Tonight in Seattle:  

SIFF

Beyond the Fest: SIFF films that will (hopefully) open soon

The Babadook

With over 400 films playing the 40th Seattle International Film Festival, there was NO WAY I was going to be able to watch and write about what got me into those theater seats before the festival was over—or, more importantly, before they screened for the last time during it.

Here’s a quick list of films that I recommend tracking down for viewing. Fingers crossed they will ALL show up at Seattle theaters soon! 

The Babadook {tentative release date: October 2014}
Holycrap, you guys. HOLYCRAP. I was not prepared for how awesome this Australian horror film would be. I mean, how scary can another spin on The Boogeyman actually be, right? The answer, though, is REALLY F’ING SCARY. The basics: grieving mom, out-of-control son, creepy book, unleashed creature, possession, and some really amazing imagery. The Babadook is a non-stop ball of tension from beginning to end, the acting is freaking amazing, the creature F/X are great. I can’t even express how surprised I was by this movie, and how utterly terrified I was while watching it. Bonus: The Babadook pop-up book featured in the film is so goddamn cool! I hear the filmmakers are considering a kickstarter to produce it for real, and I am prepared to throw my money at them as soon as they do.

Fight Church
Bryan Storkel brings us another tale of the secret lives of Christians, but instead of showing us pastors who gamble, this film dives into pastors who moonlight on the mixed martial arts/cage fighting circuit. Wait, what? Let’s just say it’s a lot scary than Holy Rollers—particularly when you realize these guys are teaching their beliefs about beating the crap out of other guys being a “spiritual” thing to their kids, and even moreso when it extends beyond the arena to the gun range.

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SIFF Take: How to Train Your Dragon 2

It feels a bit unseemly to trumpet such a mainstream movie during this Festival of the Wonderfully Obscure, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 is absolutely wonderful and deserves trumpets. It opens 5 years after the events of the first film. Berk is now an idyllic, gravitationally precarious but architecturally impressive hamlet with a thriving population of dragons. The biggest issue is that Stoic wants Hiccup to be the next Chief, and Hiccup is ambivalent at best. This very quickly becomes not the biggest issue when a Very Bad Guy enters the picture, bent on enslaving all dragons.

All of the battles are exciting and suspenseful, and the dialog is snappy and funny, but this film is special because of the strength of the story. The plot isn’t merely a series of set-ups for set-piece battle scenes. It wrestles, sincerely and unironically, with issues including family, loyalty, duty, free will, and the pursuit of peace. Peace! Punchline of hippie skits and Miss America parodies. The movie declares peace an achievable concept, worth striving for. By the end, I wanted to stand and salute.

{How to Train Your Dragon screens one more time at SIFF on Sunday, 6/8, 10:30am at Pacific Place} 

SIFF Take: God Help the Girl

God Help the Girl

Prior to seeing God Help the Girl, I’d only been a somewhat-interested fan of Stuart Murdoch and Belle & Sebastian—hearing their most popular songs in passing. Sure, I listened to plenty of friends rhapsodize about The Boy with the Arab Strap and agreed with them that it sounded great; I just never cared enough to scrape up enough pennies to buy it in the pre-download era 90s.

But ALL THAT HAS CHANGED now that I’ve seen the glory of Murdoch’s directorial debut, based on his 2009 album of the same name, in which he wrote a story-telling album about a troubled girl and hired a bunch of relative unknowns to sing his words. Wait. What? Why I had never heard of this before? I am clearly WOEFULLY out of touch and desperately un-hip. Liz Riley, I am sure this must be something you have a copy of on vinyl, correct?

But anyway, let’s get to the film. Murdoch wins the award for best casting ever in everything, because Emily Browning is PERFECT. Man, that girl can SING. And also ACT, which is equally as important, given the multi-layered performance required. Browning plays the title “girl,” Eve, who escapes the boredom of her treatment facility to attend a rock show one night and falls into friendship with adorable guitar player James and his piano student Cassie. Summer fun times lead them to form a band together, but Eve’s fragile mental state threatens her relationships with the only people in her life who have ever provided stability.

