Seattle International Film Festival Report #12

As Cargo goes on and the borrowings from other well-known films pile up, you start to wonder if there is a single original idea in the entire production.

I can’t believe my time at the Seattle International Film Festival is coming to an end, but like all good things it is. I’ll do a wrap-up/best-of/summation when I’ve had a few days of rest and recuperation, but in the meantime here’s my final batch of reviews. The films in this batch include two enjoyable and informative music documentaries (Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae takes us to Jamaica and Beyond Ipanema to Brazil) and a documentary about refugees from Western Sahara (Stolen) which makes for intriguing watching even though some of its main assertions have been challenged. On the feature film side, we have a derivative Swiss sci-fi film most notable for its production design (Cargo), a just-OK film about gay life in Tunisia (The String), a disappointing period feature with an excellent cast (Get Low), an absorbing film about the Catch-22 of Russian life in the last days of Josef Stalin (An Ordinary Execution) and a self-aware comedy (Miss Nobody) about an office worker who discovers an alternative road to the top.
It’s almost impossible not to smile while watching Stascha Bader’s documentary Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, which celebrates rocksteady, a musical style popular in Jamaica in the mid 1960s which came after ska and before reggae. The structure is straightforward—performance clips interspersed with interviews with masters of the genre including Stranger Cole, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, Ken Boothe, Derrick Mortan and Gladstone Anderson—but the music is infectious (songs include “People Rocksteady,” “Take it Easy,” “Rivers of Babylon,” “Shanty Town” and “Tide is High”) and the film builds effectively to the big reunion concert.
As the title Beyond Ipanema suggests, there’s more to Brazilian music than “The Girl From Ipanema.” Director Guto Barra concentrates on Brazilian music which became popular and influential outside Brazil, particularly in the U.S. It all began when Carmen Miranda became a Hollywood star: for many Americans Miranda provided their first experience with Brazilian music and she used her influence to insist that songs and dialogue in Portuguese be included in each of her films. The film Black Orpheus introduced Bossa Nova to the world and made stars of performers such as Sergio Mendez and Brazil ’66 while also exerting lasting influence on American jazz and popular music. Tropicália, an experimental fusion style which incorporated pop and influences as well as political commentary, enjoyed some popularity abroad in the 1960s but really took off musicians such as David Byrne and Beck championed the style in the 1990s. The Brazilian influence continues today—recent examples include the forró craze in New York City and the inclusion of Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs (sung by Seu Jorge) in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
The Swiss sci-fi feature Cargo looks great and has an interesting, if not particularly original, premise, but as the film goes on and the borrowings from other well-known films (Alien, Blade Runner, 2001…to name them all would be exhausting and also give away too much of the film’s plot) pile up, you start to wonder if there is a single original idea in the entire production. The basic set-up is that planet Earth has become barely habitable and everyone who possibly can moves to planet Rhea which is apparently a regular paradise of sunshine and lollipops. Laura (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) takes a job as a medic on a cargo ship in order to make enough money to join her sister Arianne (Maria Boettner) and family on Rhea. But all is not well on the ship: there seems to be an alien force on board, the captain dies in a mysterious accident, and telecommunications with Rhea are remarkably good considering the distances involved—could someone be pulling a Soapy Smith?
Aaron Schneider recruited an all-star cast for his debut feature, Get Low—including Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Gerald McRaney and Lucas Black—and the period production design by Geoffrey Kirkland is excellent as well. It’s just too bad no one bothered to come up with a worthwhile script. This one feeds you chunks of back story—it’s based on the true story of recluse Felix “Bush” Breazeale (Duvall) who held his own funeral while he was still alive—but the main story never really gets going. There’s a lot of fuss about a secret to be revealed but you’ll guess it long before the film gets around to officially telling you, and none of the characters are developed sufficiently to make them anything but combinations of stereotypical traits. Get Low also suffers from a jarring unevenness of tone as if the director couldn’t decide if he was going to make a comedy or drama and everything seems stagey and unnatural: not funny, just fake.
It can’t be comfortable to live in a country ruled by a man who once noted that while the death of one person is a tragedy the death of millions is a statistic, particularly when that same ruler (Joseph Stalin) has already turned millions of his fellow citizens into statistics. So when Anna (Marina Hands), a young physician with mysterious powers to heal pain by the laying on of hands, is called to treat Stalin (Andre Dussollier) her first concern is to avoid becoming a statistic or turning her husband (Edouard Baer) into one. Menace is everywhere in An Ordinary Execution, adapted by first-time director Marc Dugain from of a section of his novel of the same name, with the general mood aptly conveyed by the murky browns and blacks in Yves Angelo’s cinematography. Officially Anna’s powers don’t exist because superstition has been outlawed and the fact that she’s using them to heal the head of her country puts her in more danger, not less. Such is life in Dugain’s vision of the Soviet Union which resembles going through a series of looking glasses, each more absurd than the last.
Miss Nobody, directed by Tim Cox from a screenplay by Doug Steinberg, is making its world premiere at SIFF. Too bad it’s not a better film, but as the first feature from both Cox and Steinberg we can say that it shows potential and hope that they will make better films in the future. Miss Nobody is an extremely self-aware, stylized comedy about a secretary (Leslie Bibb) who discovers that nice girls finish last in the office sweepstakes. Before you know it the corpses are piling up (Steinberg says he was inspired by Kind Hearts and Coronets) but there aren’t nearly enough laughs although there are plenty of moments when you’re clearly supposed to laugh. The film also suffers from an odd lack of grounding in either time or place and feels highly derivative: in fact, it frequently seems like an episode of a television program, a medium in which both Cox and Steinberg have experience. The other characters are types familiar from countless sitcoms including the loud and less-classy best friend (Missi Pyle), the horndog boss (Brandon Routh), the conniving supervisor (Vivica A. Fox), the eccentric mother (Kathy Baker), and the amusingly senile oldster (Geoffrey Lewis). | Sarah Boslaugh

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