SIFF 2019: Final Weekend, Final Thoughts

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (USA 2019, 115 min)

Digital Screener, Sat 6/8 and Sun 6/9

Despite plans to see multiple movies over the final weekend of SIFF, I ended up seeing only one film, at home, and fell asleep for half of it (note: I fell asleep because I was tired and the music in this documentary is wonderfuly soothing, not because of the quality of the film). So I watched the part I’d slept through the following day.

Using talking heads, voice-over, archival video, rhythmic cutting of archival photos, and the music of Miles Davis throughout, this is a wonderful documentary and celebration of the man who changed the face of jazz several times. By focusing on his life, loves, and music, this is as rounded a portrait of the man and his craft as you could want. Don’t be surprised if you want to go out and buy his albums afterwards. A great documentary.

Final Thoughts on SIFF 2019

The Year of the Screeners

In past years, I’ve occasionally grabbed a screener for films I couldn’t see due to my work schedule, but nothing like the number of screeners I saw this year. Out of the 25 films I saw, nine were screeners (for comparison, I saw seven press screenings), and several of them were films I could’ve seen on-screen, but was too lazy or too tired to make the attempt.

Best of SIFF 2019

Best Actor: Rady Gamal, Yomeddine

Playing a man afflicted with leprosy as a young man, Rady Gamal gives a great performance as Beshay, helped by a good script and strong supporting work from multiple people. I did feel the dream sequence which shows him looking in a mirror and seeing a healthy-looking man was a cheap way to show that the actor isn’t disfigured, especially since the performance would’ve been great, either way.

Best Actress: Damla Sönmez, Sibel

Like Gamal, but to an even greater extent, no one came close to Sönmez in this category. In Sibel, she plays the titular character, communicating through a whistling language. If I were to nominate a supporting actress award, however, it’d be for Elit Iscan, who played her younger sister Fatma, and almost did as much without words as Sönmez did.

Guilty Pleasure: The Legend of the Stardust Brothers

To be fair, this was my only guilty pleasure movie during the Fest, but it earned its guilty pleasure status as a whacky, over-the-time, 80s infused Japanese musical that was also surprisingly good in terms of having a solid narrative structure, proving that director Makoto Tezuka might’ve been young when he made it, but he was also incredibly talented.

Best Music: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Yeah, it’s really hard to have a soundtrack better than what Davis did on his seminal work from the 1950s through the 1980s. I even went out and bought Birth of the Cool after seeing this movie.

Best Cinematography/Best Archival: I Am Cuba

Yomeddine had some great visuals for the non-archival films, but nothing was going to touch the justly-famous cinematography of this movie. If you ever want proof that film is primarily a visual medium, watch this film, preferably on the largest screen possible. It also was the best of the archival films I saw.

Best Script: 3 Faces

No one film stood out for its script (and the best lines were in the Molly Ivins documentary, which wasn’t scripted). While Non-Fiction has the most intelligent script, it also was a vehicle for ideas rather than the people speaking them (and see the point above about film being a visual medium). Yomeddine was a strong contendor, but in its use of humor and its naturalness, director Jafar Panahi’s latest gets my vote. Written by Panahi and Nader Saeivar.

Best Documentary: Maiden

From its editing to its music to its research, this films knows exactly what it’s about and tells a story worth telling. Best to watch if you know nothing about Tracy Edwards, The Whitbread Around-the-World Race, or sailing.

Best Director: Ying Liang, A Family Tour

Like Maiden, everything about A Family Tour is top-notch, though unlike Maiden, you’re not noticing as you’re watching it how great the individual components are because they all work together so well as a whole. How it can be so subtle and yet so bold is one of the joys of this film, and is a tribute to how seemlessly Ying Liang directs everything.

Best Narrative Film: A Family Tour

A Family Tour could’ve shown Non-Fiction a thing or two about burying ideas in a film, instead of burying a film in ideas. Plus, you never forget that the actors onscreen are people, rather than points of view. The fact that Liang could make such a personal film and yet not let the autobiographical elements overshadow the narrative is an accomplishment: the fact that it’s so good is an even rarer achievement.

Best Overall: Maiden

Maiden was only the second film I saw during the festival, but it made such an impact on me that it remained my favorite film throughout, even though I saw some really great movies later on. It’s one of those documentaries where you think it can’t get any more thrilling or emotional, and then it tops itself.

Final Thoughts on 10 Seattle International Film Festivals

The spread at this year’s press launch

Best Guilty Pleasures 2010-2019: Comrade Kim Goes Flying (2013), The Astrologer (2015), Bad Black (2017), Legend of the Stardust Brothers (2019)

Best Overall: The Astrologer

The sweetness of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, the zaniness of Bad Black, the cohesiveness of Legend of the Stardust Brothers: none of them can compare to the side-splitting, WTF did I just see concoction that is The Astrologer. “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” is one of my favorite lines from any movie.

