SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week One — Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers with Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of SIFF

Most people would be daunted by the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Just the archival material alone, from all the shows of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that aired (920 episodes, according to director Morgan Neville), would give a lesser man a headache. Luckily, Morgan Neville is not a normal man, yet the story of this documentary started out curiously (which Neville explained during the Q&A following the film). Like many things today, it started with YouTube. Neville started watching all of Rogers’s speeches on that channel. Then, when making The Music of Strangers, which is about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, he asked Ma who helped him deal with his fame, and he said, “Mr. Rogers.”

Fitting, then, that the film starts in 1967 with Fred Rogers  talking about music (while playing piano). In particular, he’s discussing modulations. In music, some modulations are easy, while others are hard. He feels life is the same and mentions how he feels his mission is to help kids through life’s modulations.  He stops at one point and wonders if he’s being too philosophical, but then he checks himself and says, “Well, it makes sense to me.”

To make sense of the man and the show, Neville didn’t shoot it like a normal documentary, where you film footage first and then cut it to an acceptable length. With all the archival material they had, they cut the essential ideas of the doc first…and found themselves with a 90-minute film (the film is 94 minutes, including end credits). And yet, the films runs chronologically, even as it stops and focuses on what made the show and the man so special, and radical.

For starters, Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who wished to used television to evangelize. The first show he was a part of played short films for kids. Unfortunately, the films had often been played numerous times beforehand and would often break on air, and since the episodes weren’t taped, the host had to fill time. One time, Rogers stuck an owl puppet above the clock and said, “It’s 5:02 and Columbus discovered America in 1492.” That was the first time he used a puppet on TV.

In addition, he was part of the group of scientists (Dr. Spock being one of the most famous) focusing on childhood development and how kids weren’t just miniature adults. Rogers connected to that group through his teacher, Margaret McFarland. He was horrified by what passed for children’s television in those days. Then, as now, it included lots of loud noises, fast action, and violence. His show, which premiered in February 1968 in Pittsburgh, was a gentler show, though the first episode not-so-subtly dealt with the Vietnam War in King Friday XIII’s erection of a wall and orders to kill any foreigners who come into the kingdom. Other episodes dealt with Robert Kennedy’s assassination, suicide, divorce, and other topics one wouldn’t typically find in a children’s show. For example, when he heard, in 1968, about a man throwing chlorine muriatic acid in a pool because he didn’t want black kids swimming in it, he filmed an episode where he shared a kiddie pool with Officer Clemmons, who is black, and mentioned how nice it was to share a pool on a hot summer day.* In another episode, he set a timer for one minute so that the audience could experience how long one minute felt like.

People knew there was something special about Mr. Rogers and his show when a meet-and-greet, scheduled that same year, translated into huge lines of parents with their kids.

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Believe it or not, the line to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was shorter than the line that greeted Fred Rogers in 1968.

When Neville came to Joanne Rogers for her blessing on the project, her one bit of advice to him was not to make her husband a saint. Indeed, Rogers was accused (by narcissists) of creating a generation of narcissists by telling kids they were “special,” a charge refuted by Rogers himself in one of the many commencement addresses he gave, where he explained what he meant by saying kids were perfect “just the way they are.” Richard Nixon even tried to gut Public Television (created under the previous administration). The Senate Subcommittee on Communications held hearings in 1969 to decide whether to cut $20 million in funding for PBS under the pretext that it was needed to fund the war. The man in charge of the committee, Senator John Pastore (a Democrat), ran on these cuts, and early on it looked like PBS wouldn’t get its funding. Then, Fred Rogers spoke. They got their funding.

In addition to archival footage, the documentary includes interviews of people who worked on the show, were on the show (like Yo-Yo Ma), and who knew him best (e.g. his wife Joanne). One person they don’t talk to is Jeff Erlanger, who made a memorial appearance on the show right before he was going to go in for surgery, and discussed with Rogers what it was like to be in a wheelchair. We know from the documentary that he survived the surgery, but the interviews are only with his parents. I discovered Jeff died in 2007, which is why he wasn’t interviewed for the film, but his sister lives in Seattle, and she was present at the Q&A after the movie with her daughter to talk about her brother and how much Rogers cared for him. The first night they met, he cut up Jeff’s food and fed him, but without any trace of condescension.

Besides Erlanger, the other person who had a touching story (among many touching moments in this documentary) was François Scarborough Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). He discovered he was gay, and one night, he visited a gay bar. Rogers heard about it and told him he couldn’t go there anymore, as he was worried the sponsors would stop funding a show with a gay man on it. Eventually he came around, but the touching moment was when Clemmons confronted him and said (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “You say, ‘I like you just the way you are.’ Were you saying that to me, too?” His response was along the lines of, “I’ve been saying that to you for the last two years and you’ve only now just figured it out.” Clemmons tears up at that point, for he’d never heard another man say that to him, not even his own father. From that point on, Rogers was like a father to him.

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Look at all those neighbors!

In addition to archival footage and interviews, the documentary incorporates animation to show some of Fred Rogers’s fears from when he was a child and how they stayed with him as an adult. A great argument is made that Daniel Striped Tiger was Rogers’s alter ego, and so an animated tiger plays the young Fred in these animations. Later in life, the cast agrees that he became more like King Friday XIII.

The masterstroke, though, comes at the end. In the spirit of Mr. Rogers, several of the interviewees are asked to take a moment and think about who has helped them. They all do, and at the very end is Joanne Rogers, who after reflecting for a moment, looks out through the camera, locks eyes with the audience, and says, “Thank you.”

One studio exec once said that if you do everything wrong on television, you end up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you do everything right, you end up with this documentary.

