SIFF 2010: SIFFtings II

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 26, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out the fest’s second week

The Hedgehog (Mona Achache, France, 2009; 98 mins.)

This quietly affecting French fairy tale features one of the most adorable children ever, a grave-faced prodigy whose thick, curly blond hair always gets in her eyes, complicating the removal of her spectacles. Like the hero of Harold and Maude, young Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic, excellent) plans suicide, which she’s scheduled for her upcoming birthday. Her metaphor for life, based on the behavior of her wealthy, empty-headed family, is a fishbowl in which hypocrites and neurotics bang uselessly against the glass until they die. A prepubescent Sartre armed with deadpan wit, this kid films everything and everyone, adding to the documentary that will be her legacy.

Then Paloma comes to know Mme. Michel, her apartment building’s apparently lumpen concierge, and an exotic new tenant named Ozu (Togo Igawa), parental stand-ins who don’t fit her “fishbowl” philosophy. (As Mme. Michel, Josiane Balasko deserves special praise for the way she lets light slowly leak from her character’s armor, and the rictus of her homely face relax into expressiveness.) The tender connection that grows between the prickly yet internally elegant “hedgehog” and the namesake of a director who famously immortalized familial relations is wonderful in and of itself — but it also becomes an unexpected exemplum for our youthful nihilist. A Gallic fable about seizing the day, The Hedgehog weaves gentle magic, but pulls no punches when it comes to life’s dead stops, as cruel and heartbreaking as the image of a bright child pulverizing pills in preparation for her final hour. —KAM


Amer (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Belgium/France, 2009; 90 mins.)

Abandon hope, all who enter here in search of plot, conventional storytelling or a clear indication of exactly what’s going on. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Amer” is both tribute to and feature-length emulation of the giallo, the Italian brand of feverish psychosexual horror mystery suspense that originated in the ’60s and is associated preeminently with Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Gialli (the plural form) didn’t so much defy narrative logic as wander dreamily away from it. What held the viewer — apart from the dread/desire to see one’s worst expectations confirmed — was the overripe décor, the nerve-jangling music, the insane cutting and angles and zooming, the lighting that (in black and white or color) had the power to turn flesh radioactive.

Unquestionably, Amer knows its archetypes. There’s this decaying Italian manor on a bluff overlooking a bay. Some terrible things have transpired there, or perhaps only been hallucinated there; either way, the lingering vibes are fearsome. A little girl creeps through the night trying to suss out what’s happening in the adjoining room, or indeed under her bed. She may or may not be the nubile teen who, around midfilm, finds herself fascinated with/menaced by a cadre of motorcyclists steeping the village square in testosterone. And she may or may not be the stylish woman in her 30s who then comes (back?) to the still-crumbling manor to confront (become?) a killer. The filmmakers are presumably kidding on some level, but so assured in their technique that this near-wordless pastiche is more coherent than most actual gialli. Just watch the screen. —RTJ

Kanikosen (Sabu, Japan, 2009; 109 mins.)

This stage-bound oddity was adapted from a 1929 novel by Takiji Kobayashi, a Communist arrested and tortured to death by Japanese authorities four years after the book’s publication. Set on the Kanikosen, a cannery boat / floating hell, at the height of Imperial Japan’s power, this weird grab-bag of black comedy, brotherhood-of-man lectures, afterlife fantasies, communism as carnval and more is sporadically fascinating, sometimes just plain boring. The settings are unabashedly artificial, symbolic to the max. Men who might as well be slaves catch and process crab in dehumanizing conditions, lashed to work until they die by effete bosses and their thug enforcer. Down in the bowels of the boat, these “worms” catch a few winks in metal tubes that could double as coffins. When one of their gang proposes suicide as the only escape from their miserable fate, the crabmen, all in shiny black slickers with nooses around their necks, take the leap en masse. Trouble is, the ship keeps listing from side to side, so that the dangling bodies swing on and off their boxes. It’s Busby Berkeley hilarious. Later, after a visit to a happy Russian fishing collective, things turn more serious as our incipient communists choose more practical expressions of mass action. A fellow critic aptly describes Kanikosen‘s looniness as “gritty ’30s Warner Brothers proletariat agitprop meets The Sea Wolf crossed with The Caine Mutiny, topped with a Norma Rae–like rabblerousing speech.” Enjoy! —KAM

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, U.S.A., 2010; 95 mins.)

Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, but don’t hold that against it: this is the rare Sundance winner that’s actually a good movie, likely to number among the year’s best. In what must be one of the starkest stretches of the Ozarks, circumstances have made southern Missouri teen Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) de facto head of her household. Her mother is sunk in clinical depression and the father disappeared after getting charged with cooking “crank” — illicit drugs being the basis of the local economy and lifestyle. Unfortunately, dad posted the family home as bond, and if he doesn’t show up for trial, Ree, her mother and her two younger siblings will be out on the road.

