Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2008: Half-Life **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Global warming, family meltdown.

Variety has already beat me to the punch (damn you, sirs!) and dubbed writer-director Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life as an “Asian-American Beauty”, so I’m going to describe this provocative suburban dramedy as The Ice Storm meets Donnie Darko. An audacious melange of melodramatic soap opera, dark comedy, metaphysical conundrum and apocalyptic doom, the beautifully photographed Half-Life ambitiously poses a causality dilemma: Which came first, the dystopian society or the dysfunctional family?

The dystopia is our near “future”. Global warming has created worldwide coastal flooding, displacing millions. The sun (possibly dying) belches massive solar flares, wreaking havoc with technology and environment. Perky news mannequins chirp about a Tiananmen Square style massacre of environmental activists and tsk-tsk over a family murder-suicide conducted via chainsaw. A world gone mad!

Phang uses this sense of looming catastrophe as a metaphor for the emotional storms raging within the souls of her protagonists (much the same way that Ang Lee did in his dark suburban drama The Ice Storm) The global chaos serves as the backdrop for the travails of the single-parented Wu family, living in a Spielbergian California desert suburb and led by the exasperated Saura (Julia Nickson).

Saura is the classic “mad housewife”; perpetually exasperated and dead on her feet from trying to juggle a full time job and still spend quality time attending to the needs of a live-in boyfriend (Ben Redgrave) and her two children. Saura, along with her introverted 8-year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and confused teenaged daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) have all been dealing with abandonment issues since Dad took a hike some time back.

Young Timothy, who becomes the central character, escapes from all the fucked-up adult behavior that surrounds him (and possibly averts years of therapy in the process) by losing himself in escapist reveries, triggered by his imaginative crayon doodles. These brief but visually arresting scenes are nicely interpreted with a colorful blend of CG enhancement and rotoscoping techniques.  Unfortunately, Phang makes a misstep by taking this concept to a more literal plane. I’ll just say the film veers off into Carrie territory.

Phang wrestles good  performances from a mostly unknown cast, particularly from Nickson, Lake, and young Agate. Redgrave is quite effective playing a type of creepy suburban WASP character that has become an identifiable staple in twisty indie family angst dramas (e.g. Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, Dylan Baker in Happiness, Brad William Henke in Me and You and Everyone We Know).

I didn’t “hate” it- but I’m still vacillating as to whether or not I “liked” this film. I do think it is safe to say that Jennifer Phang shows great promise, and is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.

SIFF 2008: Sita Sings the Blues ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 7, 2008)

One early audience favorite at this year’s SIFF is  Sita Sings the Blues. This is the first full-length animated feature from cartoonist turned filmmaker Nina Paley, whose alt-comic strip Nina’s Adventures has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Reader.

Paley cheekily adapts the Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic about the doomed love between Prince Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the devoted Sita. She juxtaposes it with a neurotic examination of her own failed marriage; the result is perhaps best described as Annie Hall meets Yellow Submarine in Bollywood.

Borrowing a device from the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven, Paley literally “jazzes up” the tale with musical interludes featuring the long suffering Sita lip syncing to scratchy recordings by 1920s vocal stylist Annette Henshaw. Modern context is also provided by a parallel narrative about the travails of a modern NYC couple.

The contemporary scenes are demarcated by a stylistic departure from the computer generated animation that informs Sita’s story; Paley switches to a mix of stop-motion line drawing and rotoscoping. She also utilizes three narrators, who amusingly break through the fourth wall to debate with each other about the subtexts of the tale.

Paley’s film is actually not the first animated adaptation of this story; there is a 3 hour Japanese-Indian production from 1992 called Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama. Keeping in mind that the original Ramayana is a 24,000 couplet poem, and that this is an 80 minute film obviously taking a Cliff’s Notes approach to its venerable source material, it may not sit well with scholarly purists. But for those who have no objection to an imaginative deconstruction of such a culturally archetypal tale, Sita Sings the Blues is a lively, tuneful, funny and eye-popping cinematic treat

SIFF 2007: The Life of Reilly (***1/2) & Delirious (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2007)

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This week, we’ll examine a pair of films that offer two different perspectives on the business we call “show”- from the inside looking out, and from the outside looking in.

