[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!

[Oscar Shorts]

Now that no one cares, let’s react a bit to the Oscar Nominated Short Films.

Animated:

French Roast (France): The coolest thing about this short is that about half of the action takes place in the mirror behind a customer in a café. The second coolest thing is what it has to tell us about nuns, namely, that they cannot be trusted.

Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Ireland): Great use of two different animation styles, one for the grandmother telling the story and the other for the story being told. I liked it a lot.

The Lady and the Reaper (Spain): Probably my favorite, if only because I enjoy rooting for death.

Logorama (Argentina): Which took home the Oscar, and which I rather hated. It’s a fantastic concept, and I get that it was supposed to be satirical, but that is no excuse for a totally crap script. I am not amused,

A Matter of Loaf and Death (UK): Latest Wallace & Gromit installment, which I was totally on board with until you discover that the murderer’s motive? Is that they have gained weight.

They also showed three bonus shorts: Partly Cloudy (which everyone had seen before Up), The Kinematograph (I wasn’t that into the story, but the texture of the animation was very cool) and Runaway (a fun Canadian short about a train and a cow and ensuing hijinks).

Live Action:

The Door (Ireland): Which would have made a lot more sense if we’d had the Chernobyl context at the beginning rather than the end.

Instead of Abracadabra (Sweden): Screwy, very Swedish short about a wannabe magician.

Kavi (India/USA): Frustratingly, only half of a good short on modern-day slavery. It ends a bit abruptly, and I would have really liked it to go on a bit longer.

Miracle Fish (Australia): Fantastic. Probably the best of the bunch, with true narrative tension and a great performance by the child star.

The New Tenants (Denmark/USA): The winner, dark, which reminded me a lot of Six Shooter.

[Early February]

* Last Chance Harvey. I heard the mixed reviews, but I wanted to see it anyway because you know what? I love Emma Thompson. Also, I love romances where the protagonists are not 25. So I do not give a shit that it wasn’t perfect. It made me tear up, it made me wish I was visiting London again any time soon, and it made me glad I spoke with my dollars and supported a romance with brains & complexity, and not a romance that made me ashamed to be a woman. So. Uh. There.

* 2009 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Animated). Is it just me, or were the shorts packages stronger this year than they had been in recent memory? My favorite, I think, is Lavatory Lovestory because it was so evocative and charming with very simple lines, but they were all really great. Oktapodi seemed to be the crowd favorite, that or This Way Up. The package ran short with just nominated films, so they also ran five “commended” films. I was sorry Skhizein was not a nominee, because that was really my favorite of all: a French short about a gentleman who learns to live 91cm from himself after an encounter with a meteorite.

* 2009 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Live Action). I think New Boy is the favorite to win here, which I am okay with because the child actors were all awesome. My personal favorite was The Pig, though, a Danish short about a man in hospital, a drawing of a pig, and a flexible definition of tolerance.

* Frozen River. This was fantastic. I am so glad it got a re-release after its Oscar nominations. I had wanted to see it for Melissa Leo, but everyone was amazing, particularly Misty Upham. Recommended.

Tonight Noir City starts. I don’t know how many I am seeing, but I did buy a pass, so beware. Femme fatales & corrupt reporters, ahoy!

[In theater part four: shorts]

Finally, I saw some collections of shorts:

The Third Annual Science Fiction Short Film Festival showed in two parts at the Cinerama.I feel like the lineup was weaker this year. My favorites were Operation: Fish (I have no idea if that link works, because YouTube is blocked here, but it’s a stop-motion piece involving goldfish, a criminal mastermind, and a time displacement gun. AWESOME) and Four Corners (a live action short where a bicyclist encounters a mysterious red light in the desert). The festival prize apparently went to “Forecast”, which I didn’t think was all that great. I can’t find who got the Audience Prize. Fail, Internets.

I also went to the Oscar nominated short films, both Animated and Live Action, and I thought they were all pretty mediocre. Some of the animation was cool, but the stories were unimpressive.

[SIFF Week Two]

* Death at a Funeral is a tightly-written, beautifully acted farce. Good comedy is hard to do well & generally painfully underrated. I went to this one largely because the cast included Alan Tudyk & Peter Dinklage, and both were marvelous.

* Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle was a package of experimental short films reworking found audio, video, and/or dialogue. My favorite concept was “For a Blonde… For a Brunette… For Someone… For Her… For You…” which was a karaoke-style short, with the audience playing a role. It was a really cool idea, but I wish that they had chosen a scene with dialogue that was easier to pick up on the fly, though. I also enjoyed “Sunbeam Hunter”, which used images from Boy Scout handbooks. I did NOT enjoy “Asmahan”, because I didn’t get it at all, being unfamiliar with the source. I was not alone here; the entire audience seemed to be slowly revolting. Anarchy of stifled giggles! This being SIFF, there were two directors in attendence, but of course they were directors of films far too experimental for me.

* No Regret was a Korean film about an orphan & his developing relationship with a well-off businessman. I am not terribly interested in American queer film, but other countries can provide a different perspective, and this was no exception. It went a bit weird for me at the end, but I’m thinking it’s a first feature sort of error, and am willing to forgive it.

* The Cloud is a teen romance – slash – nuclear accident film. It reminded me on some level of Wristcutters, for sticking a genre in a particularly unusual setting, though I didn’t love it as much. It was pretty awesome, though. I felt like it got a little long towards the end, but I don’t know what I would cut. Really fantastic cast, and possibly my favorite of the festival so far. The IMDb boards hate it because the love story isn’t in the book. Which says to me that the book is a completely different story, and wow, I so do not care. Seriously, people. Whatever.

* Black Sheep had a sold-out midnight screening. Awesome. It’s genetic modification gone wrong! Killer sheep! At the preview they said it was in the tradition of Peter Jackson, and that is absolutely true, a gore-fest of a black comedy that knows exactly what sort of film it is. Great fun.