SIFF: Week 3 Picks & Pans

WEDNESDAY, MAY 30

Rent-a-Cat/3:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Wait, you mean this isn't the plot for Zooey Deschanel's TV show New Girl? A gawky, earnest, unmarried young woman pushes a cart full of cats through the park, calling out through her megaphone that she'll rent you a cat if you're lonely. But first, she explains, she has to interview you at home, learn your pathetic life story, then decide if you're worthy of feline companionship. Each new cat renter could be a 30-minute episode, right? And the gentle, generous Japanese Rent-a-Cat basically has three episodes, as heroine Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa) meets an old widow, an unhappy businessman, and a lonely female car-rental clerk. There's not much more to the movie than that—unless you count the dozens of cutaways of the kitties that fill Sayoko's house. And while she herself is lonely and unfulfilled, Sayoko makes little effort to find the husband she claims she wants. She's more a dreamer than a doer, though she uses her cats in brief forays at other jobs—letting them help pick stocks as a day trader, for instance. When an old school acquaintance of Sayoko's shows up, there's the possibility of romance, but Naoko Ogigami—one of Japan's rare female directors—isn't one to force her plot. In place of an ending, Rent-a-Cat just curls up for a nap on the floor. BRIAN MILLER (Also Kirkland, 3:30 p.m. Sat., June 2, and Egyptian, 9:30 p.m. Mon., June 4.)

Keyhole/6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Shot mostly in black-and-white by local cinematographer Ben Kasulke (who'll attend both screenings), Guy Maddin's latest film feels like a rehash of all his past films (My Winnipeg, Brand Upon the Brain!, etc.). It's a cluttered ghost house of memory and regret, stuffed with curios, taxidermy wolverines, and a few recognizable stars. Isabella Rossellini is back from The Saddest Music in the World. Here's Jason Patric, who doesn't have much better to do. Look—there's Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall. And for eccentricity's sake, Udo Kier pops up in a few minor scenes. The text, sort of, is Ulysses' return to Penelope in The Odyssey; only here Patric is a 1920s-style gangster and his wife (Rossellini) is sequestered upstairs with the naked, chain-rattling ghost of her father. Downstairs, gangsters and gun molls quarrel, and Ulysses' four kids are gradually introduced, all with legitimate grudges against their pa. A half-drowned girl serves as the medium in this seance-as-movie, which suggests that past hurts can never be repaired or forgiven. "Our house is a strange labyrinth," says the ghost—but in Greek mythology, the labyrinth leads somewhere. Theseus does eventually kill the Minotaur, and there are consequences. Here, Maddin merely sends ghosts looking for ghosts. Ulysses is condemned to exile without hope for return. BRIAN MILLER (Also 4:30 p.m. Fri., June 1.)

THURSDAY, MAY 31

170 Hz/2 p.m., Pacific Place

Nick and Evy are both 17ish, lanky, brooding, pretty, burdened with wealthy, distant (or worse) parents, and—their strongest bond—deaf. If they were American, they'd go on a healthy multistate crime spree like any normal person. But they're Dutch, so they run off to live in a submarine abandoned in a lake. Surprisingly, not all goes well in their claustrophobic idyll. Nick, for one thing, has issues that go far beyond the bullies on his water-polo team. Writer/director Joost van Ginkel tells their story largely from their POV, which means almost no spoken (but plenty of signed) dialogue and a score (by Pascal Plantinga) rather like a New Age version of the monolith music from 2001—dreamier but just as ominous and pervasive. Despite his flourishes (semi-hallucinatory flashbacks; lemons as a leitmotif; slo-mo red-paint flinging), his filmmaking is more efficient than indulgent—to the benefit of those viewers who may have a low tolerance for watching the well-cheekboned get all dramatic about how alienated they are. GAVIN BORCHERT (Also 2 p.m. Sat., June 9, and SIFF Cinema Uptown, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 7.)

