Friday, June 18, 2010

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My Final (Complete) SIFF Movie: Ondine (Ireland/ United States, 2009, 111 mins)

I remember when I saw Neil Jordan's The Crying Game.  In fact, I remember reading the review, which was separated from my viewing of it by several years.  Okay, maybe several several years.  The point is, after I saw it, I thought, "Now THAT is a perfect movie."

Ondine is not a perfect movie.  Nor is it a bad movie.  In fact, it chugs along at a good pace, and even the strange ending doesn't unravel the strands of the story, though it somewhat diminishes the magic.

One day, a fisherman named Syracuse (Colin Farrell) pulls up a woman in his net.  The woman does not want to be seen, nor does she want to go to the hospital.  Syracuse (known to the people of this Irish fishing village as "Circus," since he used to act like a clown before becoming sober) decides to bring her to his old grandmother's house, where she won't be disturbed.

He then goes to bring his daughter Annie (Alison Barry), to the doctor's office.  She uses a wheelchair and needs a kidney transplant.  While she's hooked up to the dialysis machine, he tells her about the woman he caught in the net, but makes it into a fairy tale.  Annie believes she is a selkie, a half-woman half-seal being who communicates underwater by singing, and is soon checking out every book on the subject at the local library.

Circus, meanwhile, has discovered that he has good luck when this woman, who tells him to call her Ondine, goes out fishing with him (contrary to traditional beliefs about women on fishing boats), particularly when she sings in a strange tongue that Circus has never heard before.  And then this lonely fisherman, who is even ridiculed by his boozing ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan), begins to fall in love.

Is Ondine a selkie?  That question isn't answered until the end of the film, but for those of us who aren't familiar with this legend, Annie provides us with all the information that we need.  According to legend (or Jordan's version of the legend), if a selkie buries her seal coat on land for seven years and cries seven tears, she can stay forever.  Annie certainly wants her to stay forever.  Circus does, too.  But then a strange man (Emil Hostina) shows up in town.  Looking for someone.  Looking for Ondine.

Some of the best (and funniest) scenes in the movie are those between Circus and the local priest (Stephen Rea, who was also excellent in The Crying Game).  The priest is the only person whom Circus confides in about Ondine, and may be his only friend in the town, besides his daughter.  When Circus falls off the bandwagon late in the film, it is the priest who recognizes why.

"Misery is easy, Syracuse," he says.  "Happiness you have to work at."

Jordan makes us care about these characters, though Annie is a tad annoying (for example, she risks her life in order to prove whether or not Ondine is a selkie, reminding me of the scene with the gun in Unbreakable).  My main problem with the film, however, is the plot.  While the ending ties up all loose ends, one's enjoyment of the film may be tested by how much "suspension of disbelief" one is willing to handle (Alan, whom I ran into after the movie ended, had even deeper reservations about the ending).  In addition, this movie chooses to reveal more of the darker side of fairy tales and less of their magic, though that is less a criticism than a comment.

Another caveat: this movie suffered from the same low wattage issues that plagued Last Train Home (Boo AMC!), even though it I saw it in theater 8, whereas I saw Last Train Home in theater 11 (which means it's not an equipment issue).  This time, I could tell that the images looked a little dark.

Arriving an hour before this movie began, I noticed it already had a pretty good line going, though one person who sat behind me decided to fall asleep while waiting for the movie to start (the presenter's amplified voice woke him up).  One of the women sitting next to me (I had an empty seat to my right) asked if I were a movie critic.  I said I wrote a blog.  When she asked what it was called, I said, "Dreams of Literary Grandeur."  So, if you're reading this, woman who sat next to me, you are reading the correct blog. :-)

In addition, there were no ballots for this film, since they were being tallied (after all, the Closing Night Gala would be later that night).  After the movie ended, the results would be online.  That allowed me to cheat a little bit.  At best, this film was a 4.  At worst, this film was a 3.

So, I give it a 3.5 out of 5.  Though, as my friend Wael points out in the comments section of my last post, "ratings are overrated."  The review's content is what's important.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

SIFF, Week Three: Last Train Home (China/Canada-Quebec, 2009, 87 mins)

Along with A Tribute to Edward Norton, this movie was supposed to be a Seattle Cinema Club Meetup, organized by me.  Three other people had said they were going.  When I checked after the movie had played, two of them had canceled.  I never saw the third person, maybe because he didn't see my Starbucks hat (which I said I'd wear, but only held in my hand until I was inside the theater), or maybe because he didn't bother trying to find me.

In any case, Grace's tweet must have worked (you have to scroll down to 1:15 pm June 12th), because the movie was on rush only, and, in fact, all of those tickets may have been sold, as well.

To compensate for my miserable organizational efforts on behalf of the Seattle Cinema Club, I ran into some friends at the theater--the only time that's happened at the festival (I have run into Alan at other screenings, but always after the film has ended, and always with one of us volunteering).  They were all from my Japanese Meetup Group, which I haven't been to in awhile because I've been doing census work and SIFF volunteering.  I had met all but one before, and got to hang out with them after the movie, as well (in fact, I will now be contacted by them when they want to see a film, which is good news for me).

Anyway, Lixin Fan, the director of this documentary, arrived that morning from China.  He had a 15 hour flight from Beijing to here, with a stopover in Tokyo.  Before the film began, he told us a little bit about it.  I should mention that his English is quite good, though he occasionally would correct a word that he used in a sentence (and the corrections weren't always correct).  He is also quite young, but, then again, this is his directorial debut.

The film was finished last October, after he had worked on it for four years.  It played at the International Documentaries Film Festival Amsterdam in 2009, where it won the top prize.  To prep the movie for us, Fan said, "This is a story that happens on the other end of the world."

The only review I read before writing my own review (and this was several months ago) was Grace Wang's wonderful review, redone here for Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents page.  I am not going to attempt to top it.  Rather, I am going to review it in my own way.

Last Train Home starts off by documenting the plight of migrant workers by focusing on one family, the Zhangs (mother Suqin Chen, father Changua, daughter Quin, brother Yang, and their grandmother), and ends by documenting the growing pangs of an entire country.  When I read Grace's review, I got the impression that Quin's flight to the factories happened much later in the film, but it happens early on, after a tearful chat with her deceased grandfather, who we find out, later in the film, is the one who raised her.

The sad truth of migrant workers is that they only get to go home once a year, during Chinese New Year. They send money home to their children the rest of the year, but are strangers to them.  In Quin's case, she feels resentful that her parents keep harping on her about doing well at school, but all they seem to care about is making money, instead of staying home with her.  The parents, for their part, tell how difficult it was for Suqin to leave Quin at one year old (and Yang as a baby) and go work with her husband in the factories.  Changua also tells of the time, before they got factory jobs, that he had to go to his sister to borrow money.  The silence that occurs in the middle of his telling of the tale is one of the saddest things I have seen on film.  Watching someone hold in tears is much sadder than seeing those tears fall.

Of course, Quin sees the situation differently.  She wants independence from these strangers whom she only gets to see once a year. And so, in a wonderful scene, with Quin and Yang sitting on a hill, looking across the landscape, she tells her brother to make sure that he visits their grandfather's grave while she's gone.

Quin drops out of school and gets a job at a factory that one of her friends works at.  One of my favorite scenes in the film shows her with her friend and another girl, acting like the teenagers that they are.  Changua goes and visits her, but we can see that he doesn't know what to say in order to get her to go back to school, other than telling her that she now sees how hard it is to work in a factory.

The family goes home together that year, but they get stuck at the train station when a blizzard shuts down most of the train lines (600,000 people got stuck in the railway station that year, according to Fan).  From here on out, the movie becomes much more powerful, and begins to transform from its singular focus on one family (which it continues to follow) to a broader commentary on China and the generation now coming of age over there.

