On Sunday, June 7, at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Season Encore program, a near-capacity audience bid farewell to six dancers, among them the ever-popular Kiyon Gaines, who will join the PNB School faculty after fourteen years in the company, and ballerina Carla Körbes, who in her ten years here has been one of the company’s brightest stars.
Each year she has refined details of movement more than one could think possible, so that a single arm movement can be like a flower unfolding, a foot lands feather-light after a leap which makes her seem only as weighty as that feather, her head bending gracefully to continue the movement of her body or to convey an emotion with delicacy.
All of this was evident Sunday as she danced with her frequent partner Karel Cruz an excerpt from the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s Jewels. It’s a partnership which has come into its own the past year or so, the long, lithe Cruz the perfect balance to her radiance. The two were also a joy to watch in the lead on the program‘s final work, Balanchine’s Serenade.
Seeing Serenade from the first tier allows one to marvel at how Balanchine used the corps and the stage to design beautiful patterns like a constantly changing kaleidoscope, all the women in the same bluish-white romantic tutus, the few men in the same color. This piece is all about the corps, and it seemed right to celebrate them as they danced with discipline—essential in this—and as superbly as ever.
Before this however, Körbes danced a solo work, Jessica Lang’s The Calling. A PNB premiere, it could have been created for her. It took place within a pool of light as she stood, her white skirt spread out widely like a morning glory flower around her. She could have been the stem of the flower, moving on the vine. It’s an unusual and lovely work requiring a dancer who can portray much feeling with just the upper body.
Serenade came at the end of the program, but earlier the audience had the chance to see each of the retirees in a solo role, Raphael Bouchard in Andrew Bartee’s Dirty Goods and Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Charles McCall and Eric Hipolito, Jr., in “Emeralds” from Jewels, while Jahna Frantziskonis sparkled with quicksilver precision and pertness in Jewels’ “Rubies.” She is one with great promise it is hard to lose.
The atmosphere of Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement is one of sadness and longing, of a culture in development from an earlier one lost. In their pas de deux from it, Gaines and Elizabeth Murphy brought out the emotions, the yearning, in strong performances which were another highlight of the evening.
As has become the custom, each retiree received a bouquet of flowers at the end of their performance. Gaines received several from a half-dozen family, friends and company members who presented them one by one onstage, showing, as did the audience, their affection for this fine dancer and human being.
At the end of Serenade, Körbes was honored by bouquet after bouquet, from designers and ballet masters, from friends, colleagues and conductors, hugging everyone, and eventually giving her bouquets to her co-principal dancers as they stood with the company behind her applauding. Confetti showered down [In fact those were rose petals, we’re told—ed.] on her from the flies and more flowers were tossed from the audience, as she took bow after bow. The audience stood and cheered her throughout in an emotional end to an evening of satisfying dance as well as goodbyes.
How much do I love biang-biang noodles? So much that beyond writing extensively about them here in the past, I found myself planning a trip to Tokyo and thinking, “I’ll be pretty close to Xi’an (home of the noodles), so I should go.” I learned that China now waives the visa requirement for stays up to 72 hours, which I figured would be the perfect amount of time to experience the food scene there. (Not surprisingly, turns out I would have appreciated more time.)
I’d have to maximize my brief time in Xi’an, so I ambitiously scheduled a 6:00pm food tour to follow my scheduled landing at 4:30pm, with the airport an hour from the city. I was the first off the plane and to passport control, but as I anticipated from my research, the visa waiver scenario (it’s a bit complicated) took about 20 minutes to reconcile.
Now on to airport transportation: I’d heard nightmares about hiring a taxi, with drivers taking foreigners for a ride at ridiculously high prices and dumping them on the highway (unverified reports) for lack of funds. Out of concern for my sanity and well-being, my hotel arranged for a private car to pick me up. Thank you, Hilton Xi’an, for both that and the media discount for my stay! (Hotel photos at the end of this post.)
With no more than a “ni hao,” the driver took me on a 10-minute walk to his car. Tracking progress on Google Maps (which I was able to use—along with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—on my phone, but not my laptop) while fearing for my life upon suddenly remembering driving habits in China, I realized I’d get to the hotel just two minutes past the tour start time. I WeChat-ted my tour guide, got to the hotel, threw my bags in the room, and then greeted my guide as she got to the lobby.
Lost Plate Tours would provide a perfect introduction to a mysterious new city. I’m generally skeptical of food tours, but not knowing Xi’an and not knowing the language, this was a great way to spend the first night, getting slightly acclimated and getting fully stuffed with food I would not likely have found on my own. Lost Plate founders Ruixi Hu and Brian Bergey invited me as a guest on both the Evening Tour and the following day’s Morning Tour, and then generously spent a little extra time with me for a few extra bites.
Ruixi runs the tours, having moved recently from Chengdu to Xi’an. A true food lover, she ate her way around the city to pick out the best places to show off the regional cuisine. The tours are unique in that tuk-tuks are the transportation (they’ll pick you up at your hotel if within the city wall), racing through the back alleys to reach places where the locals eat. (The tuk-tuks are an exhilarating part of the experience, though perhaps not ideal for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic, as the space can be tight). I was impressed not only with how well-organized the tours are, but also the communication process leading up to and throughout the tours. Ruixi speaks English well, providing information about the food and food establishments, and answering other questions about Xi’an. And both she and Brian are incredibly friendly.