Best Archivals 2010-2019: 25th Hour (2010), La Dolce Vita (2011), The Pawnbroker (2013), The Apu Trilogy (2014), The Marseille Trilogy: César (2017)

Best Overall: La Dolce Vita, The Apu Trilogy (tie)

So many great films in this category! All are favorites of mine, but I saw a restored print (yes, I said “print!”) of La Dolce Vita on Memorial Day at the Harvard Exit and sat enraptured for 3 hours, while I took a day off from work to see all three movies in The Apu Trilogy. The other films on this list are also masterpieces, but these two viewings offered something that transcends cinema.

Best Documentaries 2010-2019: Garbo the Spy (2010), How to Survive a Plague (2011), The Act of Killing (2012), Tower (2016), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), Maiden (2019)

Best Overall: How to Survive a Plague

All of these films are great, and The Act of Killing is astonishing, but if I had to pick one film from this list, it’d be How to Survive a Plague. Using mostly VHS recordings taken around the time that the AIDS epidemic reached its height in the U.S., the film is informative, entertaining, emotional, and expertly edited. It also has the distinction of laying claim to the best post-film Q&A I’ve attended out of all 10 festivals.

Best Narrative Films 2010-2019: The City of Life and Death (2010), The White Meadows (2011), Wolf Children (2012), Boyhood (2013), Our Little Sister (2016), Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018), A Family Tour (2019)

Best Overall: Wolf Children

Like La Dolce Vita, this film was on film when I saw it on a lazy Saturday morning at the Uptown. I recently rewatched it on Blu-ray, and while nothing beats watching it projected on 35mm on a huge screen, the film is still a masterpiece.

In Conclusion…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through 10 film festivals. Looking back, it amazes me how much I wrote on the previous 9. Time and interest has often dictated how long and in-depth my posts are, but even in the shorter entries, I hope I’ve given you a good idea of the films I’ve seen and the experience of attending, working at, and volunteering for SIFF.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a rundown of how many features and shorts I’ve seen:

2010: 12 features, 0 shorts, 1 volunteer appreciation feature

2011: 18 features, 0 shorts, 1 volunteer appreciation feature

2012: 20 features, 0 shorts

2013: 34* features, 2 shorts packages (18 shorts total), 1 TV pilot

2014: 30 features, 2 shorts, 1 shorts package (4 shorts)

2015: 48 features, 0 shorts

2016: 30 features, 1 shorts package (8 shorts)

2017: 22 features, 1 shorts package (8 shorts)

2018: 19 features, 2 shorts packages (8 shorts, 15+ found footage groupings), 4 VR exhibits

2019: 25 features, 0 shorts

*My SIFF 2013 wrap-up says 37 features, but I believe that erroneously counts the shorts packages and the Twin Peaks pilot as features.

While I’ve missed seeing shorts in other years, this year is the first year I didn’t attend any screenings with Q&As, nor did I attend Q&As separately (which is one of the reasons I did the interview via email with David Shields — my first interview for any of the festivals). This also means I took fewer photos than in past years. And, since I only did capsule reviews for the films I saw, I decided not to include movie stills in those posts. Therefore, as this is my final post from this year’s festival, I’m leaving you with some of the photos I did take.

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SIFF 2019: An Interview with David Shields

During SIFF 2019, I saw a screener of the film Lynch: A History after a mutual friend put me in touch with the director/writer/producer, David Shields. Experimental films and I don’t have a good track record, so I was surprised when I enjoyed the film, which builds a narrative entirely out of already-existing media. The viewing also left me with questions, so I emailed them to David a couple days later. I received his replies the following day, but time constraints have prevented me from posting them until now. And if you missed the film during the festival, there’s some good news for you at the end of this interview.

1.) The book on which you loosely based this movie (Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season) deals with the NBA. Why did you decide to change your focus to the NFL and Marshawn Lynch in particular?

I tried various iterations of the basketball version, and it just didn’t work. The book felt dated; so, too, there wasn’t an NBA team anymore in Seattle, and my interest was in the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch. Every issue I tried to get to in Black Planet I could get to more powerfully via Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks.

I decided to focus on Marshawn Lynch because I was drawn to his use of silence as a form of protest: 1) the source of that silence in a history of Oakland—its legacy of troublemakers who often use brilliantly symbolic means to question society; 2) the deepening of that silence in Buffalo; 3) the silence going viral in Seattle; 4) then the silence becoming politicized later in Seattle and weaponized, in the best possible sense, back in Oakland; 5) and finally that silence being passed on as legacy on to the next generation of black athletes.

I’m also very interested in Marshawn Lynch being someone who tries to be true to himself in a capitalist, racist society that he’s trying to both exploit and oppose. As Albert Camus says, “The only way to deal with an unjust world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” No one is absolutely free, but Marshawn Lynch is thrillingly close.

2.) Why did you decide to make a film using only archival material, as opposed to a documentary that mixes archival with new material?

We approached Marshawn Lynch, and he declined to participate; he also said, via his representatives, that he would not impede the film, either. A lot of my previous books use the principle of appropriation/remix/transformation/free use as a generating strategy. This approach struck me as the best MO for this film, since the last thing we wanted for this film was a standard talking heads film. We wanted the film to feel like YouTube folk art, and in that way we thought the film would feel congruent with Marshawn Lynch’s ethos. So, too, we wanted the film to feel like a zigzag touchdown run, and the 700 clips—edited to within an inch of their life—gave us that compression, concision, velocity, violence.

