Saturday Night at the Movies
2014 SIFF Preview
By Dennis Hartley
In case this has been keeping you up nights, I have been accredited for the Seattle International Film Festival (May 15th through June 8th). Navigating such an event is no easy task, even for a dedicated movie buff. SIFF is showing over 250 feature films and 150 short films over a 25 day period. That must be great for independently wealthy slackers, but for those of us who work for a living (*cough*), it’s not easy to find the time and energy to catch 16 films a day (I did the math). The trick is developing a sixth sense for films in your wheelhouse (in my case, embracing my OCD and channeling it like a cinematic dowser.) That in mind, here are some titles on my “to-do” list for 2014:
Of particular interest to Hullabaloo readers, SIFF is featuring a fair number of intriguing films with a socio-political bent. #Chicago Girl-The Social Network Takes on a Dictator is a documentary (shot over a two-year period) that profiles a 19 year-old Damascus-born Chicago resident who was instrumental in organizing the Syrian revolution and exposing al-Assad's brutal regime (power to the laptop!). Bound: Africans vs African-Americans is described as a "controversial" and "hard-hitting" examination of an ongoing rift between Africans and African-Americans that historically has been swept under the rug. To Be Takei takes a peek at the private and public life of out-and-proud Asian-American actor (and Star Trek icon) George Takei's politically vital "second career" as a civil rights activist and social media phenom. Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus is a look at the struggles of the Belarus Free Theatre, who carry on in the face of government oppression and KGB harassment (shades of last year's Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer). Fifi Howls from Happiness reviews the life of iconoclastic Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses, who has self-exiled himself in Rome since 2006 (his "salacious" sculptures and paintings were not a hit in his native country in the days of the Shah). And two more docs of note: Regarding Susan Sontag, which promises to be a "meticulously constructed" reflection on the literary icon/feminist pioneer's life and work; and Ivory Tower, director Andrew Rossi's look at the escalating cost of higher education in the US.
And now for something completely different. I always look forward to SIFF’s “Face the Music” showcase. This year’s most highly anticipated entry is also SIFF's Opening Night selection, the biopic Jimi-All is By My Side. Written and directed by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley, it focuses on Hendrix's "London period", leading up to the cusp of his superstardom. Outkast guitarist Andre Benjamin tackles the lead role. A New Zealand import called 3-Mile Limit is a dramatized take on the story of Radio Hauraki, a pirate station that defied the government in the mid-60s to bring the devil’s music to rock’n’roll-starved Kiwi teenagers. Lucky Them, from Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths, features the interesting pairing of Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church as a rock journalist and first-time filmmaker (respectively) who are trying to find out “whatever happened to” a reclusive, “legendary” Seattle musician. Finding Fela, the latest from eclectic documentarian Alex Gibney, takes a look at Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose stridently political lyrics and unconventional lifestyle put him at loggerheads with the Nigerian government for most of his career. Say, were you “born to be mild”? Polish the mirrors on your Keds for Beautiful Noise, a rockumentary about the “shoegazer” movement (My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cocteau Twins). 20,000 Days on Earth profiles Australian musician/author/screenwriter/actor Nick Cave. It purports to fall “somewhere between fact and fiction”, and to be a “playful deconstruction of the typical music documentary” (what…no one else has seen Meeting People is Easy?). I’ll admit, I’ve never “got” Cave’s appeal, but the trailer intrigued me.
I’m always a sucker for a good noir/crime/mystery thriller. From China, a film noir called Black Coal, Thin Ice spins the tale of an ex-police detective who decides to privately re-open the botched case that got him thrown off the force years before. In the Indian crime thriller Monsoon Shootout, a rookie cop stationed in Mumbai faces off with a legendary assassin known as the “Axe Man”. From Australia, we have Mystery Road, in which an Aboriginal police detective investigates the murder of a teenage girl whose body is found along a rural Queensland highway. The film is described as a mash-up between “gun-slinging Western and police procedural”. The self-explanatory Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is the latest true crime documentary from Joe Berlinger (director of the riveting Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis 3). And even if White Shadow, a Tanzanian thriller about a young albino on the run following his father’s murder turns out to be a lemon, at least I’ll be able to check “watch a Tanzanian thriller about a young albino on the run following his father’s murder” off my bucket list.
