SIFF Roundup: “Healing”, “Night Moves” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for
Healing
Directed by Craig Monahan, written by Monahan and Alison Nisselle

As an American, I found two unfamiliar things at work in Healing. The first is the character of prison guard Matt Perry, played by Hugo Weaving. This is the first non-elven character I’ve seen Weaving play that could be called “nice,” and the first of any kind with his native Aussie accent. The second is an unfamiliar narrative – that of the “nice prison film”. The film takes place at an Aussie minimum security prison that’s also a working outback farm (although it’s unclear what, if anything, is grown or raised there). Not only is it low-security, but it’s apparently designed to prepare inmates for release and reintroduction into society. We learn that inmates must have had a spotless behavioral record for four years at harsher facilities to qualify, and that any missteps can get them sent right back. The Brown Mile, if you will.

But this film isn’t interested in the harsh realities of the Aussie prison system, such as they might be. Instead, it features a variety of inmates whose crimes range all the way up to manslaughter and murder, and the committed guards and social workers who are clearly interested in helping them adjust to their impending freedom. I haven’t even reached the on-the-nose metaphor of raptor rehabilitation that’s at the center of this film, and already, it seems like an incredibly rosy picture of prison life. But then, the only comparison I can make is to other prison films (and MSNBC exposés), which (at least in the US) seem committed to delivering an entertaining and lurid level of menace and violence. This picture of prison life as a torturous crucible which only prepares criminals for further criminality is the only version that seems credible, even if the only data I have to back it up is the occasional well-publicized abuse. Healing made me realize one inescapable truth – prison movies tend to be depressing. And there’s certainly room in cinema for an upbeat prison story, even if, as Red might say, prison is no fairy-tale world.

The film centers around Viktor Khadem (Don Hany), an Iranian man in prison for a murder 16 years prior. When Perry leads Viktor’s work detail out to the fenceline, they come across an injured wedge-tailed eagle that has become entangled in the barbed wire – apparently a common occurrence. When the local bird sanctuary is unable to help, Perry puts the inmates to work building a makeshift aviary, and assigns each of them a wounded bird to look after. Naturally, Viktor is assigned the eagle, whom he names Yasmine. Indeed, each of the inmates ends up being assigned a bird that is a remarkable match for their personality – the stoic and solitary Viktor gets the eagle, a more skittish inmate receives a shy owl, and so forth.

Still from

This all sounds very neat and tidy, and that’s because it is. I had to fight my cynicism at every step of the way initially, before it became clear that the film was aware that not all of these inmates can be “fixed” so neatly. One inmate is targeted for mistreatment by his fellow inmates because he was convicted of the accidental (drug-induced) killing of his own child – at least, we hear that’s what’s happening to him, even if we never see much of it onscreen. Another of the inmates, Warren (Anthony Hayes), is clearly running a jailhouse criminal enterprise of some sort. And he’s really the least believable part of the film. The guards are clearly aware of his malfeasance and do very little to stop it, leaving the character seemingly only present to provoke unwarranted conflict. Given how easily the character is dispensed with in the third act, he could easily have been cut from the film entirely. The resulting film would be just as progressive and slight, but wouldn’t spend nearly as much time on a narrative dead-end.

Hany’s performance is stellar as Viktor proceeds to rehabilitate Yasmine – a powerful raptor seemingly named after his late wife, who died while he was in prison. He also delivers some serviceable emotional moments as he attempts to salvage his relationship with his son, although these scenes feel a bit rushed relative to their intended weight. Weaving makes for a stern, but forgiving authority figure, dealing with similar issues of loss and regret to many of the inmates, even if his issues remain vague and take a backseat to those in his charge. Xavier Samuel and Mark Leonard Winter add some interesting depth to the supporting inmates, even if we know rather little about them. Every bit of praise I have for this film comes with strings attached, and when it comes down to it, this film does feel a bit like a progressive after-school special. It’s extremely slight, but it’s also just…very nice. The outback scenery and raptors look gorgeous, and the film dabbles in a few headier issues than its simple and optimistic premise would require.

