SIFF Review: The Punk Singer

2013
Unrated
80 minutes

*****

“When a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. When I tell the truth, I have to negotiate the way I’m perceived.” –Kathleen Hanna

Many music documentaries do little more than offer a visual discography of the band or artist in question. But sometimes, the subject transcends their music. Despite its generic title, Sini Anderson’s documentary, “The Punk Singer” is anything but. It’s part artist profile, part history lesson in third wave feminism and the female perspective of the masculine-dominated punk scene.

Kathleen Hanna’s contribution to the feminist movement cannot be overstated. In addition to founding and fronting Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna is responsible for coining the terms “Riot Grrrl” and “Girl Power” before they were co-opted by pop culture. It’s important to note that to Hanna, punk is a philosophy, not a brand. That’s also why she refused to copyright “Riot Grrrl.” It was her assertive gift to womankind before the Spice Girls and manufacturers of baby doll dresses branded it into oblivion.

Because of her outspokenness about rape and other harmful attitudes toward the female persuasion, Hanna was both revered and reviled to the point of death threats. Many people, including other women, didn’t want to hear that they were still being marginalized. Hanna refused to be defined and instead reclaimed femininity for feminists. Some called her a contradiction because she wore dresses and makeup, talked like a valley girl and had worked in a strip club. But that was her point. Women shouldn’t have to dress like a man in order to receive equal treatment. Women should be able to celebrate their sexuality without being sexually violated. These concepts sound like no-brainers as I type them, yet the struggle continues.

Anderson, a longtime friend of Hannah’s, has access to footage from some absolutely electrifying moments in Hanna’s career including several early Bikini Kill concerts. Her stage presence was commanding whether she played a large club or a tiny house party. It was clear from the beginning that this woman was destined for greatness. Interviews with Hanna’s friends (Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein), colleagues (Tobi Vail, Johanna Fateman, JD Samson) and husband (Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys) corroborate the story and extol her many virtues.

There’s also a lot of nostalgia in “The Punk Singer,” with numerous shots of fanzines: those DIY paper publications that thousands of kids made on their school library’s copy machine back in the nineteen hundred and nineties. The revolution was not televised. But it was grossly misrepresented in the media, which is why Hanna led a press blackout. She wasn’t able to stop people from printing falsehoods, but her silent protest spoke volumes.

Hanna retired from performing in 2005, claiming she had nothing more to say. But this woman, known for telling the brutal truth, was lying to her fans for the first time ever.

In actuality, Hanna was struggling with her health and was no longer able to sing. She experienced numerous debilitating symptoms but remained in medical limbo for 5 years before finally receiving a diagnosis. The segment about her illness may sound like a bit of a tangent, but it is absolutely necessary in order to explain why this seemingly indomitable force would suddenly drop out of picture.

“The Punk Singer” is so much more than just a music doc. It is absolutely essential viewing for anyone interested in learning about the feminist pioneers who dared to stand up for themselves. It is a celebration of how far women have come as well as a call to arms because the fight is nowhere near over. Thanks to Kathleen Hanna, we have a kick-ass soundtrack to back us up.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SFIFF Review: Ernest & Celestine

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
80 minutes

*****

Based on the stories and water color illustrations by Gabrielle Vincent, “Ernest & Celestine” tells a poignant and indispensible tale of the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, whose kind are mortal enemies in an anthropomorphic animal world. The film’s case for friendship despite adversity is one of the greatest messages that a kid’s film can impart because it teaches children that the black and white rules set by authority aren’t always wise or informed.

Director Stéphane Aubier (“A Town Called Panic”) teams up with Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner to bring the beloved characters to life with fun animations that, occasionally, border on meta. There are some trippy moments, including mass mouse nightmares and self-illustrating drawings. But there is also a universal Winnie the Pooh vibe that helps keep the sometimes-dark subject matter from getting too heavy. Though the characters are established, Daniel Pennac’s story is original and a complimentary blend of entertainment and allegory.

Where animation is concerned, I am definitely old fashioned (notice I didn’t say “Old School” – That’s how old fashioned I am). There’s a certain warmth in hand-drawn illustrations that you just don’t find in CG films. “Ernest & Celestine” celebrates the artistry of old, with images based off of those in the original. Animation is art. If you’re going for realism, why not just shoot live action? Before they can read, the pictures in a book are absolutely crucial to a child’s enjoyment of a story. The film’s gorgeous 2D watercolor illustrations are comforting and moreover, they make sense to the target audience.

