If, like a lot of genre fans and straight-up geeks, you revere the first two Terminator movies, it’s a strong bet you’ll dislike Terminator: Genisys, the fifth film in the Terminator franchise (it just opened today on a metric crap-ton of screens). And if you don’t give a proverbial rat’s ass about the film series that made Teutonic cyborgs and the one-liners they spout an indelible pop culture fixture, it’s a strong bet your already-low expectations will still take a nosedive.
Let’s amend that. Hatred should be reserved for something that’s at least vigorous enough to arouse a polarizing extreme reaction of some kind. Terminator: Genisys, by contrast, runs its course with such rote apathy, it makes that ‘samba’ rhythm setting on an old Casio keyboard sound like gritty, to-the-bone Delta blues.
The movie’s opening minutes essentially replicate the 1984 original’s setup, in case anyone needs the catch-up. It’s the post-apocalyptic future, and the Earth’s ruled by Skynet, an implacable computer network whose army of machines have all but crushed mankind. John Connor, leader of the last ragtag vestiges of the human resistance, sends one of his lieutenants, Kyle Reese, back in time to protect Connor’s mom Sarah and to—ideally—destroy Skynet before it’s created.
The world Reese slingshots back to, though, doesn’t quite skew to expectations. The Sarah Connor now occupying the year 1984 isn’t a victimized, uncomprehending normal mortal: She’s a fully locked-and-loaded badass who’s already been on the run for years from Skynet’s Terminator cyborgs, her only companion being a benevolent Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who’s become her de facto father figure and protector. From there, it’s up to Sarah, Reese, and ‘Pops’ Terminator to hopscotch across time to save the world.
In a bit of irony surely not intended by its makers, Terminator: Genisys plays like a Skynet computer simulation of the first two movies. That lingering feeling’s telegraphed almost from the get-go. Virtually shot-by-shot recreations of the 1984 original drive the early portion of the movie, only with every trace of the first Terminator’s visceral, grubby immediacy antiseptically smoothed out.
Along the way, plenty of Big Action Special Effects setpieces surface: A T-1000 played by Korean actor Byung-hun Lee gets all liquid-metal stabby and smashy. Numerous cars pursue each other and crash with numbing regularity. There’s a big helicopter chase, and the apparently required-by-blockbuster-law trashing of the Golden Gate Bridge occurs twice, sorta (only the 1950s Tokyo of the Godzilla movies has been abused as relentlessly by filmmakers). It’s all bigger, louder, and explodier than any of the preceding movies, but there’s precious little inspiration or soul inside the threadbare screenplay. Yeah, picking on a summer popcorn blockbuster is like lifting a Tootsie Pop from a 4-year-old, but Mad Max Fury Road proved that an action movie can be as smart and resonant as it is exhilarating. The stakes on this type of movie have been raised, and as a result Terminator: Genisys feels like a factory job through and through.
Most of the human components in Terminator: Genisys just amplify the movie’s sense of mechanical indifference. There’s a feral intensity in the eyes of Michael Biehn, the original film’s Kyle Reese, that clearly betrayed the frayed edges of someone who’d spent their entire life fighting and running. The Kyle Reese of Terminator: Genisys is blandly acted by Jai Courtney, whose straight-arrow earnestness runs totally at odds with his guerrilla resistance fighter character (has this guy ever experienced anything worse than maybe losing his starting place on his high school football team?). And the grunting, earthy, no-bull Sarah Connor represented by Terminator 2’s Linda Hamilton has been replaced by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, who looks like a more superficially-pretty computer sim of Hamilton and acts like a CW TV version of a living, breathing Female Action Hero. The attempted chemistry between these two feels clunky and rushed, as though director Alan Taylor couldn’t wait to get past the mushy stuff and straight to the explodey bits.
Not surprisingly, the only figures in this movie possessing staying power beyond a wet napkin are the old guys. Character actor J.K. Simmons lends rumpled believability and charm to his role as a cop whose path intersects with the Terminator twice in three decades. And Schwarzenegger proves to be pretty damned terrific. His features weathered to bracing distinction, he plays Sarah’s guardian as equal parts Pinocchio and protective papa. His awkward reconciliation of paternal love and conventional human behavior with his programming comes agonizingly close to giving this big, loud, explode-y assembly-line movie something resembling a heart.
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.
Of the large handful of films I’ve seen at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, The Automatic Hateis the least likely that I’ll forget anytime soon. It’s an engrossing film that works combines elements of a family drama, a mystery thriller and love story. If I had to give an elevator pitch on the film, I’d say it’s like Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies meets Hitchcock meets “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s about two cousins (played by Adelaide Clemens and Joseph Cross) who learn of their existence while trying to deal both with the secret that has divided their family for a generation and their own attraction to each other.
For a small, independent film, the cast is quite impressive, including Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay as brothers who have been feuding for decades, but are both aware that if the reason for their fighting is revealed, it could further rupture the family.
