Here is a brief list of films I saw at SIFF this year to be followed with a micro-review:
The Intouchables – Very funny and touching story of a rich, cultured, but deeply unhappy quadriplegic who regains his joie de vivre after the unlikely hiring of a Senegalese immigrant as his full-time helper. A little bit mainstream, but a huge crowd pleaser. Highest grossing French film in the country’s box office history. Showing at several theaters in Seattle now. Highly recommended.
Citadel – A newly widowed and agoraphobic father has to defend his infant daughter from sub-human packs of fear sensing mutant hoodlums inhabiting a nearly abandoned area of England set for urban renewal “any day now.” One of a number of British horror films in recent years with social messages/themes just beneath the surface. I found the actor playing the father to be nearly as creepy as the fear-mutants. Not for everyone, but hardcore horror fans might like.
Fat Kid Rules the World – Mildly enjoyable film about a fat kid who is drawn out of the emotional cave of despair he has built for himself by a charismatic drug using guitar player who saves him from committing suicide and declares the fat kid to be his newest band member. Both parties are using each other and they both know it but pretend otherwise. Gradually a genuine and deep friendship emerges from the relationship and maybe they are exactly what the other person needs.
Sleepwalk With Me – Mike Birbiglia, with the assistance of the oh so beautiful Lauren Ambrose, brings the story of his emergence as a professional comedian to the big screen. I’ve admired his comedy for years on the radio, but it was nice to see it again in expanded form on the big screen. I liked how this was as much of a movie about how you can transform personal pain into something you and an audience can laugh at together as the final product. I think in so many fields there is a long period of time in which a new practitioner will be just plain bad and the emotional fortitude to keep at it while enduring years of rebukes while honing you craft is really what separates out the cream of the crop.
God Bless America – This is essentially a dark comedic vehicle for Bobcat Goldthwait to take us and The U.S. to task for everything that is wrong in our culture and politics. I agree with most of his points, but the movie develops a somewhat monotonous tone. This is an idea stretched a bit too far to remain funny for the duration. Mild recommendation.
Polisse – Follows the lives of the officers of a child protection unit of the police in Paris over the course of a year as their work is documented by a government photographer. The anecdotes collected feel more like the recollections collected over the course of a long and brutal career in public service rather than a year. I liked how the film showed all the personal and emotional destruction in the lives of the officers as they deal with a unending unspeakable evil on a daily basis coupled with a lack of resources, appreciation and a bureaucracy that repeatedly fails to be flexible enough to help the ones it is supposed to protect. A difficult film to watch and the narrative arc is pretty weak, but the anecdotes are interesting if you can stand to bear witness to some of the deepest and most recurrent evils perpetrated by the human animal.
Bel Ami – Not a lot to redeem this weakly characterized story of a handsome, newly discharged French soldier’s rise to wealth through the seduction and marriage to some of the wealthiest women in Paris. About all that Robert Pattinson brings to the main role are his good looks. Some nice costumes/sets and a good supporting cast, but really not enough there to recommend it to anyone.
The Do-Deca Pentathalon – Mostly enjoyed this film from the dynamic duo of Mark and Jay Duplass about two ultra-competitive brothers mending a deep rift that started long ago over a series of “if teenagers invent the olympics” events called the Do-Deca Pentathalon. Watching the two adult brothers sneak out of the house to compete at lasertag, ping pong, etc. was pretty fun. Would have loved this film if it was a bit tighter and the two brothers had been named Belushi. Mild recommendation.
Found Memories – LOVED this poetic, deeply layered film about a young, woman photographer who walks into a changeless, tiny town inhabited solely by the elderly and through patience and consideration gradually gets the inhabitant to open up to her about their lives and pains. The performances are understated and of the highest quality and the slow pacing perfectly suited to the film’s material. There is something of a French or Russian play to this film in its staging, theming and structure. HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
The Lost Years – A documentary about generations of Chinese immigration to Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand and their struggles for identity in cultures that presented them with a great deal of societal prejudice and racist legal codes. Some of the material was interesting, but was lacking in overall structure and unified vision.
Lola Versus – I really like Greta Gerwig, but I had a hard time relating to or liking her character. Lola is just too obviously the source of her own unhappiness and I find the idea of someone who is writing a thesis on stillness and silence frenetically packing all of life’s misadventures into a single year to be just a bit too contrived.
