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Wising Up

Living La Vida Gangster

Generally, Election-spanish-poster.jpgthe programming agenda at SBIFF is
divided into areas of Hollywood concern and otherwise, between the
American/Oscar time contingent and the “international film” aspect
of the festival title. But the line between those worlds isn’t as
hard and fast as it might seem. Take, for example, Thursday night’s
double-header, Election
and
Triad Election
, fine examples in the Hong Kong gangster
film genre. That very genre is presently being celebrated, if one
step removed, in the current hooplah and Oscar buzz over Martin
Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong flick
Internal Affairs. Scorsese, infamous cinephile, knows
something exciting is up in Hong Kong, and The Departed is
as much an homage to that culture as it is an all-American
roughhouse etude.

Director Johnnie To earned a Golden Palm for Election,
and his sequel is just as gripping an example of the Hong Kong
crime cinema touch: tough and stylish, by turns, these movies at
once makes us empathize with their sleazy suave Godfathers and
Godsons, thugs and acrobats. But we don’t cry much when they meet
untimely, unsavory ends. If echoes of The Godfather
franchise abound in the films, there is something distinctly
Eastern about their perspectives, both in terms of filmic cadences
and style, and certain lines of dialogue, as when, before a snitch
meets his end, the killer advises him to “wise up in your next
life.”

Hand-held red_road.jpgcamera and close-up examinations of
violence were themes common to two otherwise disparate films seen
on Thursday, director Andrea Arnold’s intense and personal Scottish
film Red
Road
, and Polish director Slawomir Fabicki’s Retrieval.
Themes of voyeurism and untold past sins course beneath the surface
of the hypnotic Red Road, about a female cop in a rough
neighborhood in Glasgow, who becomes obsessed with a keen interest
in a certain lowlife, for reasons we only later discover. Included
in her process is one of the most tersely erotic scenes in any of
the festival films (so far), but even that comes lined with
ulterior motives.

Retrieval takes on the savagery and innocence blended
into the person of one strong but confused and sensitive young man,
pressed into service of thuggery while caring for his Ukrainian
wife. Storyline and sensory rattling aside, the film creates a
seamless bond of form and content, in a naturalistic style common
in Eastern European film.

And then, in yet another corner of the cinematic universe, Pavel
Lunguin’s film
The Island
is a disarmingly involving study of a
half-crazed monk on a remote island in Russia. For reasons we learn
in the pre-credit prologue, Anatoly is something of a slovenly
mystic and healer, which draws the sick of body and mind, and also
the scorn and also the heartened appeals of his more “normal”
brothers at the monastery.

Who woulda thunk that Russian monks would make for such
involving cinema? Yet another lesson learned at the festival.

Josef’s previous film festival blogs:

Cinematic Self-Love

Film-about-film 10f.jpgthemes and in-jokes somehow just go down
easier when you’re mentally lost in the thicket of a film festival.
Two films screened on Wednesday at SBIFF ‘007—the Hollywood Man
in the Chair
and the Dutch film Waiter—bore out that
theory, giving the film-obsessed among us something to chuckle
knowingly about, even though the films themselves are flawed and
nothing too special.

After the screening of
Man in the Chair
, writer-director Michael Schroeder talked
about how he had been plugging along as a B-film director, making
eight forgettable films in eight years, and wanting to finally make
something he was personally attached to and proud of. He should be
proud, even if the film doesn’t quite hit artistic “money.” The
script is fairly larded up with quips and quotations, from
Nietzsche to Hunter S. Thompson, but it contains plenty of both
indie “feel good” moments and old Hollywood nostalgia. (“The
glitter stops at La Brea” is but one true and metaphorical
statement).

At one point, a veteran gaffer dresses down a big shot producer:
“I’ve seen the celluloid abortions you call movies,” to which the
producer replies, “Those abortions have won me some brass dolls.”
They’re speaking English, by way of Damon Runyon and timeless glib
Hollywoodese.

It’s also a hoot to hear a scraggly Christopher Plummer spewing
gutter wisdom and potty mouth lingo, a la Alan Arkin in Little
Miss Sunshine
. Everyone’s favorite character actor M. Emmett
Walsh dishes out a rolling bellyful of character, too.

