Mother and Shrek (Weekly Links)

Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, at SIFF

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and more.

Shrek Forever After. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Seeing an ogre in 3-D has never been on my bucket list, but that didn’t stop the “Shrek” team from jumping on the latest wave of the visual fad. Yes, folks, it’s a Shrek so close you can almost smell him.

See what I mean? Not a selling point. Nevertheless, “Shrek Forever After” tries to pump a little life into the animated franchise (originally based on William Steig’s fairy tale book), with installment #4. This sequel must be counted a slight improvement over the previous “Shrek the Third,” and it does have a rather ingenious storyline. This is an “alternate reality” Shrek tale.

We find the lovable ogre (voiced, as ever, by Mike Myers) missing his life as a bachelor ogre—before marrying Fiona (Cameron Diaz), before having kids, before becoming thoroughly domesticated. In a weak moment with the sorcerer Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), Shrek enters a bargain that will allow him to enjoy one day of ogre-ness. Alas, in “It’s a Wonderful Life” fashion, he finds himself living in a nightmare version of his old life.

In the funniest variation on this new reality, the formerly preening Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) has become a tubby house cat. Donkey (Eddie Murphy), though much abused in the topsy-turvy world, is still irrepressible, and Fiona has become a warrior-queen of the ogre nation.

The lesson? Don’t trust Rumpelstiltskin. The diminutive villain, who strongly resembles a troll doll when he puts on his orange fright wig, makes for an amusingly screechy bad guy.

The self-contained nature of the plot means that director Mike Mitchell (“Sky High”) doesn’t have to laboriously tie up all the story threads from before, which seems to free up the movie. And, a real plus, this fourth “Shrek” doesn’t lean as heavily on 21st-century pop-culture gags for so many jokes, although there are still a few too many hit songs infiltrating the soundtrack.

Which leaves us with the 3-D. “Shrek Forever After” scores points for having fun with the process, but not depending on it for its impact.

Given Shrek’s tendency to extract his own ear wax, this restraint is clearly a good thing. And occasionally—the sight of witches flying through the night sky, for instance—the movie becomes a cool visual treat.

If this really is the final chapter in the “Shrek” series, it’s a spirited enough way to go out—and I say that as someone who never really warmed up to the franchise in the first place. But it might go in another direction: a “Puss in Boots” vehicle is being planned—and with Antonio Banderas such a lively voice actor, that might be a great idea.

Mother and Child. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The sheer seriousness of “Mother and Child” is oddly refreshing: this study of the connections between women of different generations is never less than grave in its assessment of the human condition.

Given that it’s coming out during the summer movie season, this qualifies as a change of pace. “Mother and Child” is a “hyperlink” movie, one of those multi-character pieces where the relationships amongst people slowly reveal themselves to be connected.

A quick introduction lets us know that Karen (Annette Bening), now in her fifties, gave up a daughter for adoption after an unplanned pregnancy in her teens. Unmarried and now caring for her aging mother (Eileen Ryan), Karen is defensive and brittle about her life.

We also meet Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an ice-cold attorney who’s pure ambition: newly arrived at an L.A. law firm, she seduces her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) in a businesslike way. She also admits she was adopted many years earlier….

Woven into these stories is the saga of Lucy (Kerry Washington, from “The Last King of Scotland”), who is looking into adopting a baby with her husband. The birth mother (excellent Shareeka Epps) is wary and demanding of these prospective parents.

There are other characters as well: Jimmy Smits does nicely as Karen’s beefy, gregarious co-worker, David Morse is his usual intense self in a brief appearance that lasts about as long as his “Hurt Locker” role, Cherry Jones is a nun who brings story threads together, and S. Epatha Merkerson (“Law & Order”) has at least one bring-the-house-down scene as Lucy’s no-nonsense mother.

These hyperlink films can seem forced, and this one doesn’t escape that feeling. But writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, whose “Nine Lives” was a well-calibrated look at women, does his best to keep the film from becoming a mathematical formula.

Garcia, the son of the Nobel-prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, creates specific characters, not types, and clearly encourages his actors to flesh out those roles. Thus Annette Bening and Naomi Watts can’t bid for the audience’s sympathy as they play their frequently unpleasant characters—a daunting actor’s task, but superbly achieved in both cases.

For a movie that does at times seem diagrammed out, “Mother and Child” manages to convey a sense of airiness, especially on Karen’s journey, which leads her from her tightly-controlled world to a new kind of looseness. That alone makes the movie worth a look.

Kites. “This is not one of those cases where ‘loopy’ translates to ‘good.'”

