SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week Three — The Taste of Betel Nut

Ren Yu, Bai Ling, and Li Qi. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

In the opening scenes, we see Li Qi (Shen Shi Yu) put on clown makeup and perform with a seal. We then see him after the performance, alone except for his animal partner. He washes off his makeup and cleans his clothes in the sink with soap. He pauses to look at the soap bar, almost finished. The next day at the market, he sees someone he recognizes. He follows this person, hiding something behind his back that looks like a machete. After attacking him (the attack isn’t shown: the screen fades out as the machete comes down, and then reappears with Li Qi covered in blood), he marches around the corner to face the group of men who were with the man he killed.

The movie then travels back in time, and it is in these past moments that The Taste of Betel Nut shows itself to be directed by a steady hand. We meet Ren Yu (Zhao Bing Rui) receiving a flashy jacket. Ren Yu works the beaches as a karaoke singer, charging for people to sing and take photos with him. He gets a haircut and next is getting a blowjob and fucking the hair dresser behind a curtain at the hair salon. Li Qi and he are a polyamorous couple, though Li Qi seems to have no flings.

Ren Yu doesn’t have a permit for his line of work. Neither, too, does the older woman who operates the food stand where Li Qi and Ren Yu hang out after his gigs. During the summer, her niece Bai Ling (Yue Ye) comes to help out. The duo of Ren Yu and Li Qi soon become a trio. After trying betel nut at a friend’s wedding, the three of them have sex in a scene that effectively uses double and triple exposure. The problem is, Bai Ling eventually decides she just wants to be with Ren Yu, but he doesn’t want to be steady with anyone, and Li Qi likes her and Ren Yu equally.

This is only director Hu Jia’s second feature film (his first was 2014’s Dance With Me, which doesn’t even appear on IMDB), but based solely on it, I expect him to have a long and successful career. I only have a couple caveats. The biggest one is that Bai Ling is treated more as a plot device than as a person. Outside of being someone for the two main characters to love and for setting up a conflict later in the film, she doesn’t do much besides look at them with longing. She talks about going back to school after the summer, but that is all we know about her, besides being a pretty face. The other criticism is a recurring scene in which Li Qi walks in the water in slow motion (the camera follows his legs). I understand the mood Hu is going for, but I’m not sure why this motif. Perhaps a second viewing would clarify it for me.

On the plus side, Yue’s chemistry with Zhao and Shen is excellent, as is Zhao’s and Shen’s with each other. And the feel of the film reminds me of Hou Hsiao Hsien, but with room for comedy (perhaps Edward Yang is a more accurate comparison).

But what about the man Li Qi kills? We know he will appear again in the scenes that take place in the past, and though we sense the impending tragedy the first time he appears, it doesn’t lessen the blow on his second appearance. The tragedy, when it comes, is not something that the characters deserve due to personality flaws, but something that comes as a result of the flaws and meanness of others. And yet the last shot is of someone smiling. A happy ending, or the memory of a happy summer, before that happiness was destroyed?

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SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of SIFF, Week Two — Tigers Are Not Afraid

The young cast. Photo courtesy of SIFF.

Tigers Are Not Afraid starts in fact and ends in myth. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film follows a girl (named Estrella and played by Paola Lara) who uses fantasy to deal with a grisly reality. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality was Franco’s Fascist rule of Spain. Tigers Are Not Afraid deals with a more recent nightmare: the drug wars in Mexico (title cards at the beginning of the film point out that no one knows many children have been murdered or orphaned during these wars). Like del Toro’s great film, Issa López’s mixes fantasy with reality. And like del Toro, the fantasy world is not a place of light, but of darkness.

While Pan’s Labyrinth dealt with the world of adults as well as children, however, Tigers Are Not Afraid focuses exclusively on the children, all of whom have been orphaned by the drug wars which killed their fathers and sold their mothers. In addition to Estrella, there’s Shine (Juan Ramón López), the leader of a group of orphans: Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morro, who is mute and carries around a stuffed tiger.

The movie begins with Estrella writing a story about a prince who became a tiger, but has forgotten that he is a prince. And tigers are not afraid. As she narrates her tale, we see Shine steal a pistol and cell phone from Caco (Ianis Guerrero), a member of the local Huasca cartel, while Caco is drunkenly pissing in an alleyway. He points the gun at Caco’s head, but can’t pull the trigger. We then return to Estrella, where bullets ring out and the students dive under their desks. The teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk while she is on the floor and says, “These are wishes.” When Estrella gets back to her house, her mom isn’t there. We assume she hasn’t been home for some time. Estrella uses one of her wishes to wish that her mother would come home soon. Her mother does, as a frightening apparition out of Crimson Peak. But, like that terrifying ghost, she has some wisdom to impart to Estrella, though it’s cryptic. With nowhere to go, she joins Shine’s gang, who are soon hunted by Caco, wanting his phone back. This leads to a rooftop chase. While the gang agrees to take Estrella with them, their condition is that she kill Caco. She agrees to try, but once inside his house, she uses her second wish to find a way not to kill him. It comes true when she discovers he is already dead.

