Wednesday, May 16, 2012

SIFF Dispatch #1

(Lynn Shelton, 2011, US, 90 mins.) 

(Mark and Jay Duplass, 2012, US, 90 mins.)

The 38th edition of the Seattle International Film Festival opens with Lynn Shelton's fourth feature, Your Sister's Sister, which was shot in the Northwest and stars Emily Blunt, Rosemary DeWitt (filling in for Rachel Weisz), and the writer/director's frequent collaborator, Mark Duplass.

In form and content, the film most closely resembles Humpday, except two sisters, Iris (Blunt) and Hannah (DeWitt), and a male friend, Jack (Duplass), fill the places occupied by a married couple and a male friend. 

Still mourning his brother, Iris's husband, who died the year before, leads Jack to their family cabin, where he runs into Hannah, who's recovering from a break-up. After a night of Tequila-fueled revelry, Iris shows up to find that her sister and her friend have changed in ways she wasn't expecting. Though I found Hannah more manipulative than intended, DeWitt allows the vulnerability behind her actions to shine through. 

The story engages, the laughs fall in all the right places, and the actors work well together, but I'd love to see Shelton change up her formula next time around. This one is starting to feel familiar, but that may be partly because so many other filmmakers are following her semi-improvised lead. Still, I give it a solid recommendation and believe it's an apt choice for the opening night slot. As the program guide states, "Your Sister's Sister marks the first time in the history of SIFF that work by a Seattle-based filmmaker has opened the festival (SIFF hasn't passed on a Shelton selection yet, though her films always premiere at other fests).

Shelton has just wrapped shooting on Touchy Feely with Ellen Page. According to The Playlist, her sixth film, Laggies, will star Paul Rudd.  

Your Sister's Sister plays McCaw Hall on May 17. The Opening Night Gala takes place afterward. Post-fest, the film opens in Seattle on June 15.

Shelton and Duplass also appear in Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, but I took a pass, because the synopsis didn't sound too intriguing. I also caught the trailer at the press launch, and that confirmed my impression. I’m not suggesting that it's a terrible film--it looks fairly amusing--but I didn't get the impression that it's a must-see, and my free time is limited (six freelance/on-call gigs will do that!).

Nonetheless, the cast attracted my attention, since many of them have worked together before—and probably will do so again. They include Kristen Bell (Gossip Girl) and Jake Johnson (The New Girl).

As TV stars, they probably don't need the reduced fees that comes from low-budget projects, so I'm guessing they signed on because it looked like fun, to help out a friend, or because the idea of working on something less structured seemed appealing. Further, Bell's husband, Dax Shepard, also stars in The Freebie, the directorial debut from Duplass's wife, Katie Aselton, while Shelton recently directed an episode of The New Girl.

She may maintain a Seattle residence, but Shelton has joined an extended family of Hollywood-based players, which will surely lead to more opportunities like Mad Men, on which DeWitt has appeared (not long after Humpday, Shelton directed the fourth season's pivotal Playboy episode).  

Just as I interviewed Shelton in 2006, circa We Go Way Back, I interviewed Mark and Jay Duplass in 2008 when they came to town with Baghead, their second feature (I also chatted with Mark on the set of Humpday). At the time, they mentioned that The Do-Deca-Pentathlon would be their next film, but that's not the way things turned out. Instead, like Shelton, they moved on to better known actors: Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly in Cyrus and Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

Their fifth film (in release-date terms), however, feels like the logical successor to Baghead, and I'm glad they didn’t give up on it. Both Steve Zissis and Ross Partridge return to the fold, except this time, Zissis stars opposite Mark Kelly, while Partridge was involved behind the scenes, but doesn't appear on screen (and nor does Mark Duplass).

Filmed in balmy New Orleans, the comedy starts out as a look at sibling rivalry, but ends up as more of a mid-life crisis movie, and the directors do a good job in transitioning between the genres and avoiding many of the clichés associated with the latter, like the long-suffering wife and the overgrown man-boy. Steve Zissis' character, Mark, as it turns out, isn't immature at all. On the contrary, he's actually a responsible married father, but his professional poker-playing brother, Jeremy, who isn't as one-dimensional as he first appears, brings out his worst qualities.

The title refers to a 25-event athletic competition from the 1990s--laser tag, ping pong, etc.--that they revive during a family reunion in order to determine the superior brother, while keeping it a secret from their mother, Alice (Julie Vorus), and Mark's wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur, very good). Mark's pre-teen son, Hunter (Reid Williams), however, figures things out early on, and enjoys watching his tightly-wound father cut loose.

Naturally, the duo takes the whole thing too far and yes, they do learn a few lessons along the way, but the film is both funnier and more perceptive than the usual Hollywood drek about emotionally stunted men.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 18 and Pacific Place Cinemas on May 22. Zissis, Kelly, Lafleur, and Jay Duplass will be on hand for the first screening. Post-fest, the film opens at the Uptown on July 6. As always, dates and times are subject to change. 

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