SIFF Week 3: Picks & Pans

Wednesday, May 29

[PICK] 7 Boxes

6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

This is the story of a seemingly unremarkable teen named Victor (Celso Franco) who wants to rise above his station in life, which happens to be as a delivery boy in a Paraguayan market. The first step toward fame and fortune, he believes, is acquiring an expensive camera-phone so he can make movies. The only problem is that Victor is poor; then circumstance puts a $100 payday within his reach. All he has to do is wheel the titular cargo around the marketplace. It is, of course, not that simple. Victor soon finds himself fleeing angry thugs and avoiding capture by the police. He proves elusive, inventive, and, to the film’s benefit, quite likable. Comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire are unavoidable, but 7 Boxes is much more gritty and believable than Danny Boyle’s tale of class jumping in India. The chase scenes are sometimes more gripping, too—even though most involve a wheelbarrow. Directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori succeed in creating a thriller that doesn’t need a big budget or Hollywood flash to create suspense. Will Victor get his money? And what’s in those boxes anyway? You’ll stick around to see. (Also 4 p.m. Thurs., May 30.)

Thursday, May 30

The Summit

6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Only a few Seattle climbers have seen the top of K2, Everest’s less-traveled little brother in Pakistan, which has a staggering 1:4 ratio of deaths to summit attempts. In 2008, as was widely reported, 11 mountaineers perished in a cascade of bad judgment and warm-weather-caused icefall on the 8,000-meter peak. Nick Ryan’s documentary uses re-enactments, fresh interviews, and some original footage to chronicle that calamity, with emphasis on Irish alpinist Gerard McDonnell. This story here is not quite Into Thin Air, and the conflicting testimony among several nationalities and expeditions is not a model of clarity. Nobody can agree on a central narrative as the fixed lines are severed by a massive icefall (caused by global warming? No one uses the term) that strands McDonnell and others on the deadly descent. There is no central, reliable Krakauer-style narrator on the mountain. As a result, sober analysis of the incident gives way to teary testimonials—padded with the story of Italy’s first ascent of K2 in ’54—in an avalanche of sentiment. As on Everest in ’96, climbers were suckered by fair weather, then stunned by its reversal. All their costly preparations couldn’t match their harsh, lofty objective, notes the late, legendary Walter Bonatti: “Only the mountain attains perfection.” (Also 1 p.m. Sat., June 1, Harvard Exit.)

Terms and Conditions May Apply

6:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Taken as a whole, this Monet of a documentary leaves a terrifying impression of an odious Facebook Industrial Complex that has destroyed our privacy. It begins by parsing the fine print we all accept when setting up social-media accounts, and ends somewhere in the Utah desert at a secret government data farm. Director Cullen Hoback samples damning public statements from the gods of Silicon Valley and hops among continents to interview an eclectic set of experts, including Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card, Wired editor Chris Anderson, and even Moby (?!?). It’s all meant to buttress his argument that corporations and governments have used our wired (and wireless) world to destroy civil liberties. Leavened with many pop-culture references, this must be the most interesting doc ever made about user-agreement contracts. But back to Monet. Under close examination, many of the film’s details are vague blotches, not fine points. Even the most attentive viewers may struggle to recall the exact significance of “the third-party doctrine” as it pertains to Google and the Fourth Amendment, despite all these smart people telling us it’s very important. And while the U.S. government is certainly guilty of obfuscating what liberties it takes with our data, Cullen is stronger with the allegations than the clarity. After seeing Terms and Conditions, you’ll probably find yourself thinking twice about your next Google search and Facebook status update. You just won’t know exactly why. (Also 3:30 p.m. Fri., May 31, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

