Saturday, May 28, 2011

SIFF Dispatch #3

Click here for
SIFF Dispatch #2

I've been at-
tending SIFF
for 23 years,
so it's fair to
say I'm a vet-
eran. For 11
years, I vol-
unteered for
the festival;
for eight
years, I've
written for
the program guide; and for six years, I've covered it for Amazon, in-
dieWIRE, Reel News, The Stranger, and other websites and weeklies.

Through all these years, a pattern has emerged. Come week two: I feel
burned out. After all, freelancers start writing for the guide in early April,
so by late May, I've been steeped in screeners and screenings for weeks.

This year, burn-out hit between days eight and nine, and that's par for the
course. It's not that I get tired of watching films, it's my year-round occu-
pation, but I start to miss the life that lies beyond dark screening rooms.

A morning at home, for instance, feels like a luxury. I can get up when
I want, make my own mocha, fix my own meals, read the news, write
reviews, and catch up with some of the folks unable to attend the fest.

Furthermore, the SIFF press department was unable to accommodate
my interview requests. I could be wrong, but I don't think that's ever
happened before. This year, I was hoping to interview directors Peter
n and Mike Mills, whose films have now come and gone.

I caught Richardson's follow-up to Clear Cut - The Story of Philomath, Oregon last weekend, where he and several individuals featured in the new documentary, including Cody Curtis's family, participated in a Q&A.

In the film, which premiered on HBO last Thursday, Richardson profiles
Curtis, an engaging 54-year-old mother of two who suffered from stage
4 liver cancer, and others who've taken advantage of Oregon's death
with dignity law. He also documents the law's passage in Washington.

It's heartbreaking, but he recounts their experiences with a sure hand,
never overstaying his welcome or exploiting their emotions. The same
could be said of Mike Mills, who directed my favorite film of 2005, an
under-appreciated version of Walter Kirn's 1999 novel Thumbsucker.

For his second
feature, he
draws from his
life in depict-
ing an artist
(Ewan McGreg-
or) navigating
a relationship
with an actress
(Mélanie Laur-
ent) while mourning his
widowed father (Christopher Plummer), who announced he was gay be-
fore finding out he had terminal cancer. It's hardly as grim as it sounds.

If anything, I wish Mills had dug even deeper. I found Beginners charm-
ing, but not as moving as I expected. Still, I would recommend this deli-
cately directed film, which opens at the Harvard Exit on Friday, 6/10.

I had planned to interview Mills, who doubles as a documentarian
(Does Your Soul Have a Cold and Beautiful Losers with Treatment's
Joshua Leonard), for Sean Axmaker's site, Parallax View, where
he and other film critics have been covering the fest in fine style.

Lost interview opportunities aside, those were two highlights from the first
week of SIFF '11. The good news is that I only need a day to get back in-
to the swing of things. Fortunately, I have just three films on deck for this
weekend, including the Patty Schemel documentary, Hit So Hard, which
I caught last night. I was so tired, I almost skipped it, but I'm glad I went.

Afterward, I ran into Tom Kipp, a frequent presenter at the EMP Pop Con-
ference, who felt that there were a few too many scenes that lasted longer
than necessary. He has a point, but we agreed that the film is worth a look.

Raised in Marysville, Schemel went from drumming in local bands, like Doll
Squad, to membership in Hole. Along the way, she came out of the closet,
cavorted with Kurt and Courtney (intimate home-movie footage of the two
is likely to interest even non-fans), drank too much, took too many drugs,
and ended up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles before slowly mak-
ing her way back to sobriety, a second career, and a family of her own.

The second screening of Hit So Hard takes place on Sun., 5/29, at 4pm
at the Neptune. Schemel, director P. David Ebersole, and the producers
will be in attendance. Schemel's brother, Larry, showed up at the Egyptian
and said that he and Patty are making music again, just as they did in the
1980s (her brother provided much of the archival material in the film).

