Browse Category

Film Festivals

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.)

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: Truly Golden Oldies

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

Hand me a film festival catalogue and the first thing I’m going to look for is the archival stuff.

It’s not just that the odds (and classical discipline) favor an older movie being better than a new one. A lot of worthy films have never received their just due, or have dropped out of circulation. Some have been given up as lost: no prints or negative known to survive.

Still, miracles happen. Some “lost” films have been sitting in the studio vaults all along, in mislabeled cans. Or a print may turn up in a Mittel-European or South American archive, its title translated into something unrecognizable. And sometimes people — whose grandfather used to be a projectionist, say — find the darnedest things sitting forgotten in the attic.

Festival screenings are often the best opportunities we’ll ever have to catch up with such movies. They also offer the chance to watch restorations of movies we’ve seen, but seen only in cut or bashed-up or dupe prints, or via improperly formatted TV or home-video presentations. And don’t shortchange the privilege of encountering them on the big, communal screen they were intended for.

In a spirit of “celebrating the landmark films that continue to shape our cinematic future,” SIFF 2010 is presenting nine vintage feature films, two documentary looks into movie history and three silent pictures with live musical accompaniment.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: SIFFtings I

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

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy scope out opening-week films

Prince of Tears (Yonfan, Hong Kong/Taiwan, 2009; 122 mins.)

Who knew that about the same time (the early 1950s) McCarthyism was peaking in the United States, a parallel reign of terror was sweeping the supposedly free island of Formosa. The official bugaboo in both cases was Communism. McCarthy wrecked careers, but on Formosa suspicion of collaboration with the Red Chinese across the Taiwan Strait could get you imprisoned or executed — sometimes right on the spot.

Prince of Tears aims to illuminate this period by way of something very like a fairy tale, centered on a family torn asunder by historical forces and personal pathology. Sounds worthy and interesting. Unfortunately, writer-director Yonfan looks to be the anti–Hou Hsiao-hsien; unlike that Taiwanese master, he has no interest in ambiguity and no talent for the kind of patient, non-manipulative observation that allows connections and truths to be discovered out of the corner of one’s eye (or not at all). Everything is simpleminded — and no, “fairy tale” doesn’t have to mean simpleminded — as amped up and brainless as the surges of flagrantly heightened color that occasionally inflame the pretty landscape. Oh yeah, Yonfan’s an art director, too. —RTJ

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 4 — A Centurion in Scotland and an Angel at Sea (Week Three)

Centurion (UK, dir/scr: Neil Marshall) — “My name is Quintus Dias and this is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” With Michael Fassbender (crisply stalwart in Inglorious Basterds and hauntingly resolute in Hunger) as a loyal and valiant Roman Centurion and Neil Marshall (the once and future hope of savagely smart British genre cinema, thanks to Dog Soldiers and The Descent) writing and directing, I had great expectations for this Romans versus Barbarians warrior epic turned survival thriller. Set on 117 A.D., twenty years into the Roman invasion of Britain, as the guerrilla tactics of the Picts have stymied the Roman incursion into the northern highlands, it’s basically a lost platoon adventure with Fessbender as a bloodied but unbowed soldier trying to lead a small group of survivors from a brutally effective ambush back to safety. In other words, a classic Marshall set-up: a handful of professionals fighting off an attack from greater numbers or overwhelming power. Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko glowers and slinks as a mute Pict scout and tracker who relentlessly hunts them through the dramatic landscape, looking less like a warrior queen than a 1st century cover girl, and Dominic West is the macho General Virilus (Marshall’s tribute to Life of Brian‘s Biggus Dickus?) who gets to be all tortured martyr as he passes the torch to Quintus: “Get them home!”

Based on a 2,000-year-old legend (according the disclaimer at the end of the film), it’s brawny stuff, part The Naked Prey and part ancient The Lost Patrol, with great use of fog and dramatic landscapes and lots of bloody, brutal combat. Would that it had characters to match, or a story as interesting as its inspiration. Fessbender is all soldier and stalwart dignity—he even says “Fuck” with class (and he does so a lot)—but doesn’t have a personality to speak of, and while the obligatory scene when the men all swap names and backstories may have been Marshall’s tribute to the scores of platoon movies before it, it simply plays as lazy exposition. The men get lost in the muddy palette of earth tones (which in this case are brown, green and fog… lots of fog) and the staccato strobe-vision of battle scenes that simply confuses the action, and the story along with it.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 3 – Midnight in the Garden of SIFF (Week Two)

