[Best of SIFF: Day 3]

* I love short films, but they can be ridiculously hit or miss. The Best of SIFF shorts package was the perfect solution. Every film in it was well-done, regardless of if it was to my taste. Notable to me: Glenn Owen Dodds (with David Wenham playing God as sort of a harried middle manager), Off Season (horror/thriller), and The Little Dragon (stop motion with a Bruce Lee action figure).

* Wasteland was one of my favorite documentaries of the festival, though still falling behind my beloved Marwencol. It follows an artist, Vik Muniz, as he works with the pickers outside of Rio de Janeiro in Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world. They collect, sort, and resell the recyclables from the dump, and Muniz organizes some of them for a large scale photography project incorporating the materials they work with. Through it we get to know the pickers/artists, challenging assumptions about the people who do that work and why.

There are problematic elements of it, though I think the film doesn’t shy away from that. Muniz is upfront about how lucky he is to have changed his circumstances; we visit the São Paulo home where he grew up, but he now lives in New York. Also, I think Walker is not entirely comfortable with Muniz’s position of power, and makes the entirely correct decision to focus largely on the pickers themselves, their pasts, their interests, and how their lives are affected by Muniz for better or for worse.

* The Concert was a totally charming fable about a Russian conductor-turned-janitor, a loss of status due to refusing to fire Jewish musicians. 25 years later he intercepts an invitation for the current orchestra to play in Paris, and pulls together the original team to put on a show. Is it improbable? Of course. Do I care? Not a bit.

* Mao’s Last Dancer was a pretty infuriating final SIFF selection. I have no idea how it scored so high among the audience. I spent some time looking up other reviews, trying to figure out what other people saw in it. It didn’t really clarify things. Instead, I came across things like this, from Time Out Sydney: “A scene in which [ballet director Ben] Stevenson, a driven but gentle and nurturing man, has to explain to Li the meaning of a racist term, is quite affecting.” No. Stevenson was a manipulative asshole, and since he didn’t have enough respect for Li to tell him what the term actually meant, he lied. Affecting, I suppose, but certainly not in the way implied. Whatever, people.

Anyway. Based on the memoir by Li Cunxin, Dancer tells the story of how he was removed from his family at the age of 11 to study ballet in Beijing, a chance event that eventually brought him the the United States to dance in Houston. To stay in the country despite the wishes of the Chinese government, he marries fellow dancer Elizabeth (Amanda Schull from Center Stage, still a mediocre actress, in case you were wondering). Elizabeth, by the way, is treated horribly by Li, by the consulate, and by everyone associated with the Houston Ballet, apparently for the crimes of being a) female and b) not a brilliant dancer. So aggravating.

I thought Joan Chen was marvelous as his mother, but then, she’s always fabulous. She deserved better than this role where, in film’s cringe-worthy emotional climax she and Li’s father are brought up on stage to be reunited with Li at the end of a performance. All the more appalling, really, because I’m sure that’s how it actually happened. Because, as aforementioned, Stevenson was a manipulative asshole. I’m getting angry again just thinking about it.

I did appreciate the unashamedly 80s set design & cinematography. Oh, and of course the dancing. (So far as I know, which is not far because I know fuck-all about ballet.) But that’s about it. The rest was overlong, poorly written, heavy-handed, and generally insulting.

(Also, hee. I had totally forgotten that Li had remarried until I read it in another review. So that should give you some idea of how underdeveloped *that* relationship was. If by underdeveloped you mean NOT DEVELOPED AT ALL, and I do.)

I think that the thing I found most frustrating about the whole thing is that the concept should have been right up my alley. A dance film focused on a Chinese guy? As a romantic lead, no less? This never happens. If it had been even slightly effective I would have been all over it, frustrated as I am with the Western media’s inability to see Asian guys as desirable, as well as their inability to make dance films that don’t star blonde girls.

I guess I’m still waiting.

…and that’s it, kids! 50 SIFF films. Back to the real world of movie going soon: I saw Cyrus last week & Toy Story 3 this weekend, and am planning on Ondine this week. Fair warning!

[Best of SIFF: Day 2]

* The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is that film we always wanted and never knew we needed: a documentary about yodeling lesbian twins from New Zealand. If you think that sounds intriguing, you’ll love it. Which I did. If it makes you want to claw your ears off, that is fair. Not all the movies are for you.

