SIFF: Week 1 Picks & Pans


[PICK] Your Sister’s Sister/7 p.m., McCaw Hall

For decades, it seems, Seattle’s tiny film community has been waiting for The Next Big Thing—some breakout talent who would put us on the moviemaking map. Instead, however, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday drew praise at Sundance and SIFF three years ago for its small-scale humanism. She’s not working big but working steadily: She just filmed her fifth feature here in town, and her fourth, Your Sister’s Sister, is an intimate three-hander set mostly in a vacation home up in the San Juans. Mark Duplass is back from Humpday as an aging, grieving slacker, Jack, who has an ill-advised, drunken fling with Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), the sister of his good friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who arrives to find unexpected tensions in the cabin. In outline, Your Sister’s Sister could be a bed-hopping farce, but Shelton is less concerned with the sex than the emotional consequences. Hannah was recently dumped by her girlfriend. Jack’s dead brother once dated Iris, the high achiever in the bunch. As with Humpday and her prior My Effortless Brilliance, Shelton’s characters tend to be yearning and groping toward change in their lives. Jack seems harnessed by grief or bitterness; Hannah worries that she’s too old, that she’ll never have kids; and Iris has a secret to spill. Shelton lets her cast improvise on the three characters’ longing and confusion. The result is a talky, naturalistic film, with many moments of humor (but no punch lines) and truth—the latter often eloquently expressed with silence. BRIAN MILLER (The film opens nationally June 15.)


[PICK] Elena/11 a.m., Pacific Place

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a tale of two apartments: a spacious chrome, glass, and marble luxury flat that might be anywhere in prosperous Western Europe, and a cramped unit in some exhausted-looking, distinctly Soviet-vintage apartment block with a view of a nuclear plant. Central to the movie is the distance, physical and psychological, and the mutual resentment, that exists between these spaces. Fiftyish working-class Elena (Nadezhda Markina) lives and serves her wealthy older husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), in the first, and visits her unemployed son from another marriage in the second. A domestic loggerheads results when Elena asks Vladimir a favor for her son’s family, and he declines; this comes to a crisis when a health scare inspires Vladimir to codify his intentions in a will, while also putting himself, weakened by illness, at the mercy of Elena, playing his nurse. In a few shrewd, telling scenes, the central couple is seen, together and separately, playing their various roles with their various contradictory loyalties. With taciturn camerawork and a scalpel-like precision in dissecting class that recalls Claude Chabrol, Zvyagintsev’s film observes Elena making the decision of which family to be loyal to and how she asserts her newfound power as the idea of apocalypse hangs over the film’s troubling conclusion. NICK PINKERTON (Also 7 p.m. Thurs., May 24.)

[PICK] Tey/noon, SIFF Cinema Uptown

Something of a living wake, and a certainly a colorful postcard from Senegal, Tey‘s original French title is Aujourd’hui—meaning today, the very hour of now, the present moment with all its mortal urgency. But Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis actually has a larger time frame in mind for his protagonist, Satché (New York poet and actor Saul Williams), whom we meet on the morning of his funeral. At first, it’s a jarringly joyous occasion, full of tributes from family and greetings from friends. He’s paraded through the streets of Dakar in a red shirt like some kind of celebrity. He’s fixin’ to die, and we have no idea why. The camera follows him to a party, his uncle’s house, a skyscraper art gallery (where a beautiful curator awaits), a government reception, and through traffic-choked streets where urchins beg for change. Around him are squalor and pride. “He’s been chosen,” declares an elder of Satché, who says nothing for the movie’s first half-hour. Is he some cryptic African Christ, trudging to the cross? Tey is more allegory than story, a film that layers enigma on enigma. (It’s also beautifully photographed by Crystel Fournier.) By the time Satché’s wife, kids, and domestic life are revealed (with colors suddenly toned down), you’re unclear if he’s dreaming, dying, or simply traveling through African time—from his glorious ancestors to the mundane present. If this is limbo, it’s a good place to be. BRIAN MILLER (Also 2:30 p.m. Sat., May 19.)

