SIFF Week 4: Picks & Pans

Wednesday, June 5

Fatal

4 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

The debut feature from young filmmaker Lee Don-ku is a true South Korean indie: an intimate, provocative drama of bullying, rape, and guilt, shot on a small budget with a young cast. Nam Yeon-woo plays a meek, slow-witted high-school student, a big child in a teenage body dragged by the class bullies to a suspicious “party.” This turns out to be the gang rape of a drugged and unconscious girl (Yang Jo-a). Sung-gong swears he never touched Jang-mi (Lee leaves the assault behind a closed door, while we stay with the smirking boys outside), but his guilt and shame are fanned back to life when he meets her again 10 years later in a church group. He then becomes something of a benign, protective stalker squirming over his secret. Lee’s portrait of a toxic culture of sexism and bullying is the extreme end of the male chauvinists and drunks satirized by Hong Sang-soo (Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All, etc.). Fatal is a dark journey, with denial and outrage building to a breaking point. It’s an impressive debut with compelling central performances and a mature script, also by Lee. His story acknowledges the scars of the assault without letting it define the victim, even as it overwhelms the victimizer. (Also 9:45 p.m. Thurs., June 6, Pacific Place.)

[PICK] Die Welt

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Set during the chaos following Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Die Welt is a documentary/fiction hybrid. Director Alex Pistra’s intent seems to be a retelling of how his Tunisian father met his Dutch mother, and he uses his family members in observational episodes that are woven into his plot among poignant home movies and stolen street scenes. But don’t get hung up on that. Abdallah (Abdelhamid Naouara) is introduced with a long, funny harangue at the video store where he works. Don’t get Transformers 2, he insists to a customer, “It’s humiliating. It makes fun of Arabs.” Instead, like an Arab Tarantino, he recommends Towelhead or Syriana. Die Welt ’s title refers to the developed Europe that is, in theory, only a boat ride away. But should Abdallah leave just when his country is on the verge of positive change? He and his buddies smoke dope in all-night bullshit sessions, posters of Bob Marley and Bruce Lee on the walls and no chicks in sight. His job pays a about $150 a month—two days’ wages in Europe, according to a friend. His sassy younger sister (no headscarf, no way!) says “Everyone in Tunisia is on Facebook.” “Everyone in Tunisia is unemployed,” retorts glum Abdallah. Meeting two vacationing Dutchwomen, he invites them to a family wedding, goes to a disco with them, and dreams of a life in Holland—fridge full of Coca-Cola, cool skies, a Dutch wife. Die Welt is a crisp, vivid portrait of discontent among a modern young generation still gripped by the past. (Also 3 p.m. Fri., June 7.)

The Cleaner

9:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Peru has been afflicted by some sort of SARS-like plague that, in addition to killing its victims by airborne transmission, appears to have drained Lima of all its color. Director Adrián Saba also empties out the city to resemble a late-stage Contagion or Children of Men. Patrolling the streets in a white haz-mat suit is Eusebio (Victor Prada). His thankless job is to scrub and disinfect, then return to a drab bachelor apartment, make toast, and collapse on the couch. Finding an orphaned 8-year-old boy gives Eusebio new responsibility and companionship, and that’s where an American movie would inevitably turn toward the sentimental. Instead, Saba keeps the tone admirably dry and distant. Joaquín follows Eusebio on his grim rounds, where they burn personal belongings and watch bodies being rolled into pit graves. For “protection,” Eusebio gives the traumatized kid a cardboard box to wear on his head, making him an almost comic figure of cartoon pathos. At bedtime, Eusebio confesses to Joaquín, “I don’t know any stories,” so he reads from the TV instruction manual. It’s funny in a Samuel Beckett kind of way. Still, as Eusebio calls every Sanchez in the phone book to find Joaquín’s remaining family, there’s only one way for this story to go. It gets there without surprises, but also without stepping in the sugar or blood. (Also 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 7, Harvard Exit.)

