Saturday Night at the Movies
SIFF-ting through cinema, Pt. 2
By Dennis Hartley
The Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing, so this week I’m continuing to share film reviews. SIFF is showing 410 films over 25 days. Navigating such an event is no easy task, even for a dedicated buff (ow, my ass). Yet, I trudge on (cue the world’s tiniest violin). Hopefully, some of these films will be coming soon to a theater near you…
Enormous: The Gorge Story (USA) – The Gorge is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the mall, but that's just peanuts to the Gorge (with apologies to Douglas Adams). I refer to Washington State’s Columbia Gorge, 140 miles from Seattle. For music fans, the Gorge has become synonymous with memorable concert experiences. This amiable doc traces its transformation from a homemade stage built in the 80s to accommodate a wine-tasting to a now legendary music mecca. Employees, fans and artists (Dave Matthews, Mike McCready, Steve Miller, John Oates, Jason Mraz, et.al.) share favorite memories.
Rating: *** (Plays May 25 & 28)
Storm in My Heart (USA/Scotland) – Remember when some stoner discovered that if you sync up the “Dark Side of the Moon” album with The Wizard of Oz…magic happened? This is a similar concept. It’s tough to pigeonhole this “video essay” by obsessive cineaste and film maker Mark Cousins (The Story of Film, The Eyes of Orson Welles). I’d call it more of “an experiment”. Anyway, his premise: Actresses Susan Hayward and Lena Horne were born on the same day in Brooklyn. Both ended up with storied careers. However, as Horne was African-American and Hayward was white, their trajectories were decidedly different. Simultaneously running Horne’s 1943 musical Stormy Weather alongside Hayward’s 1953 film With a Song in My Heart, Cousins hopes viewers gain insight regarding racism in Hollywood. I tried, believe me. Aside from a few interestingly synchronous moments, I’m afraid that he did a complete flyover on me.
Rating: ** (North American Premiere; Plays May 28)
Emma Peeters (Belgium/Canada) – Maybe it’s coincidence, but what with the popularity of the HBO series Barry and this new black comedy from Belgian-American writer-director Nicole Palo, it appears acting class satires with dark undercurrents are now a thing. As she careens toward her 35th birthday, wannabe thespian Emma (Monia Chakri, in a winning performance) decides that she’s had it with failed auditions and slogging through a humiliating day job. She’s convinced herself that 35 is the “expiry” date for actresses anyway. So, she prepares for a major change…into the afterlife. Unexpectedly lightened by her decision, she cheerfully begins to check off her bucket list, giving away possessions, and making her own funeral arrangements. However, when she develops an unforeseen relationship with a lonely young funeral director, her future is uncertain, and the end may not be near. A funny-sad romantic romp in the vein of Harold and Maude.
Rating: *** (Plays May 28, 29, & 31)
The Hitch-Hiker (USA) – 46% of this year’s SIFF selections are by female directors, as are 56% of the 2019 competition films (ratios which should be industry-wide, not relegated to the festival circuit). As part of this emphasis, SIFF is presenting two restored gems from pioneering actor-director Ida Lupino. This 1953 film noir is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads (Talman is genuinely creepy and menacing).
Rating: ***½ (Special revival presentation; Plays May 29 only)
Eastern Memories (Finland) – Using excerpts from 100 year-old journals by Finnish linguist G.J. Ramstedt as a narrative, directors Niklas Kullstrom and Martti Kaartinen retrace his experiences in two countries. He was sent to Mongolia to study and compile a written record of the language, then was later assigned to a diplomatic post in Japan-where he studied the Korean language (I know-a little confusing). While his studies were primarily academic, his journals reflected a more subjective take on the geography and people of the respective countries. The directors juxtapose Ramstedt’s century-old musings with modern travelogues of the locations he wrote about. Despite the intriguing premise, the film is deadly dull in execution-not helped by dry and perfunctory narration.
Rating: ** (Plays May 29)
Miles Davis: The Birth of the Cool (USA) – Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.
Rating: **** (Plays May 29 & May 31)
Fantastic Planet (France) – Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster. Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing. SIFF is adding a unique twist: Seattle DJ “NicFit” will provide a live, “carefully curated soundtrack” of Flaming Lips tracks as accompaniment.
Rating: **** (Special event presentation; Plays May 30 only)
Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins (USA) – Janice Engel profiles the late, great political columnist and liberal icon Molly Ivins, who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. Engel digs beneath Ivins’ bigger-than-life public personae, revealing an individual who grew up in red state Texas as a shy outsider. Self-conscious about her physicality (towering over her classmates at 6 feet by age 12), she learned how to neutralize the inevitable teasing with her fierce intelligence and wit (I find interesting parallels with Janis Joplin’s formative Texas years). Her political awakening also came early (to the chagrin of her conservative oilman father). The archival clips of Ivins imparting her incomparable wit and wisdom are gold; although I was left wishing Engel had included more (and I am dying to know what Ivins would say about you-know-who).
Rating: ***½ (Plays May 31 & June 1)
The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (Japan) – Billed as “a lost gem of 1980s Japanese cinema”, this alleged cult film is an example of why some lost gems are perhaps best-left “lost” (you know…like Bilbo’s goddam ring). Then again, perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood (or under the influence of the right “enhancement”) to experience the sway it apparently holds over some midnight movie enthusiasts. Granted, there are moments of campy fun in this tale of a new wave duo’s rise and fall, but overall it’s a psychedelic train wreck. The original songs are gratingly awful…kind of a deal breaker for a musical.
Rating: ** (Special revival presentation; Plays May 31, June 2 & 3)
This is Not Berlin (Mexico) – Less Than Zero meets SLC Punk…in the ‘burbs of Mexico City. Set circa 1985, writer-director-musician Hari Sama’s semi-autobiographical drama is an ensemble piece reminiscent of the work of outsider filmmakers like Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. The central character is 17 year-old Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León), a shy and nerdy misfit who has an artistic (and sexual) awakening once taken under the wing of the owner of an avant-garde nightclub. Intense, uninhibited, and pulsating with energy throughout. Sama coaxes fearless performances from all the actors.
Rating: **** (Plays June 2 & 6)
Previous posts with related themes:
2019 SIFF Preview
More reviews at Den of Cinema