SIFF 2014: Week One Wrap-Up

So many movies, so little time (and time to write about them).  I’ve already written about the films I saw on Sunday and An Evening with Chiwetel Ejiofor on Monday.  Here’s the rest of what I was up to during the first full week of Festival:

 Tuesday, May 20

Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 94 mins, France 1961)

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

What can one say about this film?  The plot is simple: a man tells a woman that he met her last year at Marienbad.  The woman, however, doesn’t remember.  The visuals are gorgeous, the story is obtuse (it’s been called the cinematic equivalent of Finnegan’s Wake by Dwight Macdonald), and then there’s that game with the matches.  I saw this as a restored 35 mm print, and while it looked great, the white subtitles tended to blend into the background.  Then again, paying attention to everything that goes on in this film doesn’t unravel the mystery.  It has its own logic, and Resnais knows what he’s doing, but like the other players in the game, you will never best him at figuring out what it is. (On a humorous note, someone forgot to tell the volunteers that they don’t need to hand out ballots for this archival film.  I told one of the venue managers this information before I went into the movie, and yet there the volunteers were after the film, with the ballot boxes.)


Wednesday, May 21

Rigor Mortis (Juno Mak, 105 mins, Hong Kong 2013)


(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

This midnight movie is a typical Hong Kong horror film that combines the undead with kung fu and black magic.  The story centers around a washed-up actor who moves into a haunted apartment.  It may be typical, but it’s stylish and well-done, which almost makes up for the lack of character development.


Gabrielle (Louise Archambault, 102 mins, Canada (Quebec) 2013)


(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

What a wonderful film this is!  Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) and Martin (Alexandre Landry) are two twenty-somethings who take music class together.  They fall in love, but because they are mentally handicapped, Martin’s mother becomes concerned when their relationship becomes more sexual.  Her response is to remove Martin from school, which crushes both of them.  Around the same time, Gabrielle finds out that her sister, who often takes care of her, is planning on moving to Africa to be with her boyfriend.  And then there’s a concert with one of Quebec’s most famous singers, Robert Charlebois.

The director cast non-actors in several of the roles, including that of Gabrielle herself.  Like the character, she suffers from Williams syndrome.  Casting non-actors adds authenticity to the performances, but it doesn’t quite explain why this is such a gem of a film.  What does explain it is that the director, Louise Archambault, treats everyone in this story like a fully formed human being.  This is not a film with tidy resolutions, or even any answers.  What it has is immense empathy for its characters.  When the film was over, I cared deeply for everyone in it, but especially for Gabrielle and Martin.  It reminded me a lot of last year’s Short Term 12 in its attention to detail, except that there’s less of an arc with these characters.  Still, after watching several films in a row that failed to move me, this one was a pleasant surprise.


Thursday, May 22

Sold (Jeffrey Brown, 97 mins, USA/India/Nepal/UK 2014)


(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Based on a novel of the same name, this movie deals with sex trafficking, in particular a Nepalese girl who thinks she’s getting a job in India, only to find out she’s been sold to pay off a debt.  One person who watched this film with me described it as “The Hallmark version of the sex trade,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, it does seem as if the makers of this film decided to not make it as dark and depressing as last year’s Eden.  The other difference is that Eden was a film told by an insider, while this film feels as if it were written by someone observing the sex trade from the outside.  It also explains why Gillian Anderson and David Arquette are in this film, though not why they should be.  The best parts are the ones with the girl in it, not her would-be American rescuers.  And speaking of Megan Griffiths…


Friday, May 23

Lucky Them (Megan Griffiths, 96 mins, USA 2013)


(l-r) Tony Doupe, Evan Mosher, John Lavin, Megan Griffiths, and Beth Barrett

Not surprisingly, there was a standby line for this film that stretched from the entrance of the theater to the corner, which is about a third of a block.  Luckily, I had planned ahead and asked for a press ticket for this film and for DamNation.  I hadn’t needed my ticket for DamNation; for this film, it was essential.  Even so, when I arrived in the ticket holders line an hour before the film was scheduled to start, it was already curling around the building.  And yet, I easily found myself a seat four rows back from the screen, and dead center.

