[SIFF Week One]

…part one.

* The Punk Singer is easily the most important film I’ve seen at festival so far. A documentary about Bikini Kill & Le Tigre lead singer Kathleen Hanna, it tackles feminism (obviously), music, writing, health, women’s voices, the importance of riot grrl to other artists (especially Nirvana & the Beastie Boys), the media’s desire to force marginalized voices into a narrative, and more. Really fantastic stuff, and I hope it gets distribution. I saw it with a press screening crowd (“It’s not my kind of music, but that was really great!”) & I bet it kills with an audience of fans. Also, this is a weird thing to mention — but the correct aspect ratio in archival footage was such a relief.

* What Maisie Knew is excellent & intense, but I would really love to know why the filmmakers chose to make a quite significant change from the source material. It makes me think they didn’t get the point of the book at all, in the end. Based on the James novel, but updated to current day New York, it follows six year old Maisie who is treated not as a person, but as a pawn in the breakup of her parents (Julianne Moore & Steve Coogan). Onata Aprile is stunning in the title role. (And in case you worry excessively about this sort of thing, Maisie never comes to *physical* harm. At least in the film. Her ACE score is whole other story.)

It comes out in Seattle this weekend, so I’d love for more people to see it so we can discuss it. It inspired me to read the book, because I had so many feelings about the ending.

* After Winter Spring is a documentary shot over three years, following family farms in France as they struggle to adjust to a world increasingly hostile to family farming. It’s a good story, and the families are great (they range from idealistic newcomers to folks who have worked the land for generations), but I was turned off a bit by the unnecessary Eat Pray Love-esque narration. I would have preferred title cards or less self-asserting narration.

* Inequality for All is basically Robert Reich’s An Inconvenient Truth, a 101 course on wealth distribution in America. Told through lecture, graphics, and interviews, it’s information we all have (at least, if we’ve been paying a tiny bit of attention), but presented in a concise & clear format. So now what are we going to do about it? Screens this Sunday & Monday at SIFF.

[SIFF Weekend One]

Let’s do this thing! Capsule reviews of SIFF 2013, weekend one, minus anything that will be going up on Manga Bookshelf, and…GO:

* Much Ado About Nothing is exactly what it looks like: a fun Rolodex movie. Standouts include Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, and the Nathan Fillion/Tom Lenk double team of ridiculousness who’ve seen one too many cop movies. It’s in a modern setting, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and Alexis Denisof is a bit of a ham (but then, so is Benedick), and in the end it’s just dang charming. More low-budget Whedon surprises like this, please!

* Five Dances follows a young gay man as he begins working on a performance with a group of dancers in New York. The dialogue is lacking (as is sometimes the delivery), which is fine because the dialogue is not the point. The gorgeous (and beautifully shot) dancing is, and it was right of director Alan Brown to trust these dancers to tell the story of their work together and the complexities of the changing relationships between them.

* Concussion stars Robin Weigert, best known to me as Calamity Jane from Deadwood, but also virtually unrecognizable if you only know her from there. Inspired in part by the elite call girl portion of The Vagina Monologues, it’s a body-positive, sex-positive, sex-work positive film that is also a portrait of a midlife crisis in the context of an upper class lesbian marriage. Halfway through SIFF, it’s still my favorite feature. Easily best actress, too.

* Secret #1 is a secret, obviously, but here’s a Mad Lib style review: it was interesting, but afterwards we thought perhaps we would have liked it better if it had been a _____ of _____ narrated by _____, especially if it focused on the internal life of _____. I’m pretty sure I didn’t give anything away with that.

* Middleton is an affable, opposites attract film about two parents (Andy Garcia & Vera Farmiga) who meet as they’re touring a small college with their children. It doesn’t break any new ground, except insofar as it’s about an older couple, which of course, is groundbreaking in its own way. Perfect ending, shot like a sun-dappled college recruitment pamphlet, and (to our surprise) featuring Vera’s sister Taissa as her daughter.

* Inspired by true events, as the kids say, The Deep portrays an incident from 1984 where an Icelandic fishing boat capsized and a single fisherman managed the considered-impossible task of swimming many hours to safety. Iceland’s submission to the Academy Awards, it was naturalistic & engaging (especially once I adjusted my personal pacing expectations from the incident to the incident plus the aftermath, both personal and public.)

So, clearly my favorite of the lot was Concussion, with no duds in the first weekend. What did you love?

[Cloud Atlas]

I didn’t want to see Cloud Atlas. I had done a lot of reading about the yellowface aspect of it, and really, I should not have had to do any reading about it. The yellowface should not have happened in the first place.

It was argued to me that the yellowface wasn’t that big of a deal, because actors of color also appeared in the film as white characters. Here’s the thing about that argument: it’s bullshit. It’s pretty basic: actresses of color wearing makeup to appear as though they were white is not the same thing as white men wearing makeup to appear as if they were Korean. You know why? Because of history and power.

