Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011 Dispatch 8: “Life in a Day” and “Norwegian Wood,” final screenings and return engagements

Screenings will continue late into the evening of Sunday, June 12, the 25th and final day of the 2011 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival (see below for the films scheduled in the numerous TBA slots of the program). But the festival marks the conclusion with its closing night gala film – the lovely Life in a Day (USA), which is being screened at the magnificent Cinerama (still the finest theater in town and sadly absent from the rest of SIFF this year) – and the traditional closing night party. I hope to rouse myself for the latter.

As for the Closing Night film itself, Life in a Day is a feel-good film (with some moments of sadness and emotional trials) about the global village that doesn’t sell out its integrity to go for the emotional tug. A mix of high concept ambition, low-fidelity tools and the networking possibilities of the web’s global community, the production is a collaboration between National Geographic and YouTube, which is also as accurate a description you can offer for its sensibility. Officially directed by Kevin Macdonald, who plays ringmaster to a circus of contributors, it is in fact shot and performed by you, or us, or the folks out there, using everything from high-end video equipment to flip cameras to smart phones. What unifies the footage is that it was all shot on July 24, 2010, and each piece used in the film relates to the way we live our lives.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011 Dispatch 7: The Night of Counting the Years

SIFF’s program notes states that The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Egypt), directed by Chadi Abdel Salam, is “universally recognized as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made,” a statement that isn’t quite accurate. I’m not refering to the “greatest” part of that statement, just that it is “universally recognized” for anything.

While it is indeed considered an Egyptian cinema masterwork by those with some expertise in the field, this is not a film that has been close to universally seen, which makes its appearance here all the more notable. All but unavailable for years (I had the good fortune to see a 16mm print at the Seattle Arab Film Festival in 2000, which even faded and worn communicated the great power of the film), a new restoration was undertaken in conjunction with the international offshoot of The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorsese and a high-quality DCP digital print was shown at SIFF. (Given some of the issues with digital presentation at the festival this year, I am pleased to report that this was a stellar screening; any weaknesses in the image quality were clearly those of the original film materials.)

The story is inspired by a real-life incident of an isolated mountain tribe in the late 19th century that was secretly selling off ancient artifacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs, specifically a cache of mummies hidden in the mountain caves to hide them from looters, which the government discovers after the recovery of one of the treasures. The drama ostensibly sets the government against the insular tribe, where the elders justify the looting of its own culture to sustain the people (as well as enrich themselves), but it’s the reaction of the young men to this tribal secret that fires the film. They are appalled at the desecration of their ancestors and their refusal to be a part of it marks them as enemies of the tribe. Not an ideal situation in such an insular culture.

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Posted in: Film Festivals, Links

SIFFing: Parallax View’s SIFF 2011 Guide

Updated through Sunday, June 12

The 37th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opened on Thursday, May 19 and ran for 25 days through Sunday, June 12. Here is Parallax View’s coverage and guide to  SIFF resources.

SIFF Week by Week:
SIFF 2011 Dispatch 8: “Life in a Day” and “Norwegian Wood,” final screenings and return engagements (Sean Axmaker)
SIFF 2011 Dispatch 7: The Night of Counting the Years (Sean Axmaker)
SIFF 2011 Dispatch 6: Awards (Sean Axmaker)
Seattle International Film Festival Closing Weekend (Meredith Brody for TOH!)
SIFF 2011 Dispatch 5: The Yellow Sea (Sean Axmaker)
SIFF 2011 Dispatch 4: The White Meadows (Sean Axmaker)
SIFF Week 4: 15 New Picks & Pans (Seattle Weekly, Brian Miller and others)
SIFF Dispatch: Meeting Elmo (Kim Voynar at Movie City News)
Tomorrow Will Be Better (Kathleen Murphy)
Letters From the Big Man (Robert Horton)
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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2011 Dispatch 6: Awards

Seattle International Film Festival audiences bestowed top Golden Space Needle Awards on Paper Birds, To Be Heard and The Whistleblower (among others) while juried awards singled out Gandu and the documentary Hot Coffee at the awards brunch of the Seattle International Film Festival this morning.

