H2N Review: Half Life in Fukushima

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The title of Mark Olexa and Francesca Scalisi’s documentary, Half-Life in Fukushima, is a pun, of sorts. Half-life is the time it takes for the radioactivity of an isotope to decrease to half its original value. It is also an apt term for the life of Naoto Matsumura, a farmer who, along with his elderly father, continues to reside in the Japanese town that was evacuated after the 2011 nuclear plant meltdown caused by the one-two punch of an earthquake and a tsunami. At a mercifully short sixty minutes, Half-Life follows Naoto through his day tending to his farm and caring for his father. His down-time resembles every “last man on earth” style apocalypse film, as he hits golf balls on an empty course, sings a mournful karaoke tune to no one, and chain smokes while watching the news. He lives this way because he knows no other way. There is nothing for him outside the city. He can’t abandon his home, even though everyone else has done just that.

Though Naoto passes the occasional clean-up crew, he leads a nearly solitary existence. Occasionally, the filmmakers layer in sounds of the bustling city over shots of the man walking down the middle of a deserted street. At one point, the ambient noise changes as Naoto wades into the ocean. This time, instead of a thriving cityscape, we hear the screams of terror coming from people who have been told that they must leave or die. It is the reason they have not returned. Naoto is not dead, though he is not exactly alive either…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

SFIFF Review: Counting

(The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival ran April 21-May 5.)

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Counting is a difficult film to pin down. But that’s precisely what makes it so engaging. All films are art to some extent (for better or worse). But typically, the narrative is the main focus. In Jem Cohen’s latest film, the art is the focus, made all the more so by the lack of narrative and the frequently incongruent audio. Shot primarily in New York City, Moscow, Istanbul, and Sharja, Counting often feels like a travel diary wherein the traveler is the camera itself and Cohen is a ghost who pops up from time to time.

The film is broken into 15 parts, each beginning with a title and ending with the date and city in which the footage was shot. Sometimes the segment has a postscript such as in part 2: “A Day is Long”… “But a lifetime is short.” The titles are a mantra – something on which to ruminate or puzzle over during the segment. You begin to notice recurring motifs such as travel (planes, trains and automobiles) – but always with the camera trained out the window to catch the passing scenery; frequent shots of new construction contrast with neglected buildings and sidewalks; people hustle and bustle through the streets, passing static vagrants and paying them no mind; nature pushes through concrete, fighting for the right to exist; cats abound…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

2013 San Fran International Film Fest Wrap-Up

Spring is a funny time for a film festival. I understand that the host cities want to show off during the most temperate season; San Francisco is beautiful year-round, but Spring is the only time it’s not nestled under a blanket of clouds. Such is the nature of film festivals; you end up spending an awful lot of time inside dark theaters. When you leave a screening, the sun admonishes you for your insolence.

Fortunately, SFIFF makes it easier for you to make the most of the festival and the city at the same time. Currently in its 56th year, SFIFF is spread out over fifteen days and, thanks to the many screens at the Sundance Kabuki Theatre, they are able to keep things pretty contained. There were never any screenings scheduled before noon, so you can always get a couple of hours of exploration in before it’s time to sit on your butt. The SFIFF lineup is comparable to other major film festivals, but the lengthy duration makes for a more relaxed experience. I was only able to stay for a week, but in that time I managed to see sixteen films as well as make the most of my time in the City by the Bay.

The festival kicked off with “What Maisie Knew” and ended with the third installment of Richard Linklater’s “Before [Whenever]” series. Either SFIFF has an excellent programmer or I’m just getting better at choosing films to screen. I saw way more great films than bad ones.

THE BEST:

“After Lucia” – Beautifully acted, but so brutal that I’m still a little traumatized. Tessa Ia gives a staggering performance as the teenager who decides not to bother her recently widowered father with the trivial matter of being literally tortured by her classmates.

“Dom: A Russian Family” – Time will likely prove this the definitive Russian gangster film.

“Ernest & Celestine” – Based on the stories and water color illustrations by Gabrielle Vincent, it tells a poignant tale of the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, whose kind are the sole mortal enemies in an anthropomorphic animal world. 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.

“Key of Life” – Though foreign comedies tend to suffer from the hindrance of translation, writer/director Uchida Kenji makes it looks easy with his tale of three lost souls who find themselves by stepping out of their comfort zones and into each other’s lives. The dialog is sharp and the performances are understated perfection, playing the affable screwball characters so straight that the absurd comedy clichés (chance meetings, amnesia, mistaken identity, freak accidents) seem entirely plausible.