Stay for the credits.

Now playing at SIFF Uptown

* CORRECTIONS: Discussing this event, one of the interviewees says that bleach was thrown in the water (not chlorine, which I initially wrote, but which makes no sense), but it was actually muriatic acid (undiluted hydrochloric acid). The swim-in that led to the motel manager throwing acid in the pool occurred in 1964. Since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968, the episode aired at least four years after this event occurred.

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SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Three

Here are all the capsule reviews for week three in alphabetical order, including the entire final weekend of SIFF. Release dates are included where applicable. Again, my rating system:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

  1. Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems: A collection of unintentionally hilarious, bizarre, or downright gross clips from the heyday of VHS. With explanations between curated clips and some live commentary. I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterwards. 4 (Presented by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher)
  2. My Name Is Myeisha: Sandwiched between two movie bookends is an adaptation of the play Dreamscape, which uses hip-hop and spoken word to juxtapose the events leading to Myeisha’s (Rhaechyl Walker) death at the hands of the police (and the subsequent coroner’s report) and brief glances at her life and world. It humanizes her, to be sure, but what works in the theater doesn’t always work onscreen (the transition from movie to adaptation is pretty goofy), and while this one gets better as it goes, the event itself creates more of an impact and a sense of how tragic and unnecessary her death was than the means used to flesh out her story. Still, films reach more people than plays do, and that’s enough of a reason to be glad it was made. Plus, the home movie footage and ending are powerful stuff. (d: Gus Krieger)
  3. Naila and the Uprising: An important, informative, and necessary documentary about the first (and purest) intifada and the women who were a huge part of it, but were pushed out of their positions of power once the PLO returned to power.(d: Julia Bacha)
  4. The Silk and the Flame: A gorgeous-looking black and white documentary about a young gay man (Yao) from a small town in China trying to hold up against pressured from the community to follow familial tradition and marry. (d: Jordan Schiele) US Premiere Release date TBA.
  5. The Taste of Betel Nut: This movie begins at the end, then loops back in time to when polyamorous couple Li Qi and Ren Yu (Shen Shi Yu and Bingrui Zhao, respectively) allow a young woman, Bai Ling (Yue Yue) into their lives for a summer. A few questionable decisions (which might be answered by a second viewing) can’t mar the fact that this is one of the stronger films I saw at SIFF, though I would’ve given it higher marks if Bai Lung were fleshed out more as a person, and less as a plot device. 4 (d: Hu Jia) North American Premiere
  6. VR Zone: With 28 short subjects to cover in 90 minutes on the last (and busiest) day of the SIFF VR Zone, I didn’t have time to view all the recommended titles by friends and coworkers, let alone all 28. I ended up experiencing four of them: one documentary, one experimental, and two interactive. All used Samsung Gear VR headsets (with adjustable focus) and headphones (either attached to the headset or separate), a couple used controllers.
    1. Rone: A documentary about the street artist of the same name, who draws large portraits of women’s faces in abandoned buildings and other forgotten areas. He explains that he chose women’s faces because most of the street art he saw was masculine, and he wanted to counteract it. By far the best use of VR; everywhere you looked, there was something to see. The swivel chair helped. (Lester Francois)
    2. The Cabiri: Anubis: While waiting to see a recommended exhibit, I decided to try this one, which follows an ancient Egyptian man’s journey to the underworld, where he is judged by a dance troop (I mean, they’re playing roles, but it’s a dance troop). Oh, and acrobats. This film could’ve been effectively done on a front and rear projection screen, or on stage. Most of the time, it didn’t incorporate the immersive experience that the other exhibits did, as you sit on a bench and merely look in front or behind you. Also, with no dialog and occasional sentences grafted on the screen that seemed culled from abandoned movie trailer slogans, it failed to keep my interest. (Bogdan Darev & Fred Beahm)
    3. Where Thoughts Go: Boasting the longest run-time of all the exhibits, I only got partway through, due to demand. Like the other interactive exhibits, instead of a chair or a bench, you sat in a room which was decked out as part of the exhibit, this one with cushions, and manipulated two controllers to listen to previous people’s answers to deeply personal questions. To continue to the next question, you had to record your own answer, and then set the recording free. To give you an example, the first question was: Why did you fall in love for the first time? As this is an ongoing project, I hope to visit it next year (on a less busy day) and listen to (and record) more responses. Simple, yet rewarding. (Lucas Rizzotto)
    4. Queerskins: A Love Story: Another recommended exhibit, which also had its space built up, complete with a table, photos on the walls, and a bench to sit on as a stand-in for a car seat. In this exhibit, you sit in the back of a car as a devout Christian couple discusses their gay son on the way to visit his grave. As they talk, objects appear in a box next to you, which you can pick up and look at. While the views from the car were nice, the objects didn’t add anything to the emotional impact of the short, which would’ve been just as powerful as a feature film, rather than an interactive VR Exhibit. Still, it is powerful. (Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski)

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Two

Here are my capsule reviews for the second week of the festival. None of these films have release dates outside of the festival, except for some of the web series. Again, my ratings are:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

Being There: This satire from Hal Ashby follows Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers, in a Golden Globe-winning performance), who finds himself homeless and unemployed when his employer dies. Having witnessed the world only through television and the garden he tended, his simplicity and rich clothes (formerly belonging to his master) are mistaken for profundity and untold wealth as he ends up becoming a guest at the house of an old rich man (Melvyn Douglas in an Oscar-winning role) and his wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine), and even influences the President (Jack Warden).  And then there’s that final shot in the film. Helps that the audience was in tune with each joke. 5 Archival

Love Education: Huiying (Sylvia Chang) wants to bury her mother (Liyuan Wang) next to her father (Xiang Jia). Problem is, her father was originally married to someone from his home village (Yanshu Wu), and she won’t allow his “mistress” to be buried with him, or for his grave to be moved to the city. Huiying’s husband (Zhuangzhuang Tian) meanwhile, might be having a fling with one of his driving students. Her daughter Weiwei (Yueting Lang), in turn, starts having issues with her boyfriend Da (Ning Song) when his old flame comes to visit…and brings her son with her, who may or may not be his. Poignant, funny, and ironic, the real love here is how director/writer/actress Sylvia Chang handles the three generations of women, and the men in their lives (and the other women in theirs). 

