Music[email][twitter][facebook]Tony Kay, the SunBreak's Music Editor, has been slugging it out in the journalistic front-line trenches of the Northwest music scene for over two decades in various websites and periodicals. In addition to covering music, arts, film, and whatever else strikes his fancy for the SunBreak, he also writes about film for City Arts magazine, covers live music for the Seattle Concerts Examiner, and periodically hosts Bizarro Movie Night at the Aster Coffee Lounge in Ballard. Tony was crowned Ultimate Film Fanatic of the Pacific Northwest on the Independent Film Channel game show The Ultimate Film Fanatic a few years ago, and he's got the wacky stories (and the rump-end of a trophy) to prove it.
After nearly a month of doing nothin’ but eating, breathing, and dreaming movies, it’s high damned time for me to take care of a serious live music itch. To belabor the metaphor, this weekend’s a Supermall-sized drugstore, and below you’ll find just a few of the dozens of brands of sonic itch-reliever at your disposal. Yeah, I’m reaching for metaphors, but I (and you) won’t have to reach far for a great music show. Or two. Or more.
Friday, June 19 (tonight!):
Kairos, Maiah Manser, Blush Cut @ Chop Suey. 21+. $10 at the door. Doors at 9:00 p.m.
You can hardly throw an empty coffee cup over your shoulder in Seattle without hitting multi-instrumentalist/singer Lena Simon, who plays with garage-surf goddess collective La Luz, groove-rock dynamos Thunderpussy, and dance band Pollens. In Kairos, her solo project, Simon wraps her coolly alluring croon in gauzy synths, textured guitars, and a percolating bed of electronic and live percussion. Some of it’s insidiously danceable, some of it’s as dreamily pretty as anything you’ll hear, and all of it’s, well, amazing (see Chris Burlingame’s great, in-depth interview with Simon on this here website for more).
Tomten, Rare Diagram, Boat Race Weekend, Hellbat @ The Blue Moon Tavern. 21+. $5 at the door. Doors at 8:00 p.m., show at 9:00 p.m.
This bill at the U district’s venerable Blue Moon runs roughshod all over the map. Hellbat‘s unusual configuration (bass, keyboard, drums, and wonderfully alien-chirp vocals) and joyously trashy art-punk sound never neglects the fun factor, while Boat Race Weekend plays chunky and careening indie rock that borders on nu-metal. Portland’s Rare Diagram and local boys Tomten both round out the evening on a lush pop note: The former updates Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson with 21st century oddness, and the latter put out one of my favorite local releases last year—The Farewell Party, an unerringly gorgeous and lilting collection of baroque pop tunes that translate faultlessly in a live setting.
Cockney Rejects, Angry Samoans, 13 Scars, guests @ El Corazon. 21+. $15 at the door. Show at 8:30 p.m.
Looking for a fix of old-school punk from both sides of the pond? Look no further than El Corazon this evening. Cockney Rejects sprouted from English punk’s restless late1970s loins, bashing out a blue-collar variety of punk that owed as much to traditional pub-rock as it did to the spiky-haired three-chord bursts of their peers. California’s Angry Samoans, meanwhile, represented the funnier, less-angry flipside: Their two-minute epics sport a snarky sense of humor and a streak of garage-rock seasoning to go with the ripsaw energy–it’s genetically impossible for me not to appreciate a band sporting song titles like “They Saved Hitler’s Cock” and “You Stupid Asshole.”
Saturday, June 20:
De La Soul, Brothers from Another @ EMP Museum. 21+. $25 members/$30 non-members advance. Show at 9:00 p.m.
For a couple of months last winter, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising maintained virtually exclusive residence on my iPhone. Its psychedelic playfulness, densely intricate samples, and wonderfully out-there sense of humor informed an entire New York contingent of outside-the-box hip hop (A Tribe Called Qwest, Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers), Outkast, local acts like THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, and current hip-hop It Boy Joey Bada$$ (who, coincidentally, plays across town at the Showbox tomorrow night). 3 Feet showed hip hop to be as infinitely expansive as any other sub-genre of popular music, and damned if the record doesn’t still sound daisy-fresh today (their two Prince Paul-produced follow-ups, De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate, kinda rule, too). Show up to pay some respects, and congratulate ’em for successfully funding their first new record in over a decade. Make sure you get there early, too: Seattle three-man crew Brothers from Another share De La’s propensity for bluster-free, fun rhymes–albeit with a less-trippy backdrop of minimal funk beats–and a reputedly-jumping onstage presence.
The Draft Punk Festival with Girl Trouble, The Fucking Eagles, The DT’s, The Tom Price Desert Classic, and loads more @ The Swiss Restaurant and Pub (Tacoma). All ages. Free until 8:00 p.m/$10 after 8:00 p.m. Show begins at noon.
Great, no-bull garage rock crawls from the soil of Tacoma like some undying monster, so it’s worth considering a trip to T-Town for this free-for-most-of-the-day music festival. You’ll get local craft brews, a lovable 1913-vintage venue for the paid evening portion of the fest, and a dozen local rock outfits. There doesn’t appear to be a weak act in the batch, but make it a point to catch two of The City of Destiny’s most durable bands. Girl Trouble are Tacoma’s Garage Rock of Gibraltar (they’ve been carrying the torch for over thirty years now), and The Fucking Eagles thrust some roadhouse soul muscle into their muscular garage rock. Both acts belong on anyone’s local-rock bucket list of live bands.
Eldridge Gravy and his band of funky misfits the Court Supreme remain one of this ‘burg’s most reliable purveyors of deeply booty-shaking soul, so they’ll fit right in amidst the parades and naked hippie cyclists that’ll be overtaking Fremont during the Solstice Festival this weekend. Expect the likely-warm temperatures to increase by at least ten degrees once these guys get down to business. For reals, cousin.
I haven’t been to Narwhal (AKA the basement of Capitol Hill’s Unicorn bar) for live music yet, but this bill could change that, largely on the strength of Seattle band Charms‘ reputation as a potent onstage act. Their frantic music throws rapidly-strummed guitars and perpetually rolling drums into indie rock tunes that sound sort of like a super-caffeinated Modest Mouse gone new wave. It’s quite the contrast to the other three bands on the bill (Eight Bells from Portland and Seattle ensembles X Suns and Panther Attack), all of whom proffer largely/fully instrumental, complex-yet-heavy space-rock sonics in the spirit of Earth and early Kinski.
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.
Collins, for the uninitiated, became a DJ at KNDD, Seattle’s first “alternative rock” radio station in 1991, just before “grunge” had its moment. Collins wasn’t a passive figure, though, and was often the first person, or the most enthusiastic, to play a lot of music that has been iconic before it became a fixture in our soundtracks (Nirvana, Beck, Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song)”). And he did it within the corporate radio constraints. Kinda. There’s a very funny moment in the film where Collins is playing Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy on the air well before it was it was authorized. He played it after 5 on a Friday so that Monday morning was the earliest Epic Records’ lawyers could stop him. Something similar happened when a band he worked with (who also worked with producer Steve Albini) got an unfinished copy of Nirvana’s In Utero album.