Another thing that makes sense to a child is that there could be coinciding animal societies that have an instinctual rivalry. The bears live above ground in a world not unlike that of humans. The mice have developed their society in the sewers where they are safe from their natural predators but are also poised to pilfer a most precious commodity: bear baby teeth. Because mice depend so much on their teeth, dentistry is an indispensable industry in the mouse world. The baby tooth of a bear is the ultimate upgrade and means life or death for a mouse that has lost or broken a tooth. Bears, afflicted with a decaying candy addiction, equally value replacement teeth, so they are none too pleased with the tiny looters who lurk underfoot.

Celestine lives in a nun-run mouse orphanage (the presence of nuns being shorthand for a rigid lifestyle). The nuns spin horrific yarns about the bears that live above them – They are not to be trusted. They will sooner eat you as look at you. They’re nothing more than mindless murder machines. But Celestine doesn’t buy it. She knows that somewhere up there is a bear that shares her artistic zeal.

One day, she portrays her mouse and bear friendship fantasy in a drawing. When the nuns find it, she is ridiculed and reprimanded for insubordination. But Celestine’s spirit is not dampened, and she decides to venture to the bear world to prove everyone wrong. That’s when she meets her bear of fancy.

Ernest is an impoverished musician who is also a sort of outcast in his own society. When word gets out of their association, it sends both worlds into turmoil and they are hunted down like criminals for the crime of cross-culture friendship.

Unlikely friendship stories teach about societal misconceptions and finding commonalities with those outside of our immediate circles. So naturally, a commie liberal mom such as myself would prefer a movie like this to the pop-culture-laden fartfests that rule at the box office. My opinion aside, the best review for this film comes from my three-year-old daughter who neither speaks French nor reads subtitles. She followed the story just fine and, every 5 minutes or so, turned to me said, “Mama, I really love this movie.” A great children’s film appeals to adults and children alike, but more importantly, it should strike a chord with everyone regardless of where they come from or what language they speak. “Ernest & Celestine” is a shining example.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

 

SIFF Review: Yellow

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
105 minutes

***

There are plenty of films about people with crippling mental illness, but there are far fewer that tell the story through the over-medicated perspective of the afflicted. “Yellow” is the closest that schlock master Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”, “My Sister’s Keeper”) has gotten to emulating the experimental style associated with his father’s legacy. I’m still not 100% sure I liked “Yellow,” but it sure did give me a lot to think about, and to me, that makes it time well spent.

The script is co-written by Cassavetes and the film’s lead actress, Heather Wahlquist. Love it or hate it, you should make time for pie and coffee afterward, because you will need to discuss what you just witnessed. It begins, as do many dramas, in a therapist’s office. Protagonist Mary Holmes confesses that she is numb to the world. Worse yet, she has absolutely no desire to repair her affliction.

“I don’t even care that I can’t feel anything. I can’t even feel that.”

And with that, we join her story. Or, what little story there is. Mary is a substitute teacher at an elementary school who keeps her demons at bay with 30 painkillers a day and a steady stream of alcohol to wash it down. You can’t call her self-destructive because that would imply that she’s still making some sort of effort. The only thing she feels responsible for is stuffing her mouth with pharmaceuticals. The rest of her life just happens to her. It would be a pretty boring film if we weren’t granted an all-access pass to her thought process, which frequently involves hallucinations in the form of musical numbers and animation.

Some of the hallucinations play as emotional shorthand, but it seems more a coincidence than it is laziness. Mary is no Rhodes scholar, so it makes sense that her inner monologue would be a little transparent. What isn’t transparent, at least not immediately, is what exactly happened to this woman to make her this way. Her affliction is clearly much more than a chemical addiction. She has some serious pain that she is trying to suppress and apparently, at this point, it takes an awful lot of little yellow friends to make that happen.

After Mary is busted making sexy time with a dad in a utility closet during Parent’s Night, she decides it’s time to skip town and start over. But then she makes the worst mistake that anyone could ever make when seeking a fresh start – she goes home to her family. It soon becomes clear that Mary is actually the most normal member of a large clan of batshit Oklahomans.

As the puzzle pieces of Mary’s past fall into place, it becomes clear that there can be no redemption for her. Mary isn’t playing the victim. She doesn’t want anyone to try to help her and she doesn’t want sympathy. She’s resigned herself to her (almost literally) waking nightmare of a life. Parts of it are kind of fun but most of it is horrifying and inescapable. Even if were an option, she would never want out. She’s decided that her life is forfeit and she’s just biding her time until it’s over. Why not use that time to trip balls?

