SIFF Review: Hipsters

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
115 minutes

****

What do you remember about the Cold War? I remember hearing about people standing in long lines for bread, the constant threat of the KGB and the comedy of Yakov Smirnoff. As Americans, we didn’t get much accurate information about what was going on in the Soviet Union. We were told that people were oppressed and that communism was very bad. But we didn’t really know why. Though it’s set in the post World War II Soviet Union, “Hipsters” sheds some light on what life was like for Russians the entire time they lived under communist rule. It also throws in some song and dance numbers to make light of it all. It’s the Russian “Swing Kids” complete with Russia’s own version of Frank Whaley.

Mels (Anton Shagin) is the outsider who quits the KGB Youth to join up with a happy-go-lucky group of jazz enthusiasts known as the Hipsters. Of course, a girl is involved. Her name is Polly and she’s brash and beautiful. But Mels is also enamored with the bright clothes, pompadours and the dancing.

His KBG Comrade, Katya, is horrified to see Mels leaving the fold and flirting with what she considers to be the dark side. What’s more, the Hipsters antics are actually against the law. “Kowtowing to Western Ideology is a crime punishable for up to 10 years in prison,” Katya reminds Mels. As result, the Hipsters lead an underground life, dancing in secret halls, buying their clothes on the black market and bootlegging jazz records onto x-rays. Apparently, these things really did happen. Not the spontaneous musical numbers, of course, but all the other stuff.

And that’s what’s so fascinating about “Hipsters”. The movie doesn’t kowtow to a Western audience. It expects you to dive right in and keep up. Many Americans will probably miss some of the cultural references (I know I did). Some of the subtitles sound a little paraphrased and jokes may be lost in the translation. But there is still plenty to enjoy even for people without a thorough understanding of the political climate in 1955 Moscow. The musical numbers are fun and interesting and the costumes are fabulous. The choreography is reminiscent of a Baz Lurhmann film but without all that nausea-inducing camera work.

There are also a few parallels to familiar American stories, which may draw in a Western audience. The prohibition on dancing and music brings to mind the reactionary restrictions of “Footloose.” And of course there’s a learning-to-dance montage. At one point, a Hipster named Fred (they all adopt American names) must cut his hair and take a job that his diplomat father has set up for him in America. He leaves on a plane with all the enthusiasm of Berger shipping off to Vietnam in “Hair.” The last number in the film also recalls the ending to the film version of “Hair” as Hipsters throughout the ages convene en masse to find solidarity in their individuality, man.

Some of these familiar elements may feel a little hackneyed. In addition, the film goes on just a little too long. But the message is clear. The communists hated American ideology because they thought it represented a sense of superiority. Katya tells Mels that she resists the Hipster lifestyle because she doesn’t “like to be better than everyone else”. But Mels argues, “It’s cool to be different”. Granted, being different like everyone else isn’t exactly originality. But the freedom to be part of any group you choose is what America was founded on. Granted, we don’t always adhere to that principal. (It’s interesting how many pro-America folk are anti-free thinking). But the intent is there. The Soviet government saw that as the root of the problem. That’s why America saw communism as such a threat. Essentially, “Hipsters” is an all-singing, all-dancing lesson in philosophical opposition.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

SIFF Review: Down Terrace

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Rated R
89 minutes

*****

The standard family drama has become melodrama. Even indie fare like “Rachel Getting Married” and the films of Noah Baumbach tend to lean more toward hyperbole than authenticity. Likewise, the British crime film has certainly been played out. Guy Ritchie saw to that. But Director Ben Wheatley and his writing partner, Robin Hill, thought to combine the two genres (throwing in black comedy for good measure) and the result feels fresh and brilliant.

