Monday, June 27, 2011

Lady of the Flies

(Jordan Scott,
Spain, 2009,
104 mins.)

"The most im-
portant thing
in life is desire."

--Miss Gribben
(Eva Green)

From the trail-
er for Cracks,
the first feat-
ure from Rid-
ley Scott's
daughter, Jordan, I expected a cross between 1931's Mädchen in Uni-
and 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock. That's not quite what I got.

The casting of Eva Green (The Dreamers, Casino Royale) and Juno
(Atonement, Kaboom) added to my curiosity, not just because
they're actresses drawn to sexually provocative material, but because all
three have famous parents: Algerian-born French actress Marlène Jobert
in the case of Green and British director Julien Temple in the case of Juno.

Like many of Sir Ridley's films, though, Jordan's adaptation of Sheila Koh-
ler's novel focuses more on power than sex (not that the two are unrelat-
ed). In this case, an exotic figure enters a regimented scene, and every-
one feels powerless, though the interloper isn't as powerful as they think,
and the more presumptions they make, the more powerless she becomes.

Filmed in Ireland, the story takes place on Stanley Island in 1934. Green
plays Miss Gribben, whom the girls call Miss G, a glamorous and free-spir-
ited physical education teacher at a remote boarding school for girls. Noti-
ceably younger than the other instructors, she wears trousers and sneaks
smokes in private with Temple's Di (Sinéad Cusack plays headmistress).

From the way Di looks at Miss G, she appears to adore her. From the way
Miss G looks at Di, she appreciates the adoration. If Di, the head girl of her
section, worships her teacher, she can be cruel to the other girls. Miss G
also loans her banned books. "I don't think it's wrong to want to know
about the real world," Di tells a friend. "We can't stay pure forever."

Then, the school admits Fiamma (María Valverde), a Catholic student
from an aristocratic Spanish family. The other girls, who harbor strange
superstitions about Catholics, are less than welcoming, while Di is down-
right unpleasant, but Fiamma takes it in stride. Despite her asthma, she
impresses Miss G with her diving skills, which makes Di resent her more.

As winter gives way to spring, everyone but Di warms towards Fiamma,
while Miss G looks at the dark-haired girl the way Di used to look at her
(she also hides a few of Fiamma's belongings in her room). Though they
share stories of their travels, the tide turns when Fiamma discovers that
Miss G likes to embellish her past--and may have never left the island.

Soon, the teacher also sees her as a threat, and pushes her too hard during diving practice, knowing she should take care with an asthmatic. (Miss G also takes the girls skinny-dipping in a scene more suggestive than explicit, though Green and Temple have done nude scenes before.)

The title comes from the cracks that develop in Miss G's composure. Self-
assured at the outset, she becomes paranoid once Fiamma finds her out,
at which point Di steps up her campaign, which upsets Fiamma. The cracks,
in other words, take on a life of their own, though Fiamma has done noth-
ing to cause them. The struggle continues throughout the film.

Just when things can't get much worse, they get better, but it's the calm
before the storm. The way D.P. John Mathieson (several Ridley films, in-
cluding Gladiator), shoots the surrounding water and the way Miss G ob-
sesses about diving as an end in itself--she has no interest in competition--
creates the impression that someone will drown (or suffocate) before this
claustrophobic tale is through, and when one of the women oversteps her
bounds, tensions reach a boiling point. Something has to give, and it does.

Cracks isn't as much of a genre classic as Mädchen, and some critics are
likely to dismiss it as casually as they did Notes on a Scandal and Asylum,
melodramas which share a similar hyper-feminine, hothouse atmosphere.
Except for a few quick cuts at the beginning, Scott's directing is fluid, and
all tech credits, as one would expect from a Scott heir, are first-rate.

Assuming you buy the story, and
I was willing to go with it, that
leaves the acting, an area where
Scott seems likely to improve
with experience. The actresses
aren't bad, but no one went as deep as they could (Temple and Imogen Poots, who plays Poppy, have been better in other films).

In the end, it all comes down to
Green, who shows more range
than before, but her performance
rests largely on the surface,
though she deserves credit for
taking on such a challenging role.

With her looks, she could make
a lot of easy money, but since
The Dreamers
, she's avoided
rote rom-coms and expendable girlfriend roles for movies like the dys-
topian drama Perfect Sense from Asylum director David Mackenzie.

If the ending arrives as a foregone conclusion, Cracks kept me riveted
from start to finish, and Scott handles the thriller-like final act well, even if
the calm, cool, and collected epilogue feels anti-climactic in comparison.

So, I didn't get the Mädchen or Hanging Rock I was expecting, as the film
plays instead more like a cross between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
and The Virgin Suicides (as Noel Murray notes in his AV Club review, Koh-
ler also wrote her book in first-person plural). And I'm okay with that.

Cracks plays the Varsity Theatre (4329 University Way NE) through Thurs., 6/30. For more information, please click here. Images from IFC.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

SIFF Dispatch #5

Click here for
SIFF Dispatch #4

The 33rd
Seattle In-
Film Festi-
es tonight at
6:00pm with
Kevin Mac-
donald's Life
in a Day
at the Cinerama. Produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, Macdon-
ald constructed the 90-minute documentary from 5,000 hours worth of
YouTube-submitted footage. Editor Joe Walker will be in attendance.

