Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2011: The First Grader ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2011)

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Even though I could glean from frame one that The First Grader (this year’s SIFF opening night selection) was one of those dramas expressly engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it. Produced by the BBC and beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film dramatizes the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who, fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, makes a beeline for his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books.

Bemusement from the school officials (who initially balk) turns to respect for the aging gentleman’s quiet determination to realize his life-long dream, especially from the school’s compassionate principal (Naomie Harris). As you may have already guessed, there is much more to the protagonist’s story; through flashbacks we learn that he was a freedom fighter against the ruling British during the nearly decade-long Mau-Mau uprising that took place in Kenya in the 1950s. The full sacrifice he made and personal tragedy he suffered comes slowly and deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement that packs a powerfully emotional gut punch.

SIFF 2011: Trollhunter ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Like previous entries in horror’s “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. And always remember: while hunting trolls…it’s best to leave the Christians at home!

SIFF 2011: Killing Bono ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Killing Bono is a darkly funny, bittersweet and thoroughly engaging rock ‘n’ roll fable from the UK, based on a true story. A cross between Anvil: The Story of Anvil and I Shot Andy Warhol, it revisits familiar territory: the trials and tribulations of the “almost famous”.

Dublin-based writer/aspiring rock star Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes) co-founds a band called Yeah! Yeah! with his brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) right about the same time that their school chum Paul Hewson puts together a quartet who call themselves The Hype. The two outfits engage in a friendly race to see who can get signed to a label first. Eventually, the Hype change their name to U2, Hewson reinvents himself as “Bono” and-well, you know.

In the meantime, the McCormick brothers go nowhere fast, as the increasingly embittered and obsessed Neil plays Salieri to Bono’s Mozart. There are likely very few people on the planet who know what it feels like to be Pete Best (aside from Pete Best)-but I suspect that one of the players in this particular drama knows that feeling-and my heart goes out to him (no spoilers!). Nick Hamm directs a wonderful cast, which includes a fine swan song performance from the great Pete Postlethwaite (R.I.P.).

SIFF 2011: The Trip ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Pared down into feature film length from the 6-episode BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner With Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold.

SIFF 2011: Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Well…it was intriguing on paper.

So who was Serge Gainsbourg? He was a so-so painter, questionable poet and inexplicable pop music icon (well, in France). Nonetheless, he apparently was quite the babe magnet (he bedded Bardot and wedded English supermodel Jane Birkin, the latter with with whom he co-created his Greatest Hit-the talented Charlotte Gainsbourg).

His music career was largely built on the success of one tune-“Je t’aime…moi non plus”, featuring Birkin essentially feigning an orgasm at the denouement, over an organ riff suspiciously similar to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (surely paving the way for future seduction mix tape staples like “Love to Love You Baby” and “Jungle Fever”).

Star Eric Elmosnino bears an uncanny resemblance and chain-smokes Gitanes with conviction, but director Joann Sfar seems more enamored with his own cinematic technique than with his subject; it’s an impressionistic study that barely makes any impression at all.

SIFF 2011: Bruce Lee, My Brother **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Co-directors Manfred Wong (who also wrote the screenplay) and Wai Man Yip based this biopic on the memoir of  Bruce Lee’s younger brother Robert (although it is interesting to note the disclaimer in the opening credits that disavows any endorsement by or participation with Lee’s estate). Not that the film necessarily dishes any dirt. In fact, it’s a relatively tame, by-the-numbers affair, recounting young Lee Jun-fan’s formative years growing up in Hong Kong (he was born in San Francisco, but his acting-troupe parents were not U.S. citizens). For a movie about someone who went on to become one of filmdom’s premier action movie superstars, there’s very little action. Still, it’s slick and entertaining (if short on insight) and leading man Aarif Rahman plays his role with verve.

SIFF 2011: Another Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2011)

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Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention.

Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles.After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Oh-the “sci-fi” part? On the night of the accident, a duplicate Earth was discovered (doppelgangers!). Assuming “they” discovered “us” (or vice-versa) simultaneously, scientists postulate that synchronicity was broken at that instant. Kind of leaves the door open for second chances-or does it? I’m not telling. See it yourself-and prepare to have your mind blown.