[PICK] Computer Chess

7 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Andrew Bujalski filmed Computer Chess on the same antiquated video gear that news crews used in 1980, when his film is set. The retro technology is crucial to this charming, subtle, and unexpectedly entertaining feature. Shot with modern cameras, a story about programmers wheeling their bulky computers into a hotel conference room for a computer-chess tournament would seem like hindsight, tending toward irony or parody. Rendered in black-and-white analogue video, acted with true conviction, Computer Chess is so deeply immersed in its milieu that it feels like a documentary. And like a great doc, it is at times tense and uncomfortable to watch. The stakes are high for the programmers. The winner of the competition receives $7,500—20 grand in today’s money!—and a match against Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), a braggart chess master who hosts the annual tournament. But much more’s at stake. As the programmers talk about their work, the possibility of artificial intelligence and the very meaning of life are discussed—as are the implications of their work for the military-industrial complex. Not that it’s all serious. Bujalski’s programmers are nerds, after all, and their idiosyncrasies are delightful. As the chess weekend wears on, a winner is crowned, but that seems beside the point. Things get weird, and the film takes a Lynchian turn that might test your patience. Even so, it still feels too real to ignore. (Also 4:30 p.m. Fri., May 31, Harvard Exit.)

[PICK] It’s All So Quiet

9:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

With spoilers just a Google search away, there are no movie secrets anymore, but still I don’t think I should say much about the main narrative thread of this Dutch drama. (Nanouk Leopold directs this adaptation of Gerbrand Bakker’s novel.) Figuring out what’s going on, decoding the details, is one of its chief pleasures. And anything as crude as a plot recounting seems disrespectful of its subtleties—a violation. Helmer runs a small dairy farm, but most of his time is taken up by caring for his bitter, bedridden father. Then other things happen. I will say the neighbor kids are adorable; the lambs even more so; the film ends the way you hope it will; and Jeroen Willems (a Dutch star who died unexpectedly in December) is terrific as Helmer. It’s not really all that quiet; thanks to him, this is a film in which the act of not talking to someone packs the emotional punch of a Puccini death scene. Also 1 p.m. Fri., May 31.)

Friday, May 31

Full Circle

2 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

From Quartet to A Late Quartet to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, senior citizens are having their moment at the cinema. Let the youngsters watch Hulu on their smartphones; the over-60 set still prefers traditional moviegoing. Also, boomers can clearly see the future—and they don’t want to be shipped off to the old folks’ home. It’s not so different in the China of director Zhang Yang, where a cheerful band of geezers breaks out of their institution to go on a road trip. Their goal is a televised talent show on which they hope to perform. One of their routines involves dressing up as domino tiles; another is a cute multi-mirror pantomime act. Fine, we know what we’re in for. The plucky, self-reliant seniors overcome one obstacle after another. Family rifts are healed. A grandson tags along. There’s even a strict nurse who, yes, inevitably softens to her escaped charges. I have a particular dislike for Zhang’s SIFF-approved sentimentality (Shower, Quitting), and his penultimate tears-at-sunrise scene is a monument in kitsch. (“I don’t want to leave this world filled with regret!”) Still, the movie’s not much worse than our own geezer-com genre; and an American remake would be a no-brainer. What’s Wilford Brimley doing these days? (Also 7 p.m. Mon., June 3.)

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

“Follow your own weird.” “I believe in ecstasy for everyone.” “When in doubt, twirl.” These pearls of breathtaking insight and wit came from the pen of poet/filmmaker James Broughton, subject of Stephen Silha and Eric Slade’s doc. Born in Modesto, Calif., Broughton came of age in the bohemian San Francisco newly liberated by the end of World War II. Time spent in England resulted in his avant-garde short The Pleasure Garden, acclaimed at Cannes; he returned to SF to find the Beats in full flower. From there he blithely rode every zeitgeisty wave, through the Summer of Love and into the years of Gay Lib, as an elder statesfaerie. Pioneer or opportunist? Prescient genius or one of the most adept coattail-riders in American cultural history? I suspect the latter, judging from his twee, nursery-rhyme-scented poems and dismayingly dated, emptily self-indulgent shorts. (Despite his prolificacy, the clips shown here suggest that he’ll be remembered in cinema history primarily as the father of Pauline Kael’s daughter.) He married costume designer Suzanna Hart in 1962 but left her for poet Joel Singer in 1975 after three days of sex in a hotel room in Pennsylvania, an epiphany for him but an embittering blow to Hart—curiously strong reactions both, since Broughton had already had flings with both genders for decades. From then to his death in 1999 (in Port Townsend!), his work seems to consist of little else but talking about those three days. Affectionately researched and crafted, Big Joy ’s sole but serious flaw is that it doesn’t make the case that its subject merits the attention. (Also 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 1, Pacific Place.)

