SIFF 2018: The Place ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Much of the “horror” in Paolo Genoveses’ horror anthology is left to the imagination, which is not dissimilar to what an enigmatic benefactor who holds court at a diner requires of his “clients” – if they want their wishes to come true. This deadpan “genie” hands out dubious assignments to desperate souls. There’s an opt-out, but few take it. Slow to start, and somewhat marred by repetitive staging, but becomes more gripping as it chugs along.

(Plays May 24 & May 26)

SIFF 2018: Hot Mess ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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I’ll confess, I go into any film labelled as a “mumblecore slacker comedy” with a bit of “old man yelling at whiny millennials to get off his lawn” trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had watching writer-director Lucy Coleman’s, uh, mumblecore slacker comedy from Down Under. Comedian-playwright Sarah Gaul is endearing as a 25 year-old budding playwright and college dropout who suffers from a perennial lack of focus, both in her artistic and amorous pursuits. For example, she expends an inordinate amount of her creative juice composing songs about Toxic Shock Syndrome. She becomes obsessed with a divorced guy who seems “nice” but treats her with increasing indifference once they’ve slept together. And so on. The narrative is…lax, and the film meanders, but there are a lot of belly laughs. Stay with those closing credits, or you’ll miss “The Tampon Song” (I couldn’t breathe).

(Plays May 26)

SIFF 2018: Happy Birthday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Remember that generation-gap comedy, The Impossible Years? The one where David Niven plays a Professor of Psychology who has to deal with with the embarrassment caused by his free-willed hippie daughter’s shenanigans? Writer-director Christos Georgiou’s family melodrama reminded me of that 1968 film…except here Niven is a Greek cop, and his teenage daughter is a wannabe anarchist. After Dad spots his daughter hurling projectiles at him and fellow officers during a demonstration, tension at home comes to full boil. Mom intervenes; insisting the pair take a time out for a weekend at the family’s country home-where they can hopefully reconcile. What ensues is a kind of family therapy session, which becomes analogous to the sociopolitical turmoil plaguing modern Greece. The film is slow to start, but it becomes quite affecting.

(Plays May 26 and May 30)

SIFF 2018: Angels Wear White ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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An orphaned teenager without work papers becomes a pawn in a collusion between her sleazy boss and corrupt officials, who scramble to cover up a local politician’s sexual assault of two primary school girls at the hotel where she’s employed as a maid. There’s no sugarcoating in writer-director Vivian Qu’s drama about the systemic exploitation of women in Chinese society. Qu directs her younger actors with great sensitivity; particularly when handling the more difficult material.

(Plays May 25 & May 30)

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering (and it knows its audience: anti-corporatist liberals like moi!).

(Plays May 23 & May 24)

SIFF 2018: After the War **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Director Annarita Zambrano’s feature film debut concerns a left-wing radical who fled his native Italy for political asylum in France after assassinating a judge in the 1980s. Now, 20 years later, the French government has rescinded his extradition protection; and to compound his anxiety, a professor in Italy is murdered in the name of the old revolutionary cell he founded. When several of his ex-compatriots are taken into custody, he and his 16 year-old daughter go underground. It’s similar in theme to Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, but not as involving; Zambrano’s film starts strong, but gets too draggy and dramatically flat.

(Plays May 26)

SIFF 2018: Sansho the Bailiff ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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The great Japanese director Kenji Mazoguchi made nearly 100 films between 1923 and his death in 1956 (he was only 58). This 1954 drama is one of his most admired and beautifully photographed efforts, which is why its recent 4K restoration gives cause for celebration. Based on an 11th-Century folk tale, it’s the story of what happens to the wife and children of a beneficent governor after he is arrested and sent into exile. While traveling to reunite with him, his family is kidnapped by bandits. His wife ends up in a brothel; his son and daughter are sold to the eponymous bailiff, a sadistic land owner. Their subsequent struggles add up to a moving observation on the human dichotomy-from the most unfeeling cruelty to the most selfless act of compassion.

