Seattle International Film Festival Report #7

This part of the festival brought us several “must-see” films, some maybes and a definite “don’t bother” category.

Going to a film is essentially a crapshoot: you can read all the publicity materials and whatnot and talk to the most knowledgeable people you know and still your individual experience with a film remains highly unpredictable. Or that’s how it works for me anyway: highly-touted films often turn out to be disappointing in fairly predictable ways while films flying under the radar regularly turn out to be the most wonderful surprises. At a festival, of course, the pressure is somewhat off because you can see so many films in rapid succession that you quickly forget about the disappointments and focus instead on the unexpected delights.

 Let’s start with the wonderful discoveries. International disputes come and go, but atrocities remain a fact of war. That’s a basic truth underlined in City of Life and Death, an astonishingly powerful film by Lu Chuan about the 1937 Rape of Nanking. You’ve probably heard of the event including the disputes over how many were killed (100,000? 200,000? 300,000?) and how widespread were the atrocities committed by the Japanese army, but such disputes are beside the point. Lu’s film is epic in scope (truly a cast of thousands must have been recruited), but like the best war films also focuses on the cost to the individuals involved including the victors. Shot in black-and-white and with much use of the handheld camera, City of Life and Death is organized in two main parts: The first shows the city’s conquest in a style informed equally by Spielberg and Goya, while the second focuses on the rape and abduction of women, a story as old as war itself but seldom told in so horrifying a manner. The impact is increased by the fact that many sequences are dialogue-free with narrative structure provided by a series of postcards which perform a function similar to intertitles in silent films.

Southern District, directed by Juan Carlos Valvidia, is a political allegory both specific to Bolivia and applicable to much of the world including our own United States. It uses a constantly-moving camera (usually panning right) along with odd angles and mirror shots to give the viewer the sense of being a voyeur seeing things normally kept out of the public eye. The story is about a wealthy family in La Paz who live in an obvious bubble of privilege and comfort, their needs tended by two dark-skinned servants. Great concern is placed in this household on appropriate behavior, particularly in matters of gender roles and class distinctions, but gradually cracks are revealed—the family is living on borrowed money, the daughter is a lesbian while the son likes to tape his girlfriend having sex, and perhaps the real power doesn’t rest with the people who think they hold it.

SIFF is hosting the North American premiere of Paris Return, directed by Yossi Aviram, which is flying so far under the radar that it doesn’t have an entry yet. Don’t let that deter you: this is definitely one to see if you get the chance. Paris Return is an intimate documentary about two elderly ex-pats—Reoven from Israel, Pierluigi from Italy—who made a life together in Paris. They’re temperamental opposites who complement each other and interact like an old married couple, squabbling about which jacket to wear and where the sculpture should be placed. But there’s an elephant in the room: feeling the press of mortality and the isolation of retirement, Reoven is considering returning to Israel, an option which doesn’t exist for Pierluigi.

Then there are films which are not in the “must-see” category but still have much to recommend them. Case in point: The Dry Land, directed by Ryan Piers Williams, which looks at the struggles of James, an Iraq war veteran (Ryan O’Nan), to adjust to post-service life in rural Texas. He has the love and support of his wife (America Ferrara, who also served as an executive producer) and mother (Melissa Leo) but struggles with PTSD and a nagging sense of guilt about a service incident about which he has limited recall. Although the film begins as a series of incidents which don’t add up to much, it takes off once James and a service buddy (Wilmer Valderrama) set off on a road trip to visit a severely-injured comrade being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Williams and cinematographer Gavin Kelly do an excellent job capturing the desolation of the high desert country and an excellent score by Dean Parks and a nice selection of pre-existing songs helps to place this story in a very specific time and place.

Who knew that break dancing, or b-boying which is the preferred term these days, had become a competitive international sport with judges and championship belts which would make a heavyweight boxer drool? I didn’t until I saw Alastair Siddons’ documentary Turn it Loose which convinced me that b-boying is not only alive and well, but has developed considerably from the kids doing turns on pieces of cardboard which are still a feature of life in Jersey City. The moves the competitors show in this documentary, which focus on the 2007 world championships (held, most appropriately, in an unused power station in Soweto), are a simply amazing combination of dance, gymnastics, posing and ritualized aggression. The structure of the film will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a sports film—background on the competitors interspersed with competition scenes, leading up to the big championship—but it’s still a great chance to look in on a subculture which now includes high-level competitors from Europe, Africa and Asia as well as the U.S.

