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Seattle Film Festival 2008: An Introduction

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic


ImageHas it really been a year already? It’s hard to believe that it’s once again time for the largest film festival in North America to get underway. As I write this I’ve already seen over twenty films at advance press screenings as the festival prepares to begin. As a 25-day festival which runs from May 22-June15 and sports over 400, the Seattle festival is simply massive. If the quality of the films are as solid as last year’s fest, it’s going to be an enjoyable month. As was the case last year I will be reporting as often as possible and will include several “capsule” reviews of the films that are playing. The only difference will be that I’ll include a rating system that consists of recommended, not recommended, must see, or avoid at all costs. This should assist anyone who may want to catch some films and want to spend their $11 wisely! I’ll also be conducting interviews with various filmmakers during the festival. That being said here, is the first installation of reviews from the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. Enjoy!

 

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (USA 2008) MUST SEE
Director: Christopher Bell

This is a brilliant documentary made by an average Joe bodybuilder who once took steroids and doesn't understand why he still feels so guilty about it. (His two brothers take steroids but they don't feel any shame at all.) His name is Christopher Bell and he was born and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York. He tells us that when he was growing up he admired people such as Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He says that his father was a great dad but wasn't his hero; Hulk and Arnold were. Bell not only interviews his parents about their boys using steroids (is it their fault?) but he goes all the way to Capitol Hill and talks to politicians as well. Bell really wants to know why so many young guys want so badly to look perfect and why the government is so hell bent on making steroids illegal.

Bell interviews a doctor who shows us G.I. Joe dolls from the 50s through today and we see how the dolls become more ripped and muscular through each incarnation. He talks to politicians as well — note how the same politician that wants to ban steroids doesn't seem to know what the legal drinking age is! Schwarzenegger, who admitted to steroid use while a bodybuilder, now talks about taking it out of sports even though he sponsors a bodybuilding competition with known steroid use. Bell doesn't try to tell us if he thinks steroids are harmful or not, he simply interviews doctors, scientists, guys that take steroids and even parents that have lost their children and blame steroids. He also talks about his own guilt surrounding his short usage of the drug himself. What begins as a documentary about his brothers and their body obsession becomes a study about our culture's desire to win at all costs, and about the hypocrisy that goes along with that mindset and the current attack on steroids and steroid users. Bell, unlike our current media, investigates every nook and cranny of the issue, and also asks the tough questions that go along with the subject. He doesn't only examine the issue from inside and out; he totally turns it on its head.

By the end of the film, Bell has at once implicated all of us and our way of life while also exonerating his parents from their guilt. It's not something they did or didn't do; it's something we all do on a daily basis that allows this debate to continue in such a dishonest and hypocritical fashion.

 

Emmanuel Jal: War Child (USA 2008) RECOMMENDED
Director: Christian Karim Chrobog 

If you don’t know the story of Emmanuel Jal, you aren’t alone. In this riveting documentary we learn that he is a rap star who was once a child soldier in Sudan. Through amazing circumstances he was smuggled out of the war zone and went on to become not only famous but also a de-facto spokesperson for the genocide that took place in his home land. We the story hear firsthand from Jal, and as we listen to how he was able to not only escape alive but to go on and write and perform music that tells his story to millions, we are both moved and inspired.

Emmanuel Jal: War Child also shows a side of the “conflict” in Sudan and Darfur that we haven’t seen on the news. There are interviews with Jal as a young boy of only eight or nine (he doesn’t know exactly when he was born) and even at that early age we can see how he would become such an important figure. Towards the end of the film we watch Jal as he returns home to visit his grandmother and his father, whom he hasn’t seen in nearly twenty years. Torn apart by war, they are now very proud of him but his homecoming is bittersweet to say the least. He wants to help make life better for the kids there so he decides to help build a school. This is what Jal’s life has become, passing on what he’s been through and using his resources to give back.

Director Christian Karim Chrobog has made an eye-opening and inspiring film. It’s good to know that there are still people like Jal in the world and he’s the perfect subject of a documentary: you simply can’t make stories like this up.

 

Savage Grace (USA 2007) RECOMMENDED
Director: Tom Kalin

On November 17 1972 Barbara Baekeland was stabbed to death in her London flat by her son Tony, and as with most everything in London, it was a scandal. We see stories like this too often and we wonder how it could happen, how could a son kill his mother? Tom Kalin’s “Savage Grace” tells us how. Barbara (Julianne Moore) was married to Brooks Baekeland (Stephan Dillane), heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, and we first meet them in late 40s New York as they are about to head to one of their posh dinners with other rich folks. At the time Tony was just an infant but it was already obvious that he wasn’t going to have a “normal” upbringing. As the film heads through the 50s and into the 60s we see a grownup Tony (Eddie Redmayne) dealing with his own sexual confusion while growing distant from his philandering father and continuing an unhealthy and incestuous relationship with his mother.

