Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Freedom's Just Another Word in Karyn Kusama's Destroyer

(Karyn Kusama, US, 2019, 120 minutes)

The film begins with a body. As all detective dramas must.

A thoroughly de-glamorized Nicole Kidman, in Charlize Theron-in-Monster-mode, plays the grubby gumshoe at the center of Karyn Kusama's sun-blasted noir. Granted, in Patty Jenkins's Monster, Theron played a criminal (serial killer Aileen Wuornos), whereas Kidman's Det. Erin Bell is a crime-solver, but she shares the unkempt hair and charisma-deprived personality. I wouldn't call her ugly, though; it's more that she looks unwell and chronically unhappy.

Bell suspects that the victim has a connection to a case she worked 17 years ago. Back then, the fresh-faced Bell worked undercover with Chris (an effectively low-key Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate a robbery ring. She has the same three dots tattooed on the back of her neck as the dead man.

As set-ups go, it's a familiar one, but it's always a pleasure to watch Kusama shape genre to her own ends as she did in Girlfight, a sports drama about a teen girl determined to be a boxer (Michelle Rodriguez in her silver-screen debut), and The Invitation, a horror film about a dinner party gone terribly awry (I haven’t seen Jennifer’s Body or Æon Flux, her sole big-budget production, which featured Theron in the title role).

To solve the case, Bell has to revisit her past, which helps to explain her present, like the estrangement between her and her 16-year-old daughter, Shelby (a suitably pouty Jade Pettyjohn). Bell's drinking led the court to award her ex (a bearded, sad-eyed Scoot McNairy) custody, but now Shelby appears to be heading down the same path. When Bell finds out that she's seeing Jay (Beau Knapp), a lanky lowlife several years her senior, she tries to intervene, but the bitter, defiant Shelby isn't having it.

Michiel Huisman and Tammy Blanchard in The Invitation
As Bell catches up with the former robbery ring members, she finds that none of them are doing particularly well. This isn't a film in which crime pays, not even for Bradley Whitford's Get Out-adjacent McMansion dweller, but nor does Kusama present Bell as heroic. She's a dogged detective and, like most of the director's protagonists, she knows how to defend herself, but she's otherwise a surly mess, and unlike Lee Israel, the surly mess played by Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she isn't the least bit funny (not, for that matter, is anyone else in the film). Kusama presents the Los Angeles Bell inhabits as similarly un-glamorous. This is the rundown, pitiless city of Jacques Demy's Model Shop or Sean Baker's Tangerine.

And then Bell goes rogue. She's already told her partner to let her handle things herself, after which she takes a hostage (Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany) and cuts off all communications with the LAPD (as embodied by Toby Huss). If it isn't clear from the start, it's clear by the end: this is a woman who doesn't think she has anything left to lose, so she sets out to solve the crime her own way, thus "fixing" the past as much as anyone can. I'm pretty sure Janis Joplin wrote a song about that kinda worldview.

Kidman is adept at capturing Bell during two very different stages of her life, though it's always a risk to play a character so closed off from the world, especially when she's surrounded by others who are equally off-putting, but the script from The Invitation's Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi allows Bell's façade to develop just enough cracks to let a little vulnerability shine through. Although Kusama probably didn't consult Lynne Ramsay while working on her film, Destroyer almost feels like a companion to You Were Never Really Here with Kidman playing a female version of Joaquin Phoenix's brutal, but not entirely dehumanized hitman.

“I'm not good," Bell admits at her most vulnerable, except that it isn't true, and the most tragic thing about her isn't who she is and what she's done--and she's done some pretty bad things--but that she can't see that.

Destroyer opens at AMC Pacific Place on Friday, January 18.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Weight of the Past vs the Hope of the Future in On Her Shoulders

(Alexandria Bombach, US, 2018, 94 minutes) 

Alexandria Bombach doesn’t build her documentary around a person with a particular job, but rather a person with a particular request. That’s how subject Nadia Murad, the soft-spoken 23-year-old at its center, describes herself to the filmmaker. Through public appearances, she seeks assistance on behalf of the Yazidis (a non-Muslim minority), who suffered genocide at the hands of ISIS or Daesh in Northern Iraq in 2014.

