deborah Kara Unger, Stander, a biopic of the legendary South African police chief Andre Stander, begins with superb aerial tracking shots of the native tundra, then of the Johannesburg financial district, and finally over the shanties in which black South Africans were forced to dwell under Apartheid. Director Bronwen Hughes establishes landscape, time, and place as characters in their own rights, and her film presents a view of the 1970s not portrayed on-screen before. She perfectly captures a mood of wistful, post-‘60s freedom (especially in Jane and Unger’s domestic scenes) juxtaposed alongside the racist practices of the government. The first hour brilliantly delineates a slice of history—Andre Stander’s shift in loyalties after his own force shoots an unarmed protestor—then downscales into a genre heist picture in its second half. Granted, an exciting and visceral genre heist picture, but the film gives up a lot when it abandons political content. Is Andre robbing banks to enfranchise Apartheid victims, or is it just for the thrill of it all? The nadir comes in a balcony shootout between the police and one member of the Stander gang. Glass has never shattered so beautifully, blood spattered never so prettily, yet I was always aware of this standoff as mere artifice. The film’s continuity and the characters’ motivations have so many lapses in the second hour that Stander risks being incoherent. Both the late captain and Thomas Jane, who bodily disappears into the role, deserve better.

sfvsix4rubenbansieContinuity problems plague The Graffiti Artist, too. Yet James Bolton’s modest, quiet, insightful movie generally overcomes its Seattle-for-Portland (and versa-vice) flummox. Vastly superior to the other graffiti movie in this year’s festival (the unwatchable Quality of Life) this film showcases the urban art form as a thing of beauty. It also portrays the unrequited love story between the two “taggers” with a realism that’s entirely absent from most gay films. In the leads, Ruben Bansie-Snellman (as Nick) and Pepper Fajans (as Jesse) are highly articulate at being inarticulate. Bolton, who also wrote the script and produced the movie, respects his audience too much to explain away the images’ visual potency. He concentrates on lovely, little details instead, such as Nick’s unique method of roasting corn, or a charming day of shoplifting at Pike Place Market. A friend of mine who saw the film said the boys could be artists working in any medium, that what rings true are the ways in which Nick and Jesse move together, then move apart. I’m inclined to agree, and I look forward to what Bolton films next.

Another production with local ties, Hedda Gabler, an “update” of Ibsen’s classic transposed to Wenatchee, Washington, was an unmitigated disaster. Let me knock off a few more: if it weren’t for the occasional rounds of gunfire, I could have dozed during any number of places in the Croatian film Witnesses. Director Vinko Brešan, who adapted the novel Alabaster Sheep, wants to unfold a mystery via multiple shifting narratives, yet his film plays as if the reels were mixed up. I absolutely hated Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness, a smug, smarmy, Charlie Kaufman-inspired piece of art-house bubble-gum that casts Werner Herzog into a Susan Orlean role: his name and reputation made into a joke for the sake of not much. John Bailey’s cinematography is excellent, but that doesn’t help when you have the pudgy, bald, inordinately self-possessed Zak Penn end the movie with this patronizing pseudo-revelation, “How much cooler truth is than fiction,” while Herzog, having been reduced to a horse’s ass, opines, “The truth seemed vulgar and pointless, not ecstatic,” a lament that perfectly describes their collaboration.

I walked out on both Gabriele Muccino’s Remember Me, My Love (Ricordati di Me) and the insufferably vapid Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. The former consists of four shrieking over-actors spouting shrill, Vesuvius streams of dialogue; it’s an overwrought, ugly movie with a misleadingly poetic title. The latter boasts dazzling celestial images, an abundance of uninteresting cop banter, and an idiotic plot revolving around “sexaroid” fembots who kill and must be killed. The climactic shootout exists only so that the writer-director Mamoru Oshii may shove his misogyny down our throats.

Somehow, I lasted all the way to the end of Taiwan’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, a self-consciously static bore that has pleased a lot of people who prefer theories to movies, and China’s The Coldest Day, a visually ravishing feat of photography unfortunately marred by the insipid ciphers in front of the camera. Cinematographer Chi Xiaoning captures chilly scenes of winter majestically, such as when an estranged husband and wife try to keep from slipping as they fight in the snow, or when a pair of black fish freeze to death in their iced-over bowl.

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Finally, a pair of partially recommendable films. Director Murray Nossel’s inquisitive camera brings unexpected pleasures to Paternal Instinct, a video document of two affluent gay Manhattanites determined to have a baby and the enlightened Maine witch who acts as a surrogate mother. I always felt as though I were watching transactions too private to be recorded, not that the participants seemed to mind. My favorite character was a gray-striped cat that no one ever plays with or addresses by name. Yet the indefatigable feline is always there, watching, finding a way to insert itself into the frame. These unusual, throwaway images mean as much to the director as the main story (Nossel also lingers by an apple growing on a tree, on the soles of feet propped on a sofa arm), and that lifts Paternal Instinct out of the standard documentary quagmire.

Competent and professional, Criminal, a feature debut for writer-director Gregory Jacobs, glows from good performances by John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and from Chris Menges’ customarily splendid cinematography. The movie works familiar territory (savvy con man takes unpolished young grifter under wing) with style, wit, and a welcome absence of bloodshed. The actors appear to enjoy themselves: it’s good to see Reilly in an aggressive role; Luna keeps on getting better; and the only word for Ms. Gyllenhaal is womanly. Criminal stands out as an accomplished piece of commercial filmmaking. I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for it. It’s a slender movie with nice touches, such as after Ms. Gyllenhaal slaps Reilly in the face, Jacobs frames the smarting actor within a deep-yellow corridor—the ultimate visual emblem for cowardice. – NPT

June 10, 2004

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