By KJ Doughton | June 10, 2008

Forget the 2008 Seattle Film Festival opener “Battle in Seattle,” Stuart Townsend’s dramatized take on the WTO riots of 1999. For this year’s SIFF, the real skirmish lines were drawn on opposite sides of Capitol Hill’s Pine Street last Saturday.

To the South, a congregation of well-behaved festival-goers wrapped itself around the outside of the Egyptian Theater, waiting to vicariously soak up the skin, sun ‘n surfing depicted in Dan Castle’s “Newscastle.” To the North, three slovenly twentysomethings stumbled by with middle fingers extended, turning to the line of patient ticket-holders and proudly exclaiming, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rules!”

Clearly, the aging archaeologist’s dismissive cheering squad eyed the SIFF crowd as arrogant, snooty elitists. It was dedicated “Revenge of the Sith” fans upholding the honor of Old Guard gurus Spielberg and Lucas, versus “Revenge of the SIFF” explorers preferring to mine new cinematic ore and discovering the next wave of great filmmakers.

This amusing filmic face-off, occurring from a street cluttered with “Impeach Bush and Cheney” bumper stickers and sidewalks inhabited by seniors passing out “Death With Dignity” petitions, was proof that film-goers can be as fiercely impassioned as political activists.

It’s a pity, because film festivals are peaceful catalysts for unity. SIFF is no exception. Name another event where you can spend 25 days choosing from over 400 feature films and shorts from more than 60 countries. Where else can you mingle with 160,000 fellow film fanatics, debating the latest documentary on biodiesel fuel or reveling in the discovery of a brilliant new vampire flick?

But wait a minute. Perhaps polarization is the exception, and not the rule. Behind me in line, a female SIFF passholder turned to her friend and asks, “Did you see the new Indiana Jones? It’s wonderful!”

Maybe there’s room for both Indy and Indies after all.

During the second week of America’s largest film festival, yours truly acted as official SIFF Scout for Film Threat. Here’s the lowdown from Week Two.

In “Let the Right One In,” Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a pale, frail twelve year-old whose meek appearance masks ferocious anger. A schoolyard outcast bullied by various Future Sociopaths of Sweden, Oskar channels his deep-set rage into Travis Bickle-styled monologues. “Are you looking at me?” he asks a snow-covered tree outside the apartment shared with Mom, before stabbing the trunk with a gleaming, silver pocketknife.

This tormented, friendless loner is attracted t raven-haired Eli, a wide-eyed new girl recently moved in next door with her reclusive father. Seemingly impervious to the chilly Stockholm weather, Eli warns Oskar, “I can’t be your friend.” This changes, however, when the bashful blonde boy teaches his mysterious female peer how to use a Rubik’s Cube. The seeds of true love are planted.

It would be cheating to reveal too much about “Let the Right One In,” Tomas Alfredson’s sensationally compelling, genre-bending chiller. Eli educates Oskar about self-worth, while blood-drained bodies pile up stiffly in the frozen woods surrounding their town. Is Eli the cause of this mayhem? The film is shocking, yes – but it also cuts deep as a bittersweet, pre-teen romance. Gorehounds will be satiated by its blood-soaked imagery, while arty cineastes will admire the film’s Kubrick-styled scene composition. “Let the Right One In” also succeeds as a coming-of-age metaphor, packing the same emotional punch as “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

Kudos to the film’s charismatic two leads, who bring warm blood and a beating heart to this frigid tale. One look at Kare Hedebrant as the delicate Oskar will have viewers vicariously racing to his defense against relentless bullies, even as they question his unhealthy obsessions (like a scrapbook filled with newspaper crime clippings). Meanwhile, with her hungry eyes, Lina Leandersson conveys both love-starved longing and a fiercely protective streak towards Oskar.

“Let the Right One In” transcends genres, but if one must put a label on this original work of art, I suppose “horror film” would suffice. Pray that it finds wide distribution and a healthy audience in this age of corporate slash-by-numbers sequels and remakes. Alfredson has helmed a classic-in-the-making, with a final set piece that uses visuals in a fresh, inventive, and startling combination that will be talked about for years to come.

