Teenage Russian rock stars, 90-year-old Italian women, and Norwegian Nazi zombies: Highlights from SIFF, coming to MSP


SEATTLE—Having spent a week at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), I took in close to 30 films and have more than plenty to share about the highlights and some must-see films. But one of the highlights didn’t even happen on screen: it was director David Russo’s Q&A after the screening of his movie The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle. At SIFF, Russo saw something that really bothered him. “Has any festival ever done this?” he asked. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Russo was talking about seeing a trailer of Humpday (see below), which screened before his film; like Humpday, Little Dizzle was filmed in Seattle. “They already have distribution; my film doesn’t. They’re using my film to promote another film in the festival? I mean, my screenings are done, so whatever!” Russo does make a great point, and other festivals, including MSPIFF, should take note. Can’t films in festivals stand alone any more? Everyone loves seeing new trailers before films that are already in wide release, but are trailers before festival films really necessary, considering the four to five minutes of festival trailer, promotional partners, and sponsorship acknowledgments we already sit through? Anyway…enough of the commentary. What about the films?

I can hardly contain my excitement over Kathryn Bigelow’s vigorous Iraq masterpiece, The Hurt Locker. This film had me hooked and pinned to my seat within the opening minute. The film opens with the quote “war is a drug,” and from that moment on, we’re thrown into battle (and other situations) with the U.S. anti-bomb squad Bravo Company, a unit who work on diffusing bombs in Baghdad, 2004. Bigelow captures excruciating tension not only in the opening moments but throughout the film’s entire two hours. Along with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and dual editors Bob Murawski and Chris Innis, she creates a war film that plays like a suspense thriller. Newly added to Bravo Company, Sergeant William James (a stunning Jeremy Renner) plays the new bomb diffuser who has no fear in the field; in every scene, Renner’s lunatic calm will have you gripping your arm rest. For a film opening in the middle of the summer blockbuster season—it will appear in the Twin Cities on July 17—it should be an cinch for some Oscar nominations by mid-January.

Two stop-motion animated films caught my attention: the Australian/Israeli film $9.99 and the latest Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf & Death. $9.99 is based on the writings of Israeli writer Etgar Keret but features voice work by mostly Australian actors such as Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia. Over the course of a few days, different people living in a Tel Aviv apartment complex contemplate the meaning of life and start dealing with their own lives in mysterious ways. The different stories intertwine and feature some of the most absurd and surreal scenes of the year; the movie also features a touching story of a young boy learning to save money with his new piggy bank, given to him by his dad as a way to save up and buy a soccer toy. There is more clarity about childhood in this short segment than in most feature-length films. ($9.99 opens locally on July 31.)

Nick Park’s latest Wallace and Gromit adventure, A Matter of Loaf & Death, doesn’t have the creative juice of some of Park’s previous efforts—including my favorite, The Wrong Trousers—but is sure to make anyone crack a smile. The premise is simple. Wallace and Gromit have opened a new business, Top Bun Bakery, and different bakers across town are being murdered. Enter Piella Bakewell, who takes a charm to Wallace; soon they begin dating, but Gromit isn’t so sure about Ms. Bakewell and her attentions. Park’s animation is top-notch again, and watching loaves of bread being thrown into mailboxes like newspapers is as funny as it sounds; the last five minutes, where everything comes together, are proof that Park needs to get another feature-length back in the works.

Speaking of death, newcomer Paul Solet’s effectively creepy Grace is going to draw comparisons to Roman Polanski’s classic chiller Rosemary’s Baby, but does add a new twist. When pregnant Meredith (a flawless Jordan Ladd) and her husband Michael get into a car accident, Michael and the baby don’t survive but Meredith decides to carry the baby to full term, giving birth to a stillborn baby. Moments later, little Grace begins to cry—and that’s when the real horror starts. Solet’s precisely plotted script provides plenty of gross-out moments and gives new meaning to the words “living hell.” Grace deserves a theatrical release and hopefully will make its bloody way to the Twin Cities.

On the other hand, Dead Snow, the Norwegian Nazi zombie film that I saw at Sundance, which was fun the first go-round, was a bit of a disappointment on second viewing. When eight Norwegian medical students go away to a remote cabin deep in the mountains, a hiker visits them and tells a tale of Nazis who occupied the sacred land years ago. When the students find a box of gold in their cabin, the Nazi zombies not only know it’s been tampered with, they want vengeance. If you can withstand the laborious snail pace of the first 45 minutes, you’ll be rewarded with guts flying out, heads ripped in half, and limbs sawed off—but that doesn’t even include the most disgusting part. Zombie destruction aside, try watching a despicable drunken sex scene in an outhouse with two coeds before the slaughter begins. Now that’s horror!