Game of Werewolves – I found the old school wolfman costuming and effects to be refreshing and the bit with the fingers was freaking hilarious, but there ultimately wasn’t enough funny there overall for me. The bit with how nobody knows how curses quite work but seem certain of their own opinions could have driven the plot of the movie to great comic effect. It could have made the movie, but the director instead spent more time on a lowbrow joke about villagers and sheep. Can’t really recommend unless you have bottomed out your Netflix queue and are looking for some late night werewolf camp to stream to fill the wee hours of the morning. Would love to rent one of their 40+ wolfman costumes (made with the hair from cash poor, newly shorn Chinese villagers!) for next Halloween, however.
The Painting – Enjoyed the lush and varied styles of “painted” animation in this film which has the half completed characters inhabiting the paintings in a French artist’s studio coming to life and escaping into the real world in order to find their maker and be completed. I loved the animation but found the pacing a bit too slow and ponderous for the audience for which this film was intended. I am not sure what your average 4-8 year old American kid would make of it. The French in the last decade have put out a series of visually and stylistically unique films that are almost a genre onto themselves. The most notable of these are probably Persepolis, The Illusionist, The Triplets of Belleville and A Cat in Paris. Add The Painting to this list.
John Dies At The End – I’m a big fan of the book, but I remember thinking to myself while reading it that this would make an absolute mess of a movie. I enjoyed watching the film, but it was definitely a big mess of a film. I am not sure people who hadn’t read the book would get much out of it. I spent most of the car ride home trying to explain various aspects of the film to my very confused father. An extended cut might help in some ways but would likely cause the film to drag and become even more unfocused. I look forward to the book’s sequel whose title is, I kid you not, THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SPIDERS.
360 – A series of lives are connected through their decisions to act/not act on various aspects of their sexuality. In some cases their lives are made better, in some much much worse. The movie repeatedly talks about how when life presents you with a choice you are ultimately going to have to pick a path, but never really asserts which is the better path to follow. The movie ends back where it began, which may be the source of the title and speaks to the universality of sexuality as a driver of human happiness/unhappiness. I enjoyed the performances, but none of the vignettes really struck me as terribly original or thought provoking. The stories are almost too universal. I felt like I’d seen them all before too many times.
Eliminate: Archie Cookson – Archie Cookson is a ex-spy who has been sidelined to a desk and has settled into life as a hapless, drunken has-been in a department transcribing foreign language intercepts. When a tape (highly incriminating his paymasters) lands on his desk, they send an assassin to liquidate his entire department. Archie escapes but realizes his days are numbered. His ambivilance about going out gracefully or striking back fills most of the rest of the movie. I found the movie quite funny, although I found Archie’s kid just plain bizarre. A nice change of pace from most spy films.
The Crown Jewels – A meandering adult fairy tail that is too dark for too long. Didn’t enjoy, save for an appreciation of some cinematography that made scenes looked filmed through water. I did like the bit about the gay figure skater becoming a NHL hockey player, but that was about it. Can’t recommend.
4 Days in May – Follows a small group of Russian soldiers (lead by a just and fair man) encamped in an orphanage and a larger group of Nazis encamped on the seashore nearby hoping to escape to Denmark to surrender to the British as they both attempt to survive the war’s end. The thought that surrendering to the Russians would be akin to a death sentence is never spoken, but is omnipresent. The Russians and Nazis do their best to not confront each other. Both sides have seen enough blood and want to ensure no more is spilled, especially their own unless absolutely necessary. What does honor and their humanity demand of them? Eventually the two sides form an unlikely alliance as the children of the orphanage become threatened. I really liked this WWII film which found something fresh to say in a genre where everything has already been said.