Another film tackling the daunting task of finding new approaches to shopworn genres was the Jack Black vehicle “Kung Fu Panda,” one of the funniest, most exciting, clever, and heartfelt animated films ever made. Is it hip to heap praise on something churned out of the corporate Dreamworks cannon? Does “Kung Fu Panda” even belong at SIFF? Well, my Grasshopper – who gives a Tenacious Damn when this blast of celluloid energy delivers with such flawless finesse?

As a general rule, I don’t like animated films. I especially loathe the formulaic, post-eighties Disney fodder, in which every story is a coming-of-age parable. Switch Ariel with Belle, and I wouldn’t be able to tell a damn bit of difference. “Toy Story” finally transcended this pattern, both in its visual approach (CGI) and its storytelling (milking the potent, nostalgic imagery of classic, real-life toys), converting me to animation’s potential greatness.

“Kung Fu Panda” can’t boast the same breath of fresh air that “Toy Story” offered, so it goes for a completely opposite effect. Using the tired Chop-Socky genre, directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson revel in familiar imagery and take on a daring challenge: how many cliches can they set up, kick to the ground, and re-invent?

Jack Black lends his larynx to Po, a lazy Panda in Ancient China whose lowly status as a waiter in his father’s noodle restaurant is soon elevated. Appointed the Chosen One by a wise old turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), Po is suddenly the reluctant Neo of bamboo-chewing tree-climbers. Martial arts Master Shifu, a raccoon-resembling rodent voiced by Dustin Hoffman, must train Po to take on evil cat-warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Like most predictable animation heroes, does Black’s paunchy bear suddenly morph from pudgy slacker to fat-free hero? Not at all. “Kung Fu Panda” takes a more unique approach, allowing Po to revel in his own uniqueness to combat the sinister Tai Lung.

“Kung Fu Panda” is refreshing in its use of other sophisticated characterizations. Many animated films stuff themselves with obnoxious, noisy support animals to satiate the ADHD crowd, but most of the faces populating this superior triumph have fleshed-out histories and motives. Angelina Jolie’s Tigress, one of the film’s more experienced warrior fighters, is miffed and jealous at Po’s appointed Chosen One status. Meanwhile, Tai Lung is a bitter villain whose rottenness is also understandable. He feels betrayal from once-supportive mentors, who deny their approval at a crucial time.

The black belt-worthy dialogue is a hoot. As Shifu leads Po up a rock stairwell, he’s asked by the apprentice, “I know you’re trying to be all mystical and Kung Fu-ey, but could you tell me where we’re going?”
Wise old turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is told by an advisor, “I have some bad news.” In carefree Zen certainty, Oogway responds, “There is no bad news.” After hearing the news, which turns out to be grave indeed, he reconsiders. “Uh, that is bad news.” Funny stuff.

Eye-popping, colorful art-direction is equally stellar. Animated confetti, kites, and fireworks mark a flamboyant Chinese parade. Burly black rhinos reign over a macho, medieval prison of heavy metal silver and gray.

Ultimately, however, Jack Black carries the show as the unlikely Chosen One. In the opening narrative, Black speaks of a mighty hero whose “enemies go blind from over-exposure to pure awesome-ness.” Take it from someone who’s not an animation fan: audiences lucky enough to experience “Kung Fu Panda” run the same enviable risk.

Seattle might be known more for coffee, computer software, and rain than for burlesque dancing, but beneath its pristine veneer, a strutting, tassel-twirling scene flourishes. Surprisingly, the town is home to one of America’s largest underground burlesque cultures. Beneath the Space Needle, feather boas slither about, and stiletto shoes run rampant.

Before the second SIFF screening for Deirdre Timmons’ Seattle-filmed striptease doc “A Wink and a Smile,” attendees were handed flyers for a performance by local “Burlesque Super-Troupe” the Atomic Bombshells. Moments later, after the Egyptian Theater’s curtain lifted, Timmons’ film educated a full house to the art of onstage stripping.