The Automatic Hate is the second feature film from director Justin Lerner, after his 2010 feature debut Girlfriend, which also deals with the subject of taboo romances, that time pairing a single mother with a man with Down syndrome.
While filmmaker Justin Lerner and screenwriter Katharine O’Brien were in Seattle for its late-May screenings at SIFF, they sat down with the SunBreak to discuss the movie, which they hope to bring back to Seattle in the winter.
This is it! The last week of the Seattle International Film Festival. Has SIFF saved the best for last? Maybe! Special events are hitting hard and fast, so plan carefully to get your fill of screenings and social activities!
Of note, starting today, SIFF brings the festival to the Kirkland Performance Center for a week, celebrating with a gala presentation of Good Ol’ Boy (8 PM). The movie, about a 10-year-old boy in ’70s suburban America navigating mainstream pop-culture obsession and a father who insists on pushing his Indian heritage on him. The previews looked cute and director Frank Lotito, actor/producer Anjul Nigam, actors Roni Akurati and Samrat Chakrabarti, producer Steve Straka, and cinematographer Thomas Scott Stanton are all scheduled to attend. (Those not wanting to face traffic will miss the party, but can catch the film when it screens on June 5, 2015 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, 8:30 PM)
Wednesday June 3 brings the world premiere of Marco Collins documentary The Glamour & The Squalor to the Egyptian (7:00 PM). The inaugural music director at 107.7 The End, Collins was so hugely influential in breaking alternative acts that he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like any good look behind the music, the film’s blurb promises ” unflinching documentary about media fame and addiction, which tracks his rise, fall, and resurrection”. Director Marq Evans, local producers, and Collins himself will be at the screening (given that the screening is on standby, one assumes that the crowd will be stocked with all kinds of local music royalty, from the grunge era and beyond, too). After the Q&A, head over to a party hosted by Adra Boo at Neumos with performances by Sir Mix-A-Lot, Cataldo, Hobosexual, Ayron Jones, and Ruler ($15, tickets still available). Tickets for the second showing (June 5, the Harvard Exit, 4:15PM) are still available.
Finally, Thursday June 4 brings SIFF’s annual “Gay-La”. This year’s glam event includes a screening of Programmer-beloved Tangerine (7:00 PM, the Egyptian) — about “scrappy transgender prostitute besties Sin-Dee and Alexandra on a wild night in L.A”) — followed by a party at Baltic Room with music by Sugar Beat DJ. (Additional screening June 7, 2015 Harvard Exit 6:15 PM)
Aside from all of the parties, this week also includes a ton of great movies, a few of our selections to get you started:
Beach Town Seattle-based writer/director Erik Hammen mines young romance and humor from DIY indie-band dynamics in an unnamed beach town (played with credibility by Ballard and Georgetown).
June 2, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 6:30 PM
June 4, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 4:00 PM
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll I’m a complete and utter sap for music docs that unearth previously unheard music, and this one–covering Cambodia’s music scene of the 1960s and ’70s, and its near-total destruction by the monstrous Khmer Rouge regime–sounds utterly unmissable.
Cave of the Spider Women/Cave of the Silken Web SIFF 2015 once again strikes with intriguing archival gems–first, a 1927 silent version of a classic Chinese folktale accompanied by composer Donald Sosin, followed by a wild and colorful 1967 reinterpretation of said folktale from Hong Kong’s prolific Shaw Brothers.
June 3, 2015 SIFF Cinema Uptown 6:30 PM
3 1/2 Minutes, 10 BulletsThis documentary focuses on the 2012 Florida case where sociopathic monster Michael Dunn shot into a car of four African American teenagers because he thought they were playing their (rap/hip hop) music too loud. This looks like an important film that explores crime/justice and race in America in today’s age. The father of murdered teenager Jordan Davis is scheduled to attend both screenings.
June 2, 2015 Egyptian 7:00 PM
June 3, 2015 Kirkland Performance Center 6:00 PM
Next Time I’ll Aim for the HeartAhh yes, a French film that is set in the late 1970s about a serial killer who murders female hitchhikers. It’s based on the case of Alain Lamare, a police officer assigned to investigate the murders he was committing.
June 2, 2015 Egyptian 9:45 PM
June 3, 2015 Kirkland Performance Center 8:30 PM
Güeros A mother sends her unruly teenager to live with his college-age brother in Mexico City right in the middle of a months-long student strike. Among other things, a search for an idolized rock star ensues, shot in a black and white style simultaneously evocative of 1968 protests and the French new wave.
June 1, 2015 Harvard Exit 9:00 PM
Virgin Mountain (Fusi)After a dalliance with English language cinema (2008’s The Good Heart), Dagur Kári is back to his Danish/Icelandic film roots (Noi the Albino and Dark Horse — one of my own still enduring SIFF favorites). The title refers to the role created especially for Icelandic sketch comedian Gunnar Jónsson: an overweight recluse whose mother forces him out of the home that they still share so that at least she can get an evening alone for some special adult alone time with her new boyfriend. The occasion for getting him out of the house is dance lessons, so just maybe everyone wins?
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.