Saturday, June 11, 2016

More SIFF 2016 Guests: Megan Griffiths, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Paulina Obando

Lou Diamond Phillips and Benjamin Barrett.
Between my last SIFF dispatch and this one, I seem to have missed more films than I've seen. It isn't completely my fault. Aside from a full-time job and weekly freelance assignments, two of the films I attempted to see were cancelled.

On Saturday, June 4, I got to the Uptown in time for a 12pm screening of Mekko with director Sterlin Harjo in attendance (I reviewed his documentary about Native American spirituals, This May Be the Last Time, in February). I even caught a glimpse of the filmmaker outside the theater chatting with a pass holder. That's when I found out there was a power outage in the theater. I don't know if they ever identified the cause, but programmer Maryna Ajaja speculated that it might be due to the construction in the area, like at the other end of the block (where Kidd Valley once stood). SIFF staffers said they hoped power would be restored in time for the screening. It wasn't.

Chelle Sherrill and blurry-hand Phillips. 
So, I bided my time until the next screening, Burn Burn Burn with director Chanya Button and Downton Abbey actress Laura Carmichael ("Lady Edith") in attendance. I had seen a trailer for the road trip comedy a few days before, and it didn't look too promising, but The Sun Break's Chris Burlingame and Three Imaginary Girls' Amie Simon praised the film, so I added it to my schedule instead of the competing screening about Austin City Limits, Keith Maitland's A Song for You, which seems likely to air on PBS at some point. (Another film I missed? Maitland's acclaimed historical documentary Tower, which will air as part of Independent Lens's 2016-2017 season.)

Waiting 40 minutes for the first film was one thing, but this time, I waited 30 minutes before they announced that they were going to reschedule the 2pm screening for 3pm, so I waited another hour, but at five minutes after, they canceled the screening altogether, so I took a Pagliacci's break.

Annalisa Cochrane and Zoe McLane as Kit's friends.
Near as I can tell,
neither screening was rescheduled, though they did re-
schedule Queen of Ireland, which was also set to screen that morning. I'm not blaming SIFF for any of this, especially since they had no control over the inconvenient outage, which ended in time for the premiere of Megan Griffiths' The Night Stalker at 5:30pm. They also
gave vouchers to all
of the disenfranchis-
ed ticket holders.

Though Griffiths' Eden impressed me, I wasn't crazy about 2014 follow-up
Lucky Them, which suffered from an underdeveloped script. A friend who
caught a work-in-progress screening of The Night Stalker wasn't convinced by the scenes with the adult Kit (Scandal's Bellamy Young), so I went into
the film with modest expectations, unlike other locals, who get excited every time Griffiths embarks on a new project. I take things on more of a case-by-case basis, and in this case, The Night Stalker, which aired on LMN on June 12, worked for me. In its bifurcated structure, Griffiths' fourth feature recalls Allison Anders' Things Behind the Sun, another film that aired on cable after screening at SIFF, and centered on a self-destruc-
tive musician who can't move forward until she acknowledges a traumatic event from her past (Anders drew from her own rape for the story).

Richard Ramirez shows off his pentagram. 
I wouldn't say  
The Night 
Stalker works
as well, but it
sidesteps
many of the
stereotypes of
the made-for-
TV true crime genre (soft-
focus flash-
backs, teary funerals for victims, and the like). Al-
though Young isn't as effective as Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays ser-
ial killer Richard Ramirez, her performance grew on me as she became more comfortable with it. She's stiff and self-conscious in the opening se-
quence in ways that go beyond the fact that her attorney character is meeting with a brutal murderer for a face-to-face. Kit aims to elicit a con-
fession from him before an innocent man faces execution for a crime she believes Ramirez committed. Griffiths invented that part of the narrative, but it establishes a plausible reason for Kit, who was fascinated with Ra-
mirez as a teenager, to put her own betrayal and sexual abuse in context.