Next, I'm look-
ing forward to
eh Haroun's A
(Un Hom-
me Qui Crie
which has a fin-
al screening at
Pacific Place on
Sun., 5/29, at
10am. In 2007,
SIFF program-
med his mag-
nificent Daratt, which I watched at a sadly underpopulated SIFF Cinema.

Considering the praise which greeted Bye Bye Africa and Abouna, Har-
oun's first features, I was saddened by Seattle's lack of interest in this
masterful filmmaker. By contrast, The Stranger's Charles Mudede has
been a Haroun supporter for awhile now. My friend, Bill, agrees with
him that Man marks another triumph for the Chad-based director, so
I hope the city shows more love this year, though the early-morning
start time will surely scare off a few punters. Plus, it plays opposite
SIFF's perennially popular Secret Festival (11am at the Egyptian).

I didn't get a chance to preview Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Mis-
, but Chris Estey provides an informed preview at Three Im-
aginary Girls. As Chris knows, I've been obsessed with the "Little Man"
phenomenon since I discovered it in the 1980s, and I've always wonder-
ed whatever happened to the booze-sozzled Bay Area bickerers, Peter
and Raymond, as well as the two gents who chronicled their exploits.

As someone who has lived with
and next door to couples who
have, at times, recalled Peter
and Raymond, I appreciate the
reminder that I'm not alone,
though I can't imagine actual-
ly recording conversations
and releasing transcripts.

Instead, I once wrote a short
story for a writing class about
my college roommate and her
boyfriend, but I made certain
to change their names. Separ-
ately, they were nice people. Together: disaster (they ended up dropping out). Shut Up Lit-
tle Man!
plays Sat., 5/28, at 10pm at the Neptune and Mon., 5/30, at 9pm at the Egyptian.

I attended Hit So Hard with Chris Burlingame who'll be interviewing Patty Schemel for his site, Another Rainy Saturday. Click here for his review of Shut Up Little Man! Burlingame has also contributed to Three Imaginary Girls and The KEXP Blog, where you can find even more SIFF coverage.

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #4.

Endnote: Images from indieWIRE, Chad Now, Film Move-
, and Focus Features by way of

Saturday, May 21, 2011

SIFF Dispatch #2

Click here for
SIFF Dispatch #1

Because I have
three jobs, I
can’t attend
every press
screening, and
that’s fine, be-
cause I’d nev-
er have time to
cover them all.

Consequently, I’ve been concentrating on the films that interest me
the most. This method reduces the number of pleasant--and unpleas-
ant--surprises, but I can always catch up with the unexpectedly strong
selections during the festival proper, which began on Friday, May 20.

Or at least I can try. The great thing about SIFF is that it brings a lot of
worthy films to light. If you miss something during the festival, there’s always the possibility that you can catch it afterward through theatrical screenings, video, cable, network and public television, downloads, and streaming video. (The options appear to be multiplying by the minute.)

When it comes to documentaries, for instance, PBS’s Independent Lens
often snaps up some of the finer entries, most recently the Oscar-nomi-
nated Waste Land (disclosure: I work part-time at KCTS 9). There’s a
catch, though: you sometimes have to wait a year, if not longer. Mugabe
and the White African
(SIFF '10), for instance, doesn’t air until this July.

That said,
there’s noth-
ing like exper-
iencing a film
with an enthu-
siastic audi-
ence. I’ll al-
ways remem-
ber catching
Kinji Fukasa-
ku’s final film,
Battle Roy-
, at the Cinerama. I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed it on my computer or TV screen, but the reactions from the crowd added to the excitement.

I haven’t seen anything quite that exciting yet, but that’s no com-
plaint; Fukasaku set the bar impossibly high (at least within the
realm of dystopian action-adventure fare). So far, two documen-
taries have impressed me the most: James Marsh’s Project Nim
and Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times.

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

"It's the closest thing I can imagine to a walking J.G. Ballard
novel, a chilling story of mad science that would sound like
a bad TV movie adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story."