“Yellow” isn’t exactly a pioneering film. But Cassavetes borrows from some of the greats, including Michel Gondry, David Lynch and even a bit of Fosse. There’s also a hint of Holden Caulfield in Mary, who loves children and disdains adults in equal measure, but is nowhere near stable enough to be responsible for another life. The fucked-up sexpot is something I would like to see less of in film, but at least “Yellow” makes attempts at rounding out the character and giving her more motivation than merely arrested development and low self-esteem. I also commend Cassavetes and Wahlquist for omitting a love interest plotline. That’s a hell of a lot of restraint from the guy who made one of the most abysmal (yet, bafflingly, most beloved) romance films of all time.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Kink

2013 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
80 minutes

***

Every October in Seattle, our free weekly newspaper, The Stranger, puts on an amateur porn film festival called Hump! (their exclamation point). It’s not nearly as gross as it sounds. Well, it was at first. But over the years, the prizes you could win got bigger and better and the production value on the entries shot way up. Nowadays, many of the Hump! entries are legitimately beautiful, funny and/or visually impressive films. But since there’s a “Best Kink” category, there are also always a couple of major wince-inducers. The Stranger mercifully limits entries to 10 minutes, which can sometimes feel extremely generous to the filmmakers.

James Franco presents a feature length version of a Hump! contestant, very appropriately called, “Kink.” And if you think 10 minutes of unimaginable sexual torture sounds intense, try 80 minutes. I like to think of myself as pretty open-minded, but much of this film is difficult to stomach. I feel compelled to warn you that if you aren’t all that familiar with what BDSM (that stands for bondage, discipline, dominance and submission) entails, you might want to choose a different movie. Unless, of course, you’re into that. And clearly, many people are.

Christina Voros’ directs this documentary about kink.com, the largest producer of BDSM videos in the United States. The interviews with the directors and performers cast a very sex-positive light on the behind-the-scenes moments in “Kink.” Kink.com has got everything you could possibly want in a sex dungeon, including myriad equipment to restrain, hit or fuck you with. Some of these devices require enough horsepower to show up a regular horse. What’s more, they seem real nice and I’m so glad that they are providing what seems like a very conscientious and even intellectual approach to something that could easily get out of hand.

Now that I can’t unsee “Kink,” I am left to ponder the implications. Again, I’m fine with whatever happens between consenting adults, but it seems like a lot of work to have an orgasm. The most surprising thing that “Kink” presents is that it’s not always about getting off. Some find it meditative. Others enjoy challenging themselves physically and emotionally. One guy compares it to a runner’s high. No one here is a victim. Everyone is having a terrific time. And they have rules and regulations in place to make sure that doesn’t change. No one ever dishes out what they couldn’t take themselves. There are always safe words in place and the submissives are upfront about their limits and preferences. None of the videos ever imply rape or force. The submissive is actually the one in charge.

I was pleased to learn that some of it is even faked to a degree. Apparently, there’s a “right” way to step on a dick. The performers are all familiar with how to throw a stage punch. But most of it is the real deal because the key to a good video is “real responses on camera.”

I can’t tell you whether or not you should see “Kink.” It wasn’t the most pleasant viewing experience. If you’re already immersed in BDSM culture, this will certainly be up your alley (she’s used to it!). If you’re new to the subject, you will certainly come away from it more educated. Still, we don’t always have to know everything…

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SFIFF Review: Big Blue Lake

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
98 minutes

*

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely where Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan went wrong with “Big Blue Lake,” her semi-autobiographical second feature film. There’s a good story in there somewhere. Instead she presents us with something that, when it’s not being trite, is an utter snoozefest.

Lai Yee (Leila Tong) is a thirty-ish actress who returns to her small village in Hong Kong after a ten-year absence to find everything different and her mother suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. To earn money for her mother, Lai Yee takes odd jobs that utilize her acting skills (because pretending to be blind to test restaurant service is totally a job that someone could have). During one assignment, she bumps into Lam Chun (Lawrence Chou), an old school chum who happens to be in between two unsuspecting dates. For no apparent reason, the two reconnect and he comes to live in her brother’s old room. The plot then abandons Lam Chun’s lothario storyline and puts him on a quest to reconnect with an old love at the titular lake both he and Lai Yee remember from their childhood.

