SIFF 2013: Week One

Monday, May 20

Press screenings this morning were Yellow, My Dog Killer, and The Punk Singer.  It was also the press screening manager’s birthday, who received the gift of thievery, as her car was stolen that morning, which meant I had to call her and ask her how to turn off the alarm in the morning, as I arrived before she did.  Luckily, she got her car back by the end of the day.  Also, we are now selling t-shirts.  The design reminds me of cake frosting.

21. Cake frosting t-shirt

I went immediately from work to watching What Maisie Knew, as this is the first day where the press screening crew overlaps with one regular staff member in working the first three shows of the day.  Luckily, one of my friends was going to the same screening and saved me a seat.  The film is a modern retelling of the novel by Henry James about parents going through a divorce, as seen through the point-of-view of their child, Maisie (Onata Aprile).  The parents, played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan, are fairly reprehensible: Susanna (Moore) for her need to be loved and her rock singer lifestyle, Beale (Coogan) for his inability to prioritize the people in his life above his work.  Two other important people figure into Maisie’s life: Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Maisie’s caretaker and Beale’s new wife; and Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), Susanna’ s new husband.  As Maisie, Aprile is incredible, as she must carry the whole movie.  Moore is also a standout, with the rest of the actors and actresses doing equally fine acting jobs.  The best two scenes in the movie are when Beale realizes that what he wants for Maisie is not good for her, and when Susanna realizes the same.  A great film.

17. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel with Carl Spence - What Maisie Knew Q&A

 Afterwards, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel did a Q & A with Artistic Director Carl Spence.  The directors hadn’t read the book before they saw the script, which was written after James heard of a split custody case and thought it the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.  Though both directors thought the film sounded like a difficult shoot, they were attracted to the lightness and innocence in the script, as well as the child’s point-of-view.  Julianne Moore attached herself to the project because she had never played a rock singer before.  As for Onata Aprile, the directors only found her three weeks before shooting was to begin (which they recommended not doing).  They cut it so close that the clothing designer had already made clothing for Maisie before Aprile was cast.  Aprile herself is the child of a single mother, and despite the fact that the only other role she had played was a small one in Yellow (yep, the same one that played at the press screening), she impressed the directors with how prepared she was on set, with her lines for the day always memorized ahead of time.  This, despite the fact that she was only six years old.

Tuesday, May 21

Press screenings today were Geography Club, Inequality for All, and Redemption Street.  I saw Inequality for All with one of my coworkers (who had the morning off), which is a documentary on the sad state of the economy, as explained by Robert Reich, with some biographical information thrown in.  Besides having a good sense of humor, Reich has the gift of clearly explaining economic processes without playing the blame game.  While Inside Job made me fume at fat cats and academia, Inequality for All made me hopeful that we can turn this mess around.

That film was the best one I saw today.  It was followed by the worst.  A Teacher is director Hannah Fidell’s first film, and lest I dissuade her from directing any more movies, I have to say that the problems stem as much from the script as the directing.  The main problem is that the teacher in this film, Diana Watts (Lindsay Burdge), becomes such a shrill, horrible, mess of a person that there’s nothing for the audience to cling to in the way of empathy.  We know there’s some issue between her and her mother, but it’s mentioned and then never brought up again.  The slow pacing of the film doesn’t help, especially when the plot leads not so much to a resolution as to an end — an end to the boredom that this 75 minute film makes feel like five hours.  And then there are those weird fades-to-black.  Plus, the song used for the final scene — which apparently glorifies the affair that this teacher has had (or at least makes the audience believe that she believes it was worth it) — is in poor taste at best, and jolted me out of the film much as did the last song in Wuthering Heights during last year’s festival.  When I went to the IMDB page to find out who wrote the script, I couldn’t find a screenwriter.  That might explain a lot.

The last film fell in-between the two films I saw earlier.  Imagine is about a blind man named Ian (Edward Hogg) who starts teaching blind students at a clinic using unorthodox methods.  Without a written curriculum, he takes them out into the courtyard and asks them what they can hear.  He then has them search for the things they hear to see if they are right in imagining what is there.  He also befriends Eva (Alexandra Maria Laura), a student who only interacts with the birds outside her window.  Ian eventually draws her out of her shell, as he does with a young male student named Serrano (Melchior Derouet).  Unlike A Teacher, this film had developed characters, and even if the situation is a bit clichéd, and the story a bit underwhelming, the dialog and acting is sharp.  More importantly, one can empathize with the characters.

Also, the press screenings were in 2 today, which means that the 3:30 show had to wait until the press screening got out at 3:37, since no one had told the projectionist until 90 minutes before the start of the 3:30 show that this would be an issue.  But, everything worked out.