Mademoiselle Paradis: Based on the novel Mesmerized by Alissa Walser, this is the true story of Maria Theresia von Paradis (Maria Dragus), a blind prodigy at the piano who was temporarily cured of her blindness by Dr. Franz Mesmer (Devid Striesow). A great, non-sentimental view of how disabilities and women were treated in the 18th century. Gorgeous cinematography, costumes, and music. (d: Barbara Albert)

Mutafukaz: Props for including a high-speed chase with an ice cream truck and a gang leader who quotes Shakespeare, but this fun and strange film about a boy named Angelino (Tay Lee) who starts seeing shadowy tentacle creatures attached to humans and must escape mysterious government agents becomes less and less fun as the movie continues. While visually stunning, it also feels incredibly static in its framing. (d: Shoujirou Nishimi,Guillaume Renard)

Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA: The man and his music are fascinating, the movie less so. The main issue here is that we follow Sakamoto through his daily routine, but the most interesting moments concern his career, or are in the studio, when his face lights up when he hears the perfect sound. Otherwise, it’d be better to do a traditional documentary on the man, or one with more of a focus (like on his activism, which begins the film). (d: Stephen Nomura Schible) Plays on Friday, June 8

Tigers Are Not Afraid: This film, which follows kids orphaned by the drug war in Mexico, mixes reality and fantasy ala Pan’s Labyrinth in a creepy, violent, and ultimately wonderful film in which fairy tales literally help our heroine in a world where the reality is too gruesome to bear. Story, acting, cinematography, humor, and visual storytelling are all used to masterly effect. No wonder Guillermo del Toro places this film 8th in his top ten movies of 2017 and offered to produce director Issa López’s next film. 5

WebFest at Shoreline: To quote from siff.net: “SIFF launches its new Episodic Content category with this exciting, diverse collection of outstanding new pilots and webisodes.” Based on the quality of these episodes, it won’t be the last. In order, they were:

  1. Other People’s Children (Episode 1: The Common Corpse): From the USA. A six-minute parent/teacher conference between a teacher (Atra Asdou) and the mothers of a gifted daughter (Brooke Breit, Sara Sevigny) who first refuse to believe she’s that smart and then don’t want to put her in the “gifted” program because they’d have to help with more homework. (d: Brad Riddell, Anna Hozian)
  2. Arun Considers (“Arun Considers Heroin”): From the USA. Arun (Arun Narayanan) thinks about how heroin might be worth trying in a short, two-minute episode. (d: Dave Dorsey, Jordan Ledy)
  3. ApartmentFrom Argentina. In this episode, Ramon (Ezequiel Campa) has to deal with shitty customers at an insurance job and then finds out at the end of the episode that he’ll no longer be able to afford his apartment under his new lease. (d: Jazmin Stuart)
  4. The Passage: From the USA. Phil (Philip Burgers) spends the episode escaping from two men. In 22 minutes, he interacts with people who speak Spanish, Japanese, French, and Norwegian(?). No subtitles, which I first thought was a mistake and then realized was a feature. Clever, funny, and absolutely bonkers. Particular props to the drumming gag, where he drums faster the closer the men get to him. (d: Kitao Sakurai)
  5. The Big Nothing: From Australia. A sci-fi whodunit in which a detective is sent to investigate the mysterious death of a captain on a mining outpost in space. Shows promise. (d: Lucy Campbell, Pete Ninos)
  6.  Strowlers: Pilot (half): From the USA. According to the Q&A afterwards, Strowlers is an entire universe in which magic is regulated by the government. In the first episode, we see a kid who is believed to have magical abilities being collared. The magic user is kept until all emotions are ripped out of them, then are released. (d: Ben Dobyns, L. Gabriel Gonda) Available in the fall.
  7. Otis (Episodes 1: After the Party & Episode 2: Six Months Earlier): From the USA. In the first episode, we meet Otis (Alexander Etseyatse) with one of his friends and find out he’s just been released from a mental institution. Walking near where he ex-fiancee now lives, he decides to visit her, against the advice of his friend. In the second episode, he’s in the mental institution, where he rebels against the strictures place against him. I preferred the first episode to the second one, which seemed a bit cliched. 3,2 (d: Alexander Etseyatse)
  8. UnspeakableFrom the USA. A young woman (Laura Vandervoort) who’s escaped from sex traffickers assumes the identity of a woman who was in captivity with her, but died. In the first episode, she’s having second thoughts about becoming this woman, but then is in danger of being picked up by the police, and so blurts out the lie. Can’t wait to see where this one goes. (d: Milena Govich)

 

SIFF 2018 Edition: How to SIFF

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The SIFF Lounge: a great place to hang out in between films.

I probably should’ve posted this earlier in the festival, but these tips will still help you out through the final week of the festival.

  1. Take care of yourself first, your movie-watching needs second.

    This took me years to understand. If you’re filling all of your free time watching movies, you’re going to run your immune system ragged, especially if you’re also working a full-time job. So, get plenty of rest, drink plenty of water, and if you’re feeling worn out, GO HOME.