Phillips, who was a live wire at the screening, is terrific as Ramirez. If he isn't a complete monster, he isn't a wounded little boy either; he's an unrepentant killer. He's also lonely, perceptive, and manipulative. That's a tricky balancing act to pull off. Chelle Sherrill is also good as the young Kit, who lives in fear of Ramirez's evening exploits, but who follows his media coverage the way today's kids follow celebrities on Instagram--not necessarily because they're attracted to them, but because they want to see what they'll do next. And to relieve the boredom of suburban living.

SIFF programmer Hebe Tabachnik with Paulina Obando.
Though Grif-
fiths based her
screenplay on
Phillip Carlo's
book, she drew
from her own
Riverside, CA
childhood for
Kit, who likes
heavy metal as
much as Ra-
mirez. At the
Q&A, Griffiths
said that he
was a big
AC/DC fan,
but she knew
the music
rights would be beyond her means, so she opted for Pentagram instead
(Kit has a Pentagram t-shirt, a Bobby Liebling poster on her wall, and a
Pentagram song plays over the end credits). It turns out to be a particu-
larly apropos substitution, since the band's occult image and Liebling's
soulful voice add spooky gravitas to a film that might have felt too much
like a pop-cult period piece otherwise. It doesn't hurt that the Satan-ref-
erencing Ramirez was fond of pentagrams, although I didn't know that
until I read Bob Calhoun's three-part SF Weekly series on the killer.

At the Q&A, Griffiths and Phillips performed a karaoke duet on Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" from Young Guns II. Clearly, they had fun working together. As SIFF programmer Clinton McClung pointed out on Twitter, Phillips deserves credit for praising women directors and for noting that Griffiths hired women for most (if not all) of the key positions on the film.

***** ***** ***** 

Once I read the description of Miguel Ángel Vidaurre's Red Gringo, I knew I couldn't miss this documentary. The story is so bizarre that I'm surprised I hadn't heard it before. In short, Dean Reed was a Colorado-born pop singer in the 1960s with a fabulous head of hair and a strong South American following. Why he rose above the pack, I couldn't say, but it convinced him to tour the continent. In Chile, the ladies went wild, so he made the surprising decision to stay, but instead of continuing on in a pop vein, he transformed into a protest singer. Despite his American roots, he sang in Spanish, leading me to wonder if any of his original fans felt let down. No longer something foreign or exotic: he had become one of them.



On the basis of the material in the film, Reed was a talented singer, a charismatic performer, and a persuasive speaker. He probably would've done okay if he had remained in the States, but he wouldn't have had the same impact. Sadly, his embrace of left-wing politics may have contri-
buted to his demise in 1986, by which time he had traded Chile for East Germany (over the years, he also lived in Peru and Argentina). Though officials ruled his death an accident, some associates suspected foul play.

McClung with Southside with You director Richard Tanne.
Vidaurre, who worked on the film for six years with his wife, producer Paulina Obando, builds it around archival footage in which Reed speaks for himself through interviews, speeches, and song lyrics, but the scarcity of outside voices gives short shrift to his personal life. Only at the end does a newscaster note the wife (East German actress Renate Bloom) and two daughters he left behind. I'm not sure why Vidaurre chose not to interview them, especially since they've attended screenings in Chile to support the film. My guess is that he wanted Reed to recount his life as a public figure from his own point of view, but it would've been nice to learn more about his private side.

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

Other films I've seen since May 31 include Author: The JT Leroy Story, Lamb, Olympic Favela, Mountains May Depart, The Love Witch, A Walk on the Moon, Captain Fantastic, and Southside with You (other non-SIFF films include Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, T-Rex, Golden Gate Girls, Nefertiti's Daughters, and Maggie's Plan). Of the films I was sorry to miss, Cameraperson, Creepy, Dead Slow Ahead, and The Fits top the list.