I can’t claim any real critical distance here, but I went into the screening with some apprehension because I’ve known Marco Collins through the music scene over the last several years (not closely but he was more than kind to me on numerous occasions). I always found him to be a David Carr-like figure: a big-hearted luminary who publicly wrestled with his own demons but was also generous and supportive of younger bands and people who operate inside of the Seattle music scene. When he had a brief tenure a few years ago with the great – but ill-fated – online radio station Jet City Stream, he invited me to be on with him one time, though logistics kept it from happening (mostly inflexibility with my day job). I’m quite camera-shy and used to stutter terribly so I don’t think it would have made for “great radio,” and could have proven to be a disaster, but that invitation meant the world to me. It still does.
I’m glad that side of Marco Collins came through in the movie and it didn’t build its entire narrative around myth-making and Collins’ battles with addiction, though it would be understandable if it did.
Tony: I think we all enjoyed this a lot. I was struck that Collins’ eagerness to hear and tout new sounds remains genuine and undiminished after three decades; and I like that he really opens up about his various issues without the movie descending into bathos (kudos to director Marq Evans on that front). You get a fascinating peek by proxy into the evolution of music consumption over the last three decades, too.
Josh: I found all of the pieces about the changing modes of music consumption to be fascinating. The clever mix of archival and what I suspect to be cleverly ‘faked’ old footage of Seattle paints a picture of a town so far removed from the mainstream cultural conversation before Collins re-launched 107.7 as “the End” that I would’ve loved to hear more about exactly how it was that a Seattle radio station in the early 1990s ever became influential at all! I imagine that a whole sequel could be made just about the shifting landscapes of the airwaves (this movie had nary a mention of listener-powered KEXP or other highly influential, non-commercial, cultural ‘curators’).
But ultimately, that wasn’t the movie and I can accept that digging into technicalities would’ve dragged down the fascinating story of the guy at the center of this revolution. I thought that it was very much to Evans’s credit that he didn’t even try to tie everything up into a neat “happy ending”. Doing so would have been tempting — and there were certainly marks along the way like the passage of Referendum 74, a reconciliation with his father, and that pawn shop search for a lost piece of beloved memorabilia that could’ve been inflated into a triumphant freeze frame finish. But instead, he made the much more honest and inspiring choice to close just as Marco’s seemed to be at a place of hopeful uncertainty, acknowledging that his story remains very much a work-in-progress. This was by far the rowdiest and most appreciative crowd that I’ve encountered at any SIFF screening this year and the standing ovation before the Q&A demonstrates just how many friends Collins still has in this town, all of whom are rooting for his next act to be even more successful. (4.5★)
Chris: Another movie that I enjoyed for similar reasons was The Primary Instinct, the concert documentary about character actor/podcaster Stephen Tobolowsky. The Tobolowsky Files has become a hit because of his personal stories of being “oh yeah, that guy” in something like 200 movies and TV shows. The movie is a recording of a show he put on at the Moore Theatre.
Tobolowsky frames the performance around a kid from Bellevue asking him at a previous show why he tells stories, and for a brief moment, I was worried that he would have quoted Joan Didion, like way too many amateur personal essays I’ve read, saying “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Thankfully, he didn’t. Instead gave a very thoughtful, and long answer.
But the movie was very sweet and affecting. I found that I really loved hearing Tobolowsky tell about his personal and Hollywood stories. I’d like to do more of that, and I know where to find his podcast.
At the screening I went to, there was one very funny moment I want to share. During the Q&A, someone asked Tobolowsky what advice he’d give to his younger self (I know). Director David Chen interrupted Tobolowsky’s answer by saying “Not appear in Atlas Shrugged 3.” He had to repeat and explain his joke because some people missed it (probably a majority), but I got it the first time and it was hilarious.
Josh: Yes, an incredible perk of making a “concert film” about an incredible storyteller is that you’re almost guaranteed to get great answers regardless of the question! I really didn’t know much about the movie going in — Chen has been plugging it on the Game of Thrones Podcast he co-hosts for weeks and the timing was convenient to my schedule — so it took me a little bit to adjust to the fact that most of the running time was a single performance and not a typical documentary structure. Without knocking the heart of the film itself (which you’ve already sold convincingly), I think that my favorite parts of The Primary Instinctwere probably the candid “Hollywood Stories” endcaps and the post-film discussion that illuminated how the film, live performances, and podcasts came into existence. I kind of wish that some of that backstory had made it onto the screen, but still thought that it was very nicely done. (4★)
Tony: One of the most pleasant surprises for me this last week was H., a US/Argentinian co-production that welds indie character study with end-of-days/science fiction unease. The Stranger hated it for the reasons I loved it: It’s an odd, slow burn of a film that doesn’t lay out its cards all at once. What starts out feeling like an indie drama gradually gives way to a truly creepy sense of mounting dread, as the town of Troy, NY experiences a bunch of wiggy shit that may or may not have been triggered by a meteor shower. Any further elaboration would spoil some of the movie’s carefully-crafted disorientation. No, it doesn’t always make literal sense, but guess what? Most nightmares don’t, and pound for pound, H. chilled me more than anything I’ve seen at SIFF 2015.
Josh: I had pretty good luck this week, too. In one of the biggest standouts, Nina Hoss gives an breathtaking performance in Phoenixas a concentration camp survivor who returns to Berlin with a new face. Upon her recovery from extensive facial reconstruction, the former singer explores the rebuilding city’s nightlife where she encounters her husband who no longer recognizes her. Explaining the schemes and ensuing revelations here, though, might rob viewers of some of the film’s greatest treats. Instead, I’ll just say that this has a place near the top of my list and kept me guessing until the last note. (5★)
On the other hand, I was grateful for having read “spoilers” about the ultimate resolution Lamb. Even having a sense of where it was (or wasn’t) going, of the film, nothing was quite as uncomfortable to watch. An exceptionally well done film with lots of local connections, this adaptation finds actor/director Ross Partridge somewhat inexplicably befriending an eleven-year-old girl (stunningly great Oona Laurence) and convincing her to take an illicit, if beautifully photographed, road trip to a remote Wyoming cabin. I still haven’t untangled my feelings about it, but am glad that I saw it, with ‘spoilers/reassurances’ in hand. (4.5★)
Tony: SIFF’s definitely delivered on the reissue/archival front this year, but the crown jewel of archival presentations, hands down, was Saved from the Flames, which gathered vintage films rescued from nitrate disintegration into one lively, eye-opening, and extremely entertaining compilation. Deftly hosted by historian Serge Bromberg (who also accompanied some of the films on piano), it showcased a restored print of A Trip to the Moon (the first great sci-fi film), some haunting 1906 footage of San Francisco pre-and-post earthquake (the first great documentary?), Buster Keaton’s last silent short (1923’s The Love Nest), and lots more. Anyone who assumes that old and/or silent films can’t be as funny, dazzling, and relevant as anything on a screen today woulda had that canard blown out of the water.