Since the film has a national release, I can only give you a capsule review  for now (with a full review to follow).  The story: Ellie (Toni Collette) is a rock journalist who is sent on assignment to track down her ex-boyfriend, Matthew Smith, who reached the heights of the music world ten years ago, only to vanish in an apparent suicide.  Along the way, she runs into an old friend named Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), who insists on making a documentary film about the experience.  Excellent acting (particularly by Church), a great script (by Emily Wachtel and Huck Botko), and a climax with a lot of heart.  And it’s funny.  Plus, as a SIFF employee, it was cool seeing Dustin Kaspar’s (Educational Programs Manager) and Andy Spletzer’s (Programmer) names in the credits.

Following the film was a Q & A with the director, John Lavin (production design), and two other people who worked on the film: Tony Doupe and Evan Mosher (Griffiths invited everyone up who worked on the film, but no one else came up on stage).  Since this is Griffiths’s first film which she didn’t write, she explained how she came to the project: Colin Trevorrow (who directed Safety Not Guaranteed) and she were talking at the Mecca Cafe after the 2012 festival.  He told her that there was a Joanne Woodward production that was looking for a director, and he thought she should be that director.  Originally, the story was set in New York and had been written by Wachtel, who is best friends with Clea Newman, daughter of Paul.  Clea had passed the script on to her father, who had sent it to Thomas Haden Church.  When Griffiths came on board, he was the only actor attached to the project, and had been for six years.  Next, they had to find the Ellie character.  Toni Collette was one of the actresses they were looking at, and she really wanted to do it, as her husband is a musician, and she doesn’t often get to play a “sexy lead role,” to quote Griffiths.  Also, Griffiths said that the chemistry between the actors in the film, which is so essential for it to work, was very similar to their chemistry offset.

Except for changing the location from New York to Seattle (where the themes of being stuck in the past but trying to live in the future seemed a perfect fit), Griffiths reassured Wachtel that she wasn’t going to radically alter her script.  She told her how she had spent 10 years working on The Off Hours and so understood how much Wachtel had put into her project (Wachtel put in an identical amount of years on Lucky Them).


Griffiths reacts to something funny that Lavin said.

Lavin also talked a bit about the look of the film.  For the Seattle of ten years ago, briefly shown at the beginning of the film, they didn’t want it to look too gritty.  For the overall look, Sub Pop Records and KEXP were crucial in their feedback, especially Sub Pop, who even loaned artifacts to adorn the office of Ellie’s boss, played by Oliver Platt.



One of the pleasant surprises in the film is who plays Matthew Smith, whom we only see at the end of the film.  Griffiths said that even the crew wasn’t told until the day of the shoot who it was.  Wachtel thought Johnny Depp would be perfect for the role, but they didn’t know if they could get him.  He ended up saying yes 10 days before they were about to wrap, so they had to add an extra day to the shoot.  The cool thing was, he flew himself up.  He also understood the character.  Wachtel thought the character had to be crazy, but Depp got that Smith didn’t have to be crazy to want to fake his death, as he’s thought about faking his death every week.

Lavin then had a funny story where Depp was doing his scene.  Normally, Rebecca Luke (the costume designer) is spot on, but Lavin thought that for Depp, she had gone too far.  He looked too flamboyant, with all his scarves and bright colors.  Then they cut and asked Depp to change into his actual wardrobe for the scene.


Afterwards, the audience asked questions, ranging from whether Pioneer Square was shut down when they shot there (yes, but there are certain times when you can’t shoot, like during rush hour) to where the idea for having a bush baby as a wedding gift came from (it was inspired by a true event, and it took them three weeks to get one).  And while I noticed early on that I had a smudge on my camera lens, it didn’t seem to affect the photos I took.

Lucky Them opens May 30 in New York City and on VOD.  It will open in Seattle on June 13 at the Northwest Film Forum for a two-week run.



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