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SIFF 2008: Part Three

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic


Image It’s been a pretty good week at the Seattle International Film Festival. Aside from seeing some really good movies, I’ve been able to interview a couple of directors and have even attended two parties. I have to admit that I’m not much of a “party person” as I’d rather just watch movies all day, but I did get a glimpse of Colin Hanks, so it must be worth it, right? Anyway, on to the movies!

The Bluetooth Virgin             Recommended

 (USA/2008)

Director: Russell Brown
                              

It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer. This incisive quote from W. Somerset Maugham is one of several topical and humorous quotes we see between scenes in Russell Brown’s The Bluetooth Virgin, and it could pretty much describe the film. Austin Peck plays Sam, a former big shot T.V. writer who is now trying to sell his latest screenplay with the title name. He asks his friend David, a Los Angeles magazine editor to read it and tell him what he thinks. Does Sam really want to know the truth? Does David want to tell him what he really thinks?

Brown’s film takes place through a series of two character scenes, all of them with either Sam or David as one of the characters. Whether it’s Sam trying to get advice from a new age script guru (the brilliant Karen Black) or David consulting his shrink (Roma Maffia) for advice on the issue, the film ponders not only the issue of honesty but also motivation. Brown understands that people, especially writers, seem to need validation, and this is one of the reasons why they need to write and to be told their work is worthy. While The Bluetooth Virgin may put off some people who don’t care for movies about distressed artists, there’s no denying that Brown knows his turf and isn’t afraid to tackle it truthfully, with solid performances and clever dialogue to boot.

 

Man on Wire         Recommended

 (UK/ 2007)

Director: James Marsh

                 
Man on Wire is a breathtaking documentary about the guy who walked between the twin towers in August of 1974 on a very thin cable. Why it took so long to make this film is a good question, but director James Marsh has done a fantastic job of combining real footage with re-created events to detail how French wirewalker Philippe Petit pulled off this dramatic stunt. Marsh interviews Petit, along with several of his accomplices as they describe what they had to do in order to make it all work.

Even though we know the outcome, that Petit was successful and is quite astonishingly still alive, our palms still get sweaty and our legs rubbery as the details of that day are re-counted. What may have seemed like a stupid stunt at first glance is transformed into the realization of a dream and this makes Man on Wire both an entertaining and touching document of one man’s quest to do the unthinkable.

 

Letting Go of God            Recommended

 (USA/2008)

 Director: Julia Sweeney                          

Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, like her 1998 film God Said, ‘Ha’ is a one woman tour de force. While her last film dealt with her diagnosis with cancer and the subsequent healing process, her new film deals with her “transition” from Catholicism to Atheism. Having been raised a devout Catholic it was a soul searching journey that lead her to the ultimate decision to let go of God. Sweeney tells us that it really all began when two Mormon boys showed up at her house. They were quite surprised when she let them come in and give their “pitch” as she describes it. They asked her many questions but when they asked if she “believed” that God loved her, it made her begin to examine that question. Sweeney tells us that when she was a girl, growing up in Spokane, Washington she wanted to be a nun. However as she grew older she started to question many aspects of the Bible especially those sections where God does some really cruel things. How could this be the same loving God that she grew up with? Not to mention all of the misogynistic parts of the good book as well.

Throughout the film Sweeney battles through what she has to come to know is the truth vs. what she was told was the truth as she was growing up. Through much soul-searching she makes the decision that God is made up and that she must let go and look at the world in a new and sometimes frightening light. Gone is the comfort she took at believing in God, and it was replaced by uncertainty and chance. It gets even worse when there is a headline in a local Spokane paper that reads, “Julia Sweeney discovers Atheism.” Her mother’s reaction is priceless as she tells Sweeney, “Couldn’t you have just said that you were gay, at least that is socially acceptable!”

Letting Go of God is Sweeney at her best, both hilarious and profound, often at the same time. She is a great comedic performer but she also tells a great story. What really comes through is how gut wrenching a process it really was for her to let go of God. She goes back and forth between giving up and holding onto her beliefs before finally making her ultimate decision. While that decision will anger some religious people in the audience it will be impossible for them not see how much angst she had to go through before making it. The irony of the film is that Sweeney’s journey was both a spiritual and religious one. If there’s an ultimate message in Letting Go of God it’s simply this, think.

 

Mr. Big                 Recommended

(Canada, 2007)

Director: Tiffany Burns

One word kept popping into my mind while watching this documentary- “infuriating.” Tiffany Burns’ film is about a little known (especially to those of us in the U.S.) police interrogation sting that is utilized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police known as “Mr. Big.” The idea is to get a bunch of undercover detectives to act as mafia types in order to get people to admit to crimes on hidden camera. Huh? That’s exactly what I was thinking as this “technique” is described by innocent people who were once convicted of crimes through this method. However the clearer the methods become the more absurd they actually seem. When the RCMP thinks they know who committed a crime, they put this sting into place. They introduce these “mafia” types into the life of the person they are trying to sting, and once the person becomes involved in this phony world, “Mr. Big”, or the top Mafioso in this case gets them (through some really sinister methods) to “come clean” and confess to their “crimes.” In other words, they better tell him the truth, even if it’s all lies or something bad can happen to them or their families!