Josh: On the topic of old movies, somehow, my only documentary of the week was Chuck Norris vs. Communism, the improbable story of how hundreds of VHS tapes of Western films made it under the Communist radar and into private home-based screenings in 1980s Romania. The smuggled tapes were almost entirely dubbed by one woman, whose tireless simultaneous translations were fueled almost entirely by an obsession with getting to see these contraband films before anyone else. Interspersed between clips campy and cinematically classic, the documentary also included lots of recollections from a wide range of people who illicitly watched the tapes whose role (if any) in contemporary Romanian society was not clear to me (they might, however, be familiar faces to the HBO Europe audience). Overall, even as their stories became somewhat repetitive, I remained fascinating about how even inadvertently these Hollywood films communicated capitalist values: from the immense wealth that they brought to the kingpin at the top of the pyramid smuggling scheme, to the extra cash earned by the people who hosted video nights, to the not-entirely-accurate vision of opulent Western live that they presented to viewers. (4★)
Tony: My winning streak of docs continued unabated these last seven days. Being Evel, a loving biopic about 1970s icon and photo-extreme sports pioneer Evel Knievel, hit all the right notes, capturing the excitement of Knievel’s daredevilry while still acknowledging the very dark streak threading through the guy’s character. I’d completely forgotten how utterly huge a figure Knievel was back in the day, and this movie chronicles the evolution of his superstardom solidly.
I also enjoyed Colin Hanks’ All Things Must Pass, a solid doc chronicling the rise and fall of Tower Records, formerly the largest record store chain in the world. It’ll definitely play more compellingly to folks who actually combed a Tower outlet (count me in on that group), but it also finds some drama and humor in the ragtag bunch that created and ran the chain in its halcyon days.
I’m still trying to figure out whether my extreme fondness for two more documentaries, The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolutionand Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, is due to the excellence of the filmmaking, or the inherently riveting subjects. Either way, both of these maintained SIFF 2015’s high doc standards. The former covers the evolution of the Panthers’ movement with an immediacy that makes it one of the most vital history lessons I’ve ever gotten. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, meantime, explores Cambodia’s flourishing rock and roll scene in the 1960’s and ’70s–and how the harrowing shrapnel of the Khmer Rouge regime hurt and killed so many of its players.
Josh: More of a historical re-creation than a documentary, seeing Jason Segel re-animating David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour stirred far more feelings that I expected. Infinite Jest is unquestionably one of the most influential novels in my own personal literary canon, but despite having read it soon after its publication, impractically dragging the giant trade paperback along on a college road trip, I have few contemporary memories of actually seeing Wallace beyond the bandana book jacket photos. So, I don’t know how accurate Segel’s performance was, but it felt chillingly accurate and entirely non-parodic. Getting to see this big, sad, anxious, obsessive, image-conscious, dog-loving human interfacing with David Lipsky (maybe someday Eisenberg will get to play a character who’s totally secure and not beset by low-level competitive jealousy, but for now he’s among the best we have) on a long car trip was a real gift. There’s not a huge amount of plot, but their rich underlying dynamics of their conversations — both have much to gain and lose from the experience — is more than enough to carry the film. The film also makes 1996 seem like the ancient past and, like Almost Famous, contributes to the portrayal of Rolling Stone reporters as perpetually less cool than their subjects. In a strange convergence, like another SIFF favorite Me and Earl and the Dying Girl the movie makes incredible, if emotionally devastating, use of Brian Eno’s “the Big Ship” in a key moment. (5★)
Tony: I’m right with you on End of the Tour, Josh. This unlikely buddy story between journalist David Lipsky and doomed literary giant David Foster Wallace deftly created an odd but winning buddy story with emotional ebbs and flows that never once missed a beat. And Jason Segel’s portrayal of Wallace is rendered with casual, unforced brilliance. If it wasn’t so subtle and fine-tuned, I’d pick his work as a shoo-in for an Oscar nod.
Josh: Given the author, it’s impossible to resist adding just one endnote: I found it borderline bizarre that there was no mention or explanation for why the their epic interview never saw publication until after Wallace’s 2008 suicide. Lipsky later published it as a stand-alone book (on which the film is based) in 2010.
And, I suppose, while we’re getting metafictional and postmodern, it’s as good a time as any to mentionGüeros, an aggressively cinematic and self-aware Mexican film, set in 1999 but filmed like the French New Wave. It picks up as a teen from Veracruz is sent to live with his collegiate brother in the middle of the student strikes and follows them on an journey through various locales and cultures in search of a dying rock legend. Director Alonso Ruiz Palacios has a fantastic eye: the movie is more a series of funny interlinked moments that occasionally drift into magic realism, but they’re so dazzlingly filmed in stunning black and white Academy ratio that nearly every dreamy shot would be suitable for framing. (5★)
Tony: OK, confession time: I saw the Talking Cat movie, and I liked it. A lot. Chatty Catties posits a universe in which housecats communicate telepathically with their people (no, the movie doesn’t explain why). It’s as much a take on the inherent dysfunction of human-to-human relationships as it is about talking cats, but director Pablo Valencia nonetheless gets a huge amount of comic mileage out of his high-concept setup. Hard-of-hearing and deaf performers voice the tabbies, a conceit that likely flirts with political correctness for some. But the voice artists–especially John Autry II as lead cat Leonard–sport terrific comic timing, and there’s a surplus of genuinely funny dialogue. I haven’t laughed this hard at a movie in a long time.
I also went to the Studio 54 Experience party commemorating the screening of the Director’s Cut of 54. I had never seen the original theatrical cut, so I can’t speak for how much director Mark Christopher’s preferred version improves on it. But one tagline that continually popped up in my head as I watched it was “Boogie Nights, with Nutri-Sweet”. I appreciate and respect that this new cut makes this chronicle of the world’s most famous discoteque much gayer (and, by extension, more honest). Even with that in mind, though, 54 is neither fish nor fowl: It’s too earthbound to appeal to camp fans, but still too clumsily-executed to even begin to hold a candle to Boogie Nights (its obvious model).
It’s ostensibly a “kids'” movie about a young orphan who finds a high-coveted book at the library and uses the lessons in the book to hypnotize her way into an opulent London hotel, pop stardom, and the heart of the cruel headmistress at her boarding house. Not necessarily in that order. For someone who treats Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbedlike it’s the bible, Molly Moon is actually quite delightful.
Tony: I also really enjoyed Liza the Fox-Fairy, a gently surreal fantasy about a lonely young Hungarian woman convinced she’ll soon transform into a fox-headed spirit. Oh, and Liza’s good pals with the mischievous, sometimes homicidal ghost of a Japanese faux-Elvis pop singer, too. It’s definitely on the same tip as Delicatessen and Amelie, and while it doesn’t quite hit those films’ sustained brilliance, it’s still genuinely charming and clever without feeling like it’s straining to do so.