My Evening Tour made stops to visit a shao bing shop (one of my favorite bites of the night), a skewer-griller, a dumpling restaurant, a place for porridges, and an eatery serving bowls of spinach noodles—all before final festivities at a local brewery.
The next day’s Morning Tour was less formal than usual, as there was just one other guest—a colleague of Brian. We enjoyed a walk through the fascinating Xi Chang Market (also known as the Bird and Flower Market, held Thursdays and Sundays), where one can buy all kinds of food, along with birds, turtles, crickets and cricket “houses,” household products, possibly illegal teeth, “illegal” sexual products, and much more.
Breakfast-turned-lunch would be fried beef pancakes, spicy and numbing soup, sour soup dumplings and (finally) my beloved biang-biang noodles (though not the hot oil-seared version that I like best)—including a little “hands-on” lesson in making them. Ruixi, Brian, and I would then go on to try a couple of “hardcore” dishes (they have a nice write-up of these and others at the Lost Plate Tours website): goat blood with silk noodles, along with bang-bang meat.
Check out how they make the pancakes:
Absolutely stuffed, I’d have little time to recover before venturing out for the evening. On my own, I had to do what everyone does when visiting Xi’an: stroll the Muslim Quarter. It’s colorful and festive and full of amazing sights, smells, and sounds. Cooking fires flare, the scent of cumin pervades the air, cleavers meet meat on well-worn cutting boards, stuff on sticks make you ask “What is it?,” and young men (predominantly) perform acrobatic acts in stretching sugar and then pounding it into candy. And all that’s just your first minute into the market street.
Stomach full, I sampled judiciously, my favorite bite being some spicy fried potatoes. I negotiated a half-portion from the vendor while a young woman watched to see my reaction. “Tasty?” I smiled my answer, offering her a sample, and in exchange she gave me some of her spicy tofu. A reminder that food brings cultures and people together.
Here’s a short video clip showing how to make the potatoes:
I thought about the co-mingling of cultures in Xi’an—China’s former capital and the eastern end of the Silk Road—as I strolled the side streets and back alleys of the Muslim Quarter. This is where I found the true charm of the district and the city as a whole. Away from the hustle and bustle, people walked a little slower and smiled a bit more upon eye contact. Until, of course, a bunch of bicycles, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, cars, and buses suddenly screamed by.
I eventually made my way back to the shadow of the Drum Tower, and to a place I’d eyed at the start of the evening: the biang-biang noodle shop. Here, at last, I could have a bowl of hot oil-seared noodles. But not before voyeuristically watching preparation of bowl-after-bowl, taking notes on the noodle-stretching and thwacking, as well as the rest of the process. Finally, I placed an order and voraciously attacked my noodles. A delicious way to end the day!
Now you can be a voyeur and check out the short clip of the noodle-making:
My final day would start early with an expedition to see the Terracotta Army (aka Terracotta Warriors and Horses). It’s the obligatory thing to do when visiting Xi’an, but I eschewed the many organized trips, instead enjoying the adventure of being the only non-Chinese person on the #5 (306) bus. Many students take this cheap (about $1) bus to a university stop, but I took it to the end (about an hour) to the museum site.
The story about the discovery of the terracotta army (farmers were drilling a well) and the sight itself are both impressive, though as others have commented, in some ways magazine photos are more spectacular than the live view. As I anticipated, while I tried to appreciate the museum, my mind wandered to what bowl of noodles I would eat next. (And given the $25 entry fee, would it have instead been more satisfying to sample about 10 bowls of noodles?)
With a commitment back in town, I didn’t stay long, but still managed to sample a couple of bowls of noodles near the museum entrance. Perhaps defying some Chinese custom about hot and cold, I alternated between spicy slurps of goat blood with silk noodle soup and cooling bites of liangpi.
Then it was back to the hotel. As part of my stay, the Hilton offered a tasting of dishes at its China Club restaurant, as well as a hands-on lesson in making biang-biang noodles. I’m not normally a fan of hotel restaurants, but in eating a lot of street food, this would provide a contrasting (and, yes, a more comfortable) experience. Besides, China Club is not a typical hotel restaurant, as it has an extensive menu meant to appeal not only to hotel guests, but to locals who want to eat upscale versions of the local fare.
After quick introductions to the restaurant’s chefs (via translation), I was told to suit up for my biang-biang noodle lesson. Things moved quickly in the kitchen, and some details were lost in translation, but it seems like the dough recipe I’ve been using at home is spot-on, with the rest of the cooking process and preparation pretty much the same. What I’m not sure about is the flour for the dough. All I could learn is that they use a high-gluten flour (as do I), but their dough is far more stretchy than mine. It’s easier to work with, and creates silkier noodles.