At the end of the day, gaze upon the cloying image in the poster above, and accept that what you see is exactly what you get with this film. If you can bring yourself to be inspired by it, you’ll do fine.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10


Poster for
Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Night Moves – a film centering around an environmental extremist plot to blow up an Oregon dam – is a marvelous and understated thriller, so in the interests of preserving suspense, this review will be light on plot details. The film centers around a couple (who may or may not be romantically involved?), Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who team up with an ex-Marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to assist with their explosive plot. Much of the suspense revolves Reichardt’s meticulous depiction of the actual process – how they plan to physically build a bomb and transport it to the site without getting caught. Gone are the days of Fight Club obfuscating bomb recipes in order to protect the public – this film could easily function as a how-to guide for crafting a compact fertilizer bomb, even if it makes it clear that the substances required are controlled for bulk purchase.

In fact, it is this detail that leads to one of the film’s finest scenes, in which Dena is sent into a farm and feed store, under the auspices of an unassuming local farm girl, to purchase what should rightfully be regarded as a suspicious quantity of ammonium nitrate. Dakota Fanning is unquestionably the MVP of this trio, portraying Dena as an idealistic rich girl who seems quite capable of the extreme actions she’s pursuing, but is ultimately just reveling in the process without really considering the consequences. And as the full scope and implications of the plan become clear during the course of the film, Fanning plays Dena’s gradual breakdown in a remarkably understated manner. Never overplaying it, but never underestimating the psychological toll that such a plan would take upon a person. Eisenberg and Sarsgaard are also strong, but we certainly end up knowing the least about them overall. The audience is forced to infer much of their character from their actions and reactions over the course of the film – always showing, but never telling.

Still - Dakota Fanning in

In his memoir, retired FBI profiler John Douglas once related a conversation he had about his work (classifying serial killers). He was asked if, knowing all that he knew about offenders and law enforcement, could he get away with murder? His answer, after a brief pause to consider all of the implications, was no. His “post-offense behavior” would certainly give him away. This is a tense film, and its tension continues even as the third act obfuscates any sense of where the plot might be headed. Some viewers might consider this third of the film to be a bit meandering, and while there were certainly moments where I felt this way, the film’s thought-provoking ending certainly justified its ambiguous diversions. It’s impossible to know exactly how you’ll behave following an act of criminality that is unprecedented in your life. And really, that’s what makes this final act interesting. The characters no longer have a plan. They’re just reacting to what they’ve become.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #49 – “Age of Uprising”, “Fish & Cat”, ” Remote Control” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for "Fish & Cat"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Seattle International Film Festival to take on a trio of international selections. They start in 16th century feudal France, to watch Mads Mikkelsen lead a shockingly boring peasant uprising, then head over to Iran to watch some of the most technically and narratively innovative filmmaking they’ve seen this year, and finish up on the rooftops of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We keep the spoilers light in this episode, and at least one of these films – seemingly shot in a continuous two-hour take, is well worth seeking out (37:26).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk ratings:

  • Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas: 3/10
  • Fish & Cat: 9/10
  • Remote Control: 6/10

Show notes:

  • (00:00): Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
  • (11:46): Fish & Cat
  • (28:30): Remote Control
  • Due to the accelerated production schedule for our SIFF reviews and relative obscurity of these films, there is no music in tonight’s episode.
  • Apologies in advance for all name pronunciations. We think we did well with the French, okay with the Iranians, and terrible with the Mongolians. If anyone knows for sure, shoot us an email.
  • Read more about the awesome sport of kite fighting here.
  • The cinematographer behind Fish & Cat, Mahmoud Kalari, also shot the brilliant Iranian film A Separation, which we reviewed on the podcast, and highly recommend.
  • CORRECTION: We mentioned the party-rewind sequence from the 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction, but mistakenly referred to the character of Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) as a younger version of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) from American Psycho – the two characters are actually brothers. The sequence we mentioned is not available on YouTube, but the film also featured an innovative use of split-screen and motion-control rig technology – that sequence is available here.
  • We mentioned our upcoming SIFF screening of Alex of Venice, which is neither Italian nor French, but rather is an American film directed by and starring Chris Messina (alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character). This film is Messina’s directorial debut, and as far as we know, it takes place in the United States.