[PICK] The Crash Reel

9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Another excellent documentary from HBO, directed by Lucy Walker (Waste Land, Devil’s Playground), this should be required viewing for all young snowboarders—or anyone fond of extreme sports. The 2009 half-pipe accident of X Games champ Kevin Pearce was national news, coming soon before the Vancouver Olympics where his rival, Shaun White, would win a second consecutive gold. Pearce suffered a devastating head injury—the sort of TBI we now associate with NFL hits and IEDs. Almost every moment of Pearce’s sports career was documented on video; adding to that trove, Walker was granted intimate access to the Pearce family during Kevin’s long, partial rehabilitation. “You need to be prepared that the Kevin who comes back is not the same Kevin,” a brain specialist tells his father, noted glass artist Simon Pearce. (Kevin’s health insurance is never discussed, but he clearly has more resources than other young athletes met in the film.) White, who sits down for a sympathetic interview, is hardly the great nemesis here. He and Pearce were competitors pressured to take—and who profited from taking—ever-greater risks in pipes with 22-foot walls. Corkscrewing up in the air, they’re four stories above a hard, icy surface. Physics explains the rest. Walker does sometimes tip toward the maudlin: Pearce has a brother with Down syndrome, and his family stages an intervention to stop him from snowboarding again. (He does, and even visits our Mt. Baker ski area.) But those are quibbles. The doc reminds you of Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: Pearce has to go through something like that to reconcile his old and new selves. (Also 1:15 p.m. Sun., June 2, Egyptian.)

Saturday, June 1

[PICK] A Respectable Family

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

It’s remarkable how Iranian cinema continues to produce works of social and political commentary in the face of censorship, harassment, and worse. A Respectable Family quite cleverly twists a dark family melodrama into a conspiracy thriller, but under the nicely turned tangles of the genre is a sour look a corrupt business culture profiting from a pose of patriotism and piety. Arash, a scholar who fled Iran after the revolution, returns as a visiting professor but avoids his estranged father (a ruthless profiteer during the Iraq War) and mercenary half-brother (now running the family business) until his father is on his deathbed and his nephew reaches out. This isn’t about healing old wounds or coming to terms with his past, however. This is all manipulation and intimidation and power play. Expatriate Arash, a stranger to the shadows of modern Iran, is the innocent abroad. Massoud Bakshi makes a more than respectable debut with this compelling film, appropriating the conventions of the contemporary Western psychological thriller for a bitter political critique, yet it still packs the gut-punch of a wicked crime drama. No surprise that the film has yet to play its home country. (Also 4 p.m. Tues., June 4.)

Prince Avalanche

9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

After his extended flirtation with Hollywood comedies, David Gordon Green gets back to the basics with this modest, warmhearted tale of two guys on a rural road crew who paint traffic lines and pound roadside posts along winding forest roads in 1988 Central Texas. (It’s a remake of the Icelandic Either Way, seen at SIFF last year.) Paul Rudd is the senior partner in this odd couple, embracing the solitude and peace of the job while professing his commitment to the girl he left behind. Emile Hirsch is the little brother of his lady love, hired as a favor—even though he’d rather be partying in the city. It’s a year after forest fires tore through the area, and there’s a ghost-story quality to the film, a sense of loss and disconnection that extends to the relationships that get talked about instead of lived. Green combines the comic warmth and buddy-film fun of Pineapple Express with the more laconic, musing quality of his early regional indies (George Washington, etc.). This is a modest, pleasant short story with two characters who provide good company. Sometimes that’s all you need for a movie. By the way, that’s our own Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely) as the voice of Rudd’s unseen girlfriend. (Also 4:30 p.m. Tues., June 4.)