  2. Remember: they’re just movies.

    Feel like yelling at the box office staff for messing up your ticket order? Deciding to argue with a venue manager because they won’t seat you late? Feel like your experience was ruined because it was too cold/too hot/too uncomfortable in the theater? First of all, yelling at people working for free (volunteers) or for less than a living wage (most everyone else) is a great way to look like an asshole. Second, it’s just a movie, folks! Sure, it sucks when the men’s room is out of paper towels, but in a world where kids are getting shot in school and immigrant children are being separated from their parents, I’d rather be out of paper towels. Which leads to –

  3. Be considerate.

    Everyone in the theater bought a ticket or paid a lot of money for a pass. Don’t be the person talking to your neighbor (a little known fact: whispers travel farther than the ear of the person next to you) or looking at your cell phone while the film is playing. Don’t be rude to the staff or volunteers. Don’t be rude to your fellow patrons. If you can’t go out in public without being an asshole, stay home. And referring back to number two, yes, you can bring up issues with your theater experience without being an asshole.

  4. Got some time between films? Hang out at the SIFF Lounge.

    In the past, SIFF had a bar where movie patrons could mingle. This year, they have the SIFF Lounge, which is available to all passholders for free and to everyone else for a $10 day pass. Besides comfy couches and camaraderie, there’s booze and ice cream (separately, of course). And WiFi!

  5. Refer to tip one.

  6. And finally, have fun!

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week One

Here are capsule reviews for all the films I’ve seen so far at the Seattle International Film Festival. Reviews are alphabetical by title. Included is my rating of each film. As per Golden Space Needle ballots, films are rated on a scale of 1 to 5:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

Ava: Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a teenager who lives in Iran. When she goes out with Nima (Houman Hoursan) under the guise of practicing music with her best friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), her mother discovers the lie and sets in action a series of events that slowly transforms Ava from a model student and daughter into a rebel. Director, producer, and writer Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature is a solid film, but needs to be tauter. Non-actor Jabbari, who was 16 at the time the film was made, is a find. Opened April 27 in limited release.

Blaze: Ethan Hawke directs this biopic about songwriting legend Blaze Foley (actor and musician Ben Dickey). Based on the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by his lover and muse Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), the film focuses on the relationship between Foley and Rosen, even after they split ways. The chemistry between them is wonderful and mirrors that of a real couple; that and Blaze’s songs are strong reasons for seeing this film. Playing as part of A Tribute to Ethan Hawke on Friday, June 8, and the following day as a stand-alone film. Release date TBA.

The Bookshop: The Opening Night movie about a woman (Emily Mortimer) trying to open a bookshop in a town resistant to it seems strangely abridged. (d: Isabel Coixet) Opens August 24 in limited release.

The Devil’s Doorway: This solid horror film (originally shot on 16mm!) would benefit from a slower build in its terror and more character development (particularly Father John). Having said that, it’s scary as fuck, and knows how to include both unsettling images at the corner of the frames and jump scares. And since Magdalene laundries were horrible places, anyway, it’s not difficult to imagine greater evils taking place there.(d: Aislinn Clarke)  No release date set. World Premiere

Disobedience: Sebastián Lelio’s latest deals with a closed Jewish community and the lost sheep (Rachel Weisz) who returns home when her father (the much-beloved rabbi) dies. We soon find out she left due to a scandal with another woman (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to their best friend and the rabbi’s best pupil (Alessandro Nivola). Now playing. Full review  

The Faces of Zandra Rhodes: The world-famous fashion designer is given a documentary as eclectic and vibrant as her fashion sense. We get some biography, but not until a lengthy opening concerning a fashion show she’s putting on while simultaneously being asked to design the costumes for Seattle Opera’s The Pearl Fishers. We also get some repetition in her saying that she always wears the clothes she designs (mentioned three times), one slight title card spelling error, and many interviews with the fashion models, artists, and other people she’s worked with over the years, including Angelica Huston. Somehow, it all works and gets better as it goes on, but it’s dense, which one would expect from a project that began in 1982 with a fashion show in La Jolla, California.(d: David Wiesehan)  No release date set. World Premiere

Love, Gilda: A solid, lean documentary about the late comedienne, with readings from her audio book, It’s Always Something, a generous portion of clips from SNL, TV interviews, and home movies, and present-day interviews with the people who knew her best, and those who followed in her footsteps on Saturday Night Live. If you’re a fan, you’ll love this film; if you know nothing about her, this is a great place to start. (d: Lisa D’Aplito) Release date TBA.

Sadie: Megan Griffiths’s film about a 13-year-old girl (Sophia Mitri Schloss) whose dad is overseas in the military and whose mother (Melanie Lynskey) has started dating the cute neighbor (John Gallagher, Jr.) that just moved in. Unfortunately, Sadie has feelings for him while angry that he’s trying to take the place she feels is reserved for her dad. Even worse, she’s at the point where she’s more intelligent than she is wise. Playing as part of An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey and as a stand-alone film on Wednesday, June 6. No release date set. Full review

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: This wonderful documentary shares the life and philosophy of the late Fred Rogers through archival footage, interviews, and cartoons, expertly edited together. It resists turning him into a saint, but still reveals him as an extraordinary human being. Bring tissues. (d: Morgan Neville) Opens June 15.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Sadie

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Sophia Mitri Schloss. Photo by T. J. Williams, Jr. Image courtesy of SIFF.

NOTE: THIS CRITIQUE MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Sadie begins and ends with the title character (Sophia Mitri Schloss) providing voice-over to a letter she’s written her dad, who is serving overseas. In between is a film with a multi-dimensional and troubled character at its center.