SIFF 2010: WIlliam S. Burroughs: A Man Within ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)

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Director Yony Leyser has shouldered an ambitious undertaking for his debut -attempting to decipher one of the more enigmatic literary figures of the 20th century. As he so beautifully illustrates in his film, William S. Burroughs was more than just a gifted writer or one of the founding fathers of the Beats; he was like some cross-generational counterculture/proto-punk Zeus, from whose head sprung Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Ken Kesey, William Gibson, Terence McKenna, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll and Kurt Cobain.

Yet, there was an evasive, almost alien “otherness” to him, not to mention a questionable personal history. As John Waters so glibly points out in the film, he “…was a hard guy to like”, referring to Burroughs the junkie, gun nut and wife-killer (accident, so the legend goes). Leyser gathers up all of these conflicting aspects of Burroughs’ makeup and does an admirable job at providing some insights. There’s a lot of rare archival footage, mixed in with observations from friends and admirers like Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith and Peter Weller.

SIFF 2010: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)

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Did you know Ray Bradbury was only paid $400 for the original serialized version of Fahrenheit 451 published in Playboy in 1954? That’s one of the interesting tidbits I picked up from this lengthy yet absorbing documentary about the iconoclastic founder and publisher of the magazine that I, personally, have always read strictly for the articles (of clothing that were conspicuously absent-no, I’m kidding). Seriously-there’s little of prurient interest here. In a manner of speaking, it’s mostly about “the articles”.

Brigitte Berman (director of the excellent 1985 documentary Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got) interweaves well-selected archival footage and present day interviews with Hefner and friends (as well as some of his detractors) to paint a fascinating portrait. Whether you admire him or revile him, as you watch the film you come to realize that there is probably no other public figure of the past 50 years who has so cannily tapped in to or (perhaps arguably) so directly influenced the sexual, social, political and pop-cultural zeitgeist of liberated free-thinkers everywhere.

SIFF 2010: Miss Nobody *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2010)

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“Black comedy” is a fickle art form. Too dark-nobody laughs. Too “ha-ha” funny, and it’s just comedy. One thing that does not work for black comedy is “cute”-although it can provide a touch of irony, if the doses are carefully measured (see John Waters). Miss Nobody, which premiered at SIFF this week, is just  too cute for its own purposes.

Leslie Bibb stars as mousy (but cute) secretary Sarah Jane, a “nobody” in the food chain at a large pharmaceutical company. At the urging of her workplace confidante (Missi Pyle) she applies for an open junior executive position. Much to her surprise, she gets the job-only to have it snatched from her by a weaselly, Machiavellian corporate climber (Brandon Routh) who offers her a job as his executive assistant with transparent pseudo-sincerity. Sarah Jane swallows her humiliation and disappointment and takes the offer anyway. Her mother (Kathy Baker) sees a silver lining, urging her to go ahead and dig for the gold. WTF, Sarah Jane figures, if she can hook up with her new boss, she can at least become “Mrs.” Machiavellian corporate climber (besides-he’s, you know, so cute).

Her “plan B” however is dashed when, in the midst of putting the moves on her in his apartment late one night, her boss lets it slip that he already has a fiancee. While physically struggling to put the kibosh on his advances, Sarah Jane inadvertently causes his death by freak accident. She is still in shock the next  day at work, fully expecting to be “found out”. She receives an even bigger shock when she is called into the chief executive’s office, not to be turned over to the authorities, but to be congratulated on her promotion-to her late boss’ position. The gears in her brain click, and a more sinister “plan B” for climbing the ladder emerges. What a kooky setup!

It’s been a while since I sat so stone-faced through a “comedy”. I could sense that director Tim Cox and writer Doug Steinberg were going for a Serial Mom vibe, but their film plays more like a glorified episode of Sex in the City, right down to the chirpy narration by the protagonist. Cox’s film has a slick, glossy look, but the flat and predictable story line drags it down. Even the usually dependable Adam Goldberg (or as I like to  call him, “Gen Y’s Joey Bishop”) can’t save this one. The film seemed awfully similar to a 1997 indie starring Carol Kane, called Office Killer (which I rather enjoyed). Maybe it’s just bad timing-the employment situation is grim enough these days.