Tonight in Seattle:  

SIFF 2012: Opening Weekend Highlights

Polisse

Here we go again! Our local month-long cine-megathon hits this Thursday, with Lynn Shelton's fantastic new film Your Sister's Sister -- Imaginary Amie's favorite opening night selection in seven years -- headlining the kickoff festivities.

But then what? Well, of the twenty opening weekend features I've been able to catch in advance, I've come across handful of absolute must-sees, a couple of total stinkeroos, and a whole slew of mid-level entertainments with at least a lil' somethin' to enjoy (and usually a lil' somethin' not to enjoy, too).

And if these early films are any indication, well, fasten your seatbelts. It's gonna be a bumpy SIFF.

Are you ready? Well, we are. Highlights for Friday-Sunday, 5/18-5/20:

DON'T MISS:

Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry{screens May 18 at 6:30pm and May 19 at 4pm at Pacific Place}
Ai Weiwei is arguably China's most polarizing contemporary artist, frequently harassed by authorities for conveying (through his art and otherwise) criticisms of his government's blatant disregard for civil rights and heinous lack of transparency. Filmmaker Alison Klayman got amazing access to Ai himself and makes great use of archival footage in crafting a compelling portrait. But even after the artist finds himself silenced, it's really the work that speaks, however large in scale, boldly and beautifully.

Elena
{screens May 18 at 11am and May 24 at 7pm at Pacific Place}
Gripping, stylish, gorgeously crafted Russian tale of pitiless class conflict, a coveted bequest, and the misdeeds of a tenuous marriage. He's rich, in poor health, and drawing up a will; her lazy son's trashy family needs dough. But noted filmmaker Andrei Zvyaginstev (The Return) doesn't allow their story to follow any prescribed path. Tension arrives in slight movements and subtle unravelings; it's a beautifully slow burn, and patience is rewarded manifold. Feast your eyes.

How to Survive a Plague
{screens May 20 at 12pm at the Harvard Exit, May 21 at 9pm at Pacific Place}
Outsiders throughout history have been organizing to solve seemingly insurmountable problems; the dilemma du jour in mid-'80s NYC was the AIDS crisis. This marvelously thorough documentary focuses on organizations ACT-UP and TAG, their struggles with prevailing ideas of the day and their roles in the mid-'90s breakthrough of combination therapy. Via amazing archival footage we see the activists as they work and age and progress over the course of three presidential administrations and millions of deaths. A passionate and extraordinarily moving account of a hard-won turning point.

Las Acacias
{screens May 19 at 4:30pm at the Egyptian, May 26 at 4pm at the Harvard Exit, May 28 at 5:30pm at the Uptown}
Naturalistic performances and a heartrending sense of discovery make for a sweet, poignant South American road movie. A gruff truck driver has agreed to let a young woman ride with him from Paraguay to Argentina; he's not thrilled when she shows up with a baby in tow. But he gradually eases up as the trip progresses and as a connection forms, to the mom and the kid; there's an understated loveliness in beholding these characters revealing themselves and coming to life.

The Mexican Suitcase
{screens May 18 at 3:30pm and May 19 at 8:30pm at the Uptown, June 3 at 9pm at Pacific Place}
Three mysterious old suitcases were discovered in 2007 among the belongings of a Mexican ambassador; inside were thousands of negatives shot during the Spanish Civil War by venerated photogs David "Chim" Seymour, Gerda Taro, and Robert Capa. The photos divulge invaluable details of a horrific war that prompted mass immigrations to Mexico and left Spain in tatters; their handling reveals much about the present when NYC's International Center of Photography faces resistance over a planned exhibition. An edifying, illuminating doc that's well worth the time and the ticket.

Polisse
(screens May 18 at 9pm at the Uptown, May 20 at 2:30pm at the Harvard Exit)
Stunning, breakneck-paced drama about a Parisian Child Protection Unit.  Director Maïwenn (yes, she is cool enough for a single-word moniker) co-stars as a photojournalist documenting the unit's nerve-jangling day-to-day; she's our way into a frequently horrific world, and into a lovely moment when you realize you're in love with this amazing ensemble. The end effect is like marathonning an entire season of great Euro-TV in a single sitting. It's glorious, and it will rip you to shreds. The SIFF 2012 high bar has been set.

Starry Starry Night
{US premiere. Screens May 19 at 6:30pm at the Uptown, May 20 at 4pm and May 22 at 9:30pm at Pacific Place}
Charming magical-realist tale of Mei, a 13-year-old who occasionally escapes to a personal fantasy world and who finds a kindred companion in introverted and similarly troubled Lee. The film's first hour is oddly airless -- but then, when troubles deepen and the kids run away in search of a happier moment, their story takes dazzling flight. I dare your eyes to remain dry when the response to "Why doesn't the mist go away?" is, quite simply, "Give it time."

