Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 5 – Get Low, Get Hip, Get a Room (in Rome)

Hipsters (Russia, dir: Valery Todorovsky) – In 1955 Moscow, where the Soviet citizenry fills the streets in a palette of industrial blue, black and gray, a group of culture rebels parade about in rainbow colors that in America would be crimes against fashion—a cacophony of plaids and checks, greens and yellows and purples and other garishly clashing colors—and commit something much more daring: crimes against conformity. They are the self-defined “hipsters,” dancing to swing and small combo dance bands in fashions that defies the uniformity of the Soviet ideal. “I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to live like everyone else,” smiles the youth commissar of conformity, who proclaims that “Every hipster is a potential criminal.” Mels (Anton Shagin, who comes off as a wide-eyed Neil Patrick Harris) is part of the conformist army until he switches allegiances for the best of possible reasons: a girl, Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels dons the Soviet answer to a zoot suit, hits the Broadway scene and is rechristened Mel (in the Yankee-ization that all hipsters undergo), the newest member of the swing cat underground.

A musical (where they do indeed break into song and dance, evoking the mechanization of the industrial revolution when it’s the plebian citizens doing the honors but exploding in the plumage of mating birds when the dances erupt in the club setttings), a coming-of-age tale and an adventure in youthful rebellion, Hipsters (from Emerging Master Valery Todorovksy) is a bright blast of underground culture and expressions of individuality in a society where rebels are regularly jailed for much less. The eye-gouging color, flamboyant fashion, pompadours and curls and appropriated style is not just a fashion statement, it’s a cry of individualism and freedom in a country where “kowtowing to western ideology is punishable by up to ten years” and “a saxophone is considered a concealed weapon.” (And what about owning banned music, which here is copied and passed around on pirate discs cut into the remnants of old X-rays sheets?) It’s also a warped mirror reflection of what these soviet youths imagine American culture is like from the snatched glimpses and slivers of artifacts gleaned from between the cracks of the Iron Curtain, a recreation at least ten years out of date and exaggerated to hyperbolic extremes. Which, in a very real way, ultimately makes this a uniquely Soviet rebel culture. The drama itself is much more conventional, with kids forced to choose between their rebel identities and donning the costume of conformity for advancement, marriage, parenthood and responsibility, all of it essentially hurdled in a song to embrace the happy ending. But the story of Hipsters is less in the narrative than the evocation of this underground culture, in both the texture of realistic detail and expressionist song and dance sequences. And if you think you recognize Polly (“Good Time Polly to those who know”), it’s not just the American affection; she starred as Lilya in Lukas Moodyson’s Lilya 4-Ever.

Julio Medem was a SIFF Emerging Master years ago. He’s back with the North American Premiere of Room in Rome (Spain, dir: Julio Medem), another erotic tale of love and identity, this one a miniature set over one night in an fabulously beautiful hotel room. “I’ve never been to a girl’s room before,” confesses Natasha, the Russian woman enticed by the earthy Spanish Alba to spend their final night in Rome together. Natasha is an actress in Rome for an audition and Alba the fugitive wife of an Arab sheik who has made a new life for herself in Spain, or at least that’s what they present themselves as while they explore one another before flying back to their real lives. “All I ask is that this doesn’t affect my life,” begs the self-described straight girl Natasha as she invites Alba to undress and seduce her, but how can it not? In Julio Medem’s world, every action has consequences.

Room in Rome is far less consequential than earlier, richer films, like Tierra and Lovers of the Arctic Circle, but it has its pleasures (beyond even the obvious erotic spectacle, photographed by a man who loves to caress female flesh with his lens). The camera never leaves the room, which is a veritable art museum of classical themes and historic symbolism, and it a keeps picking out evocative details (some more obvious than others). But if the camera never leaves, the film does via a laptop computer, which sends the women soaring over the globe and zooming in on satellite photos to find their respective homes, preserved in both space and time as a world and a life far away yet so close. As a one-night stand tale, where the stories they appropriate are as telling as the real identities they finally share with one another and the emotional charge of sudden attraction and sexual ecstasy is all the more attractive given the commitments back home that they are still questioning in their mind, it’s no Before Sunrise. Medem’s script relies on dramatic backstories and melodramatic complications for their discussions and quandaries. It’s in the moment that he’s much more convincing, especially as they keep finding reasons to extend their time together. And, speaking as a heterosexual male, the sight of two beautiful women naked at rest and play for half the movie doesn’t hurt either.

I’m happy to report that while Get Low (U.S., dir: Aaron Schneider) is neither as creatively adventurous or narratively nuanced as The Science of Sleep or Last Days, it’s the best closing night film SIFF has offered in the years since (anyone remember Bottle Shock or Moliere?). The debut feature by Aaron Schneider (an Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short in 2003) premiered at Toronto in 2009 and went on to Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca before Seattle, as if constantly trying to prove to studio executives that an adult movie with a deft balance of comedy and tragedy will draw audiences (as of this writing, the film is set to open in NY and LA on July 30, but no word yet on Seattle). I hope Sony Pictures Classics is finally convinced, for it’s a lovely film about regret, self-punishment and redemption on a human scale. “I built a prison for myself and stayed in it for 40 years,” confides Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), better known as “the mysterious hermit of Caleb County,” to a black preacher (Bill Coobs) in a faraway county and, apparently, another life. Bush has arranged for his own funeral, one that he plans to attend ostensibly so he can hear the stories everyone has to tell (and there are plenty, most of them elevated to the level of rural myth) but really so he can tell his own, which has been locked in his heart as part of his self-imposed sentence.