I don’t know than any man could’ve written this tale, or directed it as well. Megan Griffiths, who did both, allows us to empathize with all her characters, even as we begin to realize, long before they do, that something is wrong with Sadie. In idolizing her dad and the violence that surrounds him, in being old enough to be intelligent without being wise, she mistakenly feels that she can solve her problems (and those of her friends) in unsettling ways without adverse consequences. Plus, hormones.

Megan Griffiths. Photo by Hayley Young. Image courtesy of SIFF.

Witness, for example, the way she helps her best friend Francis (Keith L. Williams) with Jesse (Justin Thomas Howell), a bully at school. First, she steals Jesse’s phone and links an easily traceable bomb threat to it, resulting in detention for him. Then, when he finds out about the phone and threatens Francis (thinking he’s the one who sent the message), Sadie emotionally manipulates him into thinking Francis might go on a Columbine rampage if bullied any more, and even shows him a gun she supposedly found in Francis’s backpack (actually one of her dad’s). When she later shows Francis the gun and he worries that Jesse might report them, Sadie says, “For what? You didn’t do anything. Besides, the gun isn’t loaded.”

Notice the logic here. Sadie can’t see beyond the solution she’s hoping to achieve. Yes, Jesse gets a detention in the first instance, but the bomb threat goes on his permanent record (Sadie dismisses Francis when he mentions this, saying, “We’re kids, Francis. Nobody cares what we do.”). And the threat of violence terrorizes Jesse more than he’s terrorized Frances.

This inability to see the consequences of her actions, other that the desired result, plays out again in the main story, when she is upset at her mom (Melanie Lynskey) for dating a handsome new neighbor named Cyrus (John Gallagher, Jr). These feelings are enhanced by her own feelings for him, combined with her loyalty to her dad and her wish for them all to be a family again. First she tries to slip milk of magnesium into his milk (he doesn’t drink it). Then, when it seems her dad will be coming home for good, she tries to trap him in a compromising position. When that doesn’t work, she resorts to more drastic measures.

Photo courtesy of SIFF

Those drastic measures go much further than the solution Sadie had in mind. She wants to harm Cyrus, but she mistakenly thinks she’s in control of the situation and that the amount of harm she can cause is negligible because she’s a kid. Again, she is more intelligent than wise. She only thinks of getting him out of the picture so that her dad can come back to them. But when she discovers that isn’t going to happen, she finally realizes the true weight of what she’s done.

Griffiths is wise to not show Sadie as psychologically damaged or otherwise out of the ordinary. That is not to say that every teenage girl is dangerous, but that they can be without proper guidance and awareness of their power to hurt. This element is what makes the film so unsettling, along with its soundtrack (by Mike McCready).

Still, the movie isn’t without its flaws. John Gallagher, Jr. acts too much with his teeth, lips, and tongue for my taste, and the final letter Sadie writes to her dad falls flat. I’m also not a fan of whisper acting, which Schloss employs too often, especially during the voice-overs. Finally, the movie meanders into clichéd plot devices near its conclusion.

There’s a scene near the beginning of this film that bears mentioning. Francis’s grandfather, Deak (Tee Dennard), spends his time sitting outside and whittling wood carvings. One afternoon, Sadie joins him and begins to carve Cyrus’s face. Deak notices this and tells her she should start with something easier, like animals. “Men are hard,” he says. Sadie shows that young girls can be harder.

Sadie plays as part of An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey tomorrow at 2:30 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and again at the same location on Wednesday, June 6 at 6:45.

 

SIFF 2018 Edition: Disobedience

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Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz. Photo courtesy of SIFF

When I watched Sebastián Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman, the earth moved. With Disobedience, there were only slight rumblings. Films, like music, need a thread to tie them together from beginning to end, whether it be through story, images, sounds, dialog, or a repeating motif. There is such a thread in Disobedience, but it often thins to nothing, pricking the viewer with its needle.

A rabbi (Anton Lesser) passes away. The daughter (Rachel Weisz) is called back home. We sense something is amiss. There is a coldness to those who welcome her back. The society she left is a conservative Jewish one. Married women wear wigs outside the bedroom. Men do not touch women not their wives. Couples have sex every Friday. The synagogue is segregated: women sit in the balcony, men sit below.

Most of the surprise of what will happen has been spoiled by advance press concerning Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams’s love scene together. The film wants to be Call Me By Your Name for women, but the complexity of its subject would seem more at home in a novel, where each character could be given her own chapter. Despite terrific acting, I never felt completely connected to these people, or felt that Esti (McAdams) would pine after Ronit (Weisz) without finding love elsewhere, however briefly. Call Me By Your Name was based on a novel, and yet fleshed out its characters more.

But is that what the movie’s about? Take note of the opening. The soon-to-be-deceased rabbi is giving a sermon on God’s creation. He mentions that the angels are perfect, and so are incapable of sin, since they cannot choose to be sinners. The beasts also do not sin, as they follow what’s in their nature, and their nature was chosen by God. Only humans are given the freedom to choose. Is this, then, its message? That we have the freedom to choose? Choose our partners, our communities, our lives? Certainly it doesn’t mean choosing our sexuality, for that if that were the case, the movie would’ve ended differently, and I would’ve stormed out of the theater. Nor is it about choosing acceptance, for the Jewish community in this film cannot accept homosexuality any more than it can accept other deviations from its traditions.

So the thread breaks and the pattern unravels, and we cannot see where the needle has gone. While this is still a solid film in its camera work, imagery, acting, and script, it does not shake the heavens, nor does it stir the heart.