Valley of Saints
{screens May 18 at 9pm and May 19 at 12pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 3 in Kirkland}
This gentle and heartfelt film drifts quietly through its beautiful setting: Kashmir's Dal Lake, where two friends -- poor boatman Gulzar and petty thief Afzal -- are making plans to escape the area's violently unpredictable political climate. Their departure delayed by a newly-enforced curfiew, they happen upon an enviro-scientist named Asifa as she researches the lake's polluted waters; as Gulzar and Asifa become close, Afzal's true nature comes forth. Naturalistic, wonderfully observed, and just plain lovely world cinema.

Wetlands
{screens May 18 at 3pm at the Uptown, May 19 at 6pm and May 22 at 9:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
Guy Édoin's captivating feature debut will surely go down as a SIFF 2012 highlight. The story is that of a dairy-farm family in Québec's Eastern Townships, focusing on 17-year-old Simon as he broods and deals with raging hormones and comes of age. His mom and dad's individual struggles compete with the farm's imminent bankruptcy; this family just cannot catch a break. And their situation only devolves in the aftermaths of bad decisions, leading to the appearance of an awful douchebag drifter who doesn't help anyone's situation. As bits of characters' pasts are revealed, subtly and gradually, a resonant rural melodrama plays out before our awe-stricken eyes.

TAKE OR LEAVE:

Cracks in the Shell
Cracks in the Shell{screens May 18 at 9:30pm at Pacific Place, May 22 at 9pm at the Egyptian, and May 25 at 9:30pm in Everett}
An unsteady, burdened, determined student actress named Fine (Stine Fischer Christensen) gets a coveted lead role in a near-masochist director's play, surprising her instructor and classmates. The character she's portraying is self-destructive, irresponsible and sex-crazed -- qualities Fine soon finds herself emulating, all while dealing with emotionally exhausting responsibilities at home and an unsatisfying near-relationship with a hottie in a facing window. A well-acted, Black Swan-ish psychodrama that would've been much better with 10 minutes or so shaven from its flabby midsection.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
{screens May 18 at 7pm at the Uptown, May 22 at 4:30pm at Pacific Place}
The Duplass International Film Festival continues with the latest directorial effort from bros Jay and Mark. The character Mark (Steve Zissis) plans on a peaceful birthday weekend with his wife and son at his childhood home when estranged brother Jeremy (Mark Kelly) busts in uninvited. Old rivalries boil and, contrary to better judgment, the two resurrect their titular 25-event childhood competition. The film's first half is quite ugly and rather joyless, but the story progresses as the manchildren regress.

Eden
{screens May 19 at 9:15pm at the Egyptian, May 21 at 4:30pm at the Uptown, and May 29 at 8:30pm in Everett}
Local filmmaker (and Stranger Genius shortlister) Megan Griffiths brings us the unsettling based-on-reality story of one Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung), who accepts the wrong ride home one wild night and soon finds herself imprisoned somewhere beneath Las Vegas in a colony of sex slaves. She's re-named "Eden" and her ordeal lasts for more than two years; she survives it by building the trust of boss Beau Bridges' (!) right hand man, Vaughan (Matt O'Leary). Eden is tough to watch at times, but I wonder if it's tough enough -- it doesn't pack the wallop a true story this eye-opening should. Still, it is well-executed, features some very good performances, and has an ending that's hopeful if not quite satisfying.

Fat Kid Rules the World
{screens May 18 at 7pm in Renton, May 19 at 6:30pm at the Egyptian, and May 28 at 6pm in Everett}
Actor-turned-director Matthew Lillard brings us the good-natured Seattle-set story of overweight teen Troy (Jacob Wysocki, who had a similar role in Terri last year) and druggie dropout Marcus (Matt O'Leary, who has a similar role in Eden this year). Marcus saves Troy from an ill-planned suicide attempt, then begins using him for food and drug money... when he isn't flaking out or making questionable transactions in Volunteer Park (!). Marcus is a leech, full of promises he cannot keep; Troy needs a friend and through Marcus finds something to strive for. The film has the broad naïveté‚ of an after-school special; it's often frustrating but never horrible.

Hemel
{screens May 20 at 8:30pm and May 30 at 9:30pm at the Uptown, May 23 at 4pm at the Harvard Exit}
Nicely stylish Dutch film about, per the SIFF description, "a young woman's longing to connect with her elusive father and her compulsive and transgressive sexual route to emotional maturity." The dark subject matter may've seemed more daring and original pre-Shame. Performances are good, but the execution feels shaky and fragmented -- and maybe that's the point.

