The Most Fascinating (Unseen) Films of 2015

I saw many great films in 2015, some of which were released the previous year, yet every critic does a “best-of” list at the end of the year, and what do they tell you? That the same few movies were admired by most critics, with a fistful of variations. If I were doing such a list, I’d include Mad Max, Inside Out, Selma, The End of the Tour, and The Imitation Game. Instead, I’m including movies that may have slipped under your radar — and almost slipped under mine. You also can check out my reports from SIFF 2015, which include movies I haven’t included here.

Best Retrospective: Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

With the release of The Assassin in U.S. theaters last year, I hope that Hou’s films become more available to American audiences. The festival retrospective I went to included 35 mm prints of six of his films: A Time to Live And a Time to Die; Dust in the Wind; Flowers of Shanghai; Millennium Mambo; and Good Men, Good Women. All movies were screened at the Grand Illusion and the Northwest Film Forum. In addition, Scarecrow Video hosted viewings of The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou’s first “artistic” movie), City of Sadness, The Puppet Master, Goodbye South Goodbye, and Cafe Lumiere in their screening room. Most films were introduced by cinephile and Hou aficionado Sean Gilman, including all the ones I went to (I missed A Time to Live And A Time to Die, Flowers of Shanghai, and all of the Scarecrow screenings, except for The Boys from Fengkuei). The films covered three specific periods of Hou’s filmography: coming-of-age tales, Taiwanese history, and contemporary (in Millennium Mambo, his mostly static camera is replaced with one that “floats” above the action). The prints were in excellent condition, the cinematography gorgeous, the stories meditative. I still need to see City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, consider Hou’s two best films, so here’s hoping the next Hou retrospective includes prints of them, as the versions released over here are not in good condition (according to Gilman, Scarecrow replaced the Region 1 DVD of City of Sadness with a superior transfer for their screening).

Best Archival Presentation on Film: The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)

For his final film, Tarkovsky employed the talents of Sven Nyvquist, Bergman’s legendary cinematographer. So, yeah, the film looked fantastic. I saw no dirt or scratches, just brilliance on the screen.

Best Archival Presentation Not on Film: The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray), Jaws (Steven Spielberg)

Based on artistic quality, The Apu Trilogy easily wins, but the presentation for both films (DCP for one, laser projection for the other) was stunning. Jaws looked and sounded fantastic (I thought the music muted, but I discovered later that it’s supposed to sound muted). As for The Apu Trilogy, we’re lucky we can see it at all, since most of the original negatives were destroyed in a fire. This forced Criterion to hunt down duplicate negatives and existing prints to recreate the most life-fulfilling films I’ve ever seen.

Best Archival Presentation with Live Accompaniment: A Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu) w/ live music and benshi by Aono Jikken Ensemble

In Japan, silent films were accompanied by benshi: men and women who translated and interpreted the movies on the screen, much as Tayū (chanters) tell the story in bunraku (puppet theater). This version of A Story of Floating Weeds included a modern equivalent, with one female member of Aono Jikken Ensemble performing the role of benshi while the rest of the ensemble played an original score. Since the members in the ensemble met the last living benshi, this is as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing silent films as they were experienced in Japan.

Best WTF Movie: The Astrologer (Craig Denney)

No other movie captured the glory of bad movies like The Astrologer, which played once during the Seattle International Film Festival. Random shots (including inappropriate slow-mo and rotating crane shots), horrible acting, bad cinematography, cheap special effects, cheesy dialog — it’s all there, blended in such a way as to be unintentionally funny. Among the spoken gems, my favorite was, “You’re not an astrologer; you’re an asshole!”

Best Use of Camera Angles: The Devils (Ken Russell)

Ken Russell’s UK cut of The Devils (on 35mm!) shows why most movies today are boring. His camera angles aren’t showy, but they have personality — something often lacking in contemporary films.

Best Vampire Movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

I didn’t see What We Do in the Shadows, but that was a spoof, so I’m still going with Amirpour’s Iranian vampire film as the best vampire film of 2015. A vampire that only kills men who sexually prey on and abuse women? Not hard to see what Amirpour’s getting at here. It’s as black and white as the film’s cinematography, but the artistry employed in translating that message to the screen makes this more than a message movie, including as it does shades of Let the Right One In  with its relationship between The Girl (Sheila Vand) and the Arash (Arash Marandi).

Best Cinematography: Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh) — Dick Pope, cinematographer

Leigh isn’t an unknown quantity, but Mr. Turner didn’t get wide release in the US. For fans of J.M.W. Turner, that’s a shame, as the cinematography is as gorgeous as one of his paintings.

And now let’s list to movies you really should’ve seen, and why (in the order I saw them):

1. Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf)

Worth seeing for the two lead actresses, Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius, who play sisters: one of whom (Confurius) marries the poet Frederick Schiller (Florian Stetter), one of whom takes him as her lover, even though she is married. Herzsprung, in particular, is fantastic to watch as the more strong-willed of the two sisters, who has literary ambitions of her own.

2. An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein)

A documentary about the Amazing Randi, who has spent his life denouncing charlatans, particularly those whom he feel are dangerous to the people they dupe. One of the best documentaries you’ve never seen, for though he’s spent his life denouncing untruths, an untruth lies at the center of his life.

3. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)

The best animated movie not by Pixar, with a drawing style very different from Disney.  By the same studio that made Book of Kells, but with a better story. Like that film, based on Irish legends.

4. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

This wonderfully creepy film about an unstoppable force that is transmitted like an STD pays homage to 80s horror films, fills itself with characters we care about, and grounds its horror in the real world. Not quite as good as The Babadook, but scarier, it proves great horror films aren’t dead yet.

5. 1971 (Johanna Hamilton)

The premise of the film sounded interesting; who knew it’d be one of the best documentaries of the year? Re-enacting a break-in that occurred in an FBI office in Pennsylvania in 1971 in which the perpetrators stole files and sent them to major newspapers, the film interviews the participants of that event, who saw their break-in as an act of protest against the government and the Vietnam War. One of the documents led to the discovery of the secret surveillance systems that the FBI has on US citizens, leading to “the first Congressional investigation of an intelligence committee” (Variety 2014 film review: http://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/film-review-1971-1201202631/). Not only were the perpetrators never caught; no one knew who they were — until they revealed themselves in this film.

6. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)

One of the strangest films I’ve ever see, and one of the most beautiful. It starts in reality and ends in dream, as Captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortenson) searches for his missing daughter (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) after she elopes with a young soldier ((Misael Saavedra).

7. Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)

In 1811, Heinrich von Kliest — writer of “The Marquise of O,” among others — shot and killed his friend Henriette Vogel on the banks of the Wansee before turning the gun on himself. Though a suicide pact existed between the friends (Vogel was dying of cancer), this films leaves enough ambiguity concerning the prognosis and Vogel’s willingness to die with the young author to make for a fascinating, female-centric retelling of the event, and the days leading up to it. To quote Scout Tafoya’s review on RogerEbert.com: “Vogel’s illness was never questioned as seriously at the time as it is in the film. The official word is that she was going to die either way. The film creates reasonable doubt because its chief interest is in telling the story of a woman at the mercy of circumstances” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amour-fou-2015).

8. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)

Excellent acting from Nina Hoss as Nelly Lenz, a woman who survives the Holocaust, but whose face undergoes plastic surgery as a result of her wounds. Her husband, not knowing she’s his wife, forces her to impersonate herself, in order to get her inheritance money. The ending is perfect.

9. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)

Constructed entirely from tapes that the late Marlon Brando made throughout his life, and edited with photos, movie clips, and TV spots. Admittedly one-sided, but what a fascinating side it is! And the editing job that went into this is astonishing.

10. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)

Mainly to be seen for Bel Powley’s lead performance, who acts as a young woman — recently introduced to the joys of sex — would behave. And the fact that the film is honest about a young woman’s sexuality, instead of existing mainly for the male gaze.

11. The Diplomat (David Holbrooke)

Released by HBO, this documentary by David Holbrooke follows his father, Richard Holbrooke (mainly known for his role in the Dayton Accords), from the beginning of his career as a diplomat to the end. Honest in its portrayal of the flaws of the man, as well as the flaws of the administrations he worked under, this was one of the best surprises of 2015.

12. The Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)

Dreams, death, and observations about the world. The imagery is eclectic, as are the subjects covered, and yet Anderson somehow ties it all together.

Changes to My Blog — The 2016 “Movie” Edition

Like on Dreams of Literary Grandeur, I didn’t post much on this site last year. Take away posts from before and during SIFF 2015 and you’re left with two of them.

The changes to this blog, however, have less to do with frequency and more to do with revamping the “Movies Watched” section. I’ll no longer list all the anime and TV series I’ve seen over the course of the year, though I may write posts about them.  Also, I’m only listing new movies watched.  If I see an archival movie on the big screen, I may mention it on Twitter (@litdreamer) or write a post on it here, but I’m not listing it in the sidebar. That includes movies watched at SIFF, though I will include all movies watched in one of my festival posts. That also means that the two pages I’ve dedicated to movies and series watched during the course of the year will soon vanish.

In the past, I’ve sometimes written which format I saw a movie in.  I’ll be doing that for all films now, as well as the title, director (or producer/actor, if they’re more well-know; e.g. Walt Disney, Buster Keaton), run-time, country of origin, and release date.

Like on Dreams of Literary Grandeur, I’m going to tweak the blogroll, but not as severely.  In this case, I’ll remove the names of blogs that have listed no new posts for a year.

Finally, all the posts originally part of Dreams of Literary Grandeur will have that moniker at the bottom of the post, and after checking that everything has been imported correctly to this blog will be removed from the Dreams blog, thereby giving me a more accurate count of how many posts I’ve written between the two.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet

Courtesy of SIFF Cinema.

Poster courtesy of SIFF Cinema

When I spent a semester abroad in London (fifteen years ago!), I saw William H. Macy in American Buffalo and Ralph Fiennes in Richard II, experienced A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello at the Barbican, and even took a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a Restoration comedy. Back then, that was the only way to see live theater performances.  Within the past decade, however, audiences worldwide have been able to experience staged performances at their local movie theaters.

Still, while I took advantage of my job at a movie theater to avail myself of this option, the first truly live offering for me only came last month, with a National Theatre Live performance of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the troubled prince of Denmark.  Two performances were scheduled (not including encores): the first one, at 11 am, was a live stream from the Barbican; the second, at 7 pm, was a “same-day live” broadcast.  With intermission, the show ran almost 4 hours.

Luckily, the day the live shows were playing — October 15 — was a Thursday.  And I have Thursdays off.

Even luckier, the earlier performance had seats left.  And — being the cultural snob that I am — I wanted to see the live show.  True, I’d have no chance of getting Cumberbatch’s autograph, or of running into Tom Hiddleston (twice) on the way to the bathroom (as a friend-of-a-friend did), but I would get to see Shakespeare’s greatest character in one of his greatest plays, played by a man who has made a specialty of playing morally complex characters.

Usually, during the intermission, NT Live includes extra features, such as a discussion with the actors or insight into an interpretational choice.  In this case, the extras were shown ahead of the performance.  They consisted of a sit-down interview with Cumberbatch and his visit to a school in England that was also putting on the play, the latter in order to witness their interpretation of the “To be or not to be” speech.  The first part revealed that, after each night, Cumberbatch mostly feels hungry and tired, while the second showed the children choosing to have everyone participate in the monologue (to interpret and highlight the speech as so many voices and influences Hamlet is feeling at that moment).

For the Barbican performance, the first interesting artistic choice occurs at the beginning of the play.  Act I, Scene I –with the guards and the ghost — is jettisoned in favor of Horatio’s entrance in Scene II (minus Marcellus and Bernardo, who enter with Horatio in the proper place in Scene II), which now comes before the beginning of the scene with the king, queen, and court, so that Hamlet mentions his displeasure to Horatio that “the funeral bak’d meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”* at the start of the play, instead of two scenes in.  I found this a wise decision, as the play now begins and ends with Hamlet, first mourning his father (while clutching a portrait in his lap and listening to a sad recording on vinyl), and then dying in the arms of Horatio.  The tone is set, therefore, not by the dead father, but by the mourning son.  Other great touches include the operatic flourishes that occur when the ghost appears to Hamlet and the scene which occurs right before intermission, in which wind-swept ashes blow through the palace as a doomed-filled note falls from the speakers.  And then there’s the costumes, wherein those outside the strict world of the aristocracy dress in more casual clothing than the rest of the people in the play — clothing which can change in regards to their relation to those in power.  While Horatio is too overdone, with tattoos and casual wear reminiscent of a European backpacker, I found Hamlet’s change from suits to t-shirts (as he feigns madness) convincing, with the opposite transition occurring for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (though they keep their sneakers with their formal attire).

Cumberbatch is an excellent Hamlet, saying the lines with meaning and giving insights into not just the character, but how great a writer Shakespeare is.  When Hamlet dies, I started tearing up.  But while I expected a great Hamlet, I didn’t expect a great Ophelia.  In all the screen and stage adaptations I have seen (the former outnumbering the latter), I never found her madness convincing, but here Sian Brooke shows how vulnerable she is in her love for Hamlet from her first scene, which makes her later mental disintegration believable.  And while Ophelia’s brother Laertes is too one-note in his rage after hearing about the death of his father, and Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude — while also saying her lines with meaning — won’t make me forget Glenn Close, Claudius is a role in which I have yet to see anything less than a good performance — including this one.

All in all, an astonishing Hamlet, one that is as alive today as it must have been when performed over 400 years ago; and the best part is, you don’t have to hop a plane to London to see it.

