Seattle International Film Festival Report #6

Countdown to Zero, directed by Lucy Walker, wants you to know that the world is threatened by nuclear weapons.

 You can smell the salt air and feel the chill of the water in Ondine, a magical new film by Neil Jordan filmed on location by Christopher Doyle in Castletownbere, County Cork. The story is a return to the Celtic legend of the selkie (a seal who can assume human form) which Jordan also treated in The Secret of Roan Inish, but this time with a modern twist which is handled beautifully. Colin Farrell plays Syracuse, a fisherman who one day hauls up a beautiful but very mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his net. The woman has an inordinate fear of being seen by others, but brings Syracuse unprecedented good luck and also enchants Farrell’s precocious daughter Annie (a very charming Alison Barry) who is being looked after by his boozer ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan). Stephen Rea has a great deadpan turn as the local priest with a marvelous grasp of Irish logic and the whole film assuredly manages the difficult balance between imagination and reality.

Countdown to Zero, directed by Lucy Walker, wants you to know that the world is threatened by nuclear weapons. Terrorists have tried to acquire them in the past, there’s poor security for the necessary raw materials, and it would be dead easy to smuggle in a bomb through one of our ports. Oh, and the “legitimate” nuclear nations (like the U.S.) make mistakes all the time and if even one nuclear weapon were to be set off in a large city the result would be devastating. You already knew that? Then you won’t have much need for this stylish looking but poorly organized documentary which features a wide range of talking heads, including many out-of-power politicians and book authors, an impressive collection of archival materials, some nifty graphics and Gary Oldman as the omniscient voice of authority. The film shows its true colors in the final minutes when it pulls a recruiting stunt for the no-nukes organization Campaign for Zero only slightly less reprehensible than Spike Lee hawking “X” merchandise at the end of Malcolm X.
What would a film festival be without Oscar Bait? Mao’s Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford with a screenplay by Jan Sardi (best known for Shine), amply fulfills all the requirements. It’s based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a Chinese peasant trained for the ballet in Beijing who was given the opportunity to perform in the U.S., is given the epic historical treatment (free world vs. Communism and all that), looks and sounds great, includes all the expected elements of the heroic biopic and never foregoes an opportunity for moral and emotional uplift. But the film is oddly inert and unmoving even in the action sequences (in 1981 the Chinese were not interested in permanently donating their best dancer to the West) despite some excellent dancing from Chi Cao (playing Li Cunxin as an adult), Camilla Vergotis (playing his second American love interest) and dancers from the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company. The only character given any kind of dimension is Ben Stevenson (played by Bruce Greenwood), the ambitious and possibly shady artistic director of the Houston Ballet who recruits Li to come to the U.S.
There are many versions of the Faust legend, but one thing is common to them all: Faust sells his soul to the devil for stuff he couldn’t get otherwise (riches, knowledge, the most beautiful woman in the world). The documentary American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi asserts in 76 fast-paced minutes that Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State under George Bush, did the equivalent by abandoning her principles in the pursuit of political power. Or more precisely, the story told by director Sebastian Doggart is that of a woman whose only principle was the pursuit of success in the form of political power. So she capitalized on her rarity as a black woman specializing in Soviet studies while speaking out against affirmative action and political correctness, overlooked violence directed at poor Nigerians while serving on the public policy committee of Chevron corporation and cultivated a personal (not sexual) relationship with George W. Bush as the ultimate insider’s route to power. This is a strictly tendentious documentary, but one which draws on many authorities including Rice biographers Marcus Mabry and Antonia Felix, and provides a fascinating study of one route to power in the American system.
True confession: I had no idea who Bill Hicks was until I watched American: The Bill Hicks Story, a documentary directed by Brits Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. For those of you in my boat, Hicks was a standup comedian who specialized in aggressive, cultural/political humor and is often cited as the “comedian’s comedian” for his command of the audience. During his lifetime (he died in 1993, at age 32, from pancreatic cancer) Hicks was better known in Europe than in the U.S. due in part to censorship which kept him off American broadcast television or limited his effectiveness when he did appear. The emphasis in American is on Hicks’ biography, told largely through interviews and animated photographs, but there are also sufficient excerpts from his performances to give you an idea of his style and how it developed. If you like watching Jon Stewart or Lewis Black calling politicians on their BS then you owe it to yourself to check out Hicks, who worked in a different style but with a similar point of view: if you love America then you must strive to protect what is best in it by challenging what is worst. | Sarah Boslaugh

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