Saturday, May 31, 2008

SIFF #6 - Gay-la ghetto and shorts fabulousness

For the second year in a row, SIFF has hosted a "Gay-La", featuring a Film of the Gays, followed by a party afterwards. In theory, this is a great idea, and can often bring out (so to speak) an enthusiastic target audience. But it is unfortunate that out of all the movies out there, the Gay-La featured the disappointing Kiss the Bride (4/8) (then again, I would not be surprised if the pickings of Quality Gay Movies were rather slim). Now, you can count me a fan of director C. Jay Cox's last outing, Latter Days, so I had my hopes up for this film. There was actually early positive buzz for Tori Spelling's performance as a bride waiting to find out if her fiance will be lured by the wedding's surprise guest, his long-lost high school boyfriend. Alas, for me the film's two pretty-boy leads blurred together in looks for the first chunk of the movie, and the sitcomy quality of the writing (not to mention the music) didn't work for me. Some of the audience was appreciatively guffawing, but it only reminded me how the bar is set lower for gay comedies. But yes, Spelling gave a surprisingly warm performance, and the concept of trying to re-ignite a lost love (and obsession) from the past was a potentially good one. Too bad the movie was only so-so.

The next day, Friday, I got to work early to finish a project so that I could sneak off for a 4 o'clock screening ("Where the heck do you think you're going???" my co-workers gasped as I darted out early). I wanted to check out Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (6/8) which had a great and funny trailer, and has the potential to be this year's documentary hit. In the same funny investigative style of Michael Moore, first-time feature filmmaker Christopher Bell, a bodybuilder himself, delves deep into the world of steroid use in America. In 2005, the U.S. Congress spent more days (8) discussing steroids in baseball than they spent discussing health care and the Iraq War. What can you say to that? "It's America's pastime!" the senators cried, some of them passionately upset. Whatever. Are steroids proven to be bad for you? Everyone says so, but none of the interviewees seem to come up with concrete data. Are artificially bulked up athletes cheaters? Sure, it's hard to argue with that. But what is most moving about Bell's documentary are his profiles of his two brothers, a bodybuilder and a wrestler. They depend on steroid use to have a fighting chance to compete in their fields. But they are still not the best -- there is always someone bigger and stronger. It's the American way: no one wants to be second place. It is a fascinating (and entertaining) film.

Finally, to top off my work week, I hit one of the shorts programs, Friends and Family (6/8). Despite Seattle's The Stranger dubbing a whole weekend of shorts at SIFF Cinema "The Shorts Ghetto", I was reminded of that fact that there are many gems to be found in these screenings. A couple of my favorites in the program included Peter and Ben (7/8), an adorable documentary-like piece about a man and his pet sheep (it actually made me a little teary at the end), and the fabulous and twisted animated The Pearce Sisters (8/8), about two, well, homely sisters who pick up a fisherman who washed up on the beach (turned out this film was a product of Aardman Animations... no wonder I loved it!).

Of course the real reason I chose this particular screening was because my writer pal Joel Haskard's film Train Town (6/8) was included. It is a twisted little tale of two bickering men who run a model train shop, who take turns manipulating (in sick and wrong ways) the townspeople of their model train town. Good job, Joel... it was funny (and a little jarring) to see you up on the big screen for your cameo! :)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

SIFF #5 - Revisionist history and twirling tassels

My Wednesday night o' SIFF'n featured, hands-down, the weirdest double-feature I've ever sat through. In short, I went from seeing truckloads of WWII Polish military officers get shot in the back of the head, execution-style, to modern smiling, fake-eyelashed, bedazzling women twirling tassels off their womanly assets. The transition made me rub my eyes a few times.

First up was famed Polish director Andrzej Wajda's Oscar-nominated film Katyn (4/8), a movie of great importance with a super-powerful climax that otherwise came across as muddled, disjointed, and rather uninvolving. Spanning from 1939 until after the war when the Soviets occupy Poland, several folks are followed, including a Polish general, an officer, a pilot, and the families/sisters/children that are left behind. None of the characters are explored with very much depth, and it doesn't help that some are children at the start of the film and are adults at the end. It is unfortunate the that film was only so-so, as it is obviously portraying a huge incident to the Poles, where 12,000 officers, scientists, intellectuals, and artists were massacred in the forest of Katyn by Soviets, who then turned the "official" blame on the Nazis when the war ended, literally rewriting history. The last 10 or 20 minutes are shocking and unbearable, showing the victims' fate, but everything leading up to it was unfortunately not too gripping.