CAST

Hamlet – Prince of Denmark  …………          Benedict Cumberbatch

Horatio                                       …………          Leo Bill

Polonius                                     …………          Jim Norton

Claudius                                     …………          Ciarán Hinds

Gertrude                                   …………           Anastasia Hille

Ophelia                                      …………          Sian Brooke

Laertes                                      …………          Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Produced by Sonia Friedman

Full cast list can be found here.

*Source: The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare, Chancellor Press, 2000, p. 802

Toyo’s Camera (Junichi Suzuki, 2009, 98 mins)

Born in Japan in 1895, Toyo Miyatake came to the U.S. in 1909.  As an adult, he set up a photo studio in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, and in the 1930s became famous for photographing Michio Ito’s dance troupe.

These beginnings are covered in Toyo’s Camera, the excellent first film in director Junichi Suzuki’s Nisei Trilogy (“Nisei” is a word meaning “second generation Japanese-Americans”).  The main focus of the movie, however, is what happens after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the order authorized the forced removal of anyone of Japanese ancestry from their homes and placed them in concentration camps.

Toyo and his family were sent to Manzanar.  Detainees were only allowed to bring what they could carry, and cameras weren’t allowed.  Toyo, however, snuck in materials to build a camera and received film through the guards he befriended.  He risked this because, as he told his son, he felt it was his duty to document camp life.

The film shows these photos, mentions Caucasian Americans who were against the order (including a teacher and a librarian) and interviews people who lived in the camps, as well as experts on that time period — and on the racism that led to the detainment of Japanese-Americans, but not German or Italian-Americans.  Several photographers also objected to the concentration camps, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams (the latter of whom mentored Toyo), both of whom took photos in the camps (in 1944, Adams put together a book called Born Free and Equal, which contains photos from Manzanar.  Unlike most of his photography, these photographs focus on individuals instead of landscapes).  Even Ralph Merritt, the director of Manzanar, helped.  Merritt was a photography aficionado and knew Edward Weston, another of Toyo’s mentors.  He eventually allowed Toyo to bring in photographic equipment from his studio, saying, “A photographer without a camera is like a bird without wings.”  At first, a Caucasian person had to push the shutter, but after going through eight assistants, Merritt confided to Toyo, “You know, I’m basically blind out of my left side,” which led Toyo to understand that he could take the photos himself.

While the film focuses on Toyo (mainly through remembrances by his son, Archie, as well as people he photographed around the neighborhood) — while building a more complete societal portrait of those times — there is a detour into a generational issue that arises between the Issei (first generation Japanese-Americans) and the Nisei over questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire, which detainees were forced to answer in 1942.  Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?  Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization? Never mind that no one else had to answer this questionnaire, or that two-thirds of the 110,000 people held at the camps were American citizens, or that these questions were asked of both men and women, boys and girls, regardless of age or circumstances.  Many of the Nisei agreed to fight, while those who answered “no” to either question were sent to Tule Lake, another concentration camp (and coincidentally, the last incarceration camp operated by the War Relocation Authority to close).  And yet this segue makes sense, after which we find ourselves back in Manzanar with Toyo, during its final days.  When the camps closed, everyone got $25 ($330 in today’s money) and a bus ticket back home, where vandalized houses and missing property greeted its former owners.  Toyo stayed till the end, taking photos almost up until the point where they closed the gates (in fact, he wanted to be the one to close them).

Then we jump to years later, when President Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave payment and official apologies to the survivors of the camps; and to today, where many people (particularly Japanese people living in Japan) don’t know that Japanese and Japanese-Americans were put in concentration camps during the war.  My only criticism of the film, in fact, is that when people leave the concentration camps, George Takei’s voiceover makes it sound like their troubles ended, a view that former concentration camp incarceree Cho Shimizu corrected during the Q&A which followed the movie.  He was joined by President-Elect Eileen Yamada Lamphere of the Puyallup Valley JACL and Seattle JACL President Paul Tashima, who MC’d.  For Cho’s family, the post-war (and post-concentration camp) years included overcoming homelessness and racism (“we were still considered the enemy”). People threw rocks at him when he went to school, which led to him taking different routes there each day, and he got into many fights.  One time, when he came home with his shirt torn, his mother went into her room, shut the door, and cried.  At that point, he realized how hard camp life and post-camp life had been on his mom, too.

Cho explained that before they were sent to the concentration camps, Japanese and Japanese-Americans were sent to assembly centers.  In Seattle, people were sent to Pullayup to a place called Camp Harmony.  Eileen mentioned that 2017 is the anniversary of its closure.  Cho said that the assembly centers were even worse than the concentration camps: Camp Harmony (for example) had plywood with holes cut into them for toilets, where each person would be touching each other when they sat.  The rumor was that food at the assembly centers (where detainees waited to be relocated to concentration camps) came from World War I.  From there, Cho and his family were sent to Minidoka.

One of his brothers joined the 442nd division, a legendary group of soldiers made up entirely of Nisei (according to Wikipedia, “The 442nd Regiment was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare”).  He remembers finding a German POW camp and noticing it looked exactly like Minidoka.  The other brother joined a platoon that operated in a small village in Tokyo after the war.  He was told by his commanding officer,  “Some of them don’t know the war is over yet, so don’t tell ’em you’re American or you’ll be shot.”  Though things were difficult for Cho after the war, he said his parents and older brothers had it worse, as the Issei at least made sure there was some sort of social structure for the Nisei in the camps.  And yet, while millions of dollars poured into Japan after the war, detainees only got a bus ticket.

After their internment, Cho and his family moved to Renton, which had low-income housing.  Eileen mentioned that another place many Japanese-Americans went was to 14th and Weller, where a Japanese school was located (later dubbed the Hunt Hotel).  Partitions were put up and many families moved in.

Then came time for questions from the audience, the first two written by students.  The first questioner wondered if those detainees who answered “yes” to question 27 and 28 felt more American, while those who had answered “no” felt more Japanese.  Cho mentioned there were other factors behind saying “no” to those two questions, one being “to let the government know [the internment]’s unjust.”  Eileen mentioned that one or two “no”s landed detainees at Tule Lake, but there was another group at Heart Mountain who answered “yes” to both questions, but resisted the draft as long as their families were in the concentration camps.

The second questioner wondered if, in the absence of the relocation to concentration camps, it would’ve been risky for families to stay, due to increased racism. Cho said they “would still do what they did” and mentioned a case where a Caucasian woman, married to a Japanese man, was allowed to stay out of the concentration camps, with neither her Caucasian nor Japanese neighbors feeling resentful about it.  What I am not sure about is if the whole family was allowed to stay, or just the mother.