Who killed Caco? And what is on that phone? To reveal the answers would be to spoil the movie. Just like Estrella’s wishes, the resolutions in this film are unpredictable, but they are resolutions, and a large part of why this film is great is how tidily it resolves everything without resorting to clichés. Another part is the locations. Much of the action happens at night, in abandoned buildings, which cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia gives the right look for a film filled with ghosts and violence. And finally, there are the actors, particularly leads Juan Ramón López and Paola Lara, who are completely believable in their roles. For that, one must thank the director/writer/executive director Issa López. Ms. López is also smart in not trying to thrust a love story on us. Estrella and Shine grow to care about one another more as the movie progresses, but they are never lovers, and the friendship blossoms out of shared circumstances. Estrella’s mom was kidnapped by the same gang that burned down Shine’s house and gave him his facial scar. He wants revenge, but unlike tigers, he is afraid, and so is the audience for these kids.

When Guillermo del Toro saw this film in 2017, he put it on his top ten list for the year (at number 8) and offered to produce López’s next film. So far, however, this movie has no international release date, something that its distributor, Videocine, should rectify. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a minor miracle, and heralds a major new talent in the world of cinema.

Shorts at Shoreline

For the third straight year, Shoreline Community College (SCC) was one of the satellite venues for SIFF. This year, however, was the first year I attended a screening there, and the screening I attended launched the first-ever Episodic Content category: WebFest at Shoreline (this was the only screening of this content during the festival).

Besides having ample parking for people with cars, SCC boasts a leisurely bus ride for people who rely on public transportation. Of course, sometimes the buses don’t cooperate:

Normally, they’re 15 minutes apart.

Being out-of-the-way means that there isn’t a fight for seats, like can sometimes happen at other venues. For example, I saw no lines outside by the time I arrived. Inside, I saw few passholders and plenty of empty seats. If I’d stayed for Virus Tropical, the only line I would’ve seen is a short one for ticket holders. And the campus has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere to it. One feels they’ve escaped the city for the countryside.

The theater reminded me of the one SIFF used for years at McCaw Hall, in that there’s no middle aisle and the rows are long. Being a bit hungry, I hit the snack bar, where I was happy to discover that they had Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Also, their popcorn bags are guaranteed not to make noise during the screening.

A cup of corn

While Shoreline upgraded their theater in 2017 to include a digital 4K projector and 7.1 surround sound, one of the trailers before WebFest sounded screechy in the high treble range, either meaning that the sound stretched the capacity of the speakers, or the volume was too high (there’s a possible third option: that the audio wasn’t formatted right). During the shorts (a mixture of pilots and webisodes), however, both sound and image quality weren’t a problem. Still, I’d love to see how the space handles a movie meant to be shown in theaters, rather than on a laptop.

Before the shorts began, Beth Barrett, Artistic Director at SIFF, introduced the 95-minute program and told us that multiple people involved in these episodes would be appearing afterward for a Q&A. In addition, Randi Kleiner (Chief Executive Officer) and Caleb Ward (Late Night Programmer), who run SeriesFest in Denver, would be joining them. Before the exclusive content of this program, we got to see a wonderfully amateurish promotional video for Shoreline, which looked like it was made by students at the college.

Beth Barrett, Artistic Director at SIFF, introducing WebFest

You can check out my capsule reviews for my thoughts about specific webisodes (unlike the feature films listed, they are listed in order of viewing, not alphabetically). In general, I enjoyed all of them, as they covered a diverse range of topics and genres, from slice-of-life humor (Apartment) to drama (Otis) to sci-fi (The Big Nothing, Strowlers) to thriller (Unspeakable). The Passage had the longest episode at 22 minutes, while Arun Considers had the shortest at 2 minutes.

(l-r) Strowlers: Claudine Nako (actress), Lisa Coronado (actress), Lindy Boustedt (producer), L. Gabriel Gonda (co-director, writer), Otis: Alexander Etseyatse (actor, director, writer, producer, film editor), Arun Considers: Arun Narayanan (actor, writer, co-director), The Passage: Philip Burgers (actor), Unspeakable: Kate Chamuris (producer)

The Q&A revealed interesting details. For example, the reasons behind developing these projects as web series were varied. Burgers (The Passage) said they just wanted to tell a story, born out of director Kitao Sakurai’s connection with various communities, while Narayanan (Arun Considers) said they did it as a web series for practical reasons (the series originally started as stand-up), as they needed to make it cheaply. For Otis, Etseyatse said the series was originally conceived as a movie.  He thought about making it into a short, but then decided to do a web series, instead. With Strowlers, the creators want to make an entire universe that encourages audience participation, which allows them to set stories in different places and different times (one of them pitched a story set in Nigeria). It also allows them to expand into different media, such as literature and comics. Finally, Chamuris said Unspeakable director Milena Govich wanted to do a series centered around an anti-hero.