Is Amer (Belgium, dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) a giallo—that deliriously stylish brand of Italian horror that (at its best) swirled overripe color and perverse violence with visceral imagery, voyeuristic tendencies and flamboyant camerawork—or a portrait of life imagined as a giallo? The story (such as it is) of Amer comes down to three apparently defining moments in the life of a highly imaginative (perhaps borderline mad) heroine: as a young girl trying to take in the charged emotional atmosphere surrounding her grandfather’s death (including incantations cast by a superstitious old servant and the acid-flashback imagery triggered when she spies her parents having sex), as a teenager whose shopping trip with mom explodes in sexual awareness when she comes across a motorcycle gang (are the objectifying shots of the wind wrapping her skirt around her legs, her breasts, her pouty, overripe lips their POV or her fantasy of their desire?), as a grown woman revisiting the family estate, a neglected place filled with overgrown vegetation, unresolved issues and a knife-wielding stalker (whose “reality” is as questionable as anything else seen through the mind’s eye of this woman). It’s a film seen through keyholes and ajar doors, down hallways and staircases, through windows and under doors, but mostly through the overheated mind’s eye of Ana as she transforms family drama and every day encounters into hothouse moments of sexual desire and repression, voyeurism, conspiracy, witchcraft, stalking and murder (or sees the lurid and dangerous reality under the surface that no one else notices).

Any objective understanding of the narrative is tangled up in the subjective experience of Ana (played by three different actress) and the expressionist delirium served up by Cattet and Forzani. But this isn’t mere tribute to the genre, it’s a celebration of the style, the texture, the psycho-sexual atmosphere of the best films, recreated in a triptych that could be a horror film, a coming-of-age story or a twisted Walter Mitty adventure from a Dario Argento fanatic. It isn’t necessary to know the genre to enjoy the film. While it borrows from more films than I can identify (not simply visually but its choice selection of soundtrack themes as well), it’s not commenting on any individual film so much as appropriating the style and sensibility for its own purposes. It doesn’t merely acknowledge the expressionist possibilities in a genre beloved horror fans but unknown to most people, it condenses it into a concentrated extract: a 90-minute hit of the essence of giallo as a surreal subjective journey, part sexual awakening, part repressed fear, part rarified death dream. And while the cinematic phantasmagoria is more interesting than any psychological reading or narrative understanding, it’s like mainlining decades of giallo highlights in a single screening. Quite a trip indeed.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: Like You Know It All

The Seattle International Film Festival is upon us again, that equally cherished and dreaded pre-summer ritual that entails queuing and going indoors just as the city is collectively preparing to spread its wings after another monochrome season of scarce daylight and, quite probably, enough drama already. Complain, however, that the fest is too long, and it will end all too soon. Moan that it’s too big, yet still lament the absence of your favorite director’s latest masterpiece (where oh where is Claire Denis’ White Material, or Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun, or Joao Pedro Rodriguez’s To Die Like A Man?). As for the lines that still stretch down the alley behind the Egyptian theatre: haven’t we all waited longer for something far less tasty, like bad coffee for instance?

Cast your net wide at this audience-friendly (as opposed to industry-oriented) festival and something’s liable to turn up, perhaps something unexpected, just as in the fisherman Syracuse’s (Colin Farrel) catch in Neil Jordan’s improbable Irish fable Ondine; is she a mythic half-seal come to land to redeem the recovering alcoholic and his wheelchair-bound daughter? A Romanian drug runner fleeing a bust on open seas? Or, to take the whole enterprise at face value, is she a perfect narrative muse of a lingerie model who seductively chants Sigur Ros tunes to the ocean’s depths as Colin Farrel is consigned to channeling profound sympathy with his eyebrows alone? At the very least, the film boasts a smoldering, bruised palette in keeping with its nautical Irish milieu, lensed by the estimable Christopher Doyle who, it’s worth remembering, was once considered Wong Kar-Wai’s primary pair of eyes, and who delivered a master class in cinematography in typical rambling fashion at a past edition of SIFF. Has it really been that long?

Of course there is the wisdom that says it’s not the size of the catch but how you fish, an apt metaphor not only for festing but for filmmaking as well. Which is what makes Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar such an exemplary case; its protagonist is a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef who snares his fish by hand or spear, under the curious gaze of his tiny son Natan, born to an Italian mother and now thousands of miles away, surrounded by the vast sea, dwelling in a hut on stilts flanked by crocodiles and birds (one of which he proprietarily names ‘Blanquita’). Is this a fiction? A documentary? Or simply, as its director attests, just a “film” ? A genuine sleeper, graceful and direct.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 2 – A Tale of Two Rock Bio-pics, plus quick notes

How to do a rock and roll film is intertwined with why to do a rock and roll film. Two biopics of rock icons (one more iconic than the other) play at SIFF this weekend, but genre aside, there isn’t much in common with the two.