Over 450 features, documentaries and short films from more than 70 countries were screened over the 25 days (and the last day is not over as of this writing, mind you) and 600 screening event. According to SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence, it was a record setting year in terms of attendance.

Emilia Aragon’s Paper Birds (Spain) took the audience award for Best Film, Larysa Kondracki won the Best Director award for The Whistleblower (Canada/Germany), Best Actor went to Bill Skarsgård for Simple Simon (Sweden) and Best Actress to Natasha Petrovic for As If I Am Not There (Ireland/Macedonia/Sweden). Best Documentary was awarded to To Be Heard, directed by Roland Legiardi-Laura, Amy Sultan, Deborah Shaffer and Edwin Martinez (USA) and The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore, directed by William Joyce (USA), took the Best Short Film award.

The competition awards, given out in partnership with FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics, were handed out to Best New Director “Q” Kaushik Mukherjee for Gandu (India), Best Documentary Hot Coffee (directed by Susan Saladoff, USA) and Best New American Film On The Ice, directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. Special Jury Prizes in the Documentary competition went to To Be Heard (USA) and Sushi: The Global Catch, directed by Mark Hall (USA).

The complete press release, which includes runners-up and jury statements, is featured below.

See complete coverage at Parallax View’s SIFF 2011 Guide here

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011 Dispatch 5: The Yellow Sea

The crime-gone-bad thriller is a staple of the crime genre. Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea, a South Korean box-office hit making its North American debut at SIFF 2011, runs with the concept in a jittery thriller of a desperate taxi driver in Yanji (an autonomous region in Northern China dominated by ethnic Koreans) hired to kill a man in South Korea. Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is Joseonjok, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry living in the impoverished region across the border. His wife hasn’t contacted him since she left to work in Korea six months ago, he’s deep in debt to the gangsters who smuggled her across the channel (the Yellow Sea of the title) and he’s losing whatever he makes gambling at Mahjong. So a local crime boss, Myung (Kim Yun-seok), makes him an offer: wipe his debt clean in exchange for a simple murder.

Na takes us through the human smuggling process with a rapid-fire pace, jumping through the steps in the ordeal in a montage that makes its points without stopping to explain and sets the tone that will define the rest of the gangster drama: no sentiment, no hesitation, no warning, just keep moving, react immediately and don’t look back. There’s none of the John Woo bullet ballets here. Na Hong-jin goes for the unpredictability of violence and the chaos created out of panic and shoots Gu-nam’s action scenes—well, more like reaction as he improvises in the face of competition and goes on the run from both the cops and the crooks—with a jittery shakycam aesthetic. It’s an overused and abused technique to be sure, too often appropriated in place of building and sustaining effective action scenes, but here it’s saved specifically to put us in the agitated head of our hero, an amateur in a world of professional thugs running on panic and adrenaline. It drives his desperate flight from a careening mob of overeager cops colliding with each other in their pursuit to a runaway escape that is all desperation and reckless impulse at high speed.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011 Dispatch 4: The White Meadows

The white meadows of Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows (Iran), a stunning and startling odyssey through the salt marshes of Iran’s Lake Urmia, are the desert islands where almost medieval cultures exist in isolated pockets on otherwise dead lands. The salt that coats every beach white has left this place bereft of vegetation, giving it an almost alien, otherworldly atmosphere: a visit to a small planet. And just as the salt chokes the life out of the land and water (there are no birds and precious little marine life), so does it starve the respective cultures, cut off from the rest of the world but for a boatman, Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi), the only outsider welcome in these lands. He is the “tear collector,” who comes to hear their woes and take away their sorrows by collecting their tears in a glass vial.