Any George Romero movie is a must-see for the horror fan but those with less dedication to the genre may want to give Survival of the Dead a miss. This time the gimmick is a conflict between two families, the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, with accents straight out of central casting and a relationship modeled on the Hatfields and McCoys. Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick) favors sequestering undead relatives and trying to teach them to eat something rather than humans while Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh) prefers a more straightforward bullet-to-the-brain approach. Banished from Muldoon’s stronghold on the mythical Plum Island, O’Flynn posts a video the internet which draws a band of renegade soldiers made up of character types familiar from previous Dead movies (including Athena Karkanis as the aptly-named Tomboy) to the island, and much gore ensues. There’s an allegory about mutually-assured destruction at work but it’s laid on with a trowel and the whole film feels like a perfunctory, wearied repetition of a formula. On the plus side, there are some good scares and the fount has not yet run dry on creative ways to kill the undead.

Son of Babylon is notable for being filmed in Iraq and for telling a story about that country which doesn’t center on Americans, but it will test the patience of many film-goers. The story is simplicity itself: it’s 2003 and 12-year-old Ahmed (the gifted young actor Yasser Taleeb) and his grandmother (Shehzad Hussein) make an arduous journey through the war-torn country to try to locate his father/her son, who hasn’t been heard from since the first Gulf war of 1991. First they hope to find him alive, then begin going through the many mass grave sites which have been discovered. An important subtext: Ahmed and his grandmother are Kurds, an oppressed minority within Iraq, yet find that their suffering unites them with the many Iraqis also trying to locate lost members of their own families. It’s the second feature film by Iraqi director Mohamed Al-Daradji and owes quite a bit to a style perfected by Iraq’s neighbor Iran: at times Son of Babylon is a marvel of minimalism but it also goes on much too long (a good twenty minutes could have been trimmed), leans heavily on well-worn cinematic devices and encourages its young star to overact shamelessly.

The opening night crowd at SIFF liked The Extra Man considerably more than I did (they were frequently laughing so hard the dialogue was drowned out) so I’m giving it some benefit of the doubt. All the right pieces are there: direction by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (who gave us the wonderful American Splendor), screenplay adapted from the well-received comic novel by Jonathan Ames, and a cast which includes St. Louis’s own Kevin Kline as well as Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, and Katie Holmes. The story concerns an earnest young man (Dano) who sees himself as a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel—that is, when he isn’t trying on ladies’ undergarments. He finds lodgings (through a newspaper ad!) with the eccentric hustler Henry Harrison (Kline) who initiates him in the craft of being the “extra man,” or escort for rich women, as well as related arts such as crashing the Metropolitan Opera without buying a ticket. Kline is hilarious, Dano is inconsistent, Reilly’s role is a throwaway, and I found the film’s inconsistency of tone and straining for laughs which should come without effort to be a real buzz kill.

And here’s the “don’t bother” films for this dispatch. If you’re in the market for a situation comedy which celebrates the trials and tribulations of the upper middle class then Every Day, the debut feature by Richard Levine (of Nip/Tuck fame) should be right up your alley. Too bad an excellent cast can’t save a plot drowning in obviousness. The nuclear family at the center of the story consists of a wise child (Skyler Forgang), a gay teen (Ezra Miller), a television-writer father (Liev Schreiber) and a mother (Helen Hunt) whose chief concern is caring for her abusive yet sporadically wise father (Brian Dennehy). Note to screenwriters: it’s time for a moratorium on rip-offs of Alan Arkin’s character in Little Miss Sunshine. Schreiber is tempted by the office hottie while the gay teen is tempted by a jaw-droppingly stereotypical predator. But nothing feels real and there’s zero dramatic tension because what’s at stake is mainly the possibility that these characters may come to realize that life is not going to be as bland and orderly as their expensively-furnished home. Here’s the big joke on them and us alike: this movie is every bit as exploitative as the television show which Schreiber’s character feels he’s much too good for.

I’m no fan of Todd Solondz in his mannered period and Life During Wartime is mannered and self-conscious to an extreme. It tries way too hard to impress us with the director’s cleverness, seeming to believe it is an achievement to make people look and act weird in front of the camera. The title is equally pretentious: there’s no war going on at all except the war of the sexes among characters who have in no way justified the investment of 98 minutes of time nor whatever cash is required to buy cinema tickets in your city. I will say that there are some interesting visual compositions on screen—of course when every shot is deliberately artificial I suppose that’s less of an accomplishment, and the effect of scene after scene bathed in yellow light does tend to diminish the impact—and I should note that many see this as an update of the 1998 Solondz film Happiness, so if you liked that one you may like this one as well. | Sarah Boslaugh

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