Some critics hail Takashi Miike a maverick genius whose radical films rank with Cronenberg. Others perceive his often-grotesque work as simply rank. Personally, I’d classify him as a hit-or-miss auteur. Sometimes, he bats one out of the park (“Audition”). Other times, he’s just coasting on past laurels (“Agitator”). With “Izo,” he appears to be repeating himself, getting off on chambara samurai stories intercut with some truly bizarre stock footage. Instructional films of reproductive organs and live births dance in and out of “Izo” for no apparent reason. Historical newsreel footage inexplicably crops up between scenes. Like some experimental college film helmed by peyote-guzzling Ed Wood protégés, “Izo” drowns us in disconnect with its unrelated, “everything but the kitchen sink” randomness.
“Izo” opens with a man jerking and grimacing from a crucifix. Things get worse. Two soldiers begin jabbing him with spears, and Miike’s trademark bloody mayhem spurts from the screen. Then, the director vomits up a few seconds of black and white news footage of World War II, to druggy, disorienting effect. A Goth snake charmer soon emerges, proclaiming, “A man is coming with malice. He has a soul, but is soul-less.” Eh?
Apparently, Miike’s current film is based on Izo Okada, an authentic historical figure in samurai history known for his particularly nasty temper. “Izo” begins as this irritable
cuss meets his cross-bound demise. But death is just the beginning. Soon, there’s a black-caped avenger in the neighborhood. A bystander asks, “Who do you bear a grudge against?” The stranger, a kind of Japanese Man With No Name, responds, “All that exists.” It is incensed Izo, freshly resurrected as a street bum in contemporary Tokyo to punt rump on traitors from his past life.
Miike’s penchant for shock sequences is in full force here. “My penis once rubbed your love pot,” Izo reminisces to a zombified hag with the skin condition and anger management issues of a GWAR band member. Although it’s certainly an eyebrow-raising moment when this old flame pulls a dagger from said love pot, viewers must then deal with more archival news footage. To make matters worse, a beatnik guitarist chimes in now and then to growl out the most shrill, ear-shattering tunes this side of Wild Man Fischer. What the hell is going on here?
Takeshi “Beat” Kitano makes an appearance as a shady adversary of Izo, but even this stone-faced icon’s Eastern Eastwood persona can’t save Miike’s film. As Izo hacks and slices his way through this poorly lit, shoddily shot disappointment, viewers can be excused for taking a snooze in preparation for more memorable SIFF fare. Sleeping through a Takashi Miike movie? That’s gotta be a first.
Familiar in a different way is “La Sierra,” a grim documentary tour through one of Colombia’s most notorious barrios. We share in the curious horror of a street crowd hovering over a young man’s bloated, recently discovered carcass. “Why?” shrieks a teenaged girl, holding face in hands. “He was the father of my children!” She can’t be more than eighteen. Welcome to La Sierra, where gunfire pops from dusk ‘til dawn, and paramilitary right-wingers engage in a 40-year civil war with guerilla troops. “We are in the hands of kids with guns,” an older resident observes with brutal accuracy.
Directors Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez establish the ambiance in downtown Meddelin, where street vendors peddle Pink Panther Balloons and flower bouquets. A taxi driver wraps a crucifix around his vehicle’s rear view mirror. Then the cameras probe deeper, into the hillside neighborhood inhabited by 22-year-old Edison. A paramilitary soldier, Edison spreads his own seed as efficiently as he spreads semi-automatic bullets: he’s a macho playboy with numerous children borne of several mothers. Meanwhile, he boasts, “I’ve never been charged with any of the homicides I actually did.”
Predictably, the fragmented family culture that emerges is sad, depressing, and doomed. A 17-year-old gangster mourns the loss of his brother, killed by guerillas. A 19-year-old named Jesus snorts lines of blow, and explains his “live for today” mentality by admitting, “There are more wars to come, so you have to enjoy this life – what little your have” Jesus knows that life is fragile: while trying to build a grenade, the device exploded, blowing his hand off in the process. The youngster spent 15 days hospitalized, where medics also treated wounds to his face and genitals. When an interviewer asks if he expects to die young, Jesus answers, “Of course.”
The downward spiral continues in front of us, as tiny tots pledge vengeance against their father’s murderers, and neighborhood girls become exotic dancers and prostitutes. “La Sierra” stuns us like a shotgun blast to the face when one of its main subjects meets an early, unexpected demise. Well, maybe unexpected is a stretch. The waves of street violence that stain “La Sierra” will go on for generations to come.
