Festivals Reviews SIFF

SIFF 2018: Some Short Reviews, part one

SIFF, the behemoth formally known as the Seattle International Film Festival, is well into its ninth (of 25) day. With over 400 movies, there is likely something for everyone. I offer some short reviews of what I’ve seen, as a guide to help you navigate what you should (and should not) see. I tried to include movies I’ve seen that either still have screenings in the near or distant future, or (like in the cases of Disobedience or Beast) are already being distributed in theaters.

A Good Week for Democracy (dir: Cecilia Björk, Sweden, 76 minutes):

  • Thursday, June 7, 6:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown
  • Saturday, June 9, 11:30am at SIFF Cinema Uptown

Every year, Sweden hosts a festival called Almedalen, where thousands of people who work in and around politics flocks to Sweden’s Gotland province. Lobbyists, journalists, politicos, etc. are all there. An American version is my personal idea of hell, but this might not be such a terrible idea in Sweden because literally everyone is photogenic, and Swedish democracy isn’t predicated on elevating run-of-the-mill idiots like Joe Barton, Louis Gohmert, and Steve King into full-blown useful idiots (with committee chairmanships). One parallel between Swedish and US politics: Nazis are way too prevalent.

Afghan Cycles (dir: Sarah Menzies, USA, 88 minutes, US premiere):

  • Sunday, May 20, 6:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Director Sarah Menzies and Web-designer Kaitlin Bailey scheduled to attend)
  • Monday, May 21, 4:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Director Sarah Menzies and Web-designer Kaitlin Bailey scheduled to attend)
  • Sunday, May 27, 1:00pm at Shoreline Community College (Director Sarah Menzies and Web-designer Kaitlin Bailey scheduled to attend)

The first truly great film in the Northwest Connections program to play at SIFF, director Sarah Menzies goes to Afghanistan to profile the women’s cycling team. Originally conceived as a short, feel good doc about the women defying patriarchal tradition to ride bicycles, the story turned out to be much more complex than that. It’s a fascinating story that the filmmakers tell brilliantly, while making viewers well aware of the geopolitical implications for the team existing in the first place.

Beast (dir: Michael Pearce, UK, 107 minutes):

  • Sunday, May 20, 8:00pm at Ark Lodge Cinemas
  • Monday, May 21, 9:30pm at AMC Pacific Place

This psychological thriller has already come and gone at SIFF, but it’s also already in wide release in Seattle, playing at the Meridian 16 and AMC 10 Theaters. It’s a gripping movie about a pretty-but-plain young woman, Moll (played by Jessie Buckley in a star-making performance), who meets a handsome, mysterious stranger, Pascal (played by Johnny Flynn) after her siblings steal the show at Moll’s birthday party. Pascal could possibly be a serial killer, but with Buckley’s brilliant performance, we can see why she might find that not just not-a-deal-breaker but positively enticing. The chemistry between Moll and Pascal is electric. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen.

Blaze (dir: Ethan Hawke, USA, 127 minutes):

  • Friday, June 8, 7:30pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (Ethan Hawke tribute)
  • Saturday, June 9, 3:15pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown

The second new Ethan Hawke movie to play at SIFF (I prefer his starring role in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – see belowto his directorial effort here), is a biopic of Blaze Foley (played here by Ben Dickey), a singer-songwriter who ran in the “outlaw country” scene and friend of Townes Van Zandt. Blaze was a self-immolating musician whose battles with alcohol tormented nearly everyone he came in contact with, like his record label, but most of all his long-suffering wife Sybil Rosen (co-author with Hawke of the screenplay and played in the movie by Maeby Fünke herself, Alia Shawkat). I don’t think it really romanticizes Blaze through the rose-colored, drunken genius cliché, but I won’t be surprised if others see it that way.