True Wolf – I strongly disliked this documentary about a couple who raise and socialize a wolf (seemingly for the sole, unexpressed purpose of propagandizing the wolf reintroduction movement). The interviews during the movie got extremely repetitive. The phrase “we are here to dispel myths about wolves” gets repeated frequently, yet during the movie very few facts or statistics about wolves and their behavior are introduced. The film comes out heavily in favor of wolf reintroduction and doesn’t really acknowledge that sane, rational people might have a differing viewpoint. Virtually the only footage/interviews of people against wolf reintroduction were of wild eyed loonies frothing at the mouth while saying stuff like “the bible says wolves are the devil’s creature.” Setting up a straw man does little to strengthen your argument. As someone who has read a few books on the evolutionary history of wolves and dogs and their differing psychologies, I found it interesting to see footage of a socialized wolf reacting to people and dogs as you only really ever see footage of wolves in their natural habitat on nature shows, but that opportunity is about the only redeeming quality for this one sided piece of propaganda masquerading as a documentary.
The Ambassador – I loved this extremely gutsy piece of film making by Mads Brügger which exposes (in a surprisingly funny way) the trading of diplomatic credentials to those seeking to smuggle Blood Diamonds and other illicit business dealings through the use of hidden cameras. Mads plays the role of an affable, naive corrupt businessman to the hilt in a performance that is every bit as funny as Sacha Baron Cohen and utterly convincing. One gets the impression that almost any of his many unaware subjects would have put a bullet in the back of his head had his performance not been convincing or had they been aware of the filming. One of the people interviewed several times during the film does in fact get assassinated during the making of the film. This film would get high marks from me by simple virtue of its sheer audacity, but is funny and revealing to boot.
Earthbound – I disliked this overly saccharine, cutesy story of a man who may or may not be the exiled heir of an alien empire, Zalaxon. The whole “is he a space alien or just delusional” concept has been done to death numerous times on numerous TV shows. About the only new thing this film adds to the mix is that he is looking to find a mate. I did enjoy seeing curly haired doll-faced Jenn Murray as the chosen object of genetic compatibility. I last recall seeing her in the excellent BBC series The Fades as a revenant ghost slowly gaining solidity through the consumption of human flesh.
People Like US – I liked this story of a deeply indebted, manipulative, fast talking man who receives an unwanted bequest from his estranged father in the form of $150,000 and the task of delivering it to a half-sister he (and his mother) never knew existed. The movie plays around with the idea of him taking the money for himself, but “selfish bastard steals money from family without guilt” doesn’t play very well in theaters, so of course the movie runs down the feel-good “selfish bastard isn’t really a selfish bastard and finds meaning to his life through connection with others” track. The people in this movie are a bit too beautiful (Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde and Michelle Pfeiffer in the same movie is just total overkill) and the dialogue is at times a little too sharp and unnaturally delivered, but on the whole I liked the concept and execution.
Moonrise Kingdom – Watching this movie is a bit like taking the oddest people you’ve ever met, packing them around a campfire and having them spill out the oddest real events from their lives after one too many beers, then distilling all those people and events into a plot that takes place over the course of a weekend. Whimsical in the extreme with a singular visual and audio aesthetic that is pure Wes Anderson. One of his best, imo.
Brave – I liked the way this latest Pixar film started out (but not how it ended) with Merida as a strong willed young woman refusing to submit to the narrowly defined traditional role and appropriate behavior of a highborn lady, as defined by her mother the Queen. Instead, she wields a bow with great skill, rides her horse with reckless abandon and climbs waterfalls. When her parents force her into a marriage for the good of the realm, she runs away from home and I wish she had stayed there. I wanted this to be the story of Merida setting forth on a great adventure, battling vikings marauder, becoming a war-leader against the British, etc. and uniting the clans through her unrelenting bravery. Instead, the film switches to something that is a lot more formulaic Disney than Pixar, with witches and spells to be undone and with Merida in a burst of filial piety ultimately accepting that she is overly prideful. At the end, the various claimants to her hand go home in their ships temporarily mollified, with the wedding forestalled. The choice of whom to marry is now hers, but the movie seems to never question that the eventual path of her life is going to be marrying one of the other clan’s louts. At the very least, they should have let her kill the evil bear with an arrow through the eye!
I am sure this film is going to make ridiculous $ at the box office and it is not a BAD film per se, but it isn’t what I’ve come to expect from Pixar and I think will be ultimately counted as one of their weakest films, at least by adults who have come to expect lots of in-jokes and layers of meaning. I also question the mixed messages this film sends to young girls.
