SIFF Week 1 Picks & Pans

THURSDAY, MAY 16

Much Ado About Nothing

7 p.m., McCaw Hall

Joss Whedon’s festival-opening take on Shakespeare’s nuptial comedy is sold out, but scheduled to open here June 21. Shot with Hollywood friends in his own house (and it is a nice house, paid for with all that Avengers and Buffy money), Much Ado isn’t a vanity project, since these performers are all TV pros. Still, it has the feel of a weekend-home amateur theatrical, with everyone straining to put on a jolly good show and prove their appreciation for the classics. Look! There’s Nathan Fillion as the buffoonish captain of the guard, Dogberry! When did he last deliver lines in iambic pentameter—high school? Still, he heaves his shoulders and has fun with his thick-headed part. As the quarrelsome lovers Beatrice and Benedick, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker have a better grasp of the language, but their careful syllables don’t always match the sense of the words. Back in ’93, the Americans stood out for the same unfortunate reason among Kenneth Branagh’s mostly British Much Ado cast—poor command of the text. Absent that, there’s a lot of clowning and eye-rolling that matches the contemporary mood (though the film’s shot in black-and-white). The tone is playful until the disastrously overplayed melodrama of Hero and Claudio’s first (failed) wedding ceremony; Hero’s impugned virtue and staged death are treated like tragedy instead of a comic misunderstanding during a long, drunken weekend’s festivities. Denisof struggles with Benedick’s soliloquies, which Whedon ought to have cut to match the movie’s modern tailoring. Besides the cell phones and Prada suits, more liberties should’ve been taken.

FRIDAY, MAY 17

The Deep

Noon, Pacific Place

True survival stories are never as impressive onscreen as in our imagination, reading the newspaper accounts or survivors’ books after the disaster. Based on the 1984 sinking of an Icelandic fishing trawler, The Deep essentially a one-man show, like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Here our protagonist is stoic, doughy Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafssen), who looks nothing like a hero, and his boat’s foundering is nothing like The Perfect Storm. The net simply snags on a rock; the crew doesn’t want to cut it loose; a winch malfunctions; and Gulli is suddenly dog-paddling three miles to shore in the freezing North Atlantic. He talks to a seagull, recites the Lord’s Prayer, and asks God for “just one more day” as he swims. None of this is terribly interesting to watch, and Gulli’s ordeal takes place at night, so director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband, 101 Reykjavík) adds various flashbacks and home-movie scenes from Gulli’s volcanic-island home. (He comes from a nation of hardy survivors, you see?) The Deep’s modest approach suits its phlegmatic hero, whose survival—and that’s hardly a spoiler—becomes the subject of scientific curiosity. “I’m just a man, a very lucky man,” says Gulli, but such humility doesn’t make for a very compelling movie. (Also 12:30 p.m. Sat., May 18; 9 p.m. Sun., May 19 at Egyptian.)

Filmistaan

2:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Like a Bollywood spin on Tropic Thunder, a filmmaker is kidnapped by guerrillas while on a remote location shoot. Only the irrepressible Sunny (Sharib Hashmi) is merely an assistant to the foreign crew, unlike Ben Stiller’s action-hero diva. And because he’s Indian and his captors are Pakistani jihadists, the threat of execution ought to be a little more real. But that’s not the agenda of director Nitin Kakkar. He gives Sunny a Pakistani protector, Aftaab (Inaamulhaq), who’s conveniently a movie lover, too. Soon Sunny is directing his own tearfully pleading hostage videos, which is actually quite funny; these mujahedeen despise such Western technology, yet depend on it. (“You look like George Clooney,” says Sunny while directing the rebel leader, who doesn’t protest.) There are more political jokes to be made here, but the feel-good Filmistaan doesn’t pursue them. A frustrated actor, Sunny is soon entertaining the village kids, directing a movie with local talent, and befriending everyone in sight (possibly including one jihadi). The sense of danger drains into the sand, and Filmistaan becomes a broad parable of national reconciliation; Sunny and Aftaab both speak Punjabi, but movies form the universal language here. (Also 9 p.m. Mon., June 3 at Harvard Exit; 5 p.m. Tues., June 4 in Renton.)