Now playing at AMC Seattle 10, which used to be Sundance Cinemas, which used to be the Metro. Also playing at AMC Pacific Place.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Opening Night

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To attend Opening Night is to see everything from cocktail gowns to actual gowns to t-shirts to jeans in a crowd composed of volunteers and staff, high-spending passholders, those who can afford the $75 price tag for the film ($65 for members), and those willing to shell out the $275 for reserved seats, valet parking, and fundraising cred.

And now, a picture of a crow flying from one of the tents.

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What’s up, crow?

Inside, I walked up the central staircase to a place where SIFF program guides were being handed out for free. Obviously, I was on the wrong floor, so I went up a level and saw this below me.

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Even cooler was the view looking back from where I’d come.

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Once the program started, there were the usual speeches and thanking of sponsors, volunteers, and staff. Then, the giving out of the Mayor’s Award for Achievement in Film…by Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan. Just as the mayor wasn’t there to hand out the award, neither was winner Tracy Rector there to receive it. Instead, her son Solomon accepted the award on her behalf and gave the best speech of the night, which started with him saying how hard his mother works (she’s directed and produced over 400 short films, something that the Deputy Mayor pointed out in her introduction).

In addition to the intros and the Mayor’s Award, we were treated to several sponsor commercials, none so poignant as the one from Aegis Living. As usual, we saw the official SIFF trailer (produced by Wong Doody, and which I’d seen at the press launch), and then a montage including scenes from films in this year’s festival. Oh yeah, and there was also a movie. There’s currently a review embargo on The Bookshop, but capsule reviews are okay, and all I have to say about the film can be written in one paragraph.

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Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson doing what they do best (hint: it’s acting). Photo courtesy of SIFF

First, the good. The acting is solid (Bill Nighy steals every scene he’s in), the cinematography is pretty (especially the colors), and the camerawork is unobtrusive. Unfortunately, the story itself seems abridged, with only the skeleton of a plot and a few hints of character motivation remaining. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. And the voice-over narration seems unnecessary.

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Emily Mortimer reading a book that’s better than this movie. Photo courtesy of SIFF

Then it was on to the gala. But first, one last look at the tent the crow sat on, this time from inside McCaw Hall.

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In past years, the Opening Night Gala took place in the Pacific Northwest Ballet building. Last year and this year, however, it took place in the more intimate Fischer Pavilion.

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Getting the party started

At the gala, I achieved a lifelong dream of finally getting ice cream, lines be damned (mine was called Netflix & Chill). Sadly, I missed the sliders, but made up for it with potato dumplings (and later, beef dumplings). I also thought the gala ended at 11, which caused much confusion when it kept going. I then thought it must end at 11:30, but no, that was merely the time for last call (speaking of which, I didn’t get carded this year for booze. Must be the beard). It actually ended at midnight.

This is a picture of how close I got to the VIP area.

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To clarify, the VIP area is on the roof of Fischer Pavilion where all those people are standing, not at the Space Needle

The Space Needle scaffolding was being removed that evening, but it was still there when I took this picture. Oh well. At the end of the night, I found out that DJ Don Driftmier (his company is called “Music Man,” which might be his professional DJ name, or it might be DJ Don, or DJ D, or just Don), whom SIFF hires every year for the Opening Night Gala, has been doing it for the past ten years. He’s great, but the music is loud, and I forgot to bring my earplugs this year. Luckily, I found a quiet spot near the front of the dance floor after I’d already danced a few songs in the louder section in between the speakers, so my hearing is still intact.

SIFF 2018 Edition: The SIFFening

 

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Image courtesy of SIFF

After a one-year hiatus, I’m back with my coverage of SIFF! It’s good I didn’t report on the festival last year: otherwise, you would’ve had to hear me complain the entire time about not-quite-meeting Kore-eda Hirokazu (he has another movie in this year’s festival, but no plans yet to attend). Besides, that means I’ve been able to store up my sass for 25 days of festival chronicling (not including an additional 2 1/2 weeks of press screenings)!

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You try that sass on me, young man…. (Highlander photo courtesy of SIFF, and yes, you want to click on that link)

Notice I wrote “chronicling,” not “reporting.” Yes, I have a press pass this year (the last time I had one, one of my posts received over 400 views…in one day!). But if you’ve followed either of my blogs for any period of time, you’ve noticed that I’m not content to just “report” on what’s happening, but to give you a sense of being at whatever event I’m covering. I plan to continue the trend this year, along with my assessment of this year’s crop of films (at least the ones I’m able to see). Speaking of which, this is the ninth Seattle International Film Festival I’ve attended, so maybe I’ll do something special for the tenth (despite not covering last year, because “reasons”).

But back to this year: the press launch was on May 1. One wonders if having rich donors and press personnel lining up outside the Egyptian Theatre on May Day was the best of ideas, but luckily, the anarchists didn’t find us! Though I did see a SWAT van and a wagon full of cops in riot gear go by (and a phalanx of cop cyclists on the way to the theater).

This was the first year that donors and journalists had a combined event, and we got to cut them in line! Okay, so we had our own line and it was shorter than the donor line, so that might’ve been the reason why we got in ahead of them. There was food, but I’d eaten just before. And drinks. No mimosas, but this event was at night, not during the day.

I only took three photos at the press launch.  Besides the familiar-looking one on the left, the one on the top right lists some statistics about the films at this year’s festival (for example, this year there are 433 films from 90 countries), while the one below it is a list of all the programmers. The woman in both photos is Beth Barrett, SIFF’S Artistic Director. Crews were introduced, people talked, trailers played, more people talked, more trailers played, and then it was over, at which point, I walked over to Everyday Music and bought two Berlioz CDs. Because I am a nerd.