The Exorcist – Much emulated horror classic that makes almost everyone’s short list for best horror movie of all time. I still get the chills every time I see it. Every time I see it, I become a convert to the idea that Evil is a palpable, deliberate actor held somewhere in the viscera of the world and every once in a while finds an opportunity to torment us. William Friedkin spoke engagingly to a rapt audience for the better part of 45 minutes prior to the film. One of the highlights of the festival for me. Went out and rented a number of his other films that were not shown as part of his retrospective. Would have REALLY liked to have been able to see a print of Sorcerer, which is unfortunately only currently available in a 4:3 pan and scan format.
Carrie – Another perfectly crafted horror classic that doesn’t need to be remade, but is getting the reboot treatment anyways. Sure, the hairstyles, makeup are dated, but the catty, insidious and meticulous conceived torments of teenage girls against other teenage girls are eternal. Same goes for the ruffled, rented suits worn to prom…
Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood – Extremely difficult to watch dramatization about an incident of extreme police brutality in the wake of protests of the G8 summit. A good chunk of the movie is watching hundreds of police in full riot gear moving through a school and repeatedly bludgeoning every person they find over and over again. Almost every person they beat is shown to be fully compliant and peaceful. A dozen or more people left this film during the screening I was at due to the level of violence. I have a problem watching dramatizations of real events. I would have liked to know more about the sourcing of the facts portrayed in the film and to what extent the film was based on consensus views. I would have almost preferred the narrative film had been intermixed with interviews with the people portrayed/effected. This is an important film, in its way, in that I feel it is important for people to serve as unflinching witnesses to history and the evil men do, but I had a harder time watching this than many of the holocaust films I’ve seen. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.
Elena – I liked the concept and structure of this film, but not the execution. I found myself thinking about the themes explored in the film a great deal even weeks after seeing it. There were a few unnecessary scenes that I didn’t feel added much. The pacing was too slow. I highly disliked the single song (a philip glass piece, I think) soundtrack that was used over and over whenever they needed to queue up some dramatic tension. This would have been a masterpiece of a Hitchcock film.
The Fourth State – This is nominally a thriller, but the whole plot and journey of the main character is really just a narrative vehicle used by the creators to take Russia to task for its many ills including intimidation and murder of journalists, everything surrounding Chechnya, the creation of ultra-nationalist partisan youth groups, political corruption, etc. Another movie goes with whom I spoke afterwards said something to the effect “That movie really worked as a thriller as long as I ignored all the major major plot holes.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t. Thumbs down from me.
King Curling – This movie struck me as cheap Wes Anderson knock-off. Filled with bizarre characters doing bizarre things. This movie felt to me like someone had taken a conventional sports film plot and given it the mad-libs treatment. I just didn’t find it nearly as funny as most of the audience.
Las Acacias – I liked this film about a grizzled, hardened truck driver whose shell begins to gradually crack while transporting a single mother and her baby. The actor who plays the truck driver, Germán de Silva, delivers a memorable performance. He has an incredibly expressive face that does most of the acting in this quiet, understated film. The baby is likely the cutest one you will see on film this year.
The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With My Pants On – This movie was not the most fun I’ve had with my pants on by a long shot. I went to see this movie largely on the strength of the trailer. The movie does have some amazing cinematic moments, but you can get most of those from the trailer. This is the sort of personal story that is hard to make resonate with others precisely because it is so personal. Dealing with grief is a highly personal process and it is hard to relate to what is going on in someone else’s head due to experiences and emotions accumulated over a lifetime. Drew Denny’s ever smiling face is just too much a mask and her chaotic actions too much a shield. Grief comes out in funny ways and with a logic that only ever make sense to the griever. I never really felt myself wanting to know what was going on inside her pretty head.
Queen of Versailles –
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists
Future Lasts Forever
Woman in the Fifth –
By my account, that is ~40 films at SIFF. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but I also saw several dozen mainstream films of late and rented a lot of various directors/actors back catalogs when I liked their SIFF film. All told, I estimate I saw ~60 films over this past month. After speaking with passholders, checking out the results of SIFF’s unofficial pass holder group Fool Serious and the awards from SIFF’s official balloting, I would still like to see the following:
Any Day Now
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Coal Miner’s Daughter
The Other Dream Team
Safety Not Guaranteed