[PICK] Imagine

4 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Polish director, English lead actor, German lead actress, a bunch of kids speaking several languages, and the whole thing’s set in Lisbon? This kind of Euro-pudding co-production is often a mess, with the clashing accents dictated by complicated financing and tax incentives. But whatever its genus, Andrzej Jakimowski’s oddball tale of blindness and echolocation—yes, like a bat uses in the dark—won me over. Ian (Edward Hogg) arrives at a clinic, housed in an old monastery, to help the kids gain confidence and navigate the world safely. Only he refuses to use a cane. Is he even blind? The children both doubt him and worship him. His navigation is uncanny as he clicks his tongue and stomps his boot heels to listen for obstacles. (It’s kind of what Ben Affleck did in Daredevil, only more plausible.) Over and over, Ian instructs his pupils to construct an aural picture of the space around them—to imagine, yes, their surroundings. Then there’s Eva (Alexandra Maria Lara), who like Ian hates the stigma of blindness. She wants nothing more than to visit the neighborhood cafe and flirt with men who don’t think she’s sightless. Together, they’re a proud, prickly pair; and it’s never clear if they’ll end up together. In one lovely moment, Eva applies her makeup by touch before a big date. And in a funny shopping montage, Ian directs her to buy the loudest heels in the store—which are conveniently the sexiest, too. Hmmm . . . maybe that guy really can see? (Also 7 p.m. Tues., May 21; 6 p.m. Sun., May 26 in Renton.)

[PICK] Stories We Tell

4 p.m., Harvard Exit

Canadian actress Sarah Polley has been impressively transitioning to the other side of the camera with Away From Her and Take This Waltz, but nothing prepares you for this kaleidoscopic view of her own family life. Polley was born in 1979 to Diane and Michael, both stage actors, not long after Diane had been doing a long show in Montreal. She returned home to give birth to Polley in Toronto; 11 years later she died of cancer. Those are the basic facts, but none of the family members Polley interviews can agree on much else. Father Michael reads from a long manuscript in the recording studio, directed by his daughter; and we see a dazzling array of old super-8 home movies, the colors all fading to red, whose origin Polley explains only at the end (I won’t). Her family is somewhat bohemian; Michael tells his wife that if he can’t make her happy, she should take a lover. Their five kids, from two marriages, look back on that free-spirited era with eye-rolls and cheerful resignation. The times have changed by the time—roughly seven years ago—that Polley began to question her parentage. Stories We Tell represents that investigation, but its concerns are deeper than DNA. When a sister asks the film’s purpose, Polley says it’s “to bring someone to life through the way we tell stories about them.” It’s not about her heredity, but a loving tribute to her mother. The film opens May 31. (Also 5 p.m. Sun., May 19 at Harvard Exit.)

SATURDAY, MAY 18

[PICK] Furever

6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Where some may shed a tear and bury Fido in the backyard, other pet owners so long to preserve the memory of a furry friend that they mummify, freeze-dry, stuff, clone, or opt to convert its ashes into “memorial diamonds.” Such practices may seem macabre, but in Amy Finkel’s unlikely documentary about posthumous companion animals, we recognize both the American obsession with pets and our nation’s cultural privilege. “If you were in a city in Iraq that’s being bombed,” observes UW sociologist Dr. Pepper Schwartz, “you’re probably not grieving for your dogs as much.” Finkel pursues her topic objectively, interviewing eccentric taxidermists, pet psychics, professors, pet undertakers, and veterinarians. We hear the heartbreaking accounts of owners who “just can’t let go,” and despite the excesses and eccentricities on view, that’s what matters—the grief for a beloved animal. Furever offers an oddly compelling look at the universal experiences of love, loss, and compassion. (Also 11 a.m. Sun., May 19 at Harvard Exit.)

