SIFF 2016: Festival Roundtable (Week One)

SIFF 2016Tony: Glad to be meeting around the cinephile campfire with you both again, dear sirs. The first week of SIFF 2016 is now under our belts, fellow SunBreakers. How has it gone for you so far?

Chris: Gentlemen, It is once again an immense privilege to join both of you here to talk about SIFF in this forum. First of all, I want to bring some good news. You may have noticed an announcement mentioned before every movie, but our frequent and annual calls for a return of the iSIFF app have not entirely been unheard. SIFF has unveiled a new ticketing app. It’s only available for iPhone right now, and I’m an Android user, so I can’t comment on its functionality, but I suspect it has a ways to go to match iSIFF (I miss the SIFFter feature that helped winnow down movie selections for you), but it’s a start. No?

Josh: the ticketing app is a start, but as far as I can tell, it’s only for collecting tickets that you bought online (not for browsing the schedule). But yes, it’s a start! Maybe next year one of this city’s tech luminaries will donate some app-building expertise to our massive festival.

Tony: Our beloved may yet return to us… but enough about the unknowable future. Let’s start at the beginning: Opening Night.

Tony: But onto the film! Woody Allen’s latest period romantic comedy, Café Society, opened SIFF number 42. This brand-new, fresh-from-Cannes effort is another dive into the Period Nostalgia Lagoon for Allen, but unlike my last latter-day Allen movie Midnight in Paris  (which I liked a lot), this one didn’t do it for me. It’s handsomely shot by Vittorio Storaro, there are a few belly laughs, and some of the performances click. But I kept putting its portrayal of golden-age Tinseltown up alongside the Coen Brothers’ loving and densely detailed rendering of same in Hail, Caesar!, unfavorably.

Josh: I see where you’re coming from, but my take was a little less harsh if only because my expectations were limited. My general feeling about Woody Allen is that we can rely on him assembling a stellar cast in some variation of a familiar story in a particular reality-adjacent fantasy world where money is no object. Sometimes — through inexplicable alchemy — something truly luminous happens, likely in the way of a performance rather than plot (Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Owen Wilson’s wide eyed wonder in Paris). Other times (more often than not), you get a perfectly acceptable, if not quickly forgettable cinematic amuse-bouche. For me, although ultimately Cafe Society felt simultaneously overstuffed and emotionally hollow, I’d still group it with in the latter category. The actors were game, I laughed (or groaned) enough, and just as I was getting exhausted with the story, the movie also seemed to give up on itself, fading to an abrupt but welcome conclusion.

Tony: Honestly, an awful lot of Allen’s script here feels like Standard Allen Neurotic Romantic 70s Dialogue uncomfortably grafted onto a period framework. And while I’m normally good at separating art from artist, Allen’s fixation on younger women in tempestuous affairs with older men stopped feeling like probing self-aware analysis a long time ago. In Café Society, it’s just kinda creepy…

Josh: Yeah. Maybe lay off on the family members lusting after the same woman as a central comedic plot element? But Woody’s going to Woody.

Chris: I’m also what one would consider a comprehensive Woody Allen fan. As long as he continues to make movies, I will continue to watch them.

But…

I do consider Annie Hall my very favorite movie, and I do think getting the second-ever showing (and first in the US) of one of his movies is quite a “get” for the festival, but I also think SIFF badly mismanaged the selection, and probably should have selected another movie to kick off the festival. Allen has a large cloud that hangs over him, and SIFF never really addressed that. If they did, I missed it. Instead, others addressed it for them, and the Northwest Film Forum, the other major film presence in Seattle, hosted a forum both inside its building and through the Twitter with the powerful #WhoAreWeCelebrating hashtag. While I think it’s somewhat unfair to compare Allen to Bill Cosby, as some on Twitter did (the number of accusers against Cosby over such an extended time is so voluminous it wears down any good faith attempt to extend him his presumption of innocence), it’s also undeniable that the conversation was very potent and necessary and is much bigger than what one thinks of Woody Allen. SIFF highlighted during its biggest event a movie by a filmmaker a lot of people think is a child molester and it didn’t feel like it was an inclusive selection. (I assume this was because of sponsorship and a partnership with Amazon.) To pretend their protests aren’t happening or aren’t legitimate is quite unfortunate, and a very bad look for SIFF.

