Catch up with all The SunBreak’s festival coverage over on our SIFF 2013 page.
Audrey: As always with film festivals, it’s safe to err on the side of documentaries. At the very least, you should learn a little something. So it was with Terms and Conditions May Apply, which provided plenty of information on the digital rights we willingly sign away online without much by way of suggestion as to what consumers can do to change that status quo. The director’s inevitable “confrontation” with Mark Zuckerberg is more than a little forced and lacks any real impact.
Similarly, the filmmakers behind Remote Area Medical draw attention to the plight of the uninsured in America by focusing on the biannual pop-up free clinic provided by the titular non-profit volunteer group. The film successfully puts a face on the crisis by showing the desperate folk who make the trip to Virginia’s Bristol Motor Speedway in an attempt to get long-delayed care, but doesn’t dig deeper than that to the causes both social and individual that contribute to the health disparities.
Digging way deeper is Mussels in Love (L’Amour des moules) and its subject, the Netherlands’ Zeeland mussel. Like the fest’s honeybee doc More Than Honey, the cinematography on display here is striking and beautiful, especially the closeups of mussels at their most intimate, with gametes in the water. Because you just haven’t really gotten to know shellfish until you see their fertilization. But Mussels goes beyond that to the Belgian and French restaurant patrons who order them off the menu and the top chefs that take care in preparing them; the fishermen who wish things could go back to the old ways and those who think the new ones are destructive in a different way. Besides, who says mussels are meant for mass consumption in the first place? According to one old-timer, we should leave ’em alone and let them have a full life before shucking.
Lots of shucking also going on in Interior.Leather Bar., James Franco’s re-imagining of the 40 minutes cut from William Friedkin’s provocative Cruising in order to get an R rating. Franco’s got a guess as to what was edited out of the gritty undercover gay Al Pacino film — scenes with explicit sexual content depicting the action in ’70s NYC S&M clubs — and this 60-minute doc is not the recreated footage so much as the creative and moral conflicts borne from undertaking such a task. Why is a gay coupling treated (by individuals as well as the MPAA) as somehow more offensive than a straight act? Should a married straight actor be more uncomfortable with a sex scene if it features a man and a man? Once again, James Franco defies all expectations with the breadth and depth of interests in his avant art projects.
Tony: I agree that when SIFFting, documentaries are a good bet. Comrade President illustrated that for me. It follows the life and impact of Mozambique leader Samora Moises Machel, a subject of which I possessed no knowledge, and it transcends a dry history lesson with a refreshingly three-dimensional, warts-and-all portrait of a man idolized and martyred by his people, yet not completely innocent of the brutalities that he fought so hard to overcome. 4/5
Even better (I thought) was The Trials of Muhammad Ali, Bill Siegel’s incredibly engaging chronicle on the legendary fighter’s gauntlet of legal woes during the 1960s and ’70s. Like the awesome When We Were Kings, this doc benefits by focusing on a very specific aspect of Ali’s life — in this case, the hornets’ nests he kicked by his association with the Nation of Islam and conscientious objection to the Vietnam draft. That laser focus, coupled with an entire gallery of great, sometimes larger-than-life supporting characters, makes this unmissable. 5/5
MvB: Okay, I’ll get on the documentary train. The Last Ocean, about the intrusion of commercial fishing into Antarctic’s Ross Sea, first draws you in with plenty of shots of penguins, seals, and Orcas before becoming an activist-procedural, following penguin biologist Dave Ainley as he tries to enlist support for making the Ross Sea a protected area. Ainley sees it as a simple expansion of the agreement to leave the Antarctic unspoiled for research, but that boat may have sailed: Scientists are already having trouble finding Antarctic toothfish to tag, despite the catch being declared sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium. (It’s ironic to hear the word “sustainable” trumpeted by an industry that’s had to venture to the shores of Antarctica in search of fishing stock.) Lastocean.org has more, and you can watch the film at home on iTunes.
The odd thing about the documentary Out of Print was that, even as it built a case for the “book experience” — immersive, extensive, durational — it presented all these benefits in the language of interview soundbites and snappy docu-graphics. I think the interview that lasted longest was with the author of a self-published e-book that became a best-seller, eventually landing her a home at a traditional publishing house.
Audrey: I got my fix for light dystopia in The Cleaner (El Limpiador), in which a near-future Peru has been hit hard by a respiratory epidemic killing off all it infects. Our simple, humble, noble protagonist, Eusebio (Victor Prada), cleans out the houses of the recently deceased, finding in one an orphaned eight-year-old boy. What follows is a slow, sustained rumination on creating a family where one can and maintaining a sense of humanity among the inhumane. Prada gives an understated performance with great tenderness, as when lacking any children’s books for a bedtime story, he reads to his charge from the television manual.
