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SIFF 2014: Week One Highlights

40 Days of Silence

Our local month-long movie megathon struck again Thursday with Jimi: All Is By My Side, a Jimi Hendrix biopic devoid of Jimi Hendrix music. But even if you missed the opening night soiree there's plenty more to feast your eyes and ears and emotions on before the cinematic smorgasbord unspools its final reel projects its last digital file on June 8.

The TIG SIFF staff will be here for the duration to help you make sense of the typically mammoth schedule, and as in years past I'll bring you a roundup of brief capsule previews for films to be screened the coming festival week. I'm happy to report that, so far, the joy-free staleness of Jimi isn't at all the deal for upcoming offerings. (Many of them, anyway.) In fact, of the SIFF 2014 films I've seen to date, the shining gems far outnumber the out-and-out stinkers.

Here are ten features to queue up for, one to avoid outright (yes, only one so far!), and six to be cautiously optimistic/pessimistic about, all screening at some point during the festival's first week (May 16-22). You're welcome.

DON'T MISS:

The Case Against 8
{screens May 16 at 6:30pm at the Harvard, and May 17 at 11:30am at the Uptown}
A moving and highly entertaining documentary following the six-year battle between California's same-sex marriage ban (2008) and the Supreme Court declaration of its unconstitutionality (2013). The film makes its revelations beautifully, peppering usual doc elements with legal intrigue and turning tides. I knew very little about the counsel team (led by Republican Theodore Olson and Democrat David Boies, who had been opponents in the Bush v. Gore recount case in 2000), and even less about the plaintiff couples (Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo), but was very happy to spend time with them all. Sure, the film preaches to the choir -- but what a beautiful sermon it is.

Difret
{screens May 17 at 6pm at the Uptown, May 18 at 3:30pm at Pacific Place, and May 24 at 3pm in Renton}
After being abducted and raped, a rural 14-year-old Ethopian girl (Tizita Hagere) shoots and kills her attacker in an act of self-defense, pitting herself and a tenacious human-rights attorney (dazzling Meron Getnet) against long-standing tribal traditions. Writer-director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's debut feature is a compelling and devastating adaptation of an extraordinary true story. Wonderfully naturalistic performances (by mostly non-pro actors) lead viewers into the characters' worlds, and into the tense legal drama that grows from it.

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God’s Pocket

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro on God's Pocket

{God’s Pocket opens in Seattle on Friday, 5/16, and is screening at Landmark Varsity Theatre}  

Oof. I didn’t expect watching one of the last films Phillip Seymour Hoffman was in would be so … awkward, but it was. And for more than just the obvious reasons.

God’s Pocket is the first feature from Actor and Director John Slattery (aka Roger Sterling on Mad Men), and while the movie features some strong performances, the execution is definitely flawed. The story, set in a working class neighborhood in Philly in the 1980s, is based on a novel by Peter Dexter.

Main character Mickey Scarpato is something of a small-time crook; selling meat from the back of his truck that he gets from sketchy sources, stealing other trucks, and predictably, losing all his earnings at the horse track. His wife, Jeanie (played by Slattery’s MM co-star, Christina Hendricks) is gorgeous, and predictably, dissatisfied. She also has a 22-year-old-going-on-13 son named Leon, who, predictably, the entire neighborhood hates because he’s a racist, drug-addicted jerk.

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SIFF Take: The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins Bill Hader Kristen Wiig SIFF 2014

A film with Kristen Wiig AND Bill Hader? This should be HILARIOUS, right?!?! Right. Except, it isn’t. I mean, it is and it isn’t. The Skeleton Twins casts these two former SNL cast mates as twins Maggie & Milo: a very broken set of siblings who haven’t spoken to each other in over 10 years until suicide attempts on the same day bring them together again. HAHAHAHA. Oh, wait.

Speaking of “skeletons,” both of them have plenty in their closet, only Maggie is obsessed with hiding hers while Milo displays his right out in the open for everyone to see. As they try to navigate their messed up lives and renewed relationship while also dealing with Maggie’s clueless husband, and Milo’s former … lover (?) things get more and more and MORE f**ked up, but hey! At least they have each other. Director Craig Johnson (True Adolescents, SIFF 2009) provides plenty of humor to balance out the dark times—my favorite involves the theme song from 1987’s Mannequin—but credit for this film blowing me away really goes to its two leads. This one is a must-see; I highly recommend purchasing your ticket for its only SIFF screening on Friday NOW.  