-- Empire contributing editor Damon Wise on Project Nim

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

Marsh, a British director who divides his time between fiction and non-
fiction films, has a mixed record with SIFF, but the tide should turn with
, which recounts the remarkable story of a remarkable creature.

Five years ago, the director brought the narrative feature The King to
town, which met with a fairly negative reaction. The film had its admir-
ers, such as KIRO’s Tom Tangney, but I had to look hard to find them.

Then, in 2008, SIFF screened Man on Wire, which met with an over-
whelmingly positive response, and won the best documentary Oscar. Time will tell if Nim can scale those heights. Due to a subject that has little to do with world affairs, a nomination seems unlikely, and that’s unfortunate. Then again, Man on Wire was a left-field entry that went the distance.

Further, Amir Bar-Lev’s impassioned Tillman Story (SIFF ’10), which
should’ve been a sure-fire Academy Award contender, didn’t even re-
ceive a nod (in a strong year for documentaries, it topped my list).

Following on the heels of the well received Red Riding trilogy--Marsh
directed 1980 with Paddy Considine--his new film covers three dec-
ades in the life of Nim Chimsky (a pun on the name of linguist Noam
Chomsky), who has inspired books, articles, and the movie Project X.

In 1973, Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herb Terrace, the
Black Hat of the piece, placed Nim with his former lover, psychology stu-
dent Stephanie LaFarge, and her Upper West Side family, who raised him
as one of their own; he romped with the kids, he romped with the cats.

Terrace aimed to prove that a chimp can learn to communicate using
American Sign Language (ASL). The narrative takes one harrowing turn
after another as Nim moves, literally, across the country. Just when it
seems things can’t get much worse, the most unlikely hero arrives to save
the day. Marsh raises any number of fascinating questions about nature
vs. nurture, making Nim a must-see for animal lovers of every kind.

Bonus: Former Tindersticks member Dickon Hinchliffe provides the
fabulous orchestral score (highly recommended to fans of the duo Air).

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

"The media is not the message. The message is the media."
--David Carr,
Page One: Inside the New York Times

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

While Rossi’s Page One, a completely different kind of document-
ary, adheres to a more conventional structure, media consumers are
likely to find it equally absorbing, if not more relevant, since the land-
scape keeps undergoing one metamorphic change after another.

In examining the relationship The New York Times has established
with entities like WikiLeaks, Rossi shows the Old Grey Lady embrac-
ing new media and looking beyond the borders of an insular environ-
ment to cut costs and remain relevant, but it's hardly a puff piece.

While he could’ve concentrated soley on Times staffers, like exec editor
Bill Keller and reporter Brian Stetler, who'll be in town to support the film,
he brings outside voices into play, including representatives from Gawker,
Vice, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Wikipedia. Former staffer Gay
Talese, author of The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at the
New York Times
, helps to provide historical context, while Rossi also in-
corporates scandals involving reporters Jayson Blair and Judith Miller.

These are a lot of hyper-ar-
ticulate people, but that's par
for the course with the news
business. Then there's colum-
nist and former Carpetbagger
David Carr
. As a filmmaker,
Rossi is perceptive enough to
know that when it comes to a
guy this interesting: the more
screen time, the better. Of all
the Times staffers, he spends
the most time with the hoar-
se, hunched-up, ex-crack
addict and single father

Like Stetler and media editor
Bruce Headlam, Carr has help-
ed The Times transition into the
21st-century. Though it took him
a while to embrace Twitter, he now has 322,000+ followers. As Rossi depicts him, he's a witty, infuriating man with a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullshit--it's worth the price of admission alone to watch him put the Vice crew in their place.

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #3

Endnote: Bob Ingersoll, who appears in the film, will be at-
tending the Project Nim screenings. Images from Twitch and
IMP Awards. Page One opens in Seattle on July 1 (venue TBA).

Monday, May 16, 2011

SIFF Dispatch #1

"You have to
be crazy to pro-
duce a movie."
-- Mathieu Amal-
ric on his charac-
ter in On Tour

The 37th Seat-
tle Interna-
tional Film Festival
, which runs from May
19 – June 12, begins on Thursday with a gala screening of The First Grader. After that, the fest will screen 440 features and shorts from 74 countries over 24 days throughout Seattle, Renton, Everett, and Kirkland.

