Tonight in Seattle:  

SIFF 2011 Opening Weekend Highlights

Venice

Yep, it's time for the 2011 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival. Can you feel the excitement? Have you carefully perused the printed schedule and SIFF website? Do you have a fresh bottle of Visine on hand? Are you standing in queue already?

Ready or not, the action gets underway this Thursday 5/19 with the usual big Opening Night Gala at McCaw Hall (featuring the not-great film The First Grader, details below) and continuing through 6/12 with 189 feature films and 150 shorts (most grouped into 18 themed shorts packages) from 74 countries. The action takes place at 19 venues around and outside town, covering Renton, Everett, Kirkland, Ballard, West Seattle, Cap Hill, Queen Anne, Downtown, and the U-district (where the beloved Neptune becomes a movie palace one more time, complete with new seats and a bar [!], before re-launching as a music venue this summer). Whew, I'm exhausted already.

Amie filled you in on ticketing last week, then gave you a peek at the Northwest Connections and Face the Music programs. Should you find yourself having trouble navigating all the other cinema-rific offerings  from this year's schedule (which can be found at siff.net or in printed form at the ticket counter at Pacific Place, or at your nearest Starbucks, or at a variety of other spots around town), take note of this year's ten program "pathways", which divvy up the features and shorts programs into themed groups, hopefully making things easier for the overwhelmed potential SIFFer: Creative Streak (imaginative, inventive, innovative), Face the Music (mentioned previously, music or musician-centric), Love Me Do! (lovey stories in their many forms), Make Me Laugh (comedy, duh), Open My Eyes (expanded horizons, via world vistas and the like), Sci-Fi and Beyond (speculative fiction to sciencey nonfiction), Spellbinding Stories (provocative plots), Take Me Away (get transported), Thrill Me (shocks and chills aplenty), and To the Extreme (avoid if you are on psychotropic or heart meds).

General festival how-tos and FAQs can be found here.

So are you ready now? We of the TIG SIFF crew sure are, and while we won't be able to alert you about everything before it comes to a theater near you, we'll be keeping you current on a good number of selections that are unmissable, skippable, or somewhere in between. Because, let's face it, not everything can be a masterpiece.

Let's get started with fifteen of the films coming up opening weekend (May 19-22), shall we?

DON'T MISS:

A Barefoot DreamA Barefoot Dream
{screens May 21 at 1:15pm at the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, May 24 at 9pm at the Admiral, and May 26 at 7pm at Pacific Place}
This broad, sporty, based-on-reality film works overtime to amp the action and jerk every tear it can (and boy did it succeed on me). A misfit retired Korean soccer player is in East Timor on yet another of his doomed get-rich-quick schemes; preparing to head home, tail between legs, he finds children playing barefoot futbol and, not being someone who thinks things through, opens the territory's only sporting-goods store. Hello, no one there can afford $60 shoes, but the venture shows him that the kids are actually good; the team he forms eventually goes on to compete internationally, and, well, victories and life lessons are in store for everyone. Formulaic, pandering, and pretty damn fun.

Black Narcissus
{screens May 21 at 7:30pm at SIFF Cinema}
I guarantee this 1947 masterpiece by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger will be the most beautiful feature to play at SIFF 2011. It's a stunning psycho-drama set in a remote convent in the Indian Himalayas, focusing on an Irish nun (the never-fabber Deborah Kerr) fleeing a bad romance, working alongside four other nuns to civilize the native population. Then a charming British agent, a naughty teen slut, and an increasingly loony-bin-bound member of the order bring all manner of drama to the tale; gorgeous Technicolor hysteria ensues. Black Narcissus is, quite simply, the shit, and seeing it on the big screen is a rare treat indeed.

How to Die in Oregon
{screens May 20 at 4:15pm at the Harvard Exit, May 21 at 2pm at Pacific Place, and May 22 at 3:30pm at Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center}
This documentary is not an easy one to recommend, but recommend it I must. Physician-assisted suicide is a tough subject, and seeing it happen before your eyes -- yes, one such documented instance is shown in the opening scene -- is a tough undertaking. But death isn't the focus here: patients, families, caregivers, advocates and opponents give unique insight into what it means to be alive, and to recognize a "new normal", in the wake of a terminal diagnosis. The heart and soul of the doc is 54-year-old Cody Curtis, whose unbelievably upbeat humor is used as a weapon against the debilitating symptoms of liver cancer. Her story plays out as she explores the possibility of ending her life, and getting to know her and those around her is a complete joy. The tired old phrase "a celebration of the human spirit" is used in the SIFF program description, and it actually applies to this informative, thoughtful, extremely moving film. Break out a fresh pack of Kleenex and arrive with an open mind.