Some of these series have multiple episodes up already (Arun Considers, Unspeakable), while others have only one episode shot (The Passage) or don’t have them online yet (Strowlers, which will have episodes up in the fall).

Then it was time for Kleiner and Ward to take the stage and explain what SeriesFest is. Basically, it’s a film festival that only shows web pilots, but they also bring network execs in to watch the pilots so that these series can receive financial backing. This year, the fest runs from June 22-27. Unbeknownst to the filmmakers in WebFest, Kleiner and Ward were judging their pilots, and Unspeakable won the honor of appearing at their festival.

Next year, I hope to visit this gem of the north more often when the 45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival begins. And I hope more people will join me.

A very special thanks to Beth Barrett for furnishing me with the names of all the guests for Strowlers.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Best of Week One — Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers with Daniel Striped Tiger. Photo courtesy of SIFF

Most people would be daunted by the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Just the archival material alone, from all the shows of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that aired (920 episodes, according to director Morgan Neville), would give a lesser man a headache. Luckily, Morgan Neville is not a normal man, yet the story of this documentary started out curiously (which Neville explained during the Q&A following the film). Like many things today, it started with YouTube. Neville started watching all of Rogers’s speeches on that channel. Then, when making The Music of Strangers, which is about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, he asked Ma who helped him deal with his fame, and he said, “Mr. Rogers.”

Fitting, then, that the film starts in 1967 with Fred Rogers  talking about music (while playing piano). In particular, he’s discussing modulations. In music, some modulations are easy, while others are hard. He feels life is the same and mentions how he feels his mission is to help kids through life’s modulations.  He stops at one point and wonders if he’s being too philosophical, but then he checks himself and says, “Well, it makes sense to me.”

To make sense of the man and the show, Neville didn’t shoot it like a normal documentary, where you film footage first and then cut it to an acceptable length. With all the archival material they had, they cut the essential ideas of the doc first…and found themselves with a 90-minute film (the film is 94 minutes, including end credits). And yet, the films runs chronologically, even as it stops and focuses on what made the show and the man so special, and radical.

For starters, Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who wished to used television to evangelize. The first show he was a part of played short films for kids. Unfortunately, the films had often been played numerous times beforehand and would often break on air, and since the episodes weren’t taped, the host had to fill time. One time, Rogers stuck an owl puppet above the clock and said, “It’s 5:02 and Columbus discovered America in 1492.” That was the first time he used a puppet on TV.

In addition, he was part of the group of scientists (Dr. Spock being one of the most famous) focusing on childhood development and how kids weren’t just miniature adults. Rogers connected to that group through his teacher, Margaret McFarland. He was horrified by what passed for children’s television in those days. Then, as now, it included lots of loud noises, fast action, and violence. His show, which premiered in February 1968 in Pittsburgh, was a gentler show, though the first episode not-so-subtly dealt with the Vietnam War in King Friday XIII’s erection of a wall and orders to kill any foreigners who come into the kingdom. Other episodes dealt with Robert Kennedy’s assassination, suicide, divorce, and other topics one wouldn’t typically find in a children’s show. For example, when he heard, in 1968, about a man throwing chlorine muriatic acid in a pool because he didn’t want black kids swimming in it, he filmed an episode where he shared a kiddie pool with Officer Clemmons, who is black, and mentioned how nice it was to share a pool on a hot summer day.* In another episode, he set a timer for one minute so that the audience could experience how long one minute felt like.

People knew there was something special about Mr. Rogers and his show when a meet-and-greet, scheduled that same year, translated into huge lines of parents with their kids.

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Believe it or not, the line to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was shorter than the line that greeted Fred Rogers in 1968.

When Neville came to Joanne Rogers for her blessing on the project, her one bit of advice to him was not to make her husband a saint. Indeed, Rogers was accused (by narcissists) of creating a generation of narcissists by telling kids they were “special,” a charge refuted by Rogers himself in one of the many commencement addresses he gave, where he explained what he meant by saying kids were perfect “just the way they are.” Richard Nixon even tried to gut Public Television (created under the previous administration). The Senate Subcommittee on Communications held hearings in 1969 to decide whether to cut $20 million in funding for PBS under the pretext that it was needed to fund the war. The man in charge of the committee, Senator John Pastore (a Democrat), ran on these cuts, and early on it looked like PBS wouldn’t get its funding. Then, Fred Rogers spoke. They got their funding.

In addition to archival footage, the documentary includes interviews of people who worked on the show, were on the show (like Yo-Yo Ma), and who knew him best (e.g. his wife Joanne). One person they don’t talk to is Jeff Erlanger, who made a memorial appearance on the show right before he was going to go in for surgery, and discussed with Rogers what it was like to be in a wheelchair. We know from the documentary that he survived the surgery, but the interviews are only with his parents. I discovered Jeff died in 2007, which is why he wasn’t interviewed for the film, but his sister lives in Seattle, and she was present at the Q&A after the movie with her daughter to talk about her brother and how much Rogers cared for him. The first night they met, he cut up Jeff’s food and fed him, but without any trace of condescension.