Nadia’s highest profile appearance takes place in 2015 when she speaks in front of the UN Security Council. Though the UN’s Simone Monasebian encourages her to describe herself as an activist, Nadia sees herself as a refugee. Simone doesn’t understand why she can’t be both, but Nadia doesn’t look at the situation through the same lens. When a Canadian radio host asks about her life before ISIS, she mentions school and farming. When ISIS came to her village, they killed most of the men and all of the older women. They raped younger women, like Nadia, repeatedly. It’s difficult to listen to her detail such atrocities, but it must be worse to relive them.

Nadia is a slight figure with long, dark hair, who once dreamed of opening a beauty salon. She has the calm, thoughtful countenance of Charlotte Gainsbourg, circa Jane Eyre. When she smiles, which isn’t often, she puts her entire face into it. She’s close to Murad Ismael, the 30-year-old executive director of Yazda, who has become a sort of surrogate brother (he also serves as her translator). If she cries on occasion, she spends more time comforting the Yazidis she meets at protest marches and in refugee camps. It means everything to them that she has become their face to the world.

From Canada, Nadia travels to Greece and then to New York where the UN appoints her Goodwill Ambassador for Human Trafficking (human rights attorney and recent Vogue cover star Amal Clooney accompanies her on the trip). As the end credits indicate, Nadia has continued to advocate for the Yazidi people ever since. If she didn’t set out to become an activist, she has proven to be a very effective one. As a filmmaker, Bombach (Frame by Frame) treats her with respect, but stops short of full-fledged worship. Nadia is still a human being, albeit one with more passion and poise than most.

If there’s a subtext to Bombach's film it’s that even well meaning people don’t always know how to respond to someone like Nadia. Politicians and journalists come across as concerned in a way that seems more awkward than insincere. They can’t decide whether to treat her like a delicate flower or a grizzled warrior, and her reserved manner throws them off. It’s not that she’s cold so much as self-contained, and I think that’s why she never opens up in this film as much as she could have. It feels like she’s holding something back, but maybe that’s the only way to get from day to day, dredging up terrible memories to discomforted people for the greater good.

Endnote: On Her Shoulders plays the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Avenue) through Thursday, January 10. Check the website for times.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

SIFF 2018: Texas Songwriters, California Filmmakers, and Single Fathers of Every Kind

Ben Dickey introduces Blaze at the Egyptian
Because I started reviewing films for The Stranger's SIFF Notes during the first week in April, the 25-day film festival has felt more like a three-month affair to me. Granted, it still sped by relatively quickly, even as I attended two conferences (MoPOP's Pop Conference and Crypticon), worked on several non-fest reviews and previews, got back together with someone--and broke up with that person all over again (suffice to say, I'm a little...tired).

I also caught up with a few non-fest movies and television shows, like Black Panther and iZombie, but I've tried to make SIFF my priority. Consequently, I caught over 30 films, even though I didn't attend any press screenings or take any time off work. Here are a few more words about the films I saw.


Ethan Hawke's third narrative feature, a time-fractured docudrama about country songwriter Blaze Foley (née Mike Fuller), is his best yet (I haven't seen his sole documentary, Seymour: An Introduction). Little Rock musician Ben Dickey is convincing as the unpredictable Blaze, but the standout is Austin native Charlie Sexton as the slippery Townes Van Zandt (he and Hawke previously worked together in Richard Linklater's Boyhood).

Hawke in conversation with Indiewire's Eric Kohn
Other notable performers include Alia Shawkat as Blaze's wife and Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff) as his sister. In a brief scene, Segarra sings with Kris Kristofferson, who plays the Fullers' memory-challenged father, which reminded me of Michael Almereyda's casting of Sam Shepard as Hawke's ghostly father in his modern-day adaptation of Hamlet. Based on Hawke's career to date, it's hard not to see both multi-hyphenates as models for the kind of career he would like to have. Oddly, the clip collection SIFF assembled for their tribute to Hawke omitted this film, a favorite of mine from both actor and director.