Besides the scenes described above, three other scenes stand out.  In the first scene, one of the family members stares right at the camera (the only time in the film that anyone does that).  The result is stunning.  I've never felt as if someone in a movie were looking right through me before.  In the second scene, the camera observes three people watching the lighting of the Olympic torch in Beijing.  In that scene, pay attention to the expression on the middle person's face, and you'll discover all you need to know about how Chinese people viewed those Olympic games.  In the final scene, Quin is dancing in a nightclub.  The camera looks up at her from the dance floor, as the strobe light catches her form in motion.

One caveat: this film shows beautiful vistas and a sea of humanity at the train station, both of which would benefit from clear images, yet the film being projected onto the screen was anything but clear, particularly in the background (though the subtitles seemed to be in focus).  If this movie chain (AMC) is purposely dimming its bulbs during these films (which it did during the SIFF previews, noticeable during Garbo: The Spy as well), shame on them.  If they just have shitty projectors, or aren't threading the films correctly, shame on them, too.  Strangely enough, I didn't notice this problem while watching Garbo (in the same theater), and I sat farther away from the screen then.

A Q & A session followed.  Fan said that he and his crew followed the family for three spring festivals (Chinese New Years), originally finding them in 2006.  At that time, he was meeting with many of the migrant workers working in Guangzhou.  What attracted him to the Zhangs was the mother's story, of how she had started working in the factories with her husband fifteen years ago, after having spent only one year with her daughter.  Her worry over her daughter spoke to something very real and very human inside of Fan.

As the beginning of the film notes, and as Fan pointed out (though he said "130,000" by accident), there are 130,000,000 migrant workers in China, and during the holidays, they all want to go in one direction, making the logistics of such an operation difficult at best (as one can see from the scenes involving the 600,000 stranded passengers).

Now, if you don't want to know the fate of the Zhangs, I suggest that you skip the following two paragraphs. [LAST WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]  Fan is still in contact with members of the family. They are still apart.  Suqin, the mother, lost her job during the financial crisis (as shown in the movie) and decided to go back home.  Last year, the economy picked up, so she decided to go back to work.  During the year that she was home, her son Yang became #1 in his class (during the film, he's #5).

[SPOILERS CONTINUE]  The star of this movie, however, is Quin.  When Fan started filming Last Train Home, Quin was sixteen.  Now twenty years old, she is fully asserting her independence as a young woman of the world.  Last time they talked, she had moved back to Guangzhou in search of a job, but was currently unemployed (she had been working elsewhere, but had been laid off).


Questions from the audience followed.  As to why people don't just stay in the countryside, Fan explained that "everyone wants to leave, find job, get rich."  In fact, he doubts that China is still a communist country, since everyone is after individual wealth these days.

The second question had to do with a line that Quin's parents deliver to her while she's being disobedient: "We tolerated you for so long."  Fan explained that the translation is not at fault: rather, that Quin's parents had put up with her antics before and had tolerated them, which is how that line should be read, not that they "tolerate" her existence.

One of the most important components in regards to the success of a documentary such as this is in gaining the subjects' total trust.  Fan said that the Zhangs didn't open up entirely that first year, but that he helped build their trust by encouraging his three man crew (the cameraman, the soundman-who is Fan's older brother-and an assistant) to hang out with the family, even when not filming them.  For the scenes at the train station, he'd buy tickets separately for the crew, on various days.  If the Zhangs couldn't get a ticket for that day, he'd return those tickets.  Since they are always in demand, he said it wasn't that big of a problem.

The final question had to do with whether or not he paid the subjects of his film.  Since it's a documentary, he did not, beyond basic necessities that the family sometimes needed (like oil and rice).  Now, however, he's trying to raise money for them, particularly to pay for Yang's education.  Eye Steel Film, the company that produced this movie, also distributed the movie Up the Yangtze, in which they raised enough funds to keep three of the children in that film in school.

After the Q & A session was over, Fan made his way into the theater lobby, where I met up again with my friends and got one of them to take a photo of me and the director.  It didn't quite work out as planned.   I got to shake his hand and thank him for coming to Seattle (at least, that's what I think I said: I really have no idea if the words that came out of my mouth made any sense at all), but as soon as I asked for a photo, a Chinese girl came over and asked for the same thing.  And then a whole group of Chinese girls moved in.  Realizing that I wasn't going to get a photo on my own with Fan, and realizing that the girls didn't mind if I was in their photo with him (though I was nudged out of the way so that they could all be seen), I posed alongside them:

You'll notice that I'm not in the center of the picture.  One of the friends I had run into, and the only Caucasian, yelled out while we were posing that I should stand in the middle of all of them, which got a laugh from Fan.  I told my friend later that I had been pushed out of the way.

"You moved out of the way!" he retorted.

Anyway, this doesn't even show all of the Chinese girls who were in the photo.  This one does, though I like the first one better:

Though I gave this film a 5 out of 5 on my ballot, I immediately wondered if that were so.  Strangely enough, this film was the hardest film of the festival to rate, perhaps because I went into it with such high expectations.  The middle two-thirds of the film was great, but I was thrown by the arc of the beginning, mainly because events happened quicker than I had been led to believe.  And then I felt disappointed at the ending, but mainly for the same reason that I felt disappointed when Hoop Dreams ended: I didn't want it to end.

So, it was certainly better than a 4 (especially with such powerful scenes as the ones I've listed above), but the pacing and climax didn't quite make it a 5.  Of course, these numbers are arbitrary, anyway, and I may end up seeing this movie again and deciding that it deserves a 5.

Here, then, is my final assessment: this is a damn good film.  Whether or not it's better or worse than any other film or documentary that I saw during the festival is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that I would see it again in a heartbeat.  On a big screen.  With a brighter bulb.  In focus.

For now, I give it a 4.5 out of 5.

Note: Grace Wang's review of the film can be found here and here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SIFF, Week Three: Imani (Uganda/Sweden/Canada, 2010, 82 mins)

Me and Caroline Kamya, director of Imani.

Not many people were in line when I went to get my will call tickets for the North American premiere of Imani (well, the last of three premiers ;-)).  In fact, I counted seven people total.  Then again, we're talking about a film that had played twice before, and which I was watching at 4:30 on a Friday, when most people are trying to get home from work, or are at home trying to relax.  I also picked up an official SIFF guide for $10 (includes more info on each film, sponsor information, and the names of the volunteers from last year), which was fortunate, since I had left my free SIFF guide at home.

The director of Imani, Caroline Kamya, introduced the film, one of eight African films to be shown at the festival.  The staff member who introduced her mentioned that, over the course of three days, she had been to several schools, working with teenage filmmakers.  Imani is her first feature film.  In Swahili, the name means "faith."

A 3-minute short film from Brazil called Human Colours preceded the film, with a voiceover by Fernando Lime (directed by Jose Vinicius Reis Gouveia).  That film is part of the Adobe Youth Voices project.  I will not be reviewing that film. :-P

Before I review Imani, here are some important facts about Uganda:

For more than twenty years, Northern Uganda has been engaged in a bloody civil war.  While a cease fire has been in effect for two years, the toll it has taken on the populace can still be seen, not least so in the children who had been abducted and forced to fight in the Lord's Resistance Army, the remnants of which are now being hunted down (read about current developments here).

That information helps put the opening quote into perspective: "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."

The quote is from Magnolia, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson.  This aspect of the film is what Kamya would refer to in the Q & A as "colonial hangover," where different classes of people still exist, based on the old model of stratification that the white British colonialists left behind.

The movie follows three people: a housemaid, Mary (Rehema Nanfuka), a former child soldier, Olwenyi (Stephen Ocen), and a breakdancer, Armstrong (Philip Buyi).  We meet Mary first, and her sister, Ruth, who has been beaten by her husband, Gideon.  Ruth gives her sister a locket that a muzungu gave her (Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary spell it "mzungu", which is Swahili for "white person"). At first, Mary declines, but Ruth explains that Gideon will never let her wear it.

