Friday, October 09, 2009

MVFF32—Michael Hawley’s Capsule Reviews

Hipsters (Russia, dir. Valery Todorovsky)—I never expected that my favorite film of the fest would be a splashy, wide-screen Russian musical set in 1955 Moscow, but there you go. Hipsters recounts the phenomenon of stilyagi, the name given to Russian youth who rebelled against gray Soviet monoculture by emulating jazz music and fashion from the west. The film follows the transformation of Mels, a stodgy young communist whom love converts into a pompadoured, sax-playing free spirit. Full of romance, comedy, bright costumes and cleverly choreographed production numbers—each done in a different musical style with engaging lyrics—Hipsters is clearly an exaggerated, romanticized version of post-Stalinist Russia. But it's a version that doesn't totally whitewash reality. The scorned stilyagi are subject to mob attacks, and one character speaks of an aunt who was arrested because her Stalin portrait hung opposite the bathroom. I'll rarely watch a DVD screener twice, but couldn't resist with Hipsters. This should be a blast to see on the big screen with an audience.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (US, dir. Lee Daniels)—Hallelujah, the hype turns out to be justified for this alternately horrifying and humorous hardknock fairytale that won audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is unforgettable as Clarice "Precious" Jones, an illiterate, ridiculed, morbidly obese teen with a hyperactive fantasy life and the most horrible mother in the history of cinema (an unforgettable turn by comedienne Mo'Nique). About to be thrown out of school for being pregnant—for the second time, by her own father—salvation comes in the form of a caring lesbian alternative school teacher (Paula Patton). Daniels directs with compassion and freewheeling imagination, from a first-time screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher. Opens in Bay Area Theaters on November 13.

An Education (UK, dir. Lone Scherfig)—In 1961 London, a bright schoolgirl falls under the sway of a smooth talking playboy, receiving a deliciously poignant education in life whilst jeopardizing her academic future. Scherfig's evocation of pre-Swinging Sixties UK highlife—its nightclubs, racetracks, and weekend jaunts to Paris—is terrific fun, while the performances all resonate, especially Carey Mulligan and a Brit-accented Peter Sarsgaard as the inter-generational couple. Based on a Nick Hornby script, this is by far my favorite film of Scherfig's (Italian For Beginners) and her personal appearance at the festival is reason enough to catch it there before the October 16 theatrical release.

The Maid (Chile, dir. Sebastian Silva)—In this heartbreaking and hilarious social satire, Raquel is a housekeeper who's taken care of the same upper class family for 23 years. After a thwarted sense of self causes her to start acting out resentments, the confused family responds by hiring on additional help. The first two maids flee after being terrorized by Raquel. Finally, a woman with a taste for jogging and irreverence joins the household staff—and she's got Raquel's number good. Filmed almost entirely indoors with a handheld camera that reflects our heroine's entrapment, The Maid explores thorny master/servant issues without demonizing the former or martyring the latter. This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for World Cinema will open in Bay Area theaters on November 13.

Soundtrack For a Revolution (US, dir. Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman)—This exceptional documentary traces the history of the American Civil Rights Movement via the protest songs which inspired its leaders and participants. As one interviewee states, "They could take away everything else, except our songs—which meant we kept our souls." From "We Shall Overcome" to "Wade in the Water," the film recounts how these songs came to be written and then incorporated into the movement. The directors seamlessly blend moving first-person accounts (Julian Bond, Coretta Scott King, songwriter Guy Carawan), contemporary performances of the songs (The Roots, Ritchie Havens, Wyclef Jean) and a lot of archival material I know I haven't seen elsewhere. Apart from its focus on the music, this is perhaps the most concise and affecting film I've seen on the African American struggle for civil rights, period. Co-director Guttenberg is expected to attend the festival, and a special Concert for a Revolution featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama (who perform in the film) will take place after the Oct. 16 screening.

Dark and Stormy Night (US, dir. Larry Blamire)—I approached this one with trepidation, not having liked Blamire's vintage sci-fi parodies (The Lost Skelton of Cadavra, Trail of the Screaming Forehead). Here he takes on the Haunted House genre, and comes up with a spoof that's ambitious, reverent and often enough, completely nuts. All the tropes show up—the reading of a will, secret panels, an escaped maniac from the local asylum, ancestral portraits with roving eyeballs, expository monologues—everything but the sour-faced female caretaker. Blamire expertly lifts all this from such films as The Cat and the Canary, The Dark Old House and the spooky comedies of The Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. Not all of the two dozen stock characters work equally well, but I happily found my least favorites getting bumped off early in the proceedings. Among the ones who fortunately live through the night are a pair of bickering guy/gal reporters straight out of His Girl Friday, and a turbaned, Andrea Martin-channeling medium.

Shameless (Czech Republic, dir. Jan Hrebejk)—In this droll, melancholic little film about the foibles of adult relationships, TV weatherman Oskar gets the heave-ho when his wife discovers he's screwing their Hungarian au pair. After losing his job, he begins a new career driving drunks home from bars, which is how he meets his new love, an older celebrated Czech songstress. Meanwhile, his ex-wife meets a blue collar single dad who loves her big nose, and the two have sex for the first time in her ex-husband's childhood bedroom. Slight, piquant, and oddly satisfying, Shameless has a low key charm that could use some of the edginess that underscored Hrebejk's earlier works like Up and Down and Beauty in Trouble.

Hellsinki (Finland, dir. Aleksi Mäkelä)—Booze was illegal in 1960s Finland, giving rise to a bootlegger underground in the depressed Helsinki neighborhood of Rööperi. This solid, but unremarkable genre yarn follows the fates of three small time gangsters through a decade and a half's worth of up-and-downward mobility. When alcohol starts being sold legally in 1969, more nefarious career options arise for the trio. Krisu (Peter Franzen) takes his thuggery to Sweden and returns home a junkie, while momma's boy Kari intentionally screws up a bank robbery to regain the sanctuary of prison life. Meanwhile, troubled hothead Tom gets married and makes a fortune in the burgeoning mail-order porn biz. The film has been tagged a Finnish Goodfellas, which is in many ways an apt comparison. Actor Peter Franzen is expected to attend the festival.

Superstar (Iran, dir. Tamineh Milani)—An insufferably arrogant and bellyaching movie star has his life changed when an impudent, self-righteous—oops, I mean spunky—precocious young girl shows up and claims to be his long lost daughter from a forgotten affair. This is so not my thing. I'd had all I could stand 20 minutes before reaching the end, which I understand contains some sort of twist. Milani is said to be one of Iran's top directors and this sentimental melodrama made gobs of rials for the country's cinemas. Recommended for those with a curiosity about mainstream Iranian crowd pleasers.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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