Olly Alexander & Hannah Murray also do an excellent job as James & Cass, and the trio’s hipster-perfect outfits and video-cammed antics make you want to jump in and join the fun. But don’t be fooled: what looks (and sounds) like a twee pop rock musical actually dives into some seriously deep issues. Look past those bright pop montages, watch Browning emote 1,000 things with just her eyes, and really listen to the lyrics to get the full picture. Short story: God Help the Girl is simply gorgeous, and I can’t wait see it again.

{God Help the Girl screens one more time at SIFF on Tuesday, 6/3, 7pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown} 

SIFF Take: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is based on an urban legend that a Japanese woman mistook Fargo for a documentary and came looking for the treasure so cleverly buried by Steve Buscemi under an inch or so of snow. Director David Zellner and his brother and co-writer Nathan imagined what might have driven someone to seek something so ephemeral and came up with Kumiko.

At first it seems that Kumiko is disaffected in a Daria-type way, layering herself under a comfortable blanket of disaffected cynicism to protect herself from the shallow drudgery of her days and the ceaseless disapproval of her mother. But it becomes clear after a while that she probably suffers from some serious mental and emotional problems, including depression, social anxiety, and disassociation. Knowing this makes it harder to root for her as her quest becomes increasingly quixotic, if not thoroughly hopeless—she’s clearly in danger she simply doesn’t, won’t, or can’t comprehend, no matter how many well-meaning people try to help her. Rinko Kikuchi does some impressive heavy lifting keeping us interested in her journey, and the cinematography is unwaveringly gorgeous, with shades of Kubrickian symmetry boxing everything in in Japan contrasting with an almost claustrophobic vastness of the frozen North country, but ultimately the movie gets buried under the weight of Kumiko’s delusion, like the unconquerable snows of the Minnesota fields. 

{Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter screens at SIFF 6/2, 4:00pm at SIFF the Egyptian. Director David Zellner scheduled to attend.}

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SIFF Take: Turning Tide (En Solitaire)

Sailing is the kind of activity that seems utterly opaque to those who don’t partake. Like horse-back riding, for example. “How hard can it be to sit on a horse?” asked no one who’s ever done it for more than an hour or so. “How hard can it be to sail a boat?” Very. Turning Tide is a love letter to those who can, and in particular to those who can do it for months at a time. Director Christophe Offenstein lays bare the technical skill, physical prowess, and astonishing endurance required to race a sailboat (a technological marvel in its own right) by following a pilot named Yann Kermadec (a rugged François Cluzet) in a race literally around the world. It’s a cinematographic feat of impressive immediacy, letting us feel the size of the waves, the vastness of the isolation, and the sailor's innate connection to the winds and the sea.

What the movie lacks, unfortunately, is much of a point. The plot hinges on Kermadec’s picking up a Mauritian stowaway during a repair stop, which threatens his race because racers can have no help. But Kermadec handles it all so well, and everyone else involved in the race is ultimately so reasonable, that there’s almost no sense of conflict. This would be fine if the film treated the journey more as a character study, but it plays much more like a suspense thriller—What Will Happen, For God’s Sake?!?—that the plot just doesn’t require.

Still, it is a genuine thrill to watch the sailing. Man vs. sea: there's your drama.

{Turning Tide screens at SIFF 6/2, 9:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown}

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Latest comment by: imaginary embracey: "

Nice writeup! I enjoyed this film a lot more than I expected to, even though the few plot twists didn't really play out to logical conclusions. The recent films Maidentrip and All is Lost came to mind a lot. Both are well worth checking out.

"

SIFF Review: The Family Picture Show

The Numberlys

This program is a highlight of the festival every year: 12 diverse short films united only by their appropriateness for all ages. Most but not all are animated, but you certainly needn’t be a child or a parent of children to enjoy the suite.

My 4-year-old daughter, 7-year-old son, and I went to see it last weekend, and herein are the ones we found most memorable, although there were none this year we truly disliked.

Overall Favorite: Forward March!

Perhaps you’ve wondered what would happen if several British soldiers with unshakeably rigid marching procedures were beset by a mischievous creature who resembles the furry hats they wear. Or what would happen if you stopped up a bagpipe with Jell-O. Wonder no more. The answer could never be anything else.