Josh: Perhaps primed by a couple of masterful seasons (serieses?) of Benedict Cumberbatch as Mark Gatiss’s modern Sherlock, my excitement about seeing Ian McKellan as Mr. Holmesran pretty high. In Bill Condon’s hands, we find the the title detective doddering, struggling with dementia, and with a precocious child instead of dear old Watson. This often sappy eldercare take, combined with a permanently angry Laura Linney (perhaps infuriated with being stuck with an inconsistent accent and unclear motivations) unfortunately diminished the fun that I was hoping to find in this latest re-interpretation. (2.5★)
Chris: Josh, I register your complaints about Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, but I disagree a little. I thought despite the film centering around Sherlock Holmes being 93 years old and suffering from dementia, it had a lot of subtle humor and found the precocious child having such an interest in Holmes’s stories quite fun. While Ian McKellen’s Sherlock Holmes is aging and his body and mind aren’t working the way it used to, I never found him to be pitiable.
Tony: Finally, The Fire is an Argentinian relationship drama about a couple attempting to rent a new apartment, only to have the seller delay the transaction for one day. The added time, as it turns out, only amplifies the already-extant tension between the pair. The movie’s anchored by two terrific central performances by Pilar Gamboa and Juan Barberini, and it burns brightest (sorry) when it hones in most tightly on their awkward, sometimes violently passionate, and queasily genuine interactions with each other.
Josh: For me, Elephant Song was a movie that hung together mostly on performances. In it, Xavier Dolan is a wily pachyderm-obsessed psych patient who’s dominates a quid pro quo session with a psychiatrist (Bruce Greenwood) who’s trying to solve the mystery of a disappearing colleague. Despite being adapted from a play, the film rarely feels ‘stagey’, making great use of camerawork and richly appointed sets to feel well suited to the big screen throughout. (4★)
In contrast to the doctor-patient fireworks above, Virgin Mountain (Fusi), is a much quieter yet very effective bit of character work centered on the small victories and unjust defeats of a fortysomething who still lives with his mother and is bullied by the jerks at work. Being pushed out of his homebound life of World War II reconstructions and into line dancing lessons by his mother’s new boyfriend (who wants some time at home alone) changes some things but not others. As only a native would do, Dagur Kári’s new film about a gentle giant shows off much of the Icelandic character, little of its scenery. (4★)
We have just the weekend left to soak up the SIFF. Keep track of the SunBreak’s SIFF coverage on our SIFF 2015 page, plus news updates and micro-reviews on Twitter @theSunBreak.
Josh: We’re well past the halfway point in the moviegoing marathon that is SIFF. Amazingly, I don’t think that any of us overlapped in our selection; so let’s start the check-in on a high-note. What’s at the top of your list from Week Two?
Tony: By relative accident, nearly everything I saw this SIFF block was genre-related, but the one non-genre film I caught last week was absolutely my favorite so far. Uncertain, the feature debut of Seattle-based filmmakers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands, weaves its story of three residents of a small Texas town with the grace and slowly mounting drama of a narrative feature. I’ve already prattled on about its brilliance elsewhere in detail, so I’ll only try to touch on something I didn’t really mention initially—namely, its incredible visual beauty (co-director McNicol also served as cinematographer). When the camera first glides through the mist-enshrouded swamps of Uncertain’s epicenter Caddo Lake with fluid, haunting elegance, you’ll fully understand why the press materials name-check Terrence Malick: It’s that gorgeous to look at.
Chris: A film that made me uneasy, but in a good way, is The Automatic Hate. It is the second feature film from Justin Lerner, and it’s my favorite film I’ve seen thus far at SIFF. I’m eager to share my interview with Lerner and screenwriter Katharine O’Brien (likely sometime next week). The film centers around two cousins (played by Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens) who only recently found out about each other’s existence, but develop a mutual attraction for each other. A family secret has kept their fathers estranged for decades and Cross’s Ronald had no idea his father even had a brother. It’s a really riveting film that works as a family drama, a mystery because the two cousins try to find out what the family secret is, and as a love story. Did I mention that the great Ricky Jay plays one of the brothers? And Richard Schiff plays the other?
Josh: Improbably, Noah Baumbach released two new comedies this year; but given my enduring fondness for his films, it’s not a surprise that one of them is among my winners of the week. While We’re Young was good, Mistress America is even better. As in Frances Ha, this one reaps immense benefits from Greta Gerwig’s manic wit and irrepressible energy (both in front of the camera and in writing the screenplay), inhabiting a slightly different kind of thirties-adjacent adult in New York trying to will herself into success through sheer will, unfounded optimism, and a borderline delusional degree of faking it until you make it. Viewed through the eyes of her soon-to-be-stepsister, a new-to-the-city college freshman and literary misfit, her character takes on simultaneously heroic and tragic dimensions in a farce that’s nevertheless grounded in the reality of interpersonal relationships and the different kinds of emotional crises that arise around each decade of life. ( 5⭐️)
Chris: I’ve seen a small handful of SIFF films thus far, but the one I’ve been thinking about the most, and the one that has me most conflicted, is License to Operate. I went to the world premiere screening, which was introduced by Seahawks coach (and executive producer, plus he is featured in the film) Pete Carroll, which was its own blessing and curse. I was glad that it brought so many people to SIFF on a Tuesday night but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a theater so full of people so disinterested in seeing a film.
License to Operate concerns the creation of liaisons in Los Angeles that are made up (largely) of former gang members that work with law enforcement and community leaders to reduce violence in their communities on a personal level. It has proven to be very effective. In detailing this, LTO is quite inspiring and could serve as a model for similarly affected communities. The film clearly has its heart in the right place. But License to Operate goes out of its way to not discuss any of the historical or socioeconomic factors that led to the proliferation of gang and other forms of violence in LA. It may not be a focus of the film, but by being so indifferent to how LA got to that point, it continues to let those business and political and police leaders responsible off the hook. Read this and you’ll understand what I mean. Gary Webb already died for our sins, but need it continue to be in vain?
