Seattle International Film Festival Report #11

Reykjavik-Rotterdam, directed by Oskar Jonasson, is a fast-paced, classy thriller already slated for an English-language remake with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role.

I like a cheesy movie as much as the next person, but there’s good cheese (fun) and bad cheese (tedious). Neil Marshall’s latest film, Centurion, is bad cheese about a Roman legion trapped behind enemy lines in the North of Britain and reduced to a small band of survivors who must fight for survival. Think Dog Soldiers with the Picts taking the place of werewolves. Marshall assumes your sympathies will lie with the Romans, which is sort of like assuming you will side with Germany invading Poland in a World War II film. Even setting that problem aside this film fails in so many ways: the characters are broadly drawn types, the conflicts are generic, there’s some serious miscasting, and for all the fetishistically-violent deaths (Marshall seems to enjoy finding new ways to kill warriors as much as George Romero does new ways to kill zombies) the film is strangely uninvolving. The conclusion is obvious from the start and Marshall is willing to bend any and all rules of his fictional universe to get to his destination, which is too bad because he assembled an excellent cast including Michael Fassbender, David Morrisey, Noel Clarke and Imogen Poots.

Splice, a new sci-fi/horror thriller by Vincenzo Natali (well known for the 1997 film Cube as well as his work as an art director) works remarkably well despite its preposterous premise—that scientists working in a lab in which computers still use command-line prompts would be able to produce a sentient being by combining human and animal DNA. Not cells in a test tube but a living creature with a mind of its own and which, predictably, soon outgrows its creators’ attempts to control it. Excellent acting by leads Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody and realistic depiction of hothouse competition in the world of Big Science help the film’s cause (the breakthrough-presentation-gone-bad scene alone is worth the price of admission), as does Splice’s surprising effective combination of live action and CGI. This is one of those films in which the strong points simply ride roughshod over its many flaws and the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. So call this one good cheese: it’s entertaining and manages to raise some interesting philosophical questions despite some major flaws and unintentionally humorous moments.
If you think of Hugh Hefner as just the guy who invented the Playboy bunny and popularized the soft porn centerfold you should check out Brigitte Berman’s documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. In fact, Hefner was an advocate of civil rights (Southern states refused to broadcast the 1959 television program Playboy’s Penthouse because it featured African-American “guests“ such as Nat King Cole), marijuana legalization, and freedom of speech and of the press, among other causes. There’s loads of information in this documentary, told entirely through an impressive array of interviews and archival materials, but it does go on a bit long. It also tends to invoke Hefner’s professional relationships with women (by most accounts fair and non-sexist) as a defense of the imaginary world created by Playboy magazine and the Playboy Clubs (constructed largely around a male fantasy of beautiful, available women of a distinct physical type). It also focuses much more on Hefner’s and Playboy’s glory years than on the current state of the empire (why buy Playboy when you can download pictures of naked women for free?), but is definitely worth a look, particularly if you have an interest in mid-century American history and culture.
The documentary Stolen by Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw is difficult to summarize because it deals with a complex political situation, and also because the veracity of the film has been questioned (and I’m not sufficiently informed to know who is right). The directors’ story is that they intended to make a film about the Sahrawi people living in refugee camps in Algeria, centering the film on a U.N.-sponsored family reunion. Then they discovered that slavery was widespread in the camps, knowledge which brought them and their informants into great danger. After adventures which include burying their tapes in the desert and being briefly detained they get out of the country, later reclaiming the tapes in order to make their film. But meanwhile several of the key informants withdraw their testimony and one flies to the film’s premiere at the Sydney Film Festival to denounce it. Of course these individuals could be acting under political coercion, which raises the question of whether Ayala and Fallshaw actually worsened the lives of people they mean to help. Overall this is a film which raises questions more than it answers them, but it makes for intriguing viewing and broaches a very important subject.
Garbo: The Spy tells the fascinating history of World War II Spanish double agent Juan Pujol whose greatest success was convincing the Germans that a major Allied invasion would take place at Calais, even two months after the D-Day landing at Normandy. Director Edmon Roch offers an object lesson in making a documentary both informative and entertaining even when no period footage of the subject exists by combining aptly-chosen newsreel and feature film footage with talking heads who communicate their appreciation of the subject and his methods. Garbo won his nom-de-spy for being an excellent actor (a good trait in his profession!) and the film celebrates his theatricality while also communicating some of the slipperiness of the border between the fiction, myth and reality as well as the strange turns that life can take and how much can rest on the smallest of chances. Example: Garbo was on the verge of departing for Brazil when the British finally accepted his services after turning him down four times previously.
I enjoyed The String (Le Fil), directed by Mehdi Ben Attia, enough to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it has some serious flaws which will test the patience of anyone who doesn’t have a soft spot in their heart toward first features or stories of gay life outside the U.S. and Europe. It gets points for being a gay story set in Tunisia, for a fine, if somewhat predictable, performance by Claudia Cardinale as the lead character’s mother and for some picturesque cinematography by Sofian El Fani. Too bad the script treads well-worn ground: a closeted gay man (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan) returns home because his father is ill, hesitates to tell his mother about his sexuality, then falls for the gardener (Salim Kechiouche)—and of course Mom discovers the two of them in bed. Transitions are often quite abrupt and the metaphor alluded to in the title is not explained or developed sufficiently. But a few more pluses for this film: a happy lesbian romance, some moderately hot man-on-man action, and a pleasant character named Moncef (Hosni Khaled) who seems to be accepting of anything and everything in the bedroom department as long as it doesn’t harm anyone.
Reykjavik-Rotterdam, directed by Oskar Jonasson, is a fast-paced, classy thriller already slated for an English-language remake with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. But take my advice and see the original because it’s hard to see how it could be improved and easy to see how it could be ruined. The story is simple: Christopher (Baltasar Kormakur), a reformed smuggler in need of cash, decides to do one last job. Well, you know how well that usually works out in films. Reykjavik-Rotterdam was Iceland’s submission for the 2009 Foreign Language Oscar (not the most politic move, considering Oscar’s preference for tearjerkers) and doesn’t try to be more than it is: a well-done genre piece distinguished by efficient character and plot development and first-rate cinematography by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson. | Sarah Boslaugh

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