La Playa D.C. was less affecting, because the fates of the three young Afro-Colombian brothers at the core of the story were even bleaker. Bogotá is a rough terrain to roam alone after being kicked out by their mother’s new boyfriend. Tomas learns to cut elaborately detailed hairstyles, but it’s hard to hold a good job when your elementary school-aged brother often disappears to smoke crack. The handheld camera moves things along, reflecting Bogota’s energy. Another foreign film, Morocco’s Horses of God (Les chevaux de Dieu, God’s Horses) also has the feel of verité.
Josh: I appreciate why so many people seemed to have really loved that chronicle of how to grow a pack of terrorists in the slums of Casablanca, but is it weird to say that a movie about turning skeptics and goofballs to fundamentalist fighters and suicide bombers really started to feel preachy? Perhaps some of this reflects the limits of an entirely nonprofessional cast, who never really sold the conversion. It’s obviously an important story, but the jumps through time from kids to adults and the lack of explanation for some familial roles and tradition left some gaps for me. (3/5)
MvB: Yeah, Horses of God is a case where you really see the pluses and minuses of non-professional actors. They give the movie that verité varnish, as Audrey says, but they struggle when they leave the realm of their lived experience to become suicide bombers. One of the most powerful moments is a repeated shot: first, a group of little kids is chased from a soccer field after the game dissolves into a fracas, then years later, as teens, they flee another soccer match exactly the same way. They’re taller, but nothing has changed.
Audrey: That sums up my experience of the film: even using “real” people and basing the story on a “real” spate of bombings, Horses of God still didn’t add any depth to a story I feel I’ve seen umpteen times already.
Josh: For my true-life tales, I much prefer capable young actors turning in spot-on portrayals of vapid criminal teens, as was the case for excellent closing night feature The Bling Ring. Without ever making the criminals sympathetic, Sofia Coppola nevertheless captures the way that the heady romance of new friendship, hunger for thrills among the entitled rich (but not super-rich), and a lack of impulse control combine to almost make their actions understandable. Even though it’s based on a true story and is told in interviews and flashbacks, The Bling Ring still held plenty of suspense, particularly as the clique of Hollywood strivers get more and more brazen with their string of celebrity robberies. I always love spending time in the worlds that Sofia Coppola creates even when they leave flatly accented valley voices stuck in my head. (4.5/5)
Audrey: Leave it to a Dane to want a truly modern city to also have a sense of humanity and even intimacy. The Human Scale considers the long-reaching ramifications of urban planning, from cross-city pathways all the way up to the level of overall community cohesion. Considering pedestrian traffic as much as that of vehicles seems obvious for obvious reasons, but somehow building walking-friendly areas creates much more than just pedestrians — it creates more life lived publicly.
MvB: I liked the central idea behind Human Scale, but I’m not sure who the film is for. Maybe it’s to inspire immigration to Copenhagen? Here in Seattle we can’t even keep sidewalks open during construction — pedestrians are forced out into the street all over the city. The way they approached the “human scale” felt a little haphazard, too. Crosswalks and pedicabs are one thing, but the argument about limiting building heights to six or seven floors is a huge difference when you’re talking about modern urban cores. I’m sympathetic to challenges to vertical density, but they only gave the topic a talking-points gloss.
Audrey: DON’T even GET ME STARTED on construction sites, but I left the film thinking about Seattle too. Would Seattleites be a happier people now if the city had undertaken proactive urban planning measures (cough public transit cough) two decades ago that allowed for more face-to-face human interactions? And what are the best metrics to measure as we try to anticipate a city’s future needs?
MvB: Josh and I were talking about Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and how predictable, yet loose-ended this tale of a junior Bonnie & Clyde-style duo was. Partly, you often can’t make out what people are saying, which can make events inscrutable, but the film also isn’t that interested in filling you in. The laconic characters know what they’re talking about, you’re just an eavesdropper, straining for clues. The Malick-esque, Southern Gothic cinematography lends a fuzzy sense of import, but it’s really (shootings aside) a small, poignant story about the way a dream dies.
Josh: I think that I went into the screening prepared for this to be just insanely dull, but hoping that the pretty images would carry it through. So I was pleasantly surprised with how well Lowery’s structuring of the plot and the timing of certain reveals made the dreamy-looking (mumbly) outlaw on the run meditation fairly engaging. Sure, I may have missed some plotpoints via drawl and might argue with the lack of cleverness on the part of the cops or robbers, but the look of the film and the quality of the performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, and a box full of kittens sold me. (4/5)
Tony: The trailer for Lil Bub and Friendz began surfacing at SIFF screenings early last week, and I think everyone within spitting distance was either wigged out or utterly charmed: There was no middle ground. At least two dozen viewers involuntarily went “Awwww…” during one showing of the trailer, then two nights later, there were groans of revulsion. Really. Where did you lie on that scale, Josh?