Either Way/6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

I make it my policy to like movies from Iceland, because that country is so small and strange. The wind and cold seem to scour away any superfluous emotion; plots are sparse and stunted, and the humor can be drier than dried fish. Certainly, director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson has the look right for this mismatched buddy picture set in the '80s. Stuck out in the middle of bleak nowhere, with only one truck driver occasionally passing by, two seasonal workers are painting yellow stripes on a highway that might as well be on the moon. The've got a wheelbarrow, a paint can on a push-roller, and a sledgehammer for pounding in stakes on the shoulder (for winter, when the snow comes). It's an absurd endeavor, but older Finbogi likes the solitude, since his girlfriend is studying in Vienna. Her younger brother, Alfred, hates the job and yearns for the discos of Reykjavík. (After one weekend excursion, he proudly comes back dressed like a member of A-ha; later, he shows the sheep his dance-floor moves.) However, the two road-stripers never really come into conflict; there aren't many bumps on their path. Finbogi receives a fateful letter, Alfred briefly goes on strike, and there's a funny drunken wheelbarrow scene. Sigurdsson's interest is in a friendship slowly unfolding—a small, worthwhile subject often dwarfed by the scenery. BRIAN MILLER (Also 11:30 a.m. Sat., June 2, and Kirkland, 4 p.m. Fri., June 1.)

True Wolf/6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

In 1991, Montana wolf biologist Pat Tucker and her husband Bruce Weide began raising a wolf pup at the request of a filmmaker, who wanted to use the wild animal in a movie. Once the scene was shot, Tucker and Weide had a choice: put little Koani to sleep, or spend the next 15 years—her projected lifespan—leading a wolf-centered life. They chose the latter, and Rob Whitehair's doc tells the story of those 15 years, much of it captured via the couple's home videos. We see Koani pulling Tucker across a snowy field on cross-country skis; Tucker and Weide digging through their butcher's dumpster for surplus meat; Koani's "wolf babysitter" Indy, a fluffy collie mix who looks diminutive next to his huge and rangy wolf friend; and, in one unnerving scene, Koani baring her teeth when Tucker tries to get her off the couch. But Tucker and Weide didn't keep Koani to be a pet—at the time, Yellowstone National Park was preparing to reintroduce wolf packs, and opposition ran high—particularly among ranchers with livestock at risk. Groups like the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition equate wolves with Satan and protest with signs reading "Wolf Is the Saddam Hussein of the Animal World." Tucker and Weide then use Koani as an "ambassador animal," bringing her to schools (!) and using her to teach communities about the much-maligned creatures. Weide asks for a middle ground between "the wolf that you fear and the wolf that lies down with the lamb." Neither depiction, it turns out, is accurate. ERIN K. THOMPSON (Also 1 p.m. Fri., June 1.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild/6:30 p.m., Egyptian

Benh Zeitlin's Sundance prizewinner is about a community for whom holding on to what's theirs is a communal effort, encompassing humans and animals, physical and metaphysical. Expanded from his prior short, it's a wildly colorful fairy tale/allegory about a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (extraordinary first-time actress Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in/on the Bathtub, a kind of magical ghetto island of outcasts floating off the southern coast of Louisiana. Hushpuppy learns that because the polar ice caps are melting, the community is expecting a storm that's likely to drown them out, as well as bring on the arrival of ice-age beasts called aurochs. With its remarkably imaginative (if not decidedly imaginary) creatures, often cloying naive-sage voiceover, and aestheticization of gluttonous decay, the approach is sort of Where the Wild Things Are co-directed by Terrence Malick and Harmony Korine, and the product is just as disorienting as that sounds. Beasts stumbles when it leaves the murky miasma of the Bathtub, when it makes its allegory to post-Katrina New Orleans explicit by sending the survivors of the drowned community to a mainland displacement camp. Both pagan and twee, Zeitlin's film is never less than a wonder to look at; it's also rarely anything more. KARINA LONGWORTH (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, noon, Sat., June 2.)

