The Weekend's Picks and Pans for SIFF

For reviews of films running the rest of the week, check out SIFF Week Two Picks and Pans.

Friday, May 24

C.O.G.

Egyptian, 4 p.m.

David Sedaris is a liar. I think we’ve established that by now. His “memoirs” are embellished, and his fame rests upon clever, vindictive rewritings of past humiliations and grievances. Yet those self-lacerating moments are true in spirit; it’s just how he looks back on them, reframes them for us chuckling readers of The New Yorker and his latest collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, that makes him suspect. C.O.G., adapted by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez from a story in Naked, casts the young, vulnerable Sedaris (Jonathan Groff) as an innocent, mendacious young man who travels west to work on an Oregon apple farm “to get my hands dirty.” In fact, pay-phone calls home indicate, he’s escaping the judgment of his mother for being . . . well, that will have to wait. (We all know Sedaris is gay, but C.O.G. treats that like the big reveal it’s not.) Alvarez doesn’t go gentle on his unreliable, unlikable hero. He’s petulant and petty, a snob who insists he studied Japanese at Yale; he’s also a sissy prone to gay panic when a local (Corey Stoll, forever Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) comes on to him. Put differently, he’s not yet a self-accepting gay man. Yet Alvarez wounds his hero with interesting thorns (Dean Stockwell, Denis O’Hare) and builds up scar tissue that toughens Sedaris’ hide. Warning: This film uses clap-track audio segues that will drive you insane. (Also 7 p.m. Sun., May 26 and 6 p.m. Mon., May 27, Renton.)

The Spectacular Now

7:15 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Scheduled for August release, this adaptation of a young-adult novel by Tim Tharp plays like one of those old, cautionary after-school specials. You know—Jenny has an eating disorder, or Jimmy is smoking too much pot, or Jeremy needs to tell someone the gym teacher is touching him in inappropriate places. Here our fatherless teen protagonist is Sutter (Miles Teller), who lives a wildly unsupervised life of partying and blown-off homework. He wakes up on the lawn, unsure where he left the car. Oh, and Sutter is plainly an alcoholic, though that term is curiously omitted from The Spectacular Now (directed by James Ponsoldt), because that would be too . . . no, wait a minute, what American family isn’t familiar with that term? When smart-girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley, one of Clooney’s kids in The Descendants) falls for good-time Sutter, she’s not smart enough to see his drinking? You’re telling me these things aren’t discussed, particularly by Sutter’s mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after her alkie ex abandoned them? The Spectacular Now is implausible on any number of levels, though its teenage cast behaves with a naturalistic ease. There are no Hughesian quips or ridiculously hunky/beautiful high-schoolers here. Teller and Woodley convey some awkward charm in this unlikely love story. You just wish it had been written to respect the intelligence of the average American teenager. (Also 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 24, Harvard Exit.)

After Tiller

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

As legislatures in North Dakota and other red states seek to close their few remaining abortion clinics, this is a timely, sympathetic look at those doctors practicing at the least popular extreme of the pro-choice camp. Only four physicians in the U.S. offer late-term abortions in their three separate clinics. One is located in liberal Boulder, which makes sense. The other two are in New Mexico and Nebraska, which makes no sense. Is the need greater there? Are there more birth defects? And why, apart from the possibility of being assassinated (as was Dr. George Tiller in 2009), aren’t more than four doctors offering this service? First-time documentary filmmakers Lana Wilson and Martha Shane never grapple with such issues; they’re not journalists, and their intent is merely to humanize four aging physicians as people—not the demons subject to sidewalk demonstrations, fiery sermons, political denunciations, and the occasional bullet. I can applaud them for doing just that: This is a partisan, pro-choice doc given amazing access to doctor/patient consultations, and most of these conversations are heartbreaking. “I would rather her not suffer,” says a woman carrying a fetus with half a brain. Imagine going to the office each day—never mind the medical procedure—and simply listening to such stories over and over again. That these four physicians are brave and compassionate is beyond dispute. Now where is the documentary about how the health-care system has forced them into that lonely position? (Also 4 p.m. Sat., May 25, Harvard Exit.)

About 111 Girls

9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

In a letter to the Iranian president, 111 Kurdish girls threaten mass suicide, protesting that war and poverty has left their homeland without eligible husbands. A government functionary (Reza Behboodi) is dispatched to stop them. Not that he has a plan. Or a map. Or even a working knowledge of Kurdish culture. This Iraqi film, set in far northwest Iran, plays like a surreal version of a Kiarostami road movie. Every stop offers a warped slice of life in this neglected region. Ancient traditions have become absurdist rituals, leaders distract from tragedy with political theater, and the government is forever driving into the ditch. Under the satirical twists is a portrait of Kurdistan as a region depleted by war and forgotten by an impotent government, but it stops short of giving voice to the women and girls in this culture. The girls are perpetually out of reach and out of sight—apart from imaginary glimpses of them. Maybe that’s the entire point for directors Bijan Zmanpira and Nahid Ghobadi: Women have no voices in this culture. But that filmmaking approach also makes them all martyrs and symbols without letting us see them as people. (Also noon Sat., May 25.)