Josh: In something of an odd move, I went to see Lil Bub & Friendz as someone who was aware of the existence of this bizarrely cute kitty, but by no means an aficionado or partisan on any of the current era’s most famous meme-cats. In the 65-minute documentary, Vice occasionally gets a little bit silly — casting the genetically complicated kitten in a few bizarre videos — and dives down the rabbit hole, at one point featuring a scene with an Internet cat watching a cat video at a catvidfest amongst her biggest fans. It’s all fully ridiculous, but mostly I was charmed that, in contrast to some of the stranger humans in the film, Bub’s owner miraculously comes across as just a really chill dude who genuinely cares about the weird little cat that turned his life around. (4/5)
Tony: With its semi-sniggering premise, Unhung Hero gave off wafts of Jackass at first. But this doc about a guy traveling the ends of the earth in search of a way to increase the size of his, um, tackle equipment made me laugh harder than anything I saw all SIFF. Subject Patrick Moote makes for a schlubbily-charming comic presence, and somewhere amidst the goofiness of his quest lies a kernel or two of insight about how men are now enduring as much insecurity about their bodies as women, thanks to an increasingly pornified culture. 4/5
I was convinced that Here Comes the Devil was just plain shitty at first. But as it continued, the wildly-gesticulating performances (even the demon-possessed killer kids are outrageously hammy), Grand-Canyon-sized logic and plotting gaps, spastic zooms and rack pulls, and utterly gratuitous opening lesbian sex scene felt more like veiled satire. In other words, maybe it’s the Black Dynamite or Young Frankenstein of violently sleazy Mexican devil-possessed killer kid grindhouse movies. Then again, maybe it was just entertainingly shitty. 2.5/5
Fly Filmmaking Shorts: It’s always fun to see talented people create art on the fly, and happily the four directors of these shorts — Ben Andrews, Amy Enser, Lulu Gargiulo, and Curtis Taylor — came through the challenge with flying colors. Their work was uniformly more accomplished than a fair handful of the features I saw this year. 4/5
Sadourni’s Butterflies takes a few surrealist detours for coloring and shading. Mostly, though, it’s an expressionistic fable about a circus dwarf who kills his lover in a fit of passion, goes to jail, serves his time, then seeks the love of a woman whom he meets while dubbing fetish porn. Its dark beauty worked darn well on me. 4/5
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do inspirational fact-based biopics. The Girl with 9 Wigs, fortunately, largely does it right. Kudos to ex-model Lisa Tomaschewsky, who manages to be totally genuine as a vivacious college student who uses a closetful of wigs to stare down a rare form of cancer. 3.5/5
One minute, Wish You Were Here is a quietly riveting account of relationships collapsing under the weight of a friend’s disappearance. Next minute, it’s a quietly riveting account of how that friend disappeared. The two threads don’t always interweave smoothly, but the acting (particularly that of Zero Dark Thirty/Gatsby rising star Joel Edgerton) remains top-notch throughout. 3.5/5
Josh: I indulged in a sudsier take on friend drama with Drinking Buddies. Graduating from his usual microscopic scale and improvised plots, Joe Swanberg goes slightly bigger budget and more outlined with this microbrew-soaked will-they-or-won’t-they dramedy among beermaking mostly platonic pals. (3.5/5)
Tony: Evergreen: The Road to Legalization in Washington is an efficient, very watchable play-by-play doc about this state’s historic pro-pot Initiative 502. The central opponents to the Initiative (pot growers and medical marijuana users, ironically) get so worked up, you wish they’d just pass around a bong and chill already. 3.5/5
Equal parts kung fu swashbuckler and introspective period drama without committing firmly to either, Ripples of Desire is the first period-set drama to come from Taiwan in over a decade. Too bad it’s not a little better. There’s no faulting the handsomeness of the production, but it never really gels or engages a viewer in any substantive way. 2.5/5
I came away from the Korean drama Fatal in awe of its impressive look for next to no money (the Korean equivalent of $3000), and I respected its tastefulness considering the subject matter. It displays considerable artistry, but damned if it’s not one joyless, harrowing pill to swallow. Four high school boys gang-rape a drugged fellow student, then ten years later one of the now-grown-up men searches for redemption, a quest which ends badly. Fatal proved more painful to watch than any of the geriatric coupling, disembowelment, gut munching, or chopped-off fingers I saw during other SIFF 2013 features. 3/5
It’s always fun to see entrenched film genres (and their accompanying cliches) re-imagined by other cultures, so I enjoyed Last Flight to Abuja for exactly what it was — a Nigerian riff on the Airport movies from the 1970s. It’s total piffle, but it zips by at a brisk 78 minutes and vigorously trots out every trope with a pinch of Nollywood exoticism. 3/5
Hey! Did you know that modern mobsters lack the honor and panache of the old guys? And that old mobsters have a tough time dealing with cell phones and their recently-out lesbian daughters? If those revelations surprise you, you’ll probably enjoy Last I Heard. This mess of Scorsese-lite and goomba-gangster cliches tells the story of an old mobster (Paul Sorvino), respected and loved by the folks in his neighborhood but incapable of changing with the times when he’s released from a 20-year prison stint. Sorvino’s one great character actor, and I was rooting for this rare lead to be worthy of him, but eh…not so much. 2/5
Excuse my grousing, but what is it with Fanie Fourie’s Lobola? This multi-culti rom-com with a white Dutch South African and a poor-but-scrappy Zulu woman is harmless enough, but it winning the SIFF Audience Favorite Award for Best Picture just stymies me. The emperor ain’t wearing a lot of clothes here, but even I’m hard-pressed to deny that leading lady Zethu Dhlomo is luminously beautiful and charismatic in the lead. 2.5/5
Audrey: Never underestimate an audience’s willingness to pat themselves on the back with some liberal-minded pablum.