Dalton and Martinez spent a year in Colombia and shot 100 hours of film to capture “La Sierra.” It’s an admirable work, pulling us into the homes of these young gun-toters with a casual matter-of-factness that’s startling. That’s why it troubles me that I felt such a numbing sense of déjà vu during the film. Maybe it’s because the kids-as-criminals cinema wave that’s taken theaters hostage is becoming redundant. Fernando Meirelles’ unforgettable “City of God” and its documentary counterpart, Katia Lund’s “News from a Personal War,” still provide the best insight into why kids from rootless societies brandish firearms before losing their baby teeth.
Hungary’s Attila Janisch has been selected by SIFF as one of this year’s four Emerging Masters. According to festival press notes, the status is given to “potential cinematic masters whose films evince an original voice,” and past recipients have included Michael Winterbottom, Tom Twyker, and Takashi Miike. Owner of dark, shoulder-length hair and a rock star’s charismatic eyes, Janisch resembles a Jim Morrison-styled teen idol. It’s startling, then, to find that the director’s aesthetic is drab and minimal to an extreme. “After the Day Before” is set almost entirely in the rural villages of his native Hungary, where rusty gas pumps, dilapidated pubs, and the occasional sunflower field co-exist in dreary, uneventful harmony. And while it’s billed as a thriller, Janisch’s dreamlike, Lynchian buildups are late bloomers, taking their time to develop and culminate into anything truly gripping.
“After the Day Before” is seen almost entirely through the naïve eyes of a bicycle-riding stranger (Tibor Gaspar). In search of a family estate that he has inherited, the tentative, overcoat-wearing man brings to mind Kyle MacLachlan’s voyeuristic innocent from “Blue Velvet.” He meets an angry, husband-hating wife and her angry, mother-hating daughter. He watches a father and son erupt into heated arguments. He glimpses a young couple running towards a cliff. He listens to the hateful, misogynistic gossip of longtime locals. Ultimately, he finds that a young girl has been viciously murdered.
“After the Day Before” is a prime example of live-it-or-hate-it cinema. It moves at a snail’s pace, as Tabor shuffles from one bleak location to the next in a dreamlike fog that transcends traditional, linear structure. The ending certainly provides a wallop, but is it worth the trying, time-consuming trip? You be the judge.
Why do SIFF filmmakers max out credit cards, quit jobs, and essentially put their conventional lives on hold to make movies? Through intimate Q & A’s held after film screenings, festivals provide the answer. Raven-haired, L.A.-based Jessica Sanders revealed that “After Innocence,” her startling examination of unjustly convicted men exonerated by DNA evidence, bloomed from the seeds of personal observation. After working as an associate producer and camera operator for NBC’s “Crime and Punishment,” Sanders explained to a festival crowd her growing skepticism over America’s sentencing process. “I really had seen how adversarial the system was, and did see some defendants whom I thought were being unfairly sentenced. I started to see how complex the system was.”
Following 2 ½ years working on “Crime and Punishment,” Sanders received an e-mail from her production partner – also an attorney – suggesting that she pursue a film concerning DNA exonerees. “I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a film done on this subject,” Sanders exclaimed.
“After Innocence” is a well researched, emotionally wrenching insider’s look at several men convicted of rape, who were subsequently proven innocent by DNA evidence. The subject matter is so volatile that it stands on its own – there’s no need for fancy artistic flourishes or Michael Moore-ish narrative irony to beef it up. In an inspired move, Sanders takes us beyond her subjects’ releases from prison and into their lives beyond incarceration. What is it like to re-enter society with the scarlet letter of “guilty” forever branded on your face?
Take North Carolina’s Ronald Cotton, identified from a police line-up by rape victim Jennifer Thompson-Camino as her attacker in 1984. Over a decade later, DNA evidence confirmed that it was Bobby Poole, not Cotton, who had committed the crime. “After Innocence” informs us that this type of mis-identification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction. Meanwhile, with years of Cotton’s police photos burned into her brain, Thompson-Camino admitted that a permanent correlation between the innocent man and her attack had been forged. “Cotton’s face was so ingrained in my memory,” she recalls in the film, “I didn’t even recognize Bobbie Poole.”
The film’s objective reporting on these cases is interesting on its own. But the more intimate human dramas surrounding the men’s courtroom vindications make up the heart of “After Innocence.” While Cotton may never retrieve the years that he spent behind bars, he did win the respect and friendship of his one-time accuser. Thompson-Camino has become a close comrade, and when the film captures both of these traumatized souls walking together as understanding chums, we admire their forgiveness and strength.