3.) Did you have an idea of where the narrative would go before you looked at the clips, or did the clips dictate the direction the narrative went?

Yes, the film has very definite beats, and it even has—dare I say it?—a classical narrative structure. It’s the Prodgial Son Returneth. The film starts in Oakland, where Lynch is “made,” in many ways; in Buffalo, he tries to conform, but he finds himself treated poorly by the media; in Seattle he finds a resurrection of sorts, for at least a while, before that curdles on him. Finally, back in Oakland, he seems to have found a way to continue his legacy.

See, too, my answer to the first question: the film is really about Lynch’s use of silence as a form of protest, resistance, and defiance. And that silence goes through five unmistakable phases: origin, deepening, popularizing, politicization, legacy. That is the core of the film.

4.) Who found and compiled all these clips?

I worked with several people to find the clips. Primarily, Christian Palmer, James Nugent, and I found the clips. A few other people helped as well.

5.) How many editors did it take to stitch these clips together into a cohesive narrative? What sort of guidance (if any) did you give them? How long did this process take?

James Nugent and Christian Palmer and I are the main editors. It took us four years. I worked very closely with both of them on a frame by frame and day by day basis. I can’t overemphasize enough the massive work that James Nugent did on this film. He came onto the film after about a year, and he did everything from musical production to lead editor to tech guru to everything else.

6.) Did you have any rights or permissions issues in obtaining these clips or including them in the film? Are you able to show the film outside of film festivals, or do rights issues prevent you?

See my earlier answer. My copyright attorney is Robert Clarida, who advised me every step of the way. The principle of fair use/transformation guided our every decision: taking as brief a clip as possible, being sure to make a commentary via our juxtaposition, and making that commentary legible to the “average viewer.” The film has passed through all legal vetting and will be shown widely in theaters and via a streaming service.

My thanks again to David Shields for taking the time to answer my questions.

SIFF 2019: Week Three Capsule Reviews

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (Archival, Japan 1985, 100 min)

Digital Screener, Sun 6/2

Makoto Tezuka (son of Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese manga) directed this wild Japanese musical at the age of 23. Basic plot: media mogul Mr. Minami (the late Kiyohiko Ozaki) takes rival singers Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) and transforms them into the superstar group Stardust Brothers, but tensions between them lead to their downfall and the rise of their fan club president, Marimo (the late Kyoko Togawa), and the son of a politician, Kaoru (Issay), as teen idols. Very 80s, very Japanese, with several handmade sets, lots of white light, and even a brief animated sequence. The whole thing looks like an 80s music video, heavily influenced by the New Wave and David Bowie. The music oscillates between banal 80s synthesized songs and better 80s synthesized songs, all of them catchy. As bizarre and over-the-top as it is, there’s also a conviction and charm to the entire thing, showing that Tezuka knew what he was doing when he made it. Based on a concept album by Haruo Chikada. A guilty pleasure that’s worth checking out.

For Sama (United Kingdom 2019, 94 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Mon 6/3

A brutal, unflinching portrait of the horrors of war, specifically when a brutal dictator fights a war against his own people. In this case, it’s Assad’s (and later, the Russians’) pulverizing attacks against Aleppo, Syria to “free” it from revolutionaries. The film is mostly shot by Waad al-Kateab, a journalist living there after college who joined the revolution and refused to leave, even when the fighting turned into a siege and the Russians started targeting hospitals, including one where her husband worked. The film is for her daughter, Sama, who spent the first year of her life living in a war zone. Every head-of-state should see it, and then be forced to answer why they did nothing to stop this brutality.

Enamorada (Archival, Mexico 1946, 99 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Mon 6/3

Despite watching this movie with a crowd that decided everything not modern about it was a hoot — which I see as a lack of respect for bygone eras, to say nothing of different styles of storytelling and acting — Enamorada‘s charm and power still work, over 70 years later. María Félix never made movies in Hollywood, as she said they didn’t give her good roles, but she gets a great one here, as an upper class woman about to marry a foreigner who isn’t taking any shit from the revolutionary general (Pedro Armendáriz) who has taken over her town, despite him having the hots for her. I try not to use words like “smoldering eyes” in my reviews, but…she has smoldering eyes, which burn for the first half of the film and melt for the second. Enamorada makes me want to see more of Félix’s work and of Mexican directors of that period.

I Am Cuba (Archival, Cuba/Soviet Union 1964, 141 min)

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Tue 6/4

Of all the archival films playing at SIFF, this was the one I was most excited about. I Am Cuba really needs to be seen on a big screen, as the crisp black-and-white cinematography and camera movement is alive in a way that few films are. Though shot in a 1:37.1 aspect ratio, it has the look of a scope film, which was achieved using wide-angle lenses. The plot is unimportant, other than it takes place in the middle of the Cuban Revolution, consists of four vignettes, and gives Cuba a role as a character. Here, the visuals tell the story, and dazzle us while doing so, thanks to cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.