180 Degrees South. “A hymn to wanderlust.”

Preview of the 36th Seattle International Film Festival, plus some capsule reviews for the upcoming week’s slate. (Dead links; see below)

By Robert Horton

The Seattle International Film Festival began in 1976 at the Moore theater in downtown Seattle, moved over to Capitol Hill’s Egyptian, and eventually included theaters around the city and the eastside. And now it’s come to Everett.

For the first time this year SIFF spreads its mighty bulk to include eight days at the Everett Performing Arts Center, from May 27 through June 3. The usual sprawl, over 250 feature films and counting, will arrange itself at SIFF Cinema, Egyptian, Neptune, Pacific Place, Uptown, Harvard Exit, Admiral, and Kirkland Performance Center. You almost have no excuse for not seeing a movie during the next month, even accidentally.

The festival officially kicked off last night with the opening gala at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, a showing of “The Extra Man,” with star Paul Dano (of “There Will Be Blood”) in attendance.

Starting today, the madness truly kicks in, and runs until June 13, when the closing night gala (featuring the well-reviewed new indie, “Get Low”) brings the curtain down at Pacific Place.

Until then, we’ll see the usual collection of spotlights (“New Spanish Cinema,” for instance), special guests, zany midnight movies, panels, family films, and shorts.

The special tribute guest this year is Edward Norton, the actor who has gotten a lot of love for his tendency to take on edgy projects; he’ll show his new picture (“Leaves of Grass,” directed by Tim Blake Nelson, also in attendance) and answer questions in an onstage interview on June 4.

At other times that weekend, a trio of Norton’s movies will screen: “American History X,” “Fight Club,” and “25th Hour.” There’s a good chance he’ll show up to introduce at least a couple of those.

Musical tie-ins will also bring some special guests. Stephen Merritt, the leader of the wonderful band Magnetic Fields, will present a live music performance for the 1916 silent film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” at the Paramount on June 9.

Another silent film, “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1925), will be scored live by the Northwest band the Maldives, May 25 at Triple Door. Piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin underscores “A Spray of Plum Blossoms” (1931), a rare Chinese film, at SIFF Cinema May 30.

Other “archival” movie presentations include a quartet of pictures restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, presented on Saturday afternoons at the Harvard Exit. They are John Ford’s “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939), Jean Renoir’s beautiful India saga “The River” (1951), Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” (1954), and John Cassavetes’ jazzy debut as director, “Shadows” (1959).

We’ll also see a three-movie salute to Leonard Bernstein (part of a city-wide celebration of the composer-conductor), with films that include Bernstein compositions: “On the Town,” “On the Waterfront,” and of course “West Side Story.”

SIFF offers more than 50 documentaries, which means you could have a major film festival just by looking at nonfiction titles. These include profiles (of Condoleeza Rice, William S. Burroughs, and comedian Bill Hicks, among others), social-message pictures (“Countdown to Zero,” on the current nuclear threat), and performance (“Ride, Rise, Roar,” a fun look at a David Byrne concert tour).

The festival has a large section of locally-produced movies this year, including one recent Oscar nominee—in the short documentary category—chronicling a former Washington governor’s involvement in the Death with Dignity law in 2008: “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner.”

A delightful piece of music history, “Wheedle’s Groove” shines a light on the Northwest soul scene in the Sixties and Seventies, a busy world that almost broke into the mainstream.

Another doc, “Chihuly Fire & Light,” looks at the inescapable glass artist, while “Amplified Seattle” cruises through performances by no fewer than 13 Seattle bands.

Also in the local category, “Bass Ackwards” is a new feature from “Walking to Werner” director Linas Phillips, who again stars in his own picture. And you have to be curious about “Senior Prom,” which was directed by a 17-year-old Mountlake Terrace High School student, Nicholas Terry, using his classmates as actors.

SIFF has some oddball “event” evenings, one-time-only happenings that can be memorable. For instance, the sing-a-long to “Grease” at SIFF Cinema on June 12, which will presumably have onscreen lyrics; or “Cane Toads: The Conquest—in 3D,” a look at the infestation of said amphibian in Australia—all in three glorious dimensions! (May 28, Neptune).

As for the Everett leg of the festival (during which the Seattle theaters will continue full-blast), its official opening night film is “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a sure-fire crowd-pleaser about a ballet dancer from communist China who got a taste of the West in 1981. Party will follow; plans are for director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) to be in attendance.

Along with these special items, parties, and competitions, there’s the meat of SIFF’s line-up: a sprawling collection of international films and American indies. Navigating through this mess of a schedule is daunting; you can look for favorite filmmakers, countries of origin, or genres, and still not know what you might be getting.