And that's a wrap! SIFF '16 concluded on Sunday with a gala screening of Jocelyn Moorhouse's starry adaptation of Rosalie Ham's 2000 novel, The Dressmaker. The Golden Space Needle (audience award) for best film went to Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortsensen (see the full list here). Moorhouse, Ross, and Mortensen all came to town over the final weekend to support their films. My favorite award: best actor special mention to Jumpy the Dog in Ti West's In a Valley of Violence.

Postscript: Burn Burn Burn will return to the Uptown on June 18.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

SIFF 2016 Guests Include Shunji Iwai, Ti West, Martin Bell, and Erin "Tiny" Blackwell

Shunji Iwai at the Egyptian on May 26.
The 42nd Seat-
tle Interna-
tional Film Festival pas-
sed the midway
point on Memo-
rial Day. Here are a few
thoughts and
images from the first 12 days.  

In this photo, director Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice, SIFF '05) ponders an audience member's question after the second screening of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, a three-hour tragicomedy about a soft spoken high school teacher (Haru Kuroki, reuniting with the director after 2015's The Murder Case of Hana & Alice) who finds her true self through a series of fabricated encounters.



I first became acquainted with Iwai, who got his start in television, when SIFF screened the dreamy murder mystery All about Lily Chou-Chou in 2002, and I've made an effort to keep up with his work ever since.

The last Iwai film to appear at the festival, 2011's Vancouver-shot Vampire with Kevin Zegers, marked his first English-language feature. It'll be interesting to see if he ever makes another. Though the downbeat, if sympathetic horror film had its detractors (the Fool Serious crowd gave it low marks), I enjoyed Iwai's idiosyncratic twist on a disorder previously explored in George Romero's Martin and Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss.

Forbidding length aside--at least for those who find 179-minute films challenging--the cautiously optimistic A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is likely to find more admirers as it continues to make the rounds.

Clinton McClung at the Egyptian on May 29.
SIFF's cinema programming director Clinton McClung, one of my favorite presenters, introduced the first screening of Ti West's In a Valley of Violence (my other favorites include Beth Barrett and Dustin Kaspar, largely because they all seem comfortable on stage, they have no interest in airs and graces, and their improvisations can be pretty hilarious).

West last came to Seattle to promote 2012's horror anthology V/H/S. His fourth feature and first Western stars Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, Larry Fessenden, Toby Huss, a completely-over-the-top James Ransone, and scene-stealing border collie Jumpy.

Though I wasn't wild about his last film, the Jonestown-inspired docu-thriller The Sacrament, In a Valley of Violence proves he has no problem making the move to marquee names like Hawke and Travolta, both of whom are very good. If anything, Travolta's part, as a small town sheriff, could've been bigger. Hawke's primary foils are Ransone as his mortal enemy, Farmiga as his love interest, and Jumpy as his best friend.



At the Q&A, West repeated W.C. Fields's deathless maxim about how movie people should "never work with animals or children," but said that he couldn't have had an easier time with Jumpy, who shares a trainer, Omar von Muller, with Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from The Artist.

Ti West and Clinton McClung.
Other questions revolved around influences and the casting of two actors, Burn Gorman and Karen Gillan, from the Dr. Who and Torchwood universe. West said that the latter connection was purely coincidental, and that he didn't intend the film as direct homage, though he acknowledged that some of the key spaghetti westerns, like Django and High Plains Drifter, were swimming around in his subconscious while he was making the thing. This is most evident in the animated title sequence, the Morricone-like score, and the stoic man-faces-down-vile townspeople plot, which may sound derivative, but he brings his own unique comic tone to the proceedings, and that makes a difference. 

Beth Barrett, Martin Bell, and Erin Blackwell. 
SIFF programming director Beth Barrett conducted the moving Q&A with director Martin Bell (American Heart) and the subject of Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, sequel to his 1984 Seattle-set documentary Streetwise (both made with his late wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark). The film itself is a difficult watch, since Tiny has had 10 children since her Streetwise days, starting when she was 15. Due to her addiction to heroin and other factors, she lost several of those kids to the foster care system (all of them participated in the film).

