Tuesday, May 31, 2005

SIFF diary, part 4

Cape of Good Hope and Missing in America

I'm still in shock over how well the SIFF is going. Of the 6 films I've attended this weekend, I've have yet to see a bad film. A bit of a shock really, since we've been selecting films based on lack of buzz. In other words, I'm interested in seeing the movies that I may not get to see in the future due to lack of distribution or general obscurity. So, we're passing up the big names, like Wim Wender's new film or either of Miike's new movies. But I had read a bit about the film Cape of Good Hope from critics who had seen the South African film at other festivals and from comments IMDB.com so I was confident that it would be a charming, light film.

So far, Cape of Good Hope has been the only film that was a major disappointment.

Cape of Good Hope wasn't horrible, but it was frustrating because of the amazing talent that was wasted. One of the stars was Eriq Ebouaney who we recognized as the villain in Femme Fatal and when he walks into the room, you can recognize him as a star. Eriq Ebouaney was wonderful in Cape of Good Hope, so good that it caused me physical pain to hear him deliver the clunky and trite dialog, like the glue that holds the solar system together is love. Most of the other actors in the film are South African and were also very good, especially Debbie Brown and Nthati Moshesh.

Granted, if I had known that Cape of Good Hope was about an animal shelter, I may have steered clear, but it being an animal lover's film wasn't the problem. The problem was that it attempted to tell half-a-dozen stories about the people of the town without allowing time for any one one story to develop. And it lacked the courage and conviction to really tell the stories of the people of South Africa and instead it touched upon issues of racism, immigration, poverty and class and then would move on in favor of neat and pleasant endings to every story line that never felt genuine. I'm not saying it needed to be a serious film about race and poverty in South Africa, but by taking the easy way out again and again, the result was a very empty feel good movie that wasn't charming, but just annoying for being one dimensional, obvious and very painfully trite.

But Missing in American succeeds in all of the areas where Cape of Good Hope fails. In Missing in America, Jake (Danny Glover) is surprised by a fellow ex-Vietnam war vet (David Strathairn) who unexpectedly leaves his half-Vietnamese little girl with Jake to care for. The film follows the emotionally wounded vet as he grows attached to the little girl, played superbly by Zoe Weizenbaun, who will be in the upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha.

Danny Glover's Jake is familiar territory for the actor as Jake is an independent survivor who lives alone in a shack in the woods. He drives into to town periodically to buy supplies from Kate (Linda Hamilton) with money made from selling chopped wood. Jake doesn't immediately take to the little girl, Lenny, that is left in his care, but as Jake's character warms up to his new housemate, this film could have become a sweet film about a wounded man who is changed forever by the child in his life, but Missing in America doesn't travel down that path. Instead, it using the arrival of a half-Vietnamese child as a catalyst that allows for the exploration into the lives of the mysterious war veterans that live solitary lives in the woods, not able to forget the horrors they experienced in Vietnam. In Lenny's explorations into the woods, she meets their neighbors, some, like Red (Ron Perlman), are still living as if they are in a war zone and see Lenny as a painful reminder of a war that while being 40 years in the past, still impacts their lives as if it were yesterday.

One of the reasons this film stood out in stark contrast with Cape of Good Hope was that Missing in America was everything that Cape of Good Hope wanted to be. Missing in America would have been just as good a film if it had opted for a happy ending where Lenny grows up with Jake. It could have even developed into a very convincing love story between Jake and Kate, because it allowed time for the story to develop and didn't give easy answers. Instead, it was much more interested in the issues unique to Vietnam veterans who are unable to assimilate back into American culture after the war. And I'm not certain that these stories would have felt as authentic in a feel good movie, but at one point I did really want the neat and tidy happy ending.

Missing in America is a very powerful first feature by director Gabrielle Savage Dockterman. This film looked polished and it looked like a big studio film with lovely cinematography and big names in the lead roles, so it was surprising that this film is an independent production that is just beginning the process of finding a distributor. Hopefully, they succeed because Missing In America is a beautiful and powerful film that has Oscar written all over it.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

SIFF2005: SIFF diary, pt. 3

Godzilla: Final Wars and The Edukators

In my attempts to keep my festival going diverse, we selected Godzilla since it looked like an action packed romp and the German film The Edukators, which simply sounded interesting and I wanted to catch at least one German film during the festival as I usually like the look and often dark tone of German cinema. 

We're are doing a great job of selecting films thus far.

Godzilla: Final Wars is billed as the last Godzilla film and is directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, who made Versus. I've only seen one Godzilla film and it was the 1984 one and really, I have very little recollection of it other than Godzilla meets Bambi played before it. So I am not up on the Godzilla franchise, but I did obviously know what to expect; an action flick where a rubber Godzilla battles a zillion other monsters.

