FREE JESSICA! Let Jessica Biel speak! Why has she been silenced like some Gitmo detainee? Why fly up the blonde Los Angeles star of The Illusionist, SIFF's opening night gala feature Thursday, May 25, drag her out onstage at the Paramount—this after we've suffered through Greg Nickels, the sponsor shill-athon, and the usual will-call ticket crush outside—and leave her mutely smiling next to director Neil Burger? You might as well put a bag over the young starlet's head. What good is glamour without empty red-carpet platitudes? Those assembled—dressed up with a vengeance to erase the memory of prom-night pimples—wouldn't even have cared if she'd just lied to us like any good Hollywood trouper. ("It's really great to be here in Seattle! I love this town! And, like, the coffee, too!") Or if she'd told the truth. ("Sorry about Stealth. The Illusionist can't be any worse than that stink bomb.") Or if she'd said what most of the near-capacity house probably wanted to hear. ("I'm pleased to announce we're making an R-rated movie version of 7th Heaven!")
Again the post-screening gala was held in an annex of the sky-blotting architectural abomination that is the Washington State Trade and Convention Center—the possible future home of MoHaI (Museum of History and Industry). All the SIFF staffers with their radio headsets somehow made me think of the Department of Homeland Security. Despite the endless food and drink lines, and with the addition of a pretty good DJ spinning oldies (sorry, no live music this year), the MoHaI space begs to be made into a nightclub when it's not sitting empty the other 364 days of the year. It's basically a gigantic loft; you could play the music as loud as you want in that Pine Street no-man's-land without upsetting the neighbors, but those windows have to be able to open to let in some fresh air.
This year's main party innovation seemed to be the red plastic wristbands worn to permit one to imbibe the sponsors' hooch. (On which subject, what the hell is wrong with you people? Applauding a gin commercial shown before the Paramount festivities? It's a commercial, folks, just like at the multiplex or on TV back home. You should be booing, not clapping. At least check your BlackBerry for e-mails and look impatient.) All over Seattle that night, and even on the midnight bus home, I saw tired moviegoers wearing those red bracelets, like they'd come from some kind of emergency drill—their wrists ringed as if from triage. "Nurse, I need 50 mls of Bombay Sapphire Gin, stat!" BRIAN MILLER
Mount Vernon: Tinsel-town
When people say "Hollywood North," they mean Vancouver, B.C. Anyone hoping to build a career in film usually leaves Seattle for there or Los Angeles. But who moves to Mount Vernon, of all places, to make their first movie? Jennifer Shainin, for one, who actually left the Hollywood film biz (where she worked as a title designer) in order to co-direct Apart From That in her hometown. She and her partner/co-director Randy Walker had been collaborating on short film ideas since grad school in California. Fed up with the "jaded" tinsel-town attitude of wanna-be filmmakers, the two rejected your typical indie film scenario of navel-gazing slackers living in the city. "We didn't want to do that," Shainin says. "If you're going to work outside the system, go all the way."
Like 3,000 miles away to Mount Vernon, "not the center of that indie type stuff," where the two moved in 2002 and immediately began writing. "We would each go off and write little scenes," Shainin recalls; to these they added scenes from their own lives, and observations of life in the Skagit Valley—including the Swinomish Indian reservation. Then they dumped the pages on the floor and assembled a script, inspired by the examples of Cassavetes and Jarmusch, that valued character and slice-of-life naturalism over strict plotting.
The result is an ensemble piece, something like Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know, with many characters coping with problems large and small. Women at a mortuary beautician's school practice staging an intervention for a friend they presume to be an alcoholic. An adopted kid keeps nagging his banker father about having fired the father of his best friend. An Indian tries to avoid the subject of a friend's imminent death. An old woman tries to seduce the firefighters she calls via false alarms.
Though some roles are filled by professionals, Shainin explains, "We cast for over six months . . . [from] Bellingham all the way down to Seattle. In a way, we cast people who were already those characters." Among them is 78-year-old debutante Alice Ellingson, whom Shainin scouted at a Daughters of Norway meeting. If these first-timers went off script during the film's fall 2004 production, she and Walker let them. If you've already cast in character, ad-libs are in character, too.
Apart From That is also the rare indie that's entirely self-financed. "We were very lucky," Shainin notes. "We had a lot of family support." Her father produced the picture, and her two brothers did the music. (Local composer Christopher Shainin's work is regularly performed in Seattle.) Thinking back to her student and industry days in Hollywood, Shainin remembers her peers' attitude toward their grandly gestating first feature screenplays. It was like "they're waiting for permission" to make a movie, she says. "We didn't wanna wait for someone to tell us we can or we can't." BRIAN MILLER
Apart From All That Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., 206-324-9996, www.seattlefilm.com. Not rated. 128 minutes. $5–$10. 6:30 p.m. Wed. May 31; 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 1.