* Later in the day, I overheard a conversation regarding Ginny Ruffner: A Not So Still Life, where they said that Ginny was clearly more talented than the filmmakers telling her story, and I do think that is true. It couldn’t quite decide what sort of a documentary it wanted to be, and I feel like there is a lot more to know about Ruffner, but I appreciated the opportunity, such as it was, to peek into her world.

* Hipsters was just a crazy lot of fun, a candy-colored musical with plenty of painfully pretty young people rebelling against the conformity of Soviet Russia. I loved it, from the costumes to the cinematography to the choreography, and the 125 minute running time flew past. A++ would boogie again.

* Continuing the musical theme (more or less) next up was Nowhere Boy, the early days of John Lennon biopic. Which was fine, solid stuff, but after sex & drugs & rock & roll I’m finding myself with less patience for the solid biopic. But it is what it is. Aaron Johnson is excellent as Lennon, though there is something Casey Affleck-y about his facial structure that was distracting. Also, seriously. Thomas Sangster (Paul McCartney) is allegedly 20? But he’s looked 11, tops, in everything (Doctor Who, Bright Star, etc). Someday he’ll grow up properly and I won’t recognize him anymore. Hell of an actor, though the best part of this movie was definitely the women in Lennon’s life: his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) & his estranged mother (Anne-Marie Duff). They were fantastic.

* Cell 211 was the last film of the night and the best film of the day. Winner of several Goya awards, it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller set during a prison riot. A newly-hired guard is touring the prison the day before his first day of work when the riot breaks out, and due to an injury moments before, he’s left behind when all the other guards escape. He poses as a new prisoner and has some good ideas of his own that help earn what little trust the leader Malamadre has to give. It’s a complex web of motivations (of guard & prisoner alike), and the cast is amazing. Definitely earned its place in the best of festival.

[Best of SIFF: Day 1]

* The Reverse was… interesting. Poland’s official submission in the foreign language category of the most recent Academy Awards, it is the first feature from director Borys Lankosz. It’s a story about three generations of women living together in 1950s Warsaw, and how their lives change when the youngest encounters a rough & attractive fellow (Marcin Dorocinski). It contained one of the most traumatic death scenes I have ever seen, which overwrote any other thoughts I might have had about it. Also, I found the score really intrusive, but that might just be me. The acting was fabulous, though, particularly Dorocinski.

* By the end of the first weekend of the festival, I was already kicking myself for missing Castaway on the Moon, so I was pretty excited that it was included in the Best of. Kim decides he is going to kill himself by jumping off a bridge into the Han river, but instead is washed up on a small island in the center. He tries and fails to get the attention of anyone passing by, supposes he can always die later, and begins creating a life for himself on this deserted island in the heart of the city. He’s spotted eventually by a girl living as a shut-in in one of the high rise apartment buildings across the river, and they slowly develop an odd yet powerful long distance relationship, as it were. It was one of my favorites of the festival, a commentary on isolation and technology, while also being a charming fairy tale of a story. It’s the second feature by Lee Hae-jun, the first being a film about a transgender teenager, which I intend to seek out at Scarecrow. Judging from Castaway, I expect it is well-handled.

The last two films for Friday were The Hedgehog (which I had just seen) and Leaves of Grass (which I strongly considered seeing again, but I thought I would be better served going home before my five movie day. Does that qualify as an adult decision?)

[Delaying SIFF withdrawal]

Clearly the best way to recover from seeing a lot of movies is to see some more movies. I had two free ones this week: Solitary Man & The Hedgehog.

About a half an hour into Solitary Man, Michael Douglas’s character does something unforgivable. He is suffering from manpain ™, we cannot begin to fathom how difficult his life is as a rich straight white guy, and clearly we should feel great sympathy as his world collapses around him. Except, he’s an asshole bringing shit down on himself, and I don’t really care *what* happens to him. His motivation is bullshit. Clearly not all the movies are made for me. More’s the pity.

It does have quite the supporting cast, including Susan Sarandon as his exwife, Mary-Louise Parker* as his current-ish fling, Danny DeVito as an old friend who is far too kind to him, Jesse Eisenberg** as an impressionable young college student, and Jenna Fischer as his far-too-patient daughter. Which was enough to keep me from just leaving, so there you go. But I probably would have been better served just going home and watching Wonder Boys instead.

