Before the festival proper kicks off tomorrow night, here are some films you should look for:
Romeo Is Bleeding (Jason Zeldes, 93 mins, USA 2015)
There is a scene late in Romeo Is Bleeding which sums up the essence of the film: in the middle of a cheering audience, a diminutive, young-looking woman stands and beams at her students on the stage, including her protegé, without whom the performance wouldn’t have happened.
The teacher is Molly Raynor, founder of RAW Talent: the protegé is Donte Clark, co-founder of RAW Talent and its artistic director. Raynor recruited him to help her launch the group when he was one of her students. A young man living in North Richmond, CA, he commutes to Central Richmond every day to help students express themselves through slam poetry and plays. It’s his dream to perform a version of Romeo and Juliet that is reflective of the violence endemic in Richmond between the gangs of Central and North (his version is called Te’s Harmony). When one of his closest students is gunned down, Donte begins to lose hope that anything he does will improve the situation there. It’s at this point that he visits a Youth Correction Facility and touches one of its juvenile offenders, and a great film becomes even better. And then comes that scene of Raynor standing in the audience and beaming.
More about the film and RAW Talent can be found here: http://www.romeoisbleedingfilm.com/
Me And Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 104 mins, USA 2015)
When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my classmates died of an infection (she was a junior). She received that infection in between treatments for leukemia. While I didn’t know her well, my family used to go over her best friend’s house when I was younger, as my parents knew her parents from college. I often wondered what would’ve happened had she lived. Would we have become friends?
The irony of Me And Earl and the Dying Girl is that Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is the most alive person in the film, while the main character (coincidentally named Greg and played by Thomas Mann) is dead to those around him. In order to navigate through high school unscathed, he’s become acquaintances with everyone, but not friends. Even Earl (Ronald Cyler II), who is his friend, is introduced in voiceover as his coworker (they make their own versions of classic films, with names like A Sockwork Orange, The Last Crustacean of Christ, The Rad Shoes, and 2:48 PM Cowboy).
The only reason Greg starts hanging out with Rachel is because his mom (Connie Britton) forces him to, telling him that he will regret it if he doesn’t. And when one of the cutest girls in school (Katherine C. Hughes) finds out that he and Earl make movies, she convinces them to make one for Rachel.
Now, I won’t say whether Rachel dies (Greg starts off the movie by saying, “One of the movies we made was so bad, a girl actually died after seeing it,” but then assures us twice in the film that “she doesn’t die”), but the movie isn’t about death. It’s about living and taking control of your life. Before Rachel, Greg finds it easy to avoid people and his future, but after meeting her, she won’t let him.
NOTE: Because Fox Searchlight is afraid that someone might try to tape this film and put it on the Internet before it’s officially released, we had security personnel checking for bright screens while the show was playing: two in the front, two in the back, and one hanging out of the projection booth.
Snow on the Blades (Setsuro Wakamatsu, 119 mins, Japan 2014)
It’s a classic samurai story: a samurai warrior is sworn to protect his lord, the lord is killed, the samurai must track down his killer. The twist on this tale is that Shimura Kingo (Kiichi Nakai) is living in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the first years of the Meiji Era, where the way of the samurai was slowly legislated out of existence as Japan became Westernized. For 13 years he looks for the final living assassin (Hiroshi Abe) so that he may cut off his head and lay it on the grave of his master, Chief Minister Ii Naosuke (Kichiemon Nakamura), even after his Hikone Clan disbands and Western clothing and hairstyles replace his traditional dress and topknot. The man he tracks, meanwhile, lives anonymously as a cart driver, waiting for the day when he will be discovered and killed. Because of Lord Ii’s assassination at Sakurada Gate in 1860 (which actually happened), neither man can move on from that day, and so the question becomes not only what will happen when they meet, but can they give up their old ways and embrace a life in which everything they stood for is obsolete?
I hadn’t heard of Setsuro Wakamatsu since this film — not surprising, since his IMDB page lists mostly projects for Japanese TV. While he has made a few movies (the most notable being Whiteout and The Unbroken), this one signals the emergence of a great Japanese director. In Japanese with English subtitles.
The Golden Hill [Serdhak] (Rajan Kathet, 74 mins, Nepal 2015) *World Premiere*
I expected this Nepalese film to be slow-paced, but it’s the speediest slow-paced film I’ve ever seen. Part of that is due to strategically placed cuts, part due to the amount of humor in this tale about Lhakpa (Tsewang Rinzin Gurung), a young Nepalese man studying to be the first engineer in his village. When he returns home for spring break, he discovers his father is an alcoholic, his mother is getting too old for field work, his sister is almost at marriageable age, and the girl he likes still likes him. Coming from the city, he sees the village mindset as backwards thinking, and even chastises his smart cousin for staying in the fields instead of going to school. Yet events occur that make him rethink his path, leading to a melancholy ending that would be at home in an Ozu film. Gurung also wrote the screenplay and is one of the producers. In Nepalese with English subtitles.
NOTE: $2 from each screening will be donated to help with earthquake relief efforts in Nepal: http://www.siff.net/festival-2015/golden-hill
Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, 97 mins, USA 2014)
Manglehorn stars Al Pacino as a key maker who lives with his cat, has a testy relationship with his son, and pines after Clara, the woman he let get away 40 years earlier. I’m not sure if the voiceover works, mainly because the monologue needs to be more profound than what is found in a high school love letter (even with Pacino’s delivery), but scenes with Holly Hunter as a bank teller who quietly loves this man — in particular during a date where Pacino talks glowingly about Clara while Hunter’s face journeys from happiness to disappointment — and some great visual work with the camera nudges me in the direction of a recommendation. Plus, Pacino yells for less than one minute in the movie, and when he does yell, it’s earned.
Mr. Holmes (Bill Condon, 105 mins, United Kingdom 2015)
Bill Condon. Sir Ian McKellen. Laura Linney. I mean, if that doesn’t raise expectations to an unreasonable level, nothing will. And perhaps that is why I’m not giving a higher recommendation to this film about an aging Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), who must battle senility (he’s 93) in reconstructing the final case he worked on, and why it led to his retirement. Linney plays his suffering housekeeper, while Milo Parker plays her son, who is fascinated by this real-life legend. In trying to remember the case, and make sense of a visit to a man named Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) in post WWII Japan, Holmes discovers that facts cannot reveal the essential truths of our natures, and sometimes fiction proves useful in dealing with reality. While it’s not the exceptional film I was hoping for, it’s still very good, particularly if you like Sherlock Holmes. Based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin.
Seoul Searching (Benson Lee, 105 mins, South Korea 2015)
As advertised, this is “a love letter to the John Hughes high school flicks of the ’80s” (SIFF Free Guide) that deals with an actual phenomenon. From IMDB: “During the 1980’s, the Korean government created a special summer camp for ‘gyopo’ or foreign born teenagers where they could spend their summer in Seoul to learn about their motherland.” The program only lasted a few years because they couldn’t control the teens. Like Hughes’s films, the camp is filled with archetypes who slowly evolve as three-dimensional people and includes great 80s music (the film takes place in 1986). Particularly poignant is the story of Klaus (Teo Yoo) and Kris (Rosalina Leigh), with the former agreeing to help the latter find her birth mother. A cute film, and while it hits familiar notes, it plays them with conviction. In English (and some Korean and a little German with English subtitles).