Nowhere Boy (dir: Sam Taylor Wood, UK) is the early life of John Lennon, the man who would put together the Beatles as a teenage boy. As fellow critic Tom Keogh observed in a post-screening conversation, this may be the first film to imagine the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the screen (read Tom’s capsule review at the Seattle Times here). What’s so marvelous about the film (including that meeting) is that it isn’t elevated into some mythological status: none of those clichéd lines where someone in the group or some prescient member of their early audience predicting their greatness or prophesying how they will “change the future of music.” These are British boys brought together by a restless, emotionally knotted teenage Lennon, a teenager whose artistic impulses and rebellious tendencies serve him poorly in high school but drive him to create a skiffle band. All they have in common is a love of American rock and roll and the charge of playing in front of an audience. Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass) is utterly convincing as the “Goon Show”-loving John, raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George, whose smoldering issues of abandonment by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), are fanned into flames when George dies and Julia suddenly reappears (“the one with red hair,” is how John refers to her at the funeral) and becomes a part of his increasingly emotionally turbulent life. Nowhere Boy shines a light on details from a part of Lennon’s life that few beyond the most passionate fans know—John’s reconnection with his mother and the first shows of his proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymen—but it’s rewarding because the story is not about the formative life of a star, but the emotional life of a boy who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother (it’s not that simple, of course, but to a teenage boy it sure feels that way). It’s also the story of sisters—both mothers to the artistically inclined and reflexively rebellious schoolboy—and the choices of the past that continue to haunt and divide them.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: An (Inauspicious) Evening at the Neptune

(revised and updated Saturday, May 22)

I spent Friday, May 21—the first day of regular screenings—at the Neptune in the University District, a fine old theater with personality and history. It’s recently added a digital projector for 3D screenings, but those studio pictures run off of what is essentially a massive hard drive of digital information. For the films that arrive on digital video for SIFF screenings, most of them independent productions, a different sort of player is needed.

The first show got off to a rocky start when the film, projected digitally from a low-fidelity source (not the 35mm print promised in the catalog), suddenly broke up in digital noise and stopped. The venue manager explained that it was the “First test run of the projector” (she probably meant the player, not the projector) but that didn’t explain why it was so poorly calibrated for the film. Air Doll suffered from serious stuttering images, with panning shots jerking across the screen and the slow, careful movements to the actors broken up like a strobed image. While first it appeared intermittent, it became clear it was cyclical: a few seconds of (relatively) smooth movement, then a few seconds of rapid-fire jerkyness. That’s in addition to the bleary, badly-registered color and generally blurry image with scan lines visible throughout, not to mention the sudden intrusion of the soundtrack to another film (this one in English and apparently a documentary) suddenly cutting in halfway through the film. The sound was fixed (after I brought it to the attention of a theater employee) but the motion problems were never addressed.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 1 – Cooking in the Soul Kitchen and an Opening Night Extra

SIFF held its opening night in Benaroya Hall (for the first time) with a typically SIFF opening night film: The Extra Man, with Paul Dano as twentysomething literature teacher Louis Ives, a shy young man mired in sexual confusion, a fantasy life born of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and the eccentrics in his Manhattan apartment building, notably his roommate. Kevin Kline is the life of this rather precious coming of age film as Henry Harrison, a former playwright and full time “extra man” (an escort to the wealthy society widows who like a man on their arm for social events) who rents out a room in his walkup to make ends meet.

Directors and co-screenwriters Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (adapting the novel by Jonathan Ames) fail to capture the lively personalities that made their fiction debut, American Splendor, so splendid. Dano is less a man out of time than simply removed from the life around him (his thin, tentative smile and shrinking violet body language presents repression without suggesting the yearnings beneath it) and the film’s evocation of his inner life plays like bad community theater rather than a richly detailed fantasy of an idealized existence. But then there’s Kline, whose theatrical, judgmental Harrison is a genuine eccentric with a full life behind the flourishes and “a strange power over people,” in Louis’ own words. “It’s my constant disapproval,” explains Harrison, tossed off by Kline as an aside to the matter at hand. “Many people find it paternal.” John C. Reilly has less to work with offers a warmly vulnerable man under glaring eyes and a wild-man beard. This is just the kind of film that SIFF regulars have come to expect from opening night: mainstream moviemaking with indie colors and oddball edges just quirky enough not to offend.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2010: Once More, Into the Breach

SIFF-web-stuff

Update: The complete schedule now online at SIFF website here.

The 36th Seattle International Film Festival, still the largest (and, at 25 days, the longest) film festival in the United States, opens on Thursday, May 20 with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s The Extra Man, the Sundance premiere starring Paul Dano and Kevin Kline, and ends (at least symbolically; there are a few more straggler screenings, but I digress) on Sunday, June 13 with Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. In between, 256 features (narrative and documentary) and 150 shorts are scheduled to play (the term “unspool” no longer seems appropriate in a cinema culture where so many presentations are digital projection) in venues all over the Seattle area.