I Kori

9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Also known as The Daughter, director Thanos Anastopoulos’ pitiless drama belongs to what might be called the new European genre of Austerity Cinema. Greece is broke. There are no jobs or taxes to be collected. The whole economy’s off-the-books. Men walk away from their wives, bills, and children. Kids are basically left to fend for themselves—like the stern 14-year-old Myrtos (Savina Alimani), who decides to make her runaway father’s ex-business partner pay for her loss. She kidnaps the latter’s 8-year-old boy and hides him in the shuttered lumberyard, where memories of happier times gradually seep in. Once powerless, her parents divorced, Myrto now has all the power: She’s like a mean but protective babysitter whose word is law. “This is our home,” she tells the meek but compliant little moptop Angelos. The lumberyard is her new state, her new Greece, and she’s its absolute ruler. And if Angelos’ father shouldn’t pay her dad’s back wages, Myrtos begins practicing with the power saw. She is entirely serious, as desperate as the protestors Anastopoulos films in what appear to be real street scenes with citizens also selling household possessions on the sidewalk. The flashbacks and Myrtos’ reading of dictionary definitions—debt, responsibility, dissolution, etc.—do cut into the suspense here. I Kori is both ominous and a transparent parable. You never believe anything genuinely awful is going to happen. About Greece, on the other hand, you’re not so sure. (Also 5:30 p.m. Sun., June 9, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

Two Lives

9:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

This Norwegian Cold War melodrama means well, it has aspirations, but they just make you think back to The Lives of Others or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Barbara—period espionage films that were so much richer and deeper. The woman we meet in 1990 as Katrine (Juliane Köhler) is married to a submarine commander; her college-age daughter just had a baby; and her widowed mother (Liv Ullmann!) lives on a nearby farm on the picturesque coast. Katrine speaks fluent German. It emerges that her mother had a fling with an officer among the German occupiers during WWII, then infant Katrine was forcibly removed to the Heimatland and placed in an orphanage. She escaped from East Germany to the West in 1969, and now the Berlin Wall has fallen—so everyone ought to be happy, right? Of course not. Two Lives reveals after 20 minutes that Katrine is/was an East German spy. Her identity may be a sham, but her happy family is not. This is a promising conceit for director Georg Mass to explore, but his movie never gets beyond the obvious. “I can’t go on lying,” Katrine wails. Meanwhile, her nefarious old spymasters are still seeking to control her, and a lawsuit about the stolen Lebensborn kids of Norway is bringing new evidence to light. Grainy flashbacks further complicate Katrine’s identity, and these snippets suggest how for movies, at least, living the lie can be more entertaining than exposing the truth. (Also 3 p.m. Fri., June 7.)

Thursday, June 6

My Dog Killer

9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Killer is the name of the pit bull owned by Slovakian 18-year-old Marek (Adam Mihál), and you will not like the dog or its master. Marek lives on a failing vineyard with his old father; his mother left eight years earlier following what all call “a scandal”; and Marek has now fallen in with a skinhead gang of racists. Are you still with me? Slovakia is depicted as an Eastern European backwater by director Mira Fornay, a place and people blighted by the lack of economic prospects or education. When Marek finally locates his mother Marika to sign some papers, a “No Roma Allowed” sign on the cafe refers to his half-brother Lukas, whose dark skin makes him an object of scorn. When Marek shows a trace of kindness to this cute 8-year-old, his skinhead buddies at the boxing gym immediately call him “a crossover,” a traitor to his race. Using non-professional actors and the excellent hand-held camera of Toma Sysel, Fornay gives her film a kind of anthropological aspect: This is how people behave in a place with no future. It’s a degraded, hopeless environment that has trained Marek to be mean (just as he trains his dog). The film’s not an easy watch—something like a Dardenne brothers movie without the redemption. And Fornay, whose Foxes was seen at SIFF ’10, actually makes the Dardennes look a little soft and formulaic by comparison. (Also 12:30 p.m. Fri., June 7.)