Carmen in Khayelitsha
After the debacle that was MTV's Carmen: A Hip Hopera in 2001, you probably thought radical reinterpretations of Georges Bizet's opera were dead and buried. Think again. This Carmen moves the tragedy to a present-day South African township, with staggering results. It blows apart the stereotype that opera is a crusty old white European art. Who knew "The Toreador's Song" and traditional African dancing would go so well together? While staged opera focuses mostly on music and singing, every word of the libretto is acted here with full conviction, especially by the towering Pauline Malefane in the title role. Thus, the conceit of grandiose Western classical music amid post-apartheid poverty never seems unnatural. It's the rare opera that really works as cinema. An intermission, however, would help alleviate the slow pacing. Still, it's too unique an experience, considered either as opera or film, to miss. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Neptune: 6:45 p.m. Wed. May 31. Lincoln Square: 4 p.m., Sun. June 4.
Reality TV, or the awareness of same, creeps into this latest installment of Michael Apted's famous four-decade-long British documentary project. "It's like Big Brother," protests Charles, an upper-class Tory who's had an on-again/off-again relationship with the camera. But Apted lets his subject make their points; on her second marriage, Jackie tells the director, "You edit this program as you see fit. I've got no control over that." Still she doesn't sound angry, nor do the other interviewees. Welsh physicist Nick, now a Wisconsin professor, says, "I think this film is extremely important. And I can't even begin to describe how emotionally draining and wrenching it is." Why do they go along? Because there's good reality TV and bad reality TV, and they know the difference. From 7 Up to 49 Up, Apted has been chronicling the baby-boom generation (some here are now grandparents). All have suffered setbacks in marriage or career, yet all seem to draw their abiding comfort from family. Aging doesn't seem so terrible, even if nobody wants to see themselves aging on camera. (NR) BRIAN MILLER Neptune: 1:15 p.m. Sat., June 4. Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. Wed., June 7.
This quiet, unassuming, performance-driven little movie accomplishes much in its compact 80-minute running time. Many established filmmakers could learn from first-time director Emily Atef, whose debut relishes in slight changes of character and seemingly tiny moments. Molly (Mairead McKinley) is a young Irish woman madly searching the Polish countryside for man she had a chance encounter with back home. With little to go on besides his last name and occupation, she finds refuge at a hotel swarming with friendly prostitutes. McKinley carries the film, and gives a magnificent performance as the title character. Molly's a woman who slowly begins to discover that she can take control of her own life. The more Molly discovers about herself, the more we like her and the film. Catch Molly while you have the chance. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Harvard Exit: 9:30 p.m. Sat., June 3. Pacific Place: 2 p.m. Mon., June 5.
The Puffy Chair
Josh (Mark Duplass) is a confused fuckup whose indie-rock career is dead. But despite his aura of shaggy-dog doofusness, Josh's girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) remains attracted to him and wants to join him on a road trip to deliver a La-Z-Boy recliner to his father. But their relationship may be on the skids. Enter Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), Josh's sanctimonious nature-boy brother, who joins them in the van for a fraught journey from innocence to experience. It may not seem like much, but Puffy works. Duplass and his brother, Jay, have written a script that's bold in its simplicity. Like Funny Ha Ha, a casually raw 2002 faux-cinéma-vérité indie about a bunch of shiftless twentysomethings, Puffy uses simple, unadorned dialogue and intimate, off-the-cuff performances to get at the underlying issues. It's three people trying to figure out themselves and their lives, trying to get what they want without knowing what they want, or what they have. The ingenious ending wakes us from a dream in which we had unknowingly become complicit. (R) MELISSA LEVINE Broadway Performance Hall: 2 p.m. Sun. June 4.
Engaged with the post-Mao era, Wang Xiaoshuai's Shanghai Dreams focuses on a teenage girl trying to come of age despite her oppressive father, who bitterly resents the decade his family has spent in the country after being relocated. Bursting with cultural-transition details and seductive deep-shadow cinematography (Wu Di), Dreams raps out a generational combat overfamiliar to us since the Eisenhower years, and does it repetitively, but expertly summoned sadness waits in the wings. At least it's not "minimalist," a demanding mode I'm beginning to think only masters like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang can handle. (NR) MICHAEL ATKINSON Egyptian: 6:30 p.m. Fri., June 2. Harvard Exit: 1:15 p.m. Sun., June 4.
Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner is an uncompromising political artist with a proudly progressive viewpoint. Thankfully, this documentary about his oeuvre of plays, books, and musicals, including Pulitzer, Tony, and Emmy award winner Angels in America, stays on firmly neutral ground. Director Freida Lee Mock (previously an Oscar winner for profiling Maya Lin) presents Kushner as a rebel only in the sense that the rest of society is so politically blasé. Her film is in love with the painstaking process of creation, rather than the accolades that come later. Mock forgoes the typical boring documentary conceit of interviews with famous people discussing Kushner's importance. Instead, she shows us Kushner, the working artist, out in the field with all kinds of people. One quibble, however: too many key plot points are discussed from Kushner's plays, and the film also shows many of their final scenes. For the uninitiated, this may spoil the effect of later seeing them on stage. Kushner's fans will only find further reinforcement for their admiration. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Broadway Performance Hall: 3:45 p.m. Sat. June 3; 6:30 p.m. Mon. June 5