Seattle International Film Festival Report #3

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Another diverse set of films from SIFF, this time featuring a handful of directorial debuts.

Today’s theme is directorial debuts. We have three features by four first-time directors who bring a variety of backgrounds to their task. Christopher Thompson is an experienced actor and screenwriter, Sebastian Junger an author and reporter, Tim Hetherington a photojournalist, and Nick Whitfield an actor who has also directed several short films. Each comes up with a different result: I found Thompson’s debut feature to be superficially accomplished but essentially empty, Junger and Hetherington’s to be an entirely original and superbly executed documentary and Whitfield’s film to be a promising but flawed first attempt.

 

Christopher Thompson’s Bus Palladium, named after a popular club in Paris, presents a shiny surface which is enjoyable enough from moment to moment but is ultimately too superficial and generic to be really interesting. Set in 1985, the film follows the fortunes of a French rock band hoping to make it big but who seem to be more motivated by the lifestyle of rockers (sex and drugs and all that, especially the opportunity to delay entry into adulthood) than by the chance to say something unique with their music. Arthur Dupont’s lead singer resembles Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison in The Doors, and the other band members (played by Marc-Andre Grondin, Jules Pelissier, Abraham Belaga) also fit into convenient categories, as does their manager (Francois Civil) who obsessively documents everything on Super 8. The plot is also predictable and overall the film is about as realistic as A Hard Day’s Night, but it all goes down easier thanks to an effective soundtrack featuring original music by Dupont as well as contemporary hits by, among others, The Rolling Stones, Blondie, The Band, and David Bowie.

Restrepo richly deserves the Grand Jury Prize it won at Sundance this year. Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made 10 trips in 2007 and 2008 documenting the experiences of a platoon of soldiers stationed in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan, also known as the Valley of Death. The film expertly combines footage shot in the Korangal Valley and interviews with the soldiers shot against a black screen shot in Vicenza, Italy three months after the platoon’s deployment in Afghanistan ended. Junger and Hetherington don’t impose a narrative arc on the film nor do they overtly make political statements. Instead they concentrate on presenting the men’s experience and in the post-deployment interviews allow the men to present their own interpretation of events. Restrepo captures the absurdity of the American effort in this valley (after 42 American deaths and hundreds of injuries, the U.S. withdrew from the Korangal Valley in April 2010) and perhaps in Afghanistan as a whole without impugning the efforts of any of the individual soldiers deployed there.

Nick Whitfield’s Skeleton has a promising premise but suffers from an identity crisis which keeps it from being entirely successful. It begins as a dry comedy with “skeleton chasers” Andy (Andrew Buckley of Extras) and Ed (Ed Gaughan) traveling around the British countryside cleaning the skeletons out of people’s closets. The parallel to Ghost Hunters is obvious except that these guys are sticklers for paperwork and spend a lot of time arguing about the merits of Rasputin. After disposing of a few cases with deadpan humor the film lurches through a change of tone as the men become involved in a case which can’t be solved so simply. They call on their boss, The Colonel (Jason Isaacs, in a fine parody of an ex-military man) for help but at the same time Ed indulges in some forbidden paranormal activities which leave him speaking Bulgarian. There’s another shift of tone as the case (involving a missing husband) turns serious, and throughout there’s an uneasy balance between the silliness of the “rules” and “procedures” of skeleton cleansing and the very real suffering of the bereaved Jane (the Danish actress Paprika Steen) and her children (Tuppence Middleton and Josef Whitfield). | Sarah Boslaugh

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