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SIFF 2014: Week Two Highlights

Difret

Capitol Hill (both the 1960s and 2010s varieties), a freaky alt-reality Paris, and dear ol' Sesame Street are among the cinematic destinations awaiting you during SIFF 2014's second week (5/23-5/29).

DON'T MISS:

Difret
{screens 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.

Fasten Your Seatbelts
{screens 5/23 at 4pm at the Egyptian and 5/25 at 7pm at Lincoln Square}
Refreshing, frequently surprising Italian comedy-melodrama with touches of the exquisiteness of my favorite of director Ferzan Ozpetek's films, Facing Windows. This one follows another beautiful young woman who gets with another loutish (but hot) love interest and who ends up looking at her life from some existential outside place. The score is gorgeous (when it's not trying to be lite), the narrative surprising (even when the twists are Lifetimey). I really did laugh, and I really did cry.

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The German Doctor

{The German Doctor opens in Seattle on Friday, 5/23 and is screening at Sundance Cinemas Seattle & Lincoln Square Cinemas} 

Eeeesh. From the moment you see Àlex Brendemühl appear on film as German SS Officer Josef Mengele in The German Doctor, you get the wigs. While hiding in South America, Mengele meets a family traveling to re-open an inherited hotel + a doll factory (what), and takes a creep-tastic interest in their 12-year-old daughter Lilith. Although it’s not the type of creep you might expect; the doctor is actually interested in using Lilith to continue the human genetic experiments he was running at Auschwitz. Like I said, EEEESH.

Things get even worse when he finds out Lilith’s mom is pregnant with twins, and Mengele realizes he can experiment on them too, injecting the same “hormone growth serum” he’s been giving Lilith into one of the babies in utero, and doing god-knows-what-else to the other. DOUBLE EEESH. Weirdly, mom and daughter don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with the doctor giving them both injections, or with him keeping a extremely detailed journal filled with sketches punctuated by “scientific notes.” 

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SIFF Review: Willow Creek

Willow Creek SIFF 2014

Holycrap, you guys. I was not expecting to get completely and totally sucked in by Willow Creek, especially because Director Bobcat Goldthwait has been calling it, “The Blair Squatch Project.” But 10 minutes in, I was ALL in, and even though the premise is ridiculously goofy, the film itself falls firmly in the horror genre.

The ridiculously goofy premise is this: Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) take a road trip to the site of the Patterson-Gimlin film footage in search of Bigfoot. It’s clear up front that Kelly isn’t a believer and that even though Jim might kinda-sorta want to believe, this is more about a fun birthday weekend for him that fulfills his childhood dream. Jim’s brought along a camera with plans to film the entire trip as a documentary of their findings, frequently turning it on himself and Kelly and interviewing local townspeople on the way to their end destination.

You’re set up right from the start to watch this as a comedy, because there’s no way freaking Bigfoot could be scary, right?

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SIFF Take: 1,000 Times Good Night

1,000 Times Good Night might be described as “the SIFF’iest movie ever.” Juliette Binoche plays Rebecca, a photojournalist who specializes in shining the light on the world’s conflict zones, and who can’t seem to reconcile her home life and her job life—even after a life-threatening accident that occurs by putting herself in the line of fire.

In the achingly beautiful and horrific opening sequence, Rebecca is photographing a female suicide bomber when it’s detonated earlier than expected and ends up fracturing her rib. Even terrified and in pain, she picks herself up and clicks the shutter, capturing the aftermath before passing out and waking up in the hospital. Shell-shocked, Rebecca returns home to two daughters she barely knows because of all the time she spends away and a husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) weary of waiting for news of her death.

Director Erik Poppe fills the screen with haunting imagery and relies more on Binoche’s incredible ability to emote than dialog, which fits the mood of the film perfectly. And although at times the story seemed unsurprising, the end really packs a punch. There are lots of layers to unfold here, both personal and political.

{1,000 Times Good Night screens at SIFF on 5/23, 7pm at The Harvard Exit, and again 5/25, 4:15pm at AMC Pacific Place}

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SIFF Take: Lucky Them

The complete opposite of the devastating Eden (SIFF, 2012), Lucky Them is a part comedy, part “eesh, I can identify with that” romance, but not exactly in the traditional sense of the word. Toni Collette completely kills it (like she does every. single. time. Yes, even in Hostages) as Ellie Klug, a Seattle music journalist employed at fictional magazine STAX, whose editor demands she find out what happened to her missing rock-God ex-boyfriend as the anniversary of his influential album approaches. As a reluctant Ellie starts her assignment, she runs into two men that complicate the task: Lucas Stone (Ryan Eggold): a talented, and uh, very good looking, young musician, and Charlie (Thomas Hayden-Church), a rich acquaintance who offers to finance her search in exchange for filming it.