What is burlesque dancing? According to Miss Indigo Blue, a veteran striptease performer who runs Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque, “Someone enters the stage with clothing, magic happens, and they exit the stage in less clothing.” As the film opens, Miss Blue walks the walk, seen twirling a feather umbrella under teal and purple lights. Her eyes and lips sparkle from plentiful glitter application. A drummer pounds out beats from behind a trapset. The crowd hoots and hollers as everything except panties and pasties are doffed.

“A Wink and a Smile” follows Miss Blue as she mentors a new batch of Academy of Burlesque recruits. During a six-week class, participants are taught the finer points of stripping, slinking, and winking. Several women between ages 23 and 51 are followed as they pursue “Burlesque 101,” culminating in an actual stage performance.

The stripping itself, however, is less important to director Timmons than the underlying psychology behind why women would want to learn burlesque. One newbie, for example, is an opera singer who feels that mastery of this uninhibited art will curb her stage fright. A more experienced dancer considers her craft a liberating break from cultural shackles. “I’m from Taiwan,” she explains, “where women don’t mean anything.”

“A Wink and a Smile” also provides a history lesson behind the origins of burlesque, outlining dance pioneers like Lydia Thompson’s British Blondes. More often, however, it shines the spotlight on contemporary performers like The Swedish Housewife (a female impersonator of male drag queens), Tamara the Trapeze Lady, and Kitten La Rue. Each of these veterans has carefully cultivated a specific identity and style: Inga Ingenue, for instance, takes on a poodle persona and covers her shapely form with white, tuft-like balloons (which are eventually popped to reveal progressively more skin).

The burlesque scene isn’t limited by gender. Ernie Von Schmaltz, for example, is a male performer whose onstage routine plays up everything repulsive, reptilian, and repugnant about guys. Picture a strutting, hairy-chested, chain-wearing misogynist doffing his duds, and you get the grotesque, hilarious essence of Von Schmaltz.

By casting its light onto a fringe subculture, then explaining its allure, “A Wink and a Smile” is a unique, fascinating film. Behind her subjects’ quickly discarded costumes and garish make-up, Timmons reveals something that’s more than just skin deep.

If you enjoy slack-paced films about Northwest-based slackers shacked up in the woods, knock yourself out with “My Effortless Brilliance.” Lynn Shelton’s film tracks Eric (Sean Nelson), a blowhard author attempting to mend his broken friendship with Dylan (Basil Harris). Arriving unannounced at his old buddy’s rural cabin, Eric ends up spending a lazy, drunken weekend with Dylan debating the virtues of both the writings of Charles Bukowski and the a*s of Liv Tyler.

Why have the two longtime pals parted ways? We never really arrive at a clean-cut reason, although I suppose this is the film’s point – guy friends are often incapable of verbally putting old wounds and festering grievances to rest, or even articulating how those past differences came to be. We’ve all been there: a friend slights us, so we write them off with a passive-aggressive contempt that might last a lifetime.

“My Effortless Brilliance” does a good job as a mood piece, conveying this type of unspoken tension and neurotic baggage that often plagues the histories of longtime friends. However, precious little else happens over the film’s loosely shaped, leisurely-paced 79 minutes. If you’re looking for narrative thrust or building momentum, it’s best you high-tail it out of this neck of the woods before cabin fever sets in.

“Up the Yangtze” is also a little sleepy, despite its fascinating premise. The enlightening film shows us China’s Three Gorges Dam gradually raising the Yangtze River’s churning liquid currents, causing flooding of farmland and the end of a centuries-old livelihood for those used to harvesting crops from these shores. Director Yung Chang, a Chinese-Canadian living in Montreal, conceived of the film while embarking on a 2002 “Farewell Cruise,” in which rich Westerners observe cities being submerged by the dam’s slowly rising floodwaters.

Yung Chang finds the ultimate man-against-nature, tradition-versus-technology metaphor in his eerie images of round, smokestack-styled concrete tubes jutting out of the Yangtze, its thick channels of water barricaded by massive concrete walls. Chang describes the observations as those of “a brand new country being created,” compared to his grandfather’s recollections of earlier China. To give a sense of the Three Gorges Dam’s magnitude, Chang says, “Imagine the Grand Canyon being turned into a great lake.”