The mythology and cultural practices are more fictional creation than historical reality but they have the resonance of myth playing out in a place that is, practically speaking, out of time, with only stray clues (mostly in the coda) placing it in, more or less, the present. The various islands could be Rasoulof’s answer to Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” relocated to an Iranian sensibility and contemporary political and religious reality. Brutal rituals (human sacrifice, politely referred to as a “marriage” and treated as a holy honor by all but the virgin bride) and punishments abound and a culture of conformity and intolerance rules, maintained by an unquestioned patriarchy that keeps the culture locked in a surreal state of blind obedience bordering on madness. Rebels, be they runaways, heroes or artists with individual visions, don’t survive the smothering culture.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays, Film Festivals, Industry

SIFF 2011: Smilin’ through – Is anybody really trying?

“You know, the director will be in town on Friday. Would you like to interview him?”

That’s how I was welcomed today by an eager young publicist to SIFF’s 10 a.m. screening for press and passholders of Hong-jin Na’s The Yellow Sea. “Let me check out the movie first,” I replied. But that was not to be, thanks to yet another technical screwup on the part of our hometown festival.

When The Yellow Sea hit the screen, a prologue in English explained the very particular players and setting of this “great and gory” South Korean film (as described by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, at the Cannes Film Festival). Then the main action began, there was dialogue—in Korean—and the audience sat tight, in dead silence, as the film continued … sans subtitles. Finally, someone—all right, it was me—shouted, “Stop the movie!” Nothing happened. The Yellow Sea rolled on.

Surely this can’t be happening again, I thought. Once might be excusable, but twice, on consecutive days, is just plain incompetence. You see, exactly 24 hours earlier, in the same venue (Pacific Place Cinemas), the 10 a.m. audience for the much-anticipated Norwegian Wood by Tranh Anh Hung watched bewildered as the Japanese-language film unreeled, for several minutes, sans subtitles. Eventually someone from SIFF was heard to mumble from the sidelines that “the projectionist isn’t going to start the film over again.” Mass exodus ensued.

What, exactly, had happened? Pressed to say something, one SIFF staffer speculated whether an unsubtitled version had been mistakenly sent from Japan. Even he didn’t seem to believe that was likely (we’re talking about a U.S. Premiere engagement). And what, exactly, did that curious phrase mean—”the projectionist isn’t going to start the film over again”? The projectionist refuses to? Won’t be asked to? If the projectionist had tried again, might he have hit the right button and activated subtitles that were there after all? If so, why not give it a shot? Or were we past a point of no return, and it wasn’t feasible to set the day’s screening schedule back, jeopardizing regular theater showings?

Were we talking technical error, or incompetence coupled with indifference? Who knows? SIFF never explains. Doesn’t have to.

Continue reading at Straight Shooting

Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011: Tomorrow Will Be Better

In her dark, totally unsentimental films about children (Devils, Devils; Crows, I Am), Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska has always gifted her youthful, mostly female protagonists with old, outlaw souls hungry for family and freedom. Even the lonely old woman facing her Time to Die (2007) possesses the lively face and maverick spirit of a wild child. In Tomorrow Will Be Better Kedzierzawska focuses on three boys, street kids as feral as abandoned cats or dogs, who set out to cross the Russian border into Poland, Huckleberry Finns lighting out for territories they might call home.

The ragamuffin trio consists of two older pals, perhaps 12, and an angelic urchin, no more than 6 or 7, who may suck his thumb and clutch a threadbare teddy bear but is already an old hand at staying alive—sly enough to use his sweet looks to charm bread from a toothless crone or break the heart of a hardcase cop. His big brother alternates between pretending to leave the troublesome kid behind and cradling him as a mother would a child. There are indissoluble “family” ties here, born not of nurture, but of nature and necessity. Kedzierzawska’s lost children always hook up by choice, on the run, finding love outside clean, well-lighted places.

Continue reading at Straight Shooting

Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011: Small Town Murder Songs

One virtue of film festivals is that they provide an opportunity for small-scale, unheralded movies of distinction to get discovered, if only by a less than mainstream audience. It’s not necessary that they be great; being unexpectedly good carries its own satisfaction. Small Town Murder Songs, a 75-minute picture from Canada, is the best example so far in this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Yes, the title’s selfconsciously quirky and genre-bending, maybe a tad pretentious. Somebody getting too smart for their own good, I thought as I settled in to watch. And look, they went and hired that Bergman actor who stuffed Steve Buscemi into the wood chipper in Fargo: Peter Stormare as police chief of an isolated Mennonite community in Ontario. Definitely reaching for postmodern bizarro.