Besides Erlanger, the other person who had a touching story (among many touching moments in this documentary) was François Scarborough Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). He discovered he was gay, and one night, he visited a gay bar. Rogers heard about it and told him he couldn’t go there anymore, as he was worried the sponsors would stop funding a show with a gay man on it. Eventually he came around, but the touching moment was when Clemmons confronted him and said (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “You say, ‘I like you just the way you are.’ Were you saying that to me, too?” His response was along the lines of, “I’ve been saying that to you for the last two years and you’ve only now just figured it out.” Clemmons tears up at that point, for he’d never heard another man say that to him, not even his own father. From that point on, Rogers was like a father to him.

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Look at all those neighbors!

In addition to archival footage and interviews, the documentary incorporates animation to show some of Fred Rogers’s fears from when he was a child and how they stayed with him as an adult. A great argument is made that Daniel Striped Tiger was Rogers’s alter ego, and so an animated tiger plays the young Fred in these animations. Later in life, the cast agrees that he became more like King Friday XIII.

The masterstroke, though, comes at the end. In the spirit of Mr. Rogers, several of the interviewees are asked to take a moment and think about who has helped them. They all do, and at the very end is Joanne Rogers, who after reflecting for a moment, looks out through the camera, locks eyes with the audience, and says, “Thank you.”

One studio exec once said that if you do everything wrong on television, you end up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. If you do everything right, you end up with this documentary.

Stay for the credits.

Now playing at SIFF Uptown

* CORRECTIONS: Discussing this event, one of the interviewees says that bleach was thrown in the water (not chlorine, which I initially wrote, but which makes no sense), but it was actually muriatic acid (undiluted hydrochloric acid). The swim-in that led to the motel manager throwing acid in the pool occurred in 1964. Since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968, the episode aired at least four years after this event occurred.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Three

Here are all the capsule reviews for week three in alphabetical order, including the entire final weekend of SIFF. Release dates are included where applicable. Again, my rating system:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

  1. Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems: A collection of unintentionally hilarious, bizarre, or downright gross clips from the heyday of VHS. With explanations between curated clips and some live commentary. I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterwards. 4 (Presented by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher)
  2. My Name Is Myeisha: Sandwiched between two movie bookends is an adaptation of the play Dreamscape, which uses hip-hop and spoken word to juxtapose the events leading to Myeisha’s (Rhaechyl Walker) death at the hands of the police (and the subsequent coroner’s report) and brief glances at her life and world. It humanizes her, to be sure, but what works in the theater doesn’t always work onscreen (the transition from movie to adaptation is pretty goofy), and while this one gets better as it goes, the event itself creates more of an impact and a sense of how tragic and unnecessary her death was than the means used to flesh out her story. Still, films reach more people than plays do, and that’s enough of a reason to be glad it was made. Plus, the home movie footage and ending are powerful stuff. (d: Gus Krieger)
  3. Naila and the Uprising: An important, informative, and necessary documentary about the first (and purest) intifada and the women who were a huge part of it, but were pushed out of their positions of power once the PLO returned to power.(d: Julia Bacha)
  4. The Silk and the Flame: A gorgeous-looking black and white documentary about a young gay man (Yao) from a small town in China trying to hold up against pressured from the community to follow familial tradition and marry. (d: Jordan Schiele) US Premiere Release date TBA.
  5. The Taste of Betel Nut: This movie begins at the end, then loops back in time to when polyamorous couple Li Qi and Ren Yu (Shen Shi Yu and Bingrui Zhao, respectively) allow a young woman, Bai Ling (Yue Yue) into their lives for a summer. A few questionable decisions (which might be answered by a second viewing) can’t mar the fact that this is one of the stronger films I saw at SIFF, though I would’ve given it higher marks if Bai Lung were fleshed out more as a person, and less as a plot device. 4 (d: Hu Jia) North American Premiere
  6. VR Zone: With 28 short subjects to cover in 90 minutes on the last (and busiest) day of the SIFF VR Zone, I didn’t have time to view all the recommended titles by friends and coworkers, let alone all 28. I ended up experiencing four of them: one documentary, one experimental, and two interactive. All used Samsung Gear VR headsets (with adjustable focus) and headphones (either attached to the headset or separate), a couple used controllers.
    1. Rone: A documentary about the street artist of the same name, who draws large portraits of women’s faces in abandoned buildings and other forgotten areas. He explains that he chose women’s faces because most of the street art he saw was masculine, and he wanted to counteract it. By far the best use of VR; everywhere you looked, there was something to see. The swivel chair helped. (Lester Francois)
    2. The Cabiri: Anubis: While waiting to see a recommended exhibit, I decided to try this one, which follows an ancient Egyptian man’s journey to the underworld, where he is judged by a dance troop (I mean, they’re playing roles, but it’s a dance troop). Oh, and acrobats. This film could’ve been effectively done on a front and rear projection screen, or on stage. Most of the time, it didn’t incorporate the immersive experience that the other exhibits did, as you sit on a bench and merely look in front or behind you. Also, with no dialog and occasional sentences grafted on the screen that seemed culled from abandoned movie trailer slogans, it failed to keep my interest. (Bogdan Darev & Fred Beahm)
    3. Where Thoughts Go: Boasting the longest run-time of all the exhibits, I only got partway through, due to demand. Like the other interactive exhibits, instead of a chair or a bench, you sat in a room which was decked out as part of the exhibit, this one with cushions, and manipulated two controllers to listen to previous people’s answers to deeply personal questions. To continue to the next question, you had to record your own answer, and then set the recording free. To give you an example, the first question was: Why did you fall in love for the first time? As this is an ongoing project, I hope to visit it next year (on a less busy day) and listen to (and record) more responses. Simple, yet rewarding. (Lucas Rizzotto)
    4. Queerskins: A Love Story: Another recommended exhibit, which also had its space built up, complete with a table, photos on the walls, and a bench to sit on as a stand-in for a car seat. In this exhibit, you sit in the back of a car as a devout Christian couple discusses their gay son on the way to visit his grave. As they talk, objects appear in a box next to you, which you can pick up and look at. While the views from the car were nice, the objects didn’t add anything to the emotional impact of the short, which would’ve been just as powerful as a feature film, rather than an interactive VR Exhibit. Still, it is powerful. (Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski)