We then meet Armstrong, who is putting on a breakdancing concert that evening.  We see him making preparations with his wife, who will be making their costumes.  Soon after meeting him, we get our first reminder of the civil war: a headline in a newspaper reads, "368 Days of Peace in North Uganda."

The next reminder is Olwenyi, who is staying at Hope Alive: Children of War Rehabilitation Center, which houses former child soldiers (note: this center actually exists, and Kamya filmed inside the actual center).  On this day, Olwenyi will be reunited with his parents, whom he has not seen since he was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army. He is withdrawn and likes to sit in corners and draw, or play an instrument.  He does play checkers with one of the other boys (using bottlecaps for pieces), but the game ends before there is a winner, with Olwenyi retiring to go off someplace by himself.

Each of these characters introduces us to someone else who is important to the story during the course of their day: George works with Mary at their mistress's house, Simon used to be friends with Armstrong, and Lasty helps run Hope Alive (and accompanies Olwenyi on his journey home).  Only Lefty is a redeemable character: George is sexist (he believes their mistress is single because no man can handle her) and Simon is some sort of low-level criminal, known as "the Gutter King."

Two crises (and an awkward situation) reveal themselves as the movie progresses: Mary finds out that Ruth is in jail for trying to kill Gideon (and the police want 50,000 pounds for her release), Armstrong has some of his equipment and belongings stolen by Simon's henchmen, and Olwenyi's parents worry about how much the person who has come back to them is the son who was taken from them.  In the first story, George agrees to help Mary raise the money by selling her locket.  In the second story, Armstrong confronts his former friend.  In the third story, Olwenyi's mother decides to see what's inside the box that Olwenyi carries around with him.

The main problem with this movie is that these crises are resolved too easily, and in a manner that doesn't lead to growth on the characters' parts, nor recognition that anything has changed on ours.  [WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD]  Perhaps the most powerful ending is provided by Olwenyi's story (and even that ending is lackluster, since what is inside the box is not so shocking of a find), but what about the other two stories?  Armstrong has an "episode" after he leaves Simon, but it leads nowhere.  Was he poisoned?  And if nothing happened, how come Simon puts the king in checkmate once Armstrong leaves (which, by the way, is one of the few movie cliches in this film)?  As for Mary's story, George collects "payment" for a loan he gives to Mary, even though that loan came from the sale of the locket.

What saves this movie from being as bad as, say, I Am Love, is that it knows what it is and doesn't try to be more than that, or get all "artsy" on us.  This movie is content to show us a specific place and time, and while it doesn't always succeed (the ending being the prime example), it kept my interest up to that point.  I wasn't surprised to learn, after the film ended, that Kamya worked on documentaries before making this film, as it certainly has the feel of a documentary to it.  In fact, that is part of its problem, as well.  It educates us about all these facets of Ugandan life without delving deep into the characters or situations that it raises.

In the Q & A that followed, Kamya came across as a very genuine person who has a lot of passion for the people of Uganda.  In this film, she wanted to show that people are moving on from the war.  She also explained one of the rituals used in the film: when Olwenyi returns home, he has to use his foot to break an egg placed between two branches before his mother, or anyone, will embrace him.  This ritual is based on an older one in Uganda, but it has been adapted as a way to readmit soldiers into their families, despite all of the horrible things that they have done.  That, and the water thrown on the roof of the house, which drips down as Olwenyi enters and exits the house twice, are purification ceremonies.  I imagine that the water is symbolic of the blood being washed from the soldiers' body, the blood that that soldier spilled.

Kamya's sister, Agnes, wrote the screenplay from notes that Caroline gave her.  Since Caroline worked with all non-actors (found through posters put up at the National Theatre), she didn't want any improvisation.  She also said that people in Uganda switch back and forth between languages while speaking, as they do in the film, since several languages are spoken there (Acholi, Luganda, and English are used in the film, according to the official SIFF guide, and Caroline mentioned that Swahili was used, as well).

This movie is a result of her frustrations, frustrations in people not knowing what is happening in Uganda, or what has happened there.  For example, one of the reasons that she focuses on a breakdancing group in the film is because she hopes that someone watching the movie will ask about it, since it actually exists.  Called Breakdance Project Uganda, the members breakdance for social change, and the actor who plays Armstrong (Buyi) is actually a member of that group.  One of their "shining stars," he is now one of their choreographers.

When I went to see Imani, I had hoped that I was going to witness a shining star of a director.  After all, this film did create some buzz at the Berlin Film Festival, which is why organizers in Seattle were so keen to have it here (this from the staff member who introduced the director and partly introduced the film).  Instead, I saw a pretty good film, one that, unfortunately, may soon be forgotten, much like Uganda's civil war.

3 out of 5.

Friday, June 11, 2010

SIFF, Week Three: Stephin Merritt and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (United States, 1916, 105 mins)

I walk into the Paramount Theatre.  Wow!  According to signs on the glass entrance doors, no photography nor video recording is allowed ("strictly prohibited," it reads).  People take photos, anyway.  I do not, though I could have.  But, unless I could photograph a panorama of the room, and paste it to this post, I would not be able to capture the beauty of this theater.  Plus, it may be too dark for my tiny lens.  Luckily, this photo (from the Wikipedia entry on the Paramount Theatre) does a pretty good job of showing what the inside of the theater looks like:

File:Paramount Northwest 16.jpg

This is looking backwards, though.  I will describe my view looking forward.

The stage includes a huge proscenium arch that must measure fifty feet in height.  Climbing up either side of the arch are two columns of speakers, light brown in color.  On the side walls hang ceiling chandeliers, one on each side.  The chandeliers have looping beads that hang off of them, and a fabricy material that reminds me of the rags that ghosts wear in old horror films.  To either side (and below) these chandeliers hang two more chandeliers, these from the walls (which are adorned with carvings and painted images).  They look more like lamp fixtures than chandeliers, and aren't as decorative as the full chandeliers (one can be see in the bottom left corner of the photo above).

Below these chandeliers, to either side and slightly in front of the stage, are two balconies.  Each balcony houses an organ.  A real organ?  A fake carved organ?  I cannot tell.  Two more speakers, these black, rest on the balcony's surface, one on each side of the theater.

On each wing, to either side of the long rows of seats, stand curtained Roman arches.  They stretch from the front side exits to the back side exits (see above), five on each side.  And the upper balcony is even more insanely beautiful (again, see above).  This is the most beautiful theater I've ever seen, more like the Met than an movie theater.

Onstage sits a large screen.  In front of the stage sits a large organ, creamy-white in color, with some gilt lines following its curves.  I keep thinking about taking photos.  Professional photographers are taking photos.  Now and then a flash from the audience proves that they are taking photos.  Why don't I take some photos?

There are many couples here.  Two rows in front of me, one couple is making out (well, just kissing each other now and then), and the movie has not even started yet.  I see Alexis, one of my fellow volunteers at the Neptune, but she doesn't see me, and is talking to another volunteer.

About five minutes before the show begins, the organist starts tuning the organ (Daniel Hegarty, according to this article).  Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) is there, too, on accordion.  And, of course, Stephin Merritt, who wrote the score.

The director of the festival comes out on stage.  He thanks the sponsors, also the San Francisco Film Festival, who commissioned this piece from Stephin Merritt.  It premiered there in 2009.

During the movie, chimes, bells, a tuba, voices, and sound and voice effects are used.  Also leitmotifs.  Merritt injects humor into the plot and characters.  Sounds a bit like "Yellow Submarine" and Octopus's Garden" mated and had a child.  Audience thinks the film is a comedy.  I don't mind when they laugh at the musical and spoken jokes; I do mind when they laugh at the melodrama.  I don't want to be reminded of the inherent silliness that is to be found in silent films.  I want to enjoy them as seriously as the artists intended them to be.