Besides this blog, I’ll be posting on Twitter from the festival @salvatorespeak under #SIFF2018, so be sure to follow me there for quick blurbs I might not include here. Embargoed reviews may not appear until after festival.

Happy viewing!

The festival opens with The Bookshop tonight at 7 at McCaw Hall

The Best of Sakura-Con 2018: Mana Q&A

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photo by @nattiedoes

Mana is an enigma. In Japan, he’s known for founding the influential visual kei band, Malice Mizer, for starting his own line of Gothic Lolita clothing, Moi-même-Moitié, and for forming his solo music project, Moi dix Mois. In keeping with his mysterious image, he rarely gives interviews, and when he does, he whispers his answers to an associate, who then answers on his behalf. Only twice has he been known to speak, and both times, the answers were brief and blink-and-you-miss them phrases.

So, when I requested an interview with him, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get it. I didn’t. But I was able to attend his panel, at which I also wasn’t able to ask him questions because all the questions had been submitted ahead of time at the Moi-même-Moitié booth in the Exhibition Hall. You also won’t be seeing many photos from @nattiedoes in this post because they weren’t allowed (except for when it was over, when she took the photo at the top of this post). Nor were video and audio recordings.

What I’m left with is my own recollections and the notes that I furiously scribbled and then copied out later. I also have the recollections of @nattiedoes. If you were at that panel, feel free to leave your recollections in the comments.

Since we were covering the panel as press, we didn’t have to wait in the labyrinthine line that snaked its way near the wall opposite the door to the panel. Instead, we got to wait outside the door with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) people, though that caused much confusion at first about where we needed to stand. I have to say, the ADA people were lovely. One of them was pushing around a kid in a stroller, who was dressed like Gackt.

Except for us, it was pretty easy to tell who was there for the panel, as most of the crowd were wearing Gothic Lolita clothing, making this one of the most stylish panels I’ve attended. Since we were separated from the rest of the crowd by a hallway, we did keep having to shoo away people who lined up behind us and weren’t ADA or press (we were the only press). And, of course, since Mana is an important person, the panel started ten minutes late.

Once the doors finally opened, we sat in the second row from the front, to the right of the center aisle. Then @nattiedoes asked about photos, realized she wouldn’t be taking any, and had someone from the regular line with an awesomely colorful dress (that she made herself!) sneak past us to sit in our row. Since most everyone else around us were wearing muted tones, the splash of color was welcome. Plus, she was good company.

There were five seats on the dais. The first three were empty, the moderator sat in the next one, and the final seat (on the right and closest to the screen seen above) was occupied by a Japanese man who didn’t speak the entire time, but may have been the liaison to the Japanese guests at the convention, as I’ve seen him at previous cons.

The panel started not with Mana, but with his associates. They sat in the far left seats. Both women, the first one was Japanese, while the second associate looked more European (French?). She did most of the speaking, so I suspect she might be in charge of the English branch of the website. I have no idea because I didn’t write it down.

I do wish I’d looked around more so as to relate to you all the clothing styles people were wearing, but as mentioned, most of the crowd wore Gothic Lolita outfits, including the associates, who wore white with their black. I can tell you that it was a very enthusiastic crowd. The first part of the panel allowed questions from the audience, with answers that were often met with oohs and aahs, sometimes with joy, and always with applause. I felt like I was surrounded by the cult of Mana, a benevolent religion that loves lace, is ecstatic about eyelashes, and wishes for sizes that fit American figures better. Its prophets preach what the people want to hear, but many of the answers given by the Moi-même-Moitié employees and Mana via the Mana Whisperer were noncommittal or open to interpretation. I found it fascinating. If you want to learn how to craft a public image, this panel was a masterclass.

For example, nothing was promised one way or the other with the employees’ Q&A. When asked if they would be adding sizes for American audiences, the answer was that they are “trying to get” bigger sizes for American audiences. In the same way, they are “looking into” manufacturers for popular Lolita fashion items like bags and lace headdresses. Even when it came to shoes, which they said they “won’t be doing right now,” the answer implies that they might do shoes later. And, in a precursor of Mana’s behavior, the employee at the end of the dais discussed her answers quietly with the other employee instead of answering the questions herself.

More examples of indirect answers: the woman who brought her child asked if they would be releasing a line of Gothic Lolita children’s clothes (squeals from the audience). The answer was that “we’d like to release children’s clothes, but adult clothes are the focus right now.” In a similar vein, there are “no plans to open a physical shop,” they would like to “bring the brand back to its glory,” and “Mana-san would like to release eyelashes.” In fact, the only question they answered directly was one about what kind of accessory they personally like best. They answered that they both love original lace.

Before Mana came out, the moderator announced that no photos or visual or audio recordings would be allowed (we’d be kicked out). We then had to make noise for him to appear.  After we made enough noise, the lights dimmed and Moi dix Mois music played (or perhaps it was Malice Mizer). There was a black curtain to the left side of the screen (closest the panelists): Mana appeared from behind that curtain, stood behind his seat, bowed elegantly with his right arm held horizontally across his waist, and sat down. He wore a black corset with black platform shoes and some sort of flowy pants. His shirt was frilly in the center, possibly with frills at the ends of the sleeves (we couldn’t remember, but they weren’t conspicuous), and white with thin, vertical stripes. On his chest, he wore a large, sparkly cross. His face was covered in white makeup with black eyeliner, and he had David-Bowie-from-Labyrinth hair, but black instead of blond. On each of his fingers, he wore large rings, possibly all gold, possibly all silver, possibly a mix. Every time he answered a question, he leaned over to the Moi-même-Moitié associate next to him (the one who’d answered during the first part of the panel) and faced his right palm toward us with spread fingers, covering his mouth (and just in case that wasn’t enough to prevent us from hearing him, his music played softly in the background the entire time). She then translated his answer on a piece of paper and responded for him.