In the corral of folks staying for the next film, I was not surprised to see at least one man with his head in his hands, mulling the sadness of the previous film. So it was a bit surreal when folks started pouring into the theater bedecked in glitter, boas, slinky dresses, and lots of feathers, to the tune of a very smiley woman working an accordion. The world premiere of the locally-filmed A Wink and A Smile (6/8) was obviously the hot ticket (comparable to last year's Blood on the Flat Track), with all the hipsters and their boyfriends and girlfriends and partners showing up for the party atmosphere. The film, featuring local burlesque star Miss Indigo Blue (a totally cute, charming, articulate, and funny host), follows a class of women taking Burlesque 101. The women share their insecurities (from body image, to self-confidence, to dancing skills, etc.), some tearfully, while they learn the tricks of the trade over six weeks. The film is a crowd-pleaser, with snippets of locally renowned burlesque dancers doing their acts (some are really fantastic and unique), mixed with interviews of the women, all of whom are interesting and endearing. I especially enjoyed the adorable 50-something mom (who incorporated whistling and birds into her routine), and the sassy taxidermist, who took the audience on a hilarious tour of the interesting frozen critters she was saving in her freezer (sorry, ladies, I forgot your names!). This film will be making the film festival circuit, and is fun and inspirational if you get a chance to catch it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SIFF #4 - Past evil, fast trains, and other thrills

Per the recommendation of my TIFF'n pals Eric and Vickie, I picked up at ticket to the British drama Boy A (7/8). I didn't know much about the film going in, as it had been a long time since I had read their reviews (here, and here), but it turned out that this is the perfect kind of movie to see completely cold, as its mystery is slowly revealed. We meet a shy 20-something man being released into the world. He chooses Jack as his name, and it is unclear what his deal is. Is he in a witness protection program? Was he institutionalized? Did he commit a crime? He doesn't have basic social or living skills, seems younger than his years, but has a disarmingly sweet and trusting smile. He is set up with an apartment, placed at a job (that isn't given too many details about his mysterious past), and even gets a girlfriend. But there is an ominous tone to the whole thing, as bit by bit his past is revealed. Andrew Garfield, a young actor I had never seen before, completely carries the film as tormented and sweet Jack, and Peter Mullan shows up as his rehabilition contact, the only one who knows of his past. Boy A is a fascinating drama, with a completely fresh plot that I was wholly involved in. Hopefully you were able to catch it at SIFF, but otherwise it will be released in theaters later this year.

My second film of the day combined two things that rock my socks off: cold, wintery climes (in this case, Russia's Siberia) and trains (woo-woo!). There hasn't been a memorable train movie that I can think of since Runaway Train, but Transsiberian (6/8) will invoke some of the most enjoyable cinematic train thrillers. Woody Harrelson, doing his best "aw-shucks" American persona, and Emily Mortimer play Roy and Jessie, a married American couple returning home from a save-the-children volunteer stint in Beijing. They've decided to take the long way home, across the Asian continent on the Transsiberian Railway.

You know that all sorts of shifty things happen on trains, so their nice little jaunt takes a mysterious turn when they are joined in their cabin by a couple of backpackers, the shifty yet super-hunky Spaniard Carlos (the super-hunky Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega) and his quiet and nervous American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara). Tension racks up with people getting left behind at train stops, drug runners looking for missing loot, detectives (including Ben Kingsley playing Russian) looking for the drug runners, and sexual tension excalating between characters. The film is as non-stop as a train hurtling across the dusky, snowy plains, and it was a delight to see Emily Mortimer get a complex role where she isn't a complete angel or victim. Ray may be as simple and good as he seems, but Jessie's got things in her past that she is not revealing. Transsiberian is a fun, claustrophobic thriller that had many in the audience (including myself) covering their eyes. And next time I'm on a train, I'm going to make sure the windows open. You know. Just in case.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

SIFF #3a - Sir Ben saves the day

It was Day Four of the fest, and I had yet to be really impressed by any of the films that had gotten good advance buzz. Sure, Battle in Seattle was fine, and the other films were mostly watchable, but there were no films that I was excited about. Luckily today I finally scored two good films that I can highly recommend.