With the clever Ober5.jpgand drolly funny Waiter,
Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam throws his hat into the genre of
screenwriter as pliable God, with obvious comparisons to Barton
Fink
, Stranger than Fiction and Adaptation,
and also with those films’ shortcomings of implausibility after the
charm of the conceit wears off. Characters—particularly our hapless
waiter protagonist—bemoan their fate at the hands of fickle a
writer’s imagination and seek to alter destiny. Waiter is
a cleanly-made and left-of-center film, though, with two of the
funnier scenes yet seen in this festival: In one, the simple
ultra-fastidiousness of a bizarre bow and arrow salesman’s wrapping
job, and another Dadaistic scene in which our waiter abruptly
starts chanting “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” (spoiler alert), the result of
the screenwriter has fallen asleep on the job and is resting on the
“a” key.

Also Seen Dept.: The Korean film
The King and the Clown
is your not-so basic tragicomic
tale of jesters at the mercy of royalty in 16th-century Korea, and
is a blockbuster success in its native country. The film is also a
remarkably beautiful film to look at, from the costumes to the glow
of virtually every neatly-composed shot. In this tale, the king is
a sadistic buffoon, while his jesters are innately wise, even as
they skewer the corruption and cruelty of the man in charge. Hmm,
sounds kind of like George Bush and John Stewart, the foolish king
and the profound jester.

Reviews of Films from Around the World

It’s clear by now that SBIFF has
come to embrace its identity as a multiple-identity affair.
Hollywood folks come up to gab, be seen, and grease the wheels of
Oscar buzzdom, to the delight of the star-stricken in all of
us.

But every year, it also becomes more apparent that the real meat
and soul of this festival is in the actual “film” part of the
equation, as a vital art form and also as a line of “other”
consciousness. For 10 days, we get big screen access — direct or
otherwise — to other perspectives and stories from outside the
usual U.S./Euro-centric system.

Three examples of that alternative viewpoint screened on
Tuesday, halfway through the 10-day fest.

Blessed by Fire

The rough but intriguing Argentinean film Blessed
by Fire
dealt with that country’s brief by bloody skirmish
with the mighty Brits over the Falkland Islands in 1982. blessed%20by%20fire.jpg In director Tristan Bauer’s
then-and-now chronological crosscut style, we move across the tale
of a veteran’s suicide attempt in Buenos Aires in present-day and
the mud and blood and grimy reality of that standoff on the island
back when. Time is compressed in the mind of a battle-scarred
veteran, who can never forget the war, and the subtext of this film
is that, even with a conflict forgotten or neglected even in their
own country, let alone the world, the harsh reality of life on the
front line is the same for all soliders in the line of fire.

Ten Canoes

Speaking of altered time sensibilities, Ten Canoes
clearly one of the finest films of this festival — is a fascinating
Australian film about Aboriginal life, seen as part of the Native
American subseries in the festival, which also included the
hypnotic The
Journals of Knud Rasmussen
(about Inuit life). ten%20canoes.jpg Directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, Ten
Canoes
is a stylistic triumph, laid out in layered
storytelling fashion, half truth and half myth, blessed with a
sense of being submerged in another, more native way of being.

Golden Door

Another highlight of the festival so far is Emanuele Crialese’s
Golden
Door
, Italy’s Academy Award nominee, but without the
familiar gloss common to many foreign film nominees. nuovomondo.jpg Like Ten Canoes, but in its
own indigenous way, this feels like insider’s cinema — a tale of a
rural Italian immigrant family’s trek to American in the 19th
century. It’s a naturalistic rite of passage saga from old to new
world, with a prolonged middle passage through the purgatory of
Ellis Island. On another level, it is but one slice of the great
American story, the one about a nation of immigrant still grappling
with a sense of who belongs and who doesn’t.