Jump

9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Greta Feeney wants to die. Standing atop a bridge in Derry, this young, sad Irish girl (Nichola Burley) relates her troubled life: Her mother died of an OD when she was a kid, and her dad is a creep. She says she feels nothing and wants peace. Given that scant information, director Kieron J. Walsh asks us to care about Greta’s ultimate fate as Jump careens through an evening of revelry and violence, following the tangled lives of a half-dozen lowlifes: Greta’s two party-girl friends, who can’t find her to celebrate the new year. Two hapless hitmen trying to retrieve some lifted loot that belongs to Greta’s dad, a local crime boss played with disgusting splendor by Lalor Roddy. And the grief-stricken Johnny (Richard Dormer), haunted by—and blackmailed for—his unintentional killing of a kid whose brother (Martin McCann) wants to avenge his death. The film’s cavalcade of characters and overabundance of happenstance recalls the fun-but-frivolous world of a Guy Ritchie film. The problem with Jump is that Walsh wants desperately for us to empathize with his characters, yet he asks us to laugh as they’re batted about. In an attempt to serve these two masters, the film lands in limbo. (Also 3:30 p.m. Sat., June 1, and 8:45 p.m. Wed., June 5, Kirkland.)

Sunday, June 2

[PICK] La Playa, D.C.

10:30 a.m., Harvard Exit

SIFF is always a great chance for armchair travelers to learn about foreign cultures. Did you know there’s an Afro-Colombian population living high up in Bogotá, far from the beaches of the Caribbean? Teenaged Tomás is one of three brothers who moved to the mountains with his mother, now remarried to a white Colombian. She has a new baby, there’s a family quarrel, and Tomás finds himself out on the street. There, too, are his brothers: drug-addict Jairo and street hustler Chaco, recently deported from the north and desperate to return. He dresses like a b-boy, identifying with black American culture. He hates Bogotá and its racism, telling Tomás, “All these years here, and you still don’t recognize we’re the dogs?” Meanwhile, artistically inclined Tomás dreams of their lush old home on the river. He learns a trade, razoring intricate designs into the fade haircuts of his fellow Afro-Colombians. These have a folkloric tradition dating to slavery days—at least in the telling of director Juan Andrés Arango, who mostly maintains a dry, Bressonian tone in relating Tomás’ story. La Playa, D.C.—a neighborhood in Bogotá—never suggests that Tomás will prosper or “fit in” the dominant culture. Instead, it’s about a young man learning to make his own way in the world. If you can’t escape, you adapt. And that takes courage too. (Also 9:15 p.m. Mon., June 3, Pacific Place.)

Putzel

5:30 p.m., Kirkland

Jason Chaet’s romantic comedy shows an abiding love for the delicatessens of New York. Walter (Jack Carpenter) is the hapless yet lovable heir to his family’s smoked-fish shop in Manhattan. Putzel—“little putz” in Yiddish—isn’t the most endearing nickname, but it suits his humble vision of running the store (not to mention that he’s terrified to leave the Upper West Side). When his uncle Sid (John Pankow) agrees to sell the business to Putzel and move to Phoenix, Putzel thinks his future is secure. But when the married Sid becomes involved with the beautiful dancer Sally (Melanie Lynskey) and decides to stay put, Putzel is cast into crisis. Carpenter’s portrayal of this guilt-ridden, family-centric New York Jew is convincing, bittersweet, and (of course) peppered with self-deprecating humor. Though enriched by Pankow’s vacillating Sid and Susie Essman as Sid’s sympathetic wife Gilda, Putzel follows a predictable rom-com formula. Yet Putzel’s encounters with the mysterious Sally—with whom he becomes entangled—are surprisingly fresh. And for those of us pining for Manhattan scenery, hungry for a real New York bagel with lox, Putzel satisfies quite nicely. (Also 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 3, Harvard Exit and 1 p.m. Fri., June 7, Pacific Place.)

