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

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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.

SIFF 2019: Week One Capsule Reviews

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

Digital Screener, Sun 5/19

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

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

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

Digital Screener, Mon 5/20

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

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

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

Digital Screener, Mon 5/20

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

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

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Mon 5/20

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

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

Ms. Purple (USA 2019, 85 min)

Press Screening, Tue 5/21

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

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

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Tue 5/21

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

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

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Wed 5/22

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

SIFF 2019: Pre-Festival Press Screenings and Digital Screeners

 

Non-Fiction (France 2018, 108 min)

Press Screening: Wed 5/1

The latest film from Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper) centers around the future of publishing and the struggles to adapt to new technology, as told through the eyes of a publisher (Guillaume Canet), a novelist who barely clothes his nonfiction with fiction (Vincent Macaigne), their lovers (Christa Théret, Juliette Binoche), and their loves (Juliette Binoche, Nora Hamzawi). Decent, but would’ve been better if the movie had been more concerned with its characters than having each be a mouthpiece for an idea. The exception is Binoche, who is excellent. Festival screenings: Thu 5/30 8:00pm Kirkland Performance Center, Tue 6/4 7:00pm Pacific Place

Maiden (United Kingdom 2018, 93 min)

Press Screening, Thurs 5/2

Tracy Edwards was the first captain to lead an all-woman crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now called The Ocean Race), which is a yachting race held every three years. This documentary chronicles the race and her life leading up to it — one that included the death of her father at an early age and an abusive stepfather. Just like The Great Alone, you don’t need to know anything about this sport to love this film, and like my 2015 pic for best documentary, it’s a must-see. Festival screenings: Fri 5/17 7:00pm Majestic Bay, Sun 5/19 2:30pm SIFF Cinema Uptown

We Are the Radical Monarchs (USA 2019, 96 min)

Digital Screener, Tues 5/7

This also played as a 10am press screening the previous day, but who wants to wake up that early? You should see it during the festival, though, as this documentary about the Oakland-based Brownies troop for girls of color is a solid film, covering three years in the life of the organization and its efforts to launch other chapters while staying afloat itself. There’s a weird editing montage in the middle that made me think the film was about to be over, and the negative Fox News coverage is inserted and then not really dealt with (unless one takes the entire film as a rebuttal to their arguments, which it is), but those are my only criticisms. Festival screenings: Sun 5/19 1:00pm Ark Lodge Cinemas, Sat 6/1 11:00am SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Sun 6/2 1:30pm Pacific Place

Yomeddine (Egypt/USA/Austria 2018, 97 min)

Press screening, Wed 5/8

You know how sometimes you go see a movie because it sounds good, and then it ends up being that good? That’s Yomeddine, a movie about a man who survived leprosy, but still carries its physical scars. After a life-changing event, Beshay decides to hunt down the family who gave him up. Great writing with lots of interesting side-characters — so interesting, I wish we spent more time with them. But the road calls, and we must journey on. Raday Gamal is excellent as Beshay, and he gets good support from the entire case, including his companion, an orphan named Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz). Festival screenings: Fri 5/17 8:30pm SIFF Cinema Uptown, Mon 5/20 4:30pm Pacific Place

Sword of Trust (USA 2019, 89 min)

Press-only screening, Wed 5/8

The Opening Night film is light on plot and big on banter. It revolves around a situation (it’s too basic to call it a plot): two women (Jillian Bell , Michaela Watkins) inherit a Civil War sword and try to sell it to a pawnbroker (Marc Maron), claiming it proves the South won the war. When he and his employee (Jon Bass) discover a conspiracy theory YouTube channel that will buy it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, shenanigans ensue. Lynn Shelton keeps the film light, even in more serious moments. A fun way to start the festival. Festival screenings: Thu 5/16 7:00pm Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

3 Faces (Iran 2018, 100 min)

Press screening, Tues 5/14

The latest from Jafar Panahi finds the Iranian director playing himself (and actress Behnaz Jafari playing herself) as they travel to a remote town to discover if a video sent to Jafari (via Panahi) is a fake or actually shows the suicide of an aspiring actress (Marziyeh Rezaei, playing — you guessed it — Marziyeh Rezaei). The pleasure of seeing this film is twofold: 1.) It shows Panahi at the top of his game as a director. There are no wasted shots or superfluous details, and the cinematography (and acting…and editing…) is gorgeous. 2.) This is the fourth film written and directed by him since the Iranian authorities handed him a 20-year ban from making movies. If you need further proof that you need to see it, remember what I said about 10am press screenings? I woke up for this one, and didn’t regret it. Festival screeningsSat 5/18 6:00pm Lincoln Square, Sun 5/19 6:30pm SIFF Cinema Uptown

The Farewell (USA/China 2019, 98 min)

Press-only screening, Tues 5/14

Lulu Wang’s second feature starts out with the words “Based on a True Lie.” In China, families can choose to keep medical results secret from family members who are dying. In this tale, Billi (Awkwafina) finds out that her Nai Nai (Shuzen Zhao) is dying of cancer. As an excuse for the entire family to travel to China and see her one last time, they stage a wedding for her cousin HaoHao (Han Chen) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), his girlfriend of 3 months. The music is often too emotive for the scenes it describes (particularly when lyrics are included), some of the family members are introduced and never appear again, and Awkwafina is not given much to do besides look sad. Still, the chemistry between the family members is believable, Shuzen Zhao is excellent, and I enjoyed the 98 minutes I got to spend with these people. Playing as the Closing Night film. Festival screenings:  Sun 6/9 6:00pm SIFF Cinema Egyptian

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: 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.