Eighth Grade

The directorial debut from author, musician, and stand-up comedian Bo Burnham is far better than it has any right to be. I mean, he's only 27, and he's already enjoyed success in several fields. Turns out, he can direct, too. At the SIFF premiere, he gave much of the credit to 15-year-old Elsie Fisher, who plays acne-prone Kayla Day, but this isn't as performatively magnanimous as it sounds. Burnham wrote a wise and witty script, but without the right actress, the kind who can elicit sympathy even as she tortures her father with self-aborption, that wouldn't have been enough.

Burnham and Fisher in a rare moment of levity
The point of the film isn't exactly a new one, but we can always use more perceptive perspectives on adolescence, and the 21st-century milieu changes everything. If Kayla has more than a few things in common with Pretty in Pink's Andie, right down to the supportive single father (nicely played by Josh Hamilton, who also appears in Blaze), she lives in a world that is totally wired. If anything, she lives in two worlds: the real one, where she feels like a hopeless outcast, and the virtual one where she follows unworthy crush objects on Instagram and uploads affirmative videos to YouTube.

Despite all her trials and tribulations, we know she'll be fine in the end, because she doesn't let disappointment slow her down. I'm twice the age of filmmaker and actor combined, and yet Kayla is as much of an inspiration for chronic self-doubters like myself as for kids her own age, of which there were many in the audience, all eager to ask Fisher questions at the lively Q&A. By the fest's conclusion, Eighth Grade had won Golden Space Needle awards for best film and actress. It opens at the Egyptian on July 19.


I've been a Hal Ashby fan for as long as I can remember, at least since 1978's Coming Home, so I had high hopes for first-time filmmaker Amy Scott's documentary. Fortunately, she delivers. The setup is a simple one, and it works perfectly: she uses Ashby's major films, including Harold and Maude and Being There (which played at this year's fest), as a structuring device. She also has Ben Foster, who appears in Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, read from Ashby's no-bullshit memos, and he proves a fine fit.

Fisher looks towards SIFF's Beth Barrett
The problem with this sort of setup is that the last section, a consideration of Ashby's less significant (and more heavily compromised) films, feels anti-climactic, but I'm not sure there's a more honest way to sum up his career. Towards the end of his life, Ashby had several ideas for literary adaptations that might have put him back on the map, but he didn't live long enough to realize any of them. There really isn't a positive way to spin that story. It's tragic that he didn't get the chance to make a single one, but making seven great films, largely as intended, is the exact opposite of tragic. If anything, it's miraculous.

Leave No Trace

When it comes to any film, regardless as to the subject or director, I try to keep my expectations in check. I let my enthusiasm for Hal Ashby run away with me when it came to Hal, so I was relieved that Scott came through, but as impressive as I found Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, I kept an open mind about Leave No Trace, a loose adaptation of Peter Rock's novel, My Abandonment (co-written with producer Anne Rosselini). The primary reason: Ben Foster grates on my nerves, especially when he plays bad guys (Alpha Dog3:10 to Yuma), but give the guy credit: he never phones it in.

Hal producer Brian Morrow and film critic Michael Dare
I should have had more faith in Granik, not just in terms of her casting, but her directing. Playing a single father on the run from straight society, Foster beautifully underplays from start to finish, which makes thematic sense, since Will is keeping a lot inside, but it also makes structural sense, because his daughter, played by Thomasin McKenzie, provides the film's point of view as surely as Jennifer Lawrence's Ree did in Winter's Bone. And the New Zealand native is every bit as good in a slightly less showy part.

As much as I hate to pit the films against each other, I would give the edge to Leave No Trace, largely because there are no real antagonists in the latter. Every time Will and Tom tangle with authority figures of some kind, they turn out to be pretty reasonable people. It's no spoiler to say that Will is his own worst enemy, but he's still a loving father and Tom is still a good kid. She owes that to him, but that doesn't mean he's a reliable provider.