On the plus side, Bell and Mark never lost touch with her, and Tiny combines present-day footage with material the filmmakers shot in 1999 and 2004. It's clear that the 44-year-old woman is also in a better place than she was during those prior visits, despite some serious health issues. If anything, it came as a relief when she walked to the front of the theater after the screening, because she looks far healthier and happier than she does in the film in which she can be seen smoking, riding a motorized scooter, and nodding out in her garage in a methadone-induced stupor. 

I also took pictures of Nick Pesce, the director of The Eyes of My Mother, and Clea DuVall, the director of The Intervention, but they didn't turn out. Here's a list of the other films I saw from May 19 - 30 (in alphabetical order): As You Are, Evolution, Little Men, Love & Friendship, The Memory of Fish, Other People, Our Little Sister, Sunset Song, Tag, The Violin Teacher, Where Have All the Good Men Gone, and Wiener-Dog. I hope to write about some of these films in the next few months as there's some good stuff here, especially Little Men, Our Little Sister, and Sunset Song, all three of which justify my belief that Ira Sachs, Hirokazu Koreeda, and Terence Davies are three of our finest living filmmakers.



More thoughts and images to come. SIFF '16 runs through June 12. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Secrets, Lies, and Evasions in Matt Sobel's Directorial Debut, Take Me to the River


Robin Weigert and Logan Miller in Take Me to the River.
It's a little
disappointing
to find that
Matt Sobel's
directorial de-
but has noth-
ing to do with
the classic Al 
Green song--
or the great
Talking Heads
cover--but the
title makes sense by the end. The story revolves instead around a rather naïve California kid and his Oklahoma cousins.

In the prologue, 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller, a former Disney XD
star), his mother, Cindy (Robin Weigert, Jessica Jones), and his stepfather,
Don (Richard Schiff, who appeared in SIFF's thematically similar The Automatic Hate) travel to Nebraska for a family reunion. Because of his
yellow sunglasses and bright red shorts, his cousins treat him like an alien; they seem genuinely surprised that he refuses to dress like a hick (the prologue also reveals that he's gay, and they might be picking up on that). It's an overreaction on their part, but things soon go from bad to worse.

The trouble begins with his nine-year-old cousin, Molly (the preternaturally
poised Ursula Parker, from FX's Louie), who has a crush on him. She con-
vinces Ryder to come with her to the barn behind the main house to look at a bird's nest. Minutes later, she runs screaming from the structure, with blood on her dress. It's pretty clear that Ryder didn't do anything, and Molly calms down within an hour or two, but everyone looks at Ryder with suspicion (it doesn't help that he's such a passive, squirrely kid). His par-
ents offer their support, but his uncle, Keith (Josh Hamilton), with whom
Cindy has a strained relationship, is convinced he tried something.

In Molly's room.
Ryder spends
the night in an
abandoned
house on the
property until
cooler heads
prevail, which
begs the ques-
tion: why did
his family
make this trip
in the first
place? (Other
than to provide a plot for the film, of course.) With the exception of his grandmother, the Okie relatives are small-minded creeps. It makes no sense why Cindy, who grew up on the farm, would want to spend a few hours in a place she was thrilled to leave--let alone several days. 

Fortunately, Keith eventually calms down and apologizes to Ryder, but then
things go from strange to stranger. Azura Skye's jittery performance as his
wife adds to the strangeness, since it's hard to tell if she's just nervous in
general or if she's genuinely scared of her gun-toting husband. After a
tense dinner, Keith suggests that Ryder and Molly return to their grand-
mother's house, where his parents are staying. They use horses to make the trek. On the way there, they pass a river. Ryder wants to keep going, but the strong-willed Molly insists they go for a swim, and so they do.  

On the way to grandmother's house.
Once again,
nothing un-
toward hap-
pens, but Ry-
der is dis-
quieted by
the exper-
ience. There's
a sense that
the flirtatious
Molly doesn't understand what she's doing, and is following her father’s orders, but why would he instruct his underage daughter to act seductively around her teenage cousin?