Wednesday, May 22

Three nights in a row of less-and-less sleep caught up with me today, as I felt pretty crappy.  Press screenings of Shortsfest Opening Night, Terms and Conditions May Apply, and TogetherTogether is the least well-received press screening to date.  People starting coming out of the theater an hour into it.  More came out twenty minutes later.  Some of the people who remained took the opportunity to catch up on sleep.  Others waited, in vain, for something to happen.  Apparently, the film is highly confusing.  Hopefully when the film shows later in Week Three, people stay for the Q & A with the director.  If it’s that confusing, they may need to in order to understand what they just watched.

Originally I was going to stick around for the Wagner Sing-Along happening in the Armory (Happy 200th Birthday, Richard Wagner!), but I got a ride home and promptly forgot about staying for the sing-along.  Then I decided not to come back for A Shape of Error, described as a 16 mm home movie of Percy and Mary Shelley.  Instead, I bought groceries and went to bed early.  No need to get sick the first week of festival, after all.

Thursday, May 23

Felt much better today, though I still had a scratchy throat, either caused by sickness or allergies (though that went away midway through Week Two).  Press screenings today were A Band Called Death, Fatal, and Out in the Dark.  Grabbed dinner with a friend (actually, I grabbed dinner and she grabbed a beer), and then we went to separate movies.  My movie was actually several movies, as tonight was Shortsfest Opening Night.  After I sat down in the theater, I heard someone call my name.  I turned around and saw one of the volunteers who had worked the door last year, so I got to sit with her for the shorts, though she had to leave right after they finished.  The shorts were “Premature,” “Kiruna-Kigali,” “Boneshaker,” “,” “Ouverture,” and “Walking the Dogs.”  “Premature” takes place entirely in a car ride from the airport, as the parents of a young man breach inappropriate subjects with his wife, such as talk of pregnancy and miscarriages.  “Kiruna-Kigali” dealt with two related stories of a doctor who helped deliver a baby in Africa that was turned the wrong way in the uterus, and her own delivery emergency.  “Boneshaker” stars Quvenzhané Wallis (from Beasts of the Southern Wild) as a child brought by her mother to a tent revival to cure her of her demons.  “” is a film by Shia LeBoeuf (yes, THAT Shia LeBoeuf) about an alt movie critic who takes his job very seriously, while “Ouverture” is an inventive animated short about a girl with music pouring out of her heart who eventually becomes a professional pianist.  There is no dialog in that film, only the music of Bach’s Cantata No. 29, as arranged by Camille Saint-Saëns.  Finally, “Walking the Dogs” is based on the true 1982 incident in which a man jumped the walls leading to Buckingham Palace and had a conversation with Queen Elizabeth II in her bedchamber.  My favorite was “Walking the Dogs,” followed by “Ouverture,” then “Premature.”

22. Director Neil Dvorak with Dan Doody - Ouverture (Shorts Opening Night)

After all of the shorts ended, Neil Dvorak, the Art and Animation Director for “Ouverture,” stayed for a Q & A with Dan Doody.  Nadejda Vlaeva, a very talented pianist, provided the music for the short, while director Bracey Smith got the idea for the story from one of his friends, as well as from discovering that he would soon be a father.  For the look of the film, Dvorak  looked at the sketchbooks of Leonardo Da Vinci and The Triplets of Belleville.  More information on the short can be found here.

Because I had no press screenings to work the following day, I decided to stay for In the Fog, a moody Eastern European film about a man spared from hanging by the Nazis, only to be accused of being a traitor by his friends, family, and fellow citizens.  The mix of colors, lighting, and scenery are gorgeous, as are the ambient sounds.  Only Honey uses ambient sounds better than this film.  The look of the film offsets its deliberateness, the sparseness of ideas in its dialog, and the simplicity of its plot to make this a more enjoyable film for me than it might otherwise have been.

Friday, May 24

I forgot that Onata Aprile is in Yellow.  Nick Cassavetes forgot to be entertaining.  What starts out as a trippy film about a teacher addicted to prescription drugs (whose hallucinations are quite amusing) becomes bogged down when it decides to become more serious near the middle of the film.  The guy in front of me said that it was his favorite film so far at the festival.  If his opinion is widespread, I weep for humanity.  If not for A Teacher, this would be the worst film I’ve seen so far.

I had to grab some dinner after Yellow, but I knew that the same person I had seen yesterday at Shortsfest Opening Night was coming back for The Spectacular Now, so after I asked her to save me a seat as I dashed into Pagliacci’s for some much-needed pizza goodness.  The weather has turned somewhat shitty these past few days, with warm early afternoons followed by chilly, windy, rainy late afternoons and evenings.  And it gets cold so fast!  But I digress.