The original score prevents that, only letting the movie speak for itself when the first underwater film is shown (courtesy of Ernest and George Williamson, who are thanked at the beginning of the movie, since they invented the technique needed to place the cameras underwater). During that sequence, the music falls away, and only pings of sonar can be heard.  It quiets the audience, too, and I feel some of the awe that those first audiences must have felt upon seeing those underwater sequences for the first time.  True, it goes a bit too long, as if the novelty of the images prevented the director, Stuart Paton, or the editors from cutting any part of it out.

The story: a monster has been sighted at sea.  A crew goes out to intercept it, which includes Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon), his daughter (Edna Pendleton), and a great harpooner (possibly Neb, played by Leviticus Jones, since Kirk Douglas goes by "Ned" in the Disney classic).  They fall overboard when the "monster" rams their boat.  They are rescued by Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar), and find out that the beast is a machine called a "submarine."  He has traveled 20,000 leagues to get his revenge against a man whom we meet later in the movie, Charles Denver (William Welsh).

Then we cut to Mysterious Island and a bunch of men landing on the island from a hot air balloon.  To greet them on the island is a "Child of Nature" (Jane Gail, wearing a leopard skin, of course).  Captain Nemo's submarine is docking off of its coast.  Soon Charles Denver will come to the island in order to calm his conscience.  Years ago, he caused a woman's death and abandoned her child on the island.  Now he wishes to see if she is still alive.

The movie is in eight parts, each part introduced with a title card and the same irreverent song by Stephin Merritt.  The most loved song of the night is "I Don't Wanna Wear Pants," when one of the members of the hot air balloon tries to get the child of nature to wear Western clothing.  When the song ends, people applaud.

In order to tie together the child of nature and Captain Nemo, the movie shows part of the story "which Jules Verne never told" (which also sparks laughter, even from me).  To get to that point, some strange jumps in the narrative occur, as the film eventually encompasses the fortunes of four groups of people--two groups on the submarine, two on the island (remember, modern narrative technique had only been perfected the year before, with the release of Birth of a Nation).

In the middle of the film, I read intertitles explaining Nemo's new inventions to his "guests."  His "magic window," diving suits, oxygen tanks, air guns, and water chamber (for entering the ocean) will all become a reality by the time this movie is made.  I think how far ahead of his time Jules Verne was.

My main thought throughout the movie, though, is whether the annoying woman behind me, who laughs at everything, even when it's not funny, will laugh if I punch her in the face tell her to shut up be quiet.

The movie ends, the audience raucously applauds the musicians.  They deserve it for the quality of the music, if not for its appropriateness (one commentator on CityArts rightfully calls it "MST3K style mockery" ).  I feel it isn't that great of a film, but maybe it would have been better with better musical accompaniment, and no dubbed-in goofy lines.  I feel the audience is more a Magnetic Fields audience than a silent film audience, to the detriment of the film, and of my movie-going experience.  Note to audience members: just because it's a silent movie doesn't mean you can talk during it.  I rate the whole experience a 3 and the audience a 2.5, but the venue gets a 5.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

SIFF, Week Two: 25th Hour (United States, 2002, 135 mins)

As part of my double-header on Saturday night, I saw 25th Hour, part of SIFF's tribute to Edward Norton's career.  As a bonus, he would be introducing the film.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one who heard the news:

The line

Still, because no one likes sitting next to strangers, I got another excellent seat, about five or six rows back from the screen.  I can also say that I went out the same door to use the bathroom as Edward Norton used to enter the theater.  Hey, I'll grasp at any straws I can!  

(I was not the one, however, who yelled, "I love you, Edward Norton!"  That was a female.)

I should mention that Norton seemed more relaxed than he had during the Q & A session the night before, probably because he didn't have to do a Q & A, and because he was addressing a young crowd.  He began by talking about the first time he saw Do The Right Thing, saying that he wasn't sure if we remembered when it came out or not (the audience was largely made up of college students, and even I was only eight at that time), but it was "like a new language," not only in its depiction of racism, but in its camera usage.  It's the only time, Norton said, that he left a movie theater, bought another ticket, and went back inside to watch the same movie again.

Yep, the director of SIFF got to introduce him again

He was blown away again when he saw He Got Game, after which he wrote Spike Lee a letter saying, basically, "You're the shit," and in which he offered to do anything for him, even carry lights.  Lee eventually replied and told him that he had something a little better in mind: a role in a movie adaptation of the book, The 25th Hour.

One big difference between the book and the movie is that the movie started filming after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, whereas the book was written before the attacks.  Norton said that Lee wanted to address the aftermath of 9/11 in the film, as he couldn't just pretend that it didn't happen.

As for the shoot itself, Norton said that some directors won't acknowledge who their influences are.  Lee isn't like that.  Two months before filming began, he screened a film, every night, for the cast and crew.  The movies were ones he was looking to for influence as to how to make this film.

One night, he put on Midnight Cowboy.  He said he wanted to watch it for "color saturation."  Norton sat behind him.  So there's Lee, hunched forward, watching this film, and when it ends, he turns around and says, "Still a motherfucker!"

So, Norton said he hopes that, years from now, we think 25th Hour is "still a motherfucker."

The movie begins with Monty (Norton) and Kostya (Tony Siragusa) discovering an abandoned and abused dog on the side of the road.  Monty is originally going to kill it (a mercy killing), but when he sees the fight the dog has left in it, he decides to rescue it and bring it to a nearby vet, instead.

We are then treated to the twin beams of light that were projected in the sky for several nights after the September 11th attacks.  Notice how Lee frames these opening shots, first by looking straight up into the heavens (the light's "point of view"), then by framing the beams with separate New York landmarks (the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge).  And the first names to appear on the screen: Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin.  I mean, what a cast!

We cut to present day.  Monty still has the dog, named Doyle (a mistake on Kostya's part, when he mentions "Doyle's Law" instead of "Murphy's Law" when they pick up the dog).  We find out that this is his last day as a free man.  The 25th hour will find him in jail, facing a seven-year sentence for dealing drugs.  He will be spending this last day of freedom with his friends, his girlfriend, his father, and his dog.

Monty's friends include Jacob (Hoffman), a teacher who is lusting after one of his underage students (Paquin), and Frank (Pepper), a stockbroker on Wall Street.  His girlfriend is Naturelle (Dawson), whom he suspects of ratting him out to the police.  His father (Brian Cox) owns a bar.  It was to support him that Monty started dealing in drugs.

His last day is filled with anger, regret, second-guessing, and forgiveness.  Flashbacks are expertly handled, and occur at the proper times, in order to bring the audience up to speed.  That final day, he meets up with Naturelle, then his dad.  Jacob and Frank meet up at Frank's place, which is right next to Ground Zero, before heading to the bar where they will meet Monty.  They then go to a club.  Jake's student, Mary (Paquin), is waiting to get in.  Despite his protestations, Monty lets her come with them.  The club is owned by Nikolai (Levani Uchaneishvili), the man whom the DEA wanted when they busted Monty.

One regret that Monty doesn't have is saving Doyle.

"The best thing I ever did was save that dog," he says.  "Every day it has is because of me."

Night spills into morning.  Monty asks Jacob to take care of Doyle for him.  He asks Frank for a favor in the club that puts Frank in a foul mood.  He asks the same favor again in a park during the early morning hours.  When Frank finally complies, crying like a baby afterwards (this is an excellent performance by Pepper, for in that cry, we feel his frustration with himself, for not stopping Monty from doing what he did, his anger at Monty, for making such a mess of his life, and his sadness--which has not been revealed before now--over the truth contained in that 25th hour: that things will never be the same again, that Monty may not be the same person he knew and grew up with when he leaves jail, and that that day is a long ways away).

That scene, and the brilliant sequence near the end of the film, are what elevates this otherwise excellent film into one of the great films of our time.  The music, with its plaintive wailing, sometimes threatens to overpower some scenes and plunge the movie into melodrama, but how can it hold back when it is the sound of a city, grief-stricken, crying out for its dead?

