Tag Archives: 2017 Reviews

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

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Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.

SIFF 2017: Bad Black ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks.

SIFF 2017: Pyromaniac ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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It’s not your imagination…”Nordic noir” is a thing (e.g. Scandinavian TV series like The Bridge, Wallander, and the Millennium trilogy). One of the progenitors was Erik Skjoldbjærg’s critically acclaimed 1997 thriller Insomnia (not to be confused with Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake). The Norwegian director returns with this somewhat glacially-paced but nonetheless involving drama about the son of a fire chief who goes on a fire setting spree. The troubled protagonist’s psycho-sexual issues reminded me of the lead character in Equus. Beautifully photographed by Gosta Reiland.

SIFF 2017: White Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Director Deepak Rauniyar uses the family row that ensues when a Maoist rebel returns to his isolated mountain village for his Royalist father’s funeral as an allegory for the political woes that have divided and ravaged his home country of Nepal. Naturalistic performances and rugged location shooting greatly enhance a story that beautifully illustrates how a country’s people, like members of an estranged family, must strive to rediscover common ground before meaningful healing can begin.

SIFF 2017: The Fabulous Allan Carr ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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If you learn one thing about the business we call “show” from Jeffrey Schwarz’s profile of late movie producer Allan Carr, it’s this: For every Grease, there’s a Grease 2. Yes, the same man produced both films. But there was a lot more to this flamboyant showman, who first demonstrated his inherent genius for turning lemons into lemonade when he secured domestic distribution for a no-budget Mexican exploitation flick about the Uruguayan rugby team plane crash survivors who kept alive by gnawing on their less fortunate teammates (you remember Survive!). He produced some huge hits…and probably more misses. But his hits were big enough to sustain a hedonistic lifestyle, which included legendarily over-the-top parties. An entertaining paean to a special type of excess that flourished from the mid-1970s thru the early 1980s.

The 2017 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13, 2017)

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It’s nearly time for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 18th to June 11th). SIFF is showing 400 shorts, features and docs from 80 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities on my list after obsessively combing through the 2017 SIFF catalog (so you don’t have to).

Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries and feature films with a sociopolitical bent. Dolores (USA) is a documentary about influential American labor & civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who has been given short shrift by the history books. Another political doc, The Reagan Show (USA) assembles archival footage to illustrate how the “original” showbiz president sparked the transformation of American politics into the post-modern theater of the absurd we’re watching now on the nightly news. White Sun (Nepal/USA/Qatar) is a drama set against the backdrop of post-civil war Nepal about a Maoist rebel trying to reconnect with his politically antithetical family.

More politics…The Young Karl Marx (France/Germany/Belgium; North American Premiere) is a promising biopic focusing on the early days of Marx and Engels. Nocturama (France/Belgium/Germany) is a drama about “a group of young, multiracial radicals with no stated ideology” who hole up for the night in a mall after committing terrorist attacks in Paris (The Breakfast Club meets Fassbinder’s The Third Generation?). I’m especially interested in seeing This is Our Land (France), which involves an idealistic nurse who is approached by a far-right party to run for mayor. Claiming to be a study on “…how populist ideology can quietly but decisively contaminate ‘good’ people”, the main character is also said to be based on Marine Le Pen. Talk about timely!

I’m always on the lookout for a good music documentary, and SIFF offers an eclectic assortment to pick from this year. Bill Frisell, A Portrait (Australia) takes a look at the elusive, genre-defying Seattle-based “guitarist’s guitarist”, one of those artists who most people have never heard of, yet (paradoxically) has worked with seemingly every recording artist that everybody has heard of (in addition to releasing 35 of his own albums to date). I am intrigued by Chavela (USA), as I admit to being previously unaware of Mexican “rabble-rousing, cigar-smoking lesbian iconoclast” Chavela Vargas.

More music: A Life in Waves (USA) is the first feature-length doc to profile the esoteric yet wildly successful electronica/New Age music pioneer and entrepreneur Suzanne Ciani. Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World (Canada) purports to be exactly what its title infers; a celebration of Native Americans (Link Wray, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and many others) who have left an indelible mark on modern music.