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The surprise movie at Wednesday’s SIFF volunteer appreciation party, The Hedgehog, was a slight disappointment because it’s showing as part of Best of SIFF this weekend, and I bought a pass for that. I had been hoping for Get Low, since the year before they showed the closing night film***.

On the other hand, it might be nice not watching three films in a row Friday night, and Wednesday was a fine evening for morbid (& creative!) French pre-teens, crotchety apartment managers, and adorable Japanese gentlemen. I quite enjoyed it, and can see why, with its rich cast of quirky-but-not-too-quirky characters, it won the audience award this year.

It’s beautifully shot; the action takes place almost entirely within the confines of a five unit luxury apartment building, and a chunk of it is filmed ostensibly by Paloma, an 11 year old girl who has decided to kill herself on her 12th birthday, and is passing the time until then by recording all the goings-on around her, on film and through other fabulous creative pursuits.

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* Dear creative team: MLP is thin as a rail and smokin’ hot, and trying to insinuate that she might be “thick”, I believe the term was, or in any other way physically less attractive than some fit coed is cue for me to PUNCH YOU IN THE NOSE. Beware.

** I suspect that Jesse Eisenberg is always basically Jesse Eisenberg, but I would definitely rather watch him be that than watch Michael Cera be Michael Cera.

*** OSS-117: Lost in Rio, and BY THE WAY I do not understand how someone *cough*Roger Ebert*cough* thinks that IT is offensive, but stuff like Hot Tub Time Machine is perfectly acceptable. I have no experience with the early non-satire films or the pre-Bond books upon which they are based, and while it is true that there is a lot of offensive stuff in the new OSS movies, they are indiscriminate, being offensive to pretty much every population, and! Furthermore! The joke is *always* on Hubert for being so ignorant in the first place, and for being oblivious whenever his companion is horrified by him. Whereas in HTTM, if it’s a satire, it’s a failed one. We’re expected to *identify* with the leads, while they are in the throes of gay panic and/or delivering endless rape jokes. Um. No. Also, not funny.

[Things I learned at #SIFF10]

1) The leftmost seat in row H at SIFF Cinema is sort of broken, definitely squeaky. Avoid.

2) If you’re getting concessions at an AMC theater, go for a kid’s combo. Manageable sized soda & popcorn, and! Fruit snacks! Plus, a game on your box, all for six bucks. What a deal.

3) There is a lot of awful local film. In fact, if there’s any good local film, please let me know, since I have yet to find it. Maybe I am just really bad at choosing.

4) My favorite theater to attend & volunteer at is the Harvard Exit. Not just because it’s close to both my apartment & Joe Bar, although both of those things help.

5) I have a fondness for the Egyptian (Secret represent!) but I dream of a day where I see a film there and the projection is in no way fucked up. Hey, it could happen. Also, it’s a shitty place to work Will Call.

6) I really like working Will Call. Who knew?

7) I must take all three weeks off next year. Must dooo eeet.

8 ) The Hong Kong Film Office montage makes me desperately want a Tony Leung retrospective. Get on that, people. I’d kill to see In the Mood for Love on the big screen again. And Hard Boiled, which I’ve only seen on video (and a shitty print at that.) Oooh, and Infernal Affairs (which, hey, I saw at SIFF back when it came out, and the projection was fucked up. At the Egyptian, so no surprise there.)

9) There are people who buy popcorn to go. This had never occurred to me. And not that I’d do it now, because hey. Expensive. And I’m not that into theater popcorn anyway. White cheddar, though, that is an entirely different story. Om nom nom.

10) I really cannot handle the sun. 40 minutes standing outside the Egyptian and I thought I was going to throw up or pass out. Or possibly both.

(Sorry to say this is not my last #SIFF10 post. There’s a film at the volunteer appreciation party on Wednesday, and then next weekend I am attending the hell out of the Best of SIFF, so that’ll be another eight films at least. I am so excited about Best of SIFF I can’t even express it properly. Anyway. Fair warning.)

PS EXTRA BONUS LEARNED THING: William Shatner’s amazing linguistic abilities! As displayed in the cinematic masterpiece Incubus! I am choosing to believe the Esperanto is Bill Shatner’s native tongue. Dear SIFF Cinema: I would totally come to a screening of that. No lie.