That ending sequence.  What can I say about it that won't give it away?  As Monty's father drives him to prison, he gives Monty a choice.  That choice is visually realized to perfection in the closing minutes of the film.  It may be the greatest thing I've seen at the festival so far, and is certainly one of the great cinematic endings, which is why I'm surprised that some critics only noticed this movie's brilliance when making their Best of the Decade lists.  Not that they didn't give this movie favorable reviews.  They did.  They just didn't give the movie the astonishing reviews that it deserved.

Luckily, I was seeing this movie with a college crowd, quite possibly the best crowd to see a movie with.  As the credits came up on the screen, a guy in the row in front of me yelled, "STILL a motherfucker!"

I agree.

This movie was not in competition for the Golden Space Needle Award, so I did not rate the film on a ballot.  You should, however, be able to tell from my review what number I would've given it.

SIFF, Week Two: Garbo: The Spy (Spain, 2009, 89 mins)

When I saw My Year Without Sex, I almost missed the beginning of the movie.  With this film, I almost forgot to bring my ticket.  And then the bus almost forgot to stop for me.

Apparently, it was a good day for movies, as there were a lot of people, both at this screening and at the screening for 25th Hour, which I saw later that night.  Heck, it was a beautiful day for anything.  Maybe Edward Norton did bring the sun out.

The AMC (aka Pacific Place Cinema) is on the fourth floor of Pacific Place, a shopping mall in the middle of Downtown Seattle.  Once inside the theater, I got a pretty good seat about halfway down the second grouping of seats.  I had one empty seat next to me.  A man and a woman came in as the theater was filling up.  He decided to sit in back, where one seat was available, and she decided to sit next to me.  I spent a moment or two looking behind me to see where the man was sitting, then sat in thought for a bit before putting away my notepad and pencil and asking the woman next to me if she wanted to sit next to her boyfriend/husband, since I was here by myself and didn't mind moving.  She said she'd ask him.  A few minutes later, he came down with her from his seat against the back wall, she thanked me, and I went up to claim my seat in back.  The two older women (seventies?) whom I sat next to both said what a nice thing it was that I had done.  I just thought it made sense.

Documentaries depend, above all, on their subjects.  If the subject is interesting, then half of the documentarian's work is done for him or her.

Garbo: The Spy deals with a very interesting subject: Juan Pujol Garcia, the greatest double agent of World War II.  The movie starts with an introduction from Eisenhower during the war, explaining how "teamwork wins wars."  We then cut to Nigel West, a historian and former Conservative MP, who explains the role that deception has in winning wars, with references to the D-Day Invasion at Normandy.  Through a combination of clips from old spy movies, propaganda films, and WWII footage, and interviews with several people (including a former spy), the rest of the film uncovers details about this most interesting of men.

The spy known as Garbo was born Juan Pujol Garcia on February 14, 1912 (Valentine's Day), in Spain.  To understand why a man who lived in a neutral country during WWII would want to become a double agent, one must look, as the movie does, at the world in which he grew up in.  The rise of Fascism in Italy.  The Japanese invasion of Manchuria.  The rise of the Nazis in Germany.  Most of all, however, the events surrounding the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath.

Originally, Juan Pujol went into hiding rather than fight for the Nationalists or the Fascists in Spain.  Eventually, though, he ended up fighting for the Nationalists, telling them that he knew Morse code.  He did not, and so they had him lay down wire for their communications, which meant that he often went behind enemy lines.  One night, he used this opportunity to escape, but instead of defecting to the Fascists, he went the wrong way, telling the Nationalists that he was defecting from them!  They fired upon him, but he miraculously wasn't hit, and he went into hiding.  Even more amazingly, he was not discovered the next morning, either.  He waited until the Nationalists had left, then headed in the correct direction and went over to the Fascists.

I should point out that he did this out of necessity.  He hated the Fascists, which is why when WWII broke out, he went to the British Embassy to offer his services as a spy.  They kicked him out.  Undaunted, he went to the German Embassy.  They were more willing to listen.

He was supposed to go to London and gather intelligence for the Germans.  Instead, he stayed in Lisbon and made up all of his correspondences.  In fact, he made up all of his sources, too.  To the Germans, he was known as Arabel.

The British, who rejected his help four times before accepting it, only did so after, on one occasion, Juan Pujol convinced the Germans that a large British force was leaving Liverpool to relieve the Siege of Malta.  Of course, there was no such force, but the Germans sent out a fleet to intercept it.  At the time, Cyril Miller was the head of the British Intelligence Agency.  The agent who interviewed Juan Pujol, to discover what his motives were, was an agent named Rousseau.  The British were the ones who named him Garbo, for "they believed him to be the best actor of the war" (I believe Nigel West said that quote).  They also brought him to London for real.

Originally, Garbo's case officer was Miller, but then Thomas Harris took over.  Harris spoke fluent Spanish, and he and Garbo created more fake agents, which eventually numbered 22 in all (even killing off one that would know about the planned invasion of Africa before the invasion would take place, and recruiting his wife--who also didn't exist--in his place).  They also tricked the Germans into supplying Garbo with enough funds to pay his network of spies.  Called Operation Dream, the funds from the Nazis ending up funding most of the British Intelligence Service operations in the last few years of the war, to the tune of 20,000 pounds.

Garbo made two significant contributions in WWII.  First, he helped crack the Enigma code, as his case officer would pick up the German relay of Garbo's intelligence each day and compare it to the original document in order to create a template for other intercepted communications for a code that changed every day.  His second, and possibly even greater, contribution was in convincing the Germans that the invasion at Normandy was a feint, and that the real invasion, led by General Patton, would land at the Pas de Calais.  As for the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower approved the information on the attack to be sent out three hours before the invasion would take place, figuring that the Nazis wouldn't have time to respond.  By sheer luck, no one was in the booth that day, listening for messages, so the Germans got the message after the invasion had ended.

Even more significant,  he convinced the Germans, even months afterward, that the main invasion force was still coming (and since the Allies had built an entire fake army out of plywood in England, which could be easily seen from the air, the Germans had no reason to doubt him).  This allowed the Western Front to be secured, since most of the Germans were still at the Pas de Calais (and Rommel, on the day of the invasion, was attending a celebration in Germany).  Eventually, however, he told them that the feint had been so successful, the Allies had decided to cancel the main invasion, and the Germans believed him.  In fact, he is the only person ever to be awarded medals by both the Axis and Allied sides of WWII.

So why was he so convincing?  Two things: he had a vivid and active imagination, and he was passionate.  His writing style convinced people that he was telling the truth, so much so that after the Germans surrendered, he received money from them from his Nazi case coordinator back in Spain for all of the "great intelligence" he gave them.

But then, apparently, he died in Angola in 1949 from malaria, though some sources say it was from a snake bite.  Or did he?

Editing is the second most important part of a documentary, and here, each clip was seemlessly interwoven into the entire fabric, along with the interviews and the music.  I would have liked the names of each of the interviewees to have been shown on screen besides each subject (instead of having them introduce themselves halfway through the movie), but that is a small caveat.

The most powerful scenes for me, however, come near the end of the film.  One concerns the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landing.  The other concerns a military graveyard, with one of those looks on camera that say what so many words cannot about the tragedy and futility of war.

And what would've happened had D-Day failed, or had the Western Front collapsed in the weeks following D-Day?  Certainly, the war would have gone on for another year and thousands more would have died.  As it says in the credits, Juan Pujol saved thousands of lives "on both sides," "without firing a shot."

So now we come back to the reason why Juan Pujol became a double agent.  It was his belief that humanity could not stand for the authoritative governments of Germany and Italy.  And so, armed with only his passion, his imagination, and his courage, he helped to put an end to them.

5 out of 5.

Additional information derived from the Juan Pujol Garcia Wikipedia entry (which might ruin some surprises to be found in the film), and, as always, from IMDB.