SIFF 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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You thought America’s Got Talent was a mind-numbing celebration of mediocrity? Wait ‘til you get a load of China’s “digital celebrity universe”. Equipped with little more than a digital camera, an internet connection, and even less talent, China’s most popular online celebrities gear up for a contest in which whomever successfully begs the most money from their fans wins. A truly bizarre subculture. Fascinating subject, but this documentary becomes an endurance contest for the viewer.

The 2018 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 12, 2018)

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It’s nearly time for the 44th Seattle International Film Festival (May 17th to June 10th). SIFF is showing 433 shorts, features and docs from 90 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 2018 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 socio-political bent. After the War (France) is a drama about an Italian insurgent living in France with his teenaged daughter. When he loses his asylum status, his radicalized past comes back to haunt him and his family. The Swedish doc A Good Week for Democracy looks at an annual political free-for-all that gives thousands of lobbyists, politicians a chance and voters to get up close and personal. Crime + Punishment (USA) is a doc examining the NYPD’s quota-based practices, focusing on a group of minority police officers bravely willing to risk their careers by helping expose systemic corruption.

I’m always up for a music doc or biopic. Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records (USA) is about the eponymous Chicago record store-turned underground record label that spearheaded the 80s industrial music scene by nurturing acts like Ministry and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. I’m intrigued by The King (USA), in which director Eugene Jarecki gets behind the wheel of Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce and goes on a cross-country trek to paint an analogous portrait of both America and Presley’s rise and erm, fall. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Japan) profiles the Oscar-winning composer and activist, who returns to the recording studio after a lengthy hiatus due to his health issues.

Docs and biopics about women we love: Nico, 1988 (Italy) dramatizes the final years of the Warhol Factory alum and Velvet Underground singer as she traverses Europe, finding her voice as a solo act and battling addiction. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (U.K.) takes a look at iconoclastic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her considerable influence on punk and alternative fashion couture. Love, Gilda (USA) uses newly discovered audio tapes and rare home movies to tell the story of SNL icon Gilda Radner.

A couple of intriguing movies about the movies are on this year’s schedule. I’m pretty jazzed to check out Godard Mon Amour (France) as it is the newest film from the always wonderful Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies).  The film dramatizes the 1968 romance between director Jean-Luc Godard and his acting muse Anne Wiazemsky. One of my favorite directors is profiled in Hal (USA), a doc about the late great Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Shampoo, etc.). SIFF is also serving up a special archival presentation of Ashby’s 1979 classic, Being There.

There are thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas aplenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bloody Milk (France) is a psychological thriller about a paranoid dairy farmer who buys into a YouTube conspiracy theory about a deadly bovine disease and “recklessly sacrifices one of his cows and then goes to extreme lengths to cover up his tracks”. From Denmark, The Guilty promises to be an “innovative, claustrophobic thriller” about an ex-street cop turned emergency center dispatcher who becomes a caller’s only hope for survival. The Third Murder (Japan) is a courtroom drama about a career defense lawyer having an existential crisis over what he does for a living (shades of And Justice for All).

In the drama department: This year’s Opening Night Gala film, The Bookshop (U.K) stars Emily Mortimer as a widow who opens a bookstore in a provincial village on the English coast in 1959 and finds herself at odds with the chary locals. From Canada, the Quebecois film Fake Tattoos digs into the relationship that develops between an introverted 18 year-old punk rocker with a troubled past and a free-spirited young woman after they meet at a concert. I’m very interested to see Let the Sunshine In (France) for two reasons: Juliet Binoche (one of the best actresses strolling the Earth) and director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau travail, White Material, etc.). Who cares what it’s “about”?

Funny stuff: Sorry to Bother You (USA) is this year’s Centerpiece Gala film; billed as “an off-the-wall, neon, drug-fueled black comedy” executed with “surrealist fanaticism”. Right in my proverbial wheelhouse. Don’t disappoint me, Centerpiece Gala selection. I’m getting an Amy Schumer vibe from Hot Mess (Australia), which follows the romantic travails of a young woman who is “a budding playwright, a college drop-out, and a complete screw-up” who likes to write “songs about toxic shock syndrome”. I’m there!