Not to give too much away, but Ryder proves to be more of a catalyst than
a character, since the film really concerns his mother, and that's to its ben-
efit, because Weigert, who first made her mark as Calamity Jane on
HBO's Deadwood, is a stronger actor than Miller, who spends too much time gazing blankly around him, though that may be exactly what Sobel instructed him to do. In any case, if Take Me to the River, which follows an appearance in last year's The Stanford Prison Experiment, represents part of Miller's attempt to shed his teen idol image, it's a good start. 

Only a few beats later, and it's over (though languorously paced, the film clocks in at a lean 84 minutes). Sobel never spells out what all the stress and tension was about. It certainly wasn't about the differences between California and Oklahoma, between the country and the city, or any other surface trappings. It is, instead, about a secret that no one dares to speak aloud, and becomes apparent more through inference than incident. Sobel found a circuitous path to get there, and the film might have worked better as a short, but the unusual journey marks him as a unique talent.

Take Me to the River is playing SIFF Film Center through April 7.   

Sunday, May 31, 2015

SIFF 2015 Guests Include Jemaine Clement, Star of People, Places, Things, and Marah Strauch, Director of Sunshine Superman

SIFF artistic director Carl Spence with Jemaine Clement. 
In my previous dispatch, I mentioned that I prioritize the Seattle International Film Festival selections that "look most interesting, especially if the director or subject will be in attendance," so I end up catching a lot of guest appearances. Here's a sampling from the past couple of weeks.

On the basis of his first feature, the affecting Grace Is Gone (2007), which features one of John Cusack's finest performances, I decided to catch writer-director James C. Strouse's third film, People, Places, Things.

Strouse isn't a big name and his work tends to be pretty low-key, so I was surprised to find a packed house at the Uptown (capacity: 500), but that's when I remembered that the film stars Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows). Based on the enthusiastic reaction to his introduction and the robust Q&A, Clement has a substantial Seattle fan base. The new film, which revolves around a New York graphic artist, is just as unassuming as Grace in its depiction of a father moving on after loss, but it's lighter on its feet. Clement noted that Strouse has two kids and draws from his own life for his scripts--in his IMDb portrait, the two even look a little alike. The depiction of Will's ex-wife could've been handled better, but Clement has a good rapport with the Gadsby twins, who play his daughters, and Regina Hall, who plays his love interest.

Marah Strauch spent eight years working on her first film. 
Sunshine Superman, a profile of engineer-turned-extreme athlete Carl Boenish, proves the power of effective marketing. I had heard of Marah Strauch's documentary debut, but it wasn't on my preliminary list until I caught the trailer and realized that I would have to see how her charismatic subject's story plays out (check it out below).

If a documentary about BASE jumping sounds like a project geared more
towards the sports fans who've made Warren Miller a very rich man,
Strauch finds appeal beyond the testing of physical limits--not that that
part of the film isn't a real thrill. Boenish wasn't just exhilarated by jump-
ing from great heights (buildings, antenna towers, spans, and cliffs), he found ways to document these stunts--like attaching cameras to jumpers' helmets--that makes for an especially visceral viewing experience. It's one thing to film a person jumping out of a plane; it's another thing entirely when that person films what they see as they plummet to the Earth, and there's a lot of that kind of vertiginous footage in the film.

Carl himself is an intriguing character. His widow, Jean, says he didn't have a death wish, and that he always took the necessary precautions before his jumps, but there's the sense that he felt impermeable, not due so much to an overinflated ego, but to the fact that the things that should've scared him didn't. It's a mystery Marah and Jean can't adequately solve, and I appreciate the fact that they don't try (something to do with his brain chemistry, perhaps). They just report the facts about his life--and death. Sometimes, it's better not to know exactly why people do the things they do, because that can lead to blame and judgment, and Carl comes across as a sunny character who didn't mean anyone harm. He took joy from what he did and wanted to share that joy with the world.