A related link about the Bletchley Park Archive (kudos to @theangrymick for bringing this to my attention via Twitter)

Monday, June 7, 2010

SIFF, Week Two: A Tribute to Edward Norton (including a screening of Leaves of Grass)

It's been raining a lot lately.  When I got on the bus to see A Tribute to Edward Norton, it had started drizzling.

But then Edward Norton cameth, and the clouds disperseth, and the sun shone....

I wish.

By the time I got to the movie theater, it was pouring outside.  As you can see, though, that didn't dissuade the crowd: 

Even getting there early, however, didn't guarantee us of a good seat, since the ENTIRE MIDDLE SECTION was reserved seating, for those folks who had shelled out $125 for the meet-and-greet before the film.  We peons, who had paid a measly $35 for the event ($25 for SIFF members), either had to sit on the sides, or in the balcony.

Now, as an assistant organizer for the Seattle Cinema Club, I had posted this event as a meetup.  Only two people responded in the affirmative (the tickets sold out sometime last week), but I never found out if they came, or where they sat if they did.  As for meeting up afterwards, the Q & A session took a wee bit longer than I had expected it to.

More on that later.  I found a seat on the side, next to the aisle seat.  A mother and daughter sat to my left (both quite a bit older than me, but I'd guess the daughter to be ten to twenty years younger than my mom).  When the daughter got up to go to the concession stand and offered to get the other people in the row something, I asked for water, thinking that maybe there were cups and pitchers somewhere (like at the Neptune Theatre) that I hadn't seen.  Instead, she came back with a bottle of water, which was fine by me.  I asked how much it was.

"Four dollars."

Four dollars for water!  We both thought that was ridiculously high.

I only had three ones and one large bill.  She told me three dollars would do.  I figure the movie information I supplied them with later, and the words that I heard that they missed hearing that I passed on to them, made up the difference.  Just in case it doesn't, I plan on donating a dollar to charity.

Anyway, the SIFF preview started up right away, without any introduction.  I thought that maybe the movie would start up immediately afterwards.  Instead, the curtains closed, and this guy came out on stage:

He introduced himself as the director of the festival, and apparently is so important that I can't find his name anywhere on their website (or any of the other staff names, for that matter).  Anyway, he introduced the Edward Norton montage video, followed by the presentation of the Golden Space Needle Award to Edward Norton (don't worry, I have a better photo of him later, from the Q & A):

Upon receiving his award, Norton mentioned that it didn't look like the Space Needle at all.  The director told him that it was an artistic interpretation of the Space Needle.  And while Norton was very gracious about receiving the award, he realizes that he is merely "a conduit for something that already exists out there."  For each role, he tries to channel something specific, but what he's channeling is not within, but without.

Also, he doesn't make movies to receive awards.  He does it for the relationships that movies form with their audiences.  Years after a film is made, it's "still out there, forming a relationship with people."

He then quoted C.S. Lewis: "We read to know we're not alone."  In relation to film, he does films because it makes him feel connected with others, through a relationship that grows and continues to grow between movies and their audiences.

Tim Blake Nelson was supposed to be at the tribute, too, but he's stuck in New Orleans, acting in a film.  He was going to throw a fit about not being able to go, but then he was reminded that he is a character actor, and so is needed on the set.

Norton did not want to talk too much about the film ahead of time, but he did say that Leaves of Grass was shot in 35 days, and the money used to make the picture was borrowed from a friend.  Like with David Fincher and Fight Club, and Spike Lee and 25th Hour, he felt that Nelson was the perfect director for this film.  Before the lights dimmed and the movie began, Norton told us that the movie is "one man's [Nelson's] crazy life splattered schizophrenically over the screen."

Leaves of Grass (United States, 2009, 105 mins)

Seeing as there was an actress in the film called Maggie Siff, this movie was destined to play here.  It mixes comedy with tragedy, philosophy with pot-growing.

It stars Edward Norton in a dual role, playing twin brothers Bill and Brady Kincaid.  Bill is a philosophy professor at an Ivy League University (Brown, according to Ebert's review).  Brady is a pot grower in a part of Oklahoma known as "Little Dixie."  Both brothers are brilliant, and the movie starts off with Bill giving a lecture on Socrates and Plato, concluding with the idea that "the balance needed to lead a happy life is illusory."

The plot: Bill gets word that his brother has been murdered by crossbow ("It's quite common where I come from," he explains to his secretary).  He flies down to Oklahoma and meets a very annoying Jewish orthodontist (Josh Pais) on the plane ride down.  At the airport, he is met by Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson), Brady's best friend and pot-growing partner, who drives him the rest of the way to Little Dixie.  Once there, he finds out that news of his brother's death may have been exaggerated (with a nod to Mark Twain).

I won't reveal any more of the plot, but I will talk about the structure of the movie.  In the Q & A that followed, Norton mentioned that Nelson is obsessed with classical comedic and tragic forms.  In addition, he knows all of the Greek and Roman plays that deal with twins (one of those plays, The Twin Menaechmi, is mentioned in the movie), and the film follows classical dramatic form.  There is one aspect of Greek drama that Nelson seems to follow at the beginning of the movie, but doesn't follow as the movie progresses, which I'll leave to you to figure out (hint: Shakespeare only followed it in extreme cases).

Shakespeare's plays and ancient Greek dramas have a five act structure in which the climax occurs in the third act (whereas this review follows Wagnerian operatic structure, which is in three acts).  Since this film follows that structure, the climax occurs in the middle of the film.  Traditionally, too, the climax irrevocably changes what comes afterwards, as it does in this case.  Unfortunately, as in some of Shakespeare's early plays, the events following the climax can be less exciting than what happened before.  Nelson provides tension through Act IV, but Act V seems oddly detached from the rest of the film, and isn't as brilliant as the preceding acts.

Since Nelson is also familiar with plays about twins, several of those conventions are followed, as well, including mistaken identities and parallelism (I counted three parallel themes or events, but in order not to spoil the movie for you, I'll merely mention that one of them involves Jews in Tulsa).

Finally, Nelson has derived the idea of a fatal flaw from Shakespeare, but whether or not this leads to as tragic results as they do in his plays, I will leave for you to discover.

4 out of 5 (mainly because of that last act, where things seem to happen too quickly, since the rest of the film is a 5), but definitely worth seeing, especially for some of the smartest dialogue that I've ever heard in a film, and for the fact that Edward Norton is phenomenal in both roles.


There was a ten-minute break between the film and the Q & A that followed.  I took that opportunity to take some photos:

As you can see, the award (in the center) doesn't quite look like Seattle's most famous landmark

The inside of the Egyptian Theatre


For the Q & A session, critic Tom Tangney interviewed Norton.  Tangney writes for and is a contributor on Cairo Radio.

Tangney started by asking Norton about his life.  Norton replied that he doesn't think "anybody's enjoyment of a film is in any way enhanced by knowing anything about" the actors on the screen. In fact, he believes that one's biography "gets in the way" of one's enjoyment of a film.  Tangney then mentioned that Norton graduated Yale with a degree in history and is fluent in several languages, and wondered if that approach (instead of majoring in theatre) has helped his acting.  Norton's response was that acting is rooted in empathy.

"Not sympathy," he noted.

He also admitted that there's a craft to it, and there are techniques to learn, talking about outside-in versus inside-out methods of acting.  Outside-in is a cerebral way of looking at a role, whereas inside-out is an emotional way of looking at it (though, in his opinion, you use both).  He takes issue, however, with actors who are called "naturals" (inside-out actors), as opposed to "cerebral" (outside-in) actors, mentioning that Robert De Niro is one of the most cerebral actors that he knows.

Clips were then shown from Primal Fear and The People vs. Larry Flynt.

For the former film, Norton saw his character as "just a guy putting on an act."  From the latter film, he learned one of his most important lessons about directing.