Listen above, or download: SIFF International Roundup (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”

Poster for "The Case Against 8"
The Case Against 8
Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White (documentary)

The Case Against 8 is a riveting chronicle of the court battle following the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, which legally defined marriage as a one-man-one-woman institution in the state. The story spans nearly five years, starting from the November 2008 election, and ending with the 2013 Supreme Court double-whammy court decisions which invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act and effectively terminated Proposition 8. Just a warning for the approximately 46% of you who statistically might oppose same-sex marriage at this point…this film makes no pretense of “equal time for both sides”. It focuses entirely on the behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering of the opponents of Prop 8 (and supporters of marriage equality). So don’t go into this film expecting a fair and balanced hearing on whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to get married. The film simply takes this point as a given, and chronicles the legal and constitutional battle that ensued.

First and foremost, The Case Against 8 is a stunningly executed legal and political procedural. Speaking as someone who has been mainlining episodes of The Good Wife for the past year or so, I was definitely the target audience for all of the judicial details. In order for this lawsuit to go forward, a number of things had to be executed perfectly. The right set of plaintiffs had to be recruited – two same-sex couples – one male-male, one female-female. Both submitted to being investigated to track down any dirt that might damage the lawsuit in the court of public opinion. And most interestingly, both couples submitted to becoming media personalities. The lawyers are equally fascinating – the unlikely team-up of conservative Ted Olson and liberal David Boies, best known for being opposite sides of the 2000 Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore (a fact that the film points out in great detail), and the film provides a staggering degree of access behind-the-scenes as they prepare for their legal fight. I can’t overstate how much I came away admiring Olson and Boies both for the fight they took on, and for the legal and practical risk they took by allowing cameras behind the scenes during ongoing litigation. And for the public-facing aspect of the case, their clashing politics and personal friendship serve effectively to project the idea that same-sex marriage should not be a partisan issue.

Interlaced with the procedural details, this film is a deeply affecting personal drama. The two couples – Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, and Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier – are forced into the difficult position of having to defend the merits of their respective relationships in open court. Both couples – especially Perry and Stier – provide a staggering degree of access into their families and homes, which in the case of the latter couple, includes their four sons. The film highlights the staggering contrast between an ordinary family trying to live and provide for their children, and the dystopian nightmare of Perry and Stier receiving a government letter in the mail explaining that their 2004 marriage had been legally invalidated. As a fellow who has been married for nearly two years now, I found this moment deeply disturbing – and the couple’s courage and steadfastness in the face of such a societal betrayal was inspiring to say the least.

I try not to be overtly political when discussing film, but I expect my own politics on this issue should be fairly obvious by this point. When I got married in 2012, I shifted from being merely okay with same-sex marriage to being actively interested in making it happen. I phone-banked for the campaign for Washington’s Referendum 74 that same year, and was elated to see it pass. That’s the positive spin. Here’s the sad fact that precedes it – back in 2004, when Kristin and Sandy first married in San Francisco, I opposed their legal right to do so. Given the shift in public perspective on this issue over the past decade (which the film also highlights), I can’t imagine that my story is unique. But it also illustrates the value of a film like this in putting a public face on those who are still being denied their freedom to marry. And that’s the third great strength of The Case Against 8 – it is a stunningly effective treatise on the purpose and value of marriage. It is an affirmation of American family values. It is, I daresay, a bastion of conservative ideals in the 21st century. And that’s exactly what this issue needed.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

The Case Against 8 is being distributed by HBO Films. It will have a limited theatrical release on June 6th and premiere on HBO on June 23rd. 