There isn’t an interesting character or story line in the film. Part of it is the performances, which feel clunky and amateurish, and that’s with them speaking Cantonese, which I do not speak in the slightest. Tong makes a lot of over-expressive Katy Perry style faces whenever she is trying to really get an emotion across, but I’m STILL not really sure what she’s trying to convey. Her mother toddles around almost like a sitcom version of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Everyone else barely registers in terms of performance.

The story also feels fairly contrived. When Lai Yee shows up, she finds her mother, May (Amy Chum), alone in the house and clearly suffering from dementia. No one called to tell her that her mother was sick. Later her brother explains (by phone) that she never calls so he didn’t think to tell her. Really? That’s EXACTLY WHEN you would call an estranged relative. Then she learns that her brother and father both left town without her mother. There is some flimsy “emergency” excuse for both of them, but they left with no real contingency plan set in place. They didn’t even know that Lai Yee was coming! I guess they just assumed their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother would be fine alone for a couple of days.

Lai Yee gets lots of passive-aggressive comments from the neighbors about her long absence. It seems like the entire population is angry with her. Is this really what happens in small Chinese villages? It doesn’t really seem like any of their business.

Lai Yee’s story is beyond boring. She spends much of her off time in contemplative silence, and Leila Tong is not a nuanced enough actress to pull that off. Lai Yee is relatable only to the extent that she does what we all do when we’ve returned to a place we haven’t been in a while. We continuously remark about how everything has changed. It’s a natural impulse that kicks in somewhere in your mid-twenties and only gets worse the older you get. But it can’t be very much fun for other people to listen to.

Alzheimer’s is emotionally devastating for everyone but the sufferer and it can be a heartbreaking plot point in films (such as Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her”), but in Jessie Tsang’s clumsy hands, it feels disingenuous. If this is really a version of her life, I’m sorry for her. I’m sure it’s terrible. But an audience needs more than abstract sympathy to connect with a character. Perhaps she was too close to her material to remember to make it interesting.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SFIFF: Dom – A Russian Family

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
127 minutes

*****

Most of us have issues with our family, but Viktor Shamanov could give us all a run for our money. Writer/director Oleg Pogodin’s “Dom: A Russian Family” is a glorious epic about a Russian mobster who returns home after a twenty-five year absence to bid farewell to his family prior to retirement. The dense narrative builds slowly, covering more characters than a “Game of Thrones” episode, but Pogodin clearly knows what he’s doing. “Dom: A Russian Family” is as brutal as it is beautiful and it belongs in the same breath as films like “The Deer Hunter” and “The Godfather.”

Viktor Shamanov (Sergey Garmash) is an aging gangster who is ready to retire. Unfortunately in his line of work, there are only two ways to do that: disappear or die. But before he goes, he is compelled to make amends with the entire Shamanov clan, whom he left rotting in their farmhouse in the steppes years ago. The oldest of five, Viktor utilizes his grandfathers 100th birthday celebration to reconnect with each of his siblings individually, including those that are too young to remember having met him. Some regard him with awe, some with big brotherly love and some with resentment making for some pretty intense conversations at the dinner table.

To further complicate matters, Viktor’s enemies have caught wind of the family reunion and plan to crash it. And they’re bringing along plenty of semi-automatic party favors. Meanwhile, a mysterious former paramour called Svetlana makes her way to the farmhouse, determined to rendezvous with her old flame even if she has to walk there in stilettos and a mini-dress.

There are few better settings for a film about a decaying family than a crumbling farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Once upon a time, Viktor supported the Shamanovs with income from his business, but when he went to jail, the money stopped coming and the family has been in decline ever since. Many family members blame Viktor for their problems, but it seems more likely that the men who stayed behind are to blame.

Viktor’s male role models (his father and grandfather) were cruel, hard men. That he was able to retain any compassion despite his upbringing and career choice is a testament to his own character. He escaped while the rest of his family remained on the farm, festering in anger, resentment and disappointment. Viktor’s career as a criminal is an improvement over the Shamanov legacy. The inevitable ultra-violent climax is less tragedy than a long overdue cleanse of a poisoned land.

Essential to a good epic is its ability to keep track of numerous characters without leaving any of them under-developed. Pogodin accomplishes this by introducing them through their relationship (or lack thereof) with Viktor. By the end, we are very familiar with everyone’s motivations and invested in the outcome. Viktor is the most developed character and so much more than a “gangster with a heart of gold.” The genesis of his brutality is evident, as is his commitment to his family. He knows he made mistakes, but he sees no point in dwelling on them. Despite his desire to leave his life of crime behind, he will do whatever he must to protect his family even as he is the one who put them in danger.

