SIFF 2019: Week One Capsule Reviews

Sibel (Turkey/France/Germany/Luxembourg 2018, 95 min)

Digital Screener, Sun 5/19

The good thing about screeners is that you can watch them whenever you want. The bad thing is that you aren’t getting the full cinematic experience. While I benefited from seeing Sibel on the small screen in terms of sleep (it was playing that same day at noon, before my shift at work), the visuals are such that a larger screen would’ve improved the experience.

As it was, this story of a mute woman (Damla Sönmez) who is hunting a wolf in the forest so as to gain acceptance in her village is quite the film. Notice her small acts of noncomformity throughout, and revel not only in Sönmez’s incredible portrayal, but also the reactions that steal across Elit Iscan’s face when dealing with Sibel, and after (she plays Sibel’s younger sister, Fatma). Highly recommended.

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes (Canada 2018, 83 min)

Digital Screener, Mon 5/20

Anne Innis Dagg could be called the Jane Goodall of giraffes, but this would be incorrect, as Dagg (back when she was Anne Innis) studied giraffes in the wild before Goodall did her work on chimpanzees. In fact, she was the first person to study animals in Africa (this was back in 1956, in apartheid-ridden South Africa), and only the second person to study them in the wild. Unlike Goodall, she never became a household name, as her work only appealed to specialists. Plus, she wasn’t able to secure a teaching post that would’ve allowed her to continue her research, mainly because she was a woman (she was denied tenure despite having met the requirements). She spent the next few decades fighting for gender equality in Canadian universities (she’s Canadian), and then was rediscovered as more researchers added to her groundbreaking work on giraffes (she wrote what is considered the bible on giraffes back in 1976, along with J. Bristol Foster).

This documentary has little flab and is made all the better by its copious use of archival footage (much of it shot by Dagg) and the force of nature that is Anne Innis Dagg. I cried happy tears several times. See the film, buy her books, help save the giraffes.

Fly Rocket Fly (North American Premiere, Germany/Belgium 2018, 91 min)

Digital Screener, Mon 5/20

Another film about scientists in Africa, except these scientists were there to build a rocket in Zaire, not study giraffes in South Africa. OTRAG was the first company to attempt to create a commercial rocket for space travel, but was thwarted by Cold War politics (this was in 1975-79) and a bad launch at an inopportune time. While a solid doc, it didn’t move me as the giraffe doc had, possibly because we are limited by the perceptions of those directly involved, who are not as compelling as Dagg. Also, one of my friends pointed out that despite OTRAG hiring many citizens of Zaire to help transform part of the jungle into a launch pad, not one of them was interviewed for the documentary, though some of the wives of the scientists were. Future festival screenings: Sat 5/25 1:00pm Lincoln Square, Mon 5/27 11:00am SIFF Cinema Egyptian

Farinelli (Archival, France/Italy/Belgium 1994, 111 min)

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Mon 5/20

Excluding press screenings, the first film I saw in a theater was one I’d seen almost 25 years ago — due to a trailer on my VHS copy of Before Sunrise. The movie that started my love affair with international independent cinema, the only issue I had with the presentation was a glitch in the DCP that caused the sound to be out-of-sync with the movie for the last 17 minutes.

While it’s not a great film, it’s still a good one, and is indicative of international independent cinema: wonderful costumes, lots of sex (though not as gratuitous as teenager me remembered), beautiful women, and subtitles (three languages are spoken in the film: Italian, French, and a smattering of English). Like Amadeus, it mixes fact with fiction, but is more over-the-top and not as successful — unless you’re talking about the “Director’s Cut” of Amadeus, in which case you can go to hell. It even tries to repeat the famous Salieri/Mozart writing-the-requiem scene with Handel and Farinelli’s younger brother, Riccardo Broschi (who was indeed a composer in real life), though the roles are reversed. Future festival screenings: Sat 5/25 3:15pm Lincoln Square

Ms. Purple (USA 2019, 85 min)

Press Screening, Tue 5/21

This movie should be a disaster. Overbearing music combined with odd musical choices (and too many of them), stylistic flourishes that make no sense (like the overuse of slow-mo jerky cam, which only works maybe once or twice in the whole film), and a cliched plot that hits all the traditional beats and doesn’t even attempt to give secondary characters personalities beyond one note. And yet between these beats, the main actors are given enough space to create believable characters and lovely moments, which are the highlights of the film. Not to mention the film could’ve ended at three different points. Where it actually ends is the weakest choice of the three. And yet, I kinda liked it. Go figure. Future festival screenings: Fri 5/24 8:00pm SIFF Cinema Uptown, Sat 5/25 4:00pm Pacific Place

Sonja – The White Swan (Norway 2019, 114 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Tue 5/21

A biopic of Sonja Henie, the great Norwegian figure skating champion, this film likewise skates across its emotional landscape, rather than digging deep. It checks all the boxes for a biopic, but didn’t really move me till the Rio tour, and that’s near the end of the film. Since Henie is surrounded by her family and people from her childhood, it might’ve made more sense to set more of the pic there (rather than through limited flashbacks), so that we can see how her relationships with these people change over time. We don’t even get a sense as to the real nature of the relationship between her and her bookkeeper Connie (if not on Henie’s side, then certainly on Connie’s), and their relationship begins early in the film and ends late. The acting could be at fault here, but Ine Marie Wilmann (as Sonja) is great at being sweet in public and nasty in private, and Valene Kane (as Connie) is great at being supportive or exasperated, so it’s either the directing or the writing (or both) that cause this film to stay earthbound. Future festival screenings: Mon 5/27 8:15pm Lincoln Square

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (USA 2019, 106 min)

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Wed 5/22

Do we need another Woodstock documentary? After all, there’s already the classic 1970 documentary that covers the festival in great detail (which, to be fair to this movie, I haven’t seen yet, in either cut). This one, however, focuses on the people who put it on and the ones who experienced the festival first-hand or lived close enough to witness the gridlock and miles of young people walking to the grounds, rather than on the acts that performed. For people who weren’t there (or weren’t alive when it took place), it explains why it was such a cultural touchstone, and why other rock festivals didn’t have as much of an impact (for one, many of them, including ones put on earlier that year, ended in violence. Woodstock didn’t). A must-see. Future festival screenings: Sunday 5/26 3:00pm SIFF Cinema Uptown