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).