[PICK] The African Cypher

6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Break-dancing may have originated in America, but in post-apartheid South Africa, that urban art form —and b-boy culture with it—continues to evolve, adapting to cultural rhythms, traditional dance forms, and politics. Documentary director Bryan Little captures the many different styles emerging in the townships, paying particular attention to one Soweto crew, The Movers & Shakers. “Life is not a movie,” says Mada Sthembiso. “We are not acting, we are living.” Amazing athleticism and innovation are expressed in each step, but we also see the time and care required to master them. As with much street art, each young dancer shares a motivation to rise above the poverty, violence, and hopelessness that pervade their lives. As the dance crews prepare for the Red Bull Beat Battle (also featured in the 2010 SIFF doc Turn It Loose), Little focuses on the fate of Sthembiso’s dance partnership with Prince Mofokeng. This subplot detracts somewhat from the greater scope of the movie, which conveys the wonderful dancing and the hopeful hearts of the dancers. Those subjects—not Little’s commentary—keep the film wildly absorbing. (Also 1 p.m. Sun., May 19 at Pacific Place.)

[PICK] Key of Life

6:30 p.m., Egyptian

A struggling, suicidal actor and an amnesiac hitman both get an unexpected shot at a brand-new life when they cross paths and swap identities in a bathhouse in this lighthearted black comedy from writer/director Kenji Uchida. Sakai Masato is the likable but self-defeating actor (he can’t even kill himself without botching it) who swaps his one-room dump for the lavish apartment of Teruyuki Kagawa, a methodical assassin who loses his memory after slipping on a bar of soap (cue slapstick pratfall) and wakes up in the actor’s life. Ryoko Hirosue adds a twist of oddball romantic comedy as a coolly efficient career woman who organizes her life just as she runs her magazine: She sets a wedding date before even finding a boyfriend. Director Uchida, whose mix of social satire and wild goofball twists recalls the comic sensibility of one-time SIFF favorite Sabu (Unlucky Monkey), deftly tracks the inevitable chaos while putting the full-blooded characters front and center. Personality triumphs over circumstance, even when circumstances take some unexpected (and thoroughly entertaining) turns. Though the film runs over two hours, the measured pace, tidy narrative, and likable characters keep it alive. (Also 6 p.m. Sun., May 19 at Pacific Place.)

Our Nixon

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

I come from a family of rabid Nixon haters. With my grandfather, I watched what seemed like all of the Watergate hearing on TV. (If childhood memory serves, he bought a new color set for that express purpose, because black-and-white wasn’t good enough for his contempt.) So while I wanted to like this found-footage archival mashup of super-8 home movies made by Nixon’s White House staffers, maybe I know too much about that era of American politics. To me, the stories of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin are relatively familiar, but director Penny Lane has to interpolate lots of old TV broadcasts and after-the-fact interviews to explain why her archival footage is so wonderful. And it is: Here is the cheerful, playful, colorful, and dare I say Nixonian optimism of his first term. He crushed McGovern, and his staffers had every reason to gloat. (It’s worth remembering that, were it not for the Watergate break-in and coverup, Republicans would’ve held the White House for 20 consecutive years; Carter was the historical aberration.) Still, Lane shrewdly overlays Nixon’s secret audio recordings—unknown to Haldeman and company—to give ominous context to their backstage scenes. And in one priceless bit, after Nixon praises the Ray Conniff Singers at a White House concert (“If the music is square, it’s because I like it square”), a brave young woman in the chorus holds up a Vietnam War protest sign and denounces the president. His minions didn’t realize it, but they were filming the future. (Also 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 19.)