Lynch : A History (World Premiere, USA 2019, 85 min)

Digital Screener, Wed 6/5

I was skeptical that I’d like this movie, in which mountains of archival footage and several quotes are stitched together into a narrative. But I have to say, it does a good job of telling a story only through pre-existing images, one that gives cultural and social context to Marshawn Lynch’s behavior, even if it doesn’t outright explain it (there’s some text after the credits that does, which would’ve been better left out, as it inserts an interpretation on the material and a judgment on Lynch that audiences should reach on their own). Much credit should go to the editors who stitched this contraption together, though one wonders if rights issues will ever allow it to be shown outside of a film festival. Future screenings: Sun 6/9 9:00pm Pacific Place

SIFF 2018 Edition: Get in the (VR) Zone — Anniversary Post

My last anniversary post is, ironically, about the future. While I’m of the opinion that VR isn’t the future of film, I also believe that we’re just beginning to discover its applications and its potential. Note: there was no VR at SIFF this year, so if it’s the future, the future will have to wait.

SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place

In 2016, SIFF dedicated a part of its festival to emerging virtual reality work. Held at Seattle Center, the event was a mini-festival-within-the-festival dubbed SIFFX. Last year, it transformed into 360 Storytelling, which was offered by WonderTek labs every weekend of the festival, and a “PlayTank” at the Film Center the last day of fest. This year, the virtual reality experience was rebranded as the SIFF VR Zone and was housed on the ground floor of Pacific Place. On the last day of SIFF 2018, I decided to investigate this emerging medium and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for the future of film in particular and visual media in general.

The VR Zone was open for 90 minutes at a time, followed by 30 minutes where the exhibit was closed. During those 30 minutes, people lined up in the waiting room. Once the exhibit was ready for ticket holders and passholders, a staff member came out and explained what’s about to happen. Basically, the room we were about to go into would be filled with individual stations. Each station would be equipped with a Samsung Gear VR headset. Some exhibits would sport interactive controllers, as well. Swivel chairs would be provided for the features so as to fully experience the 360 degree visuals and sound. The features would involve sitting, while some of the interactive exhibits would involve standing. We were also warned to take breaks, as people prone to motion-sickness might be affected by the VR (I was warned in advance about one called Uplift VR: Maiden Flight, which takes place in a hot air balloon, but I didn’t have time to try it). Each exhibit would have the name of the exhibit and its run time written near the exhibit, usually on the wall.

With that, the blacks curtains were opened and we were let loose on a long, black-lined room that narrowed near the back (and shifted a bit to the right). Near the walls rested several swivel chairs with headsets and headphones (in other exhibits, the headsets and headphones were combined). Toward the middle of the space was a balloon basket (for Maiden Flight). Past it were more interactive exhibits, then a hallway perpendicular to the rest of the room. If you took a right, the hallway led past two exhibits into Where Thoughts Go. To the left were two more exhibits on the way to the restrooms.

The Zone included different VR experiences. Interactive VR involved more of the viewer, 360 Out of Africa and 360 Out of Space are what they sound like in their respective focuses, while 360 Experimental jettisoned narrative for different uses of the medium. Youth 360 were projects created by youth, while 360 Narrative, 360 Documentary, and 360 Art & Music are self-explanatory. In all, there were 28 exhibits of varying length, with most exhibits lasting under 15 minutes in length.

Since I had limited time, I went on my coworkers’ recommendations, with one exception. My first VR experience was Rone, an 8-9 minute documentary about the street artist by Lester Francois. This man paints huge portraits of women in buildings and other spaces designated for destruction. I used the swivel chair to good effect on this one.

The next exhibit was not recommended to me, nor would I recommend it to others. That was the experimental The Cabiri: Anubis by Bogdan Darev and Fred Beahm. Taking the shape of a play and coming after the true 360 world of Rone, this 180 staged work didn’t utilize all that VR could offer. Plus, it was boring in its telling of a man in ancient Egypt traveling to the Underworld to await judgement. Much of that had to do with the choreography, which wasn’t that impressive. Titles over the visuals were the only dialog included; music and gestures told the rest.

Then came the calming and wonderful Where Thoughts Go by Lucas Rizzotto, the first of two interactive exhibits I was able to experience. The exhibit, complete with a gauzy entrance and cushions to sit on, utilized controllers that allowed me to manipulate tiny spheres of light. In each “level”, you’d be asked a personal question, usually having to do with love, loss, or memories. You could manipulate the spheres to hear how other people answered, but the only way to move to the next question was to record an answer, then send your “answer sphere” to join the other spheres. It says something when an employee had to come in and tell me to wrap it up (due to people waiting for the exhibit outside), but I answered at least three of the questions and heard multiple answers to them. If it’s back next year, I may just spend all my time there.

The final exhibit (and final interactive exhibit) I experienced, I had to wait for. Called Queerskins: A Love Story (by Illya Szilac and Cyril Tsiboulski), the exhibit space was filled with mementos and testimonials of gay people who’d been rejected by their parents. The exhibit also had controllers that allowed me to manipulate items in a box as I sat in the back seat of a car. In the front were parents of a son who has died of AIDS. The box contained items that belonged to their son. The items changed every so often, depending on what was happening in the story at the time. While the narrative was powerful, I wondered if the VR Experience was necessary. Sure, you see the son as a person through interacting with the items in the back seat, but you aren’t holding physical items, which would create more of an impact. Also, the story is meant to make a point (which it does), but a short film could delve deeper into the subject with more complexity.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the exhibit. Just like 3D, however, the forced perspective gave me a headache, even after just one exhibit. Imagine if the exhibits were feature-length! If anyone figures out how to make the holodeck a reality, I’m there, but for now, virtual reality will remain a novelty, or one confined to the shortest of run-times.