Retiring to the dining room, I ate two different bowls of biang-biang noodles, as well as a sampling of other dishes (including more liangpi)—all fantastic. Again stuffed, they invited me back that evening to sample their version of Xi’an’s famous yang rou pao mo (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew). But not before a final evening walk through the city, including a stop at a department store to buy the one souvenir of my stay in Xi’an: a dowel-like rolling pin that I learned is a key to making better biang-biang noodles.
Here’s how the Hilton Xi’an makes biang-biang noodles:
Price: $12.50 (for a 7 ounce portion, with a 4.5 ounce portion available for $11.50)
In the bowl: Broth-less ramen in a soy sauce-based sauce, with chunks of chashu (braised pork belly), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), and ribbons of green onions.
Noodling around: Ramen fans who don’t feel like slurping soup noodles in the summer will find joy in mazemen, Santouka’s seasonal offering. This is ramen without the soup, making it a “dry” dish that’s still full of the regular ramen components. No pork fatty “tonkotsu” broth, but the chunks of chashu will satisfy your porcine cravings. Menma and kikurage are mixed in, and the whole thing is sauced with notes of soy sauce and “negi abura” (green onion-infused oil) sneaking through. A generous portion of green onions top the noodles; the curly ribbons are fun but a little too large in terms of flavor balance.
If you want more: It’s nice to see takoyaki on the menu, but these “octopus balls” are frozen and deep-fried rather than made fresh. A better option is the small appetizer portion of tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet, $6.00) that comes with a lemon wedge, karashi (spicy Japanese mustard), arugula, and tonkatsu sauce. Besides, this opens the door to the potential playful order of tonkatsu/tonkotsu.
Be aware/beware: I continue to believe that the signature tonkotsu shio ramen is the best choice at Santouka (and likely the highest quality ramen available on a daily basis in the Seattle area), but it’s nice to see new choices on the menu. Another option: toroniku goma miso ramen, with the tonkotsu broth having a nice balance of sesame and miso flavors.
It’s 110% official, another SIFF has come and gone: festival attendees and juries have crowned their favorites, among many awards, all of that ballot-tearing meant Golden Space Needles in the mail for The Dark Horse (best narrative feature) and and Romeo is Bleeding (best documentary). But what about the completely fictional Golden SunBreak Awards? Rest assured that we intrepid SunBreak SIFFters spent the last five days of the homestretch in darkened theaters catching a few more films, compiling our thoughts about what we saw, and picking the films we wanted to see get awards.
Josh: Let’s get right to it — if we actually were presenting statues (which, let me remind any filmmakers who may be reading this: we most certainly are not. Please don’t respond with a shipping address.), which films would get your top prizes of SIFF 2015? And the envelope please …
Chris: My Golden SunBreak awards will go to Tigfor Best Documentary, The Automatic Hatefor Best Feature, and Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes for Best Acting.
Tony: I seriously agonized over my Golden SunBreak selections, particularly the documentaries, but in a pinch (which I reckon this is), I’d go with Ewan McNicols’ and Anna Sandilands’ exquisite tone poem Uncertain as Best Documentary; Marshland as my Best Picture; and Best Acting honors to Macarena Gomez for her bravura turn as a spinster losing her grasp on sanity in Shrew’s Nest.
Josh: Over the course of the festival I saw about 33 movies. Among those, I’d give my top prizes to The Wolfpack (for mind-blowing documentary) and Güeros (pure cinema, narrative), with acting awards for Jason Segel (for not messing up David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour) and Nina Hoss (for a breathtaking performance in Phoenix), and a special jury mention to Me and Earl and the Dying Girlfor both the exquisite and hilarious production design of the Gaines/Jackson filmography and the impeccable music supervision that has me misting up every time Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” plays in the trailer.
Tony: With the suspense of the Golden SunBreaks behind us, let’s continue our leisurely roundtable? Were there any trends that either of you noticed over the course of SIFF 2015? I’d go out on a limb and proclaim it The Year of The Documentary. The fest always sports an ample supply of non-fiction filmmaking, but eight of the 36 films I saw this year were docs. All of the ones I viewed were solid: A couple of them were amazing. And I didn’t even see some of the more buzzed-about ones, like The Wolfpack, which I know you were pretty crazy for, Josh.
Josh: I really don’t want to say too much about The Wolfpack. It’s not that the ending is is spoilable, but unlike anything else in recent memory this documentary about six film-obsessed brothers who spent most of their young lives rarely leaving their Lower East Side apartment had a way of surprising me on a minute-by-minute basis. From the story itself of why their family spent years essentially locked away in isolation (like the Romania of Chuck Norris vs. Evil, their only exposure to the outside world was through Hollywood) to their dazzling creativity in re-creating movies in their home (an inadvertent parallel with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), the film had a way of resisting every attempt that my mind made to grasp the situation, predict what would happen next, and make sense of my own responses. I’ve read some complaints that director Crystal Moselle didn’t explain more — from her access to the family to much of their backstory — but I found her choice of dropping us right into the apartment, unfolding revelations, avoiding external interviews or narration, and leaving a whole lot unsaid to be completely mind-blowing. (5★)
Tony: My favorite narrative feature of SIFF 2015, fortuitously enough, came during my last-minute cinematic cram session. The Spanish period thriller Marshland follows two detectives as they investigate a murder that opens up a can of worms including a nasty drug-trafficking racket and a serial killer on the loose. Make no mistake, this is ostensibly a formula genre picture, but it’s engineered to perfection by director Alberto Rodriguez with a distinctive Spanish flair (the post-facist 1980 climate is evocatively depicted), a taut script, maximum suspense, and two riveting, pitch-perfect leads in Raul Arevalo and Javier Gutierrez. Josh, you likened this movie to True Detective (a series I haven’t seen): If that show’s anywhere near as good as Marshland, I’ll need to forego food and sleep and get caught up.