Tony: You really had to look to the last two Midnight Adrenaline features for some of SIFF 2013’s most robust genre-juggling. Cockneys vs Zombies delivers on the comic ridiculousness of its title, then adds two engaging ensembles — a group of young adults attempting to rob a bank when the zombie apocalypse drops, and a retirement home full of grizzled old cockneys — to the mix. It proves that it’s still possible to have fun with a sub-genre as narrow as the zombie horror spoof. 4.5/5
Cheap Thrills is even better. In it, a rich stranger in a bar offers two desperate old high-school buddies successively greater sums of money in an effort to see how far they’re willing to go for a fistful of dollars. First-time director E.L. Katz works the situation with the merciless assurance of a master, and the tiny cast of familiar character faces gives uniformly perfect performances. This first-rate blend of sick comedy and seedy neo-noir will receive limited distribution next February, and if your stomach can take it, you need to seek it out. 5/5
Last but not least, the final movie I saw for SIFF 2013 was the restored print of 1974’s Phase IV, an ecological horror/sci-fi flick about a pair of scientists investigating why ants in a small corner of Arizona are organizing and exhibiting strange behavior. This combination of The Andromeda Strain and Empire of the Ants remains the only movie directed by Saul Bass, king of the Main Titles Sequences. It’s definitely a fascinating relic of its time, with the added bonus of some truly amazing footage of the ants at work. The much-vaunted restored original ending basically creates a more subtly-symbolic delivery method for the movie’s closing sentiments than the more literal theatrical climax. 3.5/5
MvB: Part of the fun of SIFF each year is making up your own miniseries. My personal “Austerity Europe” pathway included the stillborn Yesterday Never Ends (mentioned here), and the more compelling I Kori (The Girl) and La Plaga (The Plague). The girl in question is 14-year-old Myrto (Savina Alimani), who suspects her father’s business partner for his disappearance, and precociously kidnaps said partner’s son from school. The film is true to her snoopy viewpoint, and Alimani is tremendously, effectively mercurial (toying with her captive, mothering him), but the film dawdles a bit too long in reaching its metaphoric “burn it down” conclusion.
Tiny white flies provide the plague of the title in the docudrama from writer-director Neus Ballus. The subjects are a group of real-life Spaniards barely gettin’ by: a Moldavian immigrant working in the fields and wrestling by night, an organic farmer who can only wait the flies out, what may be the world’s least successful prostitute, and elderly heart-stealer Maria Ros feuding with her Filipino nurse. Ros, who has since passed away, was not tall to begin with, but was shortened further by what may have been scoliosis or kyphosis, making her movements an extra struggle. Without her as a central figure, the film would simply be disparate down-on-their-luck episodes, but she comes to epitomize a refusal to surrender to fate, and you feel lucky to have, albeit indirectly, witnessed a part of her life.
Josh: Not quite a mini-series, but I had two very different “Not the European Parent of the Year” entries. In You Will Be My Son, an overbearing father tries to upset the natural order of family wineries when he schemes to set aside nepotism and steal an heir with a refined palate to inherit the estate, rather than handing it over to his own over-eager but admittedly less competent son. High, and compelling, drama ensues in the vineyards. (4.5/5) On the surface, the woman at the center Two Lives appears to be a pretty spectacular wife, mother, and daughter, given that she was one of the Norwegian children with a Nazi father sent away to an East German orphanage after the war. Like the Berlin Wall, her identity begins to crumble when geopolitical changes embolden a well-meaning war crimes lawyer to re-open the case to secure national apologies. As everything begins to unravel, this deep-cover spy thriller becomes a deeply affecting family collapse. (5/5)