That result is “Down Terrace.” There are no cheeky one-liners or slow motion here. There are no long dramatic speeches about feelings. Instead, we have the sobering realism of a Mike Leigh film illustrated through interactions between father and son, husband and wife, son and mother. They’re in business together, a trade that was inherited from the Matriarch’s side. What they deal in is not made clear, but we do know that no one is particularly enthusiastic about the work. In fact, they approach work matters as lazily as possible. Regardless, the first order of business is to find out which one of their colleagues dimed on Bill and Karl, resulting in jail time for the latter. Further complicating matters is an appearance by Karl’s girlfriend, Valda. She sports a bun in the oven that may or may not be made from Karl’s yeast. He falls quickly into the dad role, clearly wanting to right the wrongs he perceives his own father as committing.

Accentuating an already strong script are the performances by the leads. Bill and Karl are played by real life father and son Robert and Robin Hill. Robert plays an ex-hippie who very much believes he is keeping the faith by smoking grass and playing his folks songs. Robin plays an exasperated man-child with a bit of a violent streak. He tires of listening to his father’s opinions and stories about the good old days, but it’s clear that he is also desperate for the man’s approval. Julia Deakin (known for her hilarious work as a frisky landlord on the British sitcom, “Spaced”) is wonderfully understated as the long-suffering mum who just wants everyone to get along already. A protective wife and mother, she distrusts Valda. She’s also not at all afraid to get dirty and do what must be done.

And what must be done is violence. The murder most fowl in “Down Terrace” kind of sneaks up on you in the most delightful way. Once it’s out there, the situation quickly escalates taking us to Shakespearean Tragedy territory before it’s all over.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

 

SIFF Review: Miss Nobody

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
90 minutes

*

Right out of the gate, “Miss Nobody” is an annoying film. It’s one of those movies that fancies itself incredibly quirky because of the body-count-to-joke ratio. But in actuality, there isn’t a thing quirky about it. In fact, it’s basically a “Greatest Hits of Indie Movie Clichés.” Among the extremely tired elements: Whimsical animated opening credits, freeze frames to bookend back story montages, back story montages, people standing in the rain on purpose, characters declaring that “things like that only happen in the movies,” breaking the fourth wall and, of course, voiceover. Dear god, the voiceover! There is so much voiceover that it’s amazing they had any time at all for actual dialog. And, as per usual, it’s superfluous. A monkey could follow the simplistic and predictable plot. And not only a monkey that knows sign language. One of those really obscure monkeys that’s never even seen a human being before.

The Miss in question is Sarah Jane Mckinney (Leslie Bibb); a religious nut who lives in her mother’s antique-laden boarding home. When she was a child, she had a shouting alcoholic father who was apparently so shouty and alcoholic that everybody was happy when he was killed by a falling statue. Since then, Sarah Jane has prayed to the statue’s subject, Saint George, to help meet her goals in life. Her latest goal is to climb the corporate ladder at Judge Pharmaceuticals where she is employed as a secretary.

Initially, her plan is to bang the boss but, when that ends in highly improbably (if not impossible) accidental death, she takes it as a sign that God (via Saint George) has a different sort of plan for her and she starts killing people on purpose in order to rise to the top.

In movies, death is usually only funny when the character is a bad person. In “Miss Nobody,” everybody, including the protagonist, is a bad person and nothing is funny. Though the film is short by today’s standards, the characters are all so despicable/uninteresting that you don’t care what happens to them. As a result, the film really drags.

And then things get really annoying. The voiceover kicks into high gear, and the plot becomes even more convoluted. Screenwriter Doug Steinberg clearly spent a lot of time watching “Heathers” when writing this film. But while there are plenty of morally bankrupt corporate types in the film, there are no good people to balance it out. Sarah Jane is no Veronica Sawyer. Unfortunately, she’s not J.D. either. She’s just some entitled zealot with wide eyes and chunky bangs. Part of what makes Sarah Jane annoying might be the actress that portrays her. Leslie Bibb lacks any sort of subtlety in her role and may as well be winking at the camera.