First up was the event A Tribute to Sir Ben Kingsley, which featured an special award for the man himself (the ubiquitous Dale Chihuly blown-glass thing-a-ma-bob), a Q&A, and a screening of one of Sir Ben's newest films, Elegy (7/8). Moviepie Jennifer and her pal joined me to see the Sexy Beast himself, and at least I was impressed by the film (my pals, not so much). In Elegy, Sir Ben plays an aging lothario with a put-upon adult son (Peter Sarsgaard), a fuck-buddy lover (Patricia Clarkson), and a best friend (Dennis Hopper) that he can B.S. with on things, life, and whatnot. What he doesn't expect is that a fling with one of his beautiful young grad students (played by Penelope Cruz) would turn him on his head and that he would actually fall in love.

I had read absolutely nothing about the film before going in, so found myself surprised not only with the cast as each appeared on screen ("OMG! It's Dennis Hopper! OMG! It's Patricia Clarkson!"), but also surprised that I was into the film almost immediately. Despite Penelope Cruz's odd hair transformation (from mousey Bettie-Page severe bangs to the suddenly luscious Penelope-hair we all know and love), I found it to be a believable and humble musing on what it means to age, both for men and women. Unsurprisingly, Sir Ben and all involved were excellent. He also turned out to be an accommodating interviewee, musing on his career from his days on stage, to his burst of fame with Gandhi, to his struggle to find a place in Hollywood after his initial success. I liked his view on acting (and life): the simpler, the better, using the metaphor of minimal brush-strokes to create a whole image. Despite artistic director and host Carl Spence's insistence that it was evening (I think he has already been in dark theaters too long), it was a pleasant afternoon with Sir Ben.

My second film arrived with a bit of buzz. A documentary, Up The Yangtze (7/8), at times almost feels like a drama because of its intimacy with its subjects. Canadian director Yung Chang was in attendance, and memorably introduced the film as "The Love Boat meets Apocalypse Now". The Three Gorges Dam has been slowly blocking China's Yangtze River, and will eventually flood areas 175 meters higher than its previous level, displacing 2 million people. The film mainly focuses on a poor farming peasant family who live in a ramshackle hut on the riverbank (in an area that will soon be covered in water). Because the family cannot afford to send their daughter to high school, she is instead sent to work on one of the river's tour-boats that cater to Westerners (with "farewell tour" cruise themes). The daughter Shui Yu is dubbed "Cindy" at work, and struggles with homesickness, learning English, and the responsibility of a job. The family's sacrifices at home are heartbreaking and haunting; the mother sobs, explaining that they can't afford to send her to school, and the father's gaunt humble face says what words don't. Cindy's story is contrasted with "Jerry" Bo Yu Chen, a co-worker who is handsome, 19, and admits he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. Their stories overlap with spooky images of abandoned riverside cities and the jovial faces of Western tourists ooing and aahing at the sights and their hosts. Up the Yangtze is a fascinating, moving film... my only criticism is that for those of us without the background knowledge, that the film could have offered some more big-picture explanation of the Three Gorges Dam project, and its intended effect on the countryside. Otherwise, I highly recommend catching the film when it hits the indie circuit this summer.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

SIFF #2 - Hyped movies don't put out

I was pretty excited about the film selections I had lined up for my first couple days of true SIFF'n (Opening Night doesn't really count). On Friday night after work, I caught Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven (Auf der Anderen Seite). Akin is featured as one of this year's Emerging Masters, which is usually a good sign, and I've heard wonderful things about his film Head-On (which is also featured in the fest). Heck, I even got excited about the trailer for this film. But The Edge of Heaven (5/8) despite a lot of great qualities, didn't really grab me and spin me around like I was expecting.