7-Year-Old’s Favorite: The Numberlys

Visually the most impressive entry, owing an explicit debt to Fritz Lang’s monumental Art Deco stylings, The Numberlys posits the origins of the alphabet. Logically, it was a bit thin for me—why exactly are numbers oppressive?—but is was transfixing to watch. This was an unqualified winner for both kids.

4-Year-Old’s Favorite: The Pink Helmet Posse

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SIFF Take: Time Lapse

Time travel movies, particularly lower budget ones, are starting to be so prolific at festivals that it’s easy to get jaded, or to at least to have lowered expectations. I still try to check almost every one of them out, only drawing the line at the new Ethan Hawke film at SXSW this year. Understandable really, as it’s a pretty terrific genre to work within, and many of us are constantly looking for the next Primer (or perhaps Timecrimes). Time Lapse may fall just shy of those, but it’s a heck of a good time and smart enough  to satisfy the secret inner nerd in me. OK, giant obvious nerd - but who’s counting. Run, don't walk to add Time Lapse to your SIFF to-do list this year.

The setup is straightforward as it is new (to me) - what if you had a camera that could take a picture of the future? More specifically, what would you do if you discovered giant, immobiile camera that took a picture of your front window once a day and the inventor of that machine was nowhere to be found. Now throw in three roommates with questionable life goals of their own (art, money, domestic bliss, and a bit of shopping) and you’ve got yourself a movie. A really darn entertaining one at that. 

It’s probably not going to be a surprise to anyone that confronted with a magical machine that seems like it could make all your dreams come true things will inevitably go very, very bad. Especially if that “making all your dreams come true” part involves a bit of ethical flexibility. Confronted with the paradoxes inherent in time travel, the easy life, and a dash of jealousy things get complicated quickly for roomies Finn, Jasper, and Callie. But it’s the sort of complicated that’s fun to watch and twist your brain about - even if you may want to hit one of them over the head at times. Things degenerate for our heroes at a rapid rate in the well-calibrated film, ratcheting up the intensity over what feels like a brisk 104 minutes.

Bottom line: Time Lapse is one of my favorite SIFF experiences so far. The sort of thing I turned on too late in the evening and couldn’t stop watching until it was over. Which frankly is my amongst the highest praise I’ll give a film most days.

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SIFF Take: Born to Fly

Born to Fly at SIFF 2014

If Evel Knievel had been into dance, a bit LESS risk averse, and had a borderline cult-like following then Born to Fly would be about him. Instead, it's about Elizabeth Streb, the founder of "pop action" dance: a mash-up of stunt work, acrobatics, dance, and general disregard for the laws of physics and good sense. Oh, sometimes with giant mechanical apparatuses thrown in for good measure.

The dance is truly something to behold onscreen as company members throw themselves at walls, dodge rotating I-beams, and generally make dance look more suicidal (or at least more masochistic) than I'm used to seeing. The picture alternates between Streb's history, performances, and interviews with her dancers. It's hard not to note the bordering on deity worship that has the young men and women literally risking life and limb to aspire to Streb's punishing esthetic ideals while barely making ends meet. But then again, they seem to be having a hell of a lot of fun with their extreme take on motion arts. I just wouldn't want to foot the bill for their post career medical coverage.

It's hard to believe I'm enthusiastically recommending a dance documentary outside the Step-Up* series - yet here I am. This is an interesting documentary both somewhat about why people do irrational things and the wow of watching them. I hope people will notice it amongst the multitude of other options during the festival this year.

* No - I'm not interested in being told those aren't documentaries. They just seem so reasonable and realistic all the way through.

{Born to Fly screens at SIFF 5/26, 5:30pm and again 6/6, 1 pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown, and 5/28, 4:30pm at AMC Pacific Place}

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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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Latest comment by: imaginary rich: "

+1 on Willow Creek. I also didn't expect much of this one, but for different reasons. I just wasn't a fan of other recent Goldthwait stuff. Though I wasn't entirely up ont the found footage aspect either. Regardless it worked for all the reasons ...

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}

Latest comment by: imaginary amie: "She definitely elevated what could have been a typical indie movie into something with MUCH more impact. The middle seemed very typical, and easy to figure out -- but the beginning and end, coupled with her amazing performance make this one worth your time. "