Monday, March 11, 2019

SIFF/MoPOP: Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival

Saturday afternoon was the 14th annual Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival at the Egyptian theater in Capitol Hill.  This is a joint venture of SIFF and MoPOP.  Now, this festival may sound like fun - and it's true that every year it sells out - but, frankly, it is not.  In fact, it's brutal: sixteen films spread out over five hours with a sixty minute intermission.  Only a handful of these films are any good; the majority of them are dreadful.  It's a marathon of mediocrity.  And that hour intermission doesn't help, either; it should have been fifteen minutes.  In fact, there should not be an intermission.  There should be only two hours of movies, not four.  And if we narrowed it down to the movies that weren't dreck, we would have been in and out in about forty minutes.  Still, a handful of films were noteworthy.

In The Narrow World a gigantic alien craft lands in Los Angeles.  He hasn’t come to destroy us, or to warn us, or to even communicate with us.  In fact, he doesn’t do anything at all.  He’s a bit of a bum.  Immense and possessing insect-like wings, he goes to the beach in the mornings, and then goes to watch the airplanes take off and land at LAX in the afternoon.  That’s it.  (Maybe he’s here for the weed?)  The cinematography of him wandering around LA county is magnificent.  The Narrow World is in the mock-documentary mode, and two scientists - a man and woman - separately appear on screen, each attempting to explain the alien to us.  Apparently his complete indifference to humanity has greatly demoralized the earth’s population.  We just don’t matter to him - and that kind of hurts.  So far, so good.  In fact, very good.  The fifteen-minute film should have ended there.  But it didn’t (and here come the spoilers).  It turns out that the alien craft doesn’t really exist.  Those two scientists are actually lovers, and they’re going through a hard patch.  The alien is a metaphor for the man’s inability to communicate with his woman.  But the lady isn’t giving up on him.  She’s committed to break through and save the relationship.  End of film.  I sigh with disappointment.

From Norway comes The Restrictor.  In a society in which happiness is given out in monthly liquid doses, those who overuse it, or abuse the rules (no sharing of your allotment) are subject to punishment.  A nicely crafted film by Jade Aksnes.  Well-acted.  Good premise.  A bad guy you hate.  One may chuckle at the idea that a society in which people aren’t allowed to be too happy sounds like Norway today rather than in the future, but nonetheless this is a memorable and involving movie.

From Yves Paradis (wonderful name, let me add) comes the animated short M52, which was improvised over the course of a year, a new segment added each week.  There's not much of a story in it.  A figure pushes around a block in a strange landscape, another figure appears, they take some green pills, a tree grows, people have tea in the jungle with animals.  It all may be short on coherence, but you don’t care.  Paradis keeps you interested.  A strange but compelling ten minutes, as you can sense from the trailer above.  In all honesty I think it's best to watch this film when you’re stoned.

Also enjoyable is J. P. Chan's brief Cosmic Dental Associates of Clifton, NJ.  It’s a fake TV commercial about the fabulous astro-dental services available at this imaginary clinic.  If you have a comet flying around in your mouth, or remnants of the Crab Nebula are lighting up your teeth, then Cosmic Dental Associates can fix it.  Doctors and patients give their testimonials ("We treat you like family.").  Very funny and clever.

But the best film in the festival was Brian and Charles.  Like The Narrow World, this is also a mock documentary.  Brian is a lonely sheep farmer living in Britain and one winter when he was feeling very down indeed he built his own robot, Charles.  Charles is the strangest, most shoddy-looking robot you've ever seen.  His head is not quite aligned with his torso, his arms seem to be on different planes, he's balding.  And his personality isn't particularly sparkling either.  He's a bit daft.  But none of this matters to Brian.  Charles is soon his best mate.  The friendship starts to break apart - over, of all things, cabbages - but the two are reconciled in the end.  As we all know, relationships, even with robots, take work.  This movie, directed by Jim Archer, is hilarious and yet weirdly poignant.  It's like Of Mice and Men but with a happy ending and a robot and set in England and with cabbages instead of rabbits (so in many ways, as you can see, it's much much better than Of Mice and Men).  It stars David Earl as Brian and Chris Hayward as Charles.  The two men are also given the writing credits, which makes me think that this film was probably improvised by them.  It is inspiredly goofy, and, luckily, you can watch the whole thing below.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Describing a Nation

Distrust the description of every nation when it can be easily described.  If a people can really be covered by an adjective, you may be certain that it is the wrong adjective. 
      - G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News
              December 5, 1908

Monday, March 04, 2019

NLFF: Woman at War

Friday evening was opening night of the 10th annual Nordic Lights Film Festival at SIFF Uptown - a weekend of the best films from Scandinavian countries and islands.  Appropriately, it is co-sponsored by Seattle’s Nordic Museum. 