 Boundaries (dir. Shana Feste, USA, 104 minutes):

  • Friday, May 18, 6:30pm at Lincoln Square Cinema (Bellevue)
  • Sunday, May 27, 5:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Director Shana Feste and star Vera Farmiga scheduled to attend)

Watching Vera Farmiga act is one of cinema’s great joys, but here her talents (along with the great supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Kristen Schaal, Peter Fonda, and Christopher Lloyd) are wasted. Farmiga plays the world’s most naïve woman. So naïve she doesn’t notice that her GPS was changed on her road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles even though the directions are literally get on I-5 South in Seattle, get off I-5 in Los Angeles), or notice that her father is selling pot from the trunk of their car. Nothing, though, feels authentic. Some bonus points can be rewarded for its effort to grapple with mental illness in a mostly responsible manner, but still the entire cast deserves better – and so do you.

Breath (dir: Simon Baker, Australia, 115 minutes):

  • Thursday, May 24, 9:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown
  • Friday, May 25, 3:45pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown
  • Sunday, June 3, 8:15pm at Kirkland Performance Center

TV’s “The Mentalist” makes his directing debut, and stars, in this offbeat coming of age story set in Australia during the 1970s. The Mentalist stars as a surfing legend living in coastal Australia who befriends two teenage boys and teaches them all they need to know about surfing, and a little of what they need to know about life. It’s a lot better film than I expected, thanks, in part, to the strong acting and pacing.

The Cake General (dir: Filip Hammar, Fredrik Wikingsson, Sweden, 101 minutes)

  • Saturday, May 19, 5:30pm at Majestic Bay (directors Filip Hammar and Fredrik Wikingsson, and actor Agnes Lindström Bolmgren scheduled to attend)
  • Sunday, May 20, 1:30pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian
  • Saturday, May 26, 3:15pm at Shoreline

This was one of my favorite discoveries at SIFF, a sweet comedy about the power of community in the face of national mockery. Co-director Filip Hammar’s hometown of Köping was named “the most boring city in Sweden” and it had been a point of shame since. Hammar and co-director Fredrik Wikingsson mine that for some laughs. I don’t want to spoil some of the best gags but I thought it was funny calling Köping the home of the only money-losing Ikea. Hasse P. (Mikael Perssbrandt) is known around Köping for his numerous failed get-rich-quick schemes and his troubles with booze, but he wants to do something for unfairly-maligned town and tries to spearhead the creation of the world’s largest sandwich cake.

Disobedience (dir: Sebastian Lelio, UK, 115 minutes):

  • Sunday, May 20, 6:45pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian
  • Monday, May 21, 6:30pm at Ark Lodge

Another movie that has come and gone from SIFF but quickly found a place in Seattle’s wider-release theaters. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams star in this drama from director Sebastian Lelio (director of 2017’s Best Foreign Language Film, A Fantastic Woman) about an Orthodox Jewish community in London that prefers lesbians be neither seen nor heard (Weisz is cast away to New York until she returns as her father, a beloved rabbi, passes away; McAdams is pushed into a loveless marriage). It’s beautifully acted and the story builds empathy, even for characters whose behavior and motivations are less than honorable. It’s a masterpiece in terms of storytelling and will almost certainly be my favorite movie to play at SIFF by the time this festival wraps up.

First Reformed (dir: Paul Schrader, USA, 113 minutes)

  • Friday, May 18, 4:00pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian
  • Tuesday, May 22, 7:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown

Paul Schrader had some real misfires in recent years (read this when you can), but here he has one of the most memorable features to play at SIFF this year. Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain who is now pastor of a small church in Upstate New York with an abolitionist’s history that capitalists are happy to use for their benefit. When Rev. Toller begins counseling a young couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger) whose male half is absorbing sympathies within the more extreme elements of the environmental protection movement. What I think is so brilliant about this movie is that you can see Schrader’s thinking on climate change play out in real time the same way you could see it with street crime over forty years ago when he wrote the Scorsese classic Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle and Reverend Toller are cut from very different cloths but birthed from the same sharp mind. It has already played at SIFF, but expect a wider release in the near future.

