Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: My Perestroika

There are two important themes in Robin Hessman's documentary, My Perestroika - Nostalgia is relentless and grows on every memory; and patriotism is far more deeply rooted than simple military parades and flag-waving, and infinitely varied.
Concerning the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the film tells us Russia's recent history through candid interviews with 5 Muscovites who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s as part of the last generation to grow up behind the so-called Iron Curtain, along with frenetic contemporary footage of the transformative time in question.
One brilliant sequence comes as the subjects recall the wave of political upheaval that swept the Soviet Socialist Republics. It begins with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, but soon intercuts dramatic black and white footage of tanks rolling through the streets Moscow. The ballet's impassioned refrain swirls around the urban-bound artillery to form the emotional apex of the film.
For an American, particularly one brought up since the events discussed, the film is an immersive if sometimes bewildering history lesson, related by those who lived it. Like any patriot, they each have a complicate and ever evolving relationship with their homeland. Some insist that life was better in the Soviet Union, and indeed all share at least some degree of wistful, inevitable nostalgia for that bygone era. Others are glad of the USSR's evaporation, while some are just as disaffected and dissatisfied now as they were then. Running through every interview is the sense that life goes on, that this too shall pass. Each person's complacency was shaken by the fall of the Iron Curtain; it taught them that the future is never certain.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

SIFF Review: Without

For reasons we are left to guess at, 19-year-old Joslyn takes a job on Whidbey Island as a live-in caretaker for Frank, an elderly, vegetative man.
Written and directed by Seattle native Mark Jackson, Without is an expertly crafted film that deftly blurs the line between Joslyn's inner, psychological turmoil and the outer, real world chaos that forms as her passive-aggressive relationship with catatonic Frank devolves.
Jackson elegantly stacks the banal minutiae of Joslyn's new job to build a dark, vibrating tower of isolation and tedium that steadily drives our heroine mad. This is a director that understands and can harness the power of moments. Locking all the sliding glass doors, crushing some pills, buying coffee; collectively and on their own, these drops of everyday life have power.
Without taps into a recurring narrative motif in Western storytelling - that of the island as both physical and metaphorical location. From Shakespeare's The Tempest to television's Lost, the island reflects and comments on the protagonist's inner life. We find Joslyn in such a place; she washes up on the cold, gray shores of grief and does her time thrashing about in a borrowed house for a mute, motionless audience who offers no comment but the occasional wordless moan.
Jackson and his cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia, show an aptitude with the unique Northwest color palette, and brush the screen with deep, soggy greens and blues. Taking brilliant advantage of cinema-capable DSLR cameras, the filmmakers get us physically and psychologically closer to Joslyn than film could have. It's exhilarating to see the future of filmmaking unfolding before you so starkly.

Light and Music: The Man Who Knew Too Much

There is relatively untapped power in using music, specifically source music (that which is heard or played or sung by characters in a non-musical), as a cinematic storytelling tool.
I came upon this notion last night after watching Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Day being, at the time, more famous as a singer than an actress, I suppose it seemed only natural to try and incorporate her hit "Que Sera Sera" into the film some how. When it first appears early in the film, sung playfully by Day and her onscreen son, it reads as just a little forced and corny. But later, once the film has built to it's suspenseful climax, Day's character desperately recapitulates the song in an attempt to find her kidnapped child. Plunking percussively at a grand piano, she raggedly belts the tune until her son whistles back an answer.