It’s an original screenplay with the quality of a short story. The narrative strolls its way to the big revelation: the secret of his past that ostensibly explains everything. It can’t help to be anti-climactic, largely because an explanation is never as interesting as a character and Duvall’s cranky, cantankerous backwoods loner Felix Bush is a marvelous character: ornery, tortured, angry, lonely and unforgiven. But it’s gracefully handled and it serves not so much as an explanation as a confession (both spiritual and personal) and an honest accounting of his past. Bill Murray is all dry wit as the funeral home operator, a deadpan huckster with understandable anxieties bubbling under his unflappable front, and Sissy Spacek delivers a fragile grace as Mattie, a widow who shares a past with Felix that is tangled around his secret. The film’s ambitions are modest which is perhaps part of the joy of the film. It never attempts to force emotion from the tragic elements of the comic drama. Director Schneider is content to observe the small wonders of human interaction and the friendships formed in the unusual enterprise of creating a funeral party for the crazy old nutter Bush. That’s good company indeed.

Short takes:

The title Micmacs (France, dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet) is French for shenanigans, which is exactly what the film is: a slapstick revenge movie by a ragtag group of homeless eccentrics in a garbage dump who turn trash into James Bond gadgets to take on a pair of rival (and, it turns out, criminal) munitions merchants. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet turns a grim subject (a man whose life was destroyed by the weapons produced by these men) into a whimsical comedy with a hero right out of silent movie comedy. Dany Boon brings a real Buster Keaton quality to his role, a spirited innocent with vivid hallucinations, thanks to a bullet lodged in his brain, the oddball family of unusual skills (watched over by a maternal Yolande Moreau) is tremendously likable and Jeunet takes great delight in the cartoonish creativity of their junkyard arsenal. There’s only one SIFF showing, but fear not if can’t squeeze it into your schedule (or worse, get shut out — advance tickets are sold out and only rush tickets available). It’s set to open theatrically on June 18.

The Centerpiece Gala film Farewell (France, dir: Christian Carion) has an encore screening over the final weekend. The fact-based story of a KGB officer (director Emir Kusturica in a multi-faceted performance) who approaches nervous French engineer (Guillaume Canet) with high-level top-secret information to pass on to the west reveals a startling hidden history of international intelligence and industrial espionage in the early eighties that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. While the Cold War plays out, with Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward, who neither looks, sounds or acts like the Reagan) basing foreign policy on old movies (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is his touchstone) and his CIA chief (Willem Dafoe) greedily devouring all the intelligence that comes in without a thought to the dangers of the men bringing it his way, these two men find common cause in actions that put their lives in jeopardy. It’s a nice buddy story and an amazing piece of history and it’s clear that this is passion project for Carion, but he hasn’t the politic savvy nor the storytelling nuance to offer more than a fascinating story. His casting of Kusturica, however, makes up for some of the script’s shortcomings. His gentle bear of a Soviet officer communicates a sense of purpose and beyond personal gain and national identity: he makes you believe that he embarks on his personal mission as a father, a patriot and a citizen of the world. Meanwhile, Reagan is happy to print the legend and take credit for winning the cold war.

“That’s a waste of a good cast,” remarked one viewer filing out of the screening of The Family Tree (US, dir: Vivi Friedman). Not much to add to that, apart from the observation that this dysfunctional family drama is a SIFF World Premiere, and like so many premieres has every earmark of a film passed over by Sundance and Tribeca. Hope Davis is actually quite adorable as the wife and mother, at least after she wakes up with amnesia (caused by a mishap during an affair with the neighbor), reverting back to a time before she became jaded, judgmental and utterly miserable and pulled her sad-sack husband (Dermot Mulroney) down with her. The rest of the film is a muddle of sloppy social satire (the title has less to do with the extended family than the tree in the front yard where the school hero meets a nasty fate while playing peeping tom), aggressively eccentric characters (Keith Carradine as a gun-loving priest) and caricatures of teen rebellion. The digital photography is flavorless and bland, the production design so generic and blank that it becomes weirdly unreal and unlived in, and director Vivi Friedman fails to rouse any dramatic sparks from the cast. It’s simply inert.

Also note last-minute additions to the TBA slots for the final weekend. Add the following to the schedules:

– Johnnie To’s Vengeance starring French pop star Johnny Halliday plays Saturday, June 12, 9pm and Sunday, June 13, 11am at Harvard Exit

Solitary Man with Michael Douglas and Susan Sarandon plays Saturday, June 12, 8:30pm at Pacific Place (it also opens in Seattle theatrically on June 18)

Thunder Soul, a documentary about the Kashmere High School Band, which became a funk sensation in the seventies, plays Sunday, June 13, 1:30pm at the Egyptian Theatre.

Hipsters (Saturday, June 12, 2:30pm, Neptune)
Room in Rome (Saturday, June 12, 9:30pm, Egyptian)
Micmacs (Friday, June 11, 7pm, Uptown)
Farewell (Saturday, June 12, 6:30pm, Uptown)
The Family Tree (Saturday, June 12, 6:30pm, SIFF Cinema; Sunday, June 13, 1:30pm, SIFF Cinema)
Get Low (Closing Night Film, Sunday, June 13, 6:30pm, Pacific Place)