The premiere film of the festival was Woman at War, a winsome and first-rate Icelandic comedy/drama about, of all things, eco-terrorism.  The woman of the title is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a forty-nine year old music teacher, who wages a one-person war against the industries disfiguring her country and destroying the global environment.  Pictures of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela hang on the wall at her home so her actions are about as non-violent as a terrorist’s actions could be.  The film opens with her out in the Icelandic countryside bringing down power lines using nothing more than a bow and arrow and some wire. Her courage, resourcefulness, and prowess with the bow make her a worthy descendant of her Viking forebearers.  But in the midst of leading this double life, she is notified by an adoption agency that an application she submitted four years earlier has now been processed and there is a young orphan girl, Nika (Margaryta Hilska), waiting for her in the Ukraine. 

One of the charms of this film is the effortless and skillful way it juxtaposes the personal and political, the small and the large, the present and the future.  Nika’s mother and father were both killed in the recent fighting in the Ukraine.  Nika went to stay with her Grandmother, but was found alone in the apartment with the grandmother dead.  She has no one.  Inclined to wriggle out of the adoption at first, Halla’s heart melts once she hears Nika’s story and sees a picture of her.  This is a good she can do now.  Halla has a twin sister, Åsa (also played by Geirharðsdóttir), a yoga instructor of deep, if occasionally silly, spirituality.  Her greatest ambition is to secluded herself in an Indian Ashram for a few years and meditate.  “Save one person and you save the world,” she tells her more aggressive twin when she learns about Nika.  We know this touches Halla to the core.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir

Director Benedikt Erlingsson, along with co-writer Ólafur Egilsson, has fashioned a thoughtful comedy about politics, responsibility, and sacrifice.  In its own way Woman at War even raises that fundamental Philosophy and Ethics 101 question - what course of life is best?  That it doesn’t answer that question definitively is to its credit.  And don’t think for a minute that Woman at War is ever preachy or self-righteous.  No, no, no.  Erlingsson is too smart a director for that.  He tells his tale and lets the viewer find any deeper meanings if they choose.  In fact, my one complaint with this film is Erlinsson's addiction to a goofy joke that, to my mind, soon wears thin.  The film’s music, composed by Davið þór Jónsson, is performed by a trio consisting of drum, piano, and tuba.  It plays in the opening scene when Halla brings down the power lines.  As she makes her getaway, the camera pans with her as she sprints through a field and we see the actual trio there in the background playing the music.  It’s a nice whimsical joke.  But Erlingsson doesn’t let it go.  The trio keep popping up throughout the film - in Halla’s home, standing on the roadside, etc. - every time the music plays.  I found this distracting and ultimately cloying, though, frankly, the rest of the audience never grew tired of it.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and Margaryta Hilska

Geirharðsdóttir's beautiful leading performance is at the heart of this film.  It's not an easy task to make a terrorist sympathetic.  Most actors can do passion, but political passion, especially to the point of violence, is a whole other beast.  Believability is the issue; most actors are simply not convincing as terrorists, revolutionaries, etc.  (Some of them are scarcely believable as actors.)  But Geirharðsdóttir pulls it off.  We feel her commitment to her cause in every action. When Halla distributes her manifesto, literally throwing copies of it from a rooftop, the Icelandic government soon spins it to their own advantage.  Halla simply stares at the TV in shock, feeling completely powerless and even betrayed by the government's distortion of her message.  At the same time, Geirharðsdóttir manages to convey Halla's innocence in thinking they would do otherwise.  As Åsa, she has created an entirely separate character.  In that strange way of siblings, the sisters are totally different and yet very much the same.  In fact, this is as much a film about the bonds of family as it is about politics.  The beefy Jóhann Sigurðarson was also very good as Sveinbjörn, a farmer who shelters Halla when she's running from the authorities.  From their discussions we learn that they may have a common, and very randy, kinsman from the past; it turns out they may be cousins (or "alleged cousins" as Sveinbjörn puts it).  And, finally, there's the Woman at War's breathtaking cinematography by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.  Much of this film takes place in the Icelandic countryside, and Björgúlfsson's sweeping and majestic camerawork does for that landscape what Lucien Ballard did for the American West.