Friday, June 7

The Last Ocean

3:30 p.m., Kirkland Performance Center

Here’s a pristine ecosystem. Here’s something destroying it. Here’s how you’re destroying it! And here’s how to stop it. Formula firmly in hand, Peter Young’s eco-doc brings us to the Antarctic Ross Sea, which is being despoiled by commercial fishermen going after something called a tooth fish (rechristened Chilean sea bass for high-end American consumers). Cookie-cutter as The Last Ocean is, it benefits from outstanding photography; these stunning shots of Antarctic wilderness and seas help enliven what’s ultimately a well-told but weighty story of international politics and fishery mismanagement. And while there are a million valid reasons to protect every parcel of unspoiled nature, Young makes a convincing case that the Ross Sea is particularly valuable, “widely regarded as the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth.” There’s even a Pike Place Market shot here, literally bringing the issue home to us local seafood consumers. The Last Ocean suffers from anticlimactic moments when scientists make PowerPoint presentations or sign important protest letters, scenes that could easily have been cut from the 88-minute film. It’s also not blowing any lids off: On the Seattle Yelp page, a fiery 2009 debate over Chilean sea bass can be found. But as environmental warnings go, this is a fine catch that asks a simple question: Is there even one piece of ocean we can just let be? (Also 3 p.m. Sat., June 8, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

Horses of God

6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Inspired by a real-life terrorist attack in Casablanca, Nabil Ayouch’s drama follows a group of boys in a sprawling shantytown. There they grow from from fresh-faced, energetic kids playing football in the empty lots to hopeless young men with no prospect for escape apart from death or prison. TV is their only window on the outside world, and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center becomes the closest thing they have to cultural pride, kick-starting the recruitment of young, disenfranchised men into the mosques. What makes this film so interesting is that these young men are not politically motivated, not fighting social injustice or religious persecution. What shapes them is the slum of Sidi Moumen, an economic ruin of dire poverty, chronic unemployment, runaway crime, and blatantly corrupt cops. This hard-hitting film is stronger as a social portrait than as a character drama, which follows familiar patterns of sibling rivalry and frustrated potential channeled into terrorist service as one of the titular “horses of God.” In a world that treats these youths as worthless, where only the imams give them a sense of value and cultural pride, Ayouch shows just how a suicide bomber is forged. (Also 6 p.m. Sat., June 8, Kirkland.)

[PICK] Fanie Fourie’s Lobola

6:30 p.m., Pacific Place

It sounds like a gynecological procedure, but it’s actually a South African rom-com. And besides, Fanie—short for Stefaans—is the guy, a rugby-loving car customizer (Eduan van Jaarsveldt) who meets aspiring businesswoman Dinky (Zethu Dlomo) on a dare: He needs an impressive date for his brother’s wedding, and the connection takes. South Africa’s not what it used to be, but the fact that he’s Afrikaans and she’s Zulu is still an obstacle, especially given the tradition of the lobola, or dowry. Dinky objects to being sold to the highest bidder, but a slick nightclub owner is also pursuing her. And given a choice between a well-off black son-in-law and a clueless white one, Dinky’s father applies pressure in the expected direction. A dash of camp early on (Fanie’s brother is a D-list pop singer) seems to place director Henk Pretorius’ film in the Australian Strictly Priscilla’s Wedding tradition. But before long the culture clashes are treated with appropriate weight, and the happy ending feels thoroughly earned (Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl never had to deal with anything like this). On the surface, Dlomo and van Jaarsveldt embody yet another hot-girl/schlubby-guy setup, but—both hugely charismatic—their chemistry transcends it. In a post-rugby scene in Fanie’s garage, they spark hotter and headier than any Hollywood couple that comes to mind. (Also 11:30 a.m. Sat., June 8, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

