Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2010: Queen of the Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

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I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me both laugh and cry-but northwest filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun is one such film. Appearing at first glance to be a distressing, hand-wringing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its accelerated frequency of occurrences over the past decade, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these seemingly insignificant yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. We bipeds harbor a high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these “lowly” insects are, in fact, the boss of us.

It turns out that there have been voices in the wilderness over the years; although they have been largely ignored. Albert Einstein once said: “If bees die, man will only have four years of life left.”  As early as 1923, Austrian philosopher-scientist-social thinker and bio-dynamic agriculturalist icon Rudolph Steiner warned that within 100 years, without careful cultivation and continued awareness of the delicate symbiotic relationship we share with them, the honeybees would begin to dissipate (silly Rudy).

Siegel documents how, in the 80-odd year interim between Steiner’s dire prediction and what is happening now, we have plowed ahead in our typical clueless fashion, taking and taking and not giving enough back. Siegel rounds up the usual suspects, like mite infestations, pesticides, and the use of domesticated colonies in mechanized industrial pollination (especially in regards to mono-cropping, for which the bees are sometimes fortified with corn syrup, of all things).

The film is not all gloom and doom.  In countries where toxic pesticides are currently banned, Colony Collapse Syndrome has been virtually non-existent (surprise surprise).  And there are  uplifting interludes throughout profiling individuals who offer a philosophical/spiritual perspective on the human-bee connection.

And perhaps most importantly, we meet people proactively working on solutions; biodynamic beekeepers, organic farmers, and some urban beekeepers in the heart of the Bronx who are risking actual imprisonment for maintaining their rooftop hives (obviously, there are some ridiculous laws that are screaming to be stricken from the books). The film is beautifully photographed, well-paced and features a lovely score by Jami Sieber. I’ll tell you one thing- after watching this you’ll never take that jar of honey for granted again.

SIFF 2010: Nowhere Boy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood, which is the toppermost of the poppermost on my SIFF list so far this year. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

SIFF 2010: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a frenetic and cacophonous biopic that attempts to paint a portrait of the late proto-punk rocker Ian Dury…with rather broad strokes. Andy Serkis does do an amazing job at convincingly affecting the polio-twisted physicality and equally twisted persona of the man who gave us classics like “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”, “Spasticus Autisicus” and the eponymous anthem, which has also become an oft-repeated catchphrase.

Despite some rousing music numbers and a vastly entertaining Serkis (playing his gruff-voiced Dury like a cross between Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret and Robert Newton’s Long John Silver in Treasure Island), director Mat Whitecross (who seems heavily influenced  by Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz) and screenwriter Paul Viraugh never quite get a handle (or a rhythm stick?) on what it was that made Dury tick.

SIFF 2010: The Extra Man **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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SIFF’s opening night film is an uneven, yet at times drolly amusing dramedy from American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The directors co-scripted with Jonathan Ames (adapting from his source novel). Once again, Berman and Pulcini plunge into a writer’s mind-well, two N.Y.C. writers-a young aspiring novelist (Paul Dano) obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a playwright (Kevin Kline), who rents him a room. Both characters’ eccentricities pile up faster than you can say “cross-dressers and gigolos”. The film is a quirky, oddball mash-up of The Producers and Midnight Cowboy. John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes also join the fray. Kline’s wondrously insane performance is the main attraction, and Dano officially confirms what I have suspected for some time now: he is the Bud Cort of his generation.

SIFF 2010: Son of Babylon ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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Son of Babylon  is a tremendously moving “road movie” from Iraq, Set in 2003, weeks after the fall of Saddam, it follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they travel south to Nasiriyah, the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War.

