Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

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

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

Sometimes I get a little 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. 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.

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 a rock star in the group, due to her savvy  in working the system (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

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

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 a carefree childhood, 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 on 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

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2009)

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

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

Eccentric ladyland.

This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light-ish 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. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor.

In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, 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 with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, 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).

It’s the small moments that 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 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

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

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 elements of  Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (that didn’t happen). 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. For example, Meek once 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.S till, 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-d-force.

Tom Burke is also quite good as the oddball Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and 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 in a small but memorable role as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

SIFF 2009: We Live in Public ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Marshall McLuhan is spinning.

So, how many “internet pioneers” were there, anyway? Tiresome jokes about Al Gore “inventing” the web aside, it seems every time you turn around, yet another person is credited for being the “visionary” who put “us” where “we” are today (wherever the hell that is, in the virtual sense).

Take the naked guy in the photo above, for instance. His name is Josh Harris. He’s an internet pioneer. Ever hear of him? God knows, I hadn’t, until I screened a fascinating new documentary called We Live in Public. The film was a 10-year labor of love for director Ondi Timoner (Dig!). Depending on who you ask, her subject is either an unheralded genius, or a complete loon who got lucky during the dot com boom (he’s a bit of both). By 1999, Harris had built a personal fortune of 80 million dollars by cannily presaging the explosion of social networking. In less than ten years, he was completely broke and had expatriated himself to Ethiopia.

What separates Harris from the rest of the nerdy, pocket-protected web entrepreneurs is his self-styled persona as an “artist” (he apparently was referred to by some as the “Warhol of the Web”). He considered his “art” to be his life (and the lives of others), as filtered, documented and shared through the matrix of digital technology.

In December 1999, Harris bankrolled a “social experiment” that could have been concocted by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Jones on an ether binge. Harris narrowed down scores of applicants to 100 “subjects” who would room together in a bunker-like underground environment for 30 days. Each person had to consent to having a CCTV camera trained on them 24/7. Each also had his or her own monitor, with access to “flip channels” and peek in on what any of the other 99 people were doing at any given time (showers and toilets were communal, and there were no bedroom doors, to answer the obvious question). The complex was stockpiled with food, beverages, and guns (the latter allowed people to “blow off steam”). Each person was housed in their own sleeping pod.

Harris hired psychologists, who would grill residents in stark interrogation rooms. It was fun and games for the first couple weeks, but things quickly went downhill when people started losing their sense of reality. When New York City law enforcement caught wind of these (literally) underground shenanigans, they pictured a Heaven’s Gate-type cult scenario, and Harris’ “experiment” was abruptly shut down on January 1, 2000. Orwellian implications aside, the idea itself was prescient; especially when you consider the current popularity of personal webcams and the glut of reality TV.

Harris soon took the concept to the next level when he wired up every room in his home with cameras and launched the “We Live in Public” website with his girlfriend, enabling any one with an internet connection to peek in on their daily life (with absolutely no holds barred). By the time Harris pulled the plug six months later, his girlfriend had left him, daily hits were down to a handful, and he appeared to be in the middle of a mental meltdown (watching the footage of Harris moping about, I was reminded of Charles Foster Kane’s waning days, listlessly pacing the empty halls of Xanadu).

From a purely cinematic standpoint, Timoner has assembled an absorbing and stylishly kinetic portrait; but curiously, her subject remains somewhat of an enigma by the film’s end. Is he truly a “pioneer”, or is he just a glorified exhibitionist? What did he “pave the way” for, ultimately…Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy? Is there such a thing as “too much information” in the Information Age? Does everybody necessarily need their “15 minutes”? If so, why? Is the medium the message? And while I’ve got your attention, have you seen this video of my adorable little cat with a bag stuck on his head?

SIFF 2009: The Yes Men Fix the World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Live bait: The Yes Men chum for corporate sharks

What do you get when you throw Roger and Me and The Sting into a blender? Probably something along the lines of The Yes Men Fix the World, an alternately harrowing and hilarious documentary featuring anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. This is a more focused follow up to their ballsy but uneven debut, The Yes Men.

In that 2003 film, they established a simple yet amazingly effective Trojan Horse formula that garnered the duo invitations to key business conferences and TV appearances as “WTO spokesmen”. Once lulling their marks into a comfort zone, they would then proceed to cause well-deserved public embarrassment for some evil corporate bastards, whilst exposing the dark side of global free trade. (Most amazingly, they have managed not to suffer “brake failure” on a mountain road, if you know what I’m saying).

In this outing, Bichlbaum, Bonanno and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a very powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Of course, there is not much our dynamic duo can do at this point to take the man himself down (as the forlorn expressions on their faces during a visit to his grave site would indicate); but the Idea survives, as do those who would “drink the Kool-Aid”.  And thus, the fun begins.

Perhaps “fun” isn’t quite the appropriate term, but there are definitely hijinx afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: they want to smoke out some corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. I know that “corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one still has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds.

Case in point: the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant mishap exposed 500,000 people (200,000 of them children) to a toxic gas. Between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred within 3 days. Since then, an estimated additional 25,000 Bhopal residents have since died from complications due to exposure. Union Carbide eventually paid an insurance settlement to the Indian government of 470 million dollars in 1989 (it sounds like a lot of loot…until you split it 500,000 ways). To add insult to injury, Union Carbide pulled up stakes (read: fled the scene of the crime) without ever cleaning up the site; to this day residents are drinking groundwater leached by toxins.

In 2004, BBC News did a special report on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, which included an appearance by a spokesman for Dow Chemical (the corporation that had just recently acquired Union Carbide at the time of the broadcast). The spokesman, a Mr. “Jude Finisterra” made an astounding, headline-grabbing announcement: In an effort to truly atone for the Bhopal incident, Dow Chemical was going to invest a tidy sum of 12 billion dollars to clean up the area and compensate the victims.

For several hours, all hell broke loose; Dow stockholders panicked and dumped over 2 billion dollars worth of stock in record time. To anyone with a soul, it was too good to be true-corporate criminals coming clean on live TV, in front of 300 million viewers? There’s hope for humanity! Well, not exactly. “Jude Finisterra” was really a member of our intrepid duo.

But the point was made; in fact, the real beauty of the ruse didn’t come into full flower until the Yes Men were “exposed”. When the real Dow Chemical spokespeople jumped into the fray to denounce the prank, they only made themselves look more ridiculous (and culpable) by essentially saying “Obviously, we would not commit such a large amount of money in this manner (i.e. of course we would never publicly take responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people).”

The most distressing thing to observe is how quickly the MSM jumps in to toe the corporate line; in the case of the Dow sting (and later in the film, when they pose as HUD spokesmen, announcing that the government agency will provide housing for all the Katrina victims it had originally displaced in order to clear the way for redevelopment by private sector contractors) the newspapers and TV news anchors condemn the “cruel hoax” that gave “false hopes” to the victims of Bhopal and Katrina, respectively.

When the concerned Yes Men travel to Bhopal to personally apologize to the residents for their “cruelty”, they are greeted with open arms; one Bhopal victim tells them that even though he was admittedly disappointed, he was, for an hour or so, “in Heaven”. By the end of the film, the Yes Men may not actually “fix the world”, but they certainly succeed in giving it hope with their sense of compassion and infectious optimism. And for an hour or so, I was in Heaven.

SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of 1930s Shanghai  underworld for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring.

Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be  the Vincent Chase character. His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Nah…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords.

Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about the Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that  oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre.

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.