By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2016)
It’s nearly time again for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 19th through June 12th). SIFF is showing 421 shorts, features and docs from 85 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (as for me, I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities I have gleaned after obsessively combing through every capsule description.*
(*Someday, I’ll get a life. I promise. After I watch this movie. Oh, and these movies…)
Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries with a socio-political bent. Action Commandante (South Africa) is a profile of anti-apartheid activist Ashley Kriel, who was gunned down by police in 1987 (at age 20) and name-checked by Nelson Mandela in his 1990 post-prison release speech. Ovarian Psycos profiles the eponymous East L.A. community activist group (young women of color who have formed their own “cycle brigade”.) The Lovers and the Despot (UK) claims to be a “real life espionage thriller”, about the daring escape of a South Korean film director and his actress wife who were kidnapped at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and forced to become his “personal filmmakers” (you can’t make this shit up). And a little closer to home: Weiner (USA) is a frank (sorry!) behind the scenes look at Anthony Weiner’s “audacious, ill-fated comeback campaign” for NYC Mayor in 2013. Of course, in light of the current campaign cycle, it may all seem pretty tame now.
Two docs take a hard look at the ripple effects of high technology. Death by Design (China) looks to give you nightmares about how that little smartphone you’re holding in your hands right now is playing no small part in destroying our planet. Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World takes a more existential approach (doesn’t he always?), using “a series of vignettes tracing the past, present, and possible future of the internet.” If Herzog throws in a chicken dancing on a hotplate, act surprised.
Showbiz docs always fascinate me; there are a number of good possibilities this year. 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Maddin (France) is a rare profile of the somewhat elusive avant-garde Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin (I’ve hardly even seen a photograph of the guy). Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (USA) seems self-explanatory. Bang! The Bert Berns Story (USA) is a timely release, as the largely unheralded songwriter/record producer of 51 pop/R&B chart singles during the 1960s was recently inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We Are X (USA) profiles 80s rockers X Japan, “the most successful rock band in Japanese history” that we have never heard of. I am prepared to be enlightened. The most intriguing “behind the music” entry this year is Red Gringo (Chile), the story of how U.S.-born Dean Reed became a huge pop star in South America in the early 1960s, then eventually…a “Communist icon” (Reds meets Jailhouse Rock?).
Turning to ha-ha funny: From director Jose Luis Guernin, The Academy of Muses (Spain) concerns a professor who “uses high-minded academic discourse in the pursuit of more carnal longings”. He gets called out by his wife, who sees through his chat-up routine…sparking “an improbable romantic comedy, dense with ideas yet lighthearted throughout.” Doesn’t that describe nearly every Woody Allen film since Annie Hall? Speaking of whom, SIFF has snagged the Woodman’s Café Society for this year’s Opening Night Gala (it’s also the North American premiere). The romantic comedy is set in 1930s Hollywood, and stars Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. I’m looking forward to Wiener-Dog, the latest cringe comedy from the always provocative Todd Solondz; a series of character vignettes filtered “…through the eyes of an adorable dachshund.” Arf.
Speaking of adorable lap animals, SIFF has both dog and cat lovers covered this year. Kedi (Turkey/Germany/USA) explores the unique relationship between human and feline residents of Istanbul, where cats are revered as deeply spiritual creatures (I’m guessing we’re going to see a lot of footage, of a lot of cats, doing a lot of cat stuff…pretty much wherever they want). Then there’s the doggie doc Searchdog (USA), showing how a K9 Search and Rescue Specialist goes about turning his raw recruits into four-legged heroes.
More selections in the “family-friendly” realm that have potential: The adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilder People (New Zealand) stars Sam Neill as “a cantankerous new guardian” to an ornery foster child; the two trigger a manhunt after they get themselves lost in the boonies. Keeping in the “incredible journey” vein, Long Way North (France/Denmark) is an animated adventure following a 15 year old Russian aristocrat on her quest to the North Pole to find her missing explorer grandfather (shades of Tin-Tin).
In case you don’t have enough drama in your life: Before the Streets (Quebec) is a redemption story of a young man who returns to the traditions of his Atikamekw community in the wake of a tragedy. Similar cultural themes are explored in Mekko (USA), a drama set in Tulsa about a Muscogee Indian trying to get his life back on track following his release from prison. And if costume dramas are your thing, the droll Whit Stillman has adapted Jane Austen’s novella Love & Friendship for the screen, re-uniting his The Last Days of Disco co-stars Kate Beckinsdale and Chloe Sevigny (with big hats!).
I’m always a sucker for a good noir/crime/mystery thriller. Frank & Lola (USA) features Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in a neo-noir revenge tale set in Las Vegas. A couple of “conspiracy a-go-go” political potboilers look interesting: If There’s a Hell Below (filmed in Eastern Washington) offers a Snowden-type of scenario involving “an ambitious journalist and a nervous whistleblower” meeting up in the middle of nowhere to exchange information. Our Kind of Traitor (USA) stars Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris in Susanna White’s adaptation of a John Le Carre novel. And the “Czar of Noir”, Eddie Mueller will be in the house to introduce The Bitter Stems, the latest treasure to be restored in 35mm by his Film Noir Foundation. It’s a rarely seen 1956 Argentinian film about a fallen journalist struggling with conscience after committing the “perfect crime”.
There’s another special revival presentation at this year’s SIFF that will surely make action fans plotz…that would be the 4K restoration of King Hu’s highly stylized and hugely influential 1967 wuxia classic, Dragon Inn (without which we never would have had a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). More action: The Last King (Norway), set in a wintry 11th-Century Scandinavia, is billed as “Game of Thrones on skis.” Arriving on the spurs of The Hateful Eight, we have In a Valley of Violence, with Ethan Hawke as a cowboy with a collie (!) at loggerheads with a corrupt sheriff (John Travolta, who I’m guessing chews all the tumbleweed and cacti). It wouldn’t be a proper SIFF without at least one pulpy, Hong Kong-produced gangster flick…and The Mobfather looks to be it.
I always try to leave enough room on my plate to tuck into some sci-fi and fantasy. The Battledream Chronicle, which has the distinction of being the first feature-length animation film from the island of Martinique, is set in a futuristic world where humans have become virtual reality slaves (how is that different from now?). In the live-action sci-fi drama Equals, Kirsten Stewart and Nicholas Hoult star as law-breaking lovers in an ultra-conformist “utopia” where heightened emotions have been genetically eradicated (looks like a cross between Logan’s Run and THX-1138). And steam punks finally get their own documentary…Vintage Tomorrows, which examines their unique sub-culture.
Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the catalog. I’ll be plowing through screeners and sharing reviews with you starting next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF website for the full film roster, and info about event screenings and special guests.