A few short takes on SIFF offerings for the third weekend of the biggest, longest film festival in the United States.
PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2014; 98 minutes)
Fresh from Auschwitz and extreme facial reconstruction, Nelly returns to the noirish backstreets and bars of bombed-out Berlin, looking for what’s left of herself—and the husband whose memory helped her survive hell. Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognize this gaunt, shell-shocked stranger as his once-glamorous wife, but plots to use her in a scam to inherit wealth left by Nelly’s gassed relatives. Sure to turn up on year-end Ten Best lists, this brilliant film plumbs the nature of identity, post-WWII guilt and denial, death and resurrection—and showcases a shattering performance by Nina Hoss. – KAM
Sunday, May 31, 7:15pm, SIFF Uptown Theater
MR. HOLMES (Bill Condon, United Kingdom, 2015; 105 minutes)
Behind a beak of a nose and a face dotted with liver spots, Ian McKellen doesn’t just look old. His 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes quavers with tremors, his face droops like melted wax, and at times the glint in his eyes glazes over like he’s momentarily checked out, the quick wit now dull and absent. Directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), this Holmes mystery is ostensibly the secret of a forgotten last case, but it’s really about the human experiences Holmes is least equipped to confront: friendship, compassion, the reasons to continue living as his sharp intellect loses its edge. It’s all a bit tidy for a film that challenges Holmes’s belief that explanations are solutions with the unpredictable messiness of real life, but I guess even Holmes deserves a happy ending. – SAx
Friday, May 29, 7pm, Uptown
Sunday, May 21, 4pm, Pacific Place
THE PRIMARY INSTINCT (David Chen, USA, 2015; 73 minutes) WORLD PREMIERE
“I happen to like to tell true stories,” says Stephen Tobolowsky by way of introduction in his first concert film, shot at Seattle’s Moore Theatre a year ago. Neither stand-up comedy nor traditional one-man show, The Primary Instinct plays like an extension of “The Tobolowsky Files” podcast. A couple of seemingly unrelated anecdotes ease us into the theme of the performance—why do we tell stories?—and ruminations on life, death, and the idea of sacred time, without ever losing that easy, conversational engagement. David Chen, who produces of the podcast, directs the film with a straightforward simplicity that brings the audience into Stephen’s stories by paring away clutter. There’s an element of imperfection you don’t hear in the audio incarnation and those stumbles and saves don’t just humanize the stories of his life. They embody the themes of this performance piece. – SAx
Stephen Tobolowsky and Seattle-based director David Chen will attend both performances this weekend.
Read more about the origins and production of the film at Seattle Weekly.
Friday, May 29, 9:45pm, Egyptian
Saturday, May 30, 12Noon, Egyptian
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (Massimo Alì Mohammad, Italy/USA, 2015; 71 minutes) NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
The SIFF write-ups describe Love Among the Ruins as a spoof, which is not exactly accurate. The mock-documentary about a (completely fictional) lost Italian silent from 1923 unearthed in an earthquake presents the “rediscovered” film, a tale of forbidden love and national betrayal in World War I, without any hint of parody or lampoon. The glamorous melodrama is lovingly directed in a recreation of silent film style, from cinematography to sets and settings (shot in the medieval ruins of Ferrara, Italy) to performances that channel both the exaggerated physicality and the intense emotional interiority of the era. It’s a tribute to the expressive qualities of silent cinema but just who is the intended audience? Besides me, I mean. A fitting companion piece to SIFF’s archival screenings. – SAx
Thursday, June 4, 7pm, Uptown
Friday, June 5, 3:30pm, Uptown
SAVED FROM THE FLAMES (Serge Bromberg, France, 2015; approx. 90 minutes)
Not a movie but a hosted, narrated program that film preservationist, historian, and director Serge Bromberg created over two decades ago and has been revising and updating in presentations ever since, including numerous shows at Telluride. This is the first time he’s presented the program in Seattle. I don’t have a review—this is a live show with a different line-up for each incarnation—but I spoke with Bromberg about the origins of the program and what he’s bringing for his Seattle debut. – SAx
Tuesday, June 2, 7pm, Uptown
Sean Axmaker: What inspired you to do your first “Saved from the Flames” program?
Serge Bromberg: That’s very simple. A friend of mine, who was not even there when I did my first show, knew of a theater in Paris called Le Passage du Nord-Ouest—Northwest Passage—which had a projector. It was an old cinema that had turned into a live action theater so they had removed all the seats and replaced the seats with bar tables. A piano was there so you could watch someone play piano and order drinks, it was awfully nice. But they were looking for short films of the old days and that woman knew me and knew them so she had us meet and we agreed that we would restore the films, this theater would screen the films, they would keep the bar and ticket sales and we would get a small subsidy that they would get from somewhere else which would allow us to pay for a good part of the restoration of the nitrate films.
So we restored the program of about an hour and advertised it. There were not hundreds of people there, probably between 40 or 50, and the only problem was we knew there was a piano but we had totally forgotten to hire a pianist. So about ten minutes before show we realized that and I thought, Who’s going to play the piano? Playing the piano for silent films is quite an issue and of course I could find no one. I hadn’t touched a piano in 15 years and I thought, Oh well, let’s do that. So I sat at the piano. I didn’t want to cut the leaders so between the films there would be about 45 seconds of leader, and I would stand up and tell the story of how the next film was discovered or what was so special about it.
I instantly realized that it worked: the cocktail of the bar, the tables, my speech, the classic films, the piano. It went so good that I did six or seven more shows the same week and it grew bigger and bigger so we decided to do it again six months later and it’s been 23 years and I’m still doing Retour de flamme shows all over the world. That’s how it happened.
I know that you’ll be showing A Trip to the Moon in Seattle. What else can we expect?
Seattle with be a totally tremendous Retour de flame. Here’s the idea. We call it “A Trip to the Moon and other trips through time and space.” It will be like a trip through the early days of cinema. One of the first newsreels, the first sound films, the first color films, the first scientific films, the first this and that. I will show a not exactly lost but still very incomplete Buster Keaton film that we have recently restored. There are a lot of surprises, I must tell you, there are always a lot of things that I do not announce because it gives the show some pulse. But it will be absolutely fantastic from the first image, which is a 1906 image that was shot in America. You will be hypnotized and for the next two hours. You will not breath, you will not think of anything else, especially that these films are 100 years old. You will be somewhere else. You will realize that cinema was never in black and white, was never silent, was never so primitive as one would imagine. It was a time when imagination had no boundaries, no limits. Today there are limits: marketing, star system, economy. In the old days nothing like that. You just took a camera, put some cardboard, draw the rocks and say, “This is the moon.” Okay fine, this is the moon. And the actual audience, they believed that it was the moon. That’s what’s so thrilling. And believe you me, follow me on that trip.
You don’t need to know anything, just come as a child or someone who has never seen any of these, and it’s like a flying carpet. You’re going to travel through time, we’re going to go back dozens and dozens of years ago and of course, by going back in time, the audience grows younger. I can’t explain it and most of all I can’t tell you what exactly we will see, because it’s like the chef’s menu. That will be my chef’s choice and believe me, it’s a killer.