Then we got a question from the audience.  The film mentioned that Japanese women had an easier time in the camps than they would have at home, since they didn’t have to cook, clean, or keep up social engagements.  The woman asking the question wondered if the camps really offered relief for them.  Cho said it was, in a way, as “wives were basically slaves to their husbands” and might bear them ten kids, aged 2-18.  In this way, camp life was more convenient.  On the other hand, they didn’t know what would happen to the families.  In Japan, the Emperor would exile people by sending them to the desert.  The concentration camps were in the desert.  Wasn’t sending them there like exile?  And while mothers could handle the responsibilities of everyday life, they had a harder time dealing with prejudice and injustice.  Eileen mentioned that there was a breakdown of the family unit in the camps, as the Issei hung out together and the teens hung out together, as opposed to families hanging out together.  Often, the mothers were left to themselves.

One might reasonably ask why they should watch a film about something that happened 70 years ago.  My answer is because fear brings out the worst in how we treat each other, and only by understanding that we’re capable of doing such things can we prevent ourselves from doing them in the future. Plus, it’s a really good film.

442-Live With Honor, Die With Dignity plays on Saturday, June 27 at 6:30 at NVC Memorial Hall. MIS: Human Secret Weapon plays on Sunday, June 28 at noon at SIFF Uptown (click on the locations for ticket information).  Director Junichi Suzuki and his wife are scheduled to attend both performances.

SIFF Happened: Closing Thoughts on the 41st Annual Seattle International Film Festival

22 days of press screenings.  25 days of festival proper.  In those 5 1/2 weeks, I saw 48 films, including 25 press screenings, 5 archival films, 3 world premiers, and 7 North American premiers; worked 4 days out of the week at the Uptown and one day at the Harvard Exit (except on the second Sunday of festival, which I took off to see The Apu Trilogy); and saw five films on two occasions — on one occasion, six.  So, as both employee and patron, here are my final thoughts on the 41st Annual Seattle International Film Festival.

As an Employee

What our break room looked like at the beginning of festival...

What our break room looked like at the beginning of festival…

The start of festival.  When a friendly army of venue managers, house coordinators, and volunteers invade the Uptown Theater, and year-round staff slink behind the counter, firing up an overworked popcorn machine to keep up with the demand of bigger bags  — sprung on us just as festival began (the appearance of a popcorn warmer at the end of Week 2 helped).  Luckily, 99.9% of the customers are awesome.  On the last day of festival, I actually heard someone thank the box office staff.  At our final staff party, the managing director told us that operations staff (concessions, box office, events, etc) got positive feedback from everyone.  As for that .1% who complain about parking passes not being handed out when the shared lot is in the hands of its owners, or yell at volunteers over some real or imagined issue (REALLY?!!), or who text or talk during movies, there’s this great thing called Netflix, where you can stream movies at home and not bother those of us who wish to enjoy the communal experience of watching movies in the dark without your complaining or rudeness.

I could’ve worked press screenings again this year, the hardest component of which is waking up early, but I wanted a change, and I wanted to work at the Harvard Exit.  I got both wishes filled, with the added joy of seeing everyone in concessions jell by the second week into a fine-oiled machine, even when the popcorn machine — or signage — was doing its best to thwart us.  And I have to say, though I’ve enjoyed all the staff members I’ve worked with, this year’s crew was special.

..and at the end of festival.

..and at the end of festival.

As a Patron

I saw more movies this year than any other year — by a lot!  Watching so many press screenings before the festival officially began helped: 11 before opening night.

Some notable occurrences:

1. I missed seeing Liza, the Fox-Fairy during press screenings (it was a last-minute substitution for a noon film on Opening Night — and then the 2 pm screening of The Hallow was delayed 40 minutes), during festival (it went on standby), and during Best of Fest (I was working).  No other film did I miss seeing so many times.

2. During the Opening Night Gala, I spent a little too much time dancing near the speakers, the result being that my right ear felt blocked from Thursday night through Sunday, when watching Mad Max: Fury Road at the IMAX Theater removed the rest of the blockage (no joke!).

3. Besides Mad Max: Fury Road, I saw one other non-festival movie during SIFF.  On the first Saturday of the festival, I went from my shift at the Uptown to the Grand Illusion to see a restored copy of The Epic of Everest, a silent documentary with amazing visuals which filmed an unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.  Because I woke early that day, I zoned out a bit while watching the film.

4. The only time I tried to watch a movie that ended right as my shift began was the three-hour The Golden Era, so of course, that showing was delayed by 30 minutes, due to a theater swap that still makes little sense to me.  I should’ve left early, but I stayed till the end.

5. The day I saw six movies, I was fine, but when I saw five movies on the following Thursday (2 press screenings, 3 films), I felt chills during the third movie (The Birth of Sake), and yet stayed for two more.  While I felt a little better after eating, I canceled the shows I was planning to see after work on Friday and the one I was planning on seeing before work on Saturday.

6. I almost passed out during the press screening for Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which proves that my weak constitution can’t handle any sort of lengthy penetration in a film — by any object.

My Picks for Best of Fest

Though I saw some really good films during the festival, and even some great ones, none blew me away, as The Spectacular Now and Wolf Children did two years ago, unless I include the archival Apu Trilogy, which impacted me as greatly (but in a different way) as last year’s The Pawnbroker.  Though I saw it after festival, The Red Shoes also impressed, and there were a smattering of gems in the mix that ended up being better than they had to be, but there were no masterpieces waiting to be discovered, except for the ones I didn’t see.

Best Archival: The Apu Trilogy.  Technically three films, but really, how can I split them apart?  The World of Apu was my favorite by a hair, but I could as easily have picked Song of the Little Road or The Unvanquished.  Satyajit Ray may be my new favorite director.

Best Documentary: The Great Alone.  A documentary that is as much about the Iditarod as Hoop Dreams is about basketball.

Best Animated Film: When Marnie Was There.  Not the best Ghibli film, nor even the best by this director (I preferred The Secret Life of Arrietty), but still good.

Best Narrative Film: Snow on the Blades.  This would have just missed being in my top-tier the last two years, but that is not to take away from this excellent samurai drama.

Best Actor: Sir Ian McKellan, Mr. Holmes.  Why hasn’t the man won an Oscar yet?

Best Actress: Holly Hunter, Manglehorn.  Her scene with Al Pacino at a restaurant is the highlight of the film.

Best Animal Performer: Arrow Schwartzman, 7 Chinese Brothers.  The most enjoyable thing about this movie.  Maybe the only enjoyable thing.

Guilty Pleasure: The Astrologer.  More poorly put together than movies I rated higher, but amazing in its awfulness.  “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” has to be one of the best lines ever uttered.

As for the Golden Space Needle Awards, you can find them here: http://www.siff.net/festival-2015/2015-award-winners

And for those of you wondering what the Fools picks were:

Most Liked: Corn Island, The Dark Horse, Me And Earl and the Dying Girl, Inside Out, The Passion of Augustine, Personal Gold: An Underdog Story, Little Forest – Winter/Spring, Secret #2, Love & Mercy.

