Category Archives: SIFF Preview

The 2018 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 12, 2018)

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It’s nearly time for the 44th Seattle International Film Festival (May 17th to June 10th). SIFF is showing 433 shorts, features and docs from 90 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities on my list after obsessively combing through the 2018 SIFF catalog (so you don’t have to).

Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries and feature films with a socio-political bent. After the War (France) is a drama about an Italian insurgent living in France with his teenaged daughter. When he loses his asylum status, his radicalized past comes back to haunt him and his family. The Swedish doc A Good Week for Democracy looks at an annual political free-for-all that gives thousands of lobbyists, politicians a chance and voters to get up close and personal. Crime + Punishment (USA) is a doc examining the NYPD’s quota-based practices, focusing on a group of minority police officers bravely willing to risk their careers by helping expose systemic corruption.

I’m always up for a music doc or biopic. Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records (USA) is about the eponymous Chicago record store-turned underground record label that spearheaded the 80s industrial music scene by nurturing acts like Ministry and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. I’m intrigued by The King (USA), in which director Eugene Jarecki gets behind the wheel of Elvis Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce and goes on a cross-country trek to paint an analogous portrait of both America and Presley’s rise and erm, fall. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Japan) profiles the Oscar-winning composer and activist, who returns to the recording studio after a lengthy hiatus due to his health issues.

Docs and biopics about women we love: Nico, 1988 (Italy) dramatizes the final years of the Warhol Factory alum and Velvet Underground singer as she traverses Europe, finding her voice as a solo act and battling addiction. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (U.K.) takes a look at iconoclastic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her considerable influence on punk and alternative fashion couture. Love, Gilda (USA) uses newly discovered audio tapes and rare home movies to tell the story of SNL icon Gilda Radner.

A couple of intriguing movies about the movies are on this year’s schedule. I’m pretty jazzed to check out Godard Mon Amour (France) as it is the newest film from the always wonderful Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies).  The film dramatizes the 1968 romance between director Jean-Luc Godard and his acting muse Anne Wiazemsky. One of my favorite directors is profiled in Hal (USA), a doc about the late great Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Shampoo, etc.). SIFF is also serving up a special archival presentation of Ashby’s 1979 classic, Being There.

There are thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas aplenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bloody Milk (France) is a psychological thriller about a paranoid dairy farmer who buys into a YouTube conspiracy theory about a deadly bovine disease and “recklessly sacrifices one of his cows and then goes to extreme lengths to cover up his tracks”. From Denmark, The Guilty promises to be an “innovative, claustrophobic thriller” about an ex-street cop turned emergency center dispatcher who becomes a caller’s only hope for survival. The Third Murder (Japan) is a courtroom drama about a career defense lawyer having an existential crisis over what he does for a living (shades of And Justice for All).

In the drama department: This year’s Opening Night Gala film, The Bookshop (U.K) stars Emily Mortimer as a widow who opens a bookstore in a provincial village on the English coast in 1959 and finds herself at odds with the chary locals. From Canada, the Quebecois film Fake Tattoos digs into the relationship that develops between an introverted 18 year-old punk rocker with a troubled past and a free-spirited young woman after they meet at a concert. I’m very interested to see Let the Sunshine In (France) for two reasons: Juliet Binoche (one of the best actresses strolling the Earth) and director Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau travail, White Material, etc.). Who cares what it’s “about”?

Funny stuff: Sorry to Bother You (USA) is this year’s Centerpiece Gala film; billed as “an off-the-wall, neon, drug-fueled black comedy” executed with “surrealist fanaticism”. Right in my proverbial wheelhouse. Don’t disappoint me, Centerpiece Gala selection. I’m getting an Amy Schumer vibe from Hot Mess (Australia), which follows the romantic travails of a young woman who is “a budding playwright, a college drop-out, and a complete screw-up” who likes to write “songs about toxic shock syndrome”. I’m there!

One of the most anticipated films this year is the Closing Night Gala pick, Gus van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Joaquin Phoenix stars in this biopic about cartoonist John Callahan, who became a quadriplegic following an automobile accident.

Midnight movies! In Praise of Nothing (Serbia) is a “satirical story time parable for adults” based on Erasmus’ 1511 essay “In Praise of Folly”. A “personification” of a character named Nothing (voiced by Iggy Pop!) narrates in simple rhyme, with globe-trotting footage from 62 cinematographers (who were instructed by the director to “shoot nothing”). Wow. Sounds like The Blair Witch Project meets Koyannisqatsi.

If horror is your thing, The Field Guide to Evil (Austria) could be the ticket. It’s an anthology based on dark folk tales from around the world. And there’s already some “buzz” from Seattle’s over-the-counter culture regarding the Austrian film “ * ” (star symbol), a collage of starry footage, assembled from all of film history, in chronological order. Vape pen on standby!

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll be plowing through the catalog and sharing reviews with you beginning next Saturday. In the meantime, visit the SIFF site for full details on the films, event screenings, special guests, panel discussions and more.

The 2017 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13, 2017)

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It’s nearly time for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 18th to June 11th). SIFF is showing 400 shorts, features and docs from 80 countries. Navigating festivals takes skill; the trick is developing a sense for films in your wheelhouse (I embrace my OCD and channel it like a cinematic dowser). Here are some intriguing possibilities on my list after obsessively combing through the 2017 SIFF catalog (so you don’t have to).