The Mexican Suitcase/3:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Apart from Cindy Sherman’s current show at MOMA, the photo exhibit I’d most like to visit Seattle was contained in a 70-year-old valise only recovered by the International Center of Photography in 2007. “The Mexican Suitcase,” as it’s called, held negatives shot by Robert Capa and two colleagues during the Spanish Civil War. It was smuggled out of Paris as the Nazis invaded, shipped to Mexico, secured in a general’s closet, and . . . not forgotten, but mythologized by its absence, rather like the Titanic. Capa, his lover Gerda Taro, and David Seymour (“Chim”) were young Jewish outsiders who took new names and created the new discipline of combat photography (35mm cameras being suddenly available) at the dawn of modern photojournalism. Capa died most recently (1954) and the most famous; his brother Cornell Capa founded the ICP, which furthered his myth—and that of the Mexican Suitcase. However, The Mexican Suitcase doesn’t quite live up to the myth or the recovered photographs. Director Trisha Ziff dutifully interviews scholars and third-generation descendants of Spanish Republican exiles (20,000 fled to Mexico), but sometimes the best approach to history is a museum show where you can stop, sit, and stare at the archival images. What people say about them doesn’t matter so much. BRIAN MILLER (Also 8:30 p.m. Sat., May 19, and Pacific Place, 9 p.m. Sun., June 3.)

11 Flowers/4:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

The Chinese will likely never stop making movies about the Cultural Revolution; it’s a subject as wrenching and traumatic as our own Civil War. Wang Xiaoshuai’s autobiographically inspired tale is set in a small factory town in Guizhou, far from Beijing, where his educated—and therefore suspect—family once lived. It’s 1975, meaning this great social experiment is about to end, but 11-year-old Wang Han has no way of understanding that, or his parents’ frustration. He only wants a new white shirt in which to lead his school’s calisthenics class. Then, down by the river, young Wang encounters a fugitive who killed a corrupt official. Don’t turn me in, says the killer, and Wang agrees. Setting his story so specifically in a place and time, director Wang (Beijing Bicycle) creates a mood that’s Proust meets Stand by Me, as his hero and three buddies discuss what to do about the killer in the woods. Meanwhile their parents whisper about riots and violence in other cities, battles between conservatives and the Red Guard. The tide of history is about to turn, but young Wang here remains in its gentle ebb, his unwitting position framed by a prologue and postscript from the grown director’s perspective. 11 Flowers thus feels like a chapter from a larger project that Wang needs to film, perhaps a TV miniseries charting his hero’s future political education. BRIAN MILLER (Also 6 p.m. Mon., May 21.)

[PICK] Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry/6:30 p.m., Pacific Place

What with the dramatic escape and U.S. embassy standoff of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, you can’t get much more timely than this documentary profile of the renowned artist, blogger, and fellow activist, who was incarcerated (and silenced thereafter) for several months last year. Those events conclude Alison Klayman’s film, which follows Ai for more than a year from his Beijing home to his studio to London and Germany for big museum shows. The access—and Ai’s outspokenness on camera and via Twitter—are fairly remarkable, but he’s really an equal partner with journalist Klayman on the project. His own camera crew and staff constantly follow him, and he’s made docs on controversial topics like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (shoddy “tofu” school construction, government graft, 5,000 children killed)—footage that he allows Klayman to use. It’s generous, but also part of his own careful image management. An English speaker who spent a dozen years in New York City, Ai has to juggle art, commerce, global celebrity, politics, and a somewhat messy personal life (he has a child with a woman not his wife). He uses his fame shrewdly but not always cautiously: one of his fact-finding missions results in a police beating, which of course he films. Ai is puckish, funny, bold, and a thoroughly wired modern artist. As he says (before arrest) of the media, “If it’s not publicized, it’s like it never happened.” BRIAN MILLER (Also 4 p.m. Sat., May 19.)