Shorts at Shoreline — Anniversary Post

This is the fourth year that SIFF is showing films at Shoreline Community College. While I didn’t go to any films there this year (I’ve moved since last year, and not closer to Shoreline — which is unfortunate, since I love the venue), I’d encourage anyone who can go to check it out. It’s away from city traffic, the screenings tend not to be as crowded (though they had at least one screening on standby this year), and they have free parking.

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 2017: How I Almost Met Kore-eda — Anniversary Post

Since moving to Seattle, the only SIFF festival I didn’t cover was in 2017. You can read my reasons for that here. A celebration of my ten festivals wouldn’t be complete without a recollection from that festival, however, so here — for the first time — is a post from SIFF 2017.

Artistic Director Beth Barrett with Kore-eda Hirokazu, May 19, 2017

Kore-eda Hirokazu is my favorite living director. I haven’t watched everything he’s made, but I’ve come close, and since I Wish, I’ve seen everything he’s directed (including that film), all of it in theaters.

In 2016, SIFF programmed Our Little Sister, Kore-eda’s best movie since Nobody Knows (though, like Ozu, he seems to be immune from making bad films). The next year, I heard he was going to be a guest at SIFF with his new film, After the Storm.

Since I was working the day it was playing, in the place where it was playing, I made sure to see the press screening ahead of time, hoping to duck into the back of the auditorium for at least part of his Q&A during my shift.

Despite having seen and loved so many of his films, I own none of them. One of my co-workers does, however, and got him to sign a DVD copy of After Life. I ran outside soon after and got several photos, one of which is at the top of this post. While I didn’t have anything for him to sign, I was more interested in welcoming him to Seattle (in Japanese) and telling him that I love his films.

Staff ushered him in before the screening, and then he left the building for a little bit. I was heading upstairs to restock something in concessions when I saw him return.

Now, most of the festival guests are flanked by several people at all times, so trying to talk to them requires dealing with more than one person. Kore-eda, however, came back alone. Since he entered near the door where the supplies were located, I should’ve just stopped for a second, said my piece, and then gotten the supplies. Instead, I did my job and thought how no one else in the lobby suspected that this regular-looking Japanese man was one of the greatest directors in the world.

So, the Q&A occurs, and I get permission to sneak in the back and watch some of it. Once it’s over, Kore-eda comes out, followed by a bunch of people — mostly Japanese women — who want to talk to him. I patiently wait my turn to talk, and then, when everyone else has gone, I take one step toward him…and he turns and walks with his translator out the door.

And that, my friends, is how I almost met Kore-eda.

Sssshhhh! It’s a secret. — Anniversary Post

I only wrote two posts for SIFF 2016: the one below, and my highlights post, which is the only one that includes information about the films I saw. The reason I decided to repost this one is because it’s unlike any other post I wrote about the festival. More of an exercise in writing style than a substantive article.

SIFF 2016 was notable for two reasons. One was the best trailer SIFF’s put together in all the festivals I’ve attended (which you can see if you click on the link above). The second (which we didn’t know at the time) was that it was Carl Spence’s last festival as Artistic Director, which means it also was his last year as programmer of the Secret Festival. Sadly, I missed Secret #3 due to illness — which, of course, was supposedly the best of the bunch. And no, I still can’t tell you what I saw. 🙂

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Secret Festival. None dare speak of what goes on within this four-day festival-within-a-festival. Those who mention the creations which screen in shadow are never heard from again. What happens in the dark stays in the dark.

This year I shall be attending this adumbral ritual. I can never disclose the names of the films I see; they are referred to in the guide as Secret 1, Secret 2, Secret 3,  and Secret 4. Within this hidden world I may find a masterpiece, or a film unworthy to be called a film.  No plots revealed, cast lists mentioned, or directors lauded. Just generic praise, or generic cursing. Unless my transmissions cease. Then you shall know I am among the damned.

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SIFF 2019: Week Two Capsule Reviews

A Family Tour (Taiwan/Hong Kong/Singapore/Malaysia 2018, 107 min)

Digital Screener, Fri 5/24

Of all the movies I’ve seen as screeners that I wish I’d woken up for and seen in a theater, this one is at the top (followed by Sibel), mainly due to the abundance of written information plastered all over the screener. Still, it couldn’t dilute how powerful, courageous, and wonderful this film is: the latest from Ying Liang, who (like his protagonist) was censored by the Chinese government for his last film and forced into exile. Subtly executed, and yet the message isn’t subtle at all. A must-see.