Starbuck/8 p.m., Kirkland

Who doesn't love children? And more children means more love, right? In this very broad, sentimental French-Canadian comedy, a 40-ish schlub named David (Patrick Huard) once used the code name Starbuck to make donations at the sperm bank. Two decades later, it's revealed that the clinic used his sperm exclusively—meaning the still-anonymous David now has over 500 college-age offspring. A graying layabout bachelor with an impatient girlfriend, debts, and a job delivering meat for his family's butcher shop, David is clearly unfit to be a father. You can see where this is going. The unknown Starbuck becomes a huge tabloid story. His kids file a class-action suit to reveal his identity. David is aghast, then curious about his heirs, whom he secretly begins to visit and befriend. ("I can be their guardian angel!") Each child creates a vignette for David to demonstrate his shaggy, bungling decency: There's a soccer star, an actor, a heroin addict, a wheelchair kid with cerebral palsy, and so forth. To fight the lawsuit, David enlists his best friend and attorney (Antoine Bertrand), a chubby, hectored father who says his kids have destroyed his life. There's never any doubt as to how these antics will resolve, since David is a good guy from start to finish. How do you say mensch in French? Or Apatow, for that matter? The American remake could star Jason Segel as David (with the kids a little younger), and I'm seeing John C. Reilly as the lawyer (unless Jonah Hill gains the weight back). And what about casting those 500 mothers? Don't worry, Starbuck doesn't consider a single one. BRIAN MILLER (Also Egyptian, 6:30 p.m. Fri., June 1 and 9 p.m. Thurs., June 7.)

FRIDAY, JUNE 1

[PICK] We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists/9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

"Watch the fuck out." That simple, blunt warning is uttered by one of the many talking heads—or perhaps one of the talking Guy Fawkes masks—in this doc about the notorious hacker group Anonymous, and is essentially the film's take-home message. Namely, if you try to censor the Internet, get caught being a unconscionable hypocrite, or happen to lead a repressive regime in the midst of a democratic uprising, a swarm of angry, resourceful computer geeks will soon make your life miserable. Director Brian Knappenberger briskly traces the evolution of the Anonymous movement from a group of flippant provocateurs on the anything-goes message boards of 4Chan to champions of freedom who challenged the Church of Scientology, helped facilitate the Arab Spring, and "scared the shit out of the powers that be." Anonymous is many things to many people, but enough key members and experts are interviewed here that the movie deftly encapsulates who the hacktivists are and what they stand for. KEEGAN HAMILTON (Also Egyptian, 1:30 p.m. Sun., June 3, and Kirkland, 8:30 p.m. Wed., June 6.)

Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best/9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Everything good about this indie-rocker road movie has to do with the music. Everything wrong with it has to do with the writing. Ryan O'Nan is responsible for both, plus the directing and acting in the lead role. Dumped by his band, girlfriend, and employer, Alex is reduced to playing for special-ed schoolkids while wearing a pink moose costume. Then he's kidnapped/befriended by Pupkinesque musician Jim (Michael Weston), who drags him out on tour. With a sound that somebody calls "the Shins meets Sesame Street," the Brooklyn Brothers road-rehearse in Jim's old orange VW Rabbit, and their music immediately clicks. Sun flares in the windows, Jim playing keyboard on the dash, lovelorn Alex suddenly finding his footing as a songwriter—none of this is believable, but it's very enjoyable, and their first few club audiences share in the thrill of discovery. To Alex's mopey guitar ballads, Jim adds a cornucopia of vintage children's instruments—even old Atari game controllers—to help create a charmingly homemade sound: Michel Gondry meets Flight of the Conchords. Jim and Alex also have a nice slapstick chemistry, as if two of the Three Stooges were musicians. Things fall apart for the Brothers—and us—with the arrival a bubblegum-sexy club booker (Arielle Kebbel) who climbs into their VW, declaring her intent to manage the band. O'Nan muddies this straightforward buddy comedy with half-baked romance and family melodrama in San Diego (featuring a nice turn by Andrew McCarthy). There's no ending, but the movie never loses your goodwill. BRIAN MILLER (Also Pacific Place, 4 p.m. Sat., June 2.)

SATURDAY, JUNE 2

Countdown/6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

There's every reason to expect more from this South Korean crime thriller. Rather than the usual high-tech action movie, this is a high-concept battle of wits featuring a pair of con artists, an unhinged young gangster out for payback, and an emotionally paralyzed collection agent (Jeong Jae-yeong, so impassive he's practically absent) who will die in 10 days without a liver transplant. Which would be cool if there was anything more to the film than clever gamesmanship, a succession of chase scenes, and the occasional gang brawl. First-time writer/director Huh Jung-ho has that sleek, slick, steely visual style down, but he mistakes narrative hooks and plot twists for story. Countdown gets distracted by the busy work of its plotting. Teasing flashbacks to our frosty hero's tragic past are so drawn-out that they lose all emotional impact. The rousing of dormant maternal instincts in the cheerfully amoral con woman (Jeon Do-yeon, clearly enjoying herself) feels purely obligatory. There's a potentially interesting story lost in the tangle here, and by the third or fourth ending (the film just keeps piling them on), you get a glimpse of what it might have been. SEAN AXMAKER (Also 3 p.m. Sun., June 3.)

