SIFF 2010: SIFFtings I

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out opening-week films

Prince of Tears (Yonfan, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2009; 122 mins.)

Who knew that about the same time (the early 1950s) McCarthyism was peaking in the United States, a parallel reign of terror was sweeping the supposedly free island of Formosa. The official bugaboo in both cases was Communism. McCarthy wrecked careers, but on Formosa suspicion of collaboration with the Red Chinese across the Taiwan Strait could get you imprisoned or executed — sometimes right on the spot.

Prince of Tears aims to illuminate this period by way of something very like a fairy tale, centered on a family torn asunder by historical forces and personal pathology. Sounds worthy and interesting. Unfortunately, writer-director Yonfan looks to be the anti–Hou Hsiao-hsien; unlike that Taiwanese master, he has no interest in ambiguity and no talent for the kind of patient, non-manipulative observation that allows connections and truths to be discovered out of the corner of one’s eye (or not at all). Everything is simpleminded — and no, “fairy tale” doesn’t have to mean simpleminded — as amped up and brainless as the surges of flagrantly heightened color that occasionally inflame the pretty landscape. Oh yeah, Yonfan’s an art director, too. —RTJ

Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2009; 99 mins.)

After the intense personal drama of Fatih Akin’s Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, the last thing you’d expect from this SIFF 2008 Emerging Master is a sweet and silly comedy. Well, deal with it. On a serious note, we can gravely record that Akin is reengaging his theme of ethnic outlanders striving for assimilation in present-day Germany. Then try keeping a straight face when you get a load of protagonist Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), the proprietor and utterly untalented cook of the titular eatery, for which the adjective “greasy spoon” would be flattery. His journalist German girlfriend—a much more delectable dish than anything he serves—is leaving him to take a glam gig in China, and various rapacious business types (the ineffable Udo Kier among them) are trying to steal his place out from under him. With equal parts inspiration and desperation, Zinos hires a mad-genius chef (Head-On star Birol Ãœnel) who brooks no nonsense from the boss or the clientele; you can tell, because he starts throwing knives. Lending further zest are Zinos’ larcenous, not-quite-ex-con brother (Moritz Bleibtreu) and an aspiring Teutonic grunge band more or less resident on the premises. The picture sustains a madcap “Hey kids, let’s do the show right here!” air, probably starting with the fact that the goofy/handsome Bousdoukos co-scripted with Akin. —RTJ

Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero, Canada/U.S.A., 2009; 90 mins.)

The complete official title is George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead. Which is only proper: Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead didn’t introduce zombies to the screen, but it set the bar for the fusion of unspeakable horror, black humor and mordant socio-political satire. Romero has returned to the formula again and again… and then, with 2007’s brilliant Diary of the Dead, pretended to start all over, as if no one, least of all he, had ever seen a Dead movie before. Diary is cheekily revisited here as Romero reminds us in midfilm that our focal characters, a squad of zombie-hunting military vigilantes, briefly crossed the itinerary of the main, er, body in the earlier picture.

Survival gets off to a promising start, establishing a small island off the Atlantic coast as the picturesque but blighted ground where two feuding patriarchs have different familial approaches to the zombie plague. Just when he’s sunk his hook good and deep, Romero shifts to the commandos on the mainland and the film starts going adrift. The director’s talent for devising grotesque zombie encounters remains sharp and often witty, but his cast is short on charisma, and veteran Canadian character actor Kenneth Welsh, playing one of the islanders now in exile, is so aggressively colorful you’ll want to throw water on him. By the time the film returns to that island, not only the cast of characters but the propulsive logic of the movie is on borrowed time. Wowser of a last image, though. —RTJ

Rapt (Lucas Belvaux, France-Belgium, 2009; 125 mins.)

Loosely inspired by a real-life case in France several decades past, Rapt contemplates the ripples spreading out from the kidnapping of a high-profile industrialist (Yvan Attal) and the demands for a multimillion-dollar ransom. As written and directed by Lucas Belvaux (whose Joyeux Noël was a 2005 Oscar nominee), the film operates as a thriller up to a point, and holds the road without sensational flourishes. But as the weeks wear on, Rapt shifts its gaze to the gamesmanship at the captive’s company—expected to pay the ransom—and the evolution of attitude, among the public and also the members of Attal’s own family, as details of his hedonistic private life find their way into the press.