As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert (via foot, hitched rides, and alarmingly overstuffed buses) a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Sometimes with levity; “I’m going to go call Sadaam,” a man says to Ahmed with a wink as he excuses himself to go take a leak.  At other times, with understated eloquence; when one of their travel companions questions the futility of the pair’s fruitless search through the morass of mass grave sites spanning Saddam’s killing fields, the grandmother says “Losing our sons is like losing our souls.” The man’s mute reaction speaks volumes.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji  and screenwriter Jennifer Norridge have created something that has been conspicuously absent in the growing list of Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who  get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. With  few exceptions (David O. Russell’s Three Kings comes to mind), most of the Western-produced films about the Iraqi conflicts have generally portrayed the Iraqis as either faceless heavies, or at best, “local color”.

While the film makers do allude to some of the politics involved,  the narrative is constructed in such a way that, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bombs or Saddam’s own pogroms becomes moot. This is a universal story about human beings, rendered in a  direct, neorealist style that recalls Vitorrio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

If the film has a message, it is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, who is also searching for a missing loved one at a mass gravesite sets her own suffering aside for a moment to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder and says “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish, but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.”

There’s one thing I can say for certain regarding this emotionally shattering film (aside that it should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else on the planet who wields the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

SIFF 2009: Poppy Shakespeare ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Sometimes I get a little bit of a twitch when a movie breaks down the “fourth wall” and a protagonist starts talking to the audience in the opening scene. When it works, it can be quite engaging (Alfie); when it doesn’t (SLC Punk), it seems to double the running time of the film (and not in a good way). In the case of Poppy Shakespeare, the device pays off in spades, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and acting chops of an up-and-coming young British thespian by the name of Anna Maxwell Martin (remember that name!).

Martin plays “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up ostensibly as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night). In an introductory scene (reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), we learn that most of the patients in Poppy’s particular day ward appear to gather not so much for the therapy group sessions, but to swap tips on the latest loopholes in England’s socialized health care system. Poppy is a bit of a rock star in the group, due to the savvy she has developed in working the system to her maximum advantage (she’s crazy, alright…like a fox).

She is a polar opposite to Cuckoo’s Nest hero R.P. McMurphy. Rather than looking for ways to break out of the laughing house, she is always scamming ways to avoid being discharged from state-sponsored care (bye-bye gravy train). She seems perfectly happy to bide time at the hospital by day, and make a beeline to her lonely flat at nights and weekends to gobble meds and shut in with the telly. N’s comfortable routine hits a snag, however when her doctor “assigns” her to mentor a new day patient named Poppy (Naomie Harris).

Unlike the majority of patients in the ward, Poppy’s admittance for observation has been mandated by the state, based on answers she gave on a written personality profile she filled out as part of a job application (some Orwellian overtones there). She desperately implores N to use her knowledge of the system to help her prove to the doctors that she isn’t crazy. In a Catch-22 style twist, the financially tapped Poppy realizes that the only way she can afford the services of the attorney N has recommended to her is to become eligible for “mad money”. In other words, in order to prove that she isn’t crazy, she has to first get everyone to think that she is nuts.

This may sound like a comedy; while there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare (on my way out of the screening, I asked an usher if he had a bit of rope handy). That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed an excellent sleeper a few years back called The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system reminded me a bit of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular). Harris is very affecting as Poppy, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good.

SIFF 2009: Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s ****

By Dennis Hartley

Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s is such a perfect film, that I’m almost afraid to review it. It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of your most carefree childhood memories, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

Set on the cusp of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966 (my guess), the story centers around the suburban Gauvin family. Teenaged Elise (Marianne Fortier) and her two young brothers are thrilled that school’s out for the summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; the beautiful Simone (Celine Bonnier) works as a TV journalist and her handsome husband Le Pere (Laurent Lucas) is a microbiologist. But alas, there is trouble in River City . When a marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, young Elise suddenly  finds herself as the de facto head of the family.

Thanks to the sensitive direction from Lea Pool, an intelligent and believable screenplay by Isabelle Hebert, and  some of the most extraordinary performances by child actors that I’ve seen in quite some time, I found myself completely transported back to that all-too-fleeting “secret world” of childhood. You know… that singular time of life when worries are few and everything feels possible (before that mental baggage carousel backs up with too many overstuffed suitcases, if you catch my drift).