High Ground
{screens May 19 at 6pm and May 20 at 2pm at the Uptown; May 25 at 4pm in Everett}
Eleven military veterans, all dealing with post-combat physical and mental scars (blindness, loss of limbs, severe post-traumatic stress, etc.), aim against the odds to scale a 20k-foot Himalayan mountain called Lobuche. The participants' stories are by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, and the footage of their climb is truly gorgeous, but there's just not enough here for a feature-length documentary. It's difficult not to wholeheartedly recommend such a well-intentioned effort, especially one that deals with real issues and people we all should think more about, but the material is probably better suited to an hour-long ep of Independent Lens.

The Sex of Angels
{screens May 18 at 9:15pm at the Egyptian, May 20 at 2:30pm at the Uptown, and June 5 at 8:30pm in Kirkland}
A not-great street dancer (and possible Jake Gyllenhaal relative) named Bruno is high on his cool boho existence with lovely girlfriend Carla, but when he meets the seductive fellow dancer / martial arts instructor / manipulator / gadabout Rai, sparks fly. And I do mean the sex kind. It's all so weird and new to Bruno! And he still loves Carla so, so mucho! But still he and Rai do end up bumping uglies, though we never see the male-specific uglies that are bumped even though there are plenty of boobies and ladybush elsewhere in the movie, but whatever, and at first Bruno keeps it all a secret from Carla, then it's not a secret anymore, then they try to have an open relationship and that doesn't work so well, then... do you care? This is the kind of witless romp in which characters do things in public that they want kept secret, and generally put themselves in situations that guarantee the most drama possible. There's nothing redeeming about it -- the movie is too dumb to realize it's a sex farce -- but the sexy eyecandy is pleasant enough in its way. And if I wasn't clear earlier: there is ZERO peen. WTF is that about?!

Tey
{US premiere. Screens May 18 at 6pm and May 19 at 2:30pm at the Uptown}
In this film's opening moments we learn that Satché (appealing Saul Williams), recently back in Senegal after a year of study in the US, has only one more day to live. He accepts and almost seems to celebrate this fate; as he's young and seemingly healthy we can only assume it's part of a ritual sacrifice of some sort. We're taken along with him as he walks the streets of his hometown, visits friends and relatives, receives gifts, makes amends. It's all a bit like experiencing Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", with an added apocryphal prelude, only to have the ending never really happen. There's quite a bit to marvel at in Tey, but as the final credits roll it really feels like a whole day really has passed you by.

Trishna
{screens May 18 at 6:30pm and May 20 at 3:30pm at the Uptown}
Frieda Pinto is very good as the title character of this fast-paced and super-glossy Michael Winterbottom adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, here set in contemporary Rajasthan, India. Poor but pure-hearted Trishna meets douchey richboy Jay, who offers her a sweet job with his father's hotel in distant Jaipur; a methodical seduction ensues, and (spoiler alert!) eventually things do not go well. The film offers many pleasures, but its warm sheen belies the chilly darkness beneath.

SKIP:

Sleepwalk with Me
Sleepwalk With Me{screens May 19 at 9pm at the Harvard Exit, May 23 at 9pm at the Uptown}
Topics covered in comic Mike Birbiglia's attempt to bring his one-man show to the big screen include adventures in standup, struggles with chronic sleepwalking, and attempts at holding down a successful long-term relationship (girlfriend played by Lauren Ambrose, whose musical number toward the end is the highlight). Maybe this material works in its off-Broadway incarnation, or as a This American Life segment, but unless you happen to be a Birbiglia fan it's just not appealing or interesting enough to carry an 80-minute movie.

Superclásico
{screens May 19 at 7pm and May 20 at 12pm at the Uptown, May 24 at 4pm at the Egyptian}
A Danish sports agent named Anna (the usually brilliant Paprika Steen) has left her creepazoid teen son and estranged husband in chilly Copenhagen and taken up residence in caliente Buenos Aires with a hunky futbol star (charismatic and frequently nude Sebastian Estevanez, the best part of the movie). The story commences as the husband and son visit unexpectedly, with all the fish-out-of-water non-hilarity you expect. Subsequent action goes down during a big local soccer match called the Superclásico: events transpire that make the husband look like even more of a schlub, all while the son has a ridiculous love affair with a completely different hot local. Silly garbage, and not the fun kind.

More recommendations (and fair warnings) to come this Friday, and each week throughout the fest. See you at the movies!

Amazing, as always, Michael! Love your recaps -- and it's always interesting to see where and how your opinion and mine differ. :)

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