Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2016: Red Gringo ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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I’m sure you’re familiar with Warren Beatty’s 1981 biopic Reds, which is the tale of how American journalist-turned-political activist Jack Reed ended up buried with honors in the Kremlin? Miguel Angel Vidaurre’s documentary concerns another American who underwent a similar metamorphosis. Dean Reed (no relation) was a Colorado-born musician-turned-political activist who also ended up a Communist icon. Reed, a middling singing talent graced by teen-idol looks, landed a contract with Capitol Records in the early 60s. Virtually ignored in the U.S., he somehow caught fire in South America, where he became a huge pop idol and movie star. During a tour of Chile, he had an unanticipated political epiphany; sparking an entree into Marxism that switched his musical proclivities from bubblegum to agitpop. He eventually settled in East Germany where he met his untimely (and shadowy) end. Fascinating and absorbing.

SIFF 2016: Mekko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world.

SIFF 2016: I Am Belfast ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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I really, really, try not to use “visual tone poem” as a descriptive for the indescribable when I can avoid it…but sometimes, there is no avoiding it. As in this case, with Irish director Mark Cousins’ meditation on his beloved home city. Part documentary and part (here it comes) visual tone poem, Cousins ponders the past, present and possible future of Belfast’s people, legacy and spirit. I’m pretty sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (I know Cousins loves that movie, because he gushed over it in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). The lovely cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. An ultimately rewarding experience  for patient viewers.

SIFF 2016: The Final Master **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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This is a fairly boilerplate Hong Kong action flick; and indeed the well-choreographed action sequences are the main attraction. In other words…don’t strain yourself attempting to follow the needlessly complex plot, nor keeping track of myriad characters; it will just make your brain hurt. Director Xu Haofeng is a martial arts practitioner himself, so I’m sure hardcore genre fans will appreciate the authenticity of the Wing Chun style fighting. And I do have to give props to an action hero dressed in a white smock and a black bowler, taking out bad guys John Steed style with his umbrella!

SIFF 2016: Dragon Inn ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Full disclosure: I only recently caught this influential 1967 wuxia adventure for the first time; my excuse being that it is rarely screened and was previously tough to find on home video, until last fall’s (Region “B” only) Blu-ray reissue from Masters of Cinema (which I was able to order from Amazon UK). Judging from the absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, it looks like SIFF attendees are in for a treat, with a big screen film presentation struck from (I’m assuming) the same recent 4K restoration. King Hu’s film is not your typical Kung-Fu epic; in fact it has more in common with Yojimbo, Rio Bravo and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly than, say,  Enter the Dragon. It’s colorful, exciting, suspenseful…and unpredictable, with a jaw-dropping finale. I know that I’m running the chalk backwards, but the biggest surprise for me was realizing how huge of an influence this film was on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

SIFF 2016: The Curve ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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It’s tempting to describe Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders.

SIFF 2016: Action Comandante **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Nadine Angel Cloete’s documentary is a profile of anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel, who was gunned down by police in 1987 (at age 20) and name-checked by Nelson Mandela in his 1990 post-prison release speech. While obviously meant to be an inspirational piece, the film falls curiously flat; a crucial portion of the tragically short-lived Kriel’s life story seems to be MIA. His formative years are covered; his awakening as a community activist (at an unusually young age), and the shady circumstances surrounding his death are examined…but what happened in between? All we learn is that he left his hometown for several years, and returned a seasoned freedom fighter. Within a short period, he was dead. The end. Exposition regarding that transformation from activist to guerilla is much too sketchy. Kriel’s story is undoubtedly an important part of South Africa’s freedom struggle, but as told here, it feels incomplete.

SIFF 2016: The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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I once noted in a review that “immersing yourself in the world of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not unlike entering a fever dream you might have after dropping acid and trying to get back to sleep…after waking up inside someone else’s nightmare”. While I stand by that appraisal, I now have an inkling of the method behind the madness after watching Yves Montmayeur’s enlightening portrait of the director, who opens up about his life and art. A few collaborators (Udo Kei, Isabella Rossellini), and like-minded directors (John Waters, the Quay brothers) weigh in as well.

SIFF 2016: Vintage Tomorrows **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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I’m not going to liken Byrd McDonald’s doc about hardcore steam punks to an extended Portlandia vignette, and I’ve nothing against a little harmless role-playing fun amongst consenting adults. That said-the more out of their way interviewees go to defensively insist they are not just privileged, white Victorian Era nostalgia junkies who dig Jules Verne and love wearing goggles and pith helmets…the more so they seem. Or perhaps I’m just the stick in the mud that can’t see the ball players but for all the corn.

SIFF 2016: Uncle Howard **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Maybe I’m jaded from having seen one too many documentaries about the NYC arts scene; from the people (the Beats, Warhol’s Factory alums, the Velvets, Patti Smith, the punks, Mapplethorpe, Haring, Basquiat, the Club Kids, etc.) to the haunts (SoHo, TriBeBa, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB’s, Studio 54, etc.) it’s all been pretty well strip mined by filmmakers. Perhaps that explains why we’re now reduced to a documentary, about a documentarian, who once made a documentary about William Burroughs. If you’re stuck for an angle…go meta (a credo that frequently saves my ass). Still, this heartfelt tribute to Burroughs: The Movie director Howard Brookner (who died of AIDS in 1989), by his nephew Aaron Brookner is not wholly unwatchable, and ultimately quite moving.