Josh:. Yeah. I can see why SIFF would want to feature a crowd-pleaser from burgeoning powerhouse and local film production company Amazon Studios. However, it’s also kind of a weird move to invite comparisons to Cannes by choosing the same opening night selection. Although I’ve never promenaded on the red carpets of the Croisette, I’m pretty sure that the festivals are far different beasts on almost every front.

Chris: But there’s more to SIFF than just movies; so I have to talk about the overall Opening Night experience. For me, it was as close to magical as one can get. I had mortgaged my future by putting Red Carpet tickets for my girlfriend and I on my credit card, and it was a lot of fun getting to walk on the red carpet, not have to fight for seats inside of McCaw Hall and have access to an open bar. Plus I got to feel sort of important among VIPs because I had seen about 15 movies playing in the festival before opening night and could talk with some authority about what’s “good” while waiting for drinks. It was an experience I’m glad I shelled out the money for, even if I might not do it again.

Josh: I also bought my way into Opening Night, just the much less glamorous package. As always, more celebrity sightings, shorter lines, and more food (it’s a very long event!), would be appreciated, but even at 42 SIFF still knows how to have a good time. My favorite part may have been seeing that the DJs in this year’s very good trailer are real DJs who are maybe too famous to play the whole party themselves. And even though SIFF isn’t (and doesn’t want to be) Cannes, it’s always great to see Seattle film fans prettied up and dancing, still fresh-faced and clear-eyed before the three-week popcorn and moviegoing marathon.

Tony: I’m so sorry I missed you taking your red-carpet turn, Chris. That anecdote just gave me the soft-focus John Hughes slow dance feels. Seriously!

The Architect (courtesy SIFF)
The Architect (courtesy SIFF)

Tony: We should also talk The Architect, Jonathan Parker’s dark comedy starring Parker Posey and Eric McCormack as a married couple employing an eccentric-genius architect (James Frain) to build their dream home. The screenplay is the pellet with the poison in this vessel: Every character here is sketched out with old-school sitcom-level shallowness. And a movie about upper-class gen-x’ers treating hundreds of thousands of dollars in home renovations like little more than a mild annoyance feels chronically out-of-touch in these recessionary times. Then again, if the writing were better, I likely wouldn’t have cared. Mukilteo, Everett, and Seattle look damn pretty, however.

Chris: I didn’t care for The Architect for the same reasons, Tony. I thought the writing was shallow and the three main characters were flimsy caricatures, particularly the men (the eccentric “genius” architect who spouts pretentious nonsense every time he opens his mouth, the husband who ignores his wife’s needs for his business). I’d also say that the supposed dream house they were building in this movie is a gaudy mess; the downtown library and the Experience Music Project look restrained by comparison. I’m with you, also, Tony, about how the film treats going hundreds of thousands of dollars over-budget as nothing more than an inconvenience. This is the first SIFF in about five years where I won’t be moving during the festival but I still want to cry every time I have to make a rent payment, so I found someone saying it’s only a few hundred thousand dollars more to have a titanium exterior on a monstrosity of a house that would be located not all that far from my overpriced Belltown apartment to be a little crass.

While everything I said above is true and Café Society is a significantly better movie, I thought The Architect might have made a better choice for the Opening Night film, as it was locally shot (I agree that Mukilteo and Seattle look great on-screen.), had a visiting guest that people recognize (Eric McCormack made it down for the World Premiere on Friday night), and those of us who feel repelled by such gratuitous displays of wealth are basically numb to them (yes, I’m aware of the irony of what I said about buying red carpet tickets, but a one night indulgence is much different than building a multi-million dollar dream house). The Architect isn’t unwatchable or anything, and there’s some precedent for SIFF choosing a weak opening night film with local ties.