Speaking of indigenous peoples, SIFF is spotlighting several more indigenous-centric films this year. Angry Inuk (Canada) looks to be conversation-starting documentary that gives a voice to the Inuit side of the controversies that have been raging for years regarding subsistence seal hunting (the director herself is an Inuit activist). Searchers (Canada) is “an indigenous take” on John Ford’s revenge tale The Searchers, centering on an Inuk hunter’s pursuit of a band of marauders who have taken his family (Inuk hunters have a very specialized set of skills!). The icy north also figures into the doc Dawson City: Frozen Time (USA), billed as “a haunting chronicle of the transformations in a Yukon Territory Gold Rush town” (I spent 2 weeks there one night on an Alcan trip).

I have a soft spot for road movies, and several have caught my eye. American Folk (USA) is a drama starring two real-life folk singers as “two strangers who take an impromptu, cross-country road trip in the days after 9/11” (I’m getting a Once vibe). I’m eager to see Weirdos (Canada), the latest from my favorite Canadian director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), a “sparkling coming-of-age road journey” set in 1976. The Trip to Spain (UK) reunites director Michael Winterbottom with stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as they bring their patented brand of whining and dining back to the table. Borders (Burkina Faso) is a drama examining a burgeoning friendship between four women from different regions as they cross West Africa by bus.

More African cinema! The action-comedy Bad Black (Uganda) comes straight outta the no-budget “Wakaliwood” studio, and has been a hit with audiences at other festivals. It promises to deliver “ass-kicking commando vengeance unlike anything you have seen before.” Looks like a lot of fun…I’m in! On what I would assume to be a much lighter note, The Wedding Party (Nigeria) offers up “a fresh, female take on Nigerian culture.”

There are thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas aplenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bad Day for the Cut (Ireland) pits a “seemingly” mild-mannered Irish farmer against thugs who have killed his ma, and features what is touted as “a career-making lead performance from Nigel O’Neill.” Godspeed (Taiwan) is a crime thriller centering on a down-and-out taxi driver who “accidentally picks up a drug mule” one fateful night (echoes of Michael Mann’s Collateral). Here’s a twist on the hit man genre: Kills on Wheels (Hungary) follows the travails of two handicapped young men who cross paths with “a wheelchair-bound hit man who seems to come straight out of a comic book.” Oy.

Funny stuff: Ears (Italy) is a B&W surrealist tragi-comedy about a man who wakes up with a ringing in his ears and a “cryptic note on his fridge” that jumpstarts what looks to be a pretty weird day. Free and Easy (China) concerns a “soap-peddling shyster” who picks the wrong isolated mountain town to drift into…it’s agog with “idiosyncratic con artists” (I sense irony). Gook (USA) is said to be a mashup of Kevin Smith’s Clerks with Spike Lee’s social commentary sensibilities. It’s a day in the life of two Korean brothers hanging out in their dad’s South Central shoe store-on the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots.

I never miss a chance to get my fantasy/sci-fi/midnight movie fix. Where to start? The Door (China) is a sci-fi mindbender about an auto mechanic who stumbles onto a magic door that leads to an alternate reality (as one does). Also from China: Have a Nice Day, “a grim, animated noir” with “Tarantino-esque dialog” (you had me at “animated noir”). Infinity Baby (USA) is billed as an “absurdist, droll black comedy” concerning “a company who farms out three month-old babies who will never age due to a freak pharmaceutical side effect.” More nightmare fuel: Meatball Machine Kodoku (Japan), is an “utterly insane, blood-and-guts-soaked, action-packed cyber-punk comedy.” OK then.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the catalog. I’ll be plowing through screeners and sharing reviews with you starting next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF website for the full film roster, and info about event screenings and special guests.

Unhappy meal: The Dinner *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie sub-genre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

Oren Moverman’s new drama The Dinner edges closest to the “dinner party gone awry” meme, with a generous dollop of “you only hurt the ones you love” tossed in for giggles.

