Friday, February 20, 2009

Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2009: Recap

The SBIFF was a treat this year with high quality films and plenty of variety to keep me wishing I could take the whole 2 weeks off work and attend as many movies as possible. I managed to grab 6 films without a dud in the bunch. Here's a quick recap:

(Latino Cinemedia sidebar-Mexico) "Tear This Heart Out" ("Arrancame La Vida"):

An absolutely wonderful film starring Daniel Gimenez Cacho, the exquisitely beautiful Ana Claudia Talancon and Jose Maria de Tavira in the story of a love triangle with fatal consequences. Powerful general Cacho marries Talancon when she's only 16, takes her to his sumptuous home and attempts to dictate every facet of her life. When she meets handsome young orchestra conductor and revolutionary Tavira all bets are off as she discovers the passion and romace which have always been missing from her marriage. A gorgeous looking movie with fabulous sets and costumes, a fascinating female character at its center, murder, romance, beauty -- who could ask for more?

(Russia) "The Ghost" ("Domovoy"):

Reminiscent of "Memento" as a mind bending thriller, this film mixes writer's block with the world of a professional hit man and comes up with a fun concoction that keeps the audience guessing until its final frame. Even the final frame is a zinger. Successful but currently blocked writer Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) is approached by a stranger (Vladimir Mashkov) at a book signing who asks "Have you ever killed a man?" From that point forward we, like the startled writer, are hooked and off on a wild, disturbing adventure in which research on how to write a really thrilling book goes terribly awry. It seems that Anton is willing to strike a Faustian bargain with this stranger (who turns out to be a hit man) in order to reinvigorate his creative juices, but at what price? Great stuff.

(Canada/Japan) "Dim Sum Funeral":

Despite an excellent cast, this English language film about a dysfunctional Japanese family has some serious flaws, though it's still entertaining enough to enjoy. As three sisters and a brother gather in Seattle following their mother's death, secrets are revealed, old wounds are exposed, complicated relationships explode. Issues of tradition, family ties and forgiveness are explored, though not in a particularly fresh way. A surprise ending, for both the movie's characters and its audience, didn't completely work for me. Bai Ling is a stand-out as the punky, flamboyant girlfriend of one of the sisters, along with Russell Wong as the bitter brother in the family.

(Canada/Inuit) "Before Tomorrow" ("Le Jour Avant Le Lendemain"):

This was my favorite film in the festival, a simple story with a devastating emotional impact. An Inuit grandmother (Madeline Ivalu) and her young grandson (Paul-Dylan Ivalu) courageously and quietly struggle to survive a harsh winter alone on the tundra after their entire tribe is wiped out by exposure to a disease brought to their isolated location by white men. Full of magical moments, wonderful music and images, the movie is simply heart breaking as the strong, touching love between its two characters is slowly revealed and the grandmother prepares her beloved grandson for the possibility of life on his own. If you can find this movie on DVD try to see it, but be prepared to be blown away.

(Czech Republic) "The Country Teacher":

Teacher Petr (Pavel Liska) moves from the city to a small country town, but his new life proves to be much more complicated than he'd bargained for. A hard working local woman (Zuzana Bydzovska) who runs her own dairy farm is attracted to the quiet teacher, while he is more interested in her rebellious teenage son (Ladislav Sedivy). This movie has a lovely setting and a good sense of life in the country, as well as a wise understanding for its muti-layered, flawed characters who manage to connect in unexpected ways. Two calf births are shown at pivotal times during the film -- a bit much, although very effectively used. A "happy" ending is tempered by the painful history leading up to it and therefore seems much more meaningful than the typical Hollywood happy ending. Excellent performances and a moving, valuable message about tolerating each others' differences.

(Netherlands) "Tiramisu":

This delightful film features the unlikely pairing of a sensible accountant with a flamboyant stage actress to create a surprising result when the lives of both are subtly changed for the better. When the accountant (Jacob Derwig) arrives to audit the expenses of the hard living, high spending actress (Anneke Blok), he discovers debts that could cause the foreclosure of Blok's houseboat yet becomes determined to prevent such a devastating event. Dutch writer/director Paula van der Oest has an excellent feel for the life of an actress, creating an interesting dynamic with the homespun accountant's exposure to the many colorful and raucous stage characters who populate the actress' world. As Derwig struggles to find ways of overcoming the hopeless situation and becomes increasingly fond of the housboat, Blok slowly realizes it may be time for her to move on. Good performances and some nice scenes of Amsterdam.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Movie Review - Revolutionary Road

Is director Sam Mendes in the midst of a trilogy on suburban angst? Perhaps. Judging from his previous film, the Oscar winner "American Beauty" and now "Revolutionary Road", it seems to be a recurring theme which he tackles with relish and just a touch of pretension. Based on a book from the 1960s by Richard Yates, this is the story of a young couple living in the fabulous fifties who seem to have it all yet long for something more and find themselves stifling in a suburban box full of the typical requirements: a nice house, a nice job, two kids, shallow friendship with the neighbors and nowhere to go but Paris. April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio) are the golden couple of the neighborhood, admired by their busy body realtor Helen (Kathy Bates), envied by their best friends Shep and Milly (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn) yet miserable and combative behind closed doors. This couple has a lot of fights. Frank hates his job in an office surrounded by lifers who have nothing in common with him. April despises the limitations of life as a wife and mother, longing to chuck it all and move to Paris where she and Frank might start over and somehow magically discover what they really wanted out of life.

Like the book, there's something distancing in the film about Frank and April as characters but something all too familiar about their plight and inexplicable unhappiness. Trapped in a prison of their own making they're chronically miserable people with dreams which have refused to die or to come true. April in particular begins to crack under the inability to change her predicament, while Frank dallies with one of the secretaries at work and their friend Shep secretly pines after April. There's a brief respite in the Wheelers' misery when Helen's son John (Michael Shannon), who's been institutionalized for mental problems, begins visiting the couple as a way of helping his socialization skills. John is refreshingly blunt and insightful about the suburban lifestyle he observes, as well as being quite intelligent and slightly dangerous. It's easy to see why Michael Shannon has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Academy. He's mesmerizing in his few scenes and could have used more screen time with this strange and complicated character.

Things to love about this movie: An exhilarating scene in a roadside bar where April dances with Shep; amazing performances from Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio who still have plenty of chemistry; perfect period details; an effective soundtrack (love that opening song "The Gypsy" by the Inkspots); the suggestion that marriage and kids might not be enough for everyone and don't guarantee happiness
Things to hate about this movie: Frank and April's relentless quarreling becomes tiresome and not enough time is devoted to showing us the younger versions who were passionate about living life to the fullest
Pleasant surprises: The book's devastating ending is kept intact for the film; actor David Harbour is the perfect realization of the character Shep from the book
Unpleasant surprises: The movie could have used more of the book's character details and background to make Frank and April a bit more appealing; lack of an Oscar nomination for Winslet