Stuck in Love

7 p.m., Pacific Place

That the title of director/writer Josh Boone’s feature debut was changed from Writers to Stuck in Love was a wise marketing move. This is at its core a humorous family drama about the pains of the past and the power of love. And yet, it really is all about the writers. There are three: Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) is a successful novelist and pitiable cuckold. His daughter Samantha (Lily Collins) is a young novelist with thick emotional walls and ribald demeanor. And his high-schooler son Rusty (Nat Wolff) is a wannabe novelist who worships Stephen King. It’s a pleasantly dysfunctional trio, and the characters’ affection for one another is clear, even after the publication of Samantha’s first book, inspired by the night her mother (Jennifer Connelly) ran off with a dimwit local gym owner, triggers everyone’s insecurities. Adapting John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, Boone does a fine job of weaving three concurrent romantic narratives, even if his supposedly stubborn characters do undergo massive transformation a bit too easily. The big problem with the script is Connelly’s character, upon which so much of the drama depends. She isn’t a writer; rather, she’s just a reader, about whom we know so little she might as well be a blank page. Perhaps that is why her three writers love her so. (Also 4 p.m. Sun., May 20 at Egyptian.)

[PICK] Interior. Leather Bar.

9:30 p.m., Egyptian

Co-directors James Franco and Travis Mathews, learning that 40 minutes had been censored from William Friedkin’s incendiary 1980 film Cruising, decided to remake/reimagine them. We see some of those completed scenes, but basically this is a making-of doc. In other words, we are watching Franco’s footage of Mathews filming actor Val Lauren playing Al Pacino playing undercover cop Steve Burns playing gay. To recreate the discomfort Pacino’s character (and presumably Pacino himself) felt while shooting the original steamy S&M-bar scenes, they naturally had to cast a straight actor in the role. (After we see Lauren and his fellow thespians receive a lesson on how to cruise, it becomes amusingly clear they needn’t have bothered—the attitude and body language of a gay man on the prowl in a club is identical to an actor’s habitual, perpetual how-do-I-look self-consciousness.) For a working actor, Lauren’s surprisingly unworldly, and consequently Interior. Leather Bar. is primarily an exploration of his personal conflict over all this scary gay stuff. On the phone with Lauren, we hear his agent’s harangues, warning him of the damage to his reputation that’ll be done by “Franco’s faggot project.” (Because of course after Cruising, Pacino’s career tanked.) Since Franco’s stated motivation for this exercise was a demand for the freedom to explore sexuality on film, and since the unseen agent’s homophobia thus lies at the crux of the issue, it’s odd that these conversations are the scenes that ring falsest; and when we later see Lauren sitting against the wall of a parking lot, his script in his lap, reading aloud the stage direction “Val sits against the wall of the parking lot. The script is in his lap. He reads to himself,” you suspect the entire thing—in yet another layer of meta—is a fully scripted put-on. (What’s not simulated is the close-up fellatio; take this either as warning or encouragement.) (Also 3:30 p.m. Sun., May 19, Egyptian.)

[PICK] Mercy

9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

An unhappily married German couple moves to possibly the most depressing place on Earth, a Norwegian town called Hammerfest, far north of the Arctic Circle. And it’s winter, meaning the sun won’t come up for months. Can this marriage be saved? And do you have the strength to journey along with Niels, Maria, and their young teen son, Markus? “All we need is a second chance,” says Maria, but the odds of that seem very, very long in Hammerfest. And yet the town and its inhabitants have some interest. Maria adapts, joins the community choir, while Niels takes a mistress. You wouldn’t bet on anything but divorce, especially after a fatal car accident complicates the plot. (The dialogue shifts among German, Norwegian, and frequent English.) Mercy is long (131 minutes) and slow, but in a good way. Director Matthias Glasner counts down the days of winter with graphics on screen. We feel the winter waning, the uncaring enormity of the frozen landscape, the gradual coming of the light. Whether the Gaimann family can recover from tragedy and marital apathy is never certain, and Glasner never pushes toward melodrama or easy resolution. The seasons must inevitably change, but conscience can be a harder turn. (Also 4 p.m. Mon., May 20.)