{The Skeleton Twins screens at SIFF on 5/16, 9:30pm at The Egyptian. Director Craig Johnson is scheduled to attend} 

SIFF Review: Miss Zombie

Miss Zombie cannot be the first zombie movie with such an intense art house esthetic, but it's the first I've seen. More importantly this quiet but disturbing Japanese family horror film brings a level of sympathy unusual to the genre, creating one of the few zombies where you care about their backstory and what happens to them. And no, Warm Bodies does not count.

The story starts with the delivery of a female zombie to a doctor's country home. Sent by a friend trying to create a new business around "low grade" zombies, the box comes with two instructions: 1) Don't feed her meat, and 2) Use the included pistol if things get out of hand. Zombiness in this universe is a viral condition of sorts. Lower grade carriers tend to be docile and not considered a large danger ... of course, things can change pretty fast under the right circumstances.

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SIFF 2014 Preview: NW Connections

I honestly feel like the SIFF NW Connections programming gets better every single year! The 40th Seattle International Film Festival has an impressive roster of documentaries and features with local directors, actors, writers, and locations. ALL of this makes me incredibly happy! Let’s take a look at what’s happening this year.

My first thought when I spied the new Megan Griffiths film in this year’s line-up was, “AWESOME!”  And awesome it is. Lucky Them stars Toni Collette as a Seattle music journalist (for fictional magazine STAX) who’s never quite gotten over her famous and handsome musician beau’s disappearance. It’s packed with great acting from Collette and her co-stars, lots of recognizable Seattle scenery, and more introspection than you usually get from a “dramedy.” GO SEE IT! It’s great. {Screens 5/22, 7pm at the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, and again 5/23, 9:15pm at The Egyptian}

Raging grannies seems like a thing I’d like, so I’m planning to check out Two Raging Grannies, a documentary about Seattle residents and best friends Shirley & Hinda, who ride around on their scooters with megaphones shouting suggestions about solving the global economic crisis. I LOVE IT. {Screens 5/28, 7pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown, 5/29, 4pm at Lincoln Square Cinemas, and again 5/30, 1:30pm at AMC Pacific Place}

And this one should be ... funny? Maybe? Local director Brett Fetzer’s first feature My Last Year with the Nuns involves Seattle monologist Matt Smith’s 8th-grade coming-of-age story set in 1966 … with Smith playing ALL the roles. Whoa. {Screens 5/21, 6:30pm and 6/26, 11am at The Egyptian}

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SIFF 2014 Preview: Face the Music

Hello, Imaginaries! I can’t believe that the 40th Seattle International Film Festival starts THIS THURSDAY! (what. the. what.) Anyway, if you haven’t had a chance to check out the Face the Music line-up this year, let me moonwalk you through it, because there’s a lot of really rad stuff I don’t want you to miss!

First up, let’s take a look Keep On Keepin’ On, a tribute to jazz legend Clark Terry, who taught Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, and who helped blind pianist Justin Kauflin realize his dream. There are two special events happening around this spectacular documentary: An Evening with Quincy Jones, in which the Festival's Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Jones at the premiere screening of the film, and The Justin Kauflin Trio is playing at The Triple Door as a companion performance with a special introduction by Quincy Jones. Sounds like a 3-day jazz-lovers extended dream date! {An Evening with Quincy Jones Special Presentation Screening & Tribute 6/4, 7:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown; Keep On Keepin’ On screens again 6/6, 4pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown; Companion show with The Justin Kauflin Trio, June 5 at The Triple Door, 7pm}

And of course, Opening Night is the premeire of Jimi: All is By My Side, a story about Jimi Hendrix before he was Jimi Hendrix. Sure. Okay. Why not? Outkast's André Benjamin stars as Jimi, a rising musician caught in a sticky love triangle between Linda Keith and Kathy Etchingham. SCANDALOUS. {Screens on SIFF Opening Night, 5/15, 7pm at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall} 

Nick Cave fans, check it: get a peek into the enigmatic musician & writer’s everyday life—sort of—with a fiction-mentary by Directors Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard. 20,000 Days on Earth is described as “blending fact, fiction, and fantasy” and the trailer looks AMAZING. Can’t wait to see this one. {Screens 5/16, 10pm at Lincoln Square Cinemas, and again 5/21, 9:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown}

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Better Living Through Chemistry

{Better Living Through Chemistry opens in Seattle on Friday, 3/14, and is screening at SIFF Cinema Uptown and Sundance Cinemas Seattle}

The title says it all, even though it’s kind of messed up: take drugs, let loose, and your life will vastly improve … okay, it’s not exactly like that, but Better Living Through Chemistry does feature a protagonist that experiences a (mostly) positive life change after taking a crap-load of drugs.