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Two

Here are my capsule reviews for the second week of the festival. None of these films have release dates outside of the festival, except for some of the web series. Again, my ratings are:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

Being There: This satire from Hal Ashby follows Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers, in a Golden Globe-winning performance), who finds himself homeless and unemployed when his employer dies. Having witnessed the world only through television and the garden he tended, his simplicity and rich clothes (formerly belonging to his master) are mistaken for profundity and untold wealth as he ends up becoming a guest at the house of an old rich man (Melvyn Douglas in an Oscar-winning role) and his wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine), and even influences the President (Jack Warden).  And then there’s that final shot in the film. Helps that the audience was in tune with each joke. 5 Archival

Love Education: Huiying (Sylvia Chang) wants to bury her mother (Liyuan Wang) next to her father (Xiang Jia). Problem is, her father was originally married to someone from his home village (Yanshu Wu), and she won’t allow his “mistress” to be buried with him, or for his grave to be moved to the city. Huiying’s husband (Zhuangzhuang Tian) meanwhile, might be having a fling with one of his driving students. Her daughter Weiwei (Yueting Lang), in turn, starts having issues with her boyfriend Da (Ning Song) when his old flame comes to visit…and brings her son with her, who may or may not be his. Poignant, funny, and ironic, the real love here is how director/writer/actress Sylvia Chang handles the three generations of women, and the men in their lives (and the other women in theirs). 

Mademoiselle Paradis: Based on the novel Mesmerized by Alissa Walser, this is the true story of Maria Theresia von Paradis (Maria Dragus), a blind prodigy at the piano who was temporarily cured of her blindness by Dr. Franz Mesmer (Devid Striesow). A great, non-sentimental view of how disabilities and women were treated in the 18th century. Gorgeous cinematography, costumes, and music. (d: Barbara Albert)

Mutafukaz: Props for including a high-speed chase with an ice cream truck and a gang leader who quotes Shakespeare, but this fun and strange film about a boy named Angelino (Tay Lee) who starts seeing shadowy tentacle creatures attached to humans and must escape mysterious government agents becomes less and less fun as the movie continues. While visually stunning, it also feels incredibly static in its framing. (d: Shoujirou Nishimi,Guillaume Renard)

Ryuichi Sakamoto: CODA: The man and his music are fascinating, the movie less so. The main issue here is that we follow Sakamoto through his daily routine, but the most interesting moments concern his career, or are in the studio, when his face lights up when he hears the perfect sound. Otherwise, it’d be better to do a traditional documentary on the man, or one with more of a focus (like on his activism, which begins the film). (d: Stephen Nomura Schible) Plays on Friday, June 8

Tigers Are Not Afraid: This film, which follows kids orphaned by the drug war in Mexico, mixes reality and fantasy ala Pan’s Labyrinth in a creepy, violent, and ultimately wonderful film in which fairy tales literally help our heroine in a world where the reality is too gruesome to bear. Story, acting, cinematography, humor, and visual storytelling are all used to masterly effect. No wonder Guillermo del Toro places this film 8th in his top ten movies of 2017 and offered to produce director Issa López’s next film. 5