There is not a tradition of white actors being denied access to roles because actors of color put on some powder & stole all the plum jobs. There is, however, an ongoing problem of white actors being cast as characters of color. This is still happening today. It’s happened in every single Twilight movie. Prince of Persia. A Mighty Heart. Avatar: The Last Airbender. The upcoming Lone Ranger . That’s just off the top of my head.

Plus, there’s the question of billing. It would be troubling, but maybe less so, if the film featured a broad array of ethnicities. It didn’t. Of the six cast members who received top billing & appeared in the promotional materials, five were white men. The sixth was Halle Berry. This is not a wide range, I hope you’ll notice. This is white-man-as-default.

So. It’s a problem, and I didn’t want to support it financially. But SIFF picked it up for a week, which meant I could see it essentially for free. And I do actually like to see things and then form opinions on them, rather than just plucking opinions out of the air. So I went. And was appalled.

The thing is, the racial problems weren’t limited to the casting & the rep company structure of the film. There are a others that appear to be inherent in the source text. There’s the fact that all of the stories were Western except the dystopian future of fabricants & cannibalism. That, of course, is set in Korea. There’s also a colonialism arc, where a young lawyer has to have his life saved by an escaped slave before he realizes that slavery is bad, m’kay, complete with an eye-rollingly awful confrontation with his father-in-law.

Racial issues aside (which is, I grant you, a huge caveat), the film is enamored of its own cleverness. It always wants you to know just how neat it is that they’re making it happen with all the same actors. It takes a far more focused person than I am to watch it and not spent half the time trying to work out who is buried under makeup & prosthetics in this or that scene.

Furthermore, it was distracting trying to work out if casting actually meant anything in a given arc. For example, during the story where Doona Bae is the daughter of Hugo Weaving’s plantation owner character, I spent a significant portion of the scene wondering if her character then was meant to be white or biracial. Maybe someone who has read the book can tell me.

Plus, there are anvil-like connections between storylines. In 2012 Jim Broadbent yells that Soylent Green is people, and of course by 2144 fabricants are killed & turned into food for other fabricants. The problem with a lot of these is that they pop you out of the story with a visual or an audio joke.

The most egregious one reminded me of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. In that film, Luhrmann yanks the audience out of scenes with visual jokes, such as focusing on “longsword”, “dagger”, etc engraved on the side of firearms. As soon as that happens you’re not thinking about the story. You’re thinking about how clever it was to work in Shakespeare’s weapon choice.

In Cloud Atlas, this occurs during a passionate confrontation between a blackmailer & his victim. They’re at the height of the conflict, the victim is brandishing a gun, tension is running high… and right in the middle of everything we’re shown a lost item under the bed. Why on earth would you choose to do that? The audience is caught up and then you basically hit pause, point out the lost item (which, of course, is also a connection with another storyline LOOK AT HOW CLEVER). So irritating.

It’s also frustrating because aside from moments like that, the best part of the film is definitely the editing. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it that way. The book takes us through the six stories chronologically, I believe, forward through time and then back, but the film mixes and matches elements, weaving times together in a beautiful & effective way. The flow and pacing is definitely impressive, but in service of what? Evolution of the soul is hell. We’re all connected, from womb to tomb, apparently. And if at the repeated invocation of that phrase you can manage to not start humming “Jet Song” from West Side Story, you’re a better person than I am.

The second best part is a movie that existed only in my head. There’s a gorgeous still from the 1930s Cambridge section, which features James D’Arcy & Ben Whishaw in a room, arms raised, plates & pottery flying through the air. It looks like a still from a film about two magicians in love. I desperately want to see that movie. If someone could make that happen, I would appreciate it.

(Guys, I promise I’ve seen stuff this fall I really loved. Some of it was even new film. Some of it dealt with the evolution of the soul, and yet did not infuriate me! I’ll share it with you soon.)

[The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey]

There’s a scene (relatively) early in The Hobbit that involves a hedgehog named Sebastian. And that scene was where I lost all hope that maybe the film *wouldn’t* be a bloated, indulgent slog. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s crucial foreshadowing & Sebastian has a key role to play in, like, hour seventeen, but I am not sure I’ll be sticking around to see it.

I had been, like every other fankid, super excited about this movie. More Middle Earth! Hooray! I was even down with two movies. Why not. Everything these days has been broken into two movies whether it needs it or not. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows started it, and in some ways was very Tolkien-esque in that half of that book was just people walking around & camping. So, fine. I can dig it.

But then, after principal filming had long ended, came the announcement — just kidding! It’ll be three movies! Which, I’m sorry, but no. You’ve written an adaptation of a single children’s story. You split it into two films, theoretically with appropriate emotional arcs & character development & plot. And then, in the editing room, instead of taking out things that don’t serve those arcs & that story, you throw in everything and the kitchen sink & bam! Three movies.

At which point I started to worry. But the trailer was beautiful, and, like I said, I’m a fankid, so I was trying to withhold judgment. I was even letting the whole 48fps thing slide, even though that much conversation about the format rather than the story made me nervous.