Milos Foreman is one of the great directors, yet also one of the least controlling.  Norton said that he would do multiple takes without giving his actors any feedback.  When Norton asked him what he was looking for in those takes, he said he was waiting for an "unrepeatable moment" (which Norton did in Foreman's voice).  In fact, in his own performances, Norton wishes to "create the sense that something is happening extemporaneously."  That is why he obsesses over tiny indicators in his performances.

The discussion then came back to Leaves of Grass, in which Norton said he'd play Brady first in scenes which included both brothers.  To play Bill, he'd have a listening device inside his ear playing Brady's previously recorded dialogue.  He also said it wasn't difficult playing both brothers, as most people (including himself) are scripting in their heads all the time, anyway.  For example, if you're about to have a meeting with your boss, you'll script out the conversation in your head of what you're going to say and what he or she is going to say  to you.  The difference between that day-to-day scripting in your head and Norton playing twin brothers is that, as Norton put it, "I found a way to get paid for it."

One fun fact: Since doing The People vs. Larry Flynt, Woody Harrelson and Norton will call each other up pretending to be Larry Flynt.

My best photo of Tangney and Norton, and of a human ear

Next was a clip from Down in the Valley, which Tangney believes is Norton's "Travis Bickle" (the mother next to me didn't know who that was, so I mentioned to her that he was in Taxi Driver.  This is when I believe she asked me if I could always sit next to them during movies).  It's a movie about the Western myth meeting the reality of what the West has become.  Norton said that even the rough draft of the screenplay had "great kernels in it."  He says it shows "the way that fantasy can be an escape, but taken too far can become a terrible trap."

After clips were shown from American History X and Fight Club, Tangney asked Norton why he was snickering during the clips.  Referencing the lines spoken in American History X, right before his character and his Nazi Skinhead friends are about to rob a store, he said, "Take these things out of context, it starts sounding like the Arizona legislature."

Big laugh from the audience.

Another laugh came when Tangney asked if Norton thought of switching roles in the film Fight Club, with Norton playing the idealized version of Brad Pitt.  All Norton had to do was repeat that thought to get a laugh.

One thing Tangney noticed is that Norton tends to play marginalized men.  Down in the Valley, American History X, and Fight Club all deal with men marginalized by society.  About Fight Club, Norton said that the book dealt with "what everyone's getting cocooned in and neutered by."  He also said that he's particularly proud of that movie, as he considers it his generation's The Graduate.  Just as his father loved that movie, but his grandfather's generation didn't, so Norton's generation loved this movie, but his father's generation didn't.  In fact, when he heard that his father hated Fight Club, Norton thought, "Yes!"

"When things polarize people, you must be doing something right, " he said.

He also pointed out that the year in which Fight Club came out was a great year for filmmakers of his generation.  Besides Fight Club, Spike Jonze came out with Being John Malkovich, David Russell came out with Three Kings, and the Wachowski brothers came out with The Matrix.

Norton's directorial debut came the following year, with Keeping the Faith.  When asked why he decided to direct a comedy, he mentioned the Philadelphia Story quality to the film.  Also, other directors told him not to get too precious about the first film he directed.  Or, as David Fincher put it, "Do you think Alien 3 was my heart's desire?"

One funny story from filming is that Ben Stiller's mother would bring out sandwiches for the crew (when they were at the Stillers' house for some scenes), which would embarrass Ben (they had catered food, after all).

Shown with a clip from Keeping the Faith was a scene from The Painted Veil.  Norton mentioned that if the audience thought that movie looked bleak, they should check out John Curran's previous film, We Don't Live Here Anymore.  Of the director, Norton added, "I think he's super talented."

Questions from the audience followed.  Index cards were passed out before the show began (allegedly) and during the ten minute intermission.  I had no idea what to ask Norton without sounding cliched, so I did not take one.

The first question dealt with luck versus hard work.  Norton admits that one has to be extremely lucky to make it in films, and he never takes his luck for granted, as he knows many actors and actresses who are just as talented as he, but have not gotten his breaks.

The next question was about rumors of him starring in The Avengers movie.  He said it's not up to him.

When asked about his worst film experience, he said it's difficult to say.  For example, he loved working on Fight Club, but thought he was going to die from exhaustion during certain parts of that shoot.  He does believe that his best film experiences, however, have come from passionate arguments.  Or, as he put it, "Harmony doesn't necessarily make the best film."

The caveat is that the arguments concern the creative aspect of the film, and don't devolve into personal attacks.

He also answered questions about crowdwise, which is a website he designed to help people use personal websites (like Facebook and MySpace) to help raise private funds; what he would do if he lost his job in films (he's not sure); and what he wished they had done differently while making Leaves of Grass (not much, since he's really proud of the film, but he would have liked a little more time).  Another question dealt with when he would direct Mother of the People (he'll get to it, eventually, but it may not be his next project).

In addition, he was asked who he most admires, living or dead (difficult to say, but had just seen Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences on Broadway, for which he had "no words"), how the Coen brothers were involved in Leaves of Grass (they're "Tim's friends," but didn't really work on the film), which brother he loved the best from that movie (loves both of them, as they are both aspects of Tim), and the most important thing he's learned about himself through film (how to better balance "an impulse to control the creative process" with not controlling it).

When I review 25th Hour, I'll talk more about how Do the Right Thing was a life-changing film for Norton, but I'll leave you with an image from my bus ride home, where I sat behind a colorful character with alcohol-stained breath, who wanted some money to buy some cigarettes, and stared at all of the pretty women who came on the bus.  Yep, Seattle is quite an interesting place.

Friday, June 4, 2010

SIFF, Week Two: Mother Joan of the Angels (Poland, 1961, 110 mins)

I entered SIFF cinema hacking and trying to form words.  Damn pollen allergies.  Luckily, there was a water fountain there, and luckily, my super dry throat did not bother me during the film.

Jerzy Kawalerowicz, the director of this film, died in 2007.  The SIFF staff member who introduced Mother Joan of the Angels told us that he made 16 films (IMDB lists 17) and that she first discovered his work at a Polish Film Festival.  Apparently, he could and did make some rather lousy films, but "when he was on"...

Unfortunately, she also had some bad news to share with us.  We were originally supposed to see a restored 35mm version of the film (on hard drive), but when they opened the box, instead of containing a hard drive, it contained strawberry preserves.  Or were they raspberry preserves?  I really should have my notepad ready to go at the beginning of these films, to catch little tidbits such as this.  She joked that perhaps the people who came out afterwards for the gathering could have some of those preserves (after some of the films, audience members are invited to join the staff at a local coffee shop or bar to celebrate).

Luckily, she had a very high quality DVD version of the movie (and of Night Train, the movie to follow, which also should have been in that box), but she said that anyone who was dissatisfied with the quality of the film could leave the theater within the first ten minutes of the movie and receive a comp ticket for another film.  To my knowledge, no one did, and considering some of the issues I've mentioned concerning other films that I've seen, perhaps using the digital projector over the 35 mm projector (or the hard drive version) may have prevented further problems from occurring.

And what a film it was!  It reminded me of Ingmar Bergman in its subject matter (religion), but not in its camera work.  The use of a mirror reminded me, for some reason, of techniques used by Masahiro Shinoda, though nothing else in the film suggests his style.  Made in 1961, it was banned by the Catholic Church (this according to the SIFF guide), and no wonder, for its subject matter is the possession of nuns by devils.

The movie follows Father Joseph Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit, who also plays the part of the Rabbi) as he arrives at a village where the former priest, Father Garniec, has been burned at the stake for being a sorcerer, and where the nuns in the local nunnery have been possessed by demons.  Father Joseph (as the subtitles list him; on IMDB, his named is spelled "Josef") is the latest in a line of priests who have come to the town to exorcise the demons.  All have met with failure.  Father Joseph soon realizes that Mother Joan of the Angels, the nun in charge of the nunnery, is the most possessed of them all.  If he can drive out the eight demons that are possessing her, then the other sisters might be saved.