Douglas Varney (Sam Rockwell) is a meek pharmacist who’s just taken over his father-in-law’s business in a small, picturesque town. Varney is clearly dissatisfied with his home life. His wife treats him like shit, his son prefers to call him by his first name, and his FIL can’t be bothered to change the name of the pharmacy from Bishop’s to Varney’s—even though Douglas is now the legal owner.

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Wes Anderson Fans: Download FREE passes to The Grand Budapest Hotel!!! {3/12}

It's not like I even need to encourage all of you Wes Anderson-philes to go see his new flick, but just in case I do -- how about some FREE passes to encourage your movie night pick next week?

In case you haven't been paying attention, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film "set in alternate-history 1920s Europe in a country called the Republic of Zubrowka, where a famed hotel concierge by the name of Gustave H. is bequeathed a painting called Boy with Apple after his one night stand, Madame D, is killed. Madame D's son, Dmitri, vows revenge on Gustave by framing him for Madame D's murder. Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy, and his love interest, Agatha, help Gustave hide Boy with Apple from Dmitri and the authorities." So, typical Wes stuff, yeah? SOUNDS AWESOME. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel opens in Seattle 3/14, but there's a preview screening next Wednesday (3/12) at SIFF Uptown, and we've got a download link just for Imaginaries! CLICK HERE to get your passes, and do it quick! I predict they'll go very, very, very fast. 

Screening Info:
Wednesday 3/12
SIFF Cinema Uptown
7:00 PM

**Seating is first come, first served, and is not guaranteed**

2014 Seattle Jewish Film Festival kicks off this Saturday!

While during March a lot of attention in the film world focuses on Austin and SXSW there are still some great cinematic adventures to be had right here in Seattle. First among them is the Seattle Jewish Film Festival which kicks off this Saturday night. This year’s theme is “The Good, The Bad, The Funny.” Though I expect if you asked the organizers they’d tell you that “the bad” part of their slogan isn’t intended as a critical assessment of any of the choices on offer. There’s something to be had for all interests with events running all the way through March 9th. 

Opening night is The Zigzag Kid which sounds akin to a Hardy Boys caper, if they Hardy Boys knew what a bar mitzvah was and included trips to the French Riviera and Isabella Rosellini. The opening night film includes a dessert reception post film. I could make more jokes about the super-gentile nature of the Hardy Boys, but frankly none of them would be especially funny expect to me. But if you want to experience some old school Jewish comedy that actually lands the punch you might be interested in the festival's signature Sunday matinee event. 

This year’s Sunday Brunch and film pairing (which I’ve always wanted to attend but never quite get to) includes a screening of the Catskill’s comedian documentary When Comedy Went to School. Perhaps more inmprtantly it also includes a spread of Jewish comfort foods. The film itself catalogs the key role that Catskill Mountain resorts played in the development of the comedy we enjoy today. I cannot say this is the greatest documentary of all time, frankly cheesy CGI production value of the non-interview footage and narration of Robert Klein is pretty groan worthy. But it’s still worth it for the broad set of vintage footage and contemporary recollections about the Catskills. I still chuckle to myself at some of the jokes when I recall them months later. So, add in the promised brunch spread and I think this one will be a winner.

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Winter’s Tale

{Winter’s Tale opens in Seattle on Friday, 2/14, and is screening at AMC Pacific Place, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, and Oak Tree Cinema}

Going into Winter’s Tale without having read the book, and without really knowing what I was getting into was … interesting.

What looked like a period romance with some kind of time travel twist in the previews actually turned out to be a battle between heaven and hell for souls, complete with a winged horse and magical (evil?) gemstones. These things probably read really well on paper, but not so much on screen—at least, not in this adaptation. Thankfully, Colin Farrell can act his way around anything, even if it's a glowering, hammy Russell Crowe.

Farrell is Peter Lake, an orphan set adrift on a toy sailboat and cast towards the shores of New York by his parents, who failed to pass the health exam and become citizens in 1895. At some point, he’s adopted by the nefarious Pearly Soames (Crowe), who also happens to be a demon, and serves Lucifer by, I guess, corrupting souls, killing hope, and delights in shredding virgins with his claws and doodling portraits with their blood.

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