Friends have compared the film to Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic, and there are clear parallels, but at heart, it's more like Jeff Preiss's Low Down, in which John Hawkes, who starred in Winter's Bone, plays jazz pianist Joe Albany, a single father with a lot of love and a host of parental challenges. In look and feel, it also has a lot in common with Kelly Reichardt's Oregon-set films about poverty and dislocation, like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.

 SIFF programmer Megan Leonard and Anne Rosselini
Just as local label Light in the Attic will be releasing the soundtrack to Blaze, they'll be releasing the soundtrack to Leave No Trace. When I spoke with Rosselini at the screening, she credited my friend, Pat Thomas, for putting her and Granik in touch with Kendra Smith who sings the closing track. According to Thomas, it represents her "first new music since 1994." At the Q&A, Rosselini said that Smith, a former member of Rain Parade and Opal, "lives about 99% off the grid." Former Fug Michael Hurley and Marisa Anderson, who will be opening for Joan Shelley on June 19, also appear in the film as denizens of the trailer park where Will and Tom wind up during one of their breaks from forest living.

From the music to the extras, it was lovely to see so much local involvement in Leave No Trace, especially the Northwest itself as a place to which you can escape, but where you can never really get away from yourself.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Other films I saw and enjoyed: Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, Belle de Jour, Peter Strickland's portion ("The Cobbler's Lot") of The Field Guide to Evil, First Reformed, McQueen, Puzzle, and Sorry to Bother You. 

Films that didn't quite live up to their potential: Dark River, Let the Sunshine In (I know I'm in the minority with Denis' film), Ryuichi Sakamoto: CodaWestwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, and Wild Nights with Emily.

Click here for my first SIFF '18 dispatch.

Monday, May 28, 2018

SIFF 2018: Dueling Ian McEwan Adaptations, Convention-Defying Documentaries, and Stunning Archival Restorations

Dustin Kaspar and Morgan Neville at the Neighbor Q&A
This year's Seattle International Film Festival began on May 17, and I’ve seen as many films as possible, a relatively small number compared to most writer friends due to scheduling and other issues, but here are a few thoughts and impressions about the films I’ve seen.  


Tony Award-winning Hamilton actor and rapper Daveed Diggs, from the Sub Pop trio clipping., co-wrote this punchy film (with costar Rafael Casal) about timely topics--gun violence, racial profiling--that frustrates more often than not. In its attempt to critique gun culture, the film often glamorizes it in ways that Diggs and director Carlos López Estrada probably didn’t intend--guns are filmed, dark and sparkling, like precious jewels and the ultra-violence that breaks out towards the end makes these gents seem more sadistic than merely troubled or confused. For all its faults, Estrada's debut works best as a kale smoothie-powered Pineapple Express-like buddy comedy about Oaktown gentrification. Bonus points for the Bay Area-appropriate Tower of Power tracks.

Carlos Lopéz Estrada introduces Blindspotting
The Children Act 

Screenwriter Ian McEwan's adaptation of his 2014 novel melds law, medicine, and religion more successfully than most films that make the attempt.

Sir Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) lets the material overwhelm him at times, especially in the crucial final moments, but it's a must for fans of McEwan and, especially, Emma Thompson, in a career-best performance as a judge presiding over a life-or-death case concerning a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia (Dunkirk's broody Fionn Whitehead). 

If I have a quibble, it's that Stanley Tucci, who plays Fiona's professor husband, isn't bad, but his bold, declarative Americaness--"I'm gonna have an affair!"--proves somewhat distracting in a film that's so specifically British. SIFF will also be screening Dominic Cooke's adaptation of McEwan's On Chesil Beach with Saoirse Ronan

TheChildren Act screens again at 12pm on 6/3 at the Uptown.