Josh: The first SIFF Opening Night I ever attended was the Notebook. So almost every subsequent selection, no matter how questionable, has been a substantial improvement!

Tony:  I had fun with SIFF’s first two WTF (AKA the series formerly known as Midnight Adrenaline) presentations. Carnage Park, SIFF 2016’s first midnight selection, is the latest from director Mickey Keating. It starts shaky, with an introductory few minutes that suckle at Tarantino’s ultraviolent pulp teat so hard it probably left bruise marks. But once it narrows its focus to a taut cat-and-mouse game, it’s insidiously, take-no-prisoners scary and unsettling–Sam Peckinpah gone Tobe Hooper. Ashley Bell gives great believably human Final Girl, and Pat Healy earns yet another Awesome Character Actor merit badge in an indelible turn as the movie’s ‘Nam vet psycho heavy.

The other midnight presentation, a live skewering of Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda by The Mads (MST3K mad scientists Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu), offered loads of fun as well. That said, I’m also one of those freaks who likes his cult/exploitation cinema straight-up, no chaser. Conniff and Beaulieu possess snarky, sharp wit to burn. But there were times when I just wanted them to do less talking about how nuts the movie was, and simply let the audience experience the batshit insanity of Wood’s dialogue and directorial touches for themselves without outside commentary (funny as it was).

Chris: Tony, I’m glad you to see The Mads riffing on Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda? I couldn’t make it to that presentation because midnight is well past my bedtime, but I interviewed Frank Conniff and Trace Beaulieu earlier in the day. They were hilarious and incredibly funny, and appreciative of their fan base. I should have it ready to post in a few days. I dropped your name to them as one who has a deep knowledge and love for the same sci-fi/B movies they feature. Getting you to sit down with them is a summit I’d love to see happen.

Tony: Josh, you roused my envy for getting a peek at The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the debut feature of Osgood (son of Anthony) Perkins. How was it?

Josh: It was an oddball, but I enjoyed it. Perhaps a bit more style than substance, but worthwhile for its creepy vibes of isolation. In fact, so much of the film felt more like a set of spookily askew intersecting character studies set in mostly-empty girls’ boarding school over winter break that I wondered if I’d misremembered the genre. More creepy than horror (heavy on the psychology, light on the ‘big bad’), Perkins and his cast (led by Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka) concoct an ominous mood through long chilly takes and an assist from (brother) Elvis Perkins’s effective soundtrack. I’m definitely not a horror aficionado, but I try to catch at least one or two during SIFF and this fit my stringent criteria of “playing close to home” and “probably not too revolting to keep me up all night”.

© 2015 A Ticklish Tale Limited
Tickled

Chris: Speaking of “WTF” Did either of you get to catch TickledIt was a film from New Zealand that I found enormously compelling, and probably my favorite discovery of the festival so far. It was hard for me to convince friends to go – “Who wants to go see a documentary about guys ticking each other?” I heard often – but it was about far more than that. It’s like a TV crime newsmagazine show, but with a bit more of a sense of humor to it. It started out as an investigation into where the YouTube videos of young men tickling each other came from, and it delved into something deeper and darker. You saw how successful someone could be at controlling and manipulating the lives of strangers through the web, and you saw how the things people would do for money could haunt them for the lives, being dependent on the kindness of sociopathic strangers. I believe it will be coming to HBO in the near future, so I’d encourage you to check it out then, if you haven’t already.

Josh: Yes! While watching, I kept arguing with myself about whether it was a doc- or mock-umentary. From the premise itself to the slick production to the various revelations, I kept thinking that it was just too much not to be fictional. (Maybe the Kiwi accent confused me: I kept expecting Flight of the Conchords to appear in a corner and burst into a song about tickling). Often, with great documentaries, you get the sense that a filmmaker had a good idea but lucked into incredible access at just the right time. With this one, you can feel them fighting for every little discovery. I hope that the bizarre tickling premise doesn’t scare people away from checking out this film — it’s definitely more about scrappy investigative journalists coming up against some very weird and powerful forces than about bros being tickled on video.