One of the most anticipated films this year is the Closing Night Gala pick, Gus van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Joaquin Phoenix stars in this biopic about cartoonist John Callahan, who became a quadriplegic following an automobile accident.

Midnight movies! In Praise of Nothing (Serbia) is a “satirical story time parable for adults” based on Erasmus’ 1511 essay “In Praise of Folly”. A “personification” of a character named Nothing (voiced by Iggy Pop!) narrates in simple rhyme, with globe-trotting footage from 62 cinematographers (who were instructed by the director to “shoot nothing”). Wow. Sounds like The Blair Witch Project meets Koyannisqatsi.

If horror is your thing, The Field Guide to Evil (Austria) could be the ticket. It’s an anthology based on dark folk tales from around the world. And there’s already some “buzz” from Seattle’s over-the-counter culture regarding the Austrian film “ * ” (star symbol), a collage of starry footage, assembled from all of film history, in chronological order. Vape pen on standby!

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll be plowing through the catalog and sharing reviews with you beginning next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF site for full details on the films, event screenings, special guests, panel discussions and more.

When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2018)

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I don’t know if you’ve been following the story about the Central American caravan, but once they reached Tijuana last week, the media seemed to lose interest (it’s not as captivating as the new royal baby, I suppose). Well, media outside of Fox, where pundits continue to gin up the nativist hysteria that kicked off with Trump’s remarks claiming that the women within the relatively small group of asylum seekers “are [being] raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before”. He has also Tweeted he won’t let them through.

While there’s certainly nothing new about the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spouting nearly all his adult life (much less as “our” president), there’s been something particularly sickening to me about the racist dog-piling atop this group of people. Sure, we don’t know all their personal histories, but they are still human beings:

[from the San Diego Union-Tribune]

The final remnants of the Central American caravan began to disappear in Tijuana Friday after the last group of asylum seekers entered the United States.

Volunteers and migrants who plan to stay in Mexico slowly dismantled tents and canopies, picked up trash, folded blankets and swept dirt from the ground they slept on since arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday.

As the last members of the caravan entered the U.S. – about 70 of a total of 228 – some said goodbye to loved ones. Those staying behind include people who need more legal help before crossing into the U.S. and those who have already been deported and have slim changes of asylum.

Mario Mejia, 34, of El Salvador, said farewell to his wife. The couple planned to claim asylum together, but lawyers told Mejia his case for asylum is weak.

Mejia was deported from the U.S. five times between 2010 and 2013 after getting caught crossing the border illegally in the Arizona desert.

“The last time I was deported I spent a year and a half in prison,” he said. “The judge told me if I tried again I’d serve twice as much.”

Apart from his deportations from the U.S., Mejia has been deported from Mexico eight times. He’s applied for asylum in both countries but has been denied.

Mejia left El Salvador when he was 14 after members of MS-13 threatened to kill him if he didn’t join their gang.

“It’s a hard life,” he said. “I’ve never had a stable place to live in.”

As his wife walked toward the San Ysidro border crossing Friday, Mejia told her to keep moving forward and promised to call her brothers, who live in the U.S., to make sure they take care of her.

Later, as he packed his belongings into a backpack and helped clean up the caravan’s makeshift tent city, he pondered his future. He said he plans to stay in Tijuana and hopes to find a job in construction until he makes enough money for a bus ticket to Mexicali, where he has friends and better job opportunities.

From there? “I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s just one of the stories. It breaks your heart (if you have one). Here’s the thing-that’s not just Mario’s story. Outside of Native Americans, it is all our stories; all Americans. None of us are really “from” here; if you start tracing your family’s genealogy, I’ll bet you don’t have to go back too many generations to find ancestors who were born on foreign soil. Some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that fact.