[PICK] Trishna/6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

I love a good bummer as much as the next man, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is certainly a good bummer—maybe even a double-bummer, now that I think of it. Roman Polanski took his crack at the novel in 1979, making a star of Nastassja Kinski; a silent adaptation dates from 1913; and you can find the 2008 BBC miniseries (starring Gemma Arterton) on DVD. So what new spin can director Michael Winterbottom possibly bring to the tragedy? He stages it in caste-divided India, and even recruits Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto to play his doomed heroine. Trishna is a peasant girl in Rajasthan, educated enough to speak English and work in a hotel. Jay (Riz Ahmed) is an idle, British-educated hotelier’s son who doesn’t even speak Hindi (much less Marvadi, the local dialect), but he’s got an eye for beauty—and Trishna is a beauty. Their romance takes them from one palatial hotel to another, where caged birds sing and maids gossip; there’s an enjoyable interlude in Bombay, where Jay tries to produce movies and Trishna takes dance lessons with Bollywood stars. (Amusingly, some play themselves.) But we know where things are headed: Jay has all the power, Trishna has none, and he’s a shallow, easily bored sort. Perhaps because of this, and having done a straight Hardy adaptation with the 1996 Jude, Winterbottom dwells on his story’s incidental pleasures: Jay’s rowdy English friends, his blind father (Roshan Seth, excellent in his few scenes), and dinner parties in Bollywood. It’s the same digressive strategy used in The Trip or 24 Hour Party People; for a while you can deceive yourself that things will work out for Jay and Trishna. But Hardy always closes the book on such hopes. BRIAN MILLER (Also 3:30 p.m. Sun., May 20.)

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon/7 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Those alarmingly prolific Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, are back with another tale of sibling rivalry. Jeff, Who Lives at Home was just in theaters this past March, and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is currently scheduled for a July release. (When will they make a movie about rivalrous sisters?) Here, Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly play two soft-bellied bros in their unhappy 30s. One’s married and a father, the other a poker-playing black sheep. All convene at Mom’s house for a weekend birthday gathering, where the brothers resurrect a 25-event contest that ended in a bitter tie when they were teens. Ping-pong, laser tag, bumper cars, mini-golf, and holding one’s breath underwater are among the categories on a contract they solemnly sign, wherein the winner shall be declared “the better brother for eternity.” All the while, Mom, wife, and son must be kept in the dark about the contest (though they eventually catch on). Do-Deca apparently sat on the shelf for a while after Baghead, but it’s a better, funnier, but still awkward film (that’s a compliment)—and an advance beyond mumblecore. Still, it’s not so good as the Duplass brothers’ subsequent Jeff or Cyrus, which had scripts and character development to fit their run times. Do-Deca is more of a comic sketch extended to 80 minutes when 30 would’ve sufficed. But it does contain a fundamental truth about (at least some) brothers: “We have fun by beating the shit out of each other.” BRIAN MILLER (Also Pacific Place, 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 22.)

Fat Kid Rules the World/7 p.m., Renton

Actor Matthew Lillard recently had a very big break by landing a role in The Descendants (as George Clooney’s comatose wife’s lover), in which he acquitted himself nicely. In his first directing gig, adapting K.L. Going’s 2003 young-adult book, he also does a nice job with the material. He’s got a generous touch with the performers (led by Jacob Wysocki, recently the chubby star of Terri), whom he sends hurtling around various Seattle locations. Fat Kid is partly about the formation of a rock band, and Lillard gives the movie plenty of punk energy. (Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready supplies the score.) Teenagers will surely relate to 17-year-old Troy, an underconfident outsider who lives with a gruff but loving single father (Billy Campbell) and younger brother. Into his miserable life comes Marcus (the hyperactive but endearing Matt O’Leary), a teen street addict who challenges Troy to form a band with him. Fat Kid is a straightforward, peppy, pleasing movie that’s been updated just enough for the age of Facebook. (Troy’s vomiting onstage becomes a YouTube viral sensation and great publicity for the band.) Adults will find Going’s story too simple, of course, which is why we call them young-adult books. But the simplicity works. If Marcus can say, “Don’t disappoint me, Troy,” you can be sure he won’t. BRIAN MILLER (Also Egyptian, 6:30 p.m. Sat., May 19, and Everett, 6 p.m. Mon., May 28.)

Polisse/9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

An episodic ensemble piece based on cases handled by Paris’s Child Protection Unit, Polisse is a mutant beast: Imagine an entire season of Law & Order: SVU condensed to feature length and then spliced with DNA culled from the deadpan faux-doc institutional satire of In the Loop and the sex-on-the-job soap of Grey’s Anatomy. Co-writer/director Maïwenn co-stars as Melissa, a documentary photographer embedded within a close-knit family of investigators who spend their days interrogating the victims and perps of crimes against kids. The style is extremely naturalistic, with the invisible camerawork and overlapping dialogue helping to smooth out the material’s wild inconsistencies. The intensity of the unit’s work takes its toll—countless scenes devolve into tantrums, rants, and giggle fits, and there’s ample, predictable trouble at home. Less predictable is the wide, wild range of emotional response on display: The cops will be deeply affected by one case, self-righteously railing against bureaucracy for not being able to do more, but mock the next, sometimes even to the victim’s face. Although this suggests that these cops are not always great at their jobs, Polisse isn’t critical of the CPU officers—on the contrary, it’s extremely sympathetic to the impossible position the investigators are put in. Even when they’re ostensibly doing the “right” thing, they’re also making anxious judgment calls and policing the perversions and personal habits of others. Polisse is all over the place (including Maïwenn’s increasing focus on her own character’s not-terribly-interesting romantic subplot), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: The strange, unsettling juxtapositions, even when mashing up the mawkish and mocking, are full of life. KARINA LONGWORTH (Also Harvard Exit, 2:30 p.m. Sun., May 20.)