Still from "Desert Cathedral"
Desert Cathedral
Written and directed by Travis Gutiérrez Senger

Desert Cathedral is a deeply sad film, owing not only to its subject matter, but to the choices that it makes between fantasy and reality. The film is based on the true story of a real estate developer who left behind his wife and child and disappeared into the Southwestern desert in 1992. Peter Collins (Lee Tergesen) makes his suicidal intentions clear by way of a trail of VHS-taped breadcrumbs recorded as he takes this impromptu roadtrip – he quits his job and drives off into the desert to find a suitable place to die.

The most obviously fantastical note is that of private investigator Durin Palouse (Chaske Spencer), hired by Collins’ wife Annah (Petra Wright) to track him down. This character caught me off-guard, first because I realized this is one of very few non-Caucasian hard-boiled detectives I’ve ever seen (a racial casting bias that hadn’t occurred to me until this film) – and second, because his voice is a near perfect ringer for the Southern drawl of Matthew McConaughey. Spencer gives a fine performance, but the character never quite feels like more than a construct. In the later acts of the film, we learn a few personal details about him, but due to his incognito role, it’s never quite clear which details are real and which are not. Spencer and Tergesen’s interactions are interesting, but they struck me as the most overtly fictitious parts of the film – frantic, retroactive attempts to rewrite history and pull Collins back from the brink of a terrible, sad, and ultimately selfish decision.

Tergesen’s own performance, however, is nicely layered. The film never attempts to ennoble Collins’ suicidal intentions, but neither does it shy away from them. At times, he seems right on the verge of giving the whole thing up and heading back home to rejoin his family and face his demons. He takes diversions to drink, drive, light off fireworks, take in a pretty desert vista, and, most tellingly, reveal (on video) a few more details of the problems that drove him to his decision. The result is a film that falls somewhere between mystery, tragedy, and travelogue, with a sufficiently interesting character at the center of it.

It turns out I’ve seen director Travis Gutiérrez Senger‘s prior short film, White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, which was a verité postmortem on a drug-dealing hip-hop DJ. Junebug and Collins aren’t perfect analogues, but they certainly both succeeded in making me sympathize with them more than I initially expected. The film’s soundtrack provides a nice mix of dour, atmospheric country and blues, as well as simple, mood-setting acoustic pieces – reminiscent of composer Nathan Johnson‘s understated work in Brick. Atop Senger’s mostly effective handling of the subject matter, the cinematography – with what appears to be central/eastern Washington State standing in for the California and Nevada deserts – is gorgeous.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10


Poster for "In Order of Disappearance"

 

In Order of Disappearance
Directed by Hans Petter Moland, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson

I’ll be brief, because there’s not a lot to say about this movie – if you want to see Stellan Skarsgård as Nils Dickman, a snowplow driver on a Norse-bound mafioso revenge-killing spree, this is the film for you. This film is darkly hilarious, brutal, and absolutely riddled with the cheapness of human life. The comparisons to Fargo (my second-to-least favorite Coen Bros film) are warranted. The lead villains are effective and memorable, including an eccentric vegan known as “The Count” (Pål Sverre Hagen), and an old-school Serbian just called Papa (Bruno Ganz). The Count is clearly the most dangerous wildcard of the bunch, while Papa, also out for revenge after a fashion, actually ends up striking some interesting parallels with Dickman himself. The bloody shootout at the film’s end is obligatory (and nothing special, heavy equipment notwithstanding), but this film was an entertaining ride nonetheless.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering – Dickman is a funny name in Norwegian too.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #47 – “The Double” (dir. Richard Ayoade) (SIFF)

Poster for "The Double"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel bring the first of many live dispatches from the 40th annual Seattle International Film Festival, starting with Richard Ayoade‘s new film, The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Wallace Shawn. (15:10).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • It’s festival time! That means we’ll be seeing a lot of films and our SIFF dispatches will be recorded and posted quickly – which unfortunately means the audio quality will be just a bit less polished than usual.

Listen above, or download: The Double (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)