You want drama? There’s plenty of that. Based on the advance buzz, it sounds like SIFF’s Centerpiece Gala selection, Boyhood, could be writer-director Richard Linklater’s magnum opus. The film was shot in and around Austin in only 39 days…but over a 12-year period, with the same cast. It follows its young protagonist’s life from age 6 to freshman year of college (shades of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel film cycle). From Venezuela, Bad Hair (filmed in the tower blocks of Caracas) is a “deceptively small-scale” domestic drama about a single mother clashing with her 9 year-old son over his desire to straighten his kinky hair. Abuse of Weakness, a semi-autobiographical film from French director Catherine Breillat, features Isabelle Huppert as a partially paralyzed woman who falls for a manipulative con man. I’m looking forward to Calvary, which reunites Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh with leading man Brendan Gleeson (I caught up with their 2011 sleeper The Guard only recently, and it’s a real gem). Described as a “vulgar morality play”, it concerns a village priest (Gleeson) dealing with an out-of-left field death threat from one of his parishioners (they had me at “vulgar morality play”). And if you’re a fan of network narratives, The Turning (from Australia) looks like the ticket. It features eighteen interlocking stories, helmed by just as many directors. The “multiple directors” stunt has been done…but rarely on this scale.
And lest we forget to laugh, here are several comedies that have caught my eye. From Sweden, The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is billed as an “absurdist comedy” wherein the eponymous gentleman of note flees the nursing home on his birthday and hits the road (upon which, we assume, hilarity ensues). Blind Dates is a romantic comedy from Georgia (the country) about a 40 year-old teacher still living with his parents who finally meets the woman of his dreams. While it may not have been intended as a “comedy” per se, the preview for the documentary A Brony Tale elicited guffaws from the attendees at the SIFF press launch. It examines the phenomenon (new to me) of adult male fans obsessed with the kid’s show My Little Pony. Speaking of critters, Zombeavers is a sendup of 80s “dead teenager” horror films. And just when you thought that the Estonian slacker film was dead, along comes Free Range: Ballad on Approving of the World, which follows the existential malaise of a 20-something writer who gets fired from his newspaper for writing an unfavorable review of The Tree of Life.
This year, SIFF has organized a category under the banner "Sci-Fi and Fact". On the factual side, the documentary From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines promises to take you on a trip (in a manner of speaking) through the effects of mind-expanding drugs and their potential medicinal applications, with input from scientists and advocates. Another brain-tossing documentary, Mirage Men, throws conspiracy theorists and former counter-intelligence officers together into the ring to debate the filmmaker’s contention that the Roswell UFO cover-up mythology was purposely seeded via disinformation campaigns concocted by the US government (I want to believe, Scully!). Sci-fi geeks take note: I Origins reunites director Mike Cahill with actress Brit Marling (they collaborated on the 2012 festival hit, Another Earth). Michael Pitt co-stars as a molecular biologist whose study of human eye evolution leads to a revelatory discovery that puts him on a metaphysical globe-trotting quest. Hard to Be a God is the final film by Russian director Alexei German. Shot in black and white, it concerns a team of scientific observers from Earth who embed themselves amongst the populace of a distant planet that is still stuck in a hard-scrabble, feudal-based society not unlike our own Dark Ages.
I can’t guarantee that I will catch every film that I’d like to, gentle reader- but you will be the first to receive a full report, beginning with my Saturday, May 17th post. And obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the catalog tonight. So in the meantime, visit the SIFF website for more info about the 2014 films, events and the festival guests.
Dennis Hartley 5/10/2014 05:00:00 PM