Revolutions, Favorites, and Alzheimers

12:08 East of Bucharest

Three Romanian men, from middle-aged to Santa Claus-ian, sit
around talking on a charmingly cheap television set. The subject of
this talk show: the town’s response to the Bucharest revolution of
1989, on its anniversary sixteen years later. The men — and their
caustic callers — dive into minutiae, accusations, character
mauling, and sneak attack dry, high comedy. This is eastern
European talk show culture at its humblest, and cinema at its most
delightful quirky and absurd, with shades of the great old talk
show satire Fernwood
Tonight
(with Martin Mull and Fred
Willard
) and Eugene
Ionesco
.

In short, director Corneliu
Porumboiu
’s
12:08, East of Bucharest
, one of the oddball charmers of
SBIFF ‘007, is a classic example of the idea that some of the high
points of this festival sneak in through a side door, and from an
unexpected niche of the world cinema scene. There are long
stretches where it appears nothing is happening, but the provincial
warmth and Eastern Euro-slacker humor are always humming beneath
the surface. The film itself also has moments of disarming beauty,
as in the sweet, symmetrical framing device of omniscient shots of
the city’s lights as they shut off at dawn and on again at dusk.
It’s a day in the life of a post-iron curtain city, and of a little
corner of planet earth.

(12:08, East of Bucharest will screen again on,
Thursday, February 1 at 4:30 p.m. and February 3 at 1:15
p.m.)

DarkBlueAlmostBlack

From Spain, we caught
DarkBlueAlmostBlack
, from newcomer director Daniel
Sanchez Arevalo
. (It’s one of those films over which festival
director
Roger Durling
violates his policy to avoid the “f” word—as in
one of his “favorites.”) darkbluealmostblack_iw.jpg It is charming and in ways entirely
different and more in-your-face than 12:08, wriggling its
way towards an Almodovar-ish mixture of kinkiness and
sentimentality. The film doesn’t get to that exalted state, and
maybe it’s unfair to make the comparison, but Almodovar has raised
a high bar in Spanish cinema and beyond. It’s hard to stay out of
his shadow when dealing with matters of the Spanish heart and
groin.

(DarkBlueAlmost Black screens again today,
January 30, at 4:30 p.m., January 31 at 1:30 p.m., and February 2
at 4:30 p.m.)

Away from Her

Often in the complex, collaborative medium of film, an overall
work may be flawed, but is rescued by some element or another.
That’s certainly the case with the Sarah
Polley
-directed Canadian film
Away from Her
, a sometimes poignant, sometimes prosaic and
education film-ish tale about a couple’s slide into Alzheimer’s
cruel sunset. away_from_her.jpg But the film is mostly recommended for
the luminous and calibrated performance by one Julie Christie.
She’s got glowing, elderly beauty in check, and a subtle range of
emotional connections, complicated by the crossed wires and foggy
pockets of her condition. Early in the film, she distractedly muses
“I think I may be starting to disappear.” The ensuing performance
fleshes out that very notion of a human disappearing act, but with
regular flashes of insight and emotional epiphanies along the
way.

Hers may be the finest performance of SBIFF ‘007. The next few
days will tell.

From East Germany to Mexico City to Kurismaki

You know it’s film festival time in Santa Barbara when, on a
cold and soggy Sunday, you can map out the
dopest route between several films moviefone has never
heard of
. From late morning to midnight, the dogged
festivalgoer could take in The Lives of
Others
, a newly-Oscar nominated German film about Stasi,
the secret police force; a cool and arty Mexican documentary,
In the
Pit
, about a bridge construction in Mexico City (as much a
profile of the working class as the project); the dazzlingly,
mock-doc reconstructed Inuit-meets-Danish explorer tale of
The Journals of
Knud Rasmussen
; and the happy story-crossing atmospheric
French froth of
Avenue Montaigne
.

Oh, and most impressive of all (for those in tune with the
director’s unique vision), we got a look-see at the latest from
director Aki (Man
without a Past
) Kaurismaki
, Finland’s Jim Jarmusch. Like
Jarmusch, Kaurismaki knows about the imperative of the
well-composed, unhurried shot and the potential expressive power of
gently-broken rules and expectations in cinema. lights%20in%20the%20dusk.jpg His new one, Lights in the Dusk,
about a hapless loner for whom fate has a pocket full of woe in
store, is full of his own brand of neo-Finnish-noir. Color and
lighting are worth the price of admission, as is the hypnotic and
formal pace and texture. Even this glum and tawdry femme
fatale tale in Helsinki
feels like a zestier version of a
Robert
Bresson
film.