Josh: Of course, many of its parallels to True Detective are what you’d expect from genre — the mismatched detectives with questionable tactics and/or shadowy pasts, the brutal crimes, and the twisty way the case develops — are those that you’d be disappointed not to find in a crime movie. Marshland is structurally much different from the HBO limited series (which reboots with a new cast, crew, and setting this summer), but the part that makes the comparison not entirely facile is the high degree of craftsmanship in the filmmaking itself. For instance, the vibrant near-abstract overhead shots open the film, simultaneously introduce the natural beauty of the small town setting, explain the choice of the english title (per the previous conversation, even though Marshland isn’t a direct translation of La Isla Minima, at least it sounds cool), and announce that for the next couple of hours you’re in the hands of an artist with a definite and stylish point of view. It was the third movie that I saw in a row, but remained interested until the very end.
Chris: I usually gravitate towards docs most years anyway, so I don’t have a basis for comparing whether or not documentaries are any better this year than previous years. Having said that, docs made up a plurality of the films I saw and I enjoyed most of them very much.
Two that I saw the last weekend and haven’t had the opportunity to discuss until seeing them were Sergio Herman, Fucking Perfectand Tig. The former is about a Dutch chef and restaurant owner who is a basically a Type A personality on steroids. Herman is an accomplished chef whose restaurant Oud Sluis iswas one of the most famous in the world, and the recipient of three Michelin stars. It still continues to blow my mind that the Michelin Guide was created as a means of selling more tires in 1900. Anyway, I enjoyed the film because it explored the familial effects of having such a domineering and perfectionist personality. Herman wasn’t always presented in the most flattering light, despite being a man of his considerable skill, because his quest for perfection can be his undoing. Herman closed Oud Sluis despite having a waiting list that stretched into the next calendar year. I pretty much watch dozens of hours of the Food Network weekly, but there is little in the way of showing what happens in a kitchen, and maybe watching this movie made me glad it’s that way.
Josh: Although my food-viewing is pretty much limited to my own meals and Top Chef, I am a complete sucker for getting a glimpse of watching exceptionally talented people at work (while at the same time being relieved that I don’t have to work with them myself). To that end, Willemiek Kluijfhout’s exquisite 16 mm footage was an ideal tasting menu covering Herman navigating a major personal and professional transition (she lucked into the opportunity to cover this monumental moment after he was a part of her previous film, Mussels in Love). I was surprised to be so emotional during the scenes depicting the last night of Old Sluis, but found myself much more spiritually aligned with Sergio’s less famous younger brother (who later re-opened the venue as a rustic breakfast & lunchroom) than Herman (who almost immediately opened a bigger and flashier restaurant abroad). Amid the mouthwatering food photography, I kept finding myself unable to decide whether culinary artists are the craziest or the most pure. The amount of time and effort spent obsessively crafting each dish into a spectacular work of art is both impressive for the degree to which it elevates materials and insane in that the work is almost immediately shoved into people’s mouths to be chewed up and digested. At the very least, the kitchen maestro can honestly argue that his or her creations nourish both the body and soul.
Chris: Tigfollowed stand-up comedian Tig Notaro from her famous Largo comedy set in 2012, where she announced that she had breast cancer. What I found so remarkable about watching this movie is that Notaro was dealt such a shitty hand by fate (she developed the intestinal disease C. diff, had her mother die unexpectedly, developed breast cancer, and ended a relationship over a short period of time and just after she decided she wanted to birth a child), yet you get the sense that she completely understands the gravity of the situation and chooses her humor to be the best way to deal with it. When I got home from the screening, I was anxious to tell my girlfriend all of the hilarious lines Notaro delivered, and then she said, “This is from a cancer documentary?” I don’t want to give away any here, but I don’t remember laughing so hard and crying so much at the same movie. But mostly laughing. It probably was my favorite movie I saw at #SIFF2015.
Tony: One of my last SIFF 2015 Sophie’s Choices turned out to be either a screening of Tig, or the only showing of Que Viva Mexico, Sergei Eisenstein’s part-documentary/part-dramatic narrative feature. I chose the latter, though I did not catch the Peter Greenaway biopic about its making, Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Que Viva didn’t connect with me emotionally the way Tig probably would have, but Eisenstein’s masterful compositions (Mexican peasants are often shot in profile, looking as regally beautiful as Aztec gods) and forward-thinking experimental structure shone through. Lousy canned score, though.