[PICK] Between Valleys

8:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Split into two stories with two differently named protagonists (played by the same actor, Ângelo Antônio), Between Valleys turns out to be a unitary depiction of Brazil’s haves and have-nots. The intersection between them is a vast garbage dump where impoverished gleaners sort through the stinking mounds, searching for recyclables to sell. It’s where we meet the bedraggled Antônio and first encounter the prosperous Vicente, who’s trailed by a young son. As the movie alternates between the two men, you fully expect that director Philippe Barcinski will eventually reconcile his heroes, and he does. This isn’t a metaphysical tale like Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. Rather, it’s a simple kind of parable about how a guy—an economist, who helps finance garbage dumps—can lose it all; and about how a lost soul, scavenging at the dump, can be redeemed with a few kind human gestures. Shot by the great cinematographer Walter Carvalho, Between Valleys has a dreamy, wide-aperture haze to it, which suits the blurred identities of Antônio/Vicente. He’s a bit of a ghost, wandering through a purgatory of trash. Barcinski repeatedly returns to the landfill model built by the father and son; there Vicente places two tiny human figures for scale. In life, too, the film reminds us how we are very, very small. (Also 4:30 p.m. Mon., June 3, Harvard Exit.)

Monday, June 3

[PICK] Flicker

6 p.m., Kirkland Performance Center

The title event, a power outage that strikes the Swedish town of Backberga, takes only a few moments of screen time in Patrik Eklund’s comedy, but the effects are far-reaching. We follow the twining stories of various employees of Unicom, the company responsible: a nebbishy mid-level drone (his running gag, funnier than it ought to be, is IT problems), a phobic janitor, a smarmy exec, and the two linemen present at the power station when it blew. (Perfect casting of these two for an English-language remake: Chris O’Dowd and Simon Pegg.) One character mentions the year as being 2011, but it all looks like 1985; the computers are those ugly beige boxes. As a matter of fact, pretty much everything is beige—you could read Flicker as a satire of the drab conformity of the Swedish social-welfare state if a corporation weren’t the villain. As the story unfolds and an underground cell of guerrilla anti-electricity activists pops up, more and more serio- is added to the -comic until we’re in Coen Brothers territory (make that Cøën). One quote might exemplify the film’s sideways sense of humor: A man who loses his pet tarantula in the blackout is comforted, “I’m sure there are other spiders out there for you.” (Also 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 6, SIFF Cinema Uptown and 9 p.m. Sun., June 9, Egyptian.)

Together

8:30 p.m., Kirkland Performance Center

This gentle, humanist slice of life from Taiwanese director Hsu Chao-Jen is initially quite hard to follow. You’re not sure who’s related to whom, who’s married to whom, or whom the main story’s about. The subtitles never give you a simple “mother” or “father” to track; and as teenage Xiao Yang meanders through Taipei on his scooter with various friends, you have no idea where he’s headed or why. Stick with it, though, because the movie has its rewards. Chief among these is the vivacious Sonia Sui as Lily, a human tornado who astonishes everyone with the declaration that she’s about to marry Haru, a meek collector of books and old hi-fi sets. What is she thinking? To print the wedding invitations, she turns to her old friend Bin (Kenny Bee), the married father of Xiao Yang. That impish kid is caught up in the crushes and romantic entanglements of his older sister and schoolmates, repurposing love notes among them, seemingly oblivious to the discontents of his parents. (Lieh Lee plays mother Min Min, who pals around with an exuberant tailor next to her fruit-juice stand.) Everyone here seems caught up in good-natured quarrels; and Together is full of comic misunderstandings (for us too). Yet there’s late-night melancholy as Bin plays the accordion in his printing shop. His family never eats at the same table. And the moral to the story? Sometimes one couple has to break up for another to get together, which Hsu treats not as tragedy but as ordinary life. (Also 3:30 p.m. Tues., June 4, Pacific Place.)

