Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2022: Hinterland (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)


Stefan Ruzowitsky directed this expressionist police procedural set in post WWI Vienna. A PTSD-afflicted veteran (Murathan Muslu) who was a policeman before the war is drawn into the investigation of a serial killer who is picking off his former fellow POWs one-by-one. A cross between Babylon Berlin and Sin City (with a hint of Berlin Alexanderplatz), it’s stylish and visually arresting, but hobbled by slow pacing and a boilerplate murder mystery. Co-written by the director, along with Robert Buchschwenter and Hanno Pinter.


SIFF-ting through cinema: Week 1

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 16, 2022)


The 2022 Seattle International Film Festival celebrated its opening night on April 14th. This year’s SIFF is a “hybrid experience”, combining virtual access to many selections with a return to in-person screenings.  SIFF is showing 262 shorts, features and docs from 80 countries. The Festival runs now through April 24th, so let’s just dive right in…

SIFF is showcasing 41 documentaries this year, and many look intriguing. Sweetheart Deal (USA) is billed as an “unflinchingly honest” portrait of 4 heroin-addicted sex workers struggling for survival along Seattle’s infamous Aurora Avenue. Riotsville, USA (USA) tells the story of a government-funded fake town built on a military installation in the late 60s for practicing crowd-control against “Black Panther agitators” (the exercises were filmed and distributed for police training purposes).

On the meditative side: Filmed over 6 years, Dark Red Forest (China) is a verité reflection on the “mysterious daily life” of Buddhist nuns, documenting an annual retreat attended by thousands at the Yarchen Gar Monastery in Tibet. River (Australia) is being compared to the Qatsi trilogy, with “soothing, poetic narration by Willem Dafoe” and a “haunting score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and more”. They had me at “Qatsi”.

Pop culture docs: Only in Theaters (USA) is billed as “an ode” to a venerable LA-based art house theater chain run by the Laemmle family. Several promising music docs are also on my “too see” list, including a profile of Sinéad O’Connor called Nothing Compares (Ireland), Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (USA), which takes a look back at 50 years of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Bernstein’s Wall (USA) which blends “TV interviews, home movies, and excerpts from sexually frank letters” to construct an (assumingly) intimate portrait of iconic composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Always with the drama: Warm Blood (USA) is set in the 1980s, and described as a “grungy, politically subversive mix of narrative, documentary, and trash B-movies about the underbelly of America”…right in my wheelhouse. Drunken Birds (Canada/Quebec) concerns a Mexican drug cartel worker who finds seasonal migrant work in Quebec while searching for his long-lost love. The trailer suggests a Terrence Malick-style visual palette. Ali & Eva (UK) is a cross-cultural “middle-age lonely-hearts” romance that its director calls “a diegetic musical” (a middlebrow’s confession: I had look up “diegetic”).

Lightening the mood: “Imagine if Ealing Studios and ESPN teamed up to co-produce a film.” I imagine I’ll find out, as the dramedy Phantom of the Open (UK) is on my list. Also from the UK, The Duke is a dramedy based on the 1961 heist of a Goya portrait of from London’s National Gallery, conducted by an unlikely culprit (Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren are the primary draw for me). Cha Cha Real Smooth (USA) is a dramedy about “a bar mitzvah party host who makes friends with a mother and her autistic daughter” (it earned the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award earlier this year at Sundance).

“Funny” how? Celts (Serbia) is a dark comedy about “a harried and undersexed mother” in 1993 Belgrade who slips out of her 8 year-old daughter’s sleepover party for a little partying of her own during a politically tumultuous era (I’m sensing echoes of Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball). Barbarian Invasion (Malaysia) is “an empowering show-biz satire” about an actress and single mom who has been on hiatus for 10 years taking care of her son. She lands the lead in a surefire-hit action film, with one caveat: she’s required to do her own martial arts stunts. Cop Secret (France/Iceland) is an Icelandic action comedy that goofs on the buddy-cop genre (with a hint of Nordic noir, perhaps?).

Let’s go do some crimes: Hinterland (Germany) is a period thriller set in post WWI Vienna, described as “an expressionist crime thriller, filmed entirely on blue-screen”. The Man in the Basement (France) is a “neighbor from hell” thriller starring one of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet. A man purchases a basement from a well-off couple as a storage space …but then moves in. In the psychological thriller Out of Sync (Spain), “time, space, and sound fall hopelessly out of sync” for a Foley artist.

Odds and ends: Billed as “an outback Western”, The Legend of Molly Johnson (Australia) was written and directed by star Leah Purcell. The film is a reworking of Henry Lawson’s 1892 colonial classic. Inu-oh (Japan) is an anime fictionalizing “the collaboration between Inu-kong, a 14th-century masked performer, and a blind biwa player.” And 2551.01 (Austria) is “an experimental, punk-style interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid—with elements of Guy Maddin, Freaks, the Brothers Quay, David Lynch, and Titicut Follies” …which suggests I picked a bad week to give up doing mushrooms.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll be plowing through the catalog and sharing reviews with you beginning next Saturday (check out my Twitter feed @denofcinema5 for capsule reviews). In the meantime, visit the SIFF site for full details on film schedules, virtual viewing options, event screenings, special guests, and more.

SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Writer-director Liang Ming’s drama is an ambitious feature debut–perhaps overly so. Set in northeast China, the film begins as a character study about a brother and sister struggling to make ends meet in a fishing town. The young woman (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented worker and on the verge of losing her hotel maid job. Her half-brother (Xiaoliang Wu) has just lost his fishing job.

When the siblings befriend the free-spirited daughter of a prosperous mob boss, the sister oddly begins to act like a jilted (lover?) once her brother and their new friend start sleeping together…but there is no explanation as to why. There is a suggestion that the two women have the hots for each other, but that thread goes nowhere fast. About 40 minutes in there is a hint that you’re now watching a crime thriller, but no thrills ensue. Ultimately the film is a wash.

SIFF 2021: Topside (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Be advised: This stark, intense and harrowing drama about homelessness and heroin addiction is not for the squeamish (count me among the squeamish). Co-writers and directors Logan George and Celine Held’s film begins literally in the dark underbelly of New York City…and figuratively works its way down from there.

A homeless single mother (Held) and her 5-year old daughter (Zhaila Farmer) survive hand-to-mouth living in an abandoned subway tunnel. When city officials order a sweep of the subterranean community, mother and daughter are forced “topside” onto the mean streets. Not a “feel good” film, but the most gripping and heartbreaking junkie drama I’ve seen since Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 character study The Panic in Needle Park.

SIFF 2021: The Spy (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Swedish director Jens Jonsson’s WW2 drama is based on a “rumored” story regarding famous Norwegian-Swedish actress Sonja Wigert. After Sonja (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) shuns the advances of German occupied Norway’s reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Alexander Scheer), he arranges to have her father arrested by the SS (as spurned Nazis do). Swedish intelligence offers to help free her father if Sonja agrees to get chummy with Terboven so she can gather intel (they are eager to find out if/when the Germans plan on invading Sweden).

The film drags in the first half, which is essentially a series of fetes and elegant dinners where Sonja flirts and mingles with high-ranking Nazis, but eventually delivers on its “spy thriller” billing with added layers of subterfuge and intrigue. While not destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Mephisto or The Last Metro, The Spy is a stylish (if workmanlike) genre entry. The screenplay was written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland.

SIFF 2021: The Salt in Our Waters (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s sumptuously photographed variation on the venerable “city mouse-country mouse” scenario concerns a metropolitan sculptor (Titas Zia) who travels to a remote fishing village in the Bangladeshi Delta for a sabbatical. Inspired by the beauty of the coast (as well as one of the young women), he begins work on new pieces. Some villagers are puzzled by his sculptures (which they view as “idols” with no practical purpose) but are hospitable to their guest.

However, when the fishermen find their nets are suddenly coming up short (due to rising tides), the recently arrived outsider becomes a convenient straw man for the “Chairman”, the local head cleric and village leader. A compelling, beautifully acted drama that makes salient observations on tradition vs. modernity and science vs. fundamentalism.

SIFF 2021: Deadly Cuts (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Strictly Ballroom meets Eating Raoul in this twisted black comedy from writer-director Rachel Carey. A quartet of hairdressers living in a crime-ridden Dublin neighborhood are working overtime to brainstorm new “cuts” that are innovative and exciting enough to wow the judges at the imminent “Ahh Hair!” championship.

The women suffer a setback when their salon is vandalized by a gang who run a neighborhood protection racket. When the gang’s oafish leader shows up at the salon demanding payment, the confrontation escalates and the women are forced to defend themselves-with extreme prejudice. Let’s just say… it’s on to the championship, girls! The film becomes increasingly more campy and over-the-top as it progresses, but it’s (darkly) funny throughout.

SIFF 2021: The Bears’ Famous Invasion (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Granted, the bruin incursion recounted in this charming fairy-tale is likely more “famous” in Italy than elsewhere (Lorenzo Mattotti’s animated film is adapted from a popular Italian children’s book that I have never heard of called La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia), but the story has universal appeal. A wandering minstrel and his young daughter happen onto a gargantuan bear while seeking shelter in a cave. Lucky for them, the hungry bear is up for swapping tales (as opposed to gobbling down an obvious easy dinner). The two tales told intersect in clever fashion. An imaginative and splendidly animated family-friendly entertainment.

SIFF 2021: Beans (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)


Writer-director Tracey Deer’s impressive debut (co-written with Meredith Vuchnich) is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a 12 year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed “Beans” (Kiawentiio). Beans’ preteen turmoil and angst is juxtaposed with a retelling of the 1990 “Oka crisis” standoff in Quebec, which involved a land dispute between Mohawk protesters and Canadian law enforcement.

Beans, her little sister, father and pregnant mother find themselves in the thick of the (at times life-threatening) racist backlash from the local Quebecois settler community. Deer’s interweaving of documentary realism (via archival news footage of the crisis) with wonderful, naturalistic performances from her cast makes for an absorbing social drama.

SIFF 2021: Waikiki (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)


Trouble in paradise. This shattering psychological drama (written, directed, produced, and edited by Christopher Kahunahana) is about a young native Hawaiian woman (Danielle Zalopany, in an extraordinary performance) who is at a crossroads in her life. She suffers PTSD from an abusive relationship. She is temporarily homeless and living in her van. She juggles several part-time jobs, including bar tending and teaching hula. One night, upset and distracted following an altercation with her ex, she hits a homeless man with her van. From this point onward the film takes a tonal shift that demands your complete attention.