Chris: One thing I found disappointing was that there were a few local movies that only had one public screening. I understand programming and scheduling is a big undertaking that I would never want to do myself and that not everyone could be pleased and that programming a film festival requires all kinds of sacrifices. I just wanted to catch Bodyslam: Revenge of the Bananaand Faces of Yesler Terrace, but found it impossible to fit their only screenings into my calendar. I suspect I wasn’t alone.
Tony: No, you weren’t. I really wanted to catch both as well, but was once again faced with too damned many Sophie’s Choices this time out.
Chris: I was also very lucky, I thought, to have caught the screenplay reading of Rebel Without a Cause, put on by Ryan Piers Williams and starring his wife and Ugly Betty star America Ferrera and Raul Castillo, plus a cast of Seattle actors (including the always-great Charles Leggett). It was a great way to pay tribute to Stewart Stern, who wrote the script and who had died earlier this year. It was great fun and a unique way to enjoy a great movie. I was surprised that the Harvard Exit was only about 2/3 full, but it was the ideal way for me to spend my very last moments in the theater I saw so many great movies in before. (I talked to Ferrera and Williams last year at SIFF, and you can read the interview here.)
Tony: Damn, am I gonna miss the Harvard Exit. I saw some great movies there as well, and was happy to catch The Glamour and the Squalor within the Exit’s wonderfully old-school walls during SIFF 2015. That neighborhood really needs something in that space besides another bar, restaurant, or coffee shop. Here’s hoping the developer at least does that much.
Josh: I’m so grateful that SIFF gave it one last hurrah, but the closing Harvard Exit still breaks my heart. My understanding is that it’s slated to become a mix of office and restaurant space. I live fairly close to it; so aside from appreciating its old year-round programming, it made neighborhood film-hopping during SIFF a little less Uber-dependent.
Tony: On the subject of documentaries (sort of): Love Among the Ruins, a US/Italian effort co-produced by Seattle U Film Professor Richard Meyer, attempts to present a faux documentary and the entire (fake) lost silent film it details in just over an hour. That too-svelte (anorexic?) length means that neither the mock-doc nor the faux-silent movie portions get fleshed out sufficiently. That said, the conceit’s still fun, and mad props to the filmmakers for creating a convincing-looking faux-vintage silent film on one-bazillionth of The Artist’s budget.
Josh: My foray into fictional recreations of the past was Eden (no, not that one), in which we follow a normcore French Garage (dance, not rock) DJ stumbling through life into occasional moments of success. At least eighty percent of this movie is watching French people playing or listening to music, the rest is pretty equally divided between eating mountains of drugs and recurring jokes about the members of Daft Punk not being able to get past doormen. Although there’s hardly enough plot to justify the more than two hours of running time, the cast, style, and settings are appealing enough to just float through it all. Plus, it’s kind of interesting that dance music has been around long enough to get fit into a story that lasts twenty-some years. (3★)
Tony: I doubt Experimenter, a biopic about the life and work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, will follow in the box office footsteps of other recent scientist biopics like The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, but I liked it better.Milgram’s studies didn’t help end World War II or open up minds to the wonders of the universe: They were controversial experiments that shone a harsh light on humankind’s unfortunate tendency to conform and obey. As played (very well) by Peter Sarsgaard, Milgram’s coldly clinical surface conceals the extremely personal slant that informed his studies. It’s not perfect (like a lot of historic dramas, it feels episodic in places), but Experimenter engaged me intellectually on a much higher level than I expected, and it’s terrifically acted from stem to stern.
Tony: One not-so-great trend that affected me more than either of you, I’m sure, was an uncharacteristically so-so year for SIFF Midnight Adrenaline selections. Of the ones I saw, I genuinely enjoyed Deathgasm and The Astrologer, but the rest that I caught were a mixed bag. Two that I didn’t mention earlier definitely fell into that category. The entertaining but slight Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films chronicled Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, the ’80’s trash-film equivalent of the Weinsteins and Miramax. Director Mark Hartley’s fast becoming the Ken Burns of schlock filmmaking, and his two previous docs (the Ozploitation history Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed, about the run of American B-flicks shot in the Philippines in the 1960s and ’70’s) are terrific. This one was just pretty good.
On the narrative midnighter front, I was also kinda disappointed with When Animals Dream, a Danish weld of Let the Right One In and Ginger Snaps that follows a young woman navigating the lycanthropy that surfaces within her once she reaches her twenties. One of its liabilities, ironically, surfaces thanks to one of its assets: The realistic yet creepy environment that it establishes gets undercut by gaps in character motivation and plot structure. Still really beautifully shot and acted, however.
Josh: I have great memories from the midnight adrenalines of years gone by (Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Babadook, Otto, Dead Snow,Trollhunter) fromprevious years, but didn’t make it to any this year. Your disappointments at least make me feel better about getting more sleep.
Tony: The remainder of stuff I saw ran the gamut of subjects, and it was all worthwhile.