The Sex of the Angels/9:15 p.m., Egyptian

I admit to having little patience for the whole ostensibly-straight-guy-realizes-he-likes-boys genre, which usually comes off more like transparent wish-fulfillment than as something that could plausibly happen to an actual human being. But the saving grace of Xavier Villaverde’s film is its treatment of the consequences of liberation—not in a puritanical wages-of-sin way, but as an honest facing-up to the messy emotional fallout. Set in that substratum of Barcelona where everyone is under 30, beautiful, and broke, and where every possible permutation of two people seems fraught with some level of sexual tension, The Sex of the Angels throws Rai, Spain’s hottest karate instructor, into the path of hitherto hetero Bruno and, in turn, his girlfriend Carla. The way it all untangles feels true—though even after the plot spins into French farce, the tone stays a little more self-important and humorless than it needs to be. A moody, sensitive soundtrack that telegraphs every development doesn’t help. GAVIN BORCHERT (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, 2:30 p.m. Sun., May 20, and Kirkland, 8:30 p.m. Tues., June 5.)

Cracks in the Shell/9:30 p.m., Pacific Place

SIFF is promoting this German drama about an acting student preparing for a role as a Black Swan–like journey into the dark side of sexuality. Which is accurate enough to a point, I suppose, if you’re talking plot instead of character and tone. Fine (Stine Fischer Christensen) is an insecure, romantically inexperienced woman cast as a sexually voracious character in a high-profile stage production. To break through her guarded exterior, the director (Ulrich Noethen) puts her through grueling theater exercises that verge on abuse. Then Fine wears her sexy costume outside the theater to get into the skin of a fearless, reckless spirit. At home, Fine’s anger at her single mother and resentment of her mentally handicapped sister leads to predictably damaging theatrics. Christensen is excellent as the anxious, ambitious Fine, so desperate to prove herself to her classmates, her acting teacher, and herself. Her downward spiral is more a showy gimmick than a convincing emotional journey, but Christensen is never less than committed to the character. Director Christian Schwochow keeps Fine’s descent grounded in real-world consequences, even while providing little insight into his heroine, or into acting. SEAN AXMAKER (Also Egyptian, 9 p.m. Tues., May 22, and 9:30 p.m. Fri., May 25 at Everett.)


[PICK] Wiebo’s War/12:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Eco-terrorism usually gets painted in a shade of black—a group of young leftist radicals firebombing a horticulture lab for reasons that don’t directly impact them. But director David York has found a group of activists who break the mold. Wiebo Ludwig and his family of fundamentalist Christians came to escape society several years ago on a bucolic farm, with no idea that their land lay atop Canada’s largest untapped oil field—and that they had no rights to what lurked no more than six inches beneath the surface. Nonviolent attempts to stop oil and gas extraction prove futile, and after livestock and family members fall ill—often mortally—the Ludwigs feel they have no choice but to take “direct action.” Like the best documentaries, Wiebo’s War offers no obvious moral conclusions, and York stays true to his promise to the family that he will let facts and interviews speak for themselves without his own prejudices seeping in. York’s film is an exercise in restraint and respect, and a very fulfilling one at that. MIKE SEELY (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, 7 p.m. Thurs., May 24.)

[PICK] Take This Waltz/1:30 p.m., Egyptian

Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her, her moving 2006 directorial debut, is a modern fable about a young woman torn between her cozy marriage and the handsome artist next door. By turns sweet and salty, quirky and dirty, idealized and bleak, Take This Waltz is a deceptively candy-colored existentialist rom-com—which is to say there’s nothing quite like it. Michelle Williams plays the conflicted heroine, Luke Kirby is the unconscionably charming other man, and Seth Rogen is perfect as the Ralph Bellamy straight man. Before turning moralistic in its final minutes, it’s a democratic and quietly devastating dissection of fidelity and its discontents. ERIC HYNES (Also 7 p.m. Sat., May 26.)