Josh: My SIFF has been light on documentaries, but the two that I saw this week were both very good. In The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer filmed leaders of death squads as they re-enacted, genre-style, the killings of ‘communists’ following Suharto’s overthrowing of the Indonesian government. The Look of Silence covers the same territory, from the other side:an optometrist whose brother’s savage murder was gleefully described in the previous film, goes on a quest to look into the eyes of the (literally) bloodthirsty killers and their enablers. Spoiler: he finds no remorse and few excuses. Chilling. (4⭐️)
On an entirely lighter note 808 is a valentine to a drum machine with outsized influence across decades of music. Interviews with almost everyone (unsurprisingly, Kanye never appears to expound on 808s and Heartbreak) who used the Roland TR-808 to great musical success also document the ways that new technologies spread through (and create) multiple interconnected genres. The stories — covering pioneering use by Afrika Bambaataa, the revitalization of Marvin Gaye’s post-Motown, Phil Collins’s love of its robotic consistency, all the way to modern EDM figures — are great. But just as all of the stories start to sound the same, Ad-Rock and Mike D from the Beastie Boys show up and attempt to relate a story about how Adam Yaunch reversed the beats for “Paul Revere”. Their dopily confused arguments and misunderstandings had me rolling in the aisles. (3.5⭐️)
I also saw a couple of fictional takes on reality that honestly might have been better served by an actual documentary. Alleluia is a Belgian update on the Honeymoon Killers (itself, inspired by the true story of the “lonely hearts killers“). This time, online dating brings together a grifting gigolo & a possessive psycho for a murderous match made in hell. Shot in stylishly grainy available light, the movie features a few gory twists and strong weirdo acting, but I’m not sure that I ever believed in any of the characters. (3⭐️) Similarly, I Am Michael, in fell a little flat, perhaps due to the slippery nature of its subject. It’s not entirely clear that Michael Glatze — who goes from a young gay activist to an ex-gay, conversion-therapy-espousing pastor — ever has a complete handle on what makes Michael Glatze tick, so maybe it’s too much to expect that writer/director Justin Kelly or James Franco (who looks the same age despite the two decades that pass in the film and often seems to be relying on Joey Tribbianiesque smell acting) could get a complete handle on this deeply conflicted self-contradictory figure. (2.5⭐️)
Tony: An accidental trip to the wrong venue put me squarely in the middle of a screening of Overheard 3, the third in a series of action thrillers directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong. It’s reputedly not necessary to see the first one to follow this third installment, but I entered it about 10 minutes late, which may account for my disorientation with the film’s dense narrative. Basically, a recently-sprung ex-con helps betray his former boss via surveillance set up by another boss, and there’s some stuff with labor unions…or something like that. It says a lot that, despite being alternately overstuffed and undercooked in the characterization department, it rocked most mightily. Mak and Chong (the writing team behind Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong crime flick lifted by Martin Scorsese for The Departed) rocket things along with a style that incorporates the splashy pop-art color of 60’s-era Japanese Yakuza cinema, luminescent 80’s gloss, gut-level CGI-free car stunts, and not one second of gunplay (!). Color me kinda dazzled.
Josh: In terms of wandering into films with low expectations, I enjoyed Yosemite, adapted from James Franco’s short fiction and featuring him as a single father taking his sons for a hike in the park, a bit more. In three interlinked vignettes with exquisite early 1980s period detail (Star Wars bedsheets, an insomniac dad firing up a loud modem to chat on The Well, calculator watches) the menace of an encroaching mountain lion on the ever-expanding Palo Alto suburbs pales in comparison to the quiet dread of observing unsupervised tween boys on their own in the world. (3.5⭐️)
Theeb provided a stark contrast in terms of setting, pace, and stakes. For the boys of Yosemite, “on their own” constitutes unsupervised playtime between school and dinner. In Theeb, though, it’s an entirely more serious matter: Bedouin brothers escorting an errant English soldier through the dangerous desert of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Facing the terrain, raiders, and revolutionaries, they get into a real pickle. Despite being a movie with a kid at its center, the consequences are very real and no one pulls any punches. It feels like a very old fashioned kind of adventure filmmaking with beautifully photographed locations, harsh desert justice, a horrifying amount of swarming flies, and good acting (from the kid to the camels). (3.7⭐️)
Tony: The only midnighter I caught Memorial Day Weekend was The Astrologer, and honestly I’m still processing what the fuck I saw. The movie’s a self-made 1976 vanity project written, directed by, and starring reputed Astrologer to the Stars Craig Denney. For fans of total oddities, it’s an absolute must. The very meta story follows an astrologer who becomes an international superstar after his movie about an astrologer becomes a giant hit, and Denney demonstrates an incompetence so consistent it crosses over into the realm of cockeyed genius. As a director, he augments his fairly routine rags-to-riches story with heaps of truly WTF touches—rib-tickling dialogue (“You’re not an Astrologer—you’re an asshole!”), an hilariously over-and-under-emoting amateur cast, and constant misguided attempts at experimentation (one five-minute dinner scene unspools in slow motion, the payoff being the spectacle of Denney being doused with a glass of water in lugubrious slo-mo). God help me, I wanna see it again.
Seattle-based producer Brent Stiefel’s name is on a few movies this SIFF, including two of the genre offerings I saw. Circle chronicles the attempts of a group of reluctant prisoners in a darkened room as they try to figure out why an energy bolt is killing one of their number every two minutes. Before too long, they figure out that they can vote on who lives and who perishes, which invariably leads to human nature turning ugly. Yeah, it’s 12 Angry Men and The Twilight Zone sitting on a picnic bench with Cube, but if its characterizations are a little one-note in places, it more than delivers the goods in the tension department. Bonus points for an ending that’s genuinely creepy (even if it’s not entirely unpredictable).
The other Stiefel-produced effort, John Portanova’s Valley of the Sasquatch, follows an estranged father and son to their shanty cabin, where they, said father’s brother, and a jerkweed pal (David Saucedo) are beset upon by a pack of very pissed Sasquatch. The October People (a 2/3 local production company) has made a rep for themselves doing B movies the way they should be made–you know, with some thought to character and quality on a low budget. The characters in this one aren’t as strong as those in The October People’s previous efforts (The Invoking and The Device), but the actors do really good work, Portanova knows how to build suspense, and the movie fully recognizes the value in throwing down the violent Bigfoot retribution with gusto.
Josh: My “genre” offerings were a little more limited. The most bonkers thing I saw was Turbo Kid, which felt like a homemade take on Mad Max, except on BMX bikes and set in the retro-future year of 1997. It felt like two national governments somehow decided to fund a troupe of cosplayers to make post-apocalyptic adventure and most of the budget was split evenly between drugs and geysers of charmingly fake blood. It was funny, but might have been hilarious as a short. (3⭐️) On the far other end of the spectrum: Vincent was a brilliantly executed, if intentionally low-key, French take on the superhero genre that highlights the absurdity of basing a franchise around a strong swimmer. Très charmant, with lots of practical effects from the acrobatic director, who also played the title role. (4⭐️)
Tony: MissingTurbo Kid and Vincent broke my heart. The best genre-film work I saw all week, however, turned out to be Shrew’s Nest, an engrossing thriller set in 1950 Franco-era Spain. Two sisters living in a flat together take in an injured young man, but agoraphobic older sister Montse (Macarena Gomez) has a really, really, really hard time letting him go. Any more kibitzing would broach spoiler turf, but suffice it to say Shrew’s Nest is a dark treat. Co-directors Juan Fernando Andres and Esteban Roel build the creepiness up with surprising restraint (the last 15 gloriously over-over-the-top minutes notwithstanding), and leading lady Gomez gives a bravura performance that combines Bette Davis crazy-woman hysterics with surprising sympathy.