The last locally-shot film I saw, Beach Town, really grew on me. At its core, it’s an unassuming little love story about an unnamed beach town and the romance that develops between one of the punk-rock musician locals and a gun-shy young new arrival. It possesses a roughness and an ambling quality that turned off some of the viewers at the screening I attended, but I really took to the two likable (and nicely-un-movie-star-like) leads, and writer/director Erik Hammen nails the dynamics of a risky-dink music scene in a small town nicely (kudos also to the great original songs, many composed by Hammen).
My closing-weekend SIFF binge finished out with three foreign narrative films, all good to great. Greek director Syllas Tzoumerkas’ drama A Blast utilizes seamless, effectively disorienting editing to tell the story of Maria (an excellent Angeliki Papoulia), a wife and mom driven to flee her responsibilities by a philandering husband and enormous debts incurred by her family. I don’t know if everything in the new wave of Greek cinema is as well-crafted, relentlessly-paced, and sexually-spiced as this, but if so, I need to do some catchup at Scarecrow Video in the immediate future.
Virgin Mountain, meantime, sports one of the stupidest American-imposed titles that’s ever been attached to a really good foreign film. Fusi, the movie’s original Icelandic moniker, is the name of the lead character, an overweight and awkward 40-something mama’s boy living under mum’s roof. His humdrum, borderline-depressing life receives a jolt when he meets an odd young woman at a country line-dancing class and he becomes enamored. This is the kind of movie that would degenerate into tooth-aching schmaltz in the hands of US hacks, but in the hands of director Dagur Kari it’s an honest, funny, and really satisfying character study, stunningly acted by leads Gunnar Jonsson and Ilmur Kristjansdottir. This one really won me over.
Josh: I caught that one in our previous roundtable — glad you got a chance to see the second screening! I’m with you on the stupidity of the American title: I almost skimmed right past it in the program guide!
But my weekend binging was overstuffed with a bunch of indie comedies, a genre that’s pretty underrepresented in usual cinematic consumption. Part of this is explained by SIFF weekend guest Jason Schwartzman, who spent Saturday evening charming a packed house at a barely air conditioned Egyptian, first in an insightful conversation and career retrospective with with Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, and later as a depressed Austin slacker whose best friends are his grandmother’s assisted living nurse (TV on the Radio’sTunde Adebimpe) and his dog (played by his own spotlight-stealing French bulldog, Arrow). (3.5★)
The one with the widest appeal was probably Dope. In it, a three Inglewood high school geeks get inadvertently caught up in a drug caper. The broad outlines of romance, grades, and bullies are familiar to a typical typical high school coming-of-age flick — except it’s set in the inner city and centers around a trio of smart non-white kids who play in a punk band and ride BMX bikes (the sidekicks include a a lesbian drummer and the best damn lobby boy in the history of the Grand Budapest Hotel). The movie acknowledges, but doesn’t get bogged down by their differences and the real violence surrounding them, moving along a sprightly clip to a Pharrell Williams soundtrack. Among other modern touches, there’s a plotline about BitCoin and A$AP Rocky as the neighborhood dealer. It hits wide release later this month, and seems like a refreshing summer alternative to CGI dinosaurs and superheroes. (4★)
I also caught a few comedies (also set in Los Angeles) of sexual confusion handled in pleasantly updated and entertaining ways. First, Max Landis’s hyperactive candy-colored Me, Him, Her started with a celebrity’s coming out story, but quickly seemed to realize a love connection between the protagonist’s visiting best bro and rebounding lesbian was the story with the far more compelling characters. It ricochets through plot points with manic energy, flights of fancy, and outlandish escalations. Although it may not add up to anything incredibly deep, it found ways of making insufferable youth sorting out their messy lives into a frequently funny vision of a slightly fantastical Los Angeles. It’s also worth noting that first-time-director Max Landis was the most terminally confident and energetic festival guest I’ve ever encountered (having written a sleeper hit like Chronicle in ones twenties probably helps). Until his visit, I never would have even considered the possibility that anyone would be able to inspire SIFF-goers sing, let alone to a Backstreet Boys song on a Saturday afternoon. (3★)
And, of course, closing night feature The Overnightprovided a stark reminder that confusing sexual dynamics aren’t just For The Kids. In his previous micro-budget found-footage horror film (Creep), Patrick Brice extracted chilling results from masterful deployment of perfectly timed revelations. Here, he uses a similar strategy of playing asymmetrical information against social graces (mixed with a longing for new friendships familiar to any adult transplant to a new city) in service of a continually surprising comedy of adult sexual manners. I saw this at a pretty quiet press-only screening and found it hilarious, awkward, and awkwardly hilarious as the pizza party playdate turned increasingly confusing and bawdily revealing. I’d love to know how it played to a full house at the Cinerama, particularly when the prostheses flopped out. (4.5★) Cheers to SIFF for opening and closing strong, with plenty of laughs.
Chris: Gentlemen, thank you once again for including me in this coverage. It was a lot of fun, and I was happy to once again be back for another SIFF. It was a very special SIFF for me, not just because you guys brought me back for another year, but because SIFF let me pretend I was Jesus of SIFF this year. (Thanks, Tony, for snapping that picture while you were in the press office.)