[PICK] Las Acacias/4:30 p.m., Egyptian

There is no musical score for this Argentine road movie, only the incessant throbbing of a truck’s diesel engine. And it is a long, long drive from Paraguay to Buenos Aires—maybe two days in real time, 85 minutes for us. The driver, Rubén (Germán de Silva), is a taciturn guy past middle age who doesn’t speak for the movie’s first 20 minutes. His passenger, Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), is scared to break the silence, because she only got the ride because Rubén’s boss told him to. And between them is her 5-month-old baby, whose sudden cries and gurgles startle Rubén out of his solitary routine. (He’s been 30 years on the road, ever alone.) At a truck stop, Jacinta looks through the glove box: Rubén is a father, but she daren’t ask him about it. Director Pablo Giorgelli doesn’t push his two age-mismatched leads into easy rapport. Truckers bear unsavory stereotypes (think back to Duel), but Rubén gradually softens. And while Jacinta is cute and vivacious, she never imposes on the stranger seated beside her. Little is said, but both have impeccable manners. Acacias are the trees being brutally logged in the film’s first scenes; Rubén then drives the timber to market. In a way, both characters have been uprooted from place and kin. If you’re patient, very patient, Las Acacias suggests that new growth is possible. But there is no radio in the truck, and there are many kilometers to travel. BRIAN MILLER (Also Harvard Exit, 4 p.m. Sat., May 26, and SIFF Cinema Uptown, 5:30 p.m. Mon., May 28.)

High Ground/6 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Seattle is full of trekkers and climbers like me who’ll recognize the Himalayan scenes in this doc about traumatized war veterans stumbling toward the Nepalese summit of Lobuche. Some have prosthetic legs; some are blind; some have PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injuries); some just seem dazed and lost after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, wondering what next to do with their young, interrupted lives. Directed by a real mountaineer, Michael Brown, High Ground has the best of therapeutic intentions: Members of the 2010 Soldiers to the Summit expedition are encouraged to talk and cry to the camera, which may be beneficial to them. But the sheer number of sob stories becomes overwhelming (which guy lost his leg how? She’s homeless why?), and Brown underlines every moment of pathos with crude brushstrokes. These brave men and women deserve boundaries and respect, but Brown seems intent on directing The Amazing Race: Maimed and Crippled War Vets Edition. The best footage here comes from the videos the soldiers themselves filmed in combat—moments of tedium and terror (including IED blasts) that put you in mind of Restrepo. But that film, seen at SIFF ’10, directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (who died in Libya last year), didn’t wallow in Hallmark sentimentality. Only a few scenes cut through the treacle, as when a blinded ex-soldier says of his beautiful new bride, “I’ve never seen her.” BRIAN MILLER (Also 2 p.m. Sun., May 20, and Everett, 4 p.m. Fri., May 25.)

Sleepwalk With Me/9 p.m., Harvard Exit

Smart, funny stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia has already based a book and touring show on his biographical woes, some of which you may also have heard on This American Life. (Look! There’s Ira Glass in a cameo; he helped write the Sleepwalk script.) Here calling himself Matt, Birbiglia plays a mediocre Brooklyn comic pushing 30 with a wonderful girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) and some very impatient parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn). Lacking confidence or compellingly personal material onstage, Matt also has a sleeping disorder and an aversion to marriage. Sleepwalk is studded with Birbiglia’s stand-up buddies, including Wyatt Cenac, Kristen Schaal, Amy Schumer, and Marc Maron, whose character tells Matt to use his own life for joke material. Bingo! Soon he’s piloting a hand-me-down Volvo on the Northeastern college-comedy circuit, neglecting his health and girlfriend—whom, oops, he’s promised to marry! The best parts of Sleepwalk come from Birbiglia’s direct-address narration as he circles for a parking space in his Volvo wagon. He’s a flawed yet sympathetic fellow reflecting on his youth in the flip-phone past. The mature comic is more compelling than the tyro; you’d rather see Birbiglia onstage today than Matt way back when. BRIAN MILLER (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, 9 p.m. Wed., May 23.)