Natural Selection
{screens May 21 at 4pm at Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, May 25 at 7pm and May 27 at 4pm at the Egyptian}
This Sundancey comedy debut from director Robbie Pickering will surely go down as a festival highlight. Rachael Harris (The Hangover) stars as Linda White, a Texas housewife shattered by the revelation that her super-devout husband prefers donating sperm over engaging in non-procreating sex with her. After he suffers a stroke he reveals another bombshell: he has a son (Matt O'Leary), and he wants Linda to track him down. A crazy, squirmy-funny road-trip to and from Alabama follows, bolstered by on-the-money mid-American Christian details (I died at the Sandi Patty cassette tape) and stellar performances by Harris and O'Leary. A delight.

The Pillow Book
{screens May 20 at 9:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
Often-great Peter Greenaway's 1997 film, screening in conjunction with SIFF's Ewan McGregor tribute, mashes up Asian iconographies to create an intimate, sensual, beautifully weird drama. The story centers on Nagiko (Vivian Wu), who has a bigtime fetish for calligraphy and poetry as a result of her father's fascination with the 10th-century "Pillow Book" of Sei Shonagon. She finds that the calligraphy-prone tend not to be good lovers, and vice-versa... until a young British translator named Jerome (dreamy Ewan McGregor) comes along, wanting her to write chapters of her novel on his nude body (!). It's soon revealed that the book's publisher is Jerome's gay lover (!!), and Nagiko plots vengeance against both men. Back in the late '90s I was blown away by Greenaway's sumptuous visuals (and, ok, nekkid Ewan), and The Pillow Book holds its own today.

Venice
{screens May 21 at 4pm and May 31 at 9:30pm at Pacific Place, and June 5 at 3:30pm at the Admiral}
Watching this film I felt like I was eavesdropping on another culture's eagerly-awaited screen adaptation of a beloved literary masterwork. In this case, said masterwork is a series of short stories by Polish writer Wlodzimierz Odojewski, detailing the coming of age of a (for whatever reason) Venice-obsessed eleven-year-old named Marek. At the outbreak of WWII, his philandering ice-queen mom and weak soldier dad send Marek to live with his aunts and cousins in a tiny Polish village. Marek creates his own version of Venice in a flooded basement... and then the realities of war intrude. It can be difficult keeping the many characters straight at first -- I imagine the rather inert story is more meaningful to those familiar with the source material -- but I felt up-to-speed by midpoint, and the moments of whimsical beauty and vicious warfare kept me enthralled throughout the 2-hour runtime. A nice SIFF find.

TAKE OR LEAVE:

33
{screens May 20 at 7pm and May 21 at 1:30pm at the Neptune}
Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) brings us a far-fetched love-triangle yarn about Hanna, a flip and absent-minded Berlin doctor and TV host, and her sexy 20-year beau Simon, a more focused art engineer, both of whom end up meeting (separately) and having a nasty fling with (separately) a creepy research scientist and jack-of-all-trades (puns intended) named Adam. What exactly they see in him is still a mystery to me, but Tykwer's cool visual flourishes (animation, archive footage, multi-panel montages) keep 3 moving.

The First Grader
{screens as part of the Opening Night Gala, May 19 at 7:00pm at McCaw Hall}
Broad and patronizing (but, yes, occasionally rousing) based-on-reality drama about an 84-year-old Kenyan, Kikuyu tribesman and veteran freedom fighter named Kimani Maruge seeking the education he never had... yes, from grade one. Flashbacks to the harsh treatment Maruge received from British Imperialists are interspersed throughout the cute school scenes, as if it's unclear whose side we're supposed to be on. Certainly not worth the cost of an Opening Night ticket, but if you're going to the Gala anyway it's harmless enough.

Jess + Moss
{screens May 21 at 9:30pm and May 22 at 4:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
Jess (Sarah Hagan, who you should know from Freaks & Geeks and/or Undeclared and/or Buffy) is a Kentucky teenager who has been abandoned by her mother; she has a younger cousin named Moss (Austin Vickers) who has lost both his parents to a mysterious car crash. They bond during a humid summer, and the external world progressively disappears when they are together -- which is probably for the best because their dilapidated surroundings look nearly post-apocalyptic. Your enjoyment of this film will depend on your tolerance for non-linear experimental uber-indieness.

