Saturday Night At The Movies
SIFFting through cinema, Pt. 2
By Dennis Hartley
The Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing, so over the next several weeks I will be bringing you highlights. Navigating a film festival is no easy task, even for a dedicated buff. SIFF is presenting 441 films over 25 days. That’s great for independently wealthy types, but for those of us who work for a living (*cough*), it’s tough to find the time and energy that it would take to catch 17.6 films a day (yes-I did the math). I do take consolation from my observation that the ratio of less-than-stellar (too many) to quality offerings (too few) at a film festival differs little from any Friday night crapshoot at the multiplex. The trick lies in developing a sixth sense for films most likely to be up your alley (in my case, embracing my OCD and channeling it like a cinematic divining rod.) Hopefully, some of these will be coming soon to a theater near you. So-let’s go SIFFting!
Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue. Oh-the “sci-fi” part? On the night of the accident, a duplicate Earth was discovered (doppelgangers!). Assuming “they” discovered “us” (or vice-versa) simultaneously, scientists postulate that synchronicity was broken at that instant. Kind of leaves the door open for second chances-or does it? I’m not telling. See it yourself (it opens in August)-and prepare to have your mind blown.
Bruce Lee, My Brother looked (on paper, at least) like it could have been this year’s Nowhere Boy; the portrait of a pop culture icon as a young man growing up in a port town, and culminating on the eve of international fame and fortune. I realize that comparing John Lennon and Bruce Lee is sort of like apples and oranges-but I think you catch my drift (everybody has to start somewhere, and all that). Co-directors Manfred Wong (who also wrote the screenplay) and Wai Man Yip based their biopic on the memoir of Lee’s younger brother Robert (although it is interesting to note the disclaimer in the opening credits that disavows any endorsement by or participation with the Bruce Lee estate regarding this project). Not that the film necessarily dishes any dirt. In fact, it’s a relatively tame, by-the-numbers affair, recounting young Lee Jun-fan’s formative years growing up in Hong Kong (he was born in San Francisco, but his acting-troupe parents were not U.S. citizens). For a movie about someone who went on to become one of filmdom’s premier action movie superstars, there’s very little action. Still, it’s slick and entertaining (if short on insight) and leading man Aarif Rahman plays his role with verve.
Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life is another biopic that looked intriguing on paper-but I’m sorry to be a party pooper and tell you that it contains scant little to recommend it. So who was Serge Gainsbourg? He was an odd little homunculus who was a so-so painter, questionable poet and inexplicable pop music icon (well, in France). Nonetheless, he apparently had babe magnet kavorka (he bedded Bardot and wedded English supermodel Jane Birkin, with whom he co-created what I consider his Greatest Hit-the leggy and talented Charlotte Gainsbourg). His music career was largely built on the success of one tune-“Je t’aime…moi non plus”, featuring Birkin essentially feigning an orgasm at the denouement, over an organ riff suspiciously similar to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (surely paving the way for future seduction mix tape staples like “Love to Love You Baby” and “Jungle Fever”). Star Eric Elmosnino bears an uncanny resemblance and chain-smokes Gitanes with conviction, but director Joann Sfar seems more enamored with his own cinematic technique than with his subject; it’s an impressionistic study that barely makes any impression at all. I now can only pray that a Rod McKuen biopic isn’t in the works…
The Trip is the latest from eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Road to Guantanamo). Pared down into feature film length from the 6-episode BBC TV series of the same name, it is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon (genuinely hilarious “comedies” are such a rarity these days). The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of My Dinner with Andre and Sideways. Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold.
Killing Bono is a darkly funny, bittersweet and thoroughly engaging rock ‘n’ roll fable from the UK, based on a true story. A cross between Anvil: The Story of Anvil and I Shot Andy Warhol, it revisits familiar territory: the trials and tribulations of the “almost famous”. Dublin-based writer/aspiring rock star Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes) co-founds a band called Yeah! Yeah! with his brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) right about the same time that their school chum Paul Hewson puts together a quartet who call themselves The Hype. The two outfits engage in a friendly race to see who can get signed to a label first. Eventually, the Hype change their name to U2, Hewson reinvents himself as “Bono” and-well, you know. In the meantime, the McCormick brothers go nowhere fast, as the increasingly embittered and obsessed Neil plays Salieri to Bono’s Mozart. There are likely very few people on the planet who know what it feels like to be Pete Best (aside from Pete Best)-but I suspect that one of the players in this particular drama knows that feeling-and my heart goes out to him (no spoilers!). Nick Hamm directs a wonderful cast, which includes a fine swan song performance from the great Pete Postlethwaite (R.I.P.).
Trollhunter is the latest entry in the fake “found footage” genre, and if it ever catches on as a cult phenom, it could very well leave The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield in the dust (if you’re into that sort of thing). Like its predecessors, it features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus Christ, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”. Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. And one thing to remember while hunting trolls…leave the Christians at home!
The Thief of Bagdad: Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the music of E.L.O. was one of those film-going experiences where about halfway through, I was kicking myself in the ass for not having had the foresight to do a Marley-sized bong hit before leaving the house (I suspect that Mr. Stevens came up with the idea after doing a few Marley-sized bong hits himself). Since the wordy title doubles as a synopsis, all I need add is that this is the 1924 silent version, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks as the wily thief who steals the heart of a beautiful princess. Stevens (a venerable L.A. radio personality) was at the screening, and recounted several decades of tweaking to find a perfect contemporary soundtrack. So does it work? Well, I’ve never been a huge E.L.O. fan (IMHO Jeff Lynne’s a talented guy who has a tendency to “over-arrange” his songs into a sonic wash), but I’ll be damned if it ain’t a marriage made in heaven between over-produced chamber pop and overwrought silent film histrionics. I’m not sure if it’s headed your way, but in the meantime, you can always amuse yourself with the old standby. You know…watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon (*exhale*).