Klown/Midnight, Egyptian

Based on a TV series in Denmark (where broadcast standards are far different than here), Klown sends two bunglers, both pushing 40, on a weekend canoe trip to a brothel. Both have women back home, but that doesn't stop them from hitting on high-school girls, indulging in a desultory threesome, and threatening the welfare of the 11-year-old nephew they drag along. Canoes tip over, pot gets smoked, and everyone ends up at a rowdy, drunken music festival, yet Frank and Casper aren't complete morons. They're organized enough to pack tuxedoes for the brothel—an excursion arranged by their book club. (Again: Danish book clubs are far different than here.) The comic tone, which director Mikkel Nørgaard originated on the TV series with his two stars, is of queasy taboo-breaking, of pushing the duo just a little too far—then we watch to see if they can recover. And by extension: Can we recover our sympathy for them? And what of the ladies back home? Frank (Frank Hvam) is the meeker of the pair, with a pregnant girlfriend. Married Capser (Casper Christensen) is the cad who christens their trip "the Tour de Sex." As with Starbuck (above), the theme here is whether hapless Frank has "no potential as a father" (as his girlfriend frets)—whether he'll help pudgy nephew Bo learn to pee standing up or accidentally drown him. The canoe odyssey plays like a middle-aged Danish spin on American Pie. One raunchy debacle follows another, and a series of false endings—which suggest Klown's TV roots—doesn't help. Frank and Casper are a bit like the guys in Sideways, only without the pity and self-awareness. BRIAN MILLER

 

SUNDAY, JUNE 3

Silence: All Roads Lead to Music/5:30 p.m., SIFF CInema Uptown

Haider Rashid's blandly earnest film profiles Giacomo Farina, Sicilian tambourine virtuoso, and the band he amasses (for unclear reasons, though seemingly for a music-festival gig) from players of musical oddments: Jew's harp, didgeridoo, bagpipes, accordion, wooden pennywhistle, and piano. The Jew's-harp player—the best musician of the bunch, with the keenest ear for conjuring truly captivating sounds—puts his finger on the doc's main problem when he talks about the difficulties of preserving his instrument's uniqueness in collaboration with the pianist. Imagine a Venn diagram with a circle for all these instruments: The area of overlap embraces precisely the least interesting aspects of their individual characters—their ability to produce steady-state drones—and the resulting ensemble music is almost always trance-y and simpleminded. Somehow all these spicy ingredients from contrasting world cuisines just make vanilla pudding. Most irritating is the pianist, an Aussie who goes on about how his "classical training" stifled his creativity; you don't need to have met as many self-deluding musicians as I have to predict just how pedestrian his supposedly free and uninhibited improvisations will be. GAVIN BORCHERT (Also 3:30 p.m. Mon., June 4, and Kirkland, 6 p.m. Wed., June 6.)

[PICK] Italy Love It or Leave It/Noon, SIFF Cinema Uptown

Our tour guides/social critics in this documentary road movie are Luca Ragazzi (the one with glasses, who narrates in crisp English) and his boyfriend, Gustav Hoffer, who declares himself disgusted with Berlusconi's Italy and suggests they leave. (This is precisely what many young, educated Italians are doing to find work abroad.) So the two pack themselves into a vintage Fiat 500—several of them, actually—and set off to catalog what's wrong and possibly right about their homeland. Whimsical maps and animation help us track their journey from the top of the boot to the toe. Along they way they meet Fiat workers, philosophers, feminists, fascists, Mafia experts, a self-professed gay Communist mayor, and a swarm of Berlusconi supporters in Milan just as the Rubygate/bunga-bunga scandal is beginning to crack the prime minister's regime. One crone praises Berlusconi's "youth" and vitality (enhanced by plastic surgery and Viagra, as we know), to which Luca politely replies that there are no young people at the rally. Italy's youth-unemployment rates and stagnant economy are a dire warning to the rest of Europe, and possibly the next big crisis after Greece. Though Luca favors colorful anecdote over deep analysis, he charts a fault line of age that runs parallel to income inequality—a system Berlusconi rigged to favor old, entrenched interests. By the end, you'd love to see Luca and Gustav repeat their project by driving across the U.S.—in the new Fiat 500, of course, with air conditioning and cup holders. BRIAN MILLER (Also 6 p.m. Tues., June 5.)