Kosmos
{screens May 21 at 6:15pm and May 22 at 1:30pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 12 at 3:30pm at the Kirkland Performance Center}
On the periphery of a remote and snowy Turkish village, a mysterious stranger named Kosmos materializes just in time to save a small boy from certain death. A grateful community welcomes him, despite his weird mutterings and tendencies to shriek at people, after he shows he's able to pull off other miraculous feats. (It all seems pretty Jesus-y to me.) The film's cold beauty and strange goings-on are compelling enough, but at 2+ hours they wear thin and never add up to much.

Red Eyes
{US Premiere, screens May 22 at 7pm and May 23 at 4:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
No one was more surprised, than, well, the people of Chile when their national soccer/futbol team qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Following their doomed attempt to qualify for the '06 Cup, loved/loathed manager Marcelo Bielsa was brought on board to revamp the team, and documentarians Juan Pablo Sallato and Ismael Larrain filmed the team's workouts, their international matches, Bielsa's ridiculously unenthused press conferences, a good amount of sweaty locker-room action, and about 920,843 impressions of the Coca-Cola logo, as the big trip approached. Red Eyes is a safe bet if you're a fan of anything just mentioned; otherwise it's a rather chintzy and melancholy affair. (But at least there are no vuvuzelas.)

Submarine
{screens May 20 at 7pm at the Egyptian and May 22 at 11am at the Neptune}
A 1980s Wales tale about a misunderstood fifteen-year-old named Oliver Tate, smart and literary to a fault, who vows to 1) lose his virginity before it becomes legal; the preferred cherry-picker is a mean pyromaniac named Jordana, and 2) extinguish the flame between his mother and her New Age charlatan former lover. With this setup, this cast pedigree (Sally Hawkins! Paddy Considine!), and this level of cleverness, it's disappointing when Submarine never really emerges victorious.

SKIP:

Black, White and BluesBlack, White and Blues
{screens May 20 at 7:30pm at Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, May 22 at 4pm at the Neptune, and May 29 at 3:30pm at the Everett Performing Arts Center}
Mario Van Peebles's latest is a letdown from beginning to end. A down-on-his-luck Austin bluesman (played poorly by co-screenwriter Morgan Simpson, whose music sounds more like alt-country to me but whatever) takes a road trip to Huntsville, Alabama to claim the estate of his recently deceased grandfather. He and his traveling companion (Michael Clarke Duncan) stop in a series of juke joints along the way, and the related musical performances -- the blues part, except when Simpson is playing -- are the best things about Black, White and Blues. Bad acting, bad dialogue, bad movie. (For far better Southern-fried road movie fare, see Natural Selection instead.)

Crying Out
{screens May 22 at 6:30pm and May 23 at 4pm at Pacific Place}
Three emotionally stunted men from three hard-drinking generations make a series of stupid life choices in this off-putting Québec drama. A middle-aged father named Jo goes mad, exhumes his recently-deceased second wife, and goes missing with the body. His elderly dad (a mean old cuss in a nursing home who does things like hiding money in a cow's vagina) and sexy 20something son (a toilet-paper factory worker who spends his free time drinking, brawling, and womanizing) set out to find cuckoo Jo before the law does. Yeah, it may seem quirky and weird and cool to you now, but Crying Out presents a terrible world in which women are either corpses, sex objects, or clucking hens. Added to the stilted spectal elements,  far-fetched coinkydinks, and strained dysfunctional-family healing, it all made me want to cry out... for mercy.

The Future
{screens May 21 at 7:30pm at Pacific Place and May 23 at 4:30pm at SIFF Cinema}
No, the sound isn't frakked; that's the grating Miranda July-supplied voice of a cat named Paw-Paw, narrating the story of Sophie (July) and Josh (Hamish Linklater), a lackadaisical couple who make a pact to take a pre-cat-adoption 30 days to follow their dreams. There's an awkward affair, irksome insecurities, and an inexcusable level of irresponsibility -- even when time is frozen (!) -- in the 91 off-putting minutes that take us through their fateful month. A disappointment.

More to come this Friday and each week throughout the festival. See you out SIFFing!

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