Generally, Sunday’s crop represent the kinds of films which the
expanding universe of film festivals (reportedly now up to 1,400
worldwide) is ideally suited. lives%20of%20others.gif Which among them can we expect to find
in regular release over the next year? The Lives of
Others
, an engaging and poignant history lesson about
East Berlin in the last gasping years before the Wall
fell
, stands a strong shot at the arthouse circuit. (A
trailer from that film is below.) Avenue Montaigne is
a feelgoody tapestry, probably headed for an
arthouse near you/us.

Alas, Kaurismaki’s new one — not as strong as Man
Without a Past
, but stunning nonethelees — may not make
that public screening grade. But he’s one of those acquired
tastes and festival icons
well worth seeking out, coming
soon to a DVD outlet or Netflix near you.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Antics Revealed; Three Films from Day
One

On day one of SBIFF ‘007, the intrepid or hopeless event hopper
could have taken in excellent film experiences from Croatia
(Grbavica), Russia (The Italian), and even Iraq
(Ahlaam), all highly recommended viewing, and also
Kazakhstan… not. Sacha%20Baron%20Cohen%201.jpg Yes, this was the day Borat graced our
fair city, in the form of Sacha Baron
Cohen
(pictured by Paul Wellman), appearing as SBC,
in five-o’clock shadow and a baseball cap
festooned with a
bear. Cohen and his smash hit film descended on the Lobero, with a
screening and a strange, strained conversation with the man/men of
the hour in Hollywood.

There were three other guys from the movie onstage — the
producer and two writers — but frankly, nobody cared about them.
Such is the power of a new superstar on the comedic landscape: when
he appears, we hang on his every word (of which the mum, and
sometimes glum Cohen was reluctant to give much) and await the
comic sexy time (which he delivered a bit of,
heeding the wisdom of aiming at genitalia, at one
point offering a female audience member the chance to confirm that
his package was in order).

Pity interviewer Leonard
Maltin
, who did his level best as straight man/fall guy
interviewer on a crooked playing field. But he acquitted himself
nicely and even personally registered on the laff Richter
scale
. Asked if he was innately fearless, Cohen hemmed,
hawed, and finally admitted “at the end of the day, I want to make
the funniest film possible. Sacrifices have to be made. I was ready
to have a man sit on my face.” He also admitted that “Peter Sellers
was always my hero. You believed Clousseau really existed.”
Ditto Borat. During the audience Q&A segment,
Bunny
Bernhardt
, bless her heart, appeared as a faux Kazakh woman and
gave Cohen a bouquet. “I thought she was going to shoot me,” he
said after, then asked the next man at the microphone “you have no
flowers for me?” At some point, the taciturn Cohen had had enough:
“this is the revenge of the American people, isn’t it?”

And the Movies?

From the film front (oh yeah, that), Grbavica is
a powerful slice-of-life from post-war Bosnia, in the
not-so-peaceful aftermath of the conflicts there. grb%20film.jpg The film, which shows again Sunday,
January 28, at the Metro 4, plays like a sober but ultimately
hopeful sequel to another, much more harrowing film seen at SBIFF
many years ago, Vukovar.

The
Italian
is the sweetest and most filmic orphan tearjerker
you’re likely to find at the moment. (It plays again Tuesday,
January 30, 7:30 p.m. at the Lobero and Wednesday, January 31, 4
p.m., at the Metro 4.)

And, quite seriously, writer-director
Mohamed Al-Daradji
’s brave film Ahlaam, shot
guerilla-style in wartorn Baghdad, confirms a core value of this
and other film festivals: they connect us with the living,
breathing world far outside Hollywood’s petty
interest
, tapping the contemporary world’s woes and joys
in ways mass corporate media has grown increasingly inept at.

ahlaam.jpg

After the screening, Al-Daradhi spoke with the audience and
explained his rationale for making the film, offering that “the
process for me was to say `who are you and what are you doing?’”
That’s a stirring manifesto, especially under the
circumstances, still raging.

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