MONDAY, JUNE 4

People Like Us/6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Let us now take this moment to praise Michael Bay. In a Hollywood career devoted to blowing shit up, he's had the good sense never to make a personal movie. Unfortunately, that is a restraint not shared by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (writers of Transformers and other summer blockbusters), who wring a long, sappy melodrama out of Kurtzman's real-life discovery of a half-sister. Sam (Chris Pine) is an indebted, fast-talking jerk from the Jerry Maguire template, estranged from his folks back in L.A. Father dies, Chris reluctantly flies west, and the lawyer hands him $150,000 in cash—not to keep, but to deliver to an 11-year-old, the son of cocktail waitress Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), whom Chris begins to follow to AA meetings and beyond. He reveals nothing, choosing to remain a stalker/guardian angel while deciding whether to keep the cash or not. His withholding strategy parallels the movie's, which waits until about the 95th minute (of 115) for him to spill. It's a four-act soap opera that actually would've been improved with commercials. Instead, debut director Kurtzman offers action-movie editing—like there's a bomb to defuse!—and montage sequences. Pine and Banks are adequate, but the real victim here is Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam's mother (yes, a benchmark is passed). She's assigned the menopausal trifecta of anger, deceit, and disease. People Like Us is slower than Tarkovsky; it's like watching three James L. Brooks movies in a row. Next time, please, stick to the exploding robots. It's all Kurtzman and Orci know. BRIAN MILLER (Also Egyptian, 4 p.m. Tues., June 5.)

[PICK] Prime Time Soap/6:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

It's 1978, and Brazil is doubly in thrall: to a brutal anti-Communist dictatorship and to telenovelas. In the kitchen, put-upon maid Dora watches TV news footage of bloodily quashed political protests. Her employer, lollipoppy call girl Amanda, meanwhile lounges in her bedroom drooling over Dancin' Days, a cheeseball drama set at a disco (a real show, which starred Sonia Braga at the height of her sizzle). This premise may make Prime Time Soap sound campier than it is; sprinkles of black comedy are there, but what director Odilon Rocha primarily borrows from the titular genre is tangled, twisty plotting. We also meet a secret cell of those protesters, a gay teen being raised by his grandparents, and a soft-spoken diplomat. How they all interact—after a policeman/client winds up dead in Amanda's bedroom, sending her and Dora on the run—is the film's chief pleasure. Rocha doesn't back off from grimness, but nor does he seem to blame his countrymen for having preferred kitschy escapism to facing the regime's hideous realities. Sympathetic to how necessary such telenovelas must have been, he affectionately uses a disco as the setting for his plot resolutions—gruelingly suspenseful, happy, and bittersweet. GAVIN BORCHERT (Also 4 p.m. Tues., June 5.)

TUESDAY, JUNE 5

[PICK] Moonrise Kingdom/7 p.m., Egyptian

Don't even bother hoping for standby tickets tonight, since Wes Anderson's highly anticipated new feature is sold out. Besides, it opens this Friday at Pacific Place and Lincoln Square, so you can stand in line then. But I will say this: Though I've had issues with Anderson's hyper-whimsical/melancholy style in the past, this is the best and most satisfying work of his career. Two 12-year-olds elope through the woods, pursued by Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and an overzealous scout troop. Along the way, there are electrical storms, first kisses, scissor stabbings, and dancing on the beach to vintage French pop. The youngsters are dead-set on serious, grown-up romance (though imperfectly understood), while their concerned elders are reminded of lost youth. It's a meticulous, tender storybook tale set on a not-quite-enchanted island. BRIAN MILLER

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