The Life of Reilly is a new performance film featuring a veritable tour de force of masterful showmanship from a very unlikely source-Charles Nelson Reilly. Yes, I’m referring to that Charles Nelson Reilly, instantly recognizable by his flamboyant demeanor and propensity for catty zingers, and best known for his ubiquitous presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward (Younger readers may recognize him as a recurring character on the X Files and its spin off series Millennium.)

Reilly, who passed away in May of this year, once resignedly predicted that all of his obits would undoubtedly contain the phrase “game show fixture” somewhere in the lead sentence. Actually, it would surprise many people to learn that Reilly was in fact classically trained as a stage actor. It certainly surprised a group of college students once attending one of Reilly’s master acting classes, when they were unexpectedly treated to a lengthy but enthusiastically received performance piece (improvised on the spot), in response to a simple question: “How did you become an actor?” The incident inspired Reilly’s autobiographical one man show Save it for the Stage. Reilly had officially ended the run before he was asked to perform it one final time (in 2004) for this film.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. Reilly had a tragicomic family background tailor-made for a stage show (an overbearing mother, institutionalized father and a live-in aunt with a lobotomy) and he milks it for all its worth. His mother’s favorite admonishment, “Save it for the stage!” becomes the teenage Reilly’s secret mantra as he begins to gravitate toward the boards.

After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s (you won’t believe your ears as Reilly rattles off the names from the actual roll call), he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.” In a brilliant callback later in the play, Reilly gets the last laugh when he recalls poring over TV Guide every week at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” At once funny, moving, and inspiring, The Life of Reilly is a real winner.

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Our second SIFF feature this week is the latest offering from writer-director Tom DeCillo, Delirious. (Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.) DiCillo returns to the same sharply observed, navel-gazing territory he explored in his previous films The Real Blonde and Living in Oblivion, namely, pointed meditations on the personal and artistic angst that performers (and all those who take succor from their celebrity) must suffer as they busily claw their way to fame and fortune.

DeCillo regular Steve Buscemi portrays the peevish Les Galantine, a bottom feeding paparazzi who fancies himself as the heir apparent to Richard Avedon. We are introduced to Les in a scene that strongly recalls Martin Scorsese introduction of the desperate and needy autograph hounds in The King of Comedy; a group of photographers hurl insults and elbows at each other as they jostle for position waiting for a glimpse of the ridiculously named K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), a wispy pop diva. We observe as Les establishes himself as the alpha parasite, shoving his way to the front of the swarm.

Also on hand is an aspiring actor turned homeless bum named Toby Grace portrayed with wide-eyed, angelic, erm, grace by Michael Pitt. Quite by accident, Toby literally stumbles into affording Les the money shot of the diva as she steals out a side door. Toby subsequently ingratiates himself into an overnight stay on Les’ couch, and, with the opportunistic instinct of a street person, proceeds to convince the initially suspicious photographer that he needs an assistant to help him get more of those page one tabloid photos (a job he will gladly fill in exchange for room and board).

To avoid spoilers, let’s just say serendipity (and a tremendous suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer) eventually lands the homeless Toby into a plum role in a hot new TV series, and a star is born, greatly complicating his friendship with the now embittered and still-struggling Les, who feels Toby is “his” discovery (Pitt is basically reprising the same All About Eve-styled character he portrayed in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

DiCillo isn’t exactly breaking new ground either, but he executes it with his patented blend of darkly comic cynicism, tempered by an occasional touch of magical realism. Buscemi is at his “lovable weasel” best here, and the strong supporting cast includes the always dependable indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan (Who?! If you saw him, you would say “Oh yeah-that guy.”) and Gina Gershon, who displays a real flair for vicious comedy as a cutthroat agent (her character is sort of a female version of Ari Gold from HBO’s Entourage.) Also look for Elvis Costello, as himself in a hilarious cameo. I wouldn’t call this DeCillo’s best film, but fans of “backstage” tales are sure to get some jollies out of it.

SIFF 2007: The Planet ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2007)

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This week we’re looking at The Planet, a powerful new Scandinavian documentary. The “planet” in question would be the Earth. The issue would be how we are methodically destroying it. Now, I know what you’re flashing on (and it has something to do with a former VP, PowerPoint presentations and a Melissa Etheridge song, right?).