In addition to Sister Joan, we also meet Sister Margaret (Malgorzata on IMDB, played by Anna Ciepielewska), who is the only nun not possessed by devils.  She often returns to town and confers with the local beer wench and fortune teller, Antosia (Maria Chwalibog), and her (Margaret's) father, Wincenty Wolodkowicz, who apparently owns the bar.  On one such visit, she meets the handsome Chrzaszczewski (Stanislaw Jasiukiewicz), and begins having thoughts unbecoming of a nun.

The cinematography (in black and white) is gorgeous, the acting is great (though a little campy when the nuns act possessed, but then, how can it not be?), and the camerawork is wonderful.  Kawalerowicz uses static shots, zooms (used when looking out windows, mostly), and a variety of short, medium, and wide shots (and the use of a mirror) in a relaxed and natural way, not calling attention to the techniques used, but using them in a way that is easily recognizable

And then there's the message of the film itself.  When Father Joseph goes to see a rabbi in the hopes of finding out how to cast out the demons, the rabbi says, "Love is at the bottom of everything in this world."  Father Joseph doesn't understand.  The rabbi tries to explain it to him.  When he still doesn't understand, the rabbi casts him out, saying that he doesn't know anything.  Watching this film, I didn't realize that the same actor played both roles.  Is the director saying that the worldly rabbi and the cloistered priest are two sides of the same coin, one Jewish, one Christian, one who knows the world of men and women, one who only knows the world of God?

And indeed, this is why the priests have failed.  "Women were made to suffer, let them suffer," says the rabbi. The men in this film do not understand the suffering of these women, or how women might love Satan more than God, because they do not understand human emotions, which are the ways of the world.  All of their emotions are entwined in God.  Only when Father Joseph tries to understand Mother Joan's personal demons, only when he tries to understand how her pride and wish to be different from the other sisters led to her wanting to be possessed, only when he tries to empathize with her lot in life, is he able to help her, but by doing so, he opens himself up to the same dangers and temptations that she has fallen victim to.

Meanwhile, Sister Margaret is led astray by the dashing Chrzaszczewski, but her suitor leaves her in the morning, and she returns to the nunnery, where she and Mother Joan shed tears over their lot in life.

In short, this film deals with the secular and religious worlds, repressed feelings, and temptation.  At its heart, though, it is about love--how love decides our fate for us, and the choices that we make.  Mother Joan wanted to become a saint.  Since she could not become a saint, she decided to become the opposite.  Father Joseph is a pious man, but it is his love for Mother Joan, not his love of God, that makes him decide to do what he does, and to live with that choice, though it leads to horrible consequences.  Sister Margaret leaves the convent for love, then returns when her love is forsaken.

Love is at the bottom of everything in this world.

5 out of 5.

People in line for Night Train, not realizing that their film has been replaced with preserves.

SIFF, Week One: My Year Without Sex (Australia, 2009, 96 mins)

I wasn't sure how I would react to this film.  It is, after all, about the year after a woman suffers a brain aneurism, and I watched it on the same day that my mother told me one of her friends had died recently from what was probably a brain aneurism.  She was at her own retirement party, got a massive headache, went to the bathroom with one of the women there, and collapsed.  She never regained consciousness.

On the other hand, I would have had no reaction had I missed the movie, which almost happened.  I saw it started at 9:30, but instead of thinking I needed to be there a half hour earlier, my brain decided that 9:30 is when I needed to be there.  And I realized this right after I got on the bus at 9, thinking, "Wait a minute!  If the movie starts at 9:30, then I need to pick up my ticket now."

And then the bus had to wait for the bridge to be lowered.  And then people pulled the cord for what seemed like each stop.  I saw no line for the movie when I got to the theater, so I figured it wasn't sold out (otherwise, rush ticket holders should still have been in line).  I walked quickly inside, got my will call ticket at the table ("I kept thinking it was a half hour later."  "That's okay (big smile)."), then went in the side door.  When I got to the ground floor of the theater, I noticed several empty seats.  I sat down in a good one just as one of the staff members got up on stage to introduce the film.  There's something to be said for luck.

There's also something to be said for this movie.  The Stranger had rated this a "Must See," and also as the sweetest movie at the festival.  Score two for The Stranger!  This movie was also:

Poignant: When Natalie (Sacha Horler) is writing a birthday card for her daughter's twelfth birthday.  Initially, the camera shows Natalie sitting at the desk.  Once she had read through what she's written, the desk is shown, and we realize that she has written birthday cards for her children's next four birthdays.

Shocking: How Natalie looks after having her aneurism.  The family's little dog is attacked by a large dog while they are walking him.

Funny: When Natalie, who cannot hold in sneezes due to the risk of having another aneurism, runs into a darkened office to sneeze, only to find two coworkers in there, with the man's head up the woman's dress.  When Natalie explains why she can't hold in sneezes, the man says he knew somebody who had an aneurism.  "She died," he says.

True to Life: Ross is worried about layoffs at work.  Natalie goes back to work and tries to regain her faith in God.  Natalie and Ross's daughter Ruby (Portia Bradley) loses a tooth at her birthday party.  Natalie wins $25,000 at a slot machine, but that money will only "put a dent" in the mortgage.  When Natalie is in the hospital, her husband Ross tells the kids that their mother "will be all right."  Natalie chastises him for not telling them the truth ("Well, you are all right," he replies.).  Later, when he mentions the dog being on life support "that we can't afford," their son Louis (Jonathan Segat) says to Natalie, "I thought you said he was going to be all right."  After a pause, Ross replies, "I guess you should have been honest."  And Margaret (Maud Davey), the lead singer of a one-hit band, now a priest at Natalie's church, wonders what plan God has for her when she is stood up on a date.

In addition, several themes or situations are reiterated throughout the movie, and even some red herrings are used, to show us that this film is true to life, not to movies (one involves a lottery ticket, one a possible romance at work, and another a possible child molester.  In all three cases, we are conditioned to believe things will turn out a certain way, and then they turn out differently.).  One theme that comes up repeatedly in this film is parenting, and how good parenting is often a crapshoot.  For example, when Louis has the ball at the end of a rugby game and Ross tells him to pass it instead of kicking for a goal, since the other team might score on their possession and so win the game.  Afterwards, he tells his son that he should have told him to go for it, to which his son replies that, if he had, the other team would have gotten the ball back and might have had time to win the game.  Another theme occurs early in the movie, where Natalie asks Ross what his second wife would be like (if she dies).  Near the end of the film, he answers that question.

This movie is split into months, beginning in August and ending in August of the following year.  Each month is labeled with a sexual double entendre ("Foreplay" for August; "I've Got a Headache" for September, when Natalie is recovering from her aneurism in the hospital; and "Climax" for the final August).  Often the "clean" meaning is the one that is being referred to ("Missionary Style" introduces Margaret, and Natalie's doubts about God; "Doggie Style" deals with their dog being attacked by the bigger dog).

The director, Sarah Watt, should be commended for making a film that feels so free and natural.  In fact, its brilliance might be overlooked because it portrays everyday life so well, which is often filled with meaningless (and meaningful) moments, trivial (and important) life lessons. Vacations where it rains all day.  Parents being interrupted by their kids while having sex.  Not being able to find condoms in the nightstand.  The dad chomping and spitting out carrots to make it look like Santa's reindeer have eaten them.  Last minute Easter bunny shopping, when all the good candy has been bought already.  And, of course, all of the sexual temptations that exist in the world, and how much of it is sold to us consumers on a daily basis.

This is the most delightful film I've seen since 500 Days of Summer, and one of the easiest films of the festival to rate.  5 out of 5.  Or, as the toe-tapping end credits song puts it:

You're beautiful
You're beautiful to me.

Note: The version of the song above is different from the actual song that runs during the end credits.  During the end credits version, the cast joins in on the song.