It’s Memorial Day Weekend, so that means you’ve got an extra day of SIFFting to indulge in before going back to work. Then again, that could make things even more difficult, because Festival programmers have beefed up the film itinerary accordingly. Note that this weekend marks the beginning of a week of screenings for Renton’s IKEA Performing Arts Center. To help us out with this round of recommendations (and the the remainder of the SunBreak’s SIFF coverage, we’re delighted to welcome Chris Burlingame back into the fold.
Tony:Flight of the Concords fans are legion in this town, so the Saturday Night screening of Concord Jemaine Clement’s new dramedy People, Places, Things(replete with Clement attending and a post-film party at Kaspar’s) should be a hot ticket.
Chris: Technically not on Memorial Day Weekend, but football fans will still want to plan ahead: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is introducing a documentary he executive produced called License to Operate, on Tuesday evening, about gang violence in Los Angeles. The Q&A after the film will likely include someone asking former gang leaders and director James Lipetzky if they would have run from the one-yard line with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield in the closing moments of the Super Bowl.
Gentle This Dostoyevsky adaptation, transposed to modern-day Viet Nam and starring former 21 Jump Street regular Dustin Nguyen, has been garnering some major critical acclaim.
May 22, 2015 1:30 PM Pacific Place 11
May 25, 2015 8:00 PM Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center
May 26, 2015 9:00 PM SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival
808 If you listened to any new wave, hip hop, or soul in the 1980s, you heard the Roland TR-808 doing its beat-making thing, and its impact’s bled all the way through to today–Pharrell Williams counts himself among the instrument’s acolytes. SIFF music docs are usually worth catching, and this one looks to be no exception.
May 23, 2015 9:30 PM SIFF Cinema Uptown Festival
May 25, 2015 1:00 PM SIFF Cinema Egyptian
The Astrologer It’s not just silent films and films noir that get the rediscovery/restoration treatment. Case in point: This truly daffy-sounding (and previously undiscovered) 1975 semi-autobiographical account of a con-man who becomes a psychic astrologer–written, directed by, and starring astrologer Craig Denney. If you’re the kind of freak who makes the Midnight Adrenaline screenings your home away from home all SIFF long, it’s a fair bet you need to see this.
May 24, 2015 11:55 PM SIFF Cinema Egyptian
Chris: Gentlemen, I’m thrilled you’d have me back for another go-round, and let me join in kind of late in the game. Here are some things that sound interesting to me:
Uncle Kent 2A sequel of sorts to the 2011 low-budget Joe Swanberg film, but it’s directed by Todd Rohal (The Catechism Cataclysm) and stars Kent Osbourne (who also wrote the script) as a filmmaker who wants to make a sequel to Uncle Kent, but fails to secure Swanberg’s blessing and heads off to Comic Con for some reason. How meta!
Saturday, May 23, 2015, 9:30 PM, Pacific Place
Monday, May 25, 2015, 2:30 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown
The Boss: Anatomy of a Crime (El Patrón, radiografia de un crimen)As much as I’ve said I want to spend my SIFF focusing on the Northwest Connections films, and some documentaries, this Argentinian film sounds too good for me to pass up. From the synopsis alone, I’m intrigued: “Based on true events, this incredible examination of crime and justice follows a young Argentinean farmhand butcher exploited to a murderous breaking point. A delicate expose of unscrupulous practices in the meat industry and society’s corruption and labor exploitation.”
Sunday, May 24, 2015, 8:45 PM, Harvard Exit
Tuesday, May 26, 2015, 9:30 PM, SIFF Cinema Uptown
West of Redemption I’ve been reading a lot of mystery novels and thrillers these days, and this World Premiere film from SIFF favorite and Seattle-based Cornelia Duryée Moore sounds like it’s way up my alley. It stars Billy Zane and was shot in just outside of Spokane. It’s about a farmer who lets a travelling stranger into his home, only to take that stranger hostage and uses what the Bush White House might charitably call “enhanced interrogation methods.” Secrets are to be revealed.
Monday, May 25, 2015, 7:00 PM, Harvard Exit
Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 4:30 PM, Harvard Exit
Josh: Expecting that you’ll have some time on your hands to hideaway at the movies, the weekend provides a few interesting opportunities for immersion in single topics:
You could spend most of Sunday hiding from barbecues with SIFF’s 101 course in the works of Indian auteur Satyajit Ray with back-to-back screenings of his Apu Triology, recently restored and presented in 4K resolution:
Alternately, for culinary aficionados, Sunday also brings the Little Forest quartet — four hours of chamber pieces, each covering a different season in the cooking life of a city girl who returns to the countryside after a breakup to live (and cook) off the land.
Or, Franco-philes could spend a several hours of their weekend in the cinematic company of James Franco. I Am Michaelfinds Franco in the title role in the true story of onetime gay rights activist turned conversion-therapy christian pastor Michael Glatze. Zachary Quinto co-stars as the former boyfriend, Emmar Roberts plays the current girlfriend. Director Justin Kelly is scheduled to attend both screenings; expect a lively discussion.
May 22, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 6:30 PM
May 23, 2015 SIFF Cinema Egyptian 4:15 PM
Yosemitemarks another adaptation from Franco’s short story collection. In this installation, the stories of a father (Franco) and three kids intertwine around the unrealistic goal of hunting down a mysterious mountain lion that threatens their suburb. It sounds questionable, but last year’s Palo Alto (from the same collection) was surprisingly good, so I’m willing to dip back into this dreamy world. Director Gabrielle Demeestere scheduled to attend both screenings.
May 23, 2015 AMC Pacific Place 11 7:00 PM
May 24, 2015 Harvard Exit 1:45 PM
Mistress AmericaI’m always excited for a new Noah Baumbach film, and the late addition of this one to the SIFF lineup marks his second release in 2015. Hot on the heels of this spring’s pretty good While We’re Young, the director is back, working once again with Greta Gerwig as star and co-writer (2013’s excellent Frances Ha)in this 21st century screwball farce set in New York City.
Tony: So the first week of the Seattle International Film Festival’s 2015 iteration has SIFFted its way into history. I’ve seen quite a few movies already, and am pretty surprised at the overall quality of what’s crossed my peepers. Of the 13 festival features I’ve seen, only two outright disappointed me. How about you, Josh?
Josh: As usual, some were less than spectacular, but so far I’m nine for nine in terms of non-disappointments.
Tony: Our viewing itinerary intersected on a couple of occasions in the last six or seven days, beginning with Spy, SIFF’s Opening Night feature. I’m very curious about your take.
