Saturday Night at the Movies: Seattle Film Festival ---SIFFting through cinema, Pt. 1

Saturday Night at the Movies

SIFFting through cinema, Pt. 1

By Dennis Hartley

The Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing, so over the next several weeks I will be bringing you highlights. Navigating such an event is no easy task, even for a dedicated film buff. SIFF is presenting 273 films over 25 days. That’s great for independently wealthy types, but for those of us who work for a living (*cough*), it’s tough to find the time and energy to catch 11 films a day (yes-I did the math). I do take consolation from my observation that the ratio of less-than-stellar (too many) to quality offerings (too few) at a film festival differs little from any Friday night crapshoot at the multiplex. The trick lies in developing a sixth sense for films most likely to be up your alley (in my case, embracing my OCD and channeling it like a cinematic dowser.) Hopefully, some of these will be coming soon to a theater near you. So-let’s go SIFFting!

Your Sister’s Sister, the new offering from Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton was SIFF’s Opening Night Gala feature presentation (it opens wide in mid-June). In my experience, the film selections for the annual kickoff soiree are not always (how should I put this delicately)…well-advised, so I usually approach with trepidation. This year, however, I think they made a really good call. It was not only filmed in and around Seattle, by a Seattle filmmaker, but (most importantly) it’s vastly entertaining (locally produced and/or filmed doesn’t necessarily equate “perfect choice”, as 2008’s anemic Festival opener, Battle in Seattle demonstrated). Shelton’s romantic “love triangle” dramedy (reminiscent of Chasing Amy) is a talky but thoroughly engaging look at the complexities of modern relationships, centering on a slacker man-child (Mark Duplass) his deceased brother’s girlfriend (Emily Blunt) and her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt), who all bumble into a sort of unplanned “encounter weekend” together at a remote family cabin. Funny, insightful and well-directed, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Paul Williams: Still Alive begs the question: “Do I care?” Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I “care” care, but I had enough morbid curiosity to pull me into this update on the oddball singer-songwriter-actor with the pageboy haircut who penned a slew of huge 70s hits (“We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “An Old-Fashioned Love Song”, “Evergreen”), appeared in a number of cult movies (The Loved One, Phantom of the Paradise), became a fixture on the TV game show/talk show circuit, then disappeared. A wary Williams initially vacillates on whether he wants to be the subject of a “fly on the wall” study, but filmmaker (and professed super fan) Steven Kessler ingratiates himself after the men bond over a mutual love of squid (don’t ask). What results is an alternately hilarious and sobering look at the ups and downs of this business we call “show”. In a priceless sequence, real life imitates Ishtar (for which Williams wrote the score for, ironically) when the neurotic, Woody Allen-ish Kessler reluctantly joins Williams for a gig in the Philippines that includes a long bus ride through jungles (allegedly) chock-a-block with Islamic terrorists. Kessler is on the verge of a panic attack for the entire trip; Williams remains quietly bemused. That’s show biz…

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy meets Burn After Reading in a sardonic espionage thriller from the UK called Eliminate: Archie Cookson. Archie (Paul Rhys) is a British Intelligence analyst, specializing in Russian translation. His glory days are long over; his workday is divided between clockwatching and guzzling wine when he thinks no one is looking. His estranged wife and precociously droll young son are rarely happy to see him. Archie shrugs and drinks some more wine. Suffice it to say, he is not your suave, self-confident 007 type. When he unknowingly falls into possession of incriminating tapes that could sink the careers of two MI6 bigwigs, he becomes a “loose end” and soon finds himself playing cat and mouse with an old work acquaintance, a former CIA agent now turned freelance hit man. At first resigned to his fate, Archie’s survival instincts rekindle, and he begins to crawl out of his existential malaise, deciding to not only turn the tables on his corrupt superiors, but to win back the love and respect of his wife and son as well. Aside from a few pacing issues, filmmaker Robin Holder has made an impressive debut here, displaying a refreshingly dry wit as a screenwriter and an assured hand as a director.

Immersing yourself in the world of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not unlike entering a fever dream you might have after dropping acid and trying to get back to sleep…after waking up inside someone else’s nightmare. If that sentence made sense to you, you might find Keyhole worth a peek. Any attempt to offer a cogent synopsis of a Guy Maddin film usually ends in tears, but I’ll try: A Roaring 20s gangster (Jason Patric) comes home after a long absence, schlepping a corpse and a hostage. His gun-toting crew is encamped in the living room, and his house is surrounded by coppers. Patric’s primary concern, however, is getting upstairs to reconnect with the wife (Isabella Rossellini). Unfortunately, it takes him 90 minutes to get up the goddamn stairs. Did I mention the protagonist’s name...Ulysses? It’s a Homeric journey, get it? Reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Gothic, another metaphorical long day’s journey into night via the labyrinth of an old dark house. And, like Russell’s film, Maddin’s is visually intoxicating, but ultimately undermined by an overdose of art house pretension and self-indulgent excess.

The Story of Film: an Odyssey is one long-ass movie. Consider the title. It literally is the story of film, from the 1890s through last Tuesday. At 15 hours, it is nearly as epic an undertaking for the viewer as it must have been for director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins. Originally aired as a 15-part TV series in the UK, it has been making the rounds on the festival circuit as a five-part presentation. While the usual suspects are well-represented, Cousins’ choices for in-depth analysis are atypical (he has a predilection for African and Middle-Eastern cinema). That quirkiness is what I found most endearing about this idiosyncratic opus; world cinema enjoys equal time with Hollywood. The film is not without tics. Cousins’ oddly cadenced Irish brogue requires steely acclimation, and he has a tendency to over-use the word “masterpiece”. Of course, he “left out” many directors and films I would have included. Nits aside, this is obviously a labor of love by someone passionate about film, and if you claim to be, you have an obligation to see this.

Although I have already seen the Studio Ghibli masterpiece, Only Yesterday several times (I own a PAL DVD copy) I am looking forward to enjoying it on the big screen. Originally released in Japan back in 1991, it is finally in U.S. theaters (well, at least on the festival circuit). Written and directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies), this is one of the celebrated Japanese anime studio’s most subtle and “realistic” narratives (as well as one of its most visually breathtaking). A woman in her late 20s takes a train ride through the countryside and reflects on the choices she has made throughout her life, from childhood onward. It is a poetic and moving humanist study that I would hold up alongside the best work of Ozu. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, although the Walt Disney Company has held domestic distribution rights for some time, they apparently “objected” to references about menstruation (we can’t come up with a Buzz Lightyear action figure or Happy Meal tie-in for that, can we?). I envy SIFF attendees who may be discovering this true gem for the first time, and in its intended presentation.

Saturday Night at the Movies review archives