WebFest at Shoreline: To quote from siff.net: “SIFF launches its new Episodic Content category with this exciting, diverse collection of outstanding new pilots and webisodes.” Based on the quality of these episodes, it won’t be the last. In order, they were:

  1. Other People’s Children (Episode 1: The Common Corpse): From the USA. A six-minute parent/teacher conference between a teacher (Atra Asdou) and the mothers of a gifted daughter (Brooke Breit, Sara Sevigny) who first refuse to believe she’s that smart and then don’t want to put her in the “gifted” program because they’d have to help with more homework. (d: Brad Riddell, Anna Hozian)
  2. Arun Considers (“Arun Considers Heroin”): From the USA. Arun (Arun Narayanan) thinks about how heroin might be worth trying in a short, two-minute episode. (d: Dave Dorsey, Jordan Ledy)
  3. ApartmentFrom Argentina. In this episode, Ramon (Ezequiel Campa) has to deal with shitty customers at an insurance job and then finds out at the end of the episode that he’ll no longer be able to afford his apartment under his new lease. (d: Jazmin Stuart)
  4. The Passage: From the USA. Phil (Philip Burgers) spends the episode escaping from two men. In 22 minutes, he interacts with people who speak Spanish, Japanese, French, and Norwegian(?). No subtitles, which I first thought was a mistake and then realized was a feature. Clever, funny, and absolutely bonkers. Particular props to the drumming gag, where he drums faster the closer the men get to him. (d: Kitao Sakurai)
  5. The Big Nothing: From Australia. A sci-fi whodunit in which a detective is sent to investigate the mysterious death of a captain on a mining outpost in space. Shows promise. (d: Lucy Campbell, Pete Ninos)
  6.  Strowlers: Pilot (half): From the USA. According to the Q&A afterwards, Strowlers is an entire universe in which magic is regulated by the government. In the first episode, we see a kid who is believed to have magical abilities being collared. The magic user is kept until all emotions are ripped out of them, then are released. (d: Ben Dobyns, L. Gabriel Gonda) Available in the fall.
  7. Otis (Episodes 1: After the Party & Episode 2: Six Months Earlier): From the USA. In the first episode, we meet Otis (Alexander Etseyatse) with one of his friends and find out he’s just been released from a mental institution. Walking near where he ex-fiancee now lives, he decides to visit her, against the advice of his friend. In the second episode, he’s in the mental institution, where he rebels against the strictures place against him. I preferred the first episode to the second one, which seemed a bit cliched. 3,2 (d: Alexander Etseyatse)
  8. UnspeakableFrom the USA. A young woman (Laura Vandervoort) who’s escaped from sex traffickers assumes the identity of a woman who was in captivity with her, but died. In the first episode, she’s having second thoughts about becoming this woman, but then is in danger of being picked up by the police, and so blurts out the lie. Can’t wait to see where this one goes. (d: Milena Govich)

 

SIFF 2018 Edition: How to SIFF

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The SIFF Lounge: a great place to hang out in between films.

I probably should’ve posted this earlier in the festival, but these tips will still help you out through the final week of the festival.

  1. Take care of yourself first, your movie-watching needs second.

    This took me years to understand. If you’re filling all of your free time watching movies, you’re going to run your immune system ragged, especially if you’re also working a full-time job. So, get plenty of rest, drink plenty of water, and if you’re feeling worn out, GO HOME.

  2. Remember: they’re just movies.

    Feel like yelling at the box office staff for messing up your ticket order? Deciding to argue with a venue manager because they won’t seat you late? Feel like your experience was ruined because it was too cold/too hot/too uncomfortable in the theater? First of all, yelling at people working for free (volunteers) or for less than a living wage (most everyone else) is a great way to look like an asshole. Second, it’s just a movie, folks! Sure, it sucks when the men’s room is out of paper towels, but in a world where kids are getting shot in school and immigrant children are being separated from their parents, I’d rather be out of paper towels. Which leads to –

  3. Be considerate.

    Everyone in the theater bought a ticket or paid a lot of money for a pass. Don’t be the person talking to your neighbor (a little known fact: whispers travel farther than the ear of the person next to you) or looking at your cell phone while the film is playing. Don’t be rude to the staff or volunteers. Don’t be rude to your fellow patrons. If you can’t go out in public without being an asshole, stay home. And referring back to number two, yes, you can bring up issues with your theater experience without being an asshole.

  4. Got some time between films? Hang out at the SIFF Lounge.

    In the past, SIFF had a bar where movie patrons could mingle. This year, they have the SIFF Lounge, which is available to all passholders for free and to everyone else for a $10 day pass. Besides comfy couches and camaraderie, there’s booze and ice cream (separately, of course). And WiFi!