Tony: Our pleasure, Chris. Please remember us when we reach the Pearly Gates of Film Criticism on Judgment Day.
Chris: I can’t quite give up #SIFF2015, yet. I have a couple of interviews, one with Kris Swanberg, director of Unexpected,and the other with People, Places, Thingsstar (and former “Flight of the Concords” star) Jemaine Clement, to post at a later date. I’ll wait until those get theatrical releases. In the meantime, I need a nap.
Don’t panic, there are still ten days left to get your fill of SIFF, but Even though they call it “Centerpiece Weekend”, the Seattle International Film Festival is actually safely past the halfway point.
Saturday evening includes a screening of The End of the Tour in which Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel re-enact on David Lipsky’s epic five-day interview with David Foster Wallace in the days following the publication of Infinite Jest for Rolling Stone (appropriately giving postmodern fiction the rockstar treatment). The film is based on Lipsky’s published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Following the screening at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, stroll up to the DAR Rainier Chapter House to celebrate the mid-point of your cinematic tour with fellow movie marathoners. This is always one of my favorite parties — people are generally still in the high on film phase, before the bleary eyed exhaustion of the final days arrive. (Film & party, $30 for non-members; additional screening, Sunday May 31, Harvard Exit 2:00 pm).
Aside from Saturday’s gala, this weekend brings another interesting special event. After watching the director’s cutof 54you can spend the remainder of your evening getting a taste of what Seattle imagines the real Studio 54 was like by way of “the Studio 54 Experience” at the Neptune. Director Mark Christopher is scheduled to attend the screening (Friday, May 29, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, 7:00 PM), count on him to dish on how the mainstream release was “sanitized beyond recognition” during the Q&A. Then head to the U-District for “disco atmosphere, dance lessons, classic music videos, and live performances by actor-comedian-dancer Mark Siano”. You’re on your own to supply costumes and any other Studio 54-related accessories.
Below, some picks from the rest of the SunBreak’s SIFF Team to consider for your weekend watching:
Mr. HolmesBill Condon’s take on the iconic detective finds Ian McKellen playing Sherlock retired on a farm, but still trying to solve that one last case. Actor Hiroyuki Sanada scheduled to attend the May 29 screening; both are on STANDBY so passholders and those hoping to get a rush ticket should show up early.
May 29, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival 7:00 PM
May 31, 2015 AMC Pacific Place 4:00 PM
Chuck Norris vs. Communism One of five films that garnered an impressive four “Programmer Picks”, uniting the diverse cinematic preferences of Maryna Ajaja (Russia/Eastern Europe), Clinton McClung (Midnight Adrenaline), Andy Spletzer (Alternative Cinema), and Brad Wilke (Catalyst), this documentary tells of Western films smuggled beyond the Iron Curtain, dubbed for underground consumption as fuel for revolution. Romanian director Ilinca Calugareanu (now based in London) witnessed this story firsthand and is scheduled to attend both remaining screenings.
May 30, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 8:30 PM
June 1, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival 4:30 PM
PhoenixAnother winner of the Programmer Picks derby — this one is a thriller set in post-war Berlin, with all sorts of intrigue surrounding a woman who returns from the concentration camps to the city with a new face. Thrills follow as her husband tries to use her for her inheritance and she tries to figure out if he’s the one who ratted her out to the Nazis.
May 31, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 7:15 PM
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart Critics have name-dropped David Fincher’s overlooked masterpiece Zodiac in the context of director Cedric Anger’s new period crime film, which is a plus in my book. And Guillaume Canet’s garnered serious buzz in the role of real life serial killer (and cop) Alain Lamare.
May 31, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 9:45 PM
June 2, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 9:45 PM
June 3, 2015 Kirkland Performance Center 8:30 PM
All Things Must Pass I pretty much grew up in the Tacoma Tower Records as a kid, and it had a genuine impact on music fans for a couple of decades, so this documentary on the rise and fall of the world’s biggest music retail chain definitely has my interest. Director Colin Hanks and producer Sean Stuart scheduled to attend.
May 30, 2015 Harvard Exit 7:00 PM
May 31, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival 3:00 PM
Rebel Without a Cause There was no such thing as a teenager in the collective mind of mainstream America prior to James Dean’s indelible performance in this 1955 drama. It’s also shot in gorgeous, eye-popping color that’ll look glorious on the Egyptian’s big-ass screen.
May 31, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 3:00 PM
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution: There was a time in our recent history, circa 2010, when Fox News was really, really worried about something called the New Black Panther Party. No one knows what that is, but I’m hoping this documentary about the original Black Panther movement, featuring interviews with supporters, enemies, journalists, FBI informants, and possibly Henry Rollins*, might provide some insight. (Subject Ericka Huggins is scheduled to attend the 5/29 screening.)
* This cannot be confirmed at press time, but Henry Rollins sure is in a lot of documentaries.
