Every edition of SIFF begins with optimism and fresh resolutions: This year I’ll buy my tickets earlier. Or, This time I’ll see more movies. Or, No more South Korean snuff porn! So it is with Robert Horton’s wanna-sees at SIFF, which are as of yet unblemished by the experience of actually seeing those promising titles. Here, conversely, is a report on what I’ve already watched among the festival’s first-week offerings.
Along with the attendance of director Paul Feig, the festival-opening Spy is worth attending for the party’s sake. The 007-inverting comedy supposes what might happen if Miss Moneypenny went out in the field instead of James Bond. Melissa McCarthy plays an unhappy CIA desk jockey who runs a dim, handsome agent (Jude Law) like a drone, whispering instructions in his earpiece, seeing what he does through a camera in his contact lens. Then, of course, out-of-her-depth Susan is sent to Europe to clean up a mess (cue Jason Statham and Rose Byrne), where she proves quite adept at covert ops, thank you very much. (The R rating is more for cussin’ than killin’.) The generously budgeted comedy opens June 5, when the Bechdel Test will be subjected to the cruel marketplace of summer blockbusters. Its best scenes take place between McCarthy and other women (including Byrne, Allison Janney, and English TV star Miranda Hart). Yet too often those scenes are written as insult-spewing cat fights. Is it really so funny to hear women repeatedly yell “Fuck you!” back and forth? A good spy, male or female, has lethal wit, and Spy disappoints in that regard. (McCaw Hall, 7 p.m. Thurs.)
By contrast, Set Fire to the Stars is an entirely more cerebral affair, set amid Ivy League intrigue in 1950, when Dylan Thomas (co-writer Celyn Jones) is making a boozy campus tour under the timid stewardship of a young poetry prof (Elijah Wood). Shot in austere black-and-white, this fact-inspired account has a shrewd eye for ’50s detail and propriety. Everyone smokes and drinks like a demon (we can see Thomas’ health rolling downhill), but certain things must not be said in polite company. Confronted with Thomas’ cavalier carousing, one pearl-clutching academic sputters, “Do you think Auden and Eliot do this kind of thing?” Though the plot—more like a theater piece—doesn’t really unfold, there are some nice cameos from Shirley Henderson and Kelly Reilly. Also, when was the last time poetry was considered seriously in a movie? (SIFF Cinema Uptown, 7 p.m. Fri.)
Also based on real events, the Dutch crime drama Accused has truth on its side, but it also feels like a long-form TV series is trying to escape here. Events cover nine years during the past decade, when nurse Lucia is charged and convicted of euthanizing a dozen patients (including infants). Lead actress Ariane Schluter does nothing to elicit false sympathy for careworn Lucia. If a little more illustrative than dramatic (a young female prosecutor has a change of heart), the movie demonstrates the sheer mechanical process of how injustice works—surely with resonance in our own policing and courts. Despite statistics, DNA, and modern science, says Lucia’s lawyer, “a strange mass hysteria” rules the day. (SIFF Cinema Egyptian, 4 p.m. Fri. Harvard Exit, 7 p.m. Sun. Lincoln Square, 3:30 p.m. Fri., May 22)
The compound Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy—with John Cusack and Paul Dano playing Wilsons old and young—is another fact-based account. (And, I can’t help noting, it dramatizes the doc Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, which debuted at SIFF 20 years ago.) Both lead actors succeed in making Wilson a damaged, enigmatic near-martyr to music. The Beach Boys are generously sampled in this authorized account, rich in montages and juicy supporting roles. Paul Giamatti excels as a self-pitying villain in parachute pants, while Elizabeth Banks deserves some kind of medal for her late-’80s costumes, hair, and makeup. Like the two titles above, the outcome here is a given, but the exquisite pop harmonies and densely layered soundtrack provide even more of a nostalgic wallop. It’s a pick. The film opens June 5. (Egyptian, 6:30 p.m. Fri. Pacific Place, 12:30 p.m. Sat.)
From Nepal, the village drama The Golden Hill will be a must-see among Seattle’s trekking and climbing crowd who love that earthquake-afflicted country. Director Rajan Kathet shot on location in the harshly beautiful Mustang Valley, with Tibet and the Annapurna range looming in the distance. But, as they say, you can’t eat scenery. Kathet’s young protagonists speak knowledgeably of Facebook, cell phones, and exit visas. Their village is emptying—if not to Kathmandu, then to the U.S. Some of the old customs and pieties may survive, and Kathet gives documentary-like emphasis to the farming, singing, and dancing still practiced by an aging population. The writing is fairly blunt, as when engineering-trained hero Lhakpa declares, “Our generation needs more education.” The Golden Hill leaves his rebuttal unsaid: Education only has a market value in the city or abroad. (Pacific Place, 7 p.m. Mon. & 4:30 p.m. Wed. Renton, 6 p.m. Fri., May 22)
Based on a long-form ’90s cartoon strip in The Guardian, Gemma Bovery ought to be cleverer than it is. There are only so many jokes that director Anne Fontaine can wring out of the Emma Bovary parallels, as expat English newlywed Gemma (Gemma Arterton) becomes the obsession of a French baker besotted with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. He’s sure Gemma will follow Emma’s tragic path into adultery . . . and some of those parallels are in fact realized. Yet the film is too easily distracted by gorgeous Normandy countryside, and the baker’s wishful dread-fulfillment begins to look like the behavior of a deranged stalker. Arterton is a bona fide beauty who’s been slumming in action fodder like Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans. She has a charm—unlike the supporting cast—that would’ve been better served by the old Merchant-Ivory team, had they gotten their hands on Posy Simmonds’ original comic. (Egyptian, 3:30 p.m. Sat. & 7 p.m. Tues.)
Love is also interrupted in the odd, underwhelming menopausal romance I’ll See You in My Dreams, starring Blythe Danner as a widow who finds a second chance in silver fox Sam Elliott. The two stars have chemistry; and scenes with Danner and her bridge cronies (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place) are lots of predictable fun. Still, this May 29 release tries and fails to reach the elder-comedy tone that the new Netflix series Grace and Frankie (with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) has got in spades. I could see the entire likable cast of Dreams doing guest shots on the latter show. Netflix executives, are you listening? (Uptown, 5:30 p.m. Sun. Harvard Exit, 4:15 p.m. Mon.)
I’ll leave you with two final and unequivocal picks. Francois Ozon and his handsome leading man Romain Duris are always favorites at SIFF, and The New Girlfriend teases a lot of expectations about them both. Ozon is riffing on a story fragment by the late English mystery writer Ruth Rendell, though no actual crime is committed in the movie. Rather, it’s about the assumption of a false identity that’s truer than the old, and how that change wreaks havoc upon the false assumptions and securities of friends and family. No spoilers—go see it. (Egyptian, 9:30 p.m. Sat. Uptown, 11:30 a.m.) And while the teen-oriented Sundance favorite Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (opening June 19) kicks you in the head with its unusual two-act structure and major misdirection ploy, its first half is a utterly delightful spin on the usual mopey YA themes of misfit teens. Cancer immediately enters the plot, as do a series of art-house parody movies made by our cineaste hero (including A Sockwork Orange, enacted by sock puppets). Novelist Jesse Andrews adapted his own 2012 book, directed with a light, sure hand by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Four fresh faces fill the high-school roles; Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon play the concerned—but never clueless—parents. (Pacific Place, 6:30 p.m. Sat. Uptown, 2:30 p.m. Sun.)
Read the rest of Seattle Weekly’s coverage of SIFF here.