dir. Sean Fine, Andrea Nix Fine
War/Dance blends together two of the more played-out doc topics—life during wartime and kids in a Spellbound-type competition—into a slick, gorgeously shot film that should win over even the biggest Eeyore. Making a return to theaters after a strong showing at SIFF, this crowd-pleaser certainly goes down sweet, but it's rarely cloying.
First-time directorial team Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine set their sights on the children of Patongo, a northern Ugandan refugee camp barely weathering the effects of a 20-year civil war. After a brief flurry of information about the history and residents of the camp—many of whom ended up there after being kidnapped by a ferocious rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army—the film focuses on three teenagers (a choir singer, a dancer, and a xylophone player) picked to perform in a legendary music competition in the capital city of Kampala.
The first half of the film, in which the clear-eyed camp residents talk about their hardships, is admittedly a bit of a tough sit, but once the competition begins, the good vibes pour on in waves, particularly in the climactic performance of a remarkably intricate, centuries-old royal dance. War/Dance does occasionally feel overproduced (you've never seen so many beautifully extraneous landscapes), but the passion on both sides of the lens shines through. Children in dire situations can be a tricky, quasi-exploitive subject for filmmakers—see, for example, the scene where a blind toddler stumbles through a minefield in the otherwise brilliant recent Kurdish film Turtles Can Fly—but it's handled here in a responsible, occasionally joyous fashion. You can still feel your heartstrings being pulled, but when it's done this well, it's tough to bear a grudge. ANDREW WRIGHT
How to Cook Your Life
dir. Doris Dörrie
A more precious concept hasn't been seen in Seattle theaters since What the Bleep Do We Know, but I forced myself to keep an open mind: We're dealing with the shadowy world of self-help cinema here, and Zen cookery is downright benign compared to Bleep's wanton misinterpretation of quantum physics. And as it turns out, How to Cook Your Life isn't all slogans and dangerous nonsense. It's also the portrait of a single flawed adherent, a teacher who is still relearning a (possibly impossible) lesson.
Twinkly-eyed Edward Espe Brown is the instructor at a Zen-based cooking school, where classrooms full of mostly older women and the occasional suspicious teenager learn to find serenity chopping vegetables and kneading dough. As far as the documentary is able to communicate, the overriding philosophy seems to be "chill out." And maybe also, "use the leftovers." But chilling out isn't as easy as it sounds, and after the filmmaker catches Brown throwing a little tantrum, he returns to his lessons with what seems like twice the personality he had before. Just like that, he's a complex, fascinating character.
Which is good, because the rest of the film gives the unfortunate impression of a foreigner (director Doris Dörrie is German) being sort of condescendingly awestruck by West Coast culture. She makes little forays into San Francisco, finding such apparent novelties as hungry people and a woman who Dumpster dives. When Dörrie is confronted by an organic farmer who uses turkey byproducts to fertilize his chard, she comes off as righteously confused. "So it isn't really vegetarian," she challenges, irrelevantly. (Zen and the art of gotcha journalism, I suppose.) But these toneless episodes make the retreat back to Brown's cooking classes feel strangely comforting. Kneading dough may be therapeutic after all. ANNIE WAGNER
dir. Guy Moshe
For a movie about the child sex trade in Cambodia, Holly is mercifully easy on the stomach. Guy Moshe's film is shot on location, sometimes in actual brothels, but doesn't aspire to verisimilitude. Instead, it focuses on the adventure of a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl sold into the sex trade, and an American vagabond and cardsharp named Patrick who wants to save her.
Patrick (a brooding and big-chinned Ron Livingston) is on some relatively harmless black-market trip when his motorcycle breaks down in a dusty Cambodian village where foreigners come to find prostitutes. He waits for his motorcycle to be repaired for a few days and tries to be extra nice to Holly, the new girl, who is obviously not where she is supposed to be. At this point, 30 minutes in, you figure Patrick will find his nerve, throw her on his motorcycle, and they'll spend the rest of the movie outrunning Cambodian pimps. Maybe he'd even adopt her and everything would be swell. Instead, Patrick ditches her, dithers for a while, wonders if he should go back to get her, then goes back to get her.
Meanwhile, Holly has escaped (with her virginity intact) and takes us on a guided tour of What's Crappy About Cambodia—she walks a minefield, becomes a garbage picker, and is then sold into another brothel by a helpful policeman. By the time Patrick and Holly find each other, they're both beyond redemption.
Director Guy Moshe never rubs our faces in the dirt. (And he avoids that other possibility, almost too horrible to consider—making his movie surreptitiously sexy.) But even more than Moshe's restraint, it's the deus ex machinas and the sometimes inexplicable behavior of his characters that keep us from being sucked into the horror of his subject matter. The harder the movie is to believe, the easier it is to watch. BRENDAN KILEY