May 29, 2015 Pacific Place 9:30 PM
June 1, 2015 Pacific Place 4:00 PM
Being Evel: Documentary filmmaker Daniel Junge has become a fixture at SIFF. He made a documentary about former WA governor Booth Gardner’s campaign for physician-assisted suicide, and last year he was here with two documentaries, one about LEGO bricks (but not LEGOs), and another about how Christians really, really love mixed martial arts. He also won an Academy Award for his short doc Saving Facein 2012. This movie is about daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel. When I was a ute, thought “Evel Knievel” was a bad-ass name (still do, TBH) and he inspired Super Dave Osborne, so he’s always been cool to me. (Daniel Junge is scheduled to attend this screening.)
In the afterglow of a long Memorial Day Weekend, SIFF transitions into Baconmania for its second full week: with multiple degrees of Kevin Bacon making a splash all around festival venues. The main event is “An Evening With Kevin Bacon” on Wednesday — featuring an onstage interview, clip show retrospective, presentation of SIFF’s Career Achievement Award, followed by a screening of Cop Car(with the actor as corrupt mustachioed rural sheriff in pursuit of two preteen renegade joyriders). Those who want a more up close and personal evening, can spring for a $125 reception at the Alexis (general admission to the tribute, 8 PM at the Uptown, runs $35).
If that’s too rich for your blood, Bacon will also be around tonight for a Q&A following a screening of Barry Levinson’s Diner (6:30 PM, the Egyptian). He’ll stick around long enough to personally introduce Footloose(9:30 PM, the Egyptian), but probably not long enough to lead a dance-along.
Uncertain Seattle-based filmmakers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands explore the backwater Texas town of the title in this Tribeca Film Festival Award-winning doc. I’ve already seen this, and can hardly wait to talk more about it: I’ll leave it at that. Oh, and you should skip work early to see it. Really.
May 27, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival 3:30 PM
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films Aussie Mark Hartley’s already made a couple of great documentaries about the stranger, wilder corners of exploitation filmmaking, so this one–chronicling the rise of the schlock dream factory that unleashed Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action and, yes, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo on the world, will surely entertain (some mildly NSFW content in the trailer, so you know it must be good).
May 28, 2015 Lincoln Square Cinemas 3:30 PM
May 30, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 11:55 PM
June 2, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 9:30 PM
Cartoonists: Footsoldiers of Democracy It’s a trifecta of documentary recs for me this time. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, a documentary about several cartoonists taking on their sometimes-lethal sociopolitical subjects using only a pen and rapier wit couldn’t be more timely.
May 27, 2015 Lincoln Square Cinemas 3:00 PM
May 28, 2015 Pacific Place 6:30 PM
May 29, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 4:15 PM
Chris: Gentlemen, after this long, holiday weekend and my late start, I finally feel like I’m getting into the swing of things at SIFF. Over the weekend, I conducted a few interviews with visiting guests that I’m excited to share with you and our readers. For right now, though, I love the mid-fest, mid-week programming because it’s a chance to get see some of the more undiscovered gems in the festival, and not have to deal with as large crowds that the weekends usually demand.
Having said that, here’s where you’ll likely be finding me in the next few days:
The Birth of Saké:This documentary from one of Anthony Bourdain’s cameramen (Erik Shirai, a guest at both screenings) charts the history of Japan’s oldest potent potable. As one who clamors to be a better-informed and more knowledgeable lush, I don’t think I can stay from this doc.
May 27, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 6:30 PM
May 28, 2015 Pacific Place 4:00 PM
Do I Sound Gay?Another documentary, this one from the first-person with journalist (and director) David Thorpe exploring the anthropology of the “gay voice.” The interviews with Thorpe that I’ve read make it sound intriguing. Plus, it features appearances in the film from Dan Savage, George Takei, David Sedaris, Margaret Cho, and Tim Gunn. (Thorpe and Savage are scheduled to attend the Wednesday night screening.)
May 27, 2015 Harvard Exit 7:00 PM
May 29, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 4:30 PM
Venice: Obviously, there are some major cultural and political factors that make Cuban films something of a rarity on the film festival circuit. But this film from director Kiki Álvarez (scheduled to attend this afternoon’s screening) sounds intriguing: a story of three Havana hairstylists who blow their paychecks on one fabulous night on the town. It’s said to be the first Cuban film to be crowd-funded, for whatever that is worth. But there are two screenings remaining, and you’ll likely catch me at one of them.
May 26, 2015 Pacific Place 4:30 PM
May 30, 2015 Harvard Exit 1:30PM
All of your suggestions have just made my mid-week moviegoing decisions all the more complicated! I’m was also thinking about seeing:
The Price of FameTwo brothers steal Charlie Chaplin’s corpse and hold it for ransom. Although director Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) reportedly took some liberties with the facts, the absurd scheme is based on a true story.
May 27, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 7:00 PM
May 29, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 4:00 PM
June 5, 2015 Kirkland Performance Center 8:30 PM
Elephant Song Reviews from this film’s appearance at Toronto are mixed, but the cast — Xavier Dolan, Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood — is intriguing enough for me to check out this stage-to-screen adaptation about a “battle of wit and manipulation” between a doctor and patient in the aftermath of a psych ward disappearance.