One of my co-workers signed a release form, so she's hoping her video
made the cut, but won't know until she sees the final result (she's a fine
photographer, so I wish her the best). As with The First Grader, Life
is a product of Nat Geo Movies, a logical extension of the enduring print
publication (they also released SIFF '10's Oscar-nominated Restrepo).

I was unable to attend the press screening, which took place two weeks
ago, but my friend Kevin says it's worth the price of admission, and I've
enjoyed Macdonald's other films, including Touching the Void, The Last
King of Scotland
, and the underrated State of Play, his feature-film ver-
sion of the BBC miniseries (I still haven't seen One Day in September, for
which he won the Academy Award). John Hartl also gave Life a rave in
The Seattle Times
. The closing night party follows the film at 8:00pm
at the Pan Pacific Hotel. Life in a Day opens nationwide on July 24.

Other closing day highlights include Belgium's Illegal, which plays Pacific
Place at 7:00pm, and Japan's Norwegian Wood, which plays the Egyp-
tian at 3:30pm. I attended last week's press screening for Vietnam-born
filmmaker Tran Anh Hung's Haruki Murakami adaptation, but decided to
leave once I realized the digital projection would not include subtitles.

A few hardy souls remained, one of whom, Brent McKnight, wrote a piece
about the experience. McKnight says that there isn't much dialogue, so he
could still appreciate the 133-minute feature, but I found that option less
than ideal, especially since I just read the 1987 book a few months ago.

Although I missed the Paris-based director's last film, I Come with the
, I found his Vietnamese trilogy enchanting. That said, Norwegian
features music from Can and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, which
sounds appealing, but no such music appears in Murakami's semi-autobio-
graphical novel. He intends that title literally: it's all Beatles, all the time.

Sadly, the same thing happened when I returned to Pacific Place two
days later for another 10am press screening, this time for South Korean
blockbuster The Yellow Sea. Once again: no subtitles. That was bad
enough, but in both cases, the films continued to play and staffers made
no announcements. It was hard to figure out what was going on or why.

Fortunately, SIFF rescheduled a press screening, which went off with-
out a hitch. Though longer than necessary, I found Na Hong-Jin's thril-
ler riveting. No exact date has been set, but it opens in Seattle this fall.

Here are five other selections opening in the next few months: The Last
(July 8), Winnie the Pooh (July 15), Tabloid and If a Tree
Falls: A Story of the ELF
(July 22), and Another Earth (August).

I caught the final screening
of Errol Morris's Tabloid, and
would definitely recommend it,
though I haven't met a Morris
film yet that I didn't like (I re-
viewed his 2008 Abu Ghraib
documentary, Standard Op-
erating Procedure
, here).

At its worst, his latest is slightly
less substantial than the rest,
but that just makes it more en-
tertaining, since comely sub-
ject Joyce McKinney, former
beauty queen and S&M prac-
titioner, is a hoot and a half.

Morris, who won an Oscar for
the similarly-structured Fog of
War: Eleven Lessons from the
Life of Robert S. McNamara
, never states definitively that McKinney real-
ly kidnapped Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson, and the object of her ob-
session declined to appear in the film, but the facts speak for themselves.

Though McKinney agreed to participate in the Showtime project, she's
since been protesting it with every fiber of her considerable being and
even showed up after Thursday's screening with one of her cloned dogs
in tow (I managed to miss this spectacle). She claims that Morris lied a-
bout his intentions and edited the documentary to make her look bad.

Watch for yourself and decide, or better yet, read the statement "truth-
teller," likely McKinney herself, posted on the SIFF website. In the film,
the tabloid sensation states, "You can tell a lie for long enough that you
believe it." She isn't talking about herself--but maybe she should be.

Endnote: Images from Screen Daily and The L Magazine.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

SIFF Dispatch #4

Click here for
SIFF Dispatch #3

The Seattle
al Film Fes-
has been
underway for
over two weeks
now, and I've
gotten my sec-
ond wind. I
don't tend to
see as many films as your average full series pass holder, but it's still a chal-
lenge to balance the fest with a trio of freelance/part-time gigs.

Other than a couple of interviews that fell through, though, things
have been going pretty well, and to be on the safe side, I've decid-
ed not to request any others, though it might've been fun to speak
with Magic Trip's Alex Gibney or Bellflower's Evan Glodell.

There are no more screenings of Bellflower, a high-octane,
blood-drenched road-trip romance that feels like an instant cult
classic, but Glodell's debut found a distributor in Adam Yauch's
Oscilloscope Labratories, and opens in limited release on 8/5.

In the Beastie Boys, Yauch goes by Ad Rock, and Santigold guests on the
trio's new record. Considering that Bellflower was shot over three years
for approximately $17,000, I was surprised to find her songs listed in the
credits. I'm guessing that Yauch pulled a string or two to keep the music
costs down. At the Q&A, Glodell, who plays passive-aggressive Mad Max
fan Woodrow, says that Oscilloscope will also be releasing a soundtrack.

