Seattle International Film Festival report #2

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Documentaries don’t come more enjoyable that The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls

“Based on a true story” is the theme of today’s column (well, of the first two reviews anyway). Those five little words can be a blessing or a curse when it comes to feature films. If the film is good it adds an extra dimension of appreciation (and may have an educational benefit as well by encouraging people to look up the real story), whereas if the film is bad it accentuates the ineptitude of the people involved. If you walk out thinking that the filmmakers used the power of fiction to express some truth about the events portrayed then they did their job. However, if you walk out thinking that the only interesting thing in the film was its premise and that the filmmakers tried to capitalize on public interest in the events portrayed as a replacement for actually creating a meaningful fictional film, then they copped out no matter how many tickets are sold.

So let’s start with an example of a film which makes good use of real events. Farewell by Christian Carion is a Cold War spy thriller centering on espionage which helped bring down the Soviet Union. It’s 1981 and KGB colonel Serguei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica; the character is based on Vladimir Vetrov), nicknamed “Farewell,” passes classified documents to Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a French engineer working in Moscow. The documents, which reveal KGB knowledge of the West’s military and intelligence structures, are then passed on to French president Francois Mitterand (Philippe Magnan) and from him to U.S. president Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward), when the latter can pull himself away from his obsession with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The period feel is remarkable and Kusturica and Canet do a marvelous job portraying the deepening relationship between the two men as well as the human motivations and consequences of their choices. Grigoriev is motivated by concern for his son’s future, while Froment is constantly torn between the importance of the work he is accomplishing (as a nonprofessional he falls under the Soviet radar) and danger it poses to his wife and young children.

 

In contrast, the much-hyped Holy Rollers squanders the fascination inherent in its story of a young Hasidic man who becomes involved in smuggling Ecstasy from Europe to the United States. As someone living in New York City at the time of the real events (the late 1990s), I can tell you that it was was all anyone could talk about. So the first thing you have to wonder is why this story took so long to make it to the big screen, and the second is how a feature based on so promising a premise could go so wrong. Director Kevin Asch and writer Antonio Macia found quite a few ways to blow it: The script is mechanical, the portrayal of the Hasidic community is superficial, and the film makes no attempt to get inside the heads and hearts of its characters. Jesse Eisenberg plays Sam Gold, the 20-year-old Hasid at the center of the story, as his Adventureland character dressed up in peyes and a broad-brimmed hat; although, in fairness, some of the supporting players are better, most notably Justin Bartha as Yosef Zimmerman, the neighbor who lures Gold into the “medicine” trade.

Letters to Father Jacob, directed by Klaus Haro, Finland’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, is a fictional film which feels like real life. In fact it’s a small-scale masterpiece due in large part to the understated but resonant acting of the principals and superb cinematography by Tuomo Hutri. Recently pardoned Leila (Kaarina Hazard) is assigned to work in rural Finland as an assistant for elderly pastor Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), who has become blind. Many people write him asking for advice and assistance, and her main duty is reading aloud this correspondence and writing down his replies. Leila is one hard-bitten character (she was in prison for murder and even the local mail carrier is afraid of her) and, rather predictably, doesn’t warm to the task or to Father Jacob. Over time a bond grows between them, and when he suffers a crisis of faith Leila responds with humanity and receives an unexpected blessing in return.

If you like mumblecore but also have a fondness for production values, then The Freebie, written and directed by and also starring Kate Aselton, may be right up your alley. Annie (Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) are happily married but the spark has gone out of their relationship (Darren says he gets only “cuddle boners” for Annie these days). Rather than consider this situation as adults, they decide to revert to their single years and take a night off from fidelity. They discuss this decision endlessly both before and after the night in question, and that’s pretty much all that happens in the film. It’s a well-done film of its type and there are several personnel overlaps with Humpday, including cinematographer Ben Kasulke and editor Nat Sander, so if you find the setup fascinating and are willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief then you’ll enjoy this film. On the other hand, if you have limited tolerance for characters in or approaching their thirties who are no wiser than the average teenager, then you’ll probably want to give it a miss.

Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu, who directed the inspirational but overstuffed Live and Become (2005), tries his hand at comedy with The Concert. The film works remarkably well, considering how many different tones, from slapstick to melodrama, it invokes, and as a bonus provides some excellent classical music. Thirty years ago, politics ended the musical career of conductor Andrei Filipov (Alexei Guskov) who now works as a janitor at the Bolshoi Ballet. One day he intercepts a fax from the Chatelet Theatre in Paris—they want to book the Bolshoi orchestra for one concert—and enlists his old musical buddies (presumably also disgraced, since they work as ambulance drivers and such) to take the gig instead. In the real world they’d have as much chance of successfully performing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would have playing in the NBA today, but magical realism comes to the rescue and the end result is improbably enjoyable. Melanie Laurent and Miou-Miou are excellent as a beautiful violin soloist and her guardian, respectively.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is the first documentary devoted to this native son of St. Louis. It’s straightforward in terms of technique (mostly archival materials and talking heads), but all the elements are well-chosen and create a good sense of who Burroughs was and why he merits our attention today. Director Yony Leyser doesn’t attempt to tone down Burroughs’ essential strangeness but also honors his literary importance with many clips of Burroughs reading his own work as well as others (John Waters, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, biographer Victor Bockris) discussing him and his influence. Burroughs used his privileged position in society (his grandfather founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company) to live life on his own terms, hiding neither his homosexuality nor his drug use while refusing to follow the rules of the contemporary gay and junkie subcultures as surely as he scorned the norms of mainstream American society. Waters said he learned from Burroughs’ example not how to be gay, but how to be a rebellious gay, and that’s a fine legacy for Burroughs to add to his many literary achievements.

Finally, documentaries don’t come more enjoyable that The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, which has already scooped up some significant international awards, including a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and Most Popular Documentary at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Like the Burroughs film, it’s a well-executed, straightforward documentary with a fascinating subject. Press materials describe Jools and Linda Topp, born in a small town in New Zealand, as “the world’s only comedic, country singing, dancing and yodeling lesbian twin sisters” while Billy Bragg describes their act “anarchist variety show.” But they’re no freak show; these sisters are accomplished performers and you get plenty of chances to see them strut their stuff in Leanne Pooley’s documentary. Interviews with the sisters, family members and industry professionals help establish context and discuss the political influence of their act. | Sarah Boslaugh

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