  5. Refer to tip one.

  6. And finally, have fun!

SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week One

Here are capsule reviews for all the films I’ve seen so far at the Seattle International Film Festival. Reviews are alphabetical by title. Included is my rating of each film. As per Golden Space Needle ballots, films are rated on a scale of 1 to 5:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

Ava: Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a teenager who lives in Iran. When she goes out with Nima (Houman Hoursan) under the guise of practicing music with her best friend Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), her mother discovers the lie and sets in action a series of events that slowly transforms Ava from a model student and daughter into a rebel. Director, producer, and writer Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature is a solid film, but needs to be tauter. Non-actor Jabbari, who was 16 at the time the film was made, is a find. Opened April 27 in limited release.

Blaze: Ethan Hawke directs this biopic about songwriting legend Blaze Foley (actor and musician Ben Dickey). Based on the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by his lover and muse Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), the film focuses on the relationship between Foley and Rosen, even after they split ways. The chemistry between them is wonderful and mirrors that of a real couple; that and Blaze’s songs are strong reasons for seeing this film. Playing as part of A Tribute to Ethan Hawke on Friday, June 8, and the following day as a stand-alone film. Release date TBA.

The Bookshop: The Opening Night movie about a woman (Emily Mortimer) trying to open a bookshop in a town resistant to it seems strangely abridged. (d: Isabel Coixet) Opens August 24 in limited release.

The Devil’s Doorway: This solid horror film (originally shot on 16mm!) would benefit from a slower build in its terror and more character development (particularly Father John). Having said that, it’s scary as fuck, and knows how to include both unsettling images at the corner of the frames and jump scares. And since Magdalene laundries were horrible places, anyway, it’s not difficult to imagine greater evils taking place there.(d: Aislinn Clarke)  No release date set. World Premiere

Disobedience: Sebastián Lelio’s latest deals with a closed Jewish community and the lost sheep (Rachel Weisz) who returns home when her father (the much-beloved rabbi) dies. We soon find out she left due to a scandal with another woman (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to their best friend and the rabbi’s best pupil (Alessandro Nivola). Now playing. Full review  

The Faces of Zandra Rhodes: The world-famous fashion designer is given a documentary as eclectic and vibrant as her fashion sense. We get some biography, but not until a lengthy opening concerning a fashion show she’s putting on while simultaneously being asked to design the costumes for Seattle Opera’s The Pearl Fishers. We also get some repetition in her saying that she always wears the clothes she designs (mentioned three times), one slight title card spelling error, and many interviews with the fashion models, artists, and other people she’s worked with over the years, including Angelica Huston. Somehow, it all works and gets better as it goes on, but it’s dense, which one would expect from a project that began in 1982 with a fashion show in La Jolla, California.(d: David Wiesehan)  No release date set. World Premiere

Love, Gilda: A solid, lean documentary about the late comedienne, with readings from her audio book, It’s Always Something, a generous portion of clips from SNL, TV interviews, and home movies, and present-day interviews with the people who knew her best, and those who followed in her footsteps on Saturday Night Live. If you’re a fan, you’ll love this film; if you know nothing about her, this is a great place to start. (d: Lisa D’Aplito) Release date TBA.

Sadie: Megan Griffiths’s film about a 13-year-old girl (Sophia Mitri Schloss) whose dad is overseas in the military and whose mother (Melanie Lynskey) has started dating the cute neighbor (John Gallagher, Jr.) that just moved in. Unfortunately, Sadie has feelings for him while angry that he’s trying to take the place she feels is reserved for her dad. Even worse, she’s at the point where she’s more intelligent than she is wise. Playing as part of An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey and as a stand-alone film on Wednesday, June 6. No release date set. Full review

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: This wonderful documentary shares the life and philosophy of the late Fred Rogers through archival footage, interviews, and cartoons, expertly edited together. It resists turning him into a saint, but still reveals him as an extraordinary human being. Bring tissues. (d: Morgan Neville) Opens June 15.

SIFF 2018 Edition: Sadie

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Sophia Mitri Schloss. Photo by T. J. Williams, Jr. Image courtesy of SIFF.

NOTE: THIS CRITIQUE MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Sadie begins and ends with the title character (Sophia Mitri Schloss) providing voice-over to a letter she’s written her dad, who is serving overseas. In between is a film with a multi-dimensional and troubled character at its center.

I don’t know than any man could’ve written this tale, or directed it as well. Megan Griffiths, who did both, allows us to empathize with all her characters, even as we begin to realize, long before they do, that something is wrong with Sadie. In idolizing her dad and the violence that surrounds him, in being old enough to be intelligent without being wise, she mistakenly feels that she can solve her problems (and those of her friends) in unsettling ways without adverse consequences. Plus, hormones.

Megan Griffiths. Photo by Hayley Young. Image courtesy of SIFF.