“Kings of Summer” – This quirky coming-of-age tale about a troika of restless teenage boys who build the ultimate clubhouse in the woods is going to be the sleeper hit of the season. Megan Mullalley, Alison Brie and Ron “Fucking” Swanson round out the supporting cast.

“Pearblossom Hwy” – An excellent follow-up to Mike Ott’s “Littlerock”, “Pearblossom Hwy” is a uniquely told story of two small-town twenty-somethings whose ambitions don’t stretch too far beyond the need to escape.

“Sofia’s Last Ambulance” – One of those movies you need to see every once in a while to remind yourself that our mess of a country could be so much worse.

“Stories We Tell” – At this point, I can safely say that Sarah Polley is one of the most creative and elegant filmmakers working today. Her third film is a video memoir of sorts that explores perspective and memory through a profile of the mother she lost when she was a little girl.

“Unfinished Song” – This is one of those British Schmaltzfests that is so well acted, you play right into their hands and walk out of the theater with a wet sleeve and puffy eyes. Terence Stamp is an absolute treasure.

“You’re Next” – Adam Winegard’s tongue-in-cheek home invasion Mumblecore Horror film stars a Super Group of well known actors within the sparse genre including Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz and Kate Lyn Sheil. Lionsgate seems well aware of that fact and snatched it right up. Catch it at a theatre near you this August.

THE WORST:

“Big Blue Lake” – Major snoozefest about an estranged actress who returns home unexpectedly and is surprised to learn that her mother has Alzheimer’s. As boring as it is depressing.

“Night Across the Street” – Highly French New Wave influenced final film of now deceased Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. I wouldn’t say I’m glad he’s dead, but at least he can’t make any more films.

“Rosie” – Swiss comedy about a stubborn old lady and her author son who must return home to take care for her, despite the fact that neither of them are too keen on the idea. It’s not nearly as funny or heartwarming as it thinks it is.

THE MEH:

“Much Ado About Nothing” – As a huge Joss Whedon fan, I normally lap up everything he puts in front of me. Shakespeare isn’t such a bad writer either. Unfortunately, “Much Ado” is one of the harder plays to update because the very premise is archaic and misogynistic. The usual suspects of the Whedonverse navigate the language with grace and thoughtfulness, but nothing they do can counter the fact that it’s a romantic comedy about arranged marriage and female “purity.”

“Outrage Beyond” – The person who introduced this film claimed that it wasn’t necessary to see the first “Outrage” film to follow the story in the sequel. Regardless, I had the nagging sense I was missing something throughout. Maybe it was a bad subtitle translation, but exciting camera work and over-the-top violence aside, this film left me beyond wanting.

GOLDEN GATE AWARD WINNERS:

Best Documentary Feature – “A River Changes Course”, Dir. Kalyanee Mam (Cambodia/USA 2012)

Best Bay Area Documentary Feature – “The Kill Team”, Dir. Dan Krauss (USA 2012)

New Directors Prize – “Present Tense”, Dir. Belmin Sölyemez (Turkey 2012)

Honorable Mention – “La Sirga”, Dir. William Vega (Colombia/France/Mexico 2012)

FIPRESCI Prize – “Nights with Theodore”, Dir. Sébastian Betbeder (France 2012)

Best Narrative Short – “Ellen Is Leaving”, Dir. Michelle Savill (New Zealand 2012)

Best Documentary Short – “Kings Point”, Dir. Sari Gilman (USA 2012)

Best Animated Short – “Kali the Little Vampire”, Dir. Regina Pessoa (Canada/France 2012)

Best Bay Area Short, First Prize – “3020 Laguna St. In Exitum”, Dir. Ashley Rodholm, Joe Picard (USA 2013)

Bay Area Short, Second Prize – “More Real”, Dir. Jonn Herschend (USA 2012)

New Visions – “Salmon”, Dir. Alfredo Covelli (Israel/Italy 2012)

Best Family Film – “Luminaris”, Dir. Juan Pablo Zaramella (Argentina 2012)

Family Film Honorable Mention – “I’m Going to Mum’s”, Dir. Lauren Jackson (New Zealand 2012), “Jonah and the Crab”, Dir. Laurel Cohen (USA 2012)

Youth Work – “The Dogmatic”, Dir. Lance Oppenheim (USA 2012)

Youth Work Honorable Mention – “Last Stop Livermore”, Dir. Nat Talbot (USA 2012)

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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