Least Liked: Beach Town, Venice, The Hollow One, Not All Is Vigil, 7 Chinese Brothers, Chatty Catties, Uncle Kent 2, The Fire, Valley of the Sasquatch, Yosemite

Best Director/Cinematographer: Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway/Reinier van Brummelen)

Best Script: Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews)

Best Music: Love & Mercy (Atticus Ross, The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson)

Best Actor: The Dark Horse (Cliff Curtis)

Best Actress: Phoenix (Nina Hoss)

Best “Guilty Pleasure”: The Little Death

Final Thoughts

This is the sixth festival I’ve helped out with, either as a volunteer (2010-11), concessionaire (2012, 2015), or press screening worker (2013-14), and the sixth I’ve attended.  It is the highlight of the year for me, despite its busy-ness.  I even managed to attend four of the parties this year (six, if you include the staff parties), and while I missed Centerpiece, I didn’t really mind.  I even attended the kickball match, though I didn’t play — partly because I arrived late, and partly because the temperature was in the 80s, and the field was in the sun.

For me, last year’s festival was more memorable, but perhaps that’s because I saw more great films, or due to it being the 40th festival.  This year, quantity did not lead to quality, as my Fool Serious Ballot attested to.  And while there are films I wish to see this summer (most of them festival films I didn’t get the chance to see), I don’t mind waiting in between viewings.  Watching almost 50 films in the space of a month-and-a-half takes a certain kind of insanity that, thankfully, is limited to one time a year.

The Restored Apu Trilogy

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At the beginning of each film in the Apu Trilogy, text describes how a 1993 fire destroyed the original negatives (two reels from the last film survived, but were in such bad condition that they couldn’t be used), and how duplicate negatives and superior print sources were used for this 4K restoration.

All three films — particularly the first one — are the best example I’ve seen of a film capturing life in all its complexities — from happiness and joy to sadness and tragedy, from the bustle of youth to the infirmaries of old age, from married life’s disappointments to its triumphs.

Song of the Little Road (Pather Panchali) — 125 mins, 1955

The first film is the most raw of the three films, and the most powerful.  It begins with Apu’s older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta), before his birth, stealing food in the orchard for her great-aunt, Indir (the wonderful Chunibala Devi).  Apu’s birth is introduced when the daughter retrieves the aunt, who has left due to shabby treatment by the mother (Karuna Bandopadhyay, who blames her for her daughter’s stealing habit), in order to see the child.  In the first film, we witness this poor family, with its dilapidated house, its impossibly optimistic dad, its realistic mother, its squatting elderly aunt, its lively daughter, and its precocious son, as Apu (Subir Banerjee) grows into early adolescence.

That raw energy does mean that occasionally the pacing drags, but you never doubt that you are seeing the film of a master.  It also contains some of the most beautiful shots in the trilogy, such as framing the mother and daughter on either side of the door after she throws her out, so that the viewer can see both of them weeping, or the incredible scene of bugs dancing on leaves on the water.

For emotional impact, notice the scene where the mother throws her daughter out for stealing, and then watch Apu’s face later, when she tells him to call his sister to dinner.  Or when Indir comes back, tries to make nice with the mother, realizes she won’t forgive her this time, and goes off to die (the emotional journey that her face goes through in this small scene — from warmth and acceptance to realization and despair — is the best acting done in the entire trilogy).  Or the shot in the fields before the train appears.  But, most of all, the night when the furies seem intent on taking the life of Durga, with their mother furiously trying to prevent her from catching a chill.  And then, the sadness of the end, when the father (Kanu Bandyopadhyay), who has been traveling in an attempt to make money, comes home.  Not realizing his daughter has died, he starts doling out presents.  When he gives a sari for Durga to the mother — who has remained unmoving as he describes his travels — she touches it and bursts into tears.  And then the father realizes what has happened, and he weeps for his daughter.

The Unvanquished (Aparajito) — 109 mins, 1957

The previous film ended with the family moving.  An intertitle in the next film gives a time and place: Bengali, 1930.  This film is technically more assured.  There are no hiccups in the pacing, but that raw energy is lost, as well, only returning in a powerful final scene, when Apu (now played as an adolescent by Smaran Ghosal) decides to leave the village where he and his mother lived with her great-uncle (Ramani Ranjan Sen) and return to school in the city.

Just as there were two deaths in the first film, so there are two in this one.  Apu’s father’s death is much more poetic than his sister’s was, as Ray cuts between shots of his death and birds in flight, but it’s not as powerful.  More powerful is the death of the mother.  Apu, hearing she is seriously ill, returns from his studies and walks through the property, looking for her.  In a scene reminiscent of Bambi, he doesn’t find her, but he sees his great-uncle, and one look from him tells him the truth he feared to learn.

The World of Apu (Apur Sansar) — 105 mins, 1959

The last film of the trilogy manages to balance the technical assurance of the second film with the power of the first film, though to say one film is better than another is to ignore how good the other two films are.

Apu graduates from school but is unable to afford a university education.  His great passion is to write a novel about his life, but he has a hard enough time paying the rent, which is some months overdue.  One day, he runs into one of his friends from school, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), which sets up what Roger Ebert calls “the most extraordinary passage in the three films” (The Great Movies, 44).  Apu (played as an adult by Soumitra Chatterjee) goes with Pulu to the wedding of his cousin.  Unfortunately, when the bridegroom arrives, they discover that he is mad.  To make matters worse, according to the superstitions of the village, if the cousin isn’t married that night, she will never be able to marry.  In these extraordinary circumstances, Apu is asked to marry the girl, whose name is Aparna (played by 14-year-old! Sharmila Tagore).  At first he resists, but eventually he consents, and ends up returning to his apartment a married man.

The best scenes in the film are those between him and his new bride.  He asks her if she would give up everything to live a life of poverty with him.  Her answers reveal a beautiful soul, and while she cries when she first sees his apartment, she nevertheless adapts to her new circumstances.  Watching them fall in love after they get married is one of the supreme joys of the cinema.

Sadly, we the audience spend far too little time with her, as does Apu.  She goes back to her hometown to have their baby, but dies during childbirth.  Apu is devastated, and even contemplates suicide (by throwing himself in front of a train  — notice how the train motif runs through all three films).  He gives up on his novel, gives up on his son, and even seems to give up on life.  The son is named Kajal (Alok Chakravarty) and grows up with his maternal grandparents.  While the grandmother knew how to control him, the grandfather does not, and when she dies, he is unable to parent his willful grandson.  That is when Pulu goes searching for Apu and confronts him about taking responsibility for his son.  Apu says he cannot, because his son reminds him why his wife is no longer with him.

Finally, though, Apu travels to the village to bring his son back to live with him.  Kajal initially rejects Apu as his father, as his father lives in Calcutta and can’t be this poor man.  And yet, despite all the tragedy that has occurred in the three films, the trilogy ends on a hopeful, quiet, and powerful note.

*     *     *

To see all three films is to see the best that cinema has to offer.  To quote Ebert again, “The great, sad, gentle sweep of the Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be” (The Great Movies, 43).