Yes, this all totally legal in Canada, even though it’s considered entrapment in the U.S. and in Great Britain. Heck, you know if an interrogation method is illegal in the U.S. it has to be pretty bad. Unfortunately, the no longer mounted police haven’t gotten this message yet and director Burns’ brother, Sebastian is one of the victims of this method. He and his friend, Atif Rafay were convicted of killing Rafay’s family in 1994 in Bellevue, Washington. Ok, I know you’re really confused now because if the killings happened in the U.S. why was the interrogation method allowed? Well, the RCMP believes that the plan to murder the family happened in British Columbia. Now doesn’t that clear it all up? But wait, there’s more. There was no physical evidence linking the two 18 year old boys to the crime, even though blood was splattered everywhere. Also the “confessions” they made to the police were totally contradictory to the actually crime scene.

Burns interviews many experts in the field of criminology, most of which weren’t allowed to testify in the trial. We also see footage of Burns and her family trying desperately to convince the media that justice has not been served, including a passionate plea from her father. Burns who was a reporter in Canada is obviously not a seasoned documentary filmmaker and Mr. Big is sometimes choppy, and several scenes go on too long, especially one where Sebastian and Atif give their statements to a King County judge before sentencing. Burns however doesn’t seem interested in making a great film, what she wants is to have her brother and Atif exonerated and the “Mr. Big” operation ended. In this regard she has done an admirable job of convincing us that both need to happen post-haste.

 

Young People Fucking                 Not Recommended

 (Canada, 2007)

Director: Martin Gero

Yes, the title is a fairly accurate description of what we get in this mostly lighthearted film about several couples with varying types of relationships. We are introduced to each pairing and then in episodic fashion are shown what the filmmakers describe as the six phases of the “act.” Prelude, Foreplay, Sex, Interlude, Orgasm, and Afterglow are the phases and each couple has their own issues and agendas that make their stories different yet also similar. The film cuts from one couple to the other and back again as they make their way through their evening of “fun.”

Most of what transpires in Young People Fucking is superficial and some situations are more contrived than others and when it’s finally time for the “Afterglow” the film thinks it has said something about sex and relationships but it really hasn’t. What it has done is given us ninety minutes of fluff, although the often clever dialogue and awkward laughs make it a fairly enjoyable and painless ninety minutes at that.

 

Mancora              Not Recommended  

(Spain/Peru, 2008)

Director: Ricardo de Montreuil

 

Twenty-two year old Santiago (Jason Day) has just lost his once famous pop singer father to suicide. Struggling to figure out his own life he decides to head out of the big city of Lima and to his childhood retreat of Mancora, a picturesque beach town just north of Peru. However before he can leave he receives a visit from his step-sister Ximena (Elsa Pataky) and her husband Inigo (Enrique Murciano). Having decided that he’s going on his trip anyway, the couple agrees to go along with him. On this journey Santiago will have to decide what he wants to do with his life while also dealing with some deep seeded issues involving Ximena and their past. Inigo meanwhile has his own issues regarding monogamy that will be tested as well. 

Director Ricardo de Montreuil delivers a well photographed, solidly acted road movie of sorts that deals with some difficult topics that range from incest (depending on your definition) to the inability to accept responsibility for one’s situation in life. Jason Day is a revelation as Santiago, his angst is palpable and we are drawn into his situation. However we can’t help but feel as though we’ve seen this all before and while Mancora is easy to watch it never really adds up to the sum of its parts. What is Montreuil trying to say? Sometimes the screenplay is too vague and for no good reason. The best example of this is the needlessly ambiguous ending that is neither illuminating nor profound even though the film certainly thinks it is.

 

The Secret of the Grain             Recommended

(France,2007)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

 

The Secret of the Grain is a detailed, intimate portrait of an extended family living in the southern French seaport town of Sete. Habib Boufares is Slimane, a Tunisian immigrant who has worked on the docks for 35 years. He finds out that his hours are being cut in half so he decides to try a new career. He renovates an old boat and turns it into a fish couscous restaurant and it helps that his ex-wife makes the best couscous in town. However he must go through much red tape as well as some drama from his girlfriend who has resentment towards his ex-wife and children.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche has such a personal, unique perspective that we are immediately drawn into this family and their everyday lives. It’s as though we become part of the family and as with great films such as The Godfather we actually care about each character and by the end feel as if we’ve known them forever and in our own way, we have.

Author: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

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