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By KJ Doughton | May 28, 2008

Imagine living in the Star Wars universe, amid light sabers, Wookies, and Death Stars. Where would you catch a film festival? Or more specifically, how far would you pilot a TIE fighter to find Sundance? That’s a no-brainer. The arctic whiteness of planet Hoth could easily stand in for Park City, Utah’s similar ski ‘n snow terrain. How about Austin Texas’ SXSW Fest? That’s a cinch, too. Tatooine, with its dusty-brown desertscapes and barren, wide-open spaces would do just fine.

The Seattle International Film Festival, meanwhile, could only exist in the woodsy confines of Ewok-inhabited Endor, with that planet’s Puget Sound style emerald foliage and old-growth timber. In fact, the Space Needle, Experience Music Project, and Science Fiction Museum – high tech urban landmarks from our real-life, nonfiction Pacific Northwest – might already exist in one of the more urbanized, intergalactic pockets from George Lucas’ massive mythology.

This Year’s SIFF, which kicked off on May 22nd and is slated to continue through June 15th, has its share of futuristic celluloid (like France’s “Chrysalis,” hyped as “A Clockwork Orange” meets “Blade Runner”). Yet, perhaps reminding us that we live in the real world and not some made-up galaxy far, far away, the festival’s serious dramas far outweigh its escapist fare. Take “Battle in Seattle,” Stuart Townsend’s fictionalized drama concerning the World Trade Organization protests of 1999, which opened SIFF complete with a red-carpet gala and appearances by director Stuart Townsend and stars Charlize Theron, Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, and Andre Benjamin.

In typical Film Threat style, yours truly missed the star-studded festivities surrounding “Battle in Seattle,” preferring to seek out more obscure wall-shadows of less ballyhooed movie fare. There was plenty to choose from. As the largest film festival in America, this 34th SIFF has grown leaps and bounds from its embryonic phase as a series of 18 films at one theater. It now boasts 247 features and 150 shorts shown on over ten theater screens. Hell – there’s even an official SIFF Lounge at Moe Bar, perfect for post-movie pick-ups. (“Hey, baby… want some company after the next screening of Martin Gero’s ‘Young People F*****g?’”)

What follows is an initial installment of SIFF sneak peaks, following the first weekend of this marathon festival’s 25-day duration.

You’ll swear you smell gunpowder during the earthshaking gunfights of “Elite Squad.” Forget John Woo’s Hong Kong, or Sergio Leone’s West. With bullet-slinging gusto, director Jose Padilha (“Bus 174”) proudly pronounces Rio de Janeiro the bloodiest onscreen locale in history. It’s 1997, and officer Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a Brazilian “Dirtiest Harry,” leads his beret-wearing band of crime fighters where other law enforcers fear to tread. As chief strategist for a SWAT-like rapid response unit dubbed The Skulls, Nascimento keeps dope cartels under control with take-no-prisoners police tactics. Having trouble getting a detained drug-runner to finger his fellow felons? Call in Nascimento to employ his patented bag-over-head, near-suffocation interrogation technique. Presto! A snitch is born.

Nascimento might be a monster, but his formidable, drug-trafficking foes are worse, infesting the clusters of honeycomb styled favela huts built up and down Brazil’s dirty-brown hillsides. Brandishing AK-47’s, vicious cartel kingpins aren’t beyond trapping a traitor inside a wall of rubber tires, dousing him with gasoline, then torching the whole flesh and rubber mass for a human bonfire. Obviously, Nascimento has his work cut out for him. The brutality of his beat is taxing, bringing on tremors, panic attacks, and pill-popping. With a long-suffering wife about to give birth, the weary officer plans to leave Skull-squad life. First, however, he must choose a successor to fill his callous, kick-a*s shoes.

Two rookie recruits stand out. One is Neto (Caio Junqueira), a beefy, wild-eyed hothead. The other is Matias (Andre Ramiro), a cool, more restrained do-gooder whose true ambition is to practice law. Will either have the cajones to take over the Skulls? “Elite Squad” gives great action, but its jolting firepower is in service of resonant individual stories. Padilha illustrates how the stigma of a cop career impedes one’s social options. He also revisits “Serpico” turf by showing idealism being tarnished through money-grubbing corruption (one darkly comic scene shows dirty cops dumping crime-scene bodies onto into another precinct, to cut down on their office paperwork).

Like “City of God,” its obvious counterpart, “Elite Squad” would be nearly unbearable to watch were it not for the film’s invigorating energy and relentless pacing. We’re never given time to completely acknowledge the shellshocked hell of Nascimento’s world, the better to endure Padilha’s ferocious tale to its bitter end. “Elite Squad” might make for a despairing world vision, but as filmmaking, it kicks like a mule strung out on crystal.

A missionary couple with unresolved marital problems falls prey to corrupt cops and h***y heroin smugglers in “Transsiberian,” a decent thriller that derails only during a preposterous finale. Roy and Jesse (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are an American husband and wife aboard the Transsiberian Railway. Having completed a church-sponsored stint in China helping needy children, the nerdy Roy and reformed wild child Jesse hope this China-to-Russia train trip will strengthen their rickety relationship.

Roy is a grinning, awe-shucks train trivia geek. A self-proclaimed people person, there’s no self-conscious hiding or skeletons in his closet: what you see is what you get. The more complicated Jesse is a recovering alcoholic who met Roy during the most romantic of circumstances – a fender-bending car wreck. No stranger to jail time and detox, she has traded in both for a life of church-going sobriety with her straight-arrow spouse.