Josh: While you might blame the afterglow of the always-fun opening night party, I’m coming in decidedly pro-Spy! While it probably won’t make my top movies of all time list, I think it’s definitely among the better SIFF opening night selections of at least the last decade: expertly made, never boring, incredibly funny throughout, while deftly avoiding so many landmines that could’ve made it a complete embarrassment.
Tony: Spy is the kind of flagrantly mainstream snack that the snob in me would dismiss, but the junk food junkie in me found guiltily enjoyable in places. I’ll admit it: I laughed way more than I thought I would. I’d never pay money to see it again, but it amiably diverted me for 90-something minutes and I didn’t resent it when it was over. That, in and of itself, surprised me.
Josh: Right, even though I’d seen the reviews, surprise was definitely a factor in my enjoyment. In particular, the previews for this movie are terrible — as if they don’t trust comedy fans to show up at a theater unless the humor is cringeworthy and that the main joke is the mere existence of Melissa McCarthy looking like Melissa McCarthy. I hope it finds an audience on the basis of the Bridesmaids connection alone. I give Feig et al enormous credit for not going for the easy fish-out-of-water route by and making McCarthy an incredibly competent operative who’s regularly underrated. Plus, it never stopped making me laugh, often with the jokes — verbal, physical, and visual — hitting so fast that I ended up missing some because the room was still cracking up.
Tony: OK, I take it back: If someone put together a loop of just the scenes featuring Jason Statham (indulging in some howlingly funny self-parody) and Morena Bacarin (as the super-spy equivalent of a too-perfect prom queen), I might pay money for that.
Josh: The strength of the cast overall made this sing. I agree that Statham in particular was a joy, and you got the feeling that they all very much enjoyed globe-trotting to locales far more exotic than you’d expect from a comedy. (4⭐️)
Tony: Another film that we both crossed paths with, The New Girlfriend, took me by (pleasant) surprise. The usage of the term ‘Hitchcockian psychosexual drama’ to describe French maestro Francois Ozon’s newest film in SIFF’s printed guide led me to expect something much more menacing than I got. Rather than a thriller, The New Girlfriend turned out to be a subtle and surprisingly adroit comedy that (for me, at least) sported some nice performances and a really interesting meditation on the fluidity of human sexuality and intimacy. It’s the kind of premise that an American director would, more than likely, completely screw up, but Ozon and his cast make it work with unforced ease. The only major liability for me came in the last 15 minutes, during which Ozon’s screenplay descends into what feels like a clumsy lurch at melodrama–an uninspired excuse to force lead character David’s big reveal to a head (then again, this could be an inbuilt fault with Ruth Rendell’s source material book, which I haven’t read). Up until then, though, I was really entertained.
Josh: Yes, I kept waiting for something truly terrible to happen! But it was sort of thrilling to see relationships develop and revelations unfold in uncomfortable fits and starts from the regularly confused and challenged characters. At my screening, it felt like the audience wasn’t sure how to react to [spoiler?] Duris dressed in women’s clothing, which, in a way mirrored the reaction of his [spoiler?] dead wife’s best friend as their relationship evolved in surprising but relatable ways. It did feel like the plot boiled over toward the end, and I found the final scenes not entirely conclusive, but it worked overall like a Very French take on Transparent. (4⭐️)
Tony: Every SIFF, there’s at least one horror movie/thriller that counters deeply disturbing fucked-uppedness with enough artistry to force civilians to acknowledge its quality (even as they peek at it through sweaty, knotted fingers). My favorite intersection of arthouse and grindhouse so far this fest is Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian film directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. It’s got two creepy pre-teen twins (well-played by real-life sibs Elias and Lukas Schwarz) dealing with a flawed mom (Susanne Wuest) whose psychological and physical abuse of her sons leads to, well, some deeply disturbing fucked-uppedness. The movie shares DNA with a couple of other horror movies, particularly (modest sorta-spoiler alert if you’re a horror nerd like me) the 1972 shocker The Other–no relation to the Nicole Kidman film–and Audition, but it also carves out (pardon the pun) its own distinctive identity with a languid, dreamlike pace that renders the deeply unsettling bits all the more impactful. Franz and Fiala did such a good job of diverting audience sympathies and focus that the ending genuinely surprised me.
Josh: Google Translate tells me that the original title of the film (Ich Seh Ich Seh) means, “I see, I see”. Which is appropriate, given how early in the film I spotted the “twist”. However, I agree that the glossy style carried it a long way and the immaculate shots and small creepy moment lulled me into such complacence that I was truly repulsed by the horrifying gore of final act. I’m not sure that I would classify my response as “enjoyment”, but I can’t argue that the film didn’t work on its own terms. I’m just glad that it wasn’t part of the midnight program; seeing it in earlier in the evening gave me some time to process before being haunted by the nightmarish imagery. (3.5⭐️)
Tony: Before I elaborate on the rest of the movies I liked or loved, let’s just get my disappointments off the table first. As a rabid midnight movie-holic, I was underwhelmed with SIFF’s second Midnight Adrenaline entry, The Hallow. I was intrigued by the premise (Irish family moves to a house just outside a reputedly-enchanted forest rife with strange beasts), and the mostly-practical effects were surprisingly effective, but it ultimately wore my patience down with its lack of character development and way too much reliance on hand-held camera fuckery.
Snow on the Blades represented another wolf in sheep’s clothing a la The New Girlfriend, thanks to consignment in the Thrill Me! portion of the SIFF Guide. Alas, it’s nowhere near as interesting as the latter. It’s basically Les Miserables samurai-style, as a disgraced samurai chases down the surviving assassins who took out his boss thirteen years previous. You know you’re in trouble when the climactic confrontation between the samurai and his single surviving quarry culminates with both parties blubbering like simpering milksops. And when said samurai meets his dewy-eyed wife for another good cry in the final scene, I was sure I was watching a Funny or Die parody where someone mashed up a Kurosawa film with a touchy-feely chick flick.
I ended up missing a couple of films that were high on my must-see list–Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy. How did those fare?