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary (dir: Brent Hodge, USA, 70 minutes):

  • Friday, May 18, 7:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Director Brent Hodge scheduled to attend)
  • Saturday, May 19, 11:00am at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Director Brent Hodge scheduled to attend)
  • Monday, May 28, 3:15pm at Shoreline Community College

Finally, Judd Apatow and Paul Feig have a forum to congratulate themselves on their cleverness for creating a short-lived TV series with actors no one would consider good looking, like James Franco. Brent Hodge documentaries are a fixture at SIFF these days, and he does a great job here of assembling all the participants and letting them tell their stories. There’s a lot of funny moments here, like Apatow showing “an instruction manual for how to write freaks” which turns out to be “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” It’s got some sweet and charming moments, maybe even enough for me to go back and seek out a show I didn’t bother with when it was on the air.

Killing Jesus (dir: Laura Mora Oretega, Colombia, 95 minutes):

  • Monday, June 4, 9:00pm at AMC Pacific Place
  • Sunday, June 10, 7:00pm at AMC Pacific Place

In Medellin, Colombia, Paula watches her father get murdered right in front of her. She turns to local, law enforcement which is too inept/corrupt/busy to fully investigate the killing. Such is the plot of director Laura Mora Oretega’s semi-autobiographical debut film, Killing Jesus. Natasha Jaramillo plays Paula in what’s her only credit on IMDB. It’s a quietly powerful performance as the young woman who wants to seek revenge when the proper avenues turn out to be dead ends, and she wants to get all Bernie Goetz on Jesus (her father’s murderer). It’s tricky because she wants to kill Jesus, while Jesus finds himself attracted to Paula. Meanwhile, she starts to see Jesus as a victim in the same system that killed her father. Awkward!

The Most Dangerous Year (dir: Vlada Knowlton, USA, 88 minutes):

  • Tuesday, May 29, 6:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (World Premiere)
  • Saturday, June 2, 1:00pm at Shoreline Community College

A young transgender boy named Matt says about a third through The Most Dangerous Year, says, “I just want to say something… I don’t want to show my genitalia to anyone.” It’s a moving, sweet, and poignant moment in a moving documentary that details the 2016 campaign to restrict access to restrooms that match what’s on a person’s birth certificate. It was a campaign based on bigotry, point blank. What I wish was explored more in The Most Dangerous Year is the environment where the “bathroom bills” came from. They didn’t start showing up across the country at random, but through a generation of normalized transphobia, including from beloved liberals.

Nona (dir: Michael Polish, Guatemala, 90 minutes)

  • Thursday, May 31, 6:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Writer/Director Michael Polish and Producer Kate Bosworth scheduled to attend)
  • Friday, June 1, 3:15pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (Writer/Director Michael Polish and Producer Kate Bosworth scheduled to attend)

Why do so many narratives about sex trafficking turn out to be based on bullshit? Somaly Mam and Chong Kim were two of the most prominent activists in the rescue industry and they were exposed as frauds, liars, and shameless grifters. These things matter when a movie like Nona comes along and asks the viewer to accept these narratives at face value while allowing producer Kate Bosworth to show up at the end to repeat the industry’s talking points. It doesn’t present itself as a work of journalism, thankfully, but that doesn’t make Nona harmless. What we’ve seen from the rescue industry is the deliberate obfuscation of consensual sex work and human trafficking. Even in King County, the prosecutor’s office has literally sold prosecutorial preference to Demand Abolition. I want nothing to do with any story that furthers the harassment of sex workers with political and legal power. Nona doesn’t just do that, but it also gives liberals permission to support President* Trump’s unconscionable “border wall.” Nein danke. 