Witness, for example, the way she helps her best friend Francis (Keith L. Williams) with Jesse (Justin Thomas Howell), a bully at school. First, she steals Jesse’s phone and links an easily traceable bomb threat to it, resulting in detention for him. Then, when he finds out about the phone and threatens Francis (thinking he’s the one who sent the message), Sadie emotionally manipulates him into thinking Francis might go on a Columbine rampage if bullied any more, and even shows him a gun she supposedly found in Francis’s backpack (actually one of her dad’s). When she later shows Francis the gun and he worries that Jesse might report them, Sadie says, “For what? You didn’t do anything. Besides, the gun isn’t loaded.”

Notice the logic here. Sadie can’t see beyond the solution she’s hoping to achieve. Yes, Jesse gets a detention in the first instance, but the bomb threat goes on his permanent record (Sadie dismisses Francis when he mentions this, saying, “We’re kids, Francis. Nobody cares what we do.”). And the threat of violence terrorizes Jesse more than he’s terrorized Frances.

This inability to see the consequences of her actions, other that the desired result, plays out again in the main story, when she is upset at her mom (Melanie Lynskey) for dating a handsome new neighbor named Cyrus (John Gallagher, Jr). These feelings are enhanced by her own feelings for him, combined with her loyalty to her dad and her wish for them all to be a family again. First she tries to slip milk of magnesium into his milk (he doesn’t drink it). Then, when it seems her dad will be coming home for good, she tries to trap him in a compromising position. When that doesn’t work, she resorts to more drastic measures.

Photo courtesy of SIFF

Those drastic measures go much further than the solution Sadie had in mind. She wants to harm Cyrus, but she mistakenly thinks she’s in control of the situation and that the amount of harm she can cause is negligible because she’s a kid. Again, she is more intelligent than wise. She only thinks of getting him out of the picture so that her dad can come back to them. But when she discovers that isn’t going to happen, she finally realizes the true weight of what she’s done.

Griffiths is wise to not show Sadie as psychologically damaged or otherwise out of the ordinary. That is not to say that every teenage girl is dangerous, but that they can be without proper guidance and awareness of their power to hurt. This element is what makes the film so unsettling, along with its soundtrack (by Mike McCready).

Still, the movie isn’t without its flaws. John Gallagher, Jr. acts too much with his teeth, lips, and tongue for my taste, and the final letter Sadie writes to her dad falls flat. I’m also not a fan of whisper acting, which Schloss employs too often, especially during the voice-overs. Finally, the movie meanders into clichéd plot devices near its conclusion.

There’s a scene near the beginning of this film that bears mentioning. Francis’s grandfather, Deak (Tee Dennard), spends his time sitting outside and whittling wood carvings. One afternoon, Sadie joins him and begins to carve Cyrus’s face. Deak notices this and tells her she should start with something easier, like animals. “Men are hard,” he says. Sadie shows that young girls can be harder.

Sadie plays as part of An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey tomorrow at 2:30 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian and again at the same location on Wednesday, June 6 at 6:45.

 

SIFF 2018 Edition: Disobedience

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Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz. Photo courtesy of SIFF

When I watched Sebastián Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman, the earth moved. With Disobedience, there were only slight rumblings. Films, like music, need a thread to tie them together from beginning to end, whether it be through story, images, sounds, dialog, or a repeating motif. There is such a thread in Disobedience, but it often thins to nothing, pricking the viewer with its needle.

A rabbi (Anton Lesser) passes away. The daughter (Rachel Weisz) is called back home. We sense something is amiss. There is a coldness to those who welcome her back. The society she left is a conservative Jewish one. Married women wear wigs outside the bedroom. Men do not touch women not their wives. Couples have sex every Friday. The synagogue is segregated: women sit in the balcony, men sit below.

Most of the surprise of what will happen has been spoiled by advance press concerning Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams’s love scene together. The film wants to be Call Me By Your Name for women, but the complexity of its subject would seem more at home in a novel, where each character could be given her own chapter. Despite terrific acting, I never felt completely connected to these people, or felt that Esti (McAdams) would pine after Ronit (Weisz) without finding love elsewhere, however briefly. Call Me By Your Name was based on a novel, and yet fleshed out its characters more.

But is that what the movie’s about? Take note of the opening. The soon-to-be-deceased rabbi is giving a sermon on God’s creation. He mentions that the angels are perfect, and so are incapable of sin, since they cannot choose to be sinners. The beasts also do not sin, as they follow what’s in their nature, and their nature was chosen by God. Only humans are given the freedom to choose. Is this, then, its message? That we have the freedom to choose? Choose our partners, our communities, our lives? Certainly it doesn’t mean choosing our sexuality, for that if that were the case, the movie would’ve ended differently, and I would’ve stormed out of the theater. Nor is it about choosing acceptance, for the Jewish community in this film cannot accept homosexuality any more than it can accept other deviations from its traditions.

So the thread breaks and the pattern unravels, and we cannot see where the needle has gone. While this is still a solid film in its camera work, imagery, acting, and script, it does not shake the heavens, nor does it stir the heart.

Now playing at AMC Seattle 10, which used to be Sundance Cinemas, which used to be the Metro. Also playing at AMC Pacific Place.