The Apu Trilogy played at the Seattle International Film Festival and opens June 26th at SIFF Cinema.  For complete listings, click here.

Tuesdays at the Harvy

So long, Harvard Exit!

So long, Harvard Exit!

At the end of last year, the Varsity Theatre became the latest Landmark Theatre to close (it reopened earlier this year under the same management as the Admiral Theatre in West Seattle).  In January, the Harvard Exit followed suit.  Unlike past theaters to close (The Uptown, the Neptune, the Metro, the Egyptian, the Varsity), this one will not reopen as a movie theater under new management nor — like the Neptune — will it be reopened as a live show venue.  But, for the 25-day run of the 41st Seattle International Film Festival, it becomes a movie venue once again, using the downstairs screen (the only one that’s handicap accessible — historical building status prevents an elevator from being put in for the top floor).  And I am lucky enough to have worked there on Tuesdays.

First, let me tell you what’s not at the Harvard Exit.  There’s no employee fridge, microwave, floor mats, espresso machine, alcohol, syrup, Vitamin Water, popcorn seasonings, or cash drawer.  Gone is the cool old projector in the lobby and the water pitcher (the water pitcher returned the final week I worked there). Ice is bought from the gas station; other supplies from QFC.  Restock comes from the Egyptian.

What is there are two comfy couches that make an L-shape just past concessions and a lot more room, as the table that used to be in the center of the lobby now hugs the wall opposite concessions.  There’s still a bathroom downstairs, though locking it is a mystery (in multiple attempts, I managed to lock it once, and then couldn’t repeat the feat), and the bathrooms upstairs are usable, as well.  Old pictures on the walls and soft lighting from electric wall brackets in the shape of candles adds a funereal effect to the proceedings, and indeed, for all intents and purposes, we are holding a wake for the place.

May 19

My first Tuesday at “the Harvy” was slow.  Cleaning and restocking don’t take long when there’s only one movie playing at a time, which left me with lots of downtime.  I took advantage of this downtime to explore the Exit and document it before it’s turned into a restaurant or condos or whatever the heck it’s going to become.

First, here is how the lobby looks.  The couches had people sitting in them all day, so I couldn’t get a photo of them until nighttime….and then the ballot box became part of the picture.  So be it.

Next, I headed up to the third floor, where the second theater sits in the dark.

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Across from the entrance to this theater is this empty alcove on the right, probably a second concessions stand (though never used when Landmark ran the building) and a lounge.

Past that door is this weird-looking contraption, a “hidden” women’s restroom, and a rather nice, but rarely seen, lounge.

I then headed back downstairs, pausing to take photos of the second theater and documenting my journey back to the first floor.

After my sojourn upstairs, it was time to take photos of the box office and our tiny office.  Upon entering from the outside, the office is the first door on the left, before the stairs.

Then, outside.  I also got a good photo of the DAR Hall from here, which is where the Centerpiece Gala is held.

My final photos were of the small area which leads to the main theater and the balcony.

May 26

Today, in between shows and cleaning and restocking (we were a little busier this Tuesday than last) and eating crepes from Joe Bar (delicious!), I explored the back staircase and the basement.  But first, I got another chance to photograph the couches, this time with only a rubber band on the table.

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Both the back staircase and the basement are reachable through a door down a small flight of stairs and to the left of the box office (on the same side as the office and the main stairs).  The door to the basement was locked, so I headed upstairs first, where there are apartments and — apparently — one tenant.

There are two doors on the right after you head through the door leading to these stairs.  The first one leads to a supply closet, though I didn’t enter it until my final Tuesday.  The second one is past a short flight of stairs and leads to the stage.  You don’t want to open that one while a movie is being shown, or a beam of light will flash across the screen.  Unlike the other doors, that one is painted gray.

Here’s what I saw going up the stairs.

Once I had some more downtime, I got the manager to unlock the basement door.  Here is where the soda boxes are kept, as well as some old posters, though I had to make a second trip down there to see them, as I missed them the first time.

 June 2

My final Tuesday at the Harvy was spent double-checking the location of some of the photos from the previous days’ shoots and taking photos of places I hadn’t shot before.  Here’s the front hall:

I then checked out the back stairs again for details on which landings I’d taken the previous photos.  Unlike before, each odd landing had trash piled up on it.  Maybe the lone tenant was moving. The mattress was still in the hall, and with trash blocking my path, I didn’t feel like finding out which apartments were empty so that I could see what they looked like. I was, however, able to look in the supply closet and take a photo from the stage door, as well as a couple of the main theater.

I had to wait until the projectionist arrived before I could take the last three photos, so in the meantime, I went upstairs.  An exhibit called James Dean’s Lost Slideshow, displaying photos the famous actor took, was on the third floor.  I remember two people coming by the first Tuesday and measuring for the exhibit (though they measured downstairs).  I got there before the man dressed up as an old-time movie usher stopped by (he comes with the exhibit), as it doesn’t officially open until 4 pm each day.  It was at this time that I decided to take a photo of the men’s bathroom, so for the curious…

As mentioned on day one, I got another shot at the upstairs theater.  Someone turned the lights on and opened the door, giving me better photos of the theater than when all had been dark.

And while I didn’t enter the main women’s restroom for photos (because I’m not a pervert), I did check out the “hidden” women’s restroom on the third floor, past the lounge, which has a unique feature.

I then headed downstairs…

…and took some photos outside (one of them is at the beginning of this post).

My final shots of the night were, appropriately, the view I’ve had the entire time I’ve worked here.

Could I have taken more photos?  I suppose. I don’t have any of the inside of the projection booth, and I didn’t get the key to unlock the employees-only area on the second floor, though I do have a photo of what’s behind that door….

Photo by Mychal Ducken.

Photo by Mychal Ducken

Still, there is such a thing as overkill, and for patrons of this theater, these photos will adequately serve as reminders of a time when Capitol Hill was home to two theaters, one of which was haunted.

As for me, I’m glad I got an opportunity to work there, and to see movies on its screen, one last time.

The final movie playing at the Harvard Exit is the appropriately titled All Things Must Pass.  The final movie I’ll be seeing there is a silent film version of Sherlock Holmes, which plays in the afternoon.  The first film I saw there was Precious, which was only the second movie I saw after moving to Seattle. 

One Day, Six Films — Thursday, May 21, 2015

At Ebertfest, I once saw four films in one day.  During the fourth film, time vanished, reality regressed to dreams, and I left the theater unsure where I was.  During SIFF this year, I saw five films last Wednesday (and am planning on seeing five today).  The next day, I did one better.  Somehow, the films remained distinct, though the press screenings did some time-bending.

Press Screenings–Uptown Theatre 1

10:00 am, Sugarcane Shadows (David Constantin, 88 mins, Mauritius 2014)

Sugarcane Shadows showed promise in its first hour, but petered out in its last 30 minutes. The film deals with residents living in Mauritius who must deal with a sugar plant closing and the coming of modernity to their traditional way of life.  After the film ended, I grabbed food prepared at home, which I’d stashed in the staff fridge.