We had a pretty good time at Godzilla. I was a bit surprised by the near sold out show as I had no clue that there were that many fans of the monster [1], but it was great fun to see with such an enthusiastic audience. It also helped to be surrounded by so much excitement as I've been battling a migraine all weekend, so they helped me tune out the dull throb behind my right eye.

But Final Wars was a great choice for a Godzilla neophyte as it was a kitchen sink Godzilla flick. Basically, every monster Godzilla has ever fought shows up in the film and Godzilla battles them all. There are also hot biologist babes, a mutant army, an alien invasion and some matrix-esque martial arts. It also appeared to have every Japanese actor as there were numerous familiar faces (at least two of whom were in Kill Bill). So Godzilla was far from the best that I've seen at the SIFF, but it was a totally silly good time and it even had some goofy science.

And then, after a dinner break, it was time to get in line for The Edukators. I don't know if it was due to the late starting time (9:30 PM) or the fact that this film likely doesn't have much festival buzz surrounding it, but this was the least attended film that I've been to during the SIFF. Which is really a shame to see so many empty seats, because this is by far the best film I've seen thus far.

The Edukators are a trio of idealists who break into the homes of the wealthy, not to steal from them, but to give them a message by rearranging their valuables and leaving a note that reads "you have too much money" or "your days of plenty are numbered" signed The Edukators. When they break from their normal plan of working off of a list of targets and putting the homes under surveillance before breaking in, a mistake is made that results in the need to kidnap their target when they are interrupted during their mischief. 

The result is an amazing and gripping story about values and how so many people slowly change from being idealistic in our youth to being conservative and totally frightened of change when they are older. And this film doesn't compromise the characters or the message by taking the easy way out and finding its answers in compromise or a middle ground. It is hopeful in outlook and is a wonderfully suspenseful and thought provoking film. And this film is unpredictable and very original, so I was pleased by every unexpected plot development and that it had so much optimism and heart. This film has much in common with The Dreamers and would make a powerful and provocative double feature. 

The Edukators is getting distribution and will be opening limited over the summer in the US. I highly recommend seeking out this film. 

Here's hoping that the good movie juju continues...

[1] Godzilla questions for those who have seen more than one zilla movie. Is Godzilla a cyborg???? In Final Wars, they claim that Godzilla is a cyborg, not a mutant like the other monsters he fights. I thought Godzilla was a sea monster. But everything in the movie appeared to be referencing the past movies, so I'm assuming he was a cyborg at some point. And what is up with baby zilla? Weird.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

SIFF 2005: SIFF diary, pt. 2

Saving Face

Saving Face is about a young Chinese/American surgeon, Wil (Michelle Krusiec) whose mother (Joan Chen) moves in after being exiled from her Chinese family and friends at a time when Wil falls in love with a ballerina (Lynn Chen). Saving Face is among the films showing at SIFF that has distribution and it opened in LA and New York on Friday. 

Go see this film if you get a chance. It is delightful first film by director Alice Wu. She was in attendance and it turns out that she wrote the screenplay while taking a UW screenwriting course here in Seattle. After finishing the screenplay, she decided that it needed to be made into a film and that she must direct it so she moved to New York and gave herself five years to get the film made. She learned about editing and filmmaking and ended up getting help from Wil Smith to finance the film. It was fascinating listening to her speak and I was floored and the guts it must have taken to jet off to New York to make a movie with no real connections and that she got it made and it is good.

Story wise, Saving Face isn't particularly original. It consists of a love story and more than a little family drama and I saw most of the plot twists coming from a mile away. And it does give you the expected happy ending where everyone finds happiness, love, etc. But while working in a lot of romantic comedy cliches, it does cover plenty of new ground as I haven't seen very many films that appear to accurately describe the experience of being a Chinese American and gay. The older Chinese characters speak in Mandarin while their children spoke English, giving the film a feeling of authenticity while talking about generational differences and cultural identity mixed with issues of being gay, coming out and falling in love. 

I was totally charmed by Saving Face. Now it might have had a bit to do with the atmosphere, a totally sold out show full of enthusiastic lesbians and asian families. But I smiled throughout this film and had a great time. Lovely, lovely film.

Monday, May 23, 2005

SIFF2005: SIFF diary, pt. 1

While the rest of the world is lined up at The Cinerama to see Star Wars, Episode III, I spent my weekend attending my very first film festival, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). I only attended two screenings, since I am a festival novice and was uncertain how many movies I would have time to take in and am a little short on cash at this time of the month (won't get paid for a few more days), so I opted for a couple of matinee shows to test the water. 

Well, I'll be taking in many more films next weekend.