Let’s dive in, shall we? SIFF is featuring a number of documentaries and feature films with a sociopolitical bent. Dolores (USA) is a documentary about influential American labor & civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who has been given short shrift by the history books. Another political doc, The Reagan Show (USA) assembles archival footage to illustrate how the “original” showbiz president sparked the transformation of American politics into the post-modern theater of the absurd we’re watching now on the nightly news. White Sun (Nepal/USA/Qatar) is a drama set against the backdrop of post-civil war Nepal about a Maoist rebel trying to reconnect with his politically antithetical family.

More politics…The Young Karl Marx (France/Germany/Belgium; North American Premiere) is a promising biopic focusing on the early days of Marx and Engels. Nocturama (France/Belgium/Germany) is a drama about “a group of young, multiracial radicals with no stated ideology” who hole up for the night in a mall after committing terrorist attacks in Paris (The Breakfast Club meets Fassbinder’s The Third Generation?). I’m especially interested in seeing This is Our Land (France), which involves an idealistic nurse who is approached by a far-right party to run for mayor. Claiming to be a study on “…how populist ideology can quietly but decisively contaminate ‘good’ people”, the main character is also said to be based on Marine Le Pen. Talk about timely!

I’m always on the lookout for a good music documentary, and SIFF offers an eclectic assortment to pick from this year. Bill Frisell, A Portrait (Australia) takes a look at the elusive, genre-defying Seattle-based “guitarist’s guitarist”, one of those artists who most people have never heard of, yet (paradoxically) has worked with seemingly every recording artist that everybody has heard of (in addition to releasing 35 of his own albums to date). I am intrigued by Chavela (USA), as I admit to being previously unaware of Mexican “rabble-rousing, cigar-smoking lesbian iconoclast” Chavela Vargas.

More music: A Life in Waves (USA) is the first feature-length doc to profile the esoteric yet wildly successful electronica/New Age music pioneer and entrepreneur Suzanne Ciani. Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World (Canada) purports to be exactly what its title infers; a celebration of Native Americans (Link Wray, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and many others) who have left an indelible mark on modern music.

Speaking of indigenous peoples, SIFF is spotlighting several more indigenous-centric films this year. Angry Inuk (Canada) looks to be conversation-starting documentary that gives a voice to the Inuit side of the controversies that have been raging for years regarding subsistence seal hunting (the director herself is an Inuit activist). Searchers (Canada) is “an indigenous take” on John Ford’s revenge tale The Searchers, centering on an Inuk hunter’s pursuit of a band of marauders who have taken his family (Inuk hunters have a very specialized set of skills!). The icy north also figures into the doc Dawson City: Frozen Time (USA), billed as “a haunting chronicle of the transformations in a Yukon Territory Gold Rush town” (I spent 2 weeks there one night on an Alcan trip).

I have a soft spot for road movies, and several have caught my eye. American Folk (USA) is a drama starring two real-life folk singers as “two strangers who take an impromptu, cross-country road trip in the days after 9/11” (I’m getting a Once vibe). I’m eager to see Weirdos (Canada), the latest from my favorite Canadian director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), a “sparkling coming-of-age road journey” set in 1976. The Trip to Spain (UK) reunites director Michael Winterbottom with stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as they bring their patented brand of whining and dining back to the table. Borders (Burkina Faso) is a drama examining a burgeoning friendship between four women from different regions as they cross West Africa by bus.

More African cinema! The action-comedy Bad Black (Uganda) comes straight outta the no-budget “Wakaliwood” studio, and has been a hit with audiences at other festivals. It promises to deliver “ass-kicking commando vengeance unlike anything you have seen before.” Looks like a lot of fun…I’m in! On what I would assume to be a much lighter note, The Wedding Party (Nigeria) offers up “a fresh, female take on Nigerian culture.”

There are thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas aplenty to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bad Day for the Cut (Ireland) pits a “seemingly” mild-mannered Irish farmer against thugs who have killed his ma, and features what is touted as “a career-making lead performance from Nigel O’Neill.” Godspeed (Taiwan) is a crime thriller centering on a down-and-out taxi driver who “accidentally picks up a drug mule” one fateful night (echoes of Michael Mann’s Collateral). Here’s a twist on the hit man genre: Kills on Wheels (Hungary) follows the travails of two handicapped young men who cross paths with “a wheelchair-bound hit man who seems to come straight out of a comic book.” Oy.

Funny stuff: Ears (Italy) is a B&W surrealist tragi-comedy about a man who wakes up with a ringing in his ears and a “cryptic note on his fridge” that jumpstarts what looks to be a pretty weird day. Free and Easy (China) concerns a “soap-peddling shyster” who picks the wrong isolated mountain town to drift into…it’s agog with “idiosyncratic con artists” (I sense irony). Gook (USA) is said to be a mashup of Kevin Smith’s Clerks with Spike Lee’s social commentary sensibilities. It’s a day in the life of two Korean brothers hanging out in their dad’s South Central shoe store-on the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots.

I never miss a chance to get my fantasy/sci-fi/midnight movie fix. Where to start? The Door (China) is a sci-fi mindbender about an auto mechanic who stumbles onto a magic door that leads to an alternate reality (as one does). Also from China: Have a Nice Day, “a grim, animated noir” with “Tarantino-esque dialog” (you had me at “animated noir”). Infinity Baby (USA) is billed as an “absurdist, droll black comedy” concerning “a company who farms out three month-old babies who will never age due to a freak pharmaceutical side effect.” More nightmare fuel: Meatball Machine Kodoku (Japan), is an “utterly insane, blood-and-guts-soaked, action-packed cyber-punk comedy.” OK then.

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.

2016 SIFF Preview

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2016)

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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.