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (USA 2019, 91 min)

Digital Screener, Tue 5/28

Of the two docs I saw this week on women writers, this is the better one. Molly Ivins was big, bold, and funny as hell. This documentary captures all that, and if a detail here or there is lacking, the bigger sense of her isn’t. Just wonderful. Future screenings: Sat 6/1 12:30 pm SIFF Cinema Uptown

The Bigamist (Archival, USA 1953, 80 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Tue 5/28

The only woman director to work for major studios in the 50s, Ida Lupino helms and stars in this tale of a man (Edmund O’Brien) who’s about to adopt a baby with his wife (Joan Fontaine), but then the inspector (Edmund Gwenn) discovers he has another family in Los Angeles. Better than most 50s melodramas (and it is a melodrama, sappy music and all). What’s not melodramatic is the way Lupino handles her actors, while she herself gives the best performance in the picture. And the restoration looks fantastic.

Storm in My Heart (North American Premiere, USA/Scotland 2018, 117 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Tue 5/29

Susan Hayward and Lena Horne were both born on the same day in Brooklyn. That’s not the only similarities between the two, but because Horne was black and Hayward was white, director Mark Cousins thought it interesting to show their two most famous movies side-by-side: Horne’s Stormy Weather (1943) and Hayward’s With a Song in My Heart (1952) (he calls his piece a “diptych”). The screen is actually split in four, as whenever Horne or Hayward appear, they are placed in one part of the screen, when they aren’t shown, another (this is because Horne was cut out of most of the films she starred in when the films were shown in the South, whereas Hayward’s movies revolved around her no matter where they were shown). It’s an interesting idea, with commentary captions that reminded me a bit of VH1 pop-up videos, but since Stormy Weather is so much shorter than With a Song in My Heart, we end up getting more of Hayward, even though Cousins adds Horne’s “Now” short, which is considered the first music video. Plus, if one wanted to chart their lives and careers in parallel, wouldn’t a more conventional documentary do a better job than just comparing two of their films, especially since Stormy Weather has an all-black cast and so wouldn’t be subjected to the story marginalization that Horne was exposed to in her other films?

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (USA 2018, 95 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Wed 5/29

If ever a documentary were in need of an unconventional treatment, it would be Kael’s. The Molly Ivins movie reveals more of the person and the art than this by-the-numbers, surprisingly uncinematic documentary does, despite quoting copiously from Kael’s writings and including numerous clips from televised interviews (the only time we get close to her essence is when her grandson is interviewing her). Interestingly, that documentary was directed by a woman, whereas this one was directed by a man. And how did they decide who to interview? No interviews with de Palma, Spielberg, or Scorsese (whose careers she helped make, though we do get a letter from Spielberg), and none with contemporary women critics on her impact (I mean, there’s Molly Haskell, but what about all the women critics who appeared after Kael?). And while he notes particularly controversies surrounding her reviews (particularly her “Raising Kane” piece and her negative review of Shoah), director Rob Garver isn’t interested in digging deeper — a fault that Kael’s reviews could never be accused of.

Tuesdays at the Harvy — Anniversary Post

Of all the posts I’ve written for the Seattle International Film Festival, this is the one I’m most proud of.

So long, Harvard Exit!
So long, Harvard Exit!

At the end of last year, the Varsity Theatre became the latest Landmark Theatre to close (it reopened earlier this year under the same management as the Admiral Theatre in West Seattle).  In January, the Harvard Exit followed suit.  Unlike past theaters to close (The Uptown, the Neptune, the Metro, the Egyptian, the Varsity), this one will not reopen as a movie theater under new management nor — like the Neptune — will it be reopened as a live show venue.  But, for the 25-day run of the 41st Seattle International Film Festival, it becomes a movie venue once again, using the downstairs screen (the only one that’s handicap accessible — historical building status prevents an elevator from being put in for the top floor).  And I am lucky enough to have worked there on Tuesdays.

First, let me tell you what’s not at the Harvard Exit.  There’s no employee fridge, microwave, floor mats, espresso machine, alcohol, syrup, Vitamin Water, popcorn seasonings, or cash drawer.  Gone is the cool old projector in the lobby and the water pitcher (the water pitcher returned the final week I worked there). Ice is bought from the gas station; other supplies from QFC.  Restock comes from the Egyptian.

What is there are two comfy couches that make an L-shape just past concessions and a lot more room, as the table that used to be in the center of the lobby now hugs the wall opposite concessions.  There’s still a bathroom downstairs, though locking it is a mystery (in multiple attempts, I managed to lock it once, and then couldn’t repeat the feat), and the bathrooms upstairs are usable, as well.  Old pictures on the walls and soft lighting from electric wall brackets in the shape of candles adds a funereal effect to the proceedings, and indeed, for all intents and purposes, we are holding a wake for the place.

May 19

My first Tuesday at “the Harvy” was slow.  Cleaning and restocking don’t take long when there’s only one movie playing at a time, which left me with lots of downtime.  I took advantage of this downtime to explore the Exit and document it before it’s turned into a restaurant or condos or whatever the heck it’s going to become.

First, here is how the lobby looks.  The couches had people sitting in them all day, so I couldn’t get a photo of them until nighttime….and then the ballot box became part of the picture.  So be it.

Next, I headed up to the third floor, where the second theater sits in the dark.

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Across from the entrance to this theater is this empty alcove on the right, probably a second concessions stand (though never used when Landmark ran the building) and a lounge.