The most famous athlete of the 20th century, his every fight and utterance covered by international media from 1960–81 (his boxing career), Muhammad Ali has left a mountain of archives for authors and filmmakers to mine. But here’s the catch: They’d better find something new to say after so many prior books and documentaries. Bill Siegel succeeds in pulling up only a few nuggets here, like Ali performing in the Broadway musical Buck White during his ban from boxing. That period, 1967–71, should’ve been framed to much tighter and more dramatic effect, yet Siegel falls into the trap of giving us the whole of the GOAT, which cannot be done in 92 minutes. (A Ken Burns series, maybe.) I doubt many millennials watch boxing today, and for some this footage may be fresh. The sport is in such decline, its brain-injury stats so damning, that the tale of Ali’s conscientious-objector lawsuit—to avoid being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War—feels as distant as the Civil War. Siegel punches it up with some fresh interviews, but his sources are too fawning (especially Louis Farrakhan, that smiling clown from the Nation of Islam). Ali is great enough without being lionized yet again. His famously repeated quote “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” is certainly true and courageous, but Siegel never digs deeper into Ali’s resentment about his loss of vocation—the millions he couldn’t earn while serving safely in a National Guard unit, far from the front lines. (Also 4 p.m. Sat., June 8, Egyptian.)

Invader

9 p.m., Pacific Place

This idiotic Spanish PTSD conspiracy thriller is very specifically set in February 2004, when an Army convoy in Iraq is hit by an IED, moments after military doctor Pablo (Alberto Ammann) asks, “Why the fuck are we here?” Two weeks later, he wakes up in the hospital, wondering about his wounds, trying to recall how he and fellow medic Diego (Antonio de la Torre) survived. Here’s what’s not in director Daniel Calparsoro’s movie, some crucial missing context: The Madrid railway bombings of March 11, 2004, which led to the ouster of Spain’s conservative government and the swift removal of its troops from abroad. Before then, however, idealistic Pablo uncovers evidence of wartime atrocities—cue the Americans, of course—and a government conspiracy back home. Never mind his leg wounds: Pablo soon leaves the security of his forested family home and is leaping off boats, engaging in car chases, breaking into secret archives, and behaving like Jason Bourne. The villain of Invader is immediately announced by his black hat and trenchcoat; also, he calls Pablo “faggot” a lot—clearly a no-no in the New Europe. Whatever abuse and scorn Pablo suffers, no matter how the movie may end, Spanish audiences know the real outcome. Americans needn’t bother waiting for it. (Also 4 p.m. Sat., June 8.)

Saturday, June 8

[PICK] Last Flight to Abuja

5:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Oh, the pleasures of a straightforward melodrama. Villains are villains. Women are strong. Virtue is rewarded. Rascals make us laugh, and heroes make us proud. Nigerian director Obi Emelonye is part of that country’s new Nollywood—adding polish, humor, and (implied) sex to the countless genres of the street-level DVD trade. Everyone who climbs on board the twin-prop Flamingo Airways Flight 212 is a proud striver. Eyeglasses and cellphones are tokens of status and ambition. Our heroine is businesswoman Suzie (Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde), who discovers her fiancé in Lagos is cheating on her. No tears for Suzie—she buys a bootleg ticket back to Abuja and calls her BFF: “We’ll watch some Titanic, drink some chardonnay, listen to Sade, and bitch about men.” Director Emelonye saves the plane crash for the very end, looping back to introduce various characters. None have much depth, but all are full of life. There are subtitles for the accented English, but you hardly need them. Instead, some telecom tycoon—or the entrepreneurial Emelonye himself, a lawyer who’s expected to visit SIFF—needs to start an American cable channel streaming nothing but Nollywood. I’d sign up tomorrow. (Also noon, Sun., June 9.)