People’s Republic of Desire (dir: Hao Wu, China, 95 minutes):

  • Saturday, May 19, 6:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown
  • Sunday, May 20, 3:30pm at Lincoln Square Cinema (Bellevue)

This is one difficult documentary to watch. It’s entirely absorbing because it takes you into a world you might not have known existed. In China, thousands and thousands of people hang out on a livestreaming/social media site called YY where they interact with hosts broadcasting live by webcam. YY is said to have about 300 million users. The hosts sing, tell jokes, or do whatever it takes to get people to send virtual trinkets that cost actual money. One young woman said she pledges $800 a month to her favorite hosts, but only brings in $600 in monthly income. Another, calling himself a “profiteer” has tipped about $2 million USD. It’s not surprising that the desire for human connection or the desire for a better life can be exploited so brazenly for profit, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch, and it gets so much darker over its 95 minute run time. Welcome to the dystopian present. I believe this movie will be on PBS in the near future.

The Russian Five (dir: Joshua Riehl, USA, 97 minutes):

  • Saturday, May 19, 5:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown
  • Sunday, May 20, 6:00pm at Majestic Bay
  • Tuesday, May 29, 9:00pm at Shoreline Community College

Here’s a documentary that focuses on the five Russian players the Detroit Red Wings brought in during the 1990s (Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Koslov, Slava Fetisov, and Igor Larionov). It’s a fascinating story (and not just for me, a Red Wings fan) because of how bringing in Russian players changed the NHL (and sports as a whole). The tension and intrigue that led to Federov wearing a Wings jersey is absorbing, and a perfect angle to get the audience into the story so even a Blackhawks fan might find themselves standing to applaud when Vladimir Konstantinov shows up during the 1998 Stanley Cup finals. Also, Igor Larionov today looks like a Soviet Ira Glass (“This Russian Life,” obvs.).

Sadie (dir: Megan Griffiths, USA, 96 minutes):

  • Sunday, May 27, 2:30pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (An Afternoon with Melanie Lynskey)
  • Wednesday, June 6, 6:45pm at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (Director Megan Griffiths, Producers Jennessa West, Jonathan Caso, and Lacey Leavitt scheduled to attend)

Sophia Mitri Schloss is only a teenager but she has already starred in two of the best movies to come out of the Pacific Northwest in the past two years. Here, she’s Sadie, a young woman whose father is away fighting a war overseas and her mother (Melanie Lynskey) is a nurse that realizes her marriage is dead, and she’s seeing romantic interest from both the troubled and mysterious new neighbor (John Gallagher, Jr.) and a counselor at Sadie’s school (Tony Hale, losing his “Arrested Development” and “Veep” affectations). Sadie, like a lot of teenagers (including me 20 to 25 years ago) has some terrible thoughts going through her head, along with the machinations to pull them off.  It’s a remarkable character study – albeit a bleak one. Here, I think Griffiths is at the top of her game, directing some phenomenal performances. When you see someone on screen, she lets you know exactly what they’re thinking, even when it (often) conflicts with what they say and do. 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (dir: Morgan Neville, USA, 95 minutes)

  • Saturday, May 26, 6:00pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (director Morgan Neville scheduled to attend)
  • Sunday, May 27, 1:30pm at SIFF Cinema Uptown (director Morgan Neville scheduled to attend)

One night, a few months ago, I laid in bed, trying to fall asleep, wondering if there was anything I remember from my childhood that hadn’t been tainted by scandal, or capitalism. Right off the bat, I thought of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I still haven’t thought of a second example. Oscar winner Morgan Neville has a new documentary about the life of Mr. Rogers. It’s as wonderful as I hoped it would be, because we learn that Mr. Rogers’ television persona (as someone who was gentle but honest and not patronizing to children) is the same  off camera as he is on. This movie, I’m told, gets a wider release in Seattle on June 15 (both SIFF screenings are on standby). I’ll have more to say about this movie when June 15 gets closer. If you can’t get into one of the SIFF screenings, or even if you can, read this.

Of course, there’s plenty more to see at SIFF. Review our preview and pro-tips and go have fun at the movies!  Keep up us during the festival on twitter (@thesunbreak) and with all of our coverage on our SIFF 2018 page: we’ll be back on Tuesday with more picks for the post-holiday week ahead, posting reviews throughout the week, and occasionally convening for roundtables to make sense of the country’s biggest, longest, most-attended little film festival.