SIFF 2010: SIFFtings IV

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 9, 2010]

Notes on the final week by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

Protektor
(Marek Najbrt, Czech Republic/Germany, 2009; 98 mins.)

The World War II years remain an inexhaustible source of dramatic material, and as our culture grows ever more amnesiac, it’s probably salutary that filmmakers keep trying to find ways into the period. Set in the Prague of 1938-42—from Hitler’s bloodless occupation of Czechoslovakia to the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich and the ensuing Nazi reprisals—Protektor eschews the conventional big-picture approach to focus on a married couple whose lives are being transformed. Hana (Jana Plodková), a glamorous movie actress primed for stardom, sees her career aborted because she’s Jewish; the non-Jewish Emil (Marek Daniel), one among a staff of announcers for the state radio station, becomes a star after his chief rival is sidelined for political outspokenness. Effectively under house arrest, Hana contrives ways to recast her life as her own imaginative movie—posing in grab photos flouting the many anti-Semitic prohibitions posted everywhere, and getting back into the cinema literally, by sneaking into the moviehouse next door. Emil, freer to roam, keeps getting seduced personally and professionally, each seduction becoming another kind of trap.

Oh look, I just recast life as imaginative movie, making Protektor seem a more provocative film than it is. In fact of point, the narrative and the chronology hop around to little coherent purpose, and the way the images are optically magicked at every turn is more masturbatory than illuminating. The film’s closest brush with distinction is its suggestion how accidental history and becoming a part of history can be. (Better you should rent the chilling 1943 Lang-Brecht movie Hangmen Also Die!) —RTJ

Patagonia (Marc Evans, UK/Argentina/Wales, 2010; 90 mins.)

Framed artfully off-center against a bucolic garden wall, a young woman in 19th-century Welsh costume delicately wields a rake—then pauses in her work to take a call on the cellphone concealed in her apron. The joke might well have soured us on the movie (this is the first scene), signaling bad faith willing to go for cheap laughs. But the shot holds, the composition remains unvulgarized and the woman retains her dignity. Patagonia, having its world-premiere engagement at SIFF, has a good heart and its director, Marc Evans, a tender eye.

All movies are journeys, and this one is built on two of them. An unmarried couple from Wales travel to the titular Argentine region that in 1865 became home to Welsh émigrés. He (Matthew Rhys) is a photographer commissioned to take time-lapse studies of the tiny, “heroic” chapels the original settlers raised in the wilderness; she (Nia Roberts), the historical reenactor of the opening scene, is along for the ride. Meanwhile, an elderly woman (Marta Lubos) conceived in Wales but born in Patagonia hatches a scheme to visit the spiritual homeland she has never seen, and could barely see now; a de facto grandson (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is enlisted to escort her and be her eyes. The epiphanies borne of these journeys are small, and often predictable, but sentimentality is avoided and the settings in both lands are viewed appreciatively without getting picturesque. —RTJ

I Miss You (Fabian Hofman, Mexico/Argentina/Uruguay, 2010; 100 mins.)

A good deal of SIFF is traditionally stuffed with second-tier (or second-rate) movies. Such fare may be far from awful, but in the aggregate it begins to dull the palate. Still, Seattle fans, ever willing to scarf up whatever the festival dishes out, don’t seem to mind.

This pedestrian rehash of Argentina’s brutal history of “disappearing” political dissidents in the ’70s falls into the category of SIFF filler, movies of dubious interest and no aesthetic achievement. Like Protektor, Hofman’s sophomore film (his debut was Pachito Rex: I’m Leaving But Not for Good) means to show the impact of totalitarian brutality on ordinary people. Here it’s an ordinary middle-class family, forced to deal with the vanishing of a beloved child, a privileged kid given to playing with political fire. Lacking any narrative drive, emotional authenticity or compelling POV, I Miss You drags on, mostly staring at the vapidly angelic face of the political casualty’s younger brother as if in hope that this sad sack might jump-start the action. He doesn’t. —KAM

Fathers and Guns (Émile Gaudreault, Canada, 2010; 107 mins.)

Canadian comedy can be teeth-grindingly cute and bland, but Fathers and Guns is sweetly funny, sometimes hilarious. Two cops, a competitive father (Michel Cote) and son (stand-up comedian Louis-Jose Houde), are constantly at each other’s throats. Dad’s a macho brute who rates his kid a failure as a manly man, and Junior’s girlfriend has given him the breeze because he “lacks meat.” As part of a case, the two go undercover on a therapeutic wilderness trip, designed to reconcile estranged dads and sons. There’s slapstick silliness on the trail, but what brings on the funny are the weird-to-the-max father-son combos: white-haired hippie and corporate shark, rakish adventurer and weepy folksinger, two fatties so bonded father suckles son! The bearded and bushy-haired therapist-guide is a hoot, combining that fatuous concern shrinks exude with genuine smarts. There’s nothing earth-shaking here—just pleasant hi-jinks that work even without drugs, potty-mouths, sex or any Judd Apatow notions about male bonding. You watch, this low-key winner from Quebec—the highest-grossing French-language Canadian film—will turn up on American screens, re-jiggered to showcase the casts of Superbad and Pineapple Express. —KAM

Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, USA, 1939; 104 mins.)

America’s greatest director snorted that anybody could make a movie look good in Technicolor, whereas it took talent to do it in black and white. Then he rubbed salt in the wound by making his own color-movie debut such a knockout that other filmmakers might as well hang up their hats. Here’s a chance to see it as restored by the Film Foundation.

Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert play young-marrieds in the barely settled New York wilderness just about the time the Revolutionary War is getting underway. The images of forest and field, community ritual and Indian war look like something out of our collective national memory—as indeed they are. The man was incapable of framing an unsatisfactory picture, and he’s abetted here by the superb lighting cameraman who’d just shot Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln for him, Bert Glennon. The supporting cast includes Edna May Oliver (Oscar-nominated as the widow McKlennar), Ward Bond (way down in the credits but wonderful as Adam Hartman), John Carradine, Arthur Shields and Francis Ford. Utah’s Wasatch Mountains country stands in persuasively for upstate New York. —RTJ

Drifting (Ventura Pons, Spain, 2010; 95 mins.)

Catalan filmmaker Ventura Pons has been making movies for over 30 years, and his sure hand at the helm is a welcome relief from the kind of plot-driven, amateurishly directed movies that dominate bloated festivals like SIFF. In Drifting, after years working for an NGO, Eufe (Anna Azcona) is a woman haunted by images of African misery. A nurse, she’s hiding professionally in a job as a security guard in a rehab center for rich rock stars and over-the-hill actresses. Personally, she’s rootless: after abandoning her boyfriend, Anna finds the perfect home in a trailer her sagacious gay co-worker loans her, which she keeps parked in a mall-cum-rest-area lot. Watching Eufe register varieties of human loss and methods of making-do, we’re willing—for awhile—to go with the flow. Standing on a bridge screaming out her pain, Pons’ casualty of modern-day horror is clearly meant to suggest Edvard Munch’s stricken soul. But we’re never convinced that this feckless young woman is affected very deeply by much of anything, let alone gruesome ghosts from the Dark Continent. So what Drifting proffers is a meandering tour featuring a bunch of mildly idiosyncratic personalities—and some obsessive sex. The experience of drifting is authentic: once the screen goes dark, nothing from the movie holds you. —KAM