There’s a lot of exciting film out right now, and to be honest, in the last few weeks, seeing The Hobbit started to feel like an obligation. But we got a group together, we laid in provisions, and we went. And then there was Sebastian the hedgehog. And then I gave up. It’s telling that when the movie ended, my viewing party immediately started listing complaints.

But first, in the interest of being positive, here’s what I liked:

* Martin Freeman is perfection as Bilbo. He’s fantastically Tookish, and brings much more to the character than he was given in the script. Also, I really want his patchwork robe. Make it so.

* It’s beautiful. I saw it in 2D digital. I’m not particularly interested in the 48fps. As it is, a lot of digital is too sharp for me, and that’s still in 24fps.

* The second song the dwarves sing is killer. It gave me false hope.

…that’s about it. On the other hand, there are all of these issues:

* Did we really need a twenty minute framing device? Is Elijah Wood that hard up for work? (It might not have been that long. But it felt like it had been a shockingly long time before the “Unexpected Journey” title card appeared.)

* I can’t tell the dwarves apart. I mean, they all look different, & obviously Thorin delivers (except when he’s talking about how much he hates Bilbo, wtf man). Also, there’s the one who was a vampire in Being Human, so I can pick him out, as well as the ginger one who I think was his boyfriend.

But still, of thirteen central characters I can confidently name only one. Most of them, I would not notice if they died. Maybe the round dwarf, because then they would stop making fat jokes, but that’s about it. And it’s not like there wasn’t time. The movie is practically three hours long. There are flashbacks & inclusions of extra characters & tales that don’t drive this arc. This is a story about people trying to get their home back! That is compelling, emotional business! Too bad none of that made it into the movie.

* There’s no banter, there’s no memorable dialogue, there’s no real tension because we know there are another six hours or so worth of movie coming, so no one will die yet, & it’s not like we know anything about them as individuals anyway.

* There are whole scenes that could have been removed without having any effect on the story.

* What is up with putting Galadriel on a lazy susan? Does she slowly rotate all the time, or is it just when she visits Rivendell?

* Not enough Lee Pace.

* This is a Tolkien thing but seriously. The fuckin’ eagles. Every time they show up you think: this thing could have been over hours ago, if they’d just give everyone a lift.

* And finally, IT’S SO DAMN LONG. I thought we were at the final battle scene, and there were at least two more after that. And it’s impossible to sit there and not think about the fact that there are two more movies. Ugh.

It’s been probably ten years since I read the book, and since I have a terrible memory I only remember four things that happen:

1) The beginning, when the dwarves invade Bilbo’s house.
2) The bit with the trolls.
3) Bilbo & Gollum’s game of riddles.
4) Getting to the Lonely Mountain & Dealing With Smaug.

This movie includes the first three, so I guess I’m going to have to go back & reread the book so I can figure out what the next six hours will contain. And at this juncture, I’m not sure that I really care to sit through it.

I’d really like to see Peter Jackson have to go back & work with no budget again. This is a movie by a guy who has too many damn toys. This movie is not about the story. It’s all about racking up jobs for Weta, and while their work is gorgeous, this is a film where the story is in service to the technology. It should be the other way round. Obviously.

I look forward to the day when the whole three or four or seventeen parts have been released, & someone cuts it down to maybe two or two and a half hours. I expect it will be mostly Martin being fantastic, and Gandalf counting everybody like a schoolteacher on a field trip.

And it’ll be beautiful.

[Five Things About Looper]

Five things about Looper, plus a bonus thing:

1) It’s not like Primer. I had heard that Primer‘s writer/director/star Shane Carruth worked on Looper, which artificially inflated my expectations in regards to Primer-like loopiness.

2) That said, I never knew what was going to happen. I spent the entire movie double- and triple-guessing myself.

3) Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Young Bruce Willis makeup is distracting. Also, Bruce Willis should never have hair. And apparently this doesn’t bother anyone else, but their ears are different. This would not have bothered me if they hadn’t tried so hard with the other makeup.

4) I loved the Blade Runner-esque world-building to tiny bits, from the TK stuff to the casual absorption of tech into the established world (especially things like the security screen on the loft door) to the DIY retrofitting of the cars (about which nothing was said at all, which is perfect). I’m still not excited about the see-through phones we’re going to have in the future, but I guess I am going to have to get used to it.

5) However, this is not a future which is awesome for ladies. I am going to chalk that up to its inevitable elements of noir, but I am giving Rian Johnson a bit of a side-eye: noir or not, ladies can be other things than moms, waitresses, or prostitutes. I promise.

In the end, it’s worth seeing, absolutely, but it wasn’t what I had expected it to be, so I had to do some adjusting. In the end, I think my favorite Rian Johnson film so far is actually The Brothers Bloom, because in spite of all of the cons & in spite of my deep love for the perfect style of Brick, Bloom is the movie with a heart. But Looper is still worth your time.