Dead Pigs 

The actors, winners of the best ensemble award at this year's Sundance, are very good--especially The Last Emperor's Vivian Wu as a stubborn beauty salon manager--but this Jia Zhangke-produced ripped-from-the-headlines dramedy never quite gels the way it should. I preferred the comedy to the drama, and the sing-a-long ending reminded me of my least favorite sequence in P.T. Anderson's Magnoliathough the issues Cathy Yan raises about income inequality and corporate malfeasance are simultaneously of-the-moment and resonant. Y
an, who divides her time between the US and China, next directs the Harley Quinn movie starring Margot Robbie as the DC Comics anti-superheroine. 

John "The Brat" McEnroe at the top of his game
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

I appreciated this documentary more than I enjoyed it. 

Julien Faraut's found-footage feature, which takes inspiration from Chris Marker's essay films, uses calming, English-language narration from Mathieu Amalric...and made me sleepy, but it has a certain purity that I respect, since the entirety of the McEnroe-on-the-clay-court footage comes from the French archives. There's nothing that I can recall about his childhood or personal life, but rather a deep dive into his professional career, circa 1984. 

Though French in origin, Faraut's second documentary begins and ends with some quintessentially American sounds: Sonic Youth and Black Flag. Oscilloscope Laboratories, the distributor co-founded by the late Adam Yauch, will be releasing the film, which seems ideal since the director also claims his band, the Beastie Boys, as an influence (hat tip to Steven Erickson, who interviewed Faraut, for that insight).  

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

As much as I like Andrea Arnold, I wasn't crazy about American Honey, but I was impressed with Sasha Lane, her most welcome discovery next to Fish Tank's Katie Jarvis. Lane doesn’t assume the lead in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an unexpectedly fleet-footed film about conversion therapy, but she proves that she's more than a one-hit wonder (at this year’s festival, she also appears in Hearts Beat Loud).

Tilda Swinton and Steven Waddington in Edward II
Lane’s chemistry with Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays the central character, and Forrest Goodluck, a deadpan comedian, is a highlight of director Desiree Akhavan's sophomore feature. At the Q&A, Goodluck, who claims Hidatsa, Mandan, Navajo, and Tsimshian heritage, said that he's working on a zombie film in which only Native Americans are immune to the virus. The Miseducation of Cameron Post opens at the Uptown this August.

Other films I saw and enjoyed: Michael Pearce’s Beast, Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and the loving restorations of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and Derek Jarman’s Edward II. The latter is worth seeing for any number of reasons, not least the opulent outfits in which future Oscar winner Sandy Powell enrobes Tilda Swinton.

Forrest Goodluck at the Miseducation Q&A
Random notes: I missed the documentaries on M.I.A., Gilda Radner, and Zandra Rhodes, though I did spot Rhodes chatting with film goers in the lobby of the Uptown after a screening of The Faces of Zandra Rhodes. She's a brightly-hued person, from her head down to her toes, much like her creations. Engaging with filmmakers and subjects after screenings has always been one of the best things about SIFF. Though I rarely partake in it, I'm always happy to see those encounters taking place throughout the festival. It's the rare SIFF guest who doesn't arrive ready to share their enthusiasms with the rest of us.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The On-the-Ground Cinema of Ferguson Documentary Whose Streets?

Brittany and her daughter Kendra.
WHOSE STREETS? (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, US, 104 mins)

South Central Los Angeles filmmaker Sabaah Folayan dedicates her directorial debut to Michael Brown Jr., which only makes sense since her documentary serves as a long-form response to his killing. 

Folayan and St. Louis-based co-director Damon Davis start by recount-
ing Brown's 2014 death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson before plunging into the state of the streets in the aftermath. 

Shaky camcorder and cellphone footage provide the on-the-scene visuals to which they inter-cut interviews with young men and women of color. Speakers include Brittany Farrell, a nursing student-turned-activist and single mother, and David Whitt, a father of two who diligently documents every potential act of police misconduct that he witnesses. 

Both face arrest and eviction as a result of their actions, though Farrell, more happily, also marries fellow activist Alexis during the film. Context comes by way of tweets, inter-titles, and television news reports. 