The only breaths of fresh air come from Adam Goldberg as a hardened cop/love interest and the always-terrific character actor Patrick Fischler who plays a pervy executive jerkwad. These guys are both hilarious despite having nothing at all to work with. Character actress (a rare thing in Hollywood) also does an OK job with her role as a sassy, well-endowed co-worker/friend of Sarah Jane’s. But trust me, the presence of fine actors is no reason to watch them do work that is beneath them. “Miss Nobody” is a must miss.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

SIFF Review: Centurion

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Rated R
97 minutes

**

In a word, Neil Marshall’s “Centurion” is epic. In several words, it’s a big rip-off of several superior epics. If you liked “300,” the running parts of “The Two Towers” and HBO’s “Rome” series, you still may not like “Centurion,” but you will definitely recognize the elements that went into creating it.

I’m seriously done with movies that start mid-narrative and then flash back; it’s never used with purpose anymore. When we meet our protagonist, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), he is stumbling half naked through the snow. He tells us that this isn’t the beginning or end of his story. And then we flash back to two weeks earlier. We know we will come back to this point. But it’s by no means the most exciting thing that will happen in the movie. It’s not the climax. We meet him in this moment JUST so we can see the title “Two Weeks Earlier.” Screenwriters take note: This device is played out. You know what else is played out? Much of “Centurion.”

We learn a lot about the situation through voiceover. So much voiceover. Quintus is a Centurion of the Roman army. He tells us about the enemies, the feral tribe of Picts, who resemble extras from “Battlefield Earth.” After fighting his way out of an enemy village, he must lead the handful of survivors of the Ninth Legion out of enemy territory. They are hunted all the while by a team of Picts, led by America’s Next Top Model, a mute tracker named Etain (Olga Kurylenko). This is all you really need to know. The rest of the voiceover is entirely unnecessary but it’s present throughout the film as if we’re watching a book on tape.

At the risk of spoiling several of his films, I have to talk about the way Neil Marshall writes women. I wouldn’t necessarily accuse Neil Marshall of hating women, but he definitely seems to distrust them. At best, he portrays them as frail lap dogs. The nicest female character in “Centurion” is a “wench” who spends much of her screen time worrying with trembling lips. Maybe after making “The Descent,” a film with an all-female cast, he felt the need to write the manliest movie possible. And it might have worked if he’d had an original idea for the plot or if he’d spent just a little more time revising the dialog instead of just making a montage of manly things.

“Centurion” is rife with testosterone. Among the numerous masculine elements in the film: Arm wresting competitions, bar brawls, battle cries, loudly declaring oneself to be a soldier of such and such, spitting, punching, bleeding, men talking with their mouths full, and men walking away in slow motion from stuff that’s on fire. That’s not to say that a woman wouldn’t enjoy the film. They might, if they like soulless genre rip-offs that read like they were written by an eleven-year-old. It is essentially the anti-Sex-And-The-City. But it’s just as bad.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that very little happens. There’s a lot of a fighting people who are constantly betraying each other. But “Centurion” is mostly running. So much running. If you drank (an alcoholic beverage, one assumes) every time a character was running, you would be drunk off your face before the first betrayal. I kept waiting for a surprise monster to spice things up but it never came.

The good news is that the violence is pretty entertaining. Heads fall left and right. Blood splatters pretty much everywhere. You won’t believe how many parts of the human body can be awesomely pierced by arrows. You won’t be bored watching “Centurion”. But it’s not going to change your life either.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

SIFF Review – Turtle: The Incredible Journey

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
80 minutes

***

You know what’s incredible? The fact that humans survived evolution to become the dominant creatures on Earth. I guess an opposable thumb really goes a long way. Because compared to what the Loggerhead Turtle must face, humans are pathetically pampered. A loggerhead is born an orphan and must cowboy up immediately or dies trying. Once hatched, it must dig itself out what would otherwise be a sandy grave. Then it has to run a gauntlet of beach predators on its way into the ocean before embarking on a 4000 kilometer, quarter-of-a-century journey via the Gulf Stream to carry out their destiny. Being American, I don’t actually know how far 4000 kilometers is, but it sounds really far. “Turtle: The Incredible Journey” is basically a spin-off of “Finding Nemo” starring the surfer turtle. Only cuter and more intense.