Except that almost immediately the movie took hold. First, there was the look of it. Ed Gass-Donnelly, who wrote, directed, and edited, knows that roads and streets become beautiful and auspicious if you put your widescreen camera in the right place and honor the power of the frame. There’s nothing in this nowhere community that could be called scenic or even picturesque, yet Gass-Donnelly allows us to soak in the ambience and become haunted by it. This is only right because, as one of several chapter headings in the movie tells us, “God Meets Us Where We’re At.”

The haunting also comes by way of hinted-at information about the town, some of its denizens, and the history that links them. The most obscure yet unshakable mystery attaches to our police chief Walter. The once-gaunt Stormare has grown heavier, which works nicely to underscore Walter’s desperation to pass as a calm, stalwart presence despite unspecified violence in his past. Walter is born again and has a new life partner in Sam (Martha Plimpton), a warmhearted waitress with bottomless love for and not a little terror of her man.

Small Town Murder Songs gets his name in two ways. Early on, the naked body of a woman, not a local, turns up at the edge of a pond. Investigation of the crime provides the narrative spine, though not the film’s core. At least as key to the experience the film affords are the ballads on the soundtrack, so integral to the spirit of the place and its people that the movie, like the title, would be incomplete without them. Someone reviewing the film at another festival aptly likened them to a fire-and-brimstone Greek chorus. Reminiscent of the Sacred Harp music in Cold Mountain, they’re the work of a Canadian group called Bruce Peninsula, who should be heard from again.

Jill Hennessy, late of TV’s Law and Order and Crossing Over, brings a fine, dark intensity to the role of Walter’s former lover Rita, to whose residence on the edge of town Walter and the movie keep returning. You see, Rita’s new man Steve was the one who found the body. Steve’s a caution, and the actor Stephen Eric McIntyre might slip seamlessly into the crazed Kentucky precincts of Justified. Canadian film veteran Jackie Burroughs also turns up as something of an oracle.

As I said, the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, and that’s just as well; spells are hard to sustain. Yet it’s big enough. SIFF is showing it twice, June 3 and 5. These may be your only shots at seeing it on a theater screen; it’s slated for DVD release July 19.

Copyright 2011 by Richard T. Jameson

Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Film Reviews

SIFF 2011: Vampire

Don’t expect vampire gore and supernatural thrills in this long, slow exploration of youthful angst and alienation. In his first English-language movie, writer-director Iwai Shunji clearly didn’t have commercial prospects or mainstream audiences in mind. Since he shot, edited, and composed original music for Vampire, it’s clear that Shunji knew precisely what kind of world and weather he wanted to create: a whited-out landscape (the Pacific Northwest) in which young people drift aimlessly, drained of any emotion that might propel them toward meaning or intimacy or life itself. These kids are like ghosts in the machine, the machine being the Internet, on which they hook up long-distance.

Kevin Zegers, Keisha Castle-Hughes

In Shunji’s brilliant All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), a dreamy pop singer offered a way for high school kids to connect as fans, to escape the isolation of self. In Vampire it’s a website called Side by Cide, home page for the suicidal. The young women whom vampire wannabe Simon (Kevin Zegers) meets on line and promises to help die often seem half-dead already: fragile, ethereal, fading from a disease called despair. And despair rarely comes rooted in the specific; the virus seems to be in the very air the likes of Jellyfish, Gallows, Gargoyle, Eclipse, and Ladybird breathe.

Simon’s a biology instructor who teaches his blank-faced students that we are all “slaves to millions of cells.” Such biological determinism is hardly designed to cheer up this generation of sad sacks—as Mina, an Asian teen Simon rescues from hanging herself, points out. With his pallor, wispy ‘stache, and lank hair, Simon looks like the kind of guy who puts in long hours in front of his computer, unlikely to ever be deflowered skin to skin.

Continue reading at Straight Shooting