The film is a collage of different characters whose lives are all only a degree or two apart, though they don't realize it. In Germany, an old Turkish man frequents a prostitute who turns out to be Turkish also. He is a widower, so offers to pay her to live with him, and sleep with him only. Alas, the old man's adult son Nejat ( Baki Davrak) isn't too thrilled with his and his dad's new domestic situation. An accident changes everything, however, and Nejat finds himself travelling to Turkey to search for this woman's missing daughter. The daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) has her own plot line. She is on the run for being part of a radical political group in Turkey, ends up in Germany, finds a woman lover, then ends up in jail in Turkey after being deported. The stories end up criss-crossing, and the acting overall is fine, but I was a little disappointed that I wasn't more emotionally involved in their lives. I was intrigued by Baki Davrak's performance as Nejat, and found his character the most curious and interesting, but alas he was only one part of the collage. Overall, it was one of those movies that I admired rather than really enjoyed.

So maybe I would have better luck with Before the Rains (5/8) on Saturday morning. As the opening credits unfurled, things were looking good: A Merchant Ivory production! Linus Roache! Nandita Das! And the lovely Jennifer Ehle, who has been sorely missing in action lately! The story takes place in 1937, in British India as things are really starting to heat up. Roache is a white plantation owner named Henry Moores who has big plans for the countryside, but the local village is getting riled up with anti-British sentiment. His right-hand man T.K. (Rahul Bose) is Indian, but is completely loyal to his boss, whom he considers his friend. But the exposure of the (married) Moores' affair with his (married) house-servant (the always-lovely Nandita Das) tests the friendship between the two men, and exposes the true relationships between the British occupiers and the local Indians. British-India is a fascinating era for drama, and the film certainly looks lush and gorgeous. The acting is overall fine, but if anything, the film is predictable and is not as gut-wrenching as I was expecting it to be. It was all very... expected.

So, grumbly, I thought that The Home Song Stories (4/8) would renew my faith in my ability to choose great movies. I had heard about this film when I was on vacation in Australia in November, as it had just won a slew of the top Australia film awards. That could a) be a good sign, that it was the best of a good year in film, or b) not mean anything at all, that it was an OK film in a year of crappy selections. You can see where I'm going with this....

The ageless Joan Chen plays Rose, a nightclub singer in Hong Kong who hops from man to man (with her two kids) until she meets an Australian sailor, whom she follows to Australia. They get married, then she leaves him. She and the kids live a transient life for several years, then end up back in Melbourne where he ("Uncle Bill") takes the wife back. Alas, he is out on his ship for months, so Rose gets into hanky panky with the much younger Joe (Yuwu Qi). They set up house in her husband's home (with mother in law scorning on the sides), and all hell breaks loose in no time. This is a bleak family drama, where mom is unhinged half the time, and trying to kill herself the rest of the time. I mean, really, I think there are three or four failed suicide attempts among the characters until, well.... Despite the film's obvious earnestness (being based on a true story, that always makes me feel a little guilty), it was a bit of a drag. Dramatically it went on and on, and the inevitable conclusion came as a bit of a relief, not only to some of the characters, but to the audience as well.

Luckily, as it was a matinee, I could leave the theater and enjoy a beautiful, sunny, late-spring day for some rejuvenation, before jaunting off to meet with pals for eatin', drinkin' and pool playin' to restore my faith in humanity. Hopefully I'll have better luck with my movie selections soon.

Friday, May 23, 2008

SIFF #1 - A Battle in Seattle for Opening Night freebies

Shoot, it seems like a couple months ago that SIFF just ended, but here we are at the beginning of a new, month-long orgy of movie-ness that is The Seattle International Film Festival! Now, normally I don't go to Opening Night, mainly because no one hands me a free ticket (you have to admit, $50 is pretty steep). But this year was different for a couple reasons:

1) Buzz: SIFF has been advertising the heck out of this year's opener, Battle in Seattle (6/8), which has been building a huge buzz, mainly out of curiosity, but also because of Seattle's penchant for being a town of unabashed movie-star whores (bonafide superstar celebrities don't show up here often, so we get star-struck, all stammering and blushing). When it was announced that a bunch of the stars would be in attendance, especially glamourous Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, tickets to Opening Night were snapped up in a frenzy (while still maintaining our Seattle nonchalant cool).

2) George W. Bush: GW wants us to use our "economic stimulus plan" money to go shopping. You know, go out and buy cheaply made products from China and Indonesia from retailers that underpay their employees, and thusly revive our sagging economy. Well, I've decided instead to use some of what I call my "GD-GW" money to support local arts. The lucky recipient this week? SIFF!