Yes, directors Johan Soderberg and Michael Stenberg do trod upon much of the same ground that was covered in An Inconvenient Truth, but speaking from a purely cinematic viewpoint, I would have to say they execute their message in a less prosaic, more attention-grabbing manner. (Before I get jumped in an alley, let me say that I would recommend An Inconvenient Truth to strangers on the street, it is an important film, and Al Gore is a sincere and passionate crusader, but there is something about the man’s languid drawl that lulls me into a drowsy state of alpha. But that’s my personal problem.)

“The Planet” appears to take some visual inspiration from Godfrey Reggio’s classic observation on the global environmental zeitgeist, Koyaanisqatsi and mixes it up with sobering commentary from environmentalists, scientists and academics. The visuals are stunning, yet also distressing. Zebras and gazelles graze against the backdrop of a modern urban skyline, whilst a renowned wildlife photographer reminds us in voice-over that all those documentaries depicting boundless expanses of habitat untouched by human encroachment are just so much puerile fantasy. Kind of takes all the joy out of watching Planet Earth on Discovery HD Theater, doesn’t it?

One of the more chilling observations comes from geography professor Jared Diamond, who makes a convincing case citing Easter Island’s man-made and irretrievable ecological devastation as a microcosm of what is now occurring to the planet as a whole.

And it gets even better (er-don’t ask me about what could be happening as early as 2010).

The interviewees are all insightful, and they certainly pull no punches (viewing this film may be traumatic for depressives and those who have empathetic tendencies). In a nutshell? If we don’t change our present course, we’re fucked. And it will not be cinematic.

SIFF 2007: Monkey Warfare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 23, 2007)

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Monkey Warfare, written and directed by Reginald Harkema, is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as “off the grid” Toronto slackers Dan and Linda, who dutifully hop on their bicycles every morning at the crack of dawn to go dumpster-diving for “antiques” to sell on the internet. They live in a ramshackle rental, filled with the type of posters and memorabilia that suggest an aging hippie mindset, with a particular interest and nostalgic attachment to 1960’s radical politics.

The longtime couple’s relationship has become platonic; they interact with the polite diffidence of roommates making a conscious attempt to avoid pushing each others buttons. We quickly get the sense that Dan and Linda also have a stronger bond that transcends the relationship itself; perhaps a shared secret from their past that feeds a just-barely palpable sense of chronic paranoia tempered only by smoking pot. A lot of pot.

Panic sets in when their regular dealer is suddenly hauled off to jail. Despair quickly turns to relief when our heroine rides into town-not on a white horse, but on a bicycle (merrily flipping off honking motorists like Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here). Enter Susan (Nadia Litz) a spirited twenty-something pot dealer/budding anarchist who keeps her basket full of some heady shake she calls “B.C. Organic”.

When Dan invites Susan over to make her first weed delivery, she becomes intrigued by his extensive library of subversive literature. Dan, who is deliriously baked on the B.C. and flushed by the attention of such an inquisitive young hottie, decides to give Susan a crash course in revolutionary politics, which (hilariously) includes dusting off his old MC5 and Fugs LPs. However, when he loans her his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Dan unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between himself and Linda (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is full of great lines, and the actors deliver them in that peculiarly Canadian deadpan style (I call it the “time-released zinger”). I also like  how Harkema cleverly makes political statements without being heavy-handed.  For instance, all of the principal characters (including a gang of eco-terrorists) ride bicycles. Obviously, Harkema is thumbing his nose at the oil companies, but almost subliminally.

There is also some basis in reality; the director partially modeled the characters of Dan and Linda on the real-life “Vancouver Five”, members of the Canadian anarchist scene who were arrested in 1983 for their links to several politically motivated attacks, including an explosion at a Litton Industries factory where a component for the U.S. cruise missile was being manufactured.

By the way, if you do get an opportunity to screen this film (outside of Canada), be sure to hang around until after the credits roll. There is an audacious scene tacked on the very end in which a gentleman demonstrates, step by step, “how to make” a Molotov Cocktail as he prattles on in (non-subtitled) French (the scene was greeted with some nervous titters, even though it is mostly played for laughs.)

At any rate, it’s certainly not something you see every day at the multiplex. According to the director, who was at the screening I attended, this scene has been censored by the Canadian government and must be excised from any prints that are to be distributed in his home country. (Welcome to our brave new world.)