For the first half of The Spectacular Now, I had it marked as the sweetest film I’ve seen at festival.  Then, it starts to get serious, and dark, and that’s when this already really good teenage drama becomes great.  The only film to affect me more at this year’s festival was The Act of Killing.  The fact that a movie that starts off as a teenage romantic comedy in the style of Say Anything (another film that wasn’t afraid to deal with tough issues) can also deal with absentee fathers, teenage drinking, and destructive relationships, all without preaching a moral or a message, AND stay true to the characters and their situations, is astonishing.  I laughed through much of the film, and was in tears by the end.

24. Director James Ponsoldt and Producer Tom McNulty -The Spectacular Now Q&A

Director James Ponsoldt and producer Tom McNulty introduced the film, went to the Space Needle during the film, and then stayed for a Q & A after the film ended.  McNulty was the one who read the book and found the screenwriters to turn it into a movie (who also happened to be the screenwriters who worked on (500) Days of Summer).  When the screenplay was finished, they knew they had to go the indie route.  Hearing that Shailene Woodley wanted to do it (she played George Clooney’s eldest daughter in The Descendents, which is when I first discovered her, and where she gave a star-making performance), McNulty set about to find a director.  At the time James Ponsoldt had won much acclaim at Sundance for his film Smashed, which is about one alcoholic in a relationship with another alcoholic who has decided to go to rehab.  Since Ponsoldt’s first film is also about an alcoholic, McNulty wasn’t sure if he could get Ponsoldt to do another film that featured alcoholism “unless he wanted to have a boxed set,” but they did.

Some other highlights of the Q&A:

1.) Ponsoldt doesn’t see the film as a teenage romantic drama, but as “an adult romantic drama that just happens to have kids.”  Likewise, he doesn’t see Sutter (Miles Teller), the main character, as an alcoholic, and hates message movies.

2.) Many of the early questions asked of Ponsoldt were redirected to the people asking the questions.  I don’t think he was trying to be difficult; rather his film is open to many different interpretations and he didn’t want to pigeon-hole our view of it with his narrow interpretation.

3.) Someone asked about Sutter’s character having scars.  Ponsoldt said that Miles Teller was in a serious car crash and got the scars from that.  Since Sutter is reckless, Ponsoldt thought having scars was in keeping with his character.  Also, in an attempt to show how real American teenagers look, the actors and actresses used very little makeup.

4.) Much discussion went into the final shot in the film, and who it would show, since it deviates a bit from the book’s ending, which is much grimmer (even though the author feels his ending is hopeful).  All I will say is, they made the right choice.

Once the Q & A was over, I hung around outside and talked to the person responsible for driving Ponsoldt back to his hotel (tip for aspiring festival goers: always be friendly with the drivers).  While McNulty was busy doing something else, I was able to get a picture with Ponsoldt on SIFF’s red carpet, taken by his driver.

25. With Director James Ponsoldt

I then shook his hand and told him, “Great film.”  I’m sure he thought I was done, but then I asked him how Ebertfest was.  He didn’t hear me, so I had to repeat the question.  A look of surprise passed his face, then he asked if I had been there.  I explained that I had gone two years ago, at which point he said how wonderful the experience had been, but also how sad it had been due to Roger’s passing.  He then spent several minutes gushing over how well Chaz ran the festival, mentioned that he even got to lead one of the panels, and ended by saying he hoped he would be invited back.

Saturday, May 25

Today I had to work at my other job in the afternoon, but was planning to go to the party scheduled that night with a friend.  Unfortunately, The Way, Way Back sold out, and as the party venue can only fit as many people as were in the theater, staff were not invited to it.  So, you’ll have to read about last year’s party at Kaspar’s, instead.  On a positive note, that also left me time to work on this entry, and yet it still took me almost until the end of Week Two to finish it.  Oh well.

Next up: Week Two!

2 thoughts on “SIFF 2013: Week One

  1. Nice entry, Greg!

    RE: James Ponsoldt. I happened to see him at the Union, where he was waiting for an elevator–I told him great film too! I think you’re right, it’s a good idea to be nice to the drivers! 🙂 Guess one has to know who the heck they are though. Ponsoldt lead the Q & A for Escape from Tomorrow; I thought he did a terrific job with that too.

    You see soooo many films at SIFF, wow.

    1. Thanks, Susan. Yes, I do see a lot of films at SIFF. Then again, most festivals are 10 days long, whereas SIFF is 25 (and that’s not including the three previous weeks worth of press screenings). As for Ebertfest, I noticed that my birthday occurs during next year’s festival…:-)

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