So, slacker I am, I decided on the day-of to give Opening Night a whirl. Fate would decide whether I made it into the sold-out event. I got up at the ass-crack of dawn so that I could leave work early. Luckily, when I got to McCaw Hall at 5pm, there were only 4 people waiting for tix! I knew my chances were good. By 6:20pm, I had a ticket in my hand.

Let's just say, because of the obvious local interest in Battle in Seattle, the air was electric. As per usual Seattle events, there were folks all gussied up in their finest mixed with folks in hoodies, jeans and flip-flops. However, unique to this year's Opening Night were folks handing flyers like "RESIST The World Trade Organization" ( and unfurling banners that were used in the actual WTO protests in 1999. I'll bet it wasn't like this in Toronto!

After folks got shuffled into the huge, packed hall, and were subjected to the expected "thank our sponsors" bits, the celebs came out on stage. Director Stuart Townsend was joined by Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Andre Benjamin (who, surprisingly, got the most enthusiastic applause), and, of course, The Charlize. A nice moment was when Townsend explained that at previous fest screenings, like in Toronto, one or two people in the audience would raise their hand and say, "I was there!" So he asked us: who was there at the WTO in Seattle? At least 2/3rds of the audience rose their hand (and the rest were probably still in the lobby drinking $12 glasses of wine). Townsend's response? "Oh, shit."

As for the movie itself? I'm sure everyone in the audience came prepared for the worst, donning their pointiest Skepticism Hats. Saddled with the dorky name Battle in Seattle and facing what will probably be their most critical audience, the filmmakers and cast were unsurprisingly nervous. But I have to say after a clunky start, the film actually got better. Some original footage is interweaved in the story (at the beginning, this is done quite poorly... a swelling crowd of thousands suddenly looks like a couple hundred, depending on if the actors are in the shot), and thankfully real Seattle sites are used in crucial scenes (we can spot Vancouver a mile away, and much of this film was shot there). It was strange to see The Paramount Theater so prominently used, as I walk by that building every day on the way to work. But I was impressed that they bothered, for the most part, using real, recognizable landmarks, which I know the Seattle audience appreciated.

The movie has a collage of characters, including Woody Harrelson as a Seattle cop, Charlize Theron as his pregnant wife who gets caught in the downtown melee, Ray Liotta as the mayor (who shows a bit more spine than our real mayor at the time, Paul "I am not a wuss" Schell), and Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez and Andre Benjamin as protestors. The characters aren't particularly well-developed or even individually very interesting, and the dialogue is admittedly corny at times (Connie Nielsen has a thankless eyeball-rolling role as a reporter who suddenly gets a conscience), but as the film moves along and the situation gets worse, the overall tension of the big-picture situation believably builds. There are several scenes of police brutality that will make you wince, both physical attacks and images of peaceful protestors getting sprayed in the face by chemicals while sitting cross-legged in the street. Yikes.

Did the film deserve its standing ovation from the audience? No. But the movie is not bad, and won't need to be disowned by the city. At one point (I'm paraphrasing from memory here), Andre Benjamin's peaceful "save the turtles" protestor says, "A week ago, no one had even heard of the WTO! Now... well... they still don't know what it means, but they've heard of it!"

After the film, the cast and director came out for Q&A, and politely answered even the most expectedly inane questions from the audience ("How did your role in Battle in Seattle differ from other movies you've been in?"). Henderson won points for his passion and "fight the power" gusto, Benjamin was the most honest and charming, and Theron (who was losing her voice) has perhaps taken the most impressive action with her charity Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project. And, well, Michelle Rodriguez drives a Prius. Guess you have to start somewhere.

As for my overall Opening Night experience? I had a blast. Was it worth $50? Of GD-GW's money... a resounding yes! Of my own money? No, probably not. I walked away with a couple program guides and the curious freebie of a jar of Fennel Salt from a sponsoring restaurant (other people looked excited, so I'm excited!). The post-party involved all 3,000 people pouring out into the courtyard area to fight over free cupcakes and put out even more money for more drinks (didn't drinks used to be included with the ticket?). I shoved one of the tiny cupcakes into my mouth, and fled. After all, the REAL fest starts on Friday....