[PICK] Eden/9:15 p.m., Egyptian

The title is bitterly ironic, of course. Eden is the name given to Hyun-Jae (Jamie Chung), a Korean-American teenager kidnapped and imprisoned in a sex-slavery ring in the American Southwest. Local director Megan Griffiths has dramatized the true story of Chong Kim (who collaborated on the screen story), but approaches the potentially sensationalistic subject with a low-key naturalism. She only suggests the sexual degradation without putting lurid details onscreen. The emphasis is not on the sex, but the slavery: being owned, controlled, and exploited in a prison-like atmosphere of hopelessness. The ringleaders cruelly normalize the monotony of sex work into a routine. Griffiths makes gripping drama from it all, thanks to an observant camera and nuanced characters. Chung is superb as Hyun-Jae/Eden, a young woman too old to satisfy the taste for underage girls, but with a head for numbers. You can see her making a mental calculation in every situation. Matt O’Leary is increasingly compelling as a cog in the organization with delusions of advancement. Griffiths shot the film in eastern Washington, an effective stand-in for purposefully vague Southwest locations. The parched landscape enhances the girls’ sense of dislocation from their former lives. SEAN AXMAKER (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, 4:30 p.m. Mon., May 21, and Everett, 8:30 p.m. Tues., May 29.)

Oslo, August 31st/9:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

As an actor, Anders Danielsen Lie has a frail, almost birdlike quality. He’s like some creature plucked too soon from the nest, all skinny, pink, and trembling. Only here his character, Anders, has emerged from drug rehab to interview for a job at a literary magazine. Asked about the long recent gap in his resume, Anders halts and hesitates to explain—he doesn’t want to embarrass the editor by being truthful. With its one-day time frame, Oslo puts its hero on a journey through both the city and his own past. Stills and voice-overs recount happier times from a variety of Oslo dwellers; Anders is just one man, but his trip is also a synecdoche for all of us trying to remember the good things in life—the reasons for living. Visiting friends who’ve settled into family and career, eavesdropping in cafes and the park, Anders is surrounded by ordinary, happy “morons” whom he may actually envy. “I’m a spoiled brat who fucked up,” he tells a friend, and the movie’s first scenes make his despair quite evident. Danielsen Lie previously appeared in director Joachim Trier’s Reprise, and this film is no less intelligent and compact. It’s based on an old novel by a French writer of the 1930s; alcoholism is changed to drug addiction, but the self-loathing remains the same. Anders may be smarter and more self-aware than your average junkie, but Trier has assigned himself a very narrow story with a harsh, predictable coda that hits you with a slap. BRIAN MILLER (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, 3:30 p.m. Tues., May 22.)

God Bless America/Midnight, Egyptian

In one week, Frank (Joel Murray), a divorced, 50ish, glumly alcoholic white-collar worker, loses his job, becomes completely estranged from his young daughter, and is diagnosed with cancer. Facing the end, Frank decides to take his service revolver to those responsible for the degradation of pop culture—starting with an ungrateful brat he sees on a program clearly based on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16. Frank quickly gains an admiring groupie in Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a high-school classmate of his first victim, who tags along to spur him into a program of cleansing cross-country killing, targeting members of a Westboro Baptist Church–type group, a bullying right-wing TV host, Tea Partiers, and even some nonpartisan assholes. From the film’s blinkered POV, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander,” and no perspective is available outside the all-enveloping disgust of Frank, Roxy, and their doting creator, who absolves their crimes while serving up paper targets and irreverent soundtrack cues. Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait must understand the irony of his protagonist’s condemnation of a society “where the weak are torn apart every week for our entertainment” and “nobody cares that they damage other people” in a movie that revels in the slaughter of the unarmed. And he must, understandably, have thought that any flinch might crack his film’s deadpan. But what’s less obvious is what this turkey shoot is meant to do, aside from providing a like-minded audience the vicarious cathartic thrill of watching a douchebag apocalypse. NICK PINKERTON (Also SIFF Cinema Uptown, 9:30 p.m. Tues., May 22.)