Tony: I can’t add to (or reiterate) much to Chris’s review of writer/director/star Linas Phillips’ terrific Rainbow Time.  It’s wonderful, uncomfortable, surprising, beautifully acted, and emotionally affecting enough to turn on the waterworks. Much amazingness will need to come my way in the next couple of weeks to dislodge it from my Best of SIFF 2016 list, to be sure.

Josh: So far, my contender for festival favorite is Little Men, the third in Ira Sachs’s loose trilogy of men and New York. Here, the story focuses on two teenage boys — introverted artist, outgoing actor — who meet when one’s Manhattan family inherits the Brooklyn brownstone that houses the other’s family-owned clothing store. There’s some degree of bravery in making them “just” friends, about emphasizing their commonalities rather than personality differences, and in pitting their bond against the unstoppable forces of inheritance, financial responsibilities, and gentrification. The looseness of the filmmaking for the kids — frequently in motion, exploring the city — contrasts with the closed spaces where we find their parents, but is non-intrusively observed across the board, showcasing nuanced performances. Any movie centered on young actors is a gamble, but the casting of Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri in the lead roles payed off for Sachs. It’s a really lovely and deeply affecting portrait. There aren’t any more festival screenings, but it’s being distributed by Magnolia Pictures, so I’m sure it’ll be back soon.

Josh: At this point we’ve been rambling on forever and it’s almost time to run off to more screenings; so here are a few tweet-length reviews of the rest of my film diary:

  • Indignation: In this very formal film, a very formal boy goes off to a very formal college and gets a life-altering BJ. (3.5⭐️)
  • Love & Friendship Comedies of manners, social climbers, and oblivious buffoons suit Whit Stillman: an Austen adaptation was overdue and this delightful confection did not disappoint (4.5⭐️)
  • Warehoused:  in Mexico City, one does not wait for Godot. One waits for a truck carrying flagpole masts. And decent paying jobs. (4⭐️)
  • Closet Monster: The surreal horrors of Newfoundland gay teendom are improved by the arrival of a manic pixie dream Quebecois and talking pet hamster. Connor Jessup is very good in the lead role, but I’d also happily watch a whole movie about how Stephen Dunn got Isabella Rossellini to play Buffy the Hamster (4⭐️)

Chris: I think I’m also approaching my word count, but don’t want to end on a negative note because I have seen some great movies. I wanted to note how timely and relevant the local documentaries have been. The IF Project, Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, Gold Ballsand Finding Kim have all dealt with issues that are very relevant to what is going on here locally, and nationally, and I think they all explore these complex issues (prison reform, homelessness, transgender identity) with intelligence and compassion and they leave you feeling like a more emphatic person. I go into more depth in my reviews of each movie, but I think those four make excellent conversation-starters.

Tony: I’m hoping for a peek at all of those before SIFF’s end, Chris. To date I’ve only seen The IF Project, and I’ll back up your thoughtful assessment. I totally agree with it’s nutritive value as a story of prison reform’s human side, but I also think it’s a genuinely solid movie movie that plays really well on a big screen. It’s got the story thrust, colorful characters, nuance, and gradually unfolding structure of a great narrative fiction feature for me. Right now, it’s looking like my doc to beat.

The other doc I saw, Resilience, details the relatively recent science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), and how they affect physical health. Since it’s only an hour long and largely consists of footage from conferences and seminars of mental/physical health experts, it’s more suited to a small-ish screen, but the subject is fascinating, and it makes a great companion piece with The If Project.

Almost as great is Full Court: The Life of Spencer Haywood (readers, check out Chris’s great Haywood interview for more deets). It’s one of those docs with a subject so winning, charismatic, and inspiring that it’d be hard to blow a film about his life, so its sturdiness as a movie is a welcome bonus.

Josh: As we bring this roundtable to a close, I’m already looking forward to our next one. In particular, Chris mentioned that Weiner-Dog “gleefully scrambled his brain”. I agree wholeheartedly about this very strange, variety pack of personal crises, and hope that a lot of people get a chance to see it next week.

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