Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2018: Hot Mess ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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I’ll confess, I go into any film labelled as a “mumblecore slacker comedy” with a bit of “old man yelling at whiny millennials to get off his lawn” trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had watching writer-director Lucy Coleman’s, uh, mumblecore slacker comedy from Down Under. Comedian-playwright Sarah Gaul is endearing as a 25 year-old budding playwright and college dropout who suffers from a perennial lack of focus, both in her artistic and amorous pursuits. For example, she expends an inordinate amount of her creative juice composing songs about Toxic Shock Syndrome. She becomes obsessed with a divorced guy who seems “nice” but treats her with increasing indifference once they’ve slept together. And so on. The narrative is…lax, and the film meanders, but there are a lot of belly laughs. Stay with those closing credits, or you’ll miss “The Tampon Song” (I couldn’t breathe).

SIFF 2018: Happy Birthday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Remember that generation-gap comedy, The Impossible Years? The one where David Niven plays a Professor of Psychology who has to deal with with the embarrassment caused by his free-willed hippie daughter’s shenanigans? Writer-director Christos Georgiou’s family melodrama reminded me of that 1968 film…except here Niven is a Greek cop, and his teenage daughter is a wannabe anarchist. After Dad spots his daughter hurling projectiles at him and fellow officers during a demonstration, tension at home comes to full boil. Mom intervenes; insisting the pair take a time out for a weekend at the family’s country home-where they can hopefully reconcile. What ensues is a kind of family therapy session, which becomes analogous to the sociopolitical turmoil plaguing modern Greece. The film is slow to start, but it becomes quite affecting.

SIFF 2018: Angels Wear White ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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An orphaned teenager without work papers becomes a pawn in a collusion between her sleazy boss and corrupt officials, who scramble to cover up a local politician’s sexual assault of two primary school girls at the hotel where she’s employed as a maid. There’s no sugarcoating in writer-director Vivian Qu’s drama about the systemic exploitation of women in Chinese society. Qu directs her younger actors with great sensitivity; particularly when handling the more difficult material.

SIFF 2018: The African Storm **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018

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Writer-director-producer-star Sylvestre Amoussou’s political satire (a cross between The Mouse That Roared and O Lucky Man!) is set in the imaginary African republic of Tangara. There are no Marvel superheroes in sight, but there is the nation’s forward-thinking President (Amoussou), who issues a bold decree: he is nationalizing all of his country’s traditionally Western-controlled businesses and lucrative diamond-mining operations. Naturally, the various multinational corporations concerned immediately bring in their “fixers”, who employ every dirty trick in the playbook to sow political upheaval, public discord, and outright violence throughout the tiny nation. Undeterred, the President continues to rally, even daring to denounce (gulp) the IMF and The World Bank. Can he pull this off? I really wanted to love this plucky anti-colonial parable, but…it’s overly simplistic, to the point of cringe-worthy audience pandering.

SIFF 2018: After the War **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Director Annarita Zambrano’s feature film debut concerns a left-wing radical who fled his native Italy for political asylum in France after assassinating a judge in the 1980s. Now, 20 years later, the French government has rescinded his extradition protection; and to compound his anxiety, a professor in Italy is murdered in the name of the old revolutionary cell he founded. When several of his ex-compatriots are taken into custody, he and his 16 year-old daughter go underground. It’s similar in theme to Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, but not as involving; Zambrano’s film starts strong, but gets too draggy and dramatically flat.

SIFF 2018: Sansho the Bailiff ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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The great Japanese director Kenji Mazoguchi made nearly 100 films between 1923 and his death in 1956 (he was only 58). This 1954 drama is one of his most admired and beautifully photographed efforts, which is why its recent 4K restoration gives cause for celebration. Based on an 11th-Century folk tale, it’s the story of what happens to the wife and children of a beneficent governor after he is arrested and sent into exile. While traveling to reunite with him, his family is kidnapped by bandits. His wife ends up in a brothel; his son and daughter are sold to the eponymous bailiff, a sadistic land owner. Their subsequent struggles add up to a moving observation on the human dichotomy-from the most unfeeling cruelty to the most selfless act of compassion.

SIFF 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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You thought America’s Got Talent was a mind-numbing celebration of mediocrity? Wait ‘til you get a load of China’s “digital celebrity universe”. Equipped with little more than a digital camera, an internet connection, and even less talent, China’s most popular online celebrities gear up for a contest in which whomever successfully begs the most money from their fans wins. A truly bizarre subculture. Fascinating subject, but this documentary becomes an endurance contest for the viewer.

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.

SIFF 2017: Zoology **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This oddity from Russian writer-director Ivan Tverdosky answers the question: What would happen if David Cronenberg directed a film with a script by Lena Dunham? A middle-aged, socially phobic woman who lives with her mother and works in a zoo administration office, appears to be at her happiest when she’s hanging out with the animals who are housed there. That’s because her supervisor and co-workers cruelly belittle her, on a daily basis. But when a doctor’s exam reveals a tail growing from the base of her spine, she is overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of empowerment and begins to gain confidence, perhaps even a sense of defiance about her “otherness”. This does not go unnoticed by a strapping young x-ray tech, who becomes hopelessly smitten as this ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan…a beautiful swan with a freakishly long tensile tail.

SIFF 2017: This is Our Land ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This French film might be a little too close for comfort…while ostensibly based on the rise of far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen, it could just as well be the cautionary tale America desperately needed about, oh, two years ago. Emilie Dequenne is quite good as a single-mom home care nurse with no previous political experience who gets sweet-talked by a local right-wing power-broker into running for mayor on a populist ticket. Her campaign is compromised once she becomes romantically re-involved with her old high-school boyfriend, who claims to have put his dubious past involving a xenophobic extremist group behind him. Belgian director Lucas Belvaux’s film (reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate) is a sobering reminder that that old axiom about “the road to hell” being “paved with good intentions” is truer than ever.