Throughout, Folayan and Davis capture marches, rioting, looting, tear
gas, rubber bullets, and the non-Obama-sanctioned deployment of the
National Guard before proceeding to the protests following the grand jury
decision, the Ferguson October march, and the Department of Justice 
finding of racial bias on the part of the Ferguson Police Department. 

If Michael Brown never received the justice he deserved, his murder galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. Though the camera work may prove challenging for some, Whose Streets allows protesters to speak for themselves free from the narratives imposed on them by media outlets who can't possibly know their lives the way they do.  

Whose Streets? opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Fri, Aug 18.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

SIFF 2017 Comes to a Close with Films from Jairus McLeary, S.J. Chiro, and David Lowery

Jairus and Miles McLeary at Pacific Place. 
By May 29,
SIFF '17 was
well into its
second week
when I caught
a screening of
The Work, an
intimate, in-
tense docu-
mentary Indie-
Wire's Eric
when it pre-
miered at this year's SXSW Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize. The screening featured appearances from brothers Jairus (co-director) and Miles McLeary (producer).

McLeary's first feature (made with Gethin Aldous) is an atypical prison film in that it focuses more on therapy as it applies to men--in or out of prison--than on statistics or back stories, though they come into play, as well. Instead of spending their time exclusively with prisoners, the filmmakers documented a group therapy program at Folsom Prison that brings civi-
lians and inmates together--with no guards to supervise the proceedings.

The film made me angry at all the fathers who've taught their sons to hide their emotions, since all that fear and frustration is bound to come out in other ways, like the commission of violent crimes. One incarcerated participant who grew up in that sort of environment, cries for the first time in 15 years, an emotional breakthrough that's difficult, if cathartic to watch. Not surprisingly, the McLearys' father is a clinical psychologist.

S.J. Chiro and Clane Hayward with cast and crew.
For more information, check out the SIFFcast interview with Jairus McLeary at this link.

On June 2, I
caught local
filmmaker S.J.
Chiro's years-
directorial de-
but, Lane 
1974. Chiro
based the film on Clane Hayward's The Hypocrisy of Disco combined with recollections of her own communal living experiences. I firmly believe that
if she hadn't found the right actress to play Lane, it wouldn't work, so it's
fortunate that she found Sophia Mitri Schloss, who wears the role of ob-
servant, resilient 13-year-old with ease. In the Q&A, Chiro noted that
Sophia was too young when they first met, so the long pre-production
process paid off by allowing her to grow into the part. SIFF awarded Lane 
1974 the New American Cinema Competition Grand Jury Prize. The next
screening takes place during the Best of SIFF at the Uptown on June 17. Fun fact: KEXP DJ Kevin Cole plays an instructor at Lane's village school.

David Lowery at the Uptown.  
A Ghost Story
would prove to
be one of the
hottest tickets
of the festival.
I attended the
June 9 screen-
ing with direc-
tor David 
Lowery in
attendance. His
follow-up to
the well re-
ceived family film Pete's Dragon is an an odd, circular meditation on grief and place that features Rooney Mara
and Casey Affleck as a couple living in a haunted house. At the Q&A,
Lowery said that he recruited the actors via text message. They took him
by surprise when both agreed to participate before they had even read the
script (Mara and Affleck previously appeared in his western-melodrama
Ain't Them Bodies Saints). If anything, Lowery says, Affleck was perfectly happy to spend the bulk of the shoot under a sheet since he plays the ghost of the title (lest this seem like a spoiler, Affleck plays both haunted man and haunting man; the spoiler is in the way Lowery pulls it off).