Director Colin Hanks and producing partner Sean Stuart.
In retrospect, I'm amazed that Werner Herzog didn't take on his biography first, since he can't resist single-minded risk-
takers who like to fly through the air--
whether by plane, ski, or balloon--but Strauch does it justice (in the Q&A, she acknowledged that producer Alex Gibney was a particularly helpful sounding board). I wasn't crazy about the reenactments, though she handles them well, and my misgivings diminished with repeated exposure. Still, I believe she could have done without them. Strauch also noted that she became attached to the songs on her temp track, and was gratified that she was able to get the rights to all of them, including Donovan's title track, which seems an appropriate choice on every level.

Some of the other guest appearances I've caught include: producer Alex Noyer (808), subject Ericka Huggins (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution), director Daniel Junge (Being Evel), and director Colin Hanks (All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records). If I can find the time, I plan to write about a few of them. Unfortunately, I've had to balance the festival with a move, because my downtown apartment building (built in 1909) is being torn down. It's an old story in Seattle, but this one is particularly unfortunate as it involves the destruction of an entire block, from Olive to Stewart, to make way for a 44-story luxury hotel--just what this city really needs. To bring things back to the matter at hand, I got to enjoy All Things Must Pass at the Harvard Exit, which will cease to function as a theater when the fest ends. SIFF gave it one last hurrah, and I'm truly grateful they were able to make that happen.



Sunshine Superman opens at the Egyptian on June 19. People, 
Places, Things is still making the festival rounds; release dates TBA.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Trip Back in Time

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
May 28-June 1, 2015
Castro Theatre


There's something for everyone, from the silent film novice to the die-hard fan, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, celebrating its 20th Anniversary May 28 through Monday, June 1, 2015. Beyond the careful programming and outstanding selection of accompanists, what makes the festival special is its focus on film preservation and restoration. Friday morning’s programming opens with a free event that provides a unique insight to that world, Amazing Tales of the Archives. Tales serves as a marvelous jumping off point for the festival. It’s a chance to learn of the effort and hard work behind preserving the world’s cinematic history and to sample the diversity of that history. The always entertaining Serge Bromberg is first on the bill. The preservationist, and founder of Lobster Films, will present Jacques Tourneur’s 1914 short Figures de cire (House of Wax) and share the 15 year saga of finding the film.

The following afternoon, Bromberg will receive the 2015 SFSFF Award after a screening of Visages de enfants (1925). The award is given to “organizations and individuals for to honor distinguished contributions to the preservation and restoration of silent-era movies.” Bromberg will also appear on stage in conversation with the legendary silent film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow prior to a screening of the newly restored Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, Dir. Fred Niblo) which closes the festival. Previous SFSFF Award recipient Photoplay (Brownlow is one of its directors) and TCM restored the film. The film will be presented with a soundtrack scored by Carl Davis, probably the highest regarded silent film composer working today.

Film restorer Robert Byrne will also take the stage during Tales to describe the technical, historical, and curatorial aspects of reconstructing and restoring Sherlock Holmes (1916), starring William Gillette. The SFSFF and the Cinémathèque Française joined forces to restore the film, presumed lost until a complete dupe negative was identified in the vaults of the Cinémathèque last year. The restored film will play on Sunday night. Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes on stage and many of the traits we associate with Holmes today were created by the actor and not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For example, Gillette originated the deer-stalker hat as Holmes’ preferred chapeau, so iconic that even Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern day Sherlock still feels compelled to wear at press conferences. Holmes fans should be ecstatic at the prospect of seeing what has been considered the definitive performance of the role for the first time in 100 years. The closest they’ve been able to come to it before, was Orson Welles’ recreation of Gillette’s play and performance on his anthology radio drama, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

The British Film Institute’s senior curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon will also present at Tales. He will screen the BFI’s collection of footage documenting the 1915 torpedoing of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat. The sinking of the passenger ship immediately caused an international outcry and the incident was invoked repeatedly in ongoing effort to enlist the United Sates in the alliance against Germany during World War I. Cecil B. De Mille exploited the incident two years later, for both commercial and propaganda purposes, in his film The Little American (1917) starring Mary Pickford.

