SIFF 2010: Something For Everyone!

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 19, 2010]

Something familiar, something peculiar
Something appealing, something appalling
Goodness and badness, manifest madness!

Something convulsive, something repulsive
Something aesthetic, something frenetic
Something that’s gaudy, something that’s bawdy
Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!

That’s the ticket! This year’s Seattle International Film Festival promises to deliver all the goods so enthusiastically ballyhooed by Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (apologies to Stephen Sondheim for lyrics-tampering!). From May 20 through June 13, the 36th edition of Seattle’s all-inclusive film extravaganza invites us to get lost in the cinematic dark with 256 features and 150 shorts, including documentaries and lots of slots for Northwest helmers, a heavy slate of Contemporary World Cinema, a Grease singalong, family-friendly fare, edgier midnight tripping … something for everyone!

SIFF 2010 sprawls into venues all over Seattle and beyond: Queen Anne (Uptown), University District (Neptune), Capitol Hill (Egyptian), West Seattle (Admiral), Kirkland and Everett (Performing Arts centers). SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center, Pacific Place, the Paramount, and even Pacific Science Center IMAX also will host festival films. (For schedules and locations, check out www.SIFF.net.)

SIFF launches lavishly Thursday night at Benaroya Hall with The Extra Man, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (The Nanny Diaries, American Splendor). This sporadically amusing crowd-pleaser stars Paul (There Will Be Blood) Dano as a sexually confused wannabe writer who fantasizes a “Great Gatsby” existence while barely functioning in the real world. He’s mentored, sort of, by a onetime playwright turned shabby escort for rich old ladies (Kevin Kline). Kline steals the show — he has only to cock an eyebrow and drawl a line to milk laughs — but absent any compelling narrative destination, this pleasant walkabout with a clutch of New York eccentrics just trails off.

Should we survive the intervening weeks, SIFF climaxes with Sundance fave Get Low, a bluegrass-flavored backwoods folk tale from first-time feature director Aaron Schneider. After 40 years as a recluse, a Tennessee geezer (Robert Duvall) arranges for a dilly of a wake — before he dies — so that he can be around to listen in on the dirt people dish about him. Tasty cast includes Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobbs and Gerald McRaney.

Coming as it does at the end of the annual festival circuit — which begins with Cannes and continues through Venice, Toronto, Berlin, Tribeca, New York, et al. — SIFF balances choice cinematic morsels with leftovers from the haute cuisine of more prestigious fests. A goodly number of SIFF films will open in Seattle after the merry month of May, and some are currently available on DVD or VOD — but lots will never screen here again. So if you’re on the prowl for the familiar or frenetic, aesthetic or appalling, the good, bad and even mad, here are selected highlights from SIFF’s eclectic menu:

Centerpiece Gala

A Cold War spy thriller, Christian Carion’s Farewell is slow-moving and undistinguished; while it certainly doesn’t put you to sleep, this French flick fades almost immediately from memory. Little in its episodic, low-temperature narrative decisively reaches out and grabs the viewer, with the exception of co-star Emir Kusturica; the award-winning Serbian director plays a KGB operative with dreams of changing the world for his son by spilling Russia’s every secret to the West. Kusturica’s broad, homely-handsome physog magnetizes your sympathy and affection. When he’s on screen, the movie almost matters.

Tribute to Ed Norton

From the moment young Mr. Norton looked into the camera in Primal Fear (1996), playing an altar boy accused of murdering an archbishop, you knew a star — better yet, an eerily gifted actor — was in the house. Norton’s career choices have often been surprising (The Incredible Hulk?), but who else could stand out so indelibly in everything from The People vs. Larry Flynt to Rounders, American History X to Fight Club? Along with those latter two gems, SIFF screens The 25th Hour and Norton’s latest, Leaves of Grass, directed by longtime festival fave Tim Blake Nelson.

Emerging Masters

Ana Kokkinos (Australia), Valery Todorovsky (Russia) and Mohammed Al-Daradji (Iraq) are spotlighted as directors on the verge of greatness, or at least mainstream recognition. So far, on the strength of Blessed, Kokkinos earns her spot, while Al-Daradji’s Son of Babylon is pedestrian filmmaking elevated by a trio of engaging actors. SIFF programmer Maryna Ajaja singles out Todorovsky’s Hipsters as a must-see. Set in the 1950s, this “MGM-inspired” musical (!) looks at wannabe Russian hipsters constrained by dour communism. (More on these Emerging Masters in future issues.)

Directors Who’ve Emerged

Don’t miss Neil Jordan’s latest film Ondine, starring Colin Farrell and Stephen Rea, both marvelous. A sort-of fairy tale about the redemptive power of selkies or maybe mermaids, it’s a quietly passionate, visually lush take on Jordan’s favorite subject: love as detente between essentially separate species. Directors always worth a look-see include François Ozon (Hideway), Fatih Akin (Soul Kitchen), Todd Solondz (Life During Wartime), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Air Doll), Robert Guediguian (The Army of Crime) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Micmacs).

Truth Stranger than Fiction: Documentaries

You’ve got 54 docs to choose from, but don’t miss The Oath, about the post-Guantánamo life of a jihadist, and Countdown to Zero, a history of the nuclear arms race. And you’ll want to get up close and personal with Cane Toads: The Conquest — showing in 3D!

Archival Treats. (See sidebar by Richard T. Jameson)

Ambiente: New Spanish Cinema

Spain may be as broke as Greece, but this slate of 18 features and nine shorts suggests that the country still possesses a fertile atmosphere — ambiente — for moviemaking. SIFF spotlights a gritty jailhouse riot (Cell 211), a 4th-century love triangle with Rachel Weisz at its apex (Agora), the latest effort by the venerable and indefatigable Ventura Pons (Drifting), a political thriller in the era of Pinochet (The Dancer and the Thief), movies about obesity (Gordos), Down Syndrome (Me Too) and more.

Midnight Adrenalin

Traditional home of cinematic shock and awe, courtesy of horror, sci-fi or bone-crunching action flicks, the wee hours will host George Romero’s Survival of the Dead, a disappointing entry in this maestro’s unending exploration of zombielife; Splice, in which A-listers Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley mate some human/animal DNA to make a mutant; RoboGeisha (can’t beat that title); and most interestingly Centurion, a Roman-era action film by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) starring Dominic West (McNulty in The Wire) and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds). Connoisseurs of controversy will want to catch up with and get ticked off by Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives.

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One final noodge: Somewhere during your SIFF immersion, you’ll see the festival’s nifty promo trailer. “Inside Out” celebrates the power of film to transport you out of your own head into worlds beyond everyday experiences and attitudes. The camera eye pulls out of one ultra-fluid movie scene, eliding into another — try to guess titles! — until it settles into the POV of an audience seated in front of a theater screen. Short and sweet, this animation’s an unexpectedly evocative metaphor for how the best film festivals turn our preconceptions and quotidian lives upside down and inside out.