Then there’s Massachusetts-based Dennis Maher, a gentle giant whose bushy moustache and working-class manner bring to mind Dennis Franz (“LAPD Blue”). Convicted of three unrelated rape counts in 1983, Maher spent 19 years in prison. Understandably, his family was shattered. “When he got arrested,” says his father in the film, “I felt like I got arrested with him.” While locked up, Maher was busy finding a way to bring the truth to light. After viewing an episode of the Phil Donahue show in which DNA testing was explained, he sent the T.V. talk-show host a letter from prison, outlining his story. Maher was referred to the Innocence Project, a charity-based legal consultation service coordinated by Barry Sheck (yes, that Barry Sheck, from the O.J. Simpson defense team). He was exonerated by DNA evidence in April, 2003.
Maher pulled his life back together, obtaining steady employment and starting a family. During a telephone interview, Sanders suggested two factors impacting his success. “Dennis’ prosecutor apologized to him,” she explained. “This might seem so simple, but it was a huge part of his healing process. Dennis was also unique in that he was the only one from the film who had the benefit of prison therapy. He can cry. He’s in touch with his emotions.”
“After Innocence” won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and went on to claim the Women in Cinema Lena Sharpe Award at SIFF. The film is quick to point out that the struggles continues for these men, even after their convictions are overturned. Ever wondered what it might feel like to fill out an application for employment, reach the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime,” and not know which box to check? According to one subject, it requires $6,000 and considerable paperwork to expunge records of the crime, even after exoneration. Then there’s the sad tale of Wilton Dedge, who remained behind bars for three years following proof of his innocence. “After Innocence” concludes as Dedge is finally released from prison, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house as this sad-faced Florida man is seen returning home after 22 years of wrongful imprisonment.
So there you have it. Another SIFF banquet that lived up to its “Feast Your Eyes” slogan by satiating the eyes and the mind with millions of images. You’ve seen my reactions. What follows is a recap of the festival’s final award recipients.
GOLDEN SPACE NEEDLE AWARDS
– Golden Space Needle Award for Best Picture: Innocent Voices (Mexico)
Directed by Luis Mandoki and written and produced by Oscar Torres based on his own childhood experience during the El Salvador civil war.
1st Runner Up for Golden Space Needle Award for Best Picture is Howl’s Moving Castle (Japan) directed by Hayao Miyazaki; 2nd Runner Up is As it is in Heaven (Sweden) directed by Kay Pollak; 3rd Runner Up is Banlieue 13 (France) directed by Pierre Morel; 4th Runner Up is Yesterday (South Africa) directed by Darrell James Roodt.
– Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary: Murderball (USA) Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
1st Runner Up for Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary is The March of the Penguins (France) directed by Luc Jacquet; 2nd Runner-up is After Innocence (USA) directed by Jessica Sanders; 3rd Runner-up is Mad Hot Ballroom (USA) directed by Marilyn Agrelo; and Fishermen’s Terminal (USA) directed by B.J. Bullert was 4th Runner Up.
– Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director: Gregg Araki, Mysterious Skin (USA)
1st Runner Up for Golden Space Needle Award for Best Director is Sally Potter for Yes (USA); 2nd Runner Up Susanne Bier for Brothers (Denmark); 3rd Runner Up is a three way tie–Wong Kar-wai for 2046 (Hong Kong), Kim Ki-duk for 3-Iron (South Korea) and Alice Wu for Saving Face (USA); and Drew Emery for Inlaws and Outlaws is 4th Runner Up.
– Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actress: Joan Allen, Yes (USA)
1st Runner Up for Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actress is Maggie Cheung for Clean (France); 2nd Runner Up is Glenn Close for Heights (USA); 3rd Runner Up is Shirley Henderson for Frozen (United Kingdom); and 4th Runner Up is Amy Adams for Junebug (USA).
-Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actor: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin (USA)
1st Runner Up for Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actor is Peter Sarsgaard for The Dying Gaul (USA); 2nd Runner Up is Mathieu Amalric for King and Queens (France); 3rd Runner Up is Romain Duris for The Beat That My Heart Skipped (France); and the 4th Runner Up is Parviz Parastui for The Lizard (Iran).
-Golden Space Needle Award for Best Short: The Raftman’s Razor (USA) directed by Keith Bearden (winner receives fabulous Power Mac G5 courtesy of IrisInk and Seattle Mac Store).
1st Runner Up for Golden Space Needle Award for Best Short is While the Widow is Away (USA) directed by Adam Reid; 2nd Runner Up is La Vie d’un Chien (USA) directed by John Harden; 3rd Runner Up is Cashback (United Kingdom) directed by Sean Ellis; and The Mantis Parable (USA) directed by Joshua Staub is 4th Runner Up.
Women in Cinema Lena Sharpe Award: After Innocence, directed by Jessica Sanders
Inaugural Seattle Filmmakers Award: Sean Kirby, Cinematographer: The Gits and Police Beat