As Gallic thrillers go, Rapt falls short of the pervasive chill of Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One, and although Belvaux has acted in some Chabrol movies, his own picture lacks the relish for human perversity that characterizes that filmmaker’s best work. But Belvaux rates props for letting the initial and expected menace take proper hold, then quietly bleed away, to be replaced by the grimmer reality of petty calculation, spitefulness and slow-gathering karma having their day. Supporting cast includes Anne Consigny (A Christmas Tale) as Attal’s wife, Françoise Fabian (My Night at Maud’s) and Alex Descas (35 Shots of Rum). —RTJ

I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, Italy, 2009; 120 mins.)

This sumptuously photographed story of a wealthy wife’s (Tilda Swinton) sexual awakening opens with striking shots of the city of Milan, its dim, hushed streets and ornate buildings blanketed with snow. And where will our Lady Chatterley erupt out of the straitjacket of class, tradition, oppressive urban architecture? In a sunlit meadow, of course, her tumescent flesh insistently juxtaposed with buzzing insects, burgeoning flowers and ripening berries, a veritable photographic catalog of nature’s fecund beauty.

Only the ever-fascinating Swinton brings something like life to this unsubtle, sometimes unintentionally hilarious film. Bloodless, perfectly groomed in shades of beige, she drifts through formal family functions like an exquisitely mannered ghost, until one day a chef’s savory dish arouses orgasmic pleasure. (The lady’s literally bathed in the light of spiritual epiphany, while a curtain of dark falls over lesser lunchers.) Nearly every aria in this upscale soap opera screams arty symbolism; watching I Am Love is like paging through a coffee-table book full of handsome photographs illustrating “The Soul’s Winter of Discontent” or “Sexual Splendor in the Grass.” —KAM

Hidden Diary (Julie Lopes-Curval, France/Canada, 2009; 105 mins.)

The power of shared food to shatter and reunite families may be a persistent theme in SIFF movies this year. In this quietly engaging histoire, the key to a prodigal daughter coming to understand her cold, unloving mother (Catherine Deneuve, reprising her A Christmas Tale role) comes courtesy of secrets revealed in a grandmother’s long-lost diary/recipe book. Audrey (Marina Hands), carrying a secret of her own, comes home to France to take up brief residence in her grandparents’ seaside home; a workaholic, emotionally adrift, she soon becomes obsessed by the apparently feckless gram (Marie-Josée Croze) who ran away from her marriage and children so long ago.

Resolutely skirting melodrama, this ghost story releases, with the help of a special recipe, the bittersweet flavors of mother-daughter relations (either of the film’s original titles, La Cuisine or Mères et filles, would have been preferable). Lopes-Curval’s gentle intergenerational reunion plays out in wonderfully picturesque locales—house, garden and southwest coast—all bathed in characteristically rich Gallic sunlight. —KAM

Holy Rollers (Kevin Tyler Asch, U.S.A., 2010; 89 mins.)

Here’s an engaging trifle about a young Hasidic Jew (Jesse Eisenberg, last seen offing the dead in Zombieland) who, pinched for money, takes up international smuggling. True story, believe it or not. Hard to say whether audiences unfamiliar with the Old World traditions and distinctive haberdashery of orthodox Jewry will get this sort-of comedy. But Eisenberg’s reliably funny, often moving, as a Brooklyn-born Candide; picking up shipments of “medicine” in Amsterdam, the naïf insists on taking time to visit Anne Frank’s house. Topped by his flat-brimmed fedora, sporting long Hasidic curls, encased in a long black suit, this chaste boychik stands out like a sore thumb—or an E.T.—in the tacky clubs and backrooms where his blinged-out boss does deals. Holy Rollers is pretty much a one-trick pony—the novelty of Hasidic drug-runners can’t sustain the funny for long—and this short, sometimes sweet effort by a first-time director soon runs out of dramatic steam. —KAM