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.  

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