That’s why I think it’s time for some music therapy. I’ve chosen 10 songs that speak to the immigrant experience and serve to remind us of America’s multicultural foundation.

“Across the Borderline” – Freddy Fender

This song (co-written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Dickinson) has been covered many times, but this heartfelt version by the late Freddy Fender is the best. Fender’s version was used as part of the soundtrack for Tony Richardson’s 1982 film The Border.

“America” – Neil Diamond

Diamond’s anthemic paean to America’s multicultural heritage first appeared in the soundtrack for Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (thankfully, Diamond’s stirring song has had a longer shelf life than the film, which left audiences and critics underwhelmed). Weirdly, it was included on a list of songs deemed as “lyrically questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for airplay in an internal memo issued by the brass at Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Go figure.

“America” (movie soundtrack version) – West Side Story

This classic number from the stage musical and film West Side Story (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) is both a celebration of Latin immigrant culture and a slyly subversive take down of nativist-driven ethnic stereotyping.

“Ave Que Emigra” – Gaby Morena

Speaking of exploding stereotypes-here’s a straightforward song explaining why cultural assimilation and cultural identity are not mutually exclusive. From a 2012 NPR review:

As a song that speaks of being an immigrant, [Gaby Moreno’s “Ave Que Emigra”] strikes the perfect emotional chords. So many songs on that topic are gaudy, one-dimensional woe-is-me tales. Moreno’s story of coming to America is filled with simple one-liners like “tired of running, during hunting season” (evocative of the grotesque reality Central Americans face today at home and in their journeys north). Her cheerful ranchera melody, with its sad undertone, paints a perfect portrait of the complex emotional state most of us immigrants inhabit: a deep sadness for having to leave mixed with the excitement of the adventure that lies ahead, plus the joy and relief of having “made it.”

No habla espanol? No problema! You can see the English translation of the lyrics here.

“Buffalo Soldier” – Bob Marley & the Wailers

Sadly, not all migrants arrived on America’s shores of their own volition; and such is the unfortunate legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As Malcolm X once bluntly put it, “[African Americans] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the Rock was landed on us.” Bob Marley entitled this song as reference to the nickname for the black U.S. Calvary regiments that fought in the post-Civil War Indian conflicts. Marley’s lyrics seem to mirror Malcom X’s pointed observation above:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

 I’m just a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Arlo Guthrie

Woody Guthrie originally penned this “ripped from the headlines” protest piece as a poem in the wake of a 1948 California plane crash (the music was composed some years later by Martin Hoffman, and first popularized as a song by Pete Seegar). Among the 32 passengers who died were 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. Guthrie noticed that most press and radio reports at the time identified the 4 crew members by name, while dehumanizing the workers by referring to them en masse as “deportees” (plus ca change…). His son Arlo’s version is very moving.

“The Immigrant”– Neil Sedaka

Reflecting  back on his 1975 song, Neil Sedaka shared this tidbit in a 2013 Facebook post:

I wrote [“The Immigrant”] for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, “Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful.”

I concur with John. It’s Sedaka’s most beautifully crafted tune, musically and lyrically.

“Immigration Blues” – Chris Rea

In 2005, prolific U.K. singer-songwriter Chris Rea released a massive 11-CD box set album with 137 tracks called Blue Guitars (I believe that sets some sort of record). The collection is literally a journey through blues history, with original songs “done in the style of…[insert your preferred blues sub-genre here]” from African origins to contemporary iterations. This track is from “Album 10: Latin Blues”. The title says it all.

“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash

After an unpleasant experience in the early 70s getting hassled by a U.S. Customs agent, U.K.-born Graham Nash (who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1978) didn’t get mad, he got even by immortalizing his tormentor in a song. The tune is one of the highlights of the 1972 studio album he recorded with David Crosby, simply titled Crosby and Nash. I love that line where he describes his immigration form as “big enough to keep me warm.”

“Thousands are Sailing”– The Pogues

An ode to the Irish migrant wave that came in the wake of the Great Famine of the mid-1800s.