Yes, it went well. Saturday, we saw C'est la Femme, a collection of short films directed by women. It was a good choice. Seven films were scheduled, although only five were shown due to technical issues. I really appreciate the short film format and have often found short subjects to be much more inventive and daring than feature length films. I especially remember a few shorts that were shown between features on the Sundance Channel with fondness. There was a fascinating and dark take on Little Red Ridinghood staring Christina Ricci that was deliciously erotic. I also remember a very shocking short about a motorcycle accident and another about a woman that pulls a man from the drain of her kitchen sink. So perhaps my expectations were a bit high as these shorts were not nearly as well crafted or original as I had hoped.

The first was All Fall Down a five minute long film where a little girl asks her critical mother, if she had to choose whether one of her children would live, who would it be? All Fall Down wanted to delve into the challenging topic of how girls are treated, but I found it to be the lest affecting of the shorts. 

The next short was Gyppo. Gyppo was about a girl asking questions about sex while growing up in a very feminist environment. This was a very compelling subject matter rife with interesting issues to explore and the young actress who played Gyppo was very good, but the film tried to cover far too much ground in its 10 minute running time. 

The best of the shorts was Between Baronovskys, the story of a woman dealing with the loss of her husband in some rather eccentric ways. This film was quirky and often charming, but it also was the most sincere and really the only film the really struck the right emotional chords. I felt Helen's joy and playfulness as she stripped and swam in a public fountain, but also felt her desperation and loneliness at night as she laid on the floor of her room or stormed the liquor cabinet. This was also fresh for the look into the lives of the elderly which really made it stand apart from the other tales of childhood and young adulthood. Between Baronovskys was a very refreshing and lovely film.

Below the Break was a film that began with a lot of promise, about a young disabled woman who would like a boyfriend. In the beginning, we see her invisibility as she to attempts to get service as she sit in her wheelchair. But then after she dates, the film becomes very clich├ęd as she finds love in her first sexual encounter. I liked the actress and generally enjoyed the film, but it could have explored some really interesting and rarely touched upon topics of sexuality for the physically challenged, so it was disappointing when it became just another unrealistic love story.

And finally, there was the coming of age story, Cat's Bad Hair Day, a title that really didn't fit the film. An obviously autobiographical film covering first sexual experiences, a tough father daughter relationship, and of course the appearance of a first period. 

I was hoping for more from these shorts. They were all very straight forward and didn't have the tightness and total originality that I've seen in shorts in the past. But there was one gem and it was fun listening to the directors talk about making the films afterwards. 

And Sunday, we saw The Dying Gaul. I am so pleased that we attended this screening as it was by a first time director Craig Lucus and I had heard very little about the film other than a brief plot summery. There was very little buzz surrounding this film and the only reviews I've seen of it were based on the screening at Sundance and were not very positive. 

The Dying Gaul was very compelling. The film opened with a quote from Herman Melville, "Woe to him that seeks to please, rather than appall" which sets the tone for this classical tragedy set in modern day Hollywood. It stars Peter Sarsgaard as Robert, a screen writer who is selling his first screen play. Campbell Scott is the Hollywood executive that offers to buy the screenplay and Patricia Clarkson plays his wife. The first exchanges in the film are between Robert and Scott as Robert is persuaded to sell his script and is told that there will have to be re-writes as "no one goes to movies to be challenged or to learn anything." I really believed that The Dying Gaul was being set up to be very critical of the Hollywood system and the sacrifices that have to be made to sell the work and by successful.

I wasn't prepared for the tragedy that unfolded. These three characters who had a lot of respect and love for one another, as they mingled and their motives became muddied and entwined and drama unfolds that is sometimes touching, sometime sad, and at the end really startling. We watch this story unfold all because of one immoral act that triggers a tragic chain of events. This is a very complex and multilayered story that I will be thinking about for some time. Especially Patricia Clarkson's character as I spent most of the film one step behind trying to understand her motivations and at one point wondering whether she was indeed the personification of Robert's dead ex-lover or whether she was simply a very jealous writer flexing her creativity in a most hurtful way. 

so yea... great cast, interesting film that was definitely worth going out to the SIFF for. And now that I understand how this process works, I need to plan next weekend's movies. And to remember to space out the movies enough to allow to get to the theater more than 30 minutes ahead as the ticket holder lines seem to get long fast and to eat and be well hydrated because it isn't set up very well for taking advantage of concessions (when they are allowed at all). I was worried about seeing a ton of movies in one weekend, thinking that would lead to a ton of soft drinks and movie candy and popcorn, but so far, either there was no food allowed in the theater or there just wasn't time to get any before the film since they only let in ticket holders after pass holders and press and inside and seated.