This is one of the most beautifully photographed films I have seen recently. Daniel Jobin’s DP work should receive some kind of special award from Quebec’s tourist board, because watching this film gave me an urge to take a crash course in Quebecois, pack some fishing gear and move there immediately. This is my personal favorite at this year’s SIFF, and I hope that it finds wider distribution- tres bientot.

SIFF 2009: OSS 117: Lost in Rio ***

By Dennis Hartley

SIFF’s Closing Night Gala selection this year is OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which is the sequel to OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was a huge hit at the festival back in 2006. Who is this “OSS 117” of which I speak, you may ask? He is the cheerfully sexist, jingoistic, folkway-challenged, and generally clueless French secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who is played once again to comic perfection by Jean Dujardin. In my review of the first film, I described why I thought Dujardin was a real discovery:

He has a marvelous way of underplaying his comedic chops that borders on genius. He portrays his well-tailored agent with the same blend of arrogance and elegance that defined Sean Connery’s 007, but tempers it with an undercurrent of obliviously graceless social bumbling that matches Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

After viewing the second entry in this series, I have to stand by my assertion that Dujardin is a bloody genius. In this outing (which moves the time line ahead about 10 years or so to the Summer of Love) Hubert is assigned to assist a trio of Israeli Mossad agents as they hunt down the son of a Nazi war criminal in South America. As in the first film, the plot is really moot here; it’s all about the killer combo of Dujardin’s riotous characterization and director Michel Hazanavicius’ knack for distilling the very quintessence of those classic 60s spy capers. As I noted in my review of the first film:

Unlike the Austin Powers films, which utilizes the spy spoof motif primarily as an excuse for Mike Meyers to string together an assortment of glorified SNL sketches and (over) indulge in certain scatological obsessions, this film remains  true and even respectful to the genre and era that it aspires to parody. The acting tics, production design, costuming, music, use of rear-screen projection, even the choreography of the action scenes are so pitch-perfect that if you were to screen the film side by side with one of the early Bond entries…you would swear the films were produced the very same year.

I will say that some of the novelty of the character has worn off (that’s the sophomore curse that any sequel has to weather) but this is still a thoroughly entertaining film, and I hope that Hazanavicius and Dujardin have some more projects on the horizon. I’m there.

SIFF 2009: Mid-August Lunch ***

By Dennis Hartley

Eccentric ladyland.

And now for a palette cleanser…a wonderful slice-of-life charmer from Italy called Mid-August Lunch (aka Pranza di ferragosto). The film was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the gangster drama Gomorra). Slight in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. Giovanni doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of her is his “job”. He says that without a hint of irony; in fact Giovanni seems to enjoy being his mother’s fulltime caregiver. He is the quintessential “good son”, from cooking her a fresh breakfast in the morning to tucking her in at night.

Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his almost saintly countenance is put to the test when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion to the countryside with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent due on the apartment, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up the next day with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call to give him a routine checkup, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy). The setup is kind of like an “inside-out” variation on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, now that I think about it.

This is one of those magical little films where you’re not constantly being reminded that there’s a person behind the camera making “life” happen, but rather, life seems to be happening around the person behind the camera (if you catch my meaning). It’s all the little moments that really make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying some white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

SIFF 2009: Telstar ***

By Dennis Hartley

It’s weird kismet that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life.

Similar to his U.S.  counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded, signature “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborate “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians, state-of-the-art studios and a huge echo chamber.

Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentation was fueled by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, well, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described as follows in a 2003 review that I published on Amazon:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. “I Hear a New World” was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to have a happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into the more soap opera-ish aspects of Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with his protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (the plan didn’t work). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered much of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. The most well-known example is reenacted, which is the time that Meek turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.

Still, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-de-force, and he is ably supported by some other fine turns, particularly from Tom Burke, who plays the supremely odd and spooky Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve some of those pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and frequently provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.