“Turtle” is an absolutely gorgeous film with some astoundingly intimate scenes depicting the wild ocean. The camera is at turtle-level portraying her world from her point-of-view. She travels along the Gulf Stream encountering humpback whales, jellyfish, seahorses, sharks and contending with the deadliest predator of all… Giant Squid! (Just kidding. It’s Man.) There are some truly original shots of rare sea creatures including microscopic sea life at night.

The film is narrated by the velvet-voiced Miranda Richardson who lends what is essentially “Animal Doc Story Crafting 101” a lot more credibility. (On a side note: I totally got Miranda Richardson confused with the recently deceased Natasha Richardson and spent a great deal of the film being more sad than necessary.) There are a few scenes that hold an environmental message. One such scene, in which a “charitable” fisherman lets a hooked turtle go, feels a bit staged and takes you out of what is otherwise a very engrossing narrative. In fact, many scenes have to have been staged, because a film crew couldn’t possibly follow the same turtle for 20+ years. Fortunately, all turtles look alike to us humans so the transition from one turtle age-group to the next feels mostly seamless.

The life of a Loggerhead is epic. They are born with all the purpose and drive a creature can possess. Meanwhile, human babies can’t do shit. They can’t find their own food. They certainly can’t make a home for themselves. They don’t have mutually respectful relationships with sharks. They would be screwed were it not for the patience and guidance of older humans. But Loggerhead turtles are hardcore right out of the gate. They outlived the dinosaurs. And they’ll probably outlive us too. Their journey really is incredible. The film is just pretty good.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: Jonah Hex

2010
Rated PG-13
80 minutes

**

“Joooonah Hex.” If you plan on seeing this movie, get used to hearing that. A lot. Also, buckle your proverbial seat belt because they really hammer this one out at breakneck speed. At 80 minutes, “Jonah Hex,” based on the comic book by the same name, feels like a visual Cliffs Notes. The story is condensed and hurried; edited as if it were one long trailer. Nearly every line is a one-liner. This is one of those rare instances where I wish the filmmakers had actually taken more time to let things unfold. Mind you, it’s not a complex story. It’s easy enough to follow if you can keep up.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) is a soldier-turned-bounty hunter who fought for the South in the Civil War. After a series of terrorist attacks, the U.S. government offers Hex a pardon if he can capture the man behind them, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich). Given that Turnbull is also behind both the death of Hex’s family and the love letter on his face, he can’t pass up the opportunity to finally get revenge on his archenemy. Aiding him in his quest is Lilah (Megan Fox), a hooker with the heart of a hooker. He also has a sort of superpower that allows him to talk to the dead. But it doesn’t really come up much.

Performance-wise, “Jonah Hex” is generally entertaining. The script is by no means Shakespeare, but everyone seems to be having a pretty good time. Josh Brolin plays a grizzled cowboy with ease, grimacing and grunting his way through the vaguely supernatural old west. John Malkovich occasionally attempts a southern accent as he recalls his cartoon bad guy role from “Rounders.” Wes Bentley hilariously camps up a small role as a southern dandy with wacky sideburns. Surprisingly, Will Arnett plays a straight man role as a Lieutenant but it’s impossible to take anything he says seriously. Maybe it’s the voice but I don’t think he’ll ever be able to fully exercise Gob Bluth from his line readings.

And Megan Fox is… Well, she serves her purpose, anyway. She delivers every line in a breathy monotone, all silicone fish lips and chest cavity cleavage. There appears to be Vaseline smeared on the lens in all of her shots. Her porn star acting feels a little out of place next to the gritty Brolin. They are so unbelievable as a couple that their scenes together feel more like a buddy comedy than a steamy partnership. But she was clearly hired in a boner-inducing capacity and, though she’s not my cup of tea, the Maxim readers in the audience will get along just fine.