There’s a lot of darkness in “Dom,” but it somehow manages to retain the vivacity of a Tarantino film. This is due in large part to Sergey Garmash’s charismatic grizzled squint. Garmash joins the great congregation of mum cinematic badasses and conveys more with one forehead wrinkle than Vin Diesel could in a lengthy monologue. The Russians just may have Sicilians beat in terms of mob awesomeness. They take everything up a notch further than even Emeril would dare. I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase “instant classic” before, but for “Dom: A Russian Family,” it categorically applies.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SFIFF Review: Pearblossom HWY

2013 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
78 minutes

****

There are a hundred songs about the compelling desire to “get out of this town.” There’s no shortage of films on the subject either, which is why I was surprised to find a unique, albeit incredibly bleak perspective in Mike Ott’s “Pearblossom Hwy.” “Mumblecore” is a term used to describe a certain level of realism in character-driven independent dramas. But I’m starting to believe that Mumblecore is simply the best way to tell a story. The characters are so authentic that you tend to root for them almost immediately. But this also means you have no idea how it will turn out. Life isn’t a movie but that doesn’t mean a movie can’t be like life.

“Pearblossom Hwy” is a shining example of this exceptional genre. Ott and co-writer/star Atsuko Okatsuka have crafted a small town tale that breaks all the rules that Hollywood has set for dramatic storytelling. Cory (Cory Zachariah) is a sensitive blockhead with dreams of stardom. He films his video selfies as part of an audition for a reality TV show, but we know he’s not going to make the cut. His problems are way too grave to make for good television. His punk band is lucky to get tiny gigs at the local watering hole, and he doesn’t even really have a day-job to not quit. Cory is a small-town kid with big dreams, but it’s only a matter of time before these dreams are dashed. You would not see Channing Tatum playing a character that unnervingly tragic. Cory comes off as one of those naive gay kids from Middle America who winds up on the end of a rope. His potential misfortune looms so ominously that you’re not sure you want to be around when it happens.

Cory’s best friend, Anna (Atsuko Okatsuka) has a demeanor that could be confused for stoicism but is more likely numbness or an emotional armor. She needs both in her line of work, which is, of course, prostitution. By day, she helps her uncle with his gardening business. By night she trolls truck stops and seems to attract the creepiest of johns who insist on videoing their encounters. There isn’t a Richard Gere among them. We don’t know Anna’s age, but she looks like a child. This makes it all the harder to watch her put herself in these situations which are, at best, degrading. She’s an intelligent girl who has convinced herself that this is her only option for fast cash and a plane ticket to Japan to see her ailing Grandmother.

It’s clear why Anna is drawn to Cory. They’re both emotional orphans. Cory’s older brother Jeff is convinced there’s only one way to be a man. That’s to serve your country, get a job and bed women. Because Cory doesn’t meet any of these qualifications, Jeff is simultaneously concerned for and disgusted by him. Anna gets no support from her family who, including her Grandmother, all believe that the most important thing for her to do is study for her upcoming U.S. citizenship test. She lives with her Aunt and Uncle and they treat her like an obligation. This isn’t a Reese Witherspoon movie. These kids aren’t just stuck in their small town because they haven’t found themselves. They have nearly insurmountable financial constraints and are basically one bad month or one familial bust-up away from being homeless.

The film does take a little while to hit its stride, though Ott uses a jarring transitional sound effect between scenes, which brings a sense of dread to the slow beginning. But the real story starts once Jeff takes Cory and Anna to San Francisco to meet Cory’s biological father. Jeff not so secretly hopes the old man will serve as a warning for Cory to shape up. What Cory and Anna find is not an escape but instead a clearer picture of the sort of freedom they may never have.

“Pearblossom Hwy” is powerful stuff and it haunts you long after the credits. Their issues will never be resolved or else it will be years before anything truly changes for them. Cory writes silly yet earnest rebellion songs with his band that amount to little more than punk rock greeting cards. He uses his fervent anti-conformity act to distract from the closet he’s hiding in, not only from his homophobic marine brother but also himself. Anna only cares about becoming an American citizen because it’s what he grandmother would have wanted. It comes down to seeing her grandmother one last time or taking the test to make her grandmother happy in her final hours. It’s a tough decision and one that is eventually made for her.

Don’t hold your breath for a happy ending, nor for any ending really. This is just life. There is nothing for them beyond the constraints of their zip code. Yes, it’s bleak. But sometimes the awful truth is a florid breath of fresh air. They don’t write too many songs like that, but they should.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).