12:00 pm, Sensa Nessuna Pieta (Michele Alhaique, 94 mins, Italy 2014)

According to the press screening email: “You wouldn’t want to run into Mimmo in a dark alley — especially if you owed his boss money.  His loyalty is tested when a violent confrontation sends him on the run with a beautiful young escort, and we realize his lumbering size is matched only by the size of his heart.”  We also realize that this movie is like scores of gangster movies before it, except with a handheld camera.  It’s not bad, but it’s not special, either.

2:00 pm, Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 98 mins, USA 2015)

The best of the three press screenings, Cartel Land is a documentary that follows vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border combating drug cartels — one to keep drugs and illegal immigrants out of the country, the other to reclaim their towns from violence.

Festival Films

4:30 pm, Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 87 mins, USA 2014) — Harvard Exit

As Bus 8 made its way through rush hour traffic, I debated sitting down and eating dinner instead of seeing this film, since I calculated that my arrival would occur around the time the movie was scheduled to begin.  I thought, in particular, of going to La Cochina & Cantina, which has a buffet option.  As I walked by the restaurant, however, I decided dinner could wait, arriving at the Harvard Exit almost exactly at 4:30.  Unlike the two non-press screening films I saw the previous day, I got in before the presenter began talking.  Even before the film ended, I knew I had made the right choice.

This excellent film covers the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, TX.  Focusing on several of the contestants, we also hear from the newspaper reporters who cover the competition and the judges who decide the winner.  A brief history of the competition and of Van Cliburn is also included (for those who don’t know, Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, making him an international celebrity at age 23).  Afterwards, director Christopher Wilkinson joined us for a Q&A.  When asked how he knew which contestants to follow, he said, “Usually the most interesting contestants make the most interesting music” — his personal favorites being Steve Lin and Alessandro Deljavan.  The film plays after the festival on July 31st on PBS.  In addition, there’s a YouTube Channel with clips from the 2013 competition: https://www.youtube.com/user/VanCliburnFoundation

7:00 pm, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Roger Allers, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, Michal Socha, 84 mins, Canada 2014) — AMC Pacific Place

If I’d known how bad Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was going to be, I would’ve skipped it and sat down for a meal, instead of grabbing food on the way.  Since I didn’t know, I walked from the Harvard Exit to Pacific Place, buying a Dick’s burger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake en route.  I also bought a mustard packet, though how I was planning to put mustard on the burger while carrying a milkshake in one hand and the bag in the other wasn’t thought out ahead of time.  Somehow, I timed it all perfectly, so that while I arrived after passholders were let in, this was the first festival screening — minus opening night and press screenings — at which I arrived early.

The main problem with this movie is its presentation.  The book is supposedly full of profound essays on life, love, children, marriage, work, and play, but the movie makes the mistake of over-emoting, either through the visual presentation for each segment  (most of the directors above are independent artists, who each were responsible for one segment), the music (in one of the worst ideas, the texts are made into songs, with no attempt to make them sound like workable lyrics, or workable music), or pauses in Mustafa’s (Liam Neeson’s) telling of these life lessons, with the result that they sound like sanctimonious crap.  In a weird twist, the version I saw included English subtitles (even though it’s in English), so at times I tried to tune out Aslan and read the words on the screen to see if the truths they espoused still sounded like bad Hallmark greeting cards.  It doesn’t help that after the “song” segments, Neeson repeats the last two lines of the text — as if this is supposed to punctuate the phrase, instead of puncturing its balloon.

While the visuals during the essay portions are at least beautiful, the regular animation is only slightly better than that of a Saturday morning cartoon, though the final scene with the seagulls rises above that mediocrity.  Also, while the essay portions were the main offenders of the film, the sections in between featured flat characters with no personality in trite situations  — a waste of a talented voice cast (besides Neeson, there’s Selma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfred Molina, and Frank Langella — with Langella being the only one who made me feel something besides disgust).  No need to see this film, unless you’re a masochist.  I would’ve walked out, but I had one more movie to see and nothing to do in between, so I enjoyed the visuals during the essay portions and pretended I was deaf and illiterate for the duration.

Update 5/29: Forgot to include this photo, which I took between the two screenings at Pacific Place.  Happy Red Nose Day!

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9:30 pm, Cherry Tobacco (Andres Maimik, Katrin Maimik, 93 mins, Estonia 2014) — AMC Pacific Place

After wasting 84 minutes of existence on the previous film, Cherry Tobacco reminded me that some filmmakers know how to make movies.  One could argue that the film has no resolution, but it’s more concerned with the journey that teenage Laura (Maris Nõlvak) goes through than what she learns from it.  The humor is funny, the situations are based in honesty, and the older man whom Laura develops a crush on is not portrayed as a monster, but as someone who may enjoy the company of younger women because of the argumentative existence he shares with his wife.  Ultimately, however, the success of the film is due to Nõlvak’s portrayal of Laura.  Young, fresh-faced, and comfortable with her physicality, she inhabits her character effortlessly, a highlight being an early scene where she dances alone with a confidence that refreshed after the stilted nature of the previous film.  A gem.

Educators, Artists, Activists, and Cambodia

This year, most of the documentaries I saw revolved around four themes: educators, artists, protesters, and Cambodia.  Educator movies made me cheer for teachers; artist movies inspired me to write the truth, particularly when inconvenient; activist films reminded me how tough it is to be one; and Cambodian films filled in details for me of what Cambodia was before the Khmer Rouge, and what it is after.

Romeo is Bleeding (Jason Zeldes, 93 mins, USA 2015)

See my review here.

Paper Tigers (James Redford, 102 mins, USA 2015) — World Premiere

One of three films listed here that deal with educators.  This one covers Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, WA, which is where “problem kids” are sent.  Principal Jim Sporleder learns about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and changes the way they handle student issues at the school, for the one thing that can positively reverse ACEs is the presence of a single caring adult.  The focus, therefore, becomes one of improving the welfare of the student versus punishment.  What makes this documentary special are its subjects, which include six students going to the school the first year this policy is in effect.  The results are so astounding that it should be required viewing for all school administrators in the U.S.

Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson,, 87 mins, USA 2014)

See my review here.

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (Arthur Dong, 87 mins, USA 2015)

Under the activist and Cambodia banner comes this excellent documentary about the man who won an Oscar portraying Dith Pran in The Killing Fields and who, in real life, escaped from them himself, only to be murdered in 1996 in what was officially a mugging, but some believe was retaliation for his activism against the Khmer Rouge.  Animation accompanies his nephew’s readings from Dr. Ngor’s memoir.  This film also includes clips from TV interviews, the movie The Killing Fields, and scenes in which his niece (with whom he escaped from Cambodia) goes through his items and explains their significance to the director.  Powerful stuff, and a reminder that the truth of what happened in Cambodia was much harsher than what was fictionally portrayed onscreen.