Past that door is this weird-looking contraption, a “hidden” women’s restroom, and a rather nice, but rarely seen, lounge.

I then headed back downstairs, pausing to take photos of the second theater and documenting my journey back to the first floor.

After my sojourn upstairs, it was time to take photos of the box office and our tiny office.  Upon entering from the outside, the office is the first door on the left, before the stairs.

Then, outside.  I also got a good photo of the DAR Hall from here, which is where the Centerpiece Gala is held.

My final photos were of the small area which leads to the main theater and the balcony.

May 26

Today, in between shows and cleaning and restocking (we were a little busier this Tuesday than last) and eating crepes from Joe Bar (delicious!), I explored the back staircase and the basement.  But first, I got another chance to photograph the couches, this time with only a rubber band on the table.

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Both the back staircase and the basement are reachable through a door down a small flight of stairs and to the left of the box office (on the same side as the office and the main stairs).  The door to the basement was locked, so I headed upstairs first, where there are apartments and — apparently — one tenant.

There are two doors on the right after you head through the door leading to these stairs.  The first one leads to a supply closet, though I didn’t enter it until my final Tuesday.  The second one is past a short flight of stairs and leads to the stage.  You don’t want to open that one while a movie is being shown, or a beam of light will flash across the screen.  Unlike the other doors, that one is painted gray.

Here’s what I saw going up the stairs.

Once I had some more downtime, I got the manager to unlock the basement door.  Here is where the soda boxes are kept, as well as some old posters, though I had to make a second trip down there to see them, as I missed them the first time.

 June 2

My final Tuesday at the Harvy was spent double-checking the location of some of the photos from the previous days’ shoots and taking photos of places I hadn’t shot before.  Here’s the front hall:

I then checked out the back stairs again for details on which landings I’d taken the previous photos.  Unlike before, each odd landing had trash piled up on it.  Maybe the lone tenant was moving. The mattress was still in the hall, and with trash blocking my path, I didn’t feel like finding out which apartments were empty so that I could see what they looked like. I was, however, able to look in the supply closet and take a photo from the stage door, as well as a couple of the main theater.

I had to wait until the projectionist arrived before I could take the last three photos, so in the meantime, I went upstairs.  An exhibit called James Dean’s Lost Slideshow, displaying photos the famous actor took, was on the third floor.  I remember two people coming by the first Tuesday and measuring for the exhibit (though they measured downstairs).  I got there before the man dressed up as an old-time movie usher stopped by (he comes with the exhibit), as it doesn’t officially open until 4 pm each day.  It was at this time that I decided to take a photo of the men’s bathroom, so for the curious…

As mentioned on day one, I got another shot at the upstairs theater.  Someone turned the lights on and opened the door, giving me better photos of the theater than when all had been dark.

And while I didn’t enter the main women’s restroom for photos (because I’m not a pervert), I did check out the “hidden” women’s restroom on the third floor, past the lounge, which has a unique feature.

I then headed downstairs…

…and took some photos outside (one of them is at the beginning of this post).

My final shots of the night were, appropriately, the view I’ve had the entire time I’ve worked here.

Could I have taken more photos?  I suppose. I don’t have any of the inside of the projection booth, and I didn’t get the key to unlock the employees-only area on the second floor, though I do have a photo of what’s behind that door….

Photo by Mychal Ducken.
Photo by Mychal Ducken

Still, there is such a thing as overkill, and for patrons of this theater, these photos will adequately serve as reminders of a time when Capitol Hill was home to two theaters, one of which was haunted.

As for me, I’m glad I got an opportunity to work there, and to see movies on its screen, one last time.

The final movie playing at the Harvard Exit is the appropriately titled All Things Must Pass.  The final movie I’ll be seeing there is a silent film version of Sherlock Holmes, which plays in the afternoon.  The first film I saw there was Precious, which was only the second movie I saw after moving to Seattle. 

One Day, Six Films — Thursday, May 21, 2015 — Anniversary Post

I didn’t receive a press pass for the 2015 festival, though I applied for one. Since I covered most of the festivals without one, that didn’t stop me from covering the 2015 festival, where I saw a record-number of films (48). I also set a record for the most films seen in one day (with five) — and then topped it a day later, with six. What makes the number of films I saw even more impressive is that I decided not to work press screenings that year — the final year they showed at the Uptown.

At Ebertfest, I once saw four films in one day.  During the fourth film, time vanished, reality regressed to dreams, and I left the theater unsure where I was.  During SIFF this year, I saw five films last Wednesday (and am planning on seeing five today).  The next day, I did one better.  Somehow, the films remained distinct, though the press screenings did some time-bending.

Press Screenings–Uptown Theatre 1

10:00 am, Sugarcane Shadows (David Constantin, 88 mins, Mauritius 2014)

Sugarcane Shadows showed promise in its first hour, but petered out in its last 30 minutes. The film deals with residents living in Mauritius who must deal with a sugar plant closing and the coming of modernity to their traditional way of life.  After the film ended, I grabbed food prepared at home, which I’d stashed in the staff fridge.