SIFF 2007: Kurt Cobain: About a Son ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 16, 2007)

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It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.

Needless to say, A.J. Schnack’s new rock doc Kurt Cobain: About a Son (scheduled to open in select cities in August) has certainly been a highly anticipated film here in the Emerald City (ironically, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall; I was surprised that the director, who took the stage after the film for Q & A at the SIFF screening I attended , wasn’t called out for this slight by any of the numerous flannel-wearing diehards in the audience).

The film is a reflective and uniquely impressionistic portrait of Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the documentary. Nonetheless, Schnack is holding an ace; he was given access to a series of surprisingly frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. He marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of his hometown of Aberdeen and its Washington logging country environs.

As Cobain’s self-narrated life story moves to Olympia, then inevitably to Seattle, Schnack’s POV travelogue follows right along. The combination of Cobain’s narrative voice with the visuals has an eerie effect; you begin to feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the depressing cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is almost an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist documentary Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside in order to expose the real artifact. And again, in spite of the relative dearth of actual visual images of its subject, About a Son succeeds in giving us a thoroughly intimate portrait of the artist. I also have to give a nod to the fantastic soundtrack (although Nirvana themselves are conspicuously MIA, likely due to copyright issues).

SIFF 2007: Mon Meilleur Ami (My Best Friend) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 9, 2007)

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In French director Patrice Leconte latest film, Mon Meilleur Ami (“My Best Friend”), we are introduced to glum-faced antique dealer Francois Coste (Daneil Auteil) as he attends a funeral. After the service, Francois approaches the grieving widow and mutters a few perfunctory condolences. She doesn’t seem to recognize him; he explains that her husband was a client, then after pausing a beat, asks her if it would still be okay to stop by and take a look at a piece of furniture he had arranged to appraise for him before his unexpected demise. His faux pas (and the look she shoots him) tell us everything we need to know about our protagonist’s complete and utter lack of charm.

Later, at a dinner with clients, Francois tells his business partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) about the sad lack of attendees at the funeral, an image he can’t shake. Imagine leading such a pathetic, friendless existence that no one shows up at your funeral! Catherine seizes this moment to confront Francois about his own inability to connect with people, which he naturally denies. Flustered and humiliated, Francois accepts her challenge to produce a “best friend” within the week. Francois has his work cut out for him.

Serendipity leads Francois to the perfect mark-Bruno Bouley (Dany Boon) an outgoing cab driver who seems to have an effortless manner of ingratiating himself to strangers. As we get a closer look at Bruno, he seems an unlikely mentor; he is divorced, takes anti-depressants, lives alone in a tiny apartment next door to his elderly parents, where he spends all his spare time cutting out newspaper articles and memorizing trivial facts in hopes of someday winning a fortune on a quiz show.

Initially, Francois takes an anthropological approach; he observes Bruno with the same sort of bemused detachment that Alan Bates studied Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek. What is Bruno’s secret to connecting to people…to Life? In spite of his ulterior motives, Francois begins to develop a genuine bond with Bruno, leading to some ironic twists and complications. Uh-oh, you’re thinking-we’re going to learn Life Lessons about the value of True Friendship, aren’t we? (Cue the ABC After School Special theme…)

I was reminded a wee bit of another French film, Francis Veber’s 1999 social satire The Dinner Game, in which a group of snobs, for their amusement, challenge each other to feign friendship with an “idiot” and invite him to a special dinner night, competing to see who can produce the “biggest idiot”. And of course, the “idiot” gets the last laugh, and Lessons are Learned. (Apparently, the French adore “comedies” steeped in discomfiture.)

In his previous films, Leconte has displayed a knack for delivering compelling character studies that are wistful, brooding, darkly humorous yet simultaneously uplifting and life-affirming (his 2002 masterpiece The Man on the Train resonated with me in such a deeply profound manner that I have become emotionally attached to it). I wish I could say the same for Mon Meilleur Ami.

It is certainly not a “bad” film (even lesser Laconte stands head and shoulder above most Hollywood grist) but there is a bit too much contrivance in the third act that mixes uneasily with what has preceded. I would still recommend this film, especially for the wonderful performances. Auteil, one of France’s top actors, is always worth watching, and Boon delivers nary a false note with a funny and touching performance as the ebullient yet mentally fragile Bruno.