Savage Grace seems to be saying that with Tony’s screwed-up parents, who seem to be always playing a sick game of one-upmanship with each other, it’s no wonder that he become mentally unstable and that the eventual tragedy was unfortunately inevitable. This is as good a theory as any, because we can never really know what drives someone to insanity; however, some people will be put off by the film’s almost casual rendering of the events leading up to the murder.

While the film does have an episodic nature (that it probably couldn’t have avoided given that it covers so many years), and therefore it sometimes seems that a lot has been left out, we can’t help but feel that director Kalin took the right approach with this dicey and controversial subject matter. With its scenes of mother-son incest, mental breakdowns and especially with Moore’s portrayal of a woman in constant distress, “Savage Grace” could have easily degenerated into another “Mommie Dearest.” However, Kalin avoids turning his film into a cheesy camp fest and instead delivers a quietly unsettling film. While it may come across as too cold and calculating for some, those who can appreciate its restraint should come away satisfied.

 

Ballast (USA 2007) NOT RECOMMENDED
Director: Lance Hammer

Ballast, noun. – Something that gives stability (as in character or conduct).

Ballast begins with a suicide, but unlike so many of the films we've seen this year that begin this way, it isn't about suicide. It centers mostly on how the twin brother of the victim deals with what happened, and how others around him react or in some cases do not react. Michael J. Smith Jr. plays Lawrence, the surviving brother and owner of a local convenience story in a Mississippi delta town. His young nephew James (JimMyron Ross) was estranged from his father and also has a drug problem, and is often in debt to the local drug dealers. James' mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) is also a former drug addict and just got fired from her job. They are all connected through Lawrence's brother and the suicide leaves them in limbo not only with their financial issues but their emotional ones as well.

Ballast has many virtues, not the least of which is the performances by a cast of relative unknowns who are totally convincing in their roles. It's also well shot (think Gus Van Sant), and directed by Lance Hammer who deals with tough issues in a subtle but unblinking manner. However, it takes nearly half the film before we understand what these characters' relations are to each other and why there is so much animosity between them, and even then the film for some reason holds back information. After a while it becomes not only frustrating but pretentious. We like these characters, but we want to know more about them, their past and why they are here. In the end, we know we've seen a solid piece of drama, but we are left unsatisfied and with too many unanswered questions.

 

Dream Boy (USA 2008) NOT RECOMMENDED
Director: James Bolton

This is a promising film that fails to live up to that promise. It’s about two teenage boys in the rural south who are in love. Nathan (Stephan Bender) has just moved to town and has the caught the eye of his next door neighbor Roy (Maximillian Roeg). While they look at each other and smile as Roy drives the bus to school every day, Nathan is too shy to make a move.

One day Roy suggests they study together and soon enough they are sneaking away into the woods to make out. They get away at every opportunity even though Nathan’s mother (Diana Scarwid) and father (Thomas Jay Ryan) are always forcing him to go to church gatherings. While Roy seems to come from a stable household, Nathan often finds himself sleeping in the woods behind his house, trying to avoid his father’s sexual abuse.

When Dream Boy focuses on the burgeoning romance between Nathan and Roy it is both subtle and lyrical, as they try to deal with new feelings and must hide their interest for each other. Both Roeg and Bender are perfect, capturing the innocence and purity of their mutual longing. Unfortunately the film doesn’t trust this story enough to play it out without adding a couple of contrived distractions that bog it down in both melodrama and confusion.

The sexual abuse storyline is never fully developed and seems like a cliché (religious father abuses gay son), and as the father, Ryan is given very little to work with; he’s mostly portrayed as a monster in a white t-shirt, lurking around every corner in their house. There is also a bizarre climax in a haunted house which dominates the final twenty minutes of the film and leads to the obligatory “tragic outcome” for a gay character. If “Dream Boy” had only trusted its love story it might have been a special film instead of the confused mess that it is.

 

The Red Awn (China 2007) NOT RECOMMENDED
Director: Cai Shangjun

The Red Awn is about a man who returns to his hometown after a five year absence only to find that his wife is dead and his son has officially declared him dead. It has some quietly effective moments that mostly center around the relationship that the father must try to repair while the son rebels on an almost daily basis. The two have plenty of time to try and bond since their family business is harvesting wheat and the son must be taught the tricks of the trade. We watch as they drive their combine from one farm to another trying to get as much business as they can before the season is over. The son wants to go to college and the father must repay a debt which we learn about later in the film.

The Red Awn has to be given credit for being subtle with a sub-genre that has been covered in many films before it (I Never Sang for My Father, Life is Beautiful, etc) and not always nearly as restrained as here. However its methodical pacing is also a detriment because we never really feel the strife that has made these two men grow so distant from each other and many of the issues that have taken place in the past, not only with father and son but with the father’s deceased wife, remain unclear by the film’s end. This is one of those films that we can admire but are never drawn into and the result is that we pretty much forget it once it’s over.

Author: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

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