Storm Surfers 3-D

9:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

This is a fine documentary, perhaps even a success, when it sticks to what it purports to be: an extreme sports flick that uses 3-D cameras attached to boards, held by surfers, and hovering from helicopters to immerse us in the huge waves found miles off the Australian shore. Sadly, ocean swells aren’t the only thing directors Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius try to immerse us in. They also chase storylines meant to add gravity to the film, but end up making it feel lost at sea. The legendary surfers the film follows, Ross Clarke-Jones and Tom Carroll, are too wooden onscreen to be engaging. And as we watch an injured Carroll rehabilitate himself on waves much smaller than the promised stormy swells, the doc’s already flimsy narrative crashes into the reef. (Also 2 p.m. Sun., May 19.)

SUNDAY, MAY 19

After Winter, Spring

4 p.m., Harvard Exit

The Périgord is a rural farming region in southwest France, and Judith Lit is a New York woman lucky enough to own a vacation home there. Over three years, she filmed this loving portrait of her neighbors—four extended families who run small farms operating by centuries-old traditions. Here and in France, Lit notes, monoculture factory farming has become the rule—one reason food is so cheap by historical standards, but she has no interest in ordinary consumers on a budget. She’s a privileged woman who’d never set foot in a Walmart; and if you can’t afford to eat organic, this doc’s not for you. Their faces lined and fingers gnarled, the farmers share their rustic wisdom. “You should never take more from nature than you need,” one tells Lit. True, but as another farmer admits, 50 percent of his revenue comes from government subsidies. Raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, Lit doesn’t lack self-awareness, musing that her project is “a nostalgic effort to put myself where I used to be.” She both romanticizes this dwindling, aging population and takes note as new, value-added businesses are attempted. One family adds a farm-to-table restaurant; another sells boutique foie gras; and a new couple attempts a line of organic berries—which proves too fantastically labor intensive. For the faces and landscape, Lit’s film is never less that a pleasure to watch—and if you’re looking for a vacation home in the Périgord, I can promise you there will be plenty of parcels to buy in the next decade. (Also 8:30 p.m., Mon., May 20 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

Pit Stop

6:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Yen Tan’s film focuses on the parallel stories of Gabe (Bill Heck) and Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda), both scruffy and blue-collar-y, well north of 30, and as out as they can be in the Texas backwater they call home. Pit Stop makes the point, movingly, that a small town’s limited dating pool makes life tough for everyone, not only gay men. Each character’s relationship history is a cobbled-together tangle of men, women, married people, single people—whomever they can latch onto, no matter how ill-suited. Gabe and Ernesto have two exes each, for instance, whom for various reasons they can’t escape. (If the town’s so small, though, why haven’t these two met yet? This implausibility is dealt with pretty perfunctorily.) The subtlest performance comes from indie It Girl Amy Seimetz as Gabe’s intimacy-starved ex-wife Shannon; Heck and DeAnda score a little lower on the convincingness meter, though not enough to keep you from rooting for their characters. If Pit Stop were longer than its 80 minutes, though, you’d be on the verge of throwing up your hands and thinking Geez, quit moping and move to Austin already. (Also 4:30 p.m. Mon., May 20, Pacific Place.)

Nightfall

9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

This Hong Kong revenge flick opens with a gloriously violent, overdone, slo-mo brawl in a shower room—golden sun beaming in the windows because, well, it just looks better that way. Who or why these guys are beating one another to a bloody pulp won’t be explained for another hour. Eventually the fight’s winner, rendered mute by a knife in the throat, emerges from jail after 20 years. Silent Wong (Nick Cheung) takes a creepy, voyeuristic interest in a young piano student (Janice Man), who goes home to an even creepier and more possessive father (the bilingual Michael Wong, who vents his rage in English). Directed by Roy Chow, Nightfall is a puzzle picture; our trying to sort out who’s who places us on the side of grizzled Inspector Lam (Simon Yam), a widowed cop with his own daughter to defend. While the movie ends up being a little too sentimental and predictable for my tastes, it’s got some great action bits. When the cop finally tracks his quarry to a glass-bottomed gondola, a ferocious fight erupts in the enclosed space. Then comes a wonderful pause as Lam realizes that Wong, with the slightest smile on his face, has no desire for either of them to survive their meeting. Hundreds of feet above the ground, Wong points his gun in an unexpected direction. It’s my favorite moment so far at SIFF. (Also 9 p.m. Wed., May 22.)