Saturday, May 25

Short Stories

5:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Four vignettes tied together by the superfluous framing device of the title—an author’s manuscript is rejected by a publishing house, but various staffers read the stories in his collection as it gets passed around. Three of the tales seem to be satires of contemporary Russian life: 1) A young couple sits for an interview with a control-freaky wedding planner, who’s hyper-organizing not only the ceremony’s details but future events like their inevitable adulteries and their child’s profession. 2) An envelope of money is passed around via various under-the-table transactions, up to the highest level of political power. 4) A relationship between an older man and a younger woman falls apart—despite the frequent, awesome sex—when he becomes disillusioned by how little she knows about history. The wit is so dry in all these that you never can quite tell if that’s what director Mikhail Segal is going for. The story that works best is 3), a poetic fantasy about a librarian/psychic, whose visions come in Pushkin-style rhyming tetrameter, enlisted to help find a a missing girl. It’s the least ponderous, chatty, overextended, and opaque of the four, and despite its elegiac tone, offers the film’s best sight gag. (Also 3:30 p.m. Mon., May 27, Pacific Place and 6 p.m. Wed., June 5, Kirkland Performance Center.)

Orange Honey

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Again with fascist Spain in the ’50s already. Army clerk Enrique (Iban Garate) is an unhappy conscript who dutifully types up the charges and testimonies of leftists dragged into military courts. The verdict is always the same, guilty, and the punishment is always the same, death by firing squad. Enrique’s boss, military judge Eladio, has no compunction about killing; it’s just a routine part of keeping the populace under control. And Enrique has only ink on his hands, not blood, so he goes along. Also, his fiancée Carmen (Blanca Suarez) happens to be Eladio’s niece, and Eladio gifts them an apartment expropriated from a dead leftist. There are tensions here, but little suspense. Enrique is recruited by a rebel cell, secrets are revealed, but Orange Honey is more a soap opera than a thriller. Its themes of loyalty and complicity to a corrupt regime have been worked through dozens of times before in more convincing dramas (notably The Conformist). Cast as a weakling, the bland Garate doesn’t help the cause. We never see any qualms his clerk might feel about typing those phony transcripts; he’s eloquent only with his fingers, not his face. (Also 11:30 a.m. Mon., May 27 and 6 p.m. Thurs., June 6.)

Sunday, May 26

[PICK] Remote Area Medical

3 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

In Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s account of nonprofit pop-up health clinic Remote Area Medical, founder Stan Brock recounts a conversation with astronaut Ed Mitchell about his inspiration to start the organization. Kicked off a horse in the Amazon jungle and in need of medical care, Brock was a 26-day walk from the nearest doctor. “I was on the moon,” replied Mitchell, “and only three days from the nearest doctor.” Around the globe and in the U.S. (Obamacare or no), getting medical help is a remote prospect for many. For that reason, when RAM sets up in the parking lot of a NASCAR track in Bristol, Tennessee, thousands of uninsured locals start lining up for the three-day clinic. Meanwhile, when not tending to patients, the lean, fit 76-year-old Brock cycles around the massive racetrack for exercise. Here in the Stroke Belt, lung cancer, obesity, and tooth decay run rampant. The time to exercise or cook expensive fresh food is a luxury many don’t have. And while RAM’s medical providers can pull teeth and remove cysts, they can’t change the chronic unemployment, unsafe working conditions, and poor educational opportunities of the rural South. After three days, Brock’s volunteers pack up and leave. But there’s no doubt that if they stayed, the line for care would still grow. (Also 5:30 p.m. Mon., May 27.)

[PICK] The Pardon

6 p.m., Pacific Place

Can the power of friendship overcome the destruction of genocide? That’s the big question posed by this debut feature by Rwandan filmmaker Joel Karekezi. A letter informs young Tutsi family man Karemera (Wilson Egessa) that, after 15 years in prison, a Hutu man named Manzi has been granted pardon. Flash back to 1994, and Manzi (Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce) is introduced as the man who saved Karemera from drowning. Through understated but powerful performances (relayed through rudimentary camerawork and sometimes muffled dialogue), it’s revealed that the two characters are best friends. They play and work together in their small village. But their friendship is doomed by circumstance: 1994 is the year that the Hutu killed more than 500,000 Tutsi in the Rwandan genocide. Manzi first defends his friend, then succumbs to military propaganda and his domineering, bigoted father. It’s tragic to see Manzi call Karemera a cockroach, but the events that follow are truly horrifying. The film benefits from the fact that director Karekezi is himself a survivor of the genocide. Aside from inflammatory radio dispatches from the ruling Hutu party, The Pardon doesn’t stray from the personal drama of these two former friends and their families. It’s an intimate portrait of a national tragedy that, with its unfathomable death tolls, is difficult to comprehend. And while the conclusion is difficult to swallow, it feels imperative that we must try to. (Also 3:30 p.m. Mon., May 27, Renton.)

 
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