In addition to the familiar Seattle venues—the Egyptian on Capital Hill, the Uptown in Queen Anne, the Neptune in the University District, SIFF Cinema at Seattle Center and Pacific Place downtown—there’s the opening night at Benaroya Hall, week-long stints in West Seattle (at the Admiral Theatre), Everett (the Everett Performing Arts Center) and Kirkland (Kirkland Performing Arts Center), and special events at the Paramount, the Triple Door and the Pacific Science Center IMAX.

Keep Reading

Dragons and Tigers at VIFF 2009

header-viff09

Seattle boasts the biggest film festival in the United States, in terms of both audiences and films shown. But Seattle filmgoers are also lucky enough to be within easy driving distance to the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the five biggest festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Toronto, it boasts a sampling of highlights from Toronto and Venice as well as a spotlight on Canadian cinema, an annual spotlight on French Cinema and the Dragons and Tigers series, one of the best collections of new Asian cinema in North America with a special focus on young talents and new filmmakers.

Thirty features and documentaries were screened in the “Dragons and Tigers” sidebar, with eight of those films in competition for the “Award for Young Cinema.” The competition can be a mixed bag, but it almost always offers promising talent and fresh filmmaking ideas that otherwise would be unseen on North American screens and it’s my priority every fest. Most of the films are scheduled for the first week, which due to unusual conflicts (yes, there are some things more important than movies) I missed this year. But I did catch up on a few re-screenings including the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition.

Keep Reading

Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Bardelys the Magnificent

The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.

This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.

Keep Reading

Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 1)

SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks
SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks

I’ve traveled to Pordenone, Italy, three times to attend Le Giornate de Cinema Muto, the biggest, grandest, most dedicated silent film festival in the world: eight days of morning to midnight screenings of the masterpieces, rarities, rediscoveries and revelations. Yet in my own backyard (more or less) I’d never been to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the weekend-long celebration that unspools every July at the Castro. Until this year. To the world it was the 14th Annual SFSFF, but it was my first visit to this well mounted, well curated and exceptionally well attended festival. It won’t be my last. To the rest of the world it may seem like a curious pursuit, but I can think of few pleasures greater than spending a couple of days in the Castro (even without air conditioning) soaking in silent films and live music by some of the best silent accompanists in the world.

Curating a silent film festival takes a special kind of art. Apart from rediscovered and newly restored films, there is none of the urgency of discovery and representation that drives the selection in the rest of the film festival world. And while 80-90% of all silent films have been lost to time and neglect, that still leaves thousands upon thousands of features and shorts available to programmers at any given time. So how do you choose a dozen programs that balance the known and the unknown, masterpieces and curiosities, while suggesting the scope of thirty-some years of silent cinema from all over the world? I don’t know the secret alchemy, but the programmers of SFSFF have found it. The features of this fest are firmly in twenties, the golden age of silent cinema (the exception is the 1932 Wild Rose, from China’s own golden age of silent cinema), with shorts spanning nearly thirties years. The result is not just an appreciation of the greatness of the art across genres and cultures, it is testament to the state of the art of cinema from the mid-twenties to the dawn of sound, and of the Hollywood filmmaking machine where every cog was a professional at the peak of his profession.

Keep Reading

SIFF 2009 – Summer Hours, Still Walking, The Hurt Locker

The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.

summerhours
Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche and Charles Berling in "Summer Hours"

Summer Hours is like a miniature, a small film of small dramas in the scope of large lives. Mortally once again hangs over the story of a family estate and the rich treasures of art history that goes with it. Family matriarch Helene (Edith Scob) has preserved the country home of her famous painter uncle as a tribute to him, complete with unpreserved works by French masters on the walls and rare pieces of furniture and glassworks as household items, and she drills in her eldest the list of valuables that need be accounted for and, if necessary, sold off when she dies. Frédéric (Charles Berling), who lives nearby in Paris, can’t bear to see the home broken up and sold off, but with his sister (Juliette Binoche) thriving in New York and younger brother (Jérémie Renier) settling in China, the holiday family home no longer has the same meaning to them all, let alone their children. The film moves from one decision to another and the arguments that inevitably ensue and it’s not all that subtly engineered. What Assayas brings is a generosity of understanding and a warmth of character to the siblings who love one another enough not to let disagreements change their feelings. It’s a gentle look at the way the ties to the past lose their hold on the next generations, and it closes with a pair of sequences that alone would recommend the film: one that takes you through the Musee D’Orsay from the workshops through to the galleries, and a final scene that recalls his brilliant (and still unavailable on DVD) early feature Cold Water, but with the angry, rebellious destructiveness of the earlier film replaced with a warm communal celebration. Plays Friday, May 22 and Sunday, May 24.

Keep Reading