Of course, you could also read our weekly capsule reviews, and get some tips there. The schedule itself can be found online at the festival’s website, siff.net, and SIFF’s portable floppy Film Guide (new this year, and a handier thing to carry around than the massive catalog, although that exists this year too) is available.

Did we mention that this is officially the 36th annual Seattle International Film Festival? And that the thing just seems to get larger every year? If not, duly noted—and here we go again.

Capsules:

Some recommendations for the upcoming week at the Seattle International Film Festival:

“Katalin Varga.” A grim journey is traced in this Hungarian-Romanian drama: a woman searches for the man who raped her years earlier—but the final sequences are not necessarily the ending you might expect. Shot in the moody Carpathian Mountains. Today, 2 p.m., Pacific Place; Monday 9 p.m., Admiral; Wednesday, 7 p.m., Uptown.

“Air Doll.” A life-size blow-up doll comes to life and is curious about the world around her. Given the excellent track record of director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“After Life,” “Nobody Knows”), this one’s a disappointment. Today, 4 p.m., Neptune; Monday, 9:30 p.m., Neptune.

“Soul Kitchen.” Achtung, people: this German comedy might be the feel-good movie of the year. A ragtag collection of down-and-outers gathers around a rundown restaurant in Hamburg, warmly imagined by director Fatih Akin (“The Edge of Heaven”). Except for a few conventional jokes in the second half, the movie earns its laughter, and even the end credits are a gas. Today, 7 p.m., Uptown; Sunday, 1 p.m., Uptown.

“Bass Ackwards.” Seattle filmmaker Linas Phillips, creator of the offbeat documentaries “Walking to Werner” and “Great Speeches from a Dying World,” goes fictional in this cross-country road trip. At least it seems to be fictional, even though he plays a character named Linas in it—a slight, breezy wisp of a movie. Today, 9:45 p.m., Harvard Exit; Sunday, 3:45 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“City of Life and Death.” Director Lu Chuan’s unblinking dramatic account of the Japanese invasion of Nanking (now Nanjing) in the 1930s. Be warned: this is an excellent film, but it is unsparing in its depiction of the barbarism of the occupying army, and the plain black-and-white photography offers no solace. Saturday 11 a.m., Egyptian; Tuesday 6:30 p.m., Neptune. (This will also play in Everett on May 30.)

“Shadows.” As a tie-in with the Martin Scorsese-sponsored Film Foundation, here’s a reportedly restored print of the first film directed by John Cassavetes, then a young actor restless to create a new kind of film. In many ways the movie’s a mess, but it sure captures a moment in culture: 1959 Manhattan. Saturday, 1:45 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“I Am Love.” A wildly arty (yet somehow irresistible) creation that combines luscious Italian images, the music of John Adams, and a big-scaled performance by Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton. She plays a middle-aged wife and mother who becomes infatuated with a much younger man. Saturday, 7 p.m., Egyptian; Sunday 4:15 p.m., Egyptian. (In Everett May 28.)

“The Concert.” This deeply silly crowd-pleaser is a cinch to become one of the most popular movies in the festival, despite its unbelievable premise, which involves a Moscow janitor (and former symphony conductor) pulling together a massive orchestral concert in Paris. Today, 7 p.m., Egyptian; Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Egyptian. (In Everett May 28.)

“On the Town.” Part of a mini-Leonard Bernstein tribute, here’s the 1949 musical about sailors out on a New York spree that showcases some delightful Bernstein numbers. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra lead the cast—not a bad start on a fun troupe. Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“Like You Know it All.” An extremely droll offering from one of South Korea’s best filmmakers, Hong Sang-soo, about a movie director visiting a film festival (and later a school), and the various problems he endures—or causes. Maybe not a laughfest, but a very amusing film. Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., Pacific Place; Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Place.

“Skeletons.” British humor in an absurdist vein, about a pair of traveling—well, I’m not sure what to call them, except that they visit homes and exorcise dark secrets from the inhabitants (metaphysical chimney sweeps?). The two lead performers are quite funny, but I wish the movie had more zip, and maybe explained itself just a bit more. Wednesday, 9:15 p.m., Harvard Exit.

“Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema.” Informative account of the history of experimental films, with an emphasis on Mekas, whose career is not just as a filmmaker but also a critic and archivist of the avant-garde in the U.S. Directed by old pro Chuck Workman, who has a great eye for telling excerpts. Thursday, 7 p.m., SIFF Cinema.

And more on SIFF, from KUOW’s “Weekday,” this time in conversation with SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence and host Marcie Sillman: here. The movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute mark.

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