Goodbye/11:30 a.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Where’s the worst place in the world to get an abortion? To be a woman? To be a human-rights lawyer? If you answered Iran to all three questions, Goodbye is the movie for you. Noora (Leila Zare) is knocked up and disbarred, her husband away for reasons we gradually discern to be political. Government goons come to remove her satellite receiver and computer. She keeps a secret cell phone in her ceiling. Noora and her doctors speak in code about her options, with mention made of “tests” whose importance is divulged late in the claustrophobic drama. Even as she seeks an exit visa with a fixer, Noora’s options are dwindling. A few friends help her, but her activities are largely confined to an apartment, where she tends a turtle similarly confined to its tank. Somewhat relentless in its isolation, Goodbye was filmed semi-covertly owing to director Mohammad Rasoulof’s own political jailing and limited parole. Neither he nor the movie can risk directly attacking the regime, whose power is felt only instrumentally—phone calls, knocks at the door, the computer-removal guys, and so forth. By necessity, most Iranian cinema is similarly indirect, but even Abbas Kiarostami gets his camera outdoors and moving sometimes. Rasoulof and his heroine unfortunately don’t have that option. Feeling much longer than its 104 minutes, Goodbye is less a drama than a grim, powerful illustration of how dissent is quashed and women are silenced. BRIAN MILLER (Also Pacific Place, 6:30 p.m. Mon., May 21 and 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 26.)

[PICK] Under African Skies/6:30 p.m., Egyptian

Most musicians are rightfully derided as naive and arrogant when they enter the world’s political fray, or they’re given some faux-diplomatic title on account of the United Nations’ insatiable appetite for starfucking. When Paul Simon traveled to South Africa to record what would become Graceland, while apartheid was still in effect, he didn’t really want to enter this fray; he just wanted to make music. But given his profile and dismissal of a cultural boycott in effect at the time, a media shitstorm was inevitable, despite the indisputable power and charm of the music itself. In Joe Berlinger’s documentary, Simon hands history its ass, routing sheepish Artists Against Apartheid leader Dali Tambo in a clearing of the air that should have occurred 25 years earlier. As Peter Gabriel notes, what Simon did by collaborating—and touring the world—with South African artists at that point in history was to show that the country’s oppressed citizenry was more than just an impoverished lot with flies on their faces. Simon’s contribution to apartheid’s end, however unintentional, is in hindsight greatly enhanced. MIKE SEELY (Also 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 22.)

[PICK] Breathing/8 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Austrian cinema has a way with sudden nudity and sex. In a funeral parlor where 19-year-old Roman (Thomas Schubert) is apprenticing for a job, a naked woman is unceremoniously rolled out of the freezer, her shaved genitals and huge autopsy incision apparent for all to see. Roman gasps with us in the audience, for the woman has the same last name as the mother who sent him to a children’s home: Kroger. Gradually we learn that 14-year-old Roman killed someone while in state custody; now he’s on work release, being positioned for re-entry to society. An untrained actor being directed by a veteran performer (Karl Markovics of The Counterfeiters, who also wrote the script), Schubert has a stolid, doughy uncertainty about him. You can almost hear him asking of the director, “Is this what I’m supposed to do?”, which perfectly suits his groping character. On the late train back to juvenile detention, Roman shares a compartment with a cute American tourist girl. She orders a beer, so he does too—knowing he’ll be taking a breathalyzer test later that night. Roman just wants to be accepted; more, he desperately wants to find his mother. Hardly articulate about his aims, Roman doesn’t know how to ask for help or love or forgiveness. He’s something of a blank Bressonian exemplar, but his criminal vulnerability reminds me of the protagonist in Erick Zonca’s Le Petit Voleur, seen all the way back at SIFF ’00. After crime comes punishment. And after punishment comes what? BRIAN MILLER (Also 3:30 p.m. Wed., May 23.)

[PICK] Loverboy/9 p.m., Harvard Exit

One of two films about sex trafficking this week (see Eden, below), this Romanian drama is set in a dreary small town on the Black Sea, a place where teens clearly have no prospects. With a certain sexy, pouty lassitude (something like Ashton Kutcher’s), George Pistereanu plays Luca, designated seducer for a gang of pimps. He sweet-talks and deflowers the girls and convinces them (now in disgrace) to leave their families, then his bosses take the girls to Rome. Luca is a lackey without any ambition beyond nice clothes and an Audi loaned by the ringleader. He’s tender with his invalid grandfather and just honest enough to tell girls, “If you were smart, you’d stay away from me.” Then he meets Veli (Ada Condeescu), seduces her, and begins to waver in his commitment to the gang. Catalin Mitulescu’s film is considerably less brutal than much of the new Romanian cinema; he gives his lovers a certain dusty Romeo and Juliet quality, only without the poetic language. Luca is a mook who tells Veli, “I don’t want to be a monster.” But, the film makes clear, being a monster is the only job open to him. And if he doesn’t punch Veli’s ticket to Rome, a dozen girls are waiting in line behind her. Individual decency isn’t going to change the business. BRIAN MILLER (Also 3:30 p.m. Mon., May 21, and SIFF Cinema Uptown, 8:30 p.m. Tues., May 29.)