The festival recently announced an addition to the Tales line-up, “2015 marks 100 years since the birth of the Technicolor Corporation. In recognition of this centennial, Movette Film Transfer's Jennifer Miko will offer a rare glimpse of a unique home movie shot on the grounds of La Cuesta Encantada, more commonly known as Hearst Castle. We will feast our eyes on a stunning tour--filmed in two-strip Tech--with the architect, Julia Morgan, and the Chief himself, W.R. Hearst.” Donald Sosin will provide the accompaniment for the entire program. Actor Paul McGann, best known for either Dr. Who or Withnail and I depending on the audience, will provide narration for the Lusitania footage. The program is co-presented by Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation

Attending the SFSFF is like traveling back in time.  Attendees see silent film the way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen of a movie palace with live accompaniment and a companionable audience. Some of the festival goers even wear clothes from the 20s which adds to the period feeling. Learn more about this year’s festival and buy tickets at www.SilentFilm.org

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SIFF 2015 Documentaries Take on Music Stores, Drum Machines, Dueling Pundits, and More!

This post was supposed to go up on The Stranger's Slog 
last week, but fell through the cracks, so it lives here now.

tower_records.jpg
Gravitas Ventures


It may sound like a cliché to say that the Seattle International Film Festival offers a documentary to suit every taste, but with 70+ non-fiction films on offer, it's just plain true. That said, I'll always be more interested in documentaries about music, medicine, and politics than those about sports, food, and the environment. Lest it sound as if I'm limiting myself, in my off-hours, I review hundreds of documentaries a year. I try not to go overboard during SIFF, since I'll end up catching some via PBS's documentary series Independent Lens and P.O.V. and others via DVD, so I prioritize the ones that look most interesting, especially if the director or subject will be in attendance (this week's non-SIFF assignments include Mujeres con Pelotas, a film about women's soccer in Argentina).

No Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, aka 808, no "Sexual Healing."

Of this year's slate, so far I've seen Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock & Roll, The Glamour and the Squalor, For Grace, and Best of Enemies. The first two haven't finished playing yet, while there are no more screenings of Best of Enemies and For Grace (read Angela Garbes's interview with co-director and former local Kevin Pang here).

All are worthwhile, but I wanted to call out two that I haven't seen yet. First up: Colin Hanks's All Things Must Pass. Granted, it's the actor's first feature, but as a former record store clerk, I can't resist a film about a global record store chain—it doesn't hurt that the documentary has been winning fans wherever it goes. Even back in the late-1980s and early-1990s, when I was working at Cellophane Square on the Ave., I would drop by Tower Records from time to time. They carried memoirs, magazines, and other music-related items that our cramped space didn't (I would also drop by Peaches, but I guess that's a story for another day). Back then, it never would have occurred to me that the monolithic Tower Records wouldn't be around forever.

May 30 at the Harvard Exit and May 31 at the Uptown. Hanks and producer Sean Stuart are scheduled to attend both screenings.
 
Thats what Im talking about.
"Roland TR-808 drum machine" by Eriq at Dutch Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Next up: 808, a film about the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine. Without it, Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" wouldn't exist—or they'd exist in forms that wouldn't have gone on to inspire so many other R&B, hip-hop, and electronic artists to take a walk on the wildly synthetic side. The Japanese trio Yellow Magic Orchestra (featuring future Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto) built their entire sound around it, Manchester duo 808 State took their name from it, and Kanye West squeezed an album title and a guiding aesthetic out of it (2008's 808s & Heartbreak). I love a good history-of-an-instrument documentary, so here's hoping this one's at least half as compelling as Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, which is pretty much the master of the form.  

Due to a snafu, this post didn't go up last week as planned, and there are no more screenings of 808, which played twice, but if you happen to be in England on June 7, it plays Sheffield Doc/Fest on that date.