Side note: how much would I love it if Oliver Platt actually ran a music magazine in this city? The answer is SO MUCH. So, so, so much.

While I admit imaginary embracey’s comments about some of the details of her job being fantasy-based are correct, it didn’t bug me much because of my instant connection to the character. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not trying to claim that I have anywhere near the level of journalistic fame or skill that Ellie does in the film, I’m just saying: a female writer who hooks up with all the wrong people and pines after a long-lost love to the point where it sabotages her current relationships? That hits close (probably a little too close) to home. Also adding to the authenticity: I feel like I’ve met every single character in this movie multiple times. The first thing that occurred to me when Charlie appears on screen was, “Oh man. I meet that guy at every SIFF Opening Night party, every single year.”

Short story: I love this one as much as I love The Off Hours and Eden. It’s a completely different kind of love, but it’s still love. My heart is yours once again, Ms. Griffiths.

{Lucky Them screens at SIFF on 5/22, 7pm at the Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center for Renton Opening Night, and again on 5/23, 9:15pm at The Egyptian. Director Megan Griffiths & Writer Emily Wachtel are scheduled to attend both screenings} 

SIFF double take: Muse of Fire and The Search for General Tso

Examine, if you will, two documentaries very similar in tone and structure: upbeat, pleasant, and curious. One asks a very large question: How do you make Shakespeare relevant to contemporary audiences? The other asks a small one: Where did General Tso’s chicken come from? One is populated with some of the most talented actors of our time. The other, with restaurant owners, fortune cookie manufacturers, and one dedicated menu collector. Both had impressive animated interstitials and charming interviewees. The crowd loved, loved both of them. But only one was an effective documentary. The Search for General Tso, directed by Ian Cheney (King Corn), was unwaveringly fascinating and unexpectedly suspenseful from titles to curtain. What a great question: who did create this bizarrely ubiquitous dish? The surprisingly satisfying answer is unveiled after first exploring things like who the historical General Tso was and what he was famous for, the history of the American immigration policy towards China, regional variations between American Chinese menus, and what it looks like to manufacture take-out boxes.

There was no suspense and far less revelation in Muse of Fire, directed by and starring struggling actors Dan Poole and Giles Terera. Poole and Terera are funny and winning, but the film is at least as much about how hard it was to make the film as it is about Shakespeare, relevant or otherwise. 

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SIFF Review: Mirage Men

You may want to believe - but in what exactly? That aliens are among us and engineered the creation of our species through DNA experiments on early primates? Or maybe that the government has been running a focused disinformation campaign to spread stories of UFO's to distract the public, flummox the Soviets, cover up advanced technology programs, or perhaps just to goose Hollywood box office numbers? And don't forget about the possibility that these government coverups are muddying the waters - hiding our dealings with the aliens by spreading half truths about aliens. 

Yep - if you thought the final years of the X-Files was all over the place, brace yourself for Mirage Men. This documentary delivers access to the players - from UFO researchers telling tales of good men turned mad by the NSA, to the OSI agents who told the lies.

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SIFF Review: Monsoon Shootout

"The law is what it is. If you can't use it to get justice then you're the ass!" - Rookie officer Adi addressing his superior.

Monsoon Shootout from director Amit Kumar is a tight and satisfying take on first day on the job dramas such as Training Day, while layering in a metaphysical treatment of the power of choices we make each moment of our lives. Clocking in at a fast 88 minutes, a lot gets packed into this one.

The film kick offs with Adi's first day on the job as a cop. He's teamed with Khan, a beyond pragmatic lawman who believes in justice but not upholding all the details of the law. That's made pretty clear when within minutes of reporting for duty Khan executes a group of suspects in the extortion murder of a real estate developer. Adi's asked to crash their car to cover up the "escape" attempt, and his moral dilemmas begin. Before long he's making choices that are all over the shades of grey spectrum as they try to put away Shiva (aka the "Ax killer"), who's just the tip of the bloody spear wielded by local gangster "the Slum Lord." In the meantime, corruption is all around in what could just as easily serve as a scathing indictment of Indian society as it could a hard-nosed police thriller.

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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}