So the movie’s a downer, right? Wrong. Ree’s situation is about as grim as grim can get, but Debra Granik’s direction is so committed, her and her cast’s understanding of the characters and their community so deep and intuitive, that the spiritual authenticity acts as something like a tonic. Jennifer Lawrence, as Ree, burns with a cold fire, and the rest of the cast stands shoulder to shoulder with her. Special kudos are due John Hawkes, as the doper uncle Teardrop, terrifying one moment and stalwart the next, and an unknown (nonprofessional?) named Russell Schalk, playing the recruiter in an amazing scene when Ree tries to sign up for the military. This movie will stay with you for a long time. —RTJ

When We Leave (Feo Aladag, Germany/Turkey, 2009; 119 mins.)

Undistinguished by any particular filmmaking style, When We Leave depends on plot and performance to hold our attention. Umay, a young German-Turkish woman, flees an abusive husband, taking her beloved little boy with her. Back home in Germany, her loving family initially welcomes her but are soon worn down by the disapproval of their Muslim community. That disapproval isn’t just abstract opinion — it takes palpable form: loss of friends, job tension, the dissolution of another daughter’s engagement. Meanwhile, hopeful Umay begins a new life, going to school, finding a job and falling in love.

From the get-go, a flashforward featuring one of Umay’s brothers and a gun, you know things will go very wrong in this movie; honor-killing might as well be spelled out over every scene. What relieves waiting for that shoe to drop is a genuinely affecting performance by Sibel Kekilli (Head-On) as the fragile yet courageous Umay. In the end, When We Leave drops a whole other shoe; avoiding predictability, the film cuts deeper. Witnessing the incredible power of a community to kill, emotionally and literally, caused some Seattle previewers to laugh out loud. Sometimes you wonder if Americans have any grasp at all of how cruel much of the world can be for free spirits, male or female. —KAM

Southern District (Juan Carlos Valdivia, Bolivia, 2009; 109 mins.)

If you’ve seen any of Lucretia Martel’s bleak meditations on the savage oppressiveness of the Argentinian upperclass (The Headless Woman was in SIFF ’09), you’ll recognize a kindred spirit in Juan Carlos Valdivia. This disquieting portrait of socio-economic symbiosis, starring a wealthy Bolivian family and their native servants, makes you want to scream with laughter … and just scream. The family consists of a ball-breaking, blond (of course) mom (Ninón del Castillo), her slacker, sex-obsessed son, a faux-radical daughter flirting with lesbian love and class warfare, and an odd little boy (Nicolás Fernández). They are served passive-aggressively by Wilson (Pascual Loayza), who meets multiple needs as husband, pater familias and slave.

Valdivia’s camera never stops moving, as it circles through what seems a labyrinthine house full of tasteless, expensive furniture and tchotchkes. When that camera isn’t following the creatures in this gilded cage as they pursue their imitation of life, it will occasionally rise to some height outdoors to catch each one paralyzed, pressed against a window. That fluid camera-eye mesmerizes the viewer: is it trying to catch these incestuous souls in some butterfly net of meaning, or is it looking for a way out? Maybe the little boy — a budding artist who talks to his invisible friend Spielberg on rooftop and in treehouse — represents an escape route from this claustrophobic hothouse. Or maybe the stolid, flat-featured natives will just tear the whole place down. Southern Zone‘s a stylish, occasionally very funny enigma, proof that Valdivia is a director to watch. —KAM

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, U.S.A., 2009; 95 mins.)

The wartime of the title may be post-9/11, but in the world of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling) the reference is arguably generic — or do I mean pandemic? It’s possible to watch the picture as it materializes before one’s eyes, without knowing that it’s a sequel of sorts to the writer-director’s 1998 Happiness (the key characters recur, none played by the original performer). Perhaps not-knowing is to be preferred in this case. Throughout the new film, people are asking to be forgiven for … well, we rarely know, and in some instances are not ever told. It’s enough — in a Pinteresque way, it’s better — simply to accept that these congenitally unhappy characters are suspended in a state of mind. It would diminish what fascination the new film has to go back and connect the dots to the old one.

Most of the scenes involve a pair of people — former lovers, future lovers, siblings, strangers — swapping solipsistic enigmas and setting themselves up for devastation. The cast is blue ribbon — Allison Janney, Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Lerner, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling and a very sharp Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens — and Solondz’ talent for depth-bomb comedy, the sort of delayed revelation that comes as a muffled detonation after you’d stopped listening for one, saves the enterprise from terminal self-flagellation. But only just. —RTJ

Every Day (Richard Levine, U.S.A., 2010, 93 mins.)

Every Day is an exemplary film festival offering, though not in a good way. The maiden feature-film effort of a TV veteran (of the cheesy FX series Nip/Tuck), the picture is in essence a filmed story-conference outline. Intention is writ large across every scene, every character, every timed-for-commercial-break twist, but the eye is clouded and there’s no pulse. No movie. The writer-director has corralled an estimable cast, even if they can’t save him from himself: Liev Schreiber as a TV writer feeling increasingly dissatisfied and unvalued in his job; Helen Hunt as his wife, with whom relations were tense even before she brought her unloved dad Brian Dennehy into their home to die; Eddie Izzard raffish as Schreiber’s producer boss, and Carla Gugino as the saucy, free-living fellow writer Schreiber will have no choice but to pull all-nighters with. All deliver like the seasoned pros they are, and young Ezra Miller proves utterly winning as the self-outed gay son Schreiber cherishes but tries to keep off the radar. —RTJ