Most Likely to Succeed (Greg Whiteley, 86 mins, USA 2015)

If Paper Tigers shows what’s wrong with schools’ punishment-based model of discipline, this film shows what’s wrong with its educational structure.  Greg Whiteley starts with a parent/teacher conference in which his daughter looks uninspired to learn, despite being a smart student.  The reason for this, as the movie explains, is that the model for modern schools is over 100 years old — and was designed to create moderately skilled factory workers.  With the Information Age upon us, High Tech High offers a different approach.  There are no grades.  No standardized tests.  Just an exhibition at the end of the year that’s open to the public, in which students showcase projects they’ve been working on the entire school year — projects that incorporate the arts, sciences, and history.  The teachers are allowed to teach whatever course they want, with the goal of being mostly hands-off, forcing the students to explore, make mistakes, and learn from experience.  The film also addresses the concerns of parents who are worried that, while the schools might prepare their kids for life, it won’t get them into college.  While Whiteley concedes that the school is too new to know whether its model works or not, 98% of its graduates are accepted into college.

Cartoonists — Foot Soldiers of Democracy (Stéphanie Valloatto, 106 mins, France 2014)

This film would’ve been better had it found a tighter focus, and perhaps fewer cartoonists.  What results is a sometimes sprawling work that attaches itself at certain points to its key idea: that cartoonists aid and abet democratic thought, even in countries where they must be wary of running afoul of the censors.  The standout personality here is Plantu, a cartoonists from France, though the other cartoonists have their moments, particularly one who grew up in Israel but lives in Palestine, and one who grew up in Palestine and lives in Israel.

It’s So Easy and Other Lies (Christopher Duddy, 88 mins, USA 2015) — World Premiere

Enjoyable documentary based on Duff McKagan’s autobiography, who played in multiple bands throughout his career, including Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver.  Much of it includes a dramatic reading McKagan did at the Moore Theatre, with musicians playing behind him.  All the Guns N’ Roses songs are conspicuously missing lyrics, which may be explained by the absence of Axl Rose from the doc (though Slash is interviewed).  McKagan’s book is not well-written nor deep, and neither is the movie, but the music is great (McKagan has a great singing voice) and the film mixes animation with the main performance with interviews to keep the story moving.

Angkor’s Children (Lauren Shaw, 66 mins, Cambodia/France/USA 2015)

While the other two Cambodian films I saw are about its past, this film is about its future.  Lauren Shaw became interested in Cambodia after a trip to Hanoi led to Angkor Wat, and then to the rest of Cambodia.  The film focuses on young women who are using traditional arts to help heal the nation (and in some cases, themselves).  Phunam works as an acrobat, Sreypov practices smot (a form of Buddhist chanting at funerals), and the group Messenger Band sings political songs about the downtrodden.  The film also includes interviews with Cambodia Living Arts founder Arn Chorn-Pond, whose own life story is astonishing (and is told in Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick), and with politician Mu Sochua, who Shaw calls the Aung San Suu Kyi of Cambodia.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (John Pirozzi, 106 mins, USA/Cambodia 2015)

While it seems too long in introducing all of the famous singers in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge came to power, I wonder if the impact of the film would’ve been lessened if any of them had been excluded, since the closing shots show how many performers vanished in the killing fields.  Along the way, we are treated to the different musical influences and styles that found their way into Cambodian music, against the political backdrop and series of events that allowed the Khmer Rouge to gain power.  The most historically informative of the three films.  You might need tissues for this movie, but you’ll definitely need a hug.  The last scenes are the most powerful of any film I saw during the festival, excepting perhaps the Apu Trilogy.

The Muses of Bashevis Singer (Asaf Galay, Shaul Betser, 72 mins, Israel 2014)

A charming, wonderfully alive film about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s translators — all of whom were female, none of whom spoke Yiddish.  Singer himself preferred the English translations to the Yiddish originals, even though they are filled with inaccuracies.  One senses that, as much as Singer was in love with his translators, they are still in love with him.

First Saturday Party Highlights–May 16, 2015

You’ll notice I’m breaking one of my rules with this one.  The venue looked awesome, so it’s too bad I didn’t get a photo of it.  You walk inside and everything is white or glass, with two small connected rooms to the right: the first one with food on a table near the back (and walls lined with plants in square cubby-holes), the second with a white couch that snakes its way along the wall for people to sit on.  In the center stands the bar, past it are one or two steps and then the dance floor, with two small alcoves off to the left (behind a standing table) where coats and bags can be kept.

The party was for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and while I briefly saw the director for that film, the highlight of the evening — and so far, of the festival — was meeting Setsuro Wakamatsu (director of the excellent Snow on the Blades) and his wife.

First, a little history.  Two SIFFs ago, I became friendly with one of the festival volunteers at the Uptown, whom I saw almost every time I came to watch a movie there.  That friendship continued through her becoming a lead usher the following year.  This year, she joined the office staff and looked to be having a blast.  When I saw her talking to the director, I knew I had my in, for she knows that I speak a little Japanese — which usually shrinks in proximity to an actual Japanese person.  Wakamatsu-san had a translator (a Caucasian woman born in Japan), and while she was there, he asked me what my favorite part of the film was.  I thought for a while, then said the two main actors.  I also mentioned that idea of transition between the Tokugawa and Meiji eras.  He asked me what I thought of the snow.  “Kirei [Beautiful],” I answered.  He also asked me if I understood the wife’s facial expression when she gives her husband the umbrella.  “I think so,” I said.  “She’s sad because she knows that if he succeeds and finds this man, then he will have to take his own life afterwards.”  In Japanese, the director answered, “Some things are universal.”

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With Setsuro Wakamatsu

But then the translator went with Wakamatsu-san’s wife to grab food, and another friend of mine came over and began talking to him.  I was asked to translate.  I failed. He asked me what “blade” meant.  I tried to pantomime it, forgetting that I have an English/Japanese translator on my phone.  He probably think it means to cut someone’s head off.

Despite my inability to translate well, I was able to tell him where I lived in Japan and that I had been a teacher for NOVA.  I also successfully asked him what he thought of Seattle.  “Subarashii [Amazing],” he said, and then I think he compared it to Sapporo.

When the translator and wife returned, she (the translator) gave him a small plate of food.  He offered me a piece.  “Iitadakimasu,” I said as I picked up a piece of bruschetta.  After I ate it, I found out his wife had been a NOVA student years ago in Shinjuku.  I tried to find out which Shinjuku location she had gone to (I taught at Shinjuku Honko, a few times at Nishi, and once at Higashi), but she didn’t understand my question (which, to be fair, I asked in English in a loud room).  She said the best way to learn Japanese was to have a Japanese girlfriend.

Other noteworthy events at the party included visits from Mad Max cosplayers and the subjects of the documentary Romeo is Bleeding.  Also, the DJ’s machine broke during “Livin’ on a Prayer” (he fixed it after several minutes).  But the highlight was talking with Wakamatsu-san.