As far as word of mouth goes—I rely on it heavily during SIFF—friends had good things to say about Tab Hunter Confidential, which screened with the actor, matinee idol, and John Waters favorite in attendance. I was unable to track down release dates for For Grace and Tab Hunter, but I'm sure these films will return to Seattle in some way, i.e. if not a theatrical run, then via streaming services.

As for Best of Enemies, which revisits the televised 1968 debates between liberal author Gore Vidal and conservative editor William F. Buckley, Jr., it's a production of ITVS, the engine that powers Independent Lens, so expect a PBS broadcast sometime after the theatrical release on July 31 (Seattle venue TBA). Co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for 20 Feet from Stardom) do a great job at staying out of the way of their famously well spoken subjects, making for one of my favorite films of the fest so far.


Find more films, reviews, synopses, and other fest info in SIFF Notes.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Quasi-Fictional Documentary 20,000 Days on Earth Imagines 24 Hours in the Life of Nick Cave

nick_and_kylie.jpg
Nick Cave and passenger Kylie Minogue had a left-field hit with the duet "Where the Wild Roses Grow" from his 1996 album Murder Ballads.
This is the full text of my Stranger review (find the short version here).

On the basis of his idiosyncratic discography, a conventional documentary
about Nick Cave would come as a surprise—and a disappointment. Fortun-
ately, co-directors Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard tossed the biographical in-
struction manual in the trash and started fresh. If anything, 20,000 Days on Earth—the figure represents Cave's age on the day depicted in the film—plays like a living scrapbook. Those expecting the filmmakers to check off the usual boxes on the way from birth to adulthood best get their kicks elsewhere, because they won't find much of that sort of thing here.

Cave narrates the entire thing as himself—or the glamorized version he chooses to present on screen (he never appears in jeans and t-
shirts, but rather black suits and extravagant gold jewelry). Since he worked closely with the London filmmakers, he's a collaborator as much
as a subject. In the film, which opens today at The Grand Illusion, he writes, records, and performs songs from 2013's Push the Sky Away with his band, the Bad Seeds, including multi-instrumentalist and magnificent beardo Warren Ellis. "Mostly I write," says Cave, an Australian who calls England home, "tapping and scratching away day and night sometimes."

Cave and Minogue reinvent Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra for the grunge era.

The directors blend observational material with staged conversations,
most of which take place in the confines of a car. That might not qualify
as fiction, but it isn't exactly non-fiction either—or it isn't the way direct-
cinema pioneers, like Albert and David Maysles or Frederick Wiseman, have defined that term through their work. These quasi-surrealistic se-
quences with psychoanalyst Darian Leader (unbilled), actor Ray Win-
stone, guitarist Blixa Bargeld, and Cave's one-time duet partner Kylie Minogue yield intriguing insights about his past (childhood in Wangaratta), present (life in Brighton), joys (performing) and fears (losing his memory).

The unconventional structure represents a major blessing and a minor curse. At times, Cave's narration becomes obtuse, but he tends to dial it back whenever the atmosphere starts to get too close. His humorous and heartfelt commentary about a collection of archival photographs, for in-
stance, highlights his skills as a raconteur (they include black-and-white snapshots of his pre-Bad Seeds outfits, the Boys Next Door and the Birth-
day Party). Erik Wilson's exquisite cinematography—marked by dramatic lighting and elegantly framed compositions—is the crowning touch.

My favorite part: Cave lounging on a couch with his twins (Earl and Arthur), eating pizza, bathed in the glow of a TV set. The staging suggests that they're watching a wacky comedy or a classic western, but this is a man who's written songs about dead babies ("The Firstborn Is Dead") and electrocutions ("The Mercy Seat"). When Al Pacino's immortal line arrives, the faces of father and sons light up as they speak along in unison, "Say hello to my little friend!" It's a quintessential Nick Cave moment.


20,000 Days opens today at the Grand Illusion. Image from Drafthouse Films.