12:00 pm, Sensa Nessuna Pieta (Michele Alhaique, 94 mins, Italy 2014)

According to the press screening email: “You wouldn’t want to run into Mimmo in a dark alley — especially if you owed his boss money.  His loyalty is tested when a violent confrontation sends him on the run with a beautiful young escort, and we realize his lumbering size is matched only by the size of his heart.”  We also realize that this movie is like scores of gangster movies before it, except with a handheld camera.  It’s not bad, but it’s not special, either.

2:00 pm, Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 98 mins, USA 2015)

The best of the three press screenings, Cartel Land is a documentary that follows vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border combating drug cartels — one to keep drugs and illegal immigrants out of the country, the other to reclaim their towns from violence.

Festival Films

4:30 pm, Virtuosity (Christopher Wilkinson, 87 mins, USA 2014) — Harvard Exit

As Bus 8 made its way through rush hour traffic, I debated sitting down and eating dinner instead of seeing this film, since I calculated that my arrival would occur around the time the movie was scheduled to begin.  I thought, in particular, of going to La Cochina & Cantina, which has a buffet option.  As I walked by the restaurant, however, I decided dinner could wait, arriving at the Harvard Exit almost exactly at 4:30.  Unlike the two non-press screening films I saw the previous day, I got in before the presenter began talking.  Even before the film ended, I knew I had made the right choice.

This excellent film covers the 2013 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth, TX.  Focusing on several of the contestants, we also hear from the newspaper reporters who cover the competition and the judges who decide the winner.  A brief history of the competition and of Van Cliburn is also included (for those who don’t know, Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 in Moscow, making him an international celebrity at age 23).  Afterwards, director Christopher Wilkinson joined us for a Q&A.  When asked how he knew which contestants to follow, he said, “Usually the most interesting contestants make the most interesting music” — his personal favorites being Steve Lin and Alessandro Deljavan.  The film plays after the festival on July 31st on PBS.  In addition, there’s a YouTube Channel with clips from the 2013 competition: https://www.youtube.com/user/VanCliburnFoundation

7:00 pm, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Roger Allers, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, Michal Socha, 84 mins, Canada 2014) — AMC Pacific Place

If I’d known how bad Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was going to be, I would’ve skipped it and sat down for a meal, instead of grabbing food on the way.  Since I didn’t know, I walked from the Harvard Exit to Pacific Place, buying a Dick’s burger, fries, and a vanilla milkshake en route.  I also bought a mustard packet, though how I was planning to put mustard on the burger while carrying a milkshake in one hand and the bag in the other wasn’t thought out ahead of time.  Somehow, I timed it all perfectly, so that while I arrived after passholders were let in, this was the first festival screening — minus opening night and press screenings — at which I arrived early.

The main problem with this movie is its presentation.  The book is supposedly full of profound essays on life, love, children, marriage, work, and play, but the movie makes the mistake of over-emoting, either through the visual presentation for each segment  (most of the directors above are independent artists, who each were responsible for one segment), the music (in one of the worst ideas, the texts are made into songs, with no attempt to make them sound like workable lyrics, or workable music), or pauses in Mustafa’s (Liam Neeson’s) telling of these life lessons, with the result that they sound like sanctimonious crap.  In a weird twist, the version I saw included English subtitles (even though it’s in English), so at times I tried to tune out Aslan and read the words on the screen to see if the truths they espoused still sounded like bad Hallmark greeting cards.  It doesn’t help that after the “song” segments, Neeson repeats the last two lines of the text — as if this is supposed to punctuate the phrase, instead of puncturing its balloon.

While the visuals during the essay portions are at least beautiful, the regular animation is only slightly better than that of a Saturday morning cartoon, though the final scene with the seagulls rises above that mediocrity.  Also, while the essay portions were the main offenders of the film, the sections in between featured flat characters with no personality in trite situations  — a waste of a talented voice cast (besides Neeson, there’s Selma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis, Alfred Molina, and Frank Langella — with Langella being the only one who made me feel something besides disgust).  No need to see this film, unless you’re a masochist.  I would’ve walked out, but I had one more movie to see and nothing to do in between, so I enjoyed the visuals during the essay portions and pretended I was deaf and illiterate for the duration.

Update 5/29: Forgot to include this photo, which I took between the two screenings at Pacific Place.  Happy Red Nose Day!

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9:30 pm, Cherry Tobacco (Andres Maimik, Katrin Maimik, 93 mins, Estonia 2014) — AMC Pacific Place

After wasting 84 minutes of existence on the previous film, Cherry Tobacco reminded me that some filmmakers know how to make movies.  One could argue that the film has no resolution, but it’s more concerned with the journey that teenage Laura (Maris Nõlvak) goes through than what she learns from it.  The humor is funny, the situations are based in honesty, and the older man whom Laura develops a crush on is not portrayed as a monster, but as someone who may enjoy the company of younger women because of the argumentative existence he shares with his wife.  Ultimately, however, the success of the film is due to Nõlvak’s portrayal of Laura.  Young, fresh-faced, and comfortable with her physicality, she inhabits her character effortlessly, a highlight being an early scene where she dances alone with a confidence that refreshed after the stilted nature of the previous film.  A gem.