Two million individuals will be relocated, as a result of the rising river. Among them are the family members of Tu Shi, whose family once farmed the riverbanks and is now being relocated by the government to a home on higher ground. Tu Shi, meanwhile, must supplement the family’s income by working on the “Farewell Tour” cruise ships as a dishwasher and hostess. Her orientation to shipwork is truly surreal: taught how to speak English, she is assigned a Western name (“Cindy”). Meanwhile, an old crooner entertains affluent tourists with a hokey crash-course in Chinese. “It’s so eeeezeee… to speak Chineezeeee,” he assures his guests.

“Up the Yangtze” offers up the truly surreal sight of casual tourists sipping wine while catching glimpses of a slowly dying civilization, like gawkers on a tour of Hollywood gravesites. Meanwhile, the black and white striped shirts Tu Shi must don for her new on-board occupation might symbolize a prison jump suit. Her need to supplement the family’s failing, sub-par income has squelched her plans to attend school. More troubling still is her financial reliance on the very industry that is exploiting her family’s plight.

My only beef with Chang’s film is its overlength. Like the lazy current of the Yangtze, the director’s visions of a culture becoming extinct before our eyes sometimes lulls us into a relaxed calm, when it should be jarring our consciences and pulling at our heartstrings. Even so, it’s a unique and original river-ride.

“Newscastle” is a visually exciting look at Australian surfing. Taken as sheer sensory spectacle, Dan Castle’s colorful flick is a “Top Gun” with waves; a “Rocky” with board fins. However, its plot is as tattered and moldy as grandpa’s old swim trunks. Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) is a teenaged surfing prodigy living off the gorgeous coast of Newcastle, where turquoise waters meet white sands. The area’s utopian beauty – blemished only by huge coal ships grouped together in deeper waters – makes it a magnet for hard-body surfing crowds. However, the area holds few options for its older citizens. Victor (Reshad Strik), Jesse’s volatile older brother, had his day in the sun as a surfing legend, but he’s now a divorced dad going to seed in the local coal refinery.

The first half of “Newscastle” hangs out with Jesse and his gang of stunningly good-looking surfer-dude friends as they party, screw, and camp out on the beach. Castle shows a startling amount of skin – there’s an almost fetishistic reverence paid to cast members’ bare buns. While a couple of bodacious babes are thrown into the mix for good measure, “Newcastle” is more interested in its guys. I suspect the endless scenes of rippling, sun-tanned pectorals and butt cheeks will appeal more to female and gay audiences than to traditional heteros looking for a macho, “Point Break” experience. In fact, the film’s most interesting character is Jesse’s closeted gay brother (Xavier Samuel), gradually acknowledging his orientation as “Newscastle” progresses. It will be interesting to see how he-man sports enthusiasts react to Castle’s willingness to explore this theme.

Otherwise, “Newcastle” rehashes familiar sports cliches: the once-celebrated brother unable to rekindle past glories, a tragedy that tests Jesse’s mettle, and a big surfing-competition finale (which, admittedly, finishes out on a different note than expected).

“Newscastle” isn’t original, but its surfing footage is stellar. During a post-screening Q & A attended by Castle, Buchanan, and Strik, the film’s director elaborated on how he choreographed the amazingly in-your-face wave-riding. “The number one rule with this type of filming is prepare, prepare, prepare,” he revealed of the process, in which four cameras were used simultaneously. “We set up a scientific approach, in that we wanted each shot to be there for a reason, or to be there from someone’s point of view. We wanted viewers to feel what these guys were experiencing in the water. For example, Victor’s style (of surfing) showed that he was aggressive and intimidating.”

Castle also spoke of his approach to a scene in which Victor and a crew of older surfers bullies his younger brother’s band of boarders. He explained that the younger surfers were depicted as more playful and dolphin-esque, while the older intruders embodied predatory sharks. “We were lucky with the weather,” Castle admits when discussing filming of in-the-water scenes. “There were twelve days of sun and great waves, during April and May of last year, when we filmed.”

Stay tuned for more SIFF coverage, as America’s largest film festival continues its run through June 15th, and feel free to check out KJ’s report from the first weekend in Revenge of the SIFF: 2008 Seattle International Film Festival First Weekend Wrap-Up.

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