The questions were asked by the moderator from notecards. Many of the questions were addressed to “Mana-san” (formal) or “Mana-sama” (most formal). Here, then, is the gist of the questions asked and Mana’s answers (Questions and comments from the moderator are in bold. If the question or comment from the moderator wasn’t from a notecard, I’ve put an “M” in front of it):

What is your favorite Malice Mizer song and album?
His favorite song is “Bel Air” (cheers from the audience), and his favorite album is Bara No Seidou. (more cheers)
How do you feel having led and supported the EGC (elegant gothic clothing) boom?
He feels extremely proud and happy to have been a part of it.
Have you ever thought of releasing a self biography?
There actually were plans to do one 5-6 years ago, but it didn’t happen. It would be really great to release one someday.
Mana-sama, what inspires your fashion choices?
For daily fashion choices, there is no particular inspiration.
What is the future for the brand and for Lolita fashion?
He hopes that it becomes more and more popular.
What do you think of older people wearing Lolita fashion?
He thinks you can wear Lolita fashion at any age beautifully. (big cheers)
What do you see the future of Moi-même-Moitié being in 5-10 years?
He hopes to protect fashion, and he wants all of us to help him.
What do you think of the evolution of Lolita fashion over the past 19 years?
He is going to pass on that answer.
M: How about this one?
(She shows them both a card, they nod their heads)
What is your opinion of Goth Lolita people who have tattoos?
When the tattoo is for him, he feels really happy. Otherwise, you can do as you like.
M: Does anyone in the crowd have a tattoo of Mana?
Woman in front of us: I have one of the Moi-même-Moitié logo.
(Mana looks over at her, sees it, and gives a thumbs up while slightly nodding. I look over to see if the woman has passed out, but luckily she was sitting when he complimented her.)
Mana-sama, how often do you get a haircut? And do you style your own hair?
(Mana makes scissor gestures with his fingers through his hair. Audience chuckles.)
He cuts and styles his own hair. As to how often he gets a haircut, he gets it whenever he wants one.
Where did you go in Seattle? Do you like coffee? What did you eat recently? (chuckles from the audience)
Mana-sama went to the Starbucks Reserve and found out he likes Starbucks coffee in the states. (Pause) He had clam chowder and found that he really liked it.
What is your skin care regimen?
He doesn’t really have a skin-care regimen. He often uses all-in-one products.
M: You have such great skin! I wish I had skin like yours.
(Did I mention his face is painted white? What skin is she looking at?)
What is your favorite Moi dix Mois song?
His favorite song is “Dialogue Symphony” because it was their first one.
What was the inspiration for Moi dix Mois?
When he founded Moi-même-Moitié, he was interested in what kind of music the dress designs would make. He created Moi dix Mois to express these dress designs through music. When he returns home, he’ll start recording soon.*
What Western artists have inspired you?
When he was a teenager, he was very influenced by Motley Crüe and Slayer.
When is Moi dix Mois coming to the U.S.?
He can’t make any promises, but he would like to make it happen at some point.
Can you visit the U.S. more? Have you thought about opening a store?
He wants to come back soon. He has no plans to open a store.
What inspires you the most?
He is most inspired by cooking. He likes to combine music and cooking.
What is your opinion of Twin Peaks?
He likes David Lynch, but he hasn’t seen Twin Peaks.
How did you come to record the Hatsune Miku snowbird song?
Miku-san asked him to go out drinking and invited him to do this.
(I should mention that Hatsune Miku is a hologram.)
How are you like Hatsune Miku vocally?
Mana-san says they have a similar image color.
(I don’t know what that means, either.)
What is your greatest achievement?
When we (Malice Mizer) did the concert at the Budokan. It was the biggest show ever at that location.
What did you think about your first fashion show in the U.S.?**
Everyone was really kind, so he would like to do it again.
M: How’d he feel about modeling in the fashion show?
He wants to thank you for your support and kind words. It means that Moi-même-Moitié can do more.
We thought he’d finished answering the question, but he continued whispering to his associate, and then she added the following: “Mana-san feels inspired to do more due to the kindness of people here.”
Then he stood up, bowed from the waist, and disappeared behind the screen again. With that, the panel was over.
POSTSCRIPT: In case you’re wondering what questions I wanted to ask Mana, here they are:

1. You write music, choreograph performances, design clothing, and play a variety of instruments. How do each of these activities influence and/or connect to each other?

2. You helped form two visual kei bands, Malice Mizer and Moi dix Mois. How would you describe visual kei to a non-Japanese person?

3. What musicians or composers have influenced you and your sound?

4. Why did you decide to open your fan club to international fans, and do you think other Japanese artists should do the same?

5. Would you mind discussing the influence French culture has on you, particularly as it relates to your clothing line and Moi dix Mois?

6. What can you tell us about the Moi-même-Moitié tea party?*** Where did the idea for the tea party come from?

7. What new projects are you working on?

8. What would you like your legacy to be?

9. You don’t often speak in interviews. What is the reason behind this?

 

*I found this answer to be the single most fascinating response he gave. And it was direct!
**Mana put on a fashion show at Sakura-Con this year and modeled as part of the show, but neither of us were able to attend.
***This was another event @nattiedoes and I didn’t attend, mainly because all guests had to wear a piece of clothing from the Moi-même-Moitié line.