Roller Town/9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Barely long enough at 75 minutes to call itself a feature film, Andrew Bush’s Roller Town features some very funny dialogue. But it’s of the thrown-against-the-wall sort that most capable comedy troupes can pull off in their sleep. Nova Scotia’s Picnicface stars, resulting in a work that’s not so much a cohesive film as a random collection of goofy bits. Occasionally reminiscent of Strangers With Candy (the pioneering Comedy Central show, not the belated, ill-conceived movie that followed), Roller Town nonetheless falls well short of the gold standard of little-known-comedy-ensemble films, Super Troopers, which even its creators, Broken Lizard, have yet to top—and probably never will. MIKE SEELY (Also Egyptian, 9 p.m. Fri., May 25 and Kirkland, 8:30 p.m. Fri., June 1.)


Love Free or Die/6:30 p.m., Egyptian

Be prepared to have your stereotypes shattered by this doc, which portrays men and women, young and old, liberal and conservative, some butch, some effeminate; a whole rainbow of people of all races and backgrounds, sharing the same hopes, fears, and concerns as everyone else. I’m talking, of course, about Anglican bishops. New Hampshire’s Gene Robinson is one of them—the first openly gay one, as it happens—and director Macky Alston’s film covers him during a few dramatic years bracketed by two clerical gatherings: the decennial Lambeth Conference in London in 2008, from which he was officially disinvited, and an Episcopalian General Convention the following year, which took a momentous vote on the consecration of gay bishops and blessings of same-sex marriages. As one talking head points out, Robinson was ostracized not for being gay, but for not lying about it (when during prayer he invokes a “good and outrageously gracious God,” he rather tips his hand). We follow the ever-buoyant Reverend from his invocation at Obama’s inauguration-week events to The Daily Show (where his brilliant one-liner incapacitates Jon Stewart) to his civil-partnership ceremony (bring tissues and get them ready when Robinson’s Kentucky-raised parents speak). Love Free or Die is inspiring, if not particularly hard-hitting. A possible Anglican schism over gay issues is hinted at but not explored—I suspect because the most fervently antigay Anglican clergy have been Africans, and Alston wanted to leave race out of it. Pretty standard KCTS-Monday-at-9 fare, but an absorbing look at an LGBT pioneer. GAVIN BORCHERT (Also Kirkland, 6 p.m. Sun., June 10.)

38 Witnesses/6:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

We’ve all heard of the famous 1964 Kitty Genovese case, where New York neighbors wouldn’t come to the aid of a screaming, dying woman. That inspired a recent French novel by Didier Decoin, now adapted by Lucas Belvaux and set in the industrial port of Le Havre. The huge cargo facility operates with a few crewmen dwarfed by the giant freighters, cranes, and stacked shipping containers. It’s a menacing, dehumanizing environment, where the individual daren’t disturb the relentless flow of consumer goods. Ship’s pilot Pierre (Yvan Attal) and his wife Louise (Sophie Quinton) are both part of the port economy; neither appears willing to disrupt their comfortable, childless routine. Then, while she’s away on business, comes the murder and resulting police investigation, the wall of silence, etc. The only drama here is when Pierre will crack. Telling the truth about what he heard, he fears, will lose him his wife. Somber, serious, and slow, 38 Witnesses feels buried in 38 levels of familiarity, badly in need of some TV-cop-show pizzazz. And the dialogue sounds like a novel (“I’m in a night that never ends!”), not real life. There’s one great and harrowing scene at the end, as the cops re-enact the murder, with a policewoman directed where to stumble and crawl, how loud to scream. It’s a movie within the movie, and a better movie than 38 Witnesses as a whole. BRIAN MILLER (Also Renton, 8:30 p.m. Wed., May 23, and Egyptian, 9:15 p.m. Mon., May 28.)

Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis) are two brothers who compete in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.

Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis) are two brothers who compete in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.

Las Acacias.

Las Acacias.

Roller Town.

Roller Town.