MONDAY, MAY 20

Out of Print

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

Director Vivienne Roumani tangles with the thorny questions that the digital revolution poses to the future of the book in Out of Print without taking sides. It’s a choice that results in an unexpectedly engaging hour of B-roll and talking heads. What’s most entertaining to watch is the passion with which her egghead subjects argue their points. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, seemingly the natural antagonist in this story, emerges as the most charismatic and passionate reader of the lot. “Isn’t that an odd question,” Bezos answers when asked what format he reads in, his eye bulging with glee. “Can you imagine asking that question 10 years ago?” On the other side is novelist, attorney, and Authors Guild president Scott Turow, who, in his stern denunciation of e-book pirates and Google, comes off as a sort of Joe McCarthy of copyright. The narration by Meryl Streep is minimal, which is appropriate, but the light touch sometimes undermines the doc’s evenhandedness. The portion devoted to the Digital Public Library of America, for instance, has the sheen of an infomercial. Anecdotes from successful authors provide more color than substance. Still, listening to Ray Bradbury talk about writing Fahrenheit 451 on a library typewriter is always fun; and the story of Darcy Chan’s e-book success is a riveting and hopeful sign for the future. (Also 5 p.m. Tues., May 21.)

TUESDAY, MAY 21

[PICK] Scrapper

6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Making its premiere at SIFF, Brady Hall’s local feature follows one of those anonymous day laborers driving around South Seattle in an old red truck. Why should we pay attention to this particular guy? Mainly because of the quiet, concerned dignity of Hollis (TV actor Michael Beach, currently on The Client List), who carts away scrap metal to sell at the recycling depot. Hollis has no history or friends, just an ill, elderly mother at home. He patrols the alleyways, backyards, and construction sites—a connoisseur of junk and an observer of hidden doings. One such foray takes him into a suburban S&M dungeon, where an 18-year-old girl dangles from Japanese kinbaku bondage ropes. “What are you, some kind of Republican?” she snaps at the astonished Hollis. Well, no—he’s not exactly uptight, but he’s depressed and prone to disturbing dreams (caused by his nicotine patch). And he’s a hard worker, which inspires the girl, Swan (Anna Giles), to become his assistant; scrap metal will pay better than Craigslist bondage jobs, she figures. Scrapper is about their unlikely friendship, no more and no less. Although a few punks and vandals threaten the two, it’s a modest drama that revolves around the routine of work. It puts you in mind of Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), whose characters live in the constant now, defined by their labor. And from salvage, possibly, comes salvation. (Also 4 p.m. Wed., May 22.)

[PICK] Bwakaw

9:15 p.m., Harvard Exit

Rene (Eddie Garcia), an elderly man in a village in the Philippines, though healthy and active, has already checked out: Almost all his belongings are prematurely packed in boxes labeled with the names of the acquaintances who’ll get them after he’s gone. The gently unfolding events that persuade him not to give up so soon—as one character puts it, “Instead of just waiting for the day you die, do whatever makes you happy”—form the plot of Jun Robles Lana’s quiet dramedy. Like most lonely people (the title refers to Rene’s closest companion, the stray dog he adopted), he’s abrasive, his shields always up—with cause, since he’s gay and spent most of his life hiding it. Bwakaw leaves questions unanswered about just how big a stigma that is in Rene’s village; everyone he knows, with one dramatic exception, seems to know and not care. Lana seasons his tale with dashes of black humor and bittersweetness. Bring tissues. (Also 4 p.m. Thurs., May 23, Harvard Exit.)

 
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