Unlike years past, I missed the screening of the opening night film, but it’s
worth noting that Justin Chadwick directed episodes of MI-5, The Other
Boleyn Girl
with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson, and the marve-
lous BBC/Masterpiece Classic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
His second full-length feature centers on the efforts of a former Mau Mau
fighter, 84-year-old Kimani (Oliver Litondo), to secure an education.

I’m quite fond of co-star Naomie Harris, who gave such spirited turns
in White Teeth, Small Island, and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. I’m less
enamored by her work in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean entries,
but that endless series can suck the talent out of the hardiest of souls.

The screen-
ing of the
yan co-prod-
uction takes
place at Seat-
tle Center’s
McCall Hall,
with a recep-
tion to follow
at the Cen-
ter’s Exhibi-
tion Hall. Sponsors include Don Q, Stella Artois, Cupcake Royale, Dil-
ettante, and Ivar’s, so expect plenty of booze, seafood, and sweets.

The First Grader opens May 27 at the Metro Cinemas (4500 9th Ave. NE).

Because I write for the program guide (this marked my eighth year),
I had already seen 13 films before press screenings began on May 2.
Of those selections, my favorites were actor/writer/director Mathieu
Amalric’s On Tour (Tournée), which I described as “joyous and gen-
erous,” and Sally Rowe’s A Matter of Taste - Serving up Paul
, which I described as “suspenseful and revealing.”

Until I read up on the film, I had no idea that On Tour, which revol-
ves around an American burlesque troupe's tour through France, rep-
resented Amalric’s fourth film as director. Though I’m familiar with ma-
ny of the films in which he’s appeared, I’m unfamiliar with his other direc-
torial efforts. In reviewing the premiere at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Patrick Z. McGavin wrote, "The movie has a documentary realism and sharpness that carries it through the rough spots and dramatic lulls."

Though On
has e-
licited mixed
reviews, and
Amalric does-
n't always
combine the
cinéma véri-
té and fiction-
al elements
as elegantly
as he could,
he won the
best direc-
tor award at Cannes. Writes David Hudson, "The crowd pretty much
went wild when Jury President Tim Burton announced the decision."

On Tour plays the Admiral Theatre (2343 California Ave. SW) on May 28 at 9pm
and the Neptune (1303 NE 45th St.) on June 9 at 9:30pm and June 11 at 3:30pm.

Furthermore, I had never heard of Paul Liebrandt, but the chef has
spent most of his life working in the kinds of high-end eateries I could
never possibly afford. As Rowe proves, though, even superstars like
Liebrandt don’t always have the easiest time of it, and she documents
a decade of ups and downs until the tide finally turns in his direction.

Though I don't mention it in my blurb, I would recommend that vegetar-
ians think twice before attending A Matter of Taste. I may be an omni-
vore, but I draw the line at calf brains and foie gras. Still, I have nothing
but respect for Leibrandt's artistry, and Rowe does a fabulous job at pho-
tographing the chef's dishes as if they were--and they are--works of art.

A Matter of Taste plays SIFF Cinema (321 Mercer St.) on May 20 at 7:30pm
and the Admiral Theatre (2343 California Ave. SW) on May 22 at 1:00pm.

Other films I would recommend include Tom Tykwer’s Three (Drei), Robin Aubert’s Crying Out (À L'Origine d'un Cri), Mark Meily’s Donor, Philip Neel and David H. Jeffery’s Lesson Plan, Ryan Redford’s Oliver Sherman, Louise Alston’s Jucy, Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (Crime d'Amour), and the final film from Jean Becker, My Afternoons with Margueritte (La Tête en Friche).

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #2.

Endnote: Images from BBC Films,, and The Wall Street Journal (via Sally Rowe). For more information about SIFF '11, please click here.