Temptation comes calling in the form of Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), who share a train stall with these novice Yank travelers. A swaggering, Spanish stud embodying amoral hedonism with his flirting eyes, untamed mane and tattoos, Carlos is soon coming on to Jesse. Abby, meanwhile, is a female Seattle runaway whose guarded, tentative manner suggests a secret agenda for being on the train.

Drugs, torture, and suspense ensue. “Transsiberian” works best as a character study of Mortimer’s Jesse, a woman being squeezed in the claustrophobic clutches of her own dishonesty. She’s a reformed bad girl struggling to stay faithful and straight, and the actress convincingly conveys her every dormant, unhealthy craving.

Ben Kingsley is also credible as Grinko, a Russian narcotics detective disenchanted with the deteriorating state of his country. When patriotic, pinko-hating Roy denounces the old Soviet Union as “Evil,” Grinko counters that the new version isn’t all democratic bliss. “Our people were living in darkness,” he explains. “Now they’re dying in the light.”

The film ends with a far-fetched escape and conventional action finale that undermine the smart psychology explored in earlier scenes. Still, “Transsiberian” is worth seeing for Mortimer’s strong performance as a woman struggling to keep her demons at bay. Director Brad Anderson’s film also echoes “Hostel” as a cautionary tale for American tourists traveling abroad, one-upping that film by suggesting a torture worse than eyeball torching or hamstring slicing. The most grueling punishment for Transsiberian Railway riders is something far worse: enduring the music of Barry Manilow and Captain & Tennille as it’s piped into your train cabins day and night.

“Boy A,” one of the most gripping, thought provoking dramas ever to ponder crime and punishment, opens with a stark white light. The ghostly illumination suggests a clean slate and new beginning for its soon-to-be-introduced title character. As a child in the UK, Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield) acted as accomplice to a sociopathic peer in the heinous murder of a young girl. The notorious crime culminates in several years’ incarceration for both boys. Years later, Jack has reached adulthood and is released under a shroud of secrecy. His uncle Terry (sensational Peter Mullan) acts as guardian angel to the released offender, finding Jack a rental room while re-introducing him to a society from which he’s long been absent.

While unaware the specific details, the British media is in hot pursuit, releasing a composite sketch of what they suspect the adult Jack resembles. Meanwhile, Terry assists him in acquiring work at a delivery service, while meeting with this surrogate son for regular check-ins. Soon, Jack has a girlfriend, drops ecstasy at a rave party, and rescues a young car wreck victim with co-worker Phillip (Taylor Doherty). Slowly but surely, he’s acquired a life, even as he keeps his past under wraps at the insistence of Terry.

Director John Crowley uses shrewd chronological flip-flops to challenge viewers. We never understand the complete crime until his film’s final reel, allowing audience members to follow Jack’s challenging community re-integration without judging his felonious past deed. Even after coming full circle, with ample knowledge of the crime, we still have an understanding of how the whole grim affair came to pass.

Understanding a crime is different than condoning it. “Boy A” accomplishes what “Monster” also achieved. It allows us insight into how and why terrible crimes and unspeakable acts are committed. Meanwhile, with tremendous tact and knowing subtlety, it informs us of what released offenders are up against. “Boy A” is a brilliant film.

It’s 1976 in Napa Valley, California, where “Bottle Shock” plays out. Maverick vineyards are barely surviving in a viticulture dominated be the French. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) owns Chateau Montelena, scraping by with bank loans he can no longer pay. “This is your third loan,” warns a local creditor. “You default, and we take over.”

Jim is a cowboy vintner, the kind of no-nonsense tough guy who builds a boxing ring in his orchard for resolving disputes with Bo (Chris Pine), his equally maverick son. A bong-sucking, golden-haired surfer dude, Bo smokes out to Doobie Brothers tunes when he should be helping dad cultivate Chardonnay.

Another “Bottle Shock” story thread involves Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British wine shop owner in Paris. This snobby advocate for French sipping fare concocts a clever publicity stunt. On America’s Bicentennial, Spurrier will host the Paris Tastings, in which French and American wines compete for top honors. Spurrier’s search for California competitors – whom he’s convinced will be disgraced come judging time – leads him to Chateau Montelena.

Viewers also meet Sam (Rachel Taylor), a blonde college intern whose shapely presence at the Barrett family vineyard prompts jealous rivalry between male staffers. Fresh from his turn as zombie-dusting Wray in “Planet Terror,” Freddy Rodriguez plays a Hispanic vintner concocting his own brand of wine, amidst hostile treatment from redneck truckers.

If “Bottle Shock” were booze, it would be shelved on the popular wine-cooler rack. Based on actual events, it’s a colorful, fun introduction to Napa Valley’s emergence as a wine making giant. Rickman is especially amusing as a nose-in-the-air elitist whose efforts to humiliate California backfire, to history-making effect.

However, the film flounders in its attempt to lure younger crowds into the theater. Curvaceous Taylor is framed purely as eye candy. When Sam isn’t boffing the help, she’s doffing her top at roadside to attract a ride. Pine, another looker, appears hungry to take over Brad Pitt’s beefcake throne. The presence of these sexy young things dilutes what could have been a sharper focus on the fascinating shift in wine-industry supremacy that makes up the heart of “Bottle Shock.”

Even so, director Randall Miller’s film is a gorgeously photographed hybrid of education and entertainment. Orchard trees take on almost fluorescent hues, poofing out like lime Afros against the brown Napa Valley soil. Spit out the tired love triangles and saccharine kids’ stuff, and sip the core story behind Miller’s tasty film hybrid. By the end credits, you’ll be smiling and pleasantly ripped.

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