Josh: I’m sorry that you missed those — they’re currently near the top of my rankings! Love and Mercy was an almost radical take on the Great Artist Biopic in that it seemed to argue that the only fascinating aspect of Brian Wilson was the music that he created. And on this front, it works brilliantly in large part due to the score by Atticus Ross woven together from a hard disk full of recordings from the period surrounding the recording of Pet Sounds. Acoustic limitations of the Egyptian aside, I found the synthesis of these outtakes and the final versions of Beach Boys hits to be revelatory (and somewhat heartbreaking to think of how much less Wilson would’ve suffered if he’d had access to modern computer recording techniques). This is not to say that Paul Dano and John Cusack don’t give interesting performances as an increasingly withdrawn Wilson, but what they’re mostly portraying is a person who’s barely present in his own life. As the only character approaching three dimensions Elizabeth Banks nearly steals the spotlight as a 1980s Cadillac saleswoman, love interest, and advocate; elsewhere Wilson cousins and Paul Giamatti as a nefarious and controlling psychiatrist approach cartoonish levels of villainy. (4⭐️)
I can totally see why Me and Earl and the Dying Girl swept the hearts of Sundance audiences and juries while opening distributor pocketbooks. It’s likely to be an instant classic in the “creative teenage guy navigates perils of high school under the cover of faux disaffection but discovers feelings” genre, one that also happens to be in my wheelhouse / relevant to my arrested development interests. Although the motivating incident of story doesn’t entirely hold up under scrutiny — the parent-prodded meet-up of Greg (the “Me”, played amazingly by Thomas Mann) and “the Dying Girl” is as out-of-the-blue in the script as it is on screen — the other elements of the film are so successful and propulsive that it’s easy to be pulled along by the evocative camerawork, clever humor, an increasingly heart-tugging story, and an amazing soundtrack (a lot of Brian Eno, and some strategically perfect and emotionally devastating deployment of Nico Muhly and Explosions in the Sky). On top of all of that, there’s the matter of Greg and Earl’s filmography: a Criterion-Worthy library of astutely hilarious film-geek parodies of classic films. I’m hoping that when the film hits wide release next month, that their collection gets its own microsite or YouTube channel. They’re too perfect to not deserve more time to savor than the quick flashes throughout the film. (5⭐️)
Tony: There’s a lot of great music-related stuff on the SIFF 2015 docket, but the only music-related movie I’ve seen so far is Breathe Umphefumlo, a South African adaptation of La Boheme (AKA the opera ripped off by Rent). Slow Americans likely won’t be able to get past the mouthful of a title and the fact that, clever title cards and some introductory dialogue aside, it’s in un-subtitled African, but I was captivated. If you’ve seen Boheme or Rent, the plot’s easy enough to follow, with the original’s tragic love story cannily transposed against South Africa’s current TB epidemic. Puccini’s original music is performed by the cast with full operatic singing, only the instrumentation incorporates steel drums, marimbas, and other regional instruments. The weld shouldn’t work but does, wonderfully.
What about the rest of the stuff you saw, Josh?
Josh: Let’s see … I caught a couple of basically OK indie comedies. The first, and slightly more successful was Andrew Bujalski’s Results — loosely structured around a love triangle featuring two personal trainers (Guy Pearce, with dreams of a motivational empire; and Cobie Smulders, his all-business fitness star) and a newly-wealthy, freshly-divorced, marijuana-smoking, dadbod client (Kevin Corrigan). I’m a huge fan of his earlier mumblecore/new-wave/experimental catalog; so it was at least meta-fascinating to see him working in the framework of a more conventional rom-com — vaguely akin to looking at medieval paintings of lions by artists with only secondhand knowledge of the major features of the big cats. (3.5⭐️)
I also saw Manson Family Vacation, in which a successful attorney (Jay Duplass) gets dragged, often against his better judgement, on a makeshift tour of Charles Manson sites on a surprise visit from his adopted brother (Linas Phillips). Fittingly for a Duplass Brothers production, its a bit rambly, but successfully conveys the uncomfortable experience of spending an extended period of time with a semi-estranged family member who’s unhealthily obsessed with a serial-killer. (3⭐️)
In an entirely different genre, John Maclean’s Slow West finds mysterious traveler Michael Fassbender taking payment to escort poorly-prepared teen (Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Scottish) across the dangerous post-Civil War Continental Divide. Scenic New Zealand stands in for Colorado and the initially languid pacing picks up as they encounter various characters on the road and culminates in a high-stakes finale. The whole thing is a fool’s errand, beautifully shot. (4⭐️)
Tony: Both of the docs I saw maintained the festival’s high standards for documentary programming. Personal Gold: An Underdog Story told the involving saga of the Women’s Track Cycling Team in their 2012 quest for an Olympic medal. The movie hits all the requisite inspirational notes that a good sports doc needs, while also touching on the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the financial struggles endured by most Olympic athletes to compete, and modern technology’s evolving role in human health. Good stuff.
Even better was Listen to Me Marlon, a doc about Marlon Brando constructed from hours of Brando’s own audio-taped musings and decades worth of stock footage. The end result is a haunting paean to the iconic actor in his own words, and the most fully-rounded portrait of Brando that we’re likely to see. You get all phases of the man’s life–from his early-career passion for pursuing unprecedented honesty and realism in his craft, to the actor’s perpetual discomfort with international fame, to his painful issues with his abusive jerk of a father: In a clip from a 1950s TV show, all of the tension and dysfunction between Brando and his dad seethes just beneath the surface, and it’s especially harrowing to watch after hearing Brando’s frank dialogue about their relationship. As deeply as it goes, though, Listen to Me Marlon deftly averts tabloid-style gawkery. If we weren’t already hitting Guttenberg-Bible length on this roundtable, I could kibbutz about this one for hours. It’s that good.
Josh: Listen to Me Marlon was incredible. I’m not quite sure that I’ve ever seen anything like it before. On one hand, it’s almost a counterpoint to Montage of Heck in terms of creating a biography entirely from an artist’s own ephemera. On the other, it reminded me of HBO’s The Jinx, in that the whole thing hung on the impulses of an old man to make a taped confession. But the depth of its ability to interrogate an epic career using almost entirely the artist’s own voice (and digitized head!) puts it in a category of its own, with the director’s pairings of existing footage and subsequent diary entries truly illuminating each other in unexpected ways. I’m hardly a Brando scholar, so many of the clips alone were worthwhile for their ability to chart a career arc and the stuff about his perspective on Method acting and his involvement with social justice issues was definitely interesting. (4.5⭐️)
Tony: The Hallow aside, SIFF 2015’s also been scratching my cult movie itch most ably. Deathgasm, the inaugural Midnight Adrenaline selection, delivers everything you could want from a midnighter and then some. A slacker teenage headbanger happens upon some parchments containing ancient sheet music, and when he and his bandmates play said music, it unleashes, well, Hell on Earth. You get plenty of warped giggles, gouts of blood and pus, and metal up the ass (metaphorically and literally), but filtered through an almost John Hughes level of teenage empathy. Who’da thunk that a movie featuring gut-munching, bloody projectile diarrhea, decapitation, demons, and heavy metal kids beating down zombies with dildos could be so, well, sweet-spirited without losing its punch?
The Old Dark House, meantime, proved that even a 1932 thriller about reluctant strangers trapped in a houseful of oddballs and psychos could maintain satiric bite over 80 years after its original release. Director James Whale went on to hone his MO of mordant chuckles and monstrous chills to perfection in 1933’s The Invisible Man and the 1935 masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein, but the seeds of that style were already sown here. The cast, including Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and an archly-funny Ernest Thesiger, take to their roles with relish, and Boris Karloff manages to be unerringly creepy as the house’s scarred and mute manservant. Best of all, the print (restored by the Library of Congress) is clear and darkly lovely. This is one of those rare old horror movies where even a jaded modern audience laughs with it, not at it.