Despite a few weird plot points, such as Eli Whitney (famed inventor of the cotton gin!) being accidentally responsible for creating the weapon that would destroy the world, the plot is fairly formulaic. You know exactly who Jonah has to fight and in what order he’ll face them. You also know that he will get a good ass kicking before he can end it once and for all. Megan Fox will fish lip around and fire some guns whilst her boobs threaten to pop out of her bustier. You’ll be subjected to quip after quip as bad guys fall and wise black men smile at fireworks. Most importantly, stuff is going to blow the hell up. The dynamite budget on this film must have been insane.

“Jonah Hex” is only OK, but it probably could have been kind of good if only they’d dwelled a little more on the supernatural elements. Jonah came back from the dead and all he got was the power of corpse interrogation. Fortunately, he was already pretty good with a pistol. Though there are a couple of cool special effects including a scene in which Jonah, while being saved from the brink of death by Native Americans again, vomits up a live crow. The costumes, apparently purchased from the Cowboy Hot Topic, lend the film a somewhat stylized look. But, for the most part, it’s a straightforward western tale wherein a morally ambiguous guy hunts a morally bankrupt guy and lots of other guys die in the process. It’s definitely a good film for summer escapism, but beyond that, you’re basically in for a poor man’s “Brisco County Jr.” episode.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

SIFF Review: Air Doll

2010 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Rated R
125 minutes

***

Hideo isn’t happy but at least he has the perfect relationship. After a grueling day waiting tables, he comes home to his beautiful girlfriend, Nozomi, and unloads his problems on her while she listens patiently. Following a relaxing co-ed bath, he unloads on her in another way. She’s always up for it. She was created for that very purpose. Nozomi is a sex doll. And she’s the only satisfying thing in Hideo’s sad, bitter life. Until one day, without warning, she comes to life.

For Nozomi, “finding a heart” is at once a blessing and a curse. Instead of waiting in bed, naked and undignified, for Hideo to come home, Nozomi now has freedom to leave the house and learn what it means to be human. Unfortunately, being human kind of sucks. There are many stories in the naked city, all of them terribly tragic. There’s a bulimic girl who sits alone in her apartment gorging herself on junk food, an insecure woman who is having a hard time dealing with her aging body, a single father and his young daughter and a man who eats the same meal alone every night.

Though she barely understands what a movie is, Nozomi somehow lands a job at the local video store (I’m sure applying in a sexy maid’s outfit didn’t hurt). It’s not long before she starts to fall for a fellow clerk named Jonichi. He takes her on dates and patiently answers her rudimentary questions about life and death. He doesn’t seem at all phased by her affinity for garbage or her lack of general knowledge. Granted his tolerance of her eccentricities may have more to do with her appearance than he lets on.

Nozomi’s independence is limited because she still must beat Hideo home each evening and pretend to be inanimate. Now intimacy with Hideo is more than just creepy. She’s become his sex slave. It really drives home (no pun intended) the notion of how much of the fun of sex is in the consent.

“Air Doll” is beautifully shot and performed. Doona Bae is marvelous as Nozomi. Her movements are as light and airy as the role requires. Though her face is absolutely doll-like, she somehow exudes both innocence and pain. But director Hirokazu Koreeda’s take on the human condition contains so much darkness that a peppering of jokes does little to lighten the mood. His message seems to be that life is lonely and that even when we do find someone, we’ll just end up hurting him or her in the end. Though Nozomi has essentially gained autonomy, there is little hope for her happiness, nor for the happiness of any of the other characters with which she crosses paths. The adult world is no place for someone with a child’s mind. Especially when that person is a sexy lady. She’s physically vulnerable as well. Though she has a soul, she is still a doll. She cannot eat, her seams are visible and she’s susceptible to accidental deflation. What’s worse, she doesn’t know how to control the power that she does have. Fundamentally, Nozomi is a beautiful version of Frankenstein’s Monster.

There’s little hope for the human characters in “Air Doll” as well. Nozomi laments that life is constructed in such a way that no one can do it alone. But finding someone to share it with doesn’t seem to solve anything either. Even meeting her creator leaves more questions than answers for her and the audience. Her God is kind but he can’t help. He just keeps creating and leaves his children to fend for themselves in a cruel world. Typical.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).