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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SIFF 2017 Week One Guest: Jeffrey Schwarz, Director of The Fabulous Allan Carr

Schwarz's suit game was tight.
I caught the first screening of The Fabulous Allan Carr on May 19 with director Jeffrey Schwarz in attendance. It was also my first screening of the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival, since I missed the opening night film, Michael Showalter's The Big Sick, which screened the night before (it opens in Seattle on July 7). 

Schwarz's latest film focuses on the extravagant producer of the monster-hit musical Grease and, most notoriously, the disco bomb Can't Stop the Music (of which more than a few fans were in the house). Schwarz knows this Tinseltown territory well, since he also directed 2013's I Am Divine and 2015's Tab Hunter Confidential, and although he didn't mention it during the intro or the Q&A after the screening, he directed 2008's Wrangler, too.  

With Clinton McClung.
In reviewing Wranger for Video Librarian, I wrote that it "isn't just a story about one man's life in and out of the porn business, but about popular conceptions of masculinity since the 1950s." It's a theme running though Schwarz's work, especially since subjects like Divine (née Harris Milstead) and Carr (née Allan Solomon) didn't fit popular conceptions of masculinity, yet still found ways to thrive in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along 1970s and beyond by charting their own unique courses.

On Facebook, SIFF programmer Clinton McClung noted that Schwarz's "doc on William Castle [2007's Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story] is also one on my faves, but I didn't mention it because it is sadly underseen."

With producing partners Larry Spitler and John Boccardo.
Allan Carr screened again on May 20 with Schwarz making a second appearance (and he's no stranger to SIFF, since he was last in town with Tab Hunter, the film and the man). It's a good documentary, but Schwarz is better as a storyteller than a visual stylist, and it will probably play better on the small screen. There are no more SIFF screenings, but it's continuing to make the festival rounds. For more on the film, my friend Chris Burlingame interviewed Schwarz for The Sunbreak.

More to come!

Endnote: SIFF '17 runs through Sunday, June 11. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Toni Erdmann is a death clown, a life coach, and a Bulgarian monster. It's also a fabulous film.

Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. [Sony Pictures Classics]

Ade, Ger-

Toni Erdmann, the character, is a death clown, a life coach, and a big, hairy Bulgarian monster. Toni Erdmann, the Oscar-nominated film from German filmmaker Maren Ade, is a farce, a tearjerker, and a bonkers take on globalization and its discontents.

It begins with a shaggy German music teacher, Winfried (Austrian theater veteran Peter Simonischek, simultaneously soulful and impish), who likes to play practical jokes that no one appreciates. His mother is an ungrateful grump, his ex-wife has moved on with her life, and his daughter, an oil industry consultant, is based in Romania. He's a lonely man with no one but his blind mutt, Willy, to keep him company.

When his daughter, Ines (the wondrous Sandra Hüller, who first caught my eye as a Belle de Jour-inspired sex surrogate in 2010's Brownian Move-
ment) drops by for a short visit, Winfried tries to connect with her, but she spends most of the time making work calls. Later, after a couple of per-
sonal setbacks, Winfried decides to visit Ines in Bucharest where his at-
tempts to make her laugh--involving a set of false teeth and a cheese grater--fall flat, so he pretends to leave only to re-emerge as Toni Erd-
mann, a goofy gent who pops up at the most inopportune times, like when Ines is with friends, coworkers, or the CEO she's desperate to impress.

At first, she plays along, but her discomfort grows as she starts to see her life through Toni's eyes: the casual sexism she tolerates on a daily basis, the snobbishness of her social set, and the real-world consequences of her boardroom decisions. Director Ade (Everyone Else) combines several films in one, and Toni Erdmann shouldn't work as well as it does, but it flows smoothly from comic set-pieces to humiliating encounters to Buñuel-like surrealism as a birthday party takes a turn for the transcendently strange. If the 162-minute film threatens to wear out its welcome, Ade brings everything home with a humanist's light, loving touch.

Cross-posted at The Stranger. Toni Erdmann opens Friday, February 
10, at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Avenue N).

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kent Osborne Is Waiting for the End of the World

Kent Osborne, cartoon cat, and rose-colored sky.
Due to the election, the following review didn't make it into this week's Stranger, but the film is still winding its way around the country (it played for one night only at the NWFF, so it's too late to catch it in Seattle).  

Uncle Kent 2, part of the Northwest Film Forum's Dystopia on Our Doorstep series, starts out as a sequel to Joe Swanberg's 2011 chat-room sex comedy Uncle Kent. While writing down the things he's doing, actor and writer Kent Osborne, the deceptively sane-looking gent from Swanberg's 2007 Hannah Takes the Stairs, does those very things, i.e. sits on the porch, gets high, and prepares for the apocalypse or, as he calls it, "the singularity" (a term swiped from futurist Ray Kurzweil).

That night, Osborne runs into Swanberg at a house party and tries to interest him in directing the script we're watching. "I hate to be a dick," says Swanberg, "but I hate sequels, man." At that point--the 12-minute mark--filmmaker Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake) takes over, and the tone shifts from awkwardly amusing to just plain weird.

George Miller's 1998 Babe: Pig in the City.
Osborne proceeds to do a jiggly dance, munch on salad, go to bed, and dream of rose-colored skies and blue cartoon cats (Osborne's Adventure Time colleague, Pendleton Ward, provided the animated opening credits).

The next day, Osborne wakes up and returns to his quotidian life as writer for the animated series Cat Agent and travels to San Diego for Comic-Con, where emojis come to life, a Cat Agent cosplayer (Lyndsay Hailey) seduces him, and various randos (including Linas Phillips and "Weird" Al Yankovic) appear and disappear like video-game glitches. All the while, Swing Out Sister's ingratiating plastic-jazz hit "Breakout" refuses to leave his head, culminating in the world's longest masturbation scene.

When Uncle Kent 2, which was co-produced by 2016 Stranger Genius nominee Mel Eslyn, premiered at this year's SXSW, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn mused that it just might be "the craziest movie sequel ever." It's hard to imagine that anyone will ever top Joe Dante and Chuck Jones's similarly self-referential Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in which the co-directors threw all their favorite stuff at the screen to what might stick, but Osborne and Rohal certainly give it a run for the money.

Endnote: Dystopia on Our Doorstep continues at the NWFF through 11/26. Other films in the series include Homo Sapiens and Babe: Pig in the City. Click here for more info. Images from Universal Pictures and Factory 25.

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
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.