Actually, there are very few (intentional) giggles in this histrionic disappointment from a director who has done better work and a tragically wasted cast (so much for burying my lede). Set in an upscale restaurant and using a framing device that divides the narratives into chapters (of a sort), delineated by the many courses of the meal, Moverman’s story (adapted from the novel by Herman Koch) centers on a (wait for it) dysfunctional family.

In this corner, we have Richard Gere (in full, insufferably over-confident alpha mode) as a Congressman in the midst of a run for governor, and his lovely wife (Rebecca Hall). And in this corner, we have the Congressman’s agoraphobic, insufferably neurotic academic brother (Steve Coogan) and his lovely wife (Laura Linney).

The brothers have not been on speaking terms for most of their adult lives, but an odious crime committed by their teenage sons (and posted on YouTube by a third party) has necessitated a truce. The boys’ identities are concealed by the fuzzy video, but the couples are struggling with how to best handle it all. As the evening progresses, the familial bloodletting commences.

It’s an intriguing setup, but something went terribly wrong with this film, which I found deadly dull and thoroughly unpleasant to sit through. The fault certainly doesn’t lie in the casting; these are all wonderful actors. That said, Steve Coogan in particular makes some truly awful choices in his performance. It pains me to say this, as he is one of my favorite comedic actors; and perhaps that’s the problem…he is trying too hard. He has successfully tackled dramatic roles in the past, but it may take time to live this one down.

It’s a major letdown from Moverman, who has directed and/or written some exemplary films in the past. In fact, his film The Messenger (my review) made my top 10 of 2009, his film Rampart (my review) made my top 10 films of 2011, and a film he scripted, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (my review) made my top 10 of 2013. Oh well. I guess even some of the best 4-star restaurants serve up the odd plate of overcooked ham. C’est la vie.

Who am I this time: Buster’s Mal Heart ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thus:

Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but…

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidgen of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.

Original sin: The Student **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 6, 2017)

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In my 2008 review of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, I wrote:

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself.

Funnily enough, this is the conundrum at the heart of Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov’s somber drama The Student. In this particular narrative, you could say that “fundamentalist belief” is a high schooler named Venya (Pyoter Skvorstov), and “logic” is his biology teacher (Lidiya Tkacheva). In fact, nearly every character in this stagey piece walks around with “I am a metaphor!” tattooed on their forehead; I was not surprised when credits revealed it was adapted from a play (by Marius von Mayenburg).

Venya is a brooding fellow who skulks about the halls, avoiding eye contact with any of his fellow students. He appears taciturn as well; that is, until he refuses to participate in co-ed swimming for P.E., citing it goes against his religion. His mother (Yuliya Aug) is called in for a conference, and it’s clear that she has become exasperated with her son’s obstinate behavior as of late; fueled by his inexplicably sudden fealty to biblical literalism.

The school’s deeply religious principal is happy to accommodate Venya’s request for a deferral. This emboldens the young man to become ever more vocal and disruptive, to the particular chagrin of his free-spirited biology teacher, who finds herself more and more on the defensive as Venya repeatedly hijacks her normally democratic class discussions.

Venya’s non-stop sermonizing and self-righteous scolding is off-putting to classmates, with the exception of shy and soft-spoken Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Grigoriy is an outsider himself; mostly due to feeling self-conscious about a pronounced limp, which makes him a frequent target for bullying. Venya makes an attempt to “heal” Grigoriy, which fails. Undeterred, Grigoriy offers to become his “first disciple”. Grigoriy’s devotion is not necessarily motivated by spirituality, leading to fateful misinterpretations.

I was reminded of John Huston’s 1979 comedy-drama Wise Blood and Peter Medak’s 1972 satire The Ruling Class; although it lacks the black humor of the former and irony of the latter. What it does have is intensity; perhaps a bit too much, as it threatens at times to collapse under the weighty mantle of its protagonist’s martyr complex. Still…its central message rings clear and true: a blind devotion to fundamentalism rarely ends well.