As for Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place, there's one
screening left on Sat., June 4, at the Egyptian. An Oscar winner for Taxi
to the Dark Side
, Gibney has also made films about Enron (The Smartest
Guys in the Room
), Hunter S. Thompson (Gonzo: The Life and Work of
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
), Jack Abramoff (Casino Jack & the United Stat-
es of Money
), and Eliot Spitzer (Client 9), all of which are worth a look.

I had hoped to make it to the Magic Trip press screening, but I was up
late the night before after watching The Last Circus (Balada Triste de
Trompeta), and had too much work to do the next day. Unfortunately,
there are no more screenings of this Álex de la Iglesia horror movie
mash-up, which references everything from Freaks to Pan's Labyrinth.

Granted, I always end up missing a few films, but that's hard to avoid,
unless you can afford to take time off work. In the 1990s, I approach-
ed the fest that way, but as a freelancer, it's no longer an option...not
as long as I want to pay the rent. A short list of other SIFF '11 misses
include Mika Kaurismäki’s Mama Africa (about the late Miriam Make-
ba); Michael Winterbottom's The Trip (with Steve Coogan and Rob Bry-
don); Sophie Fiennes' Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow; The Night
of Counting the Years
; Bill Morrison's Spark of Being; and Kevin
Macdonald's Life in a Day, the closing night selection, which screen-
ed for the press on Friday. The Trip opens 6/17 at the Harvard Exit.

Fortunately, I've been able to see everything else that's attracted my
attention, either through press or public screenings. DVD screeners are
also available to the press corps, but since the publicity department now
requires writers to submit a credit card to check them out, I've decided to
opt out. It's not that I don't trust the staff or their system to keep my da-
ta safe, but that I disagree with this approach, and would rather miss a
film than hand over my card. I don't usually complain about SIFF's inner
workings, because I'm a longtime volunteer, contributor, and member. I
know how hard it is to put on a festival, but…growth comes at a price.

Frankly, I'd rather talk about the films. In reviewing the Tehran-set
Circumstance for Amazon, I wrote, "Filmed in Beirut, American-born
writer/director Maryam Keshavarz's feature-film debut is pitched some-
where between [Udayan Prasad's] My Son the Fanatic and [Bahman
Ghobadi's] No One Knows about Persian Cats. If less overtly political,
she's equally sympathetic towards her protagonists and just as critic-
al of the individuals and institutions that would stand in their way."

The beautifully shot entry stars Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, and Re-
za Sixo Safai, all of whom are very good (and also quite beautiful). Kesh-
avarz and Safai are scheduled to attend the screenings at the Harvard
Exit on Sat., 6/4, at 6:30pm and the Egyptian on Mon., 6/6, at 4:15pm.

Britain's Andrew Haigh will also be in attendance at the 6/5 screening of
Weekend at SIFF Cinema at 4:30pm. The first took place yesterday at
the Harvard Exit. For Amazon, I wrote, "Most everyone has had the exper-
ience of meeting someone new and feeling an instant connection. Transfer-
ring that phenomenon to the big screen, however, tends to fall flat when
the cast and the script aren't up to the task. As in Richard Linklater's the-
matically similar Before Sunrise, director Haigh has no such problem."

Since the film is largely a two-hander, it helps that Tom Cullen and Chris
New work so well together. In addition to Sunrise, I was reminded of Brief
, while a friend cited Friday Night. The comparison to David Lean
might seem a stretch, since Haigh's protagonists are neither heterosexual
nor married...but the climactic scene does take place at a train station.

Other recommendations include Christopher Munch's environmental-
ly-oriented Letters from the Big Man with Lily Rabe, the daughter
of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe, and S.J. Clarkson's hilarious and
heartbreaking Toast with Oscar Kennedy and Helena Bonham Carter.

Munch, who directed The Hours
and Times
and Color of a Brisk
and Leaping Day
, will be in at-
tendance. I'm also fond of his
semi-autobiographical Sleepy Time Gal with Jacqueline Bisset.

plays SIFF Cinema on
Fri., 6/10, at 6:30pm and Sat.,
6/11, at 4:30pm, while Toast,
an adaptation of chef Nigel Slat-
er's memoir, plays the Neptune
on Sat., 6/11, at 6:30pm and
Sun., 6/12, at 11am. It's one
of my favorites of the festival.

In an echo of Sweeney Todd's
Mrs. Lovett, Bonham Carter is
expectedly great as Nigel's bras-
sy, manipulative stepmother, but
I believe young Mr. Kennedy gives one of the year's finest child perfor-
mances (Finding Neverland's Freddie Highmore, also good, plays the 16-
year-old version). Ken Stott, as his father, and Lark Rise to Candleford's
Victoria Hamilton, as his mother, are equally strong. Clarkson, who has
helmed episodes of Life on Mars and House, will be at the screenings.

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #5.

Endnote: Toast still from Iain Stott's The One-Line Review.