Saturday Night at the Movies
SIFF-ting through cinema, Pt. 1
By Dennis Hartley
The Seattle International Film Festival kicked off May 16, so over the next several posts I’ll be sharing film reviews. SIFF is showing 410 films over 25 days. Navigating such an event is no easy task, even for a dedicated buff. Yet, I trudge on (cue the world’s tiniest violin). Hopefully, some of these films will be coming soon to a theater near you…
The Invisible Witness (Italy) – This neo-noir/murder mystery unfolds via flashbacks. A well-to-do businessman accused of murdering his mistress consults with a defense attorney 3 hours before he is to be taken into custody and officially charged. He claims to be the victim of an elaborate setup. The circumstantial evidence does not seem to be in his favor. Some moments of genuine suspense, but otherwise by-the-numbers genre fare that was rather obviously made while driving under the influence of The Usual Suspects.
Rating: **½ (North American Premiere; Plays May 18, 22, & 23)
Who Let the Dogs Out? (Canada) – Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, because I have hated that tuneless ear worm since I first heard it in 2000. That said, my opinion obviously holds no sway in the grand scheme, because it remains one of the most ubiquitous anthems of the last 20 years. For me, the biggest question here is: “Why?” However, for “cultural curator” Ben Sisto the most nagging question was “Who?” ...as in, who actually wrote the song? Triggered by a “sloppy” Wikipedia entry regarding authorship of the Baha Men’s one-hit-wonder, Sisto went on an 8-year quest to solve the mystery. As Sisto continues to run the chalk backwards, the story becomes curiouser and curiouser; both Roshomon-style mystery and unexpected treatise on the objective psyche.
Rating: *** (Plays May 19 & 25)
Wild Rose (United Kingdom) – Yes, it’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. Besides…there’s a cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!
Rating: ***½ (Plays May 18 & May 24)
An Affair (Norway) – There’s an old Woody Allen joke: “Those who cannot do, teach. Those who cannot teach, teach gym.” A disenchanted, 40-ish housewife takes a job teaching gym (to the chagrin of hubby). If she was seeking excitement, she gets that and more after one of her students begins stalking her. In real life, if a high school teacher received a text from a student saying “You look hot when you run!” followed by a dick pic-she’d put the kibosh on it right then and there-but we’d only have a 10-minute movie. You’ll yell at the protagonist for her inappropriate choices, but if you’re a sucker for steamy erotic thrillers-this film will still seduce you (you’ll hate yourself in the morning).
Rating: *** (Plays May 19 and May 20)
Cold Case Hammarskjold (Denmark) – Initially, Mads Brugger’s documentary promises to be straightforward investigative journalism regarding the mysterious 1961 plane crash in Zambia that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsjkold. But around the halfway mark, Brugger pivots, now claiming (admitting?) it may all just be a wild conspiracy theory. Either way, it’s a riveting political thriller (and if true-very disconcerting). I was reminded of Orson Welles’ (more playful) semi-documentary ‘F’ for Fake, which teases the viewer’s perceptions regarding what it’s “about”.
Rating: ***½ (Plays May 19 & 21)
Putin’s Witnesses (Latvia) – While watching this extraordinarily intimate behind-the-scenes look at Vladimir Putin as he (sort of) campaigns for the Russian presidency in 2000, I began to think “OK…the guy who made this film is now either (a.) Dead (b.) Being held at an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia or (c.) Living in exile…right?” I was relieved to learn that the correct answer is (c.) – Director Vitaly Mansky is currently alive and well and living in Latvia. In 1999, Manksy (a TV journalist at the time) was assigned to accompany Putin on the campaign trail; hence the treasure trove of footage he had at to draw from in creating this unique capture of a significant moment in Russian political history. The most amazing sequence doesn’t even involve Putin…Mansky and his cameras are right there in the living room of noticeably unwell outgoing president Boris Yeltsin as he anxiously watches TV coverage with his family on election night in 2000. When former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pops onscreen in an interview, Yeltsin (likely half in the bag) flies into a rage, yelling at the TV and demanding that it be turned off (Armando Ianucci couldn’t have written a funnier scene).
Rating: **** (Plays May 19 & 23)
Monos (Columbia) – Lord of the Flies meets Aguirre: The Wrath of God in this trippy war drama. A squad of teenage South American guerilla fighters undergo intense training for an unspecified contemporary conflict. Initially, it’s just a game to them; but after a bloody skirmish, they rebel against their adult commander and flee into the dense mountain jungle with a female American hostage in tow. Brutal, visceral, and one-of-a-kind. It’s the Apocalypse Now of child soldier films.
Rating: **** (Plays May 20)
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada) – Co-directors Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky put the band back together for this update on their cautionary 2007 eco-doc Manufacturing Landscapes. In my original review of that film, I likened the photographic imagery to “…a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher”. I’m sad to report there’s been little improvement on humankind’s mistreatment of our planet-as evidenced by this likewise visually striking and equally sobering document.
Rating: *** (Plays May 20 & 23)
Honeyland (Macedonia) – Filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska spent three years documenting the daily hard-scrabble life of Hatidze Muratova, a “bee hunter” who lives in the Balkans. She supports herself and her elderly mother by selling raw honey to local village merchants. When a family of Turkish itinerant farmers sets up camp next door, the delicate and carefully cultivated balance of her bee colony’s productivity is potentially threatened. A unique meditation on human nature…and on nature itself.
Rating: *** (Plays May 21 & 25)
X: The eXploited (Hungary) – This dark, brooding neo-noir from Hungarian writer-director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros mostly succeeds at being dark and brooding. It begins promisingly with an interesting protagonist; a top-flight female police detective who has been relegated to desk duty because of an acute panic disorder, initiated by her late husband’s suicide (he was also a detective). Nonetheless, she is enlisted by a new department head to help investigate a string of suicides that may have been staged. Unfortunately, the film is ultimately bogged down by a murky, pointlessly byzantine plot.
Rating: ** (Plays May 22, 24 & 26)
David Crosby: Remember My Name (USA) – David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77 year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”
Rating: ***½ (Plays May 24 & 25)
Previous posts with related themes:
2019 SIFF Preview
More reviews at Den of Cinema