Tuesday, June 4

Unhung Hero

6:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Guys, would you like to feel more confident in bed? During those late, lonely nights, do Internet images of Rocco Siffredi and James Deen make you feel inadequate? Have you shaved your pubes to look larger? Have you tried pills and the pump? Whidbey Island native Patrick Moote understands your fears, and his small penis size—according to his ex-fiancée—is the starting point for this not-entirely-comic documentary. Like Morgan Spurlock or George Plimpton before him, Moote makes himself subject to first- person indignity in the service of, well . . . is this a legitimate issue or merely a shaggy story? Regardless, the L.A.-based comic/actor subjects himself to various humiliating efforts at self-enhancement. Trailed by director Brian Spitz, he seeks several experts and visits foreign cultures to assess why ours has come to judge male (and female) measurements so unforgivingly. This is not an agenda doc, and Moote doesn’t go deep—sorry!—into the social sciences during his quest. But he’s a good listener as Dan Savage and other experts consider our increasingly pornified culture, which makes both sexes neurotic about body image. One urologist tells him, “The average penile size is between 4–6 inches, unstretched.” Moote never shows us his member, but we can all relate to the fear of being measured. (Also 4 p.m. Wed., June 5.)

[PICK] The Hunt

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

The title is perfectly appropriate to Thomas Vinterberg’s study of how rumors and fear create self-righteous hysteria. Mads Mikkelsen (currently playing a serial killer on TV’s Hannibal) is a committed and compassionate preschool teaching assistant under suspicion of sexual abuse after a misunderstanding. Vinterberg’s script stacks the deck by leaking what should be a quiet initial police investigation. This inflames the community, where Lucas is simply assumed to be guilty and treated like a convicted war criminal somehow free on a technicality. Vinterberg works in the same key of personal transgression and raw, inchoate emotion that made The Celebration so effective, and not just in the townsfolk. Mikkelsen’s abused innocent responds with an equally valid fury of betrayal by onetime friends and slips into a kind of martyred masochism. Even in the escalation, Vinterberg never forgets the little girl whose innocent outburst started it all. The adults won’t explain a thing, but she figures out it’s her fault. Her slide from sunny affection to anxiety, dread, and guilt are as piercing and honest as anything created by Mikkelsen. Vinterberg traffics in primal emotions. Nobody is left untouched here, least of all the audience. (Also 4 p.m. Thurs., June 6, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

Improvement Club

7 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Local choreographer Dayna Hanson’s 2010 production Gloria’s Cause was an interpretive vision of the American Revolution. Now it’s the inspiration for her film, but the original show’s notions of American identity and modern art are fairly inaccessible here. In a garbled fashion, Improvement Club retells the origins of Gloria’s Cause from the ensemble’s point of view. The plot loosely hangs on Hanson’s promise to the group that the show will run in New York. Already struggling with difficult material, the avant-garde performers—also playing themselves—grapple with whether or not to carry on when the deal falls through. Scenes unfold through snippets of rehearsals, performances, and after-parties, which are slightly interesting in a peripatetic, Linklater-esque way. But the more the film lurchingly attempts to weave a narrative out of its many layers, the more confounding it becomes. For all her talents, the multi-hyphenate Hanson exhibits few of them within her tale. She leaves the bulk of the action to her cast members, awkwardly confined to caricatures of themselves. In such a deliberately crafted vessel with so much heart, it’s a shame Hanson couldn’t find a cinematic form for the language she speaks so fluently onstage. (Also 4 p.m. Wed., June 5, Harvard Exit.)

Closed Curtain

7 p.m., Egyptian

Iranian director Jafar Panahi makes his second secret movie while under house arrest and being legally forbidden from producing films. Shot in his villa on the Caspian Sea, this is not an essay like This Is Not a Film. For all its ruminations and commentary, this most clearly is a film. A writer (Kamboziya Partovi, Panahi’s co-director) furtively takes refuge in a seaside villa with his dog, now outlawed under Islamic law, when a suicidal young woman suddenly joins him. She’s escaped from what sounds like the security forces of a police state swarming unseen just outside the walls. It’s all very allegorical; then the woman tears off the blackout curtains from the windows and the film goes through the looking glass as Panahi himself enters. These characters are a bit too spot-on as stand-ins for an internal debate (hole up and hide out, or open the windows wide?) and as ghosts of films unmade, even as Panahi blurs reality and fiction. But they are oddly effective as they stake out their own identities in this understated portrait of an artist who refuses to give in. They help him continue the dialogue. (Also 8:30 p.m. Sun., June 9, SIFF Cinema Uptown.)

 
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