Crystal Fairy

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

With Arrested Development back on the small screen, the selling point of this Chilean road-trip movie is Michael Cera as the ugly doppelgänger of George Michael Bluth. His Jamie is a boorish, privileged, and thoroughly selfish visitor to a country he barely cares to understand. He’s only there for fun and drugs, with a particular obsession on the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus he and three Chilean brothers hope to use after a long desert drive to a remote beach. The brothers soon tire of their truculent fellow traveler, though they’re too polite to complain. The bigger problem seems to be fifth-wheel hippie chick Crystal Fairy, as she calls herself, whom Jamie cruelly invites along so he can piss contempt on his gringa countrywoman and feel superior. To call Gaby Hoffmann’s performance here brave doesn’t go far enough. The former child actress (Uncle Buck) and daughter of Warhol starlet Viva, she creates an aura of unhinged New Age lunacy—like a musk you can smell in the theater. She’s an earnest, naive seeker who both embarrasses the guys with her unshaven nudity and lectures them, mommy-style, about eating better and doing yoga. Sebastián Silva directed my favorite movie of 2009, The Maid, and he again shows a gift for the awkward comedy of silent resentments. The brothers (Silva’s younger brothers) try to reserve judgment on the two chatty Yankees, though their sympathies—and ours—eventually slide toward Crystal Fairy. If the movie’s final catharsis is forced, its tone of squirming conflict is entirely genuine. (Also 5 p.m. Sun., June 9, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

[PICK] Bitch Hug

9:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

It’s the counterpart to a bitch-slap—affectionate, but just as violent and dramatic. The term is the brainchild of Kristin (Linda Molin), who’s just graduated from high school with a thousand-item bucket list. At the top: get out of her small Swedish town, move to New York, and become a writer. But when the opportunity arises to cross off all three, she botches it. (As someone paranoid to the point of being phobic about missing flights due to oversleeping, I found the scene where Kristin does just that harrowing—like what I imagine a dog-hater feels during Cujo.) Instead, she holes up at the house of her new younger friend Andrea (Fanny Ketter) and fakes her adventures in the (212), writing a column for a glossy magazine as if she really were there. It sounds like a farce setup, but the film’s only extended comic scene is one in which the two friends set up a faux-Starbucks backdrop to fool Kristin’s Skyping sister. The rest is an absorbing drama about the bumps in the friendship between the withdrawn Andrea and the damaged Kristin—not quite the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of indie cliché, but, in Molin’s breathless performance, more a Manic Impish Self-Destructive Handful. (Also 3:30 p.m. Sun., June 9, Pacific Place.)

[PICK] Cockneys vs. Zombies

11:55 p.m., Egyptian

Director Matthias Hoene doesn’t waste any time setting the tone for his feature debut. Just a minute into the British splatter-com is a crude fart joke, immediately followed by an even cruder zombie attack featuring corn-syrup blood and some very lo-fi boneys awoken from an ancient tomb. So begins the East London zombie plague that claims everyone but the film’s unlikely heroes. Two camps fight for survival. One is a group of bumbling bank robbers led by well-meaning brothers Terry and Andy, armed to the teeth and put on edge by “Mental” Mickey (played with aplomb by Ashley “Bashy” Thomas), an Iraq War vet with a plate in his head. The second is a gang of octogenarians led by those brothers’ grandfather Ray, a no-nonsense prick played convincingly by Alan Ford. In keeping with zombie tradition, there is a slight bit of social commentary here (the gentrification displacing the elderly is also what awakens the undead)—but who needs it? This film shines in its stupidest moments. Unlike his Hollywood peers, Hoene spends no time considering the morality of zombicide or augmenting his walking dead with anything more than the ability to stumble along slowly, eat brains, and spray blood. Instead he uses his monsters for a series of delightful gags. Old biddies are armed with assault weaponry; a zombie baby is drop-kicked; a man with a walker outruns his zombie pursuer; and, in the film’s most inspired moment, a fight among rival soccer zombie hooligans breaks out. A fine time; no brains required. (Also 8:30 p.m. Sun., June 9, Kirkland.)

 
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