And that's a wrap! I'm sorry I didn't get more of a chance to write about all of the films I saw, not counting capsule reviews for The Stranger, a program note for the festival guide, and two previous blog posts. These are the other titles: After the StormBad Black, Endless PoetryThe Fabulous Allan Carr, The Farthest, The FixerHandsome DevilLady MacbethThe Landing, Landline, The Last FamilyManifesto, My Journey Through French CinemaNocturama, The Oath, Sami BloodStep, and Weirdos. If I had to pick one favorite, it would probably be Bertrand Tavernier's documentary about French film. Here's hoping the proposed sequel comes to pass, because it would be great to hear what he has to say about Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Leos Carax, François Ozon, and so many of the other filmmakers that slipped beyond the borders of his 190-minute frame.

Endnote: SIFF '17 came to an end with the announcement of the Golden Space Needle Awards and the closing night film, Raoul Peck's The Young Karl Marx. I found no release dates listed yet, but the Orchard is handling distribution, so a theatrical release seems likely, particularly since Peck is coming off an Oscar nomination for I Am Not Your Negro. The Orchard will also be handling distribution duties for The Work and Lane 1974.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

SIFF 2017 Week One Guests: Hirokazu Koreeda, Director of After the Storm, and Amanda Lipitz, Director of Step

Koreeda with translator and Shields.
I'm not certain why the great Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life) chose this year to grace Seattle with his presence, but I'm grateful that he did. If I'm not mistaken, he's never done so before (I caught a screening of Nobody Knows at the 2004 London Film Festival, but he was not in attendance).

I attended the second and final screening of After the Storm on May 20 at which Koreeda was accompanied by a translator and SIFF programming director Stan Shields. The roof-raising volume of the applause that greeted Shields' introduction appeared to truly humble the soft-spoken filmmaker.

In some ways, his new film plays like a companion piece to 2008's Still Walking, which I recently picked up on Criterion, not least because it also features small, sly performer Kirin Kiki as the family matriarch and lanky, sad-eyed Hiroshi Abe as her son--but a lot funnier (Kiki has appeared in every Koreeda film to date). In fact, it almost qualifies as a comedy, something that couldn't said of Still Walking, in which the two generations never quite come together.

During the Q&A, Koreeda says he drew from his own family--in addition to their typhoon-plagued Kiyose hometown--which surprised some audience members, since he's a successful film director, while the divorced father in the film, a gambling-addicted novelist struggling to maintain a relationship with his son, can't quite get his shit together, but there may be elements of Koreeda in Abe's character, Ryôta, that we don't know about, whereas Kiki's character, Yoshiko, was explicitly inspired by his widowed mother.

McIntyre, Giraldo, Grainger, Solomon, and Lipitz.
Compared to his other films, After the Storm feels smaller and looser, but it's definitely worth seeing--like everything he's ever done. His last film, Our Little Sister (SIFF '16) was among my favorites of the year. After the Storm, a Film Movement release, has finished its run of film festivals, but I was unable to find any US release dates. I'll update this post once I do.

I was initially skeptical of Step, because it received funding from Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions, so it's been getting a disproportionate amount of local attention. Like many midsize cities, Seattle tends to overpraise anything with ties to the local economy, but sincere praise from audience members and critics, like Mike Ward, encouraged me to leave work early to catch the final screening on May 22. It was a wise decision, not just because it's a fine film, but because director Amanda Lipitz was joined by Gari "Coach G" McIntyre and the Baltimore high school seniors featured in the film: Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon.

In the film, a sure bet for 2017's Oscar long list, Lipitz isn't doing anything that hasn't been done before, but that doesn't make it any less effective. Rousing, but free of false uplift, the documentary resides on a continuum with The Wire and Hoop Dreams (inner-city blues) to one side and Our Song and The Fits (youth steppers) to the other. I was also reminded of 20 Feet from Stardom, a SIFF Centerpiece selection focused on underappreciated women of color, and Precious, in which education gives a neglected teenager everything her parents have been unable (or unwilling) to provide. The former would end up winning the Academy Award for best documentary. Step, which seems likely to appeal to many of the same viewers, opens nationwide on 8/4. Don't miss it.

Endnote: Click here for my first dispatch, a write-up of Jeffrey Schwarz's The Fabulous Allan Carr. SIFF '17 runs through Sunday, June 11.