I thought that nothing would top that unpleasant memory, but then along came Dead Girl, a completely vile and unnecessary addition to the already well-populated torture/porn genre. Skipping school one day, tough guy JT and passive Rickie go to an abandoned mental hospital, and in its basement they find a naked woman strapped to a gurney and covered in plastic. When they pull the cover off, they find that she is still breathing—and actually disagree about whether to take advantage of her or go immediately to the police. What happens next is supposed to be a disturbing story of innocence lost but comes across as a narcissistic and misogynist cautionary tale about becoming a man—or, more precisely, becoming a pervert. A clever twist in the last five minutes was slick, but the basement of an abandoned asylum is exactly where the first 95 minutes of this film belong.

A different kind of horror marks The Cove, a beautifully-shot documentary about the dolphin trade market in Taiji, Japan. Director Louie Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer and diver, follows Richard O’Barry, an activist who is trying to expose the secret slayings of some 23,000 dolphins per year in Japan. The irony in The Cove is that O’Barry was the dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper in the 1960s and feels responsible for taking free-range dolphins out of their natural habitat and turning them into captive performers. But not only are dolphins being captured and shipped out across the world to zoos and Sea World for lucrative cash, many dolphins are killed for their meat and being distributed into supermarkets and schools, despite the fact that their meat contains dangerous amounts of Mercury. One can only hope that Psihoyos’s film—which opens in the Twin Cities on August 7—will help end this practice.

Another excellent documentary is Jamie Johnson’s exhilarating Sounds Like Teen Spirit: A Popumentary. It could be called the junior version of American Idol, but without the boring and robotic performances. Not only are the performers between 10-15 years old, they write and perform their own songs as they compete in the annual Eurovision Song contest in Rotterdam. Johnson follows competitors from Belgium, Georgia, Cyprus, and Bulgaria. The band from Belgium, a foursome called “Trust,” have a street named after them in their hometown, while Mariana, a 14-year-old girl from Bulgaria, displays numerous magazine clippings of Sarah Michelle Gellar on what she calls “the Buffy Wall.” The film contains SIFF’s best single line: as the show is about to begin, the show’s host exclaims, “I am nearly wetting myself with excitement!” Imagine those words coming from Simon Cowell.

Overall there weren’t too many disappointments, but the biggest had to be Barbet Schroeder’s Inju: the Shadow in the Beast. The film leaves so much potential on its plate, I wonder whether the source novel by Edogawa Rampo was too ambitious to put on screen or if Schroeder just got lazy with the material. The young French novelist Alex Fayard (a bland Benoit Magimel), whose writing style is similar to that of his favorite suspense author, Shundei Oe, goes to Kyoto for a book tour stop and wants to meet Oe. Oe has never been seen in public—not even his publisher has ever seen the reclusive writer—but Fayard is determined to find Oe. Fayard becomes attracted to a geisha who is having problems with a former ex and some of her current clients. This sounds interesting enough, but many of the scenes were flat, lifeless, and a bit corny. The film doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise.

I figured out much of my schedule before the festival even began, but nothing could have prepared me for Mid-August Lunch, an often hilarious and rewarding Italian dramedy that wasn’t on my radar until about midway through the festival. In his directional debut, writer/director Gianni di Gregorio (co-writer of the Italian crime drama Gomorrah) stars as Gianni, a middle-aged man who takes care of his 90-year-old mother in a small Rome apartment. When his landlord arrives and offers him a chance to repay some back debt by watching his own 90-year-old mother, Gianni agrees. Unexpectedly, the landlord not only brings his mother, but he also brings his aunt—and the guests don’t stop there. Gianni’s doctor comes to the apartment for a house call, and he asks if he can bring his mother over so he can attend to a personal matter. Each woman has her own issue, which leaves Gianni responsible for not only watching these women, he has to make them all dinner—and not all the women can eat everything he makes, leading to mishaps. Deadpan humor at its finest, and genuinely touching in many scenes, Mid-August Lunch goes down easy and hopefully will find distribution in the U.S. or will find a place at a local festival.

The centerpiece of SIFF was a gala screening of the Seattle-made Sundance hit Humpday. Director Lynn Shelton’s film is a based on a contest that is organized by Seattle’s alt-weekly paper The Stranger; the contest, entitled “Hump,” is an amateur porn competition. The premise is based on a dare that goes beyond the words “bro-mance.” Humpday works as buddy comedy but goes further into exploring the limitations of friendship, marriage, loneliness, and commitment. Shelton keeps Humpday refreshingly unpretentious. I was able to speak by phone with Shelton about Humpday; the interview will appear soon in the Daily Planet. There is currently no Minnesota opening scheduled, but Magnolia Pictures did pick up the film for distribution.

Lastly, a final surprise came in the form of a film that wasn’t even in SIFF but was screening at one of the festival venues, Northwest Film Forum. The original Taking of Pelham One Two Three was screening. A remake directed by the haphazard Tony Scott is coming out next week—I haven’t seen it and have low expectations for it—but director Joseph Sargent’s original is still as cynical and sharp in 2009 as it was 35 years ago; it’s a quintessential film of the 1970s. Seeing Pelham on the big screen was icing on the cake to an already tremendous festival that offered gigantic portions of films that couldn’t be resisted, no matter the lack of sleep or the distance traveled.

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.

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