Thursday, May 31, 2012

Blurry Pictures of Dynamic Directors, Pt. 1

All taken by me at the 38th Seattle International Film Festival.

SIFF programmer Sarah Lawrence and Sasha Knezev

American Addict director Sasha Knezev at the Harvard Exit on May 18. His eye-opening documentary about prescription drug abuse was made in collaboration with producer Dr. Gregory A. Smith, author of American Addict, How Doctors Have Created a Generation of Drug Addicts.

Stephen Kessler and his kids introduce Paul Williams Still Alive at the
Egyptian. For more about the screening, click here for my Line Out post.

SIFF programmer Clinton McClung introduces Wonder Women!

McClung programs SIFF Cinema at the Uptown on a year-round basis.

Erin Prather-Stafford, Kelcey Edwards, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines producers Erin Prather-Stafford and Kelcey Edwards with director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan at the Harvard Exit on May 28 (not pictured: local DP Gabriel Miller). If all goes as planned, the film will air on PBS in 2013.

Jeffrey Brown and Michael Mohan

Graphic novelist-turned-screenwriter Jeffrey Brown and director Michael Mohan at the May 31 screening of Save the Date at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. The romantic comedy, which features Brown's distinctive drawings throughout, stars Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Mark Webber, Geoffrey Arend, and a scene-stealing silver tabby played by Miss Kitty.  

Photo assistance by Omar Willey. More pictures to come...

Friday, May 25, 2012

SIFF Dispatch #3

(Fred Schepisi, Australia, 2011, 114 mins.)

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #2 (Eden)

"We're not really at our best when we're ourselves." So says a theater friend to Basil (Geoffrey Rush) at the start of Fred Schepisi's acerbic drama. The quote sums up the events to follow. Or at least it sums up the first two acts in which Sydney matriarch Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling) and her children, Basil and Dorothy (Judy Davis), pretend to show more mutual concern than they really feel. Elizabeth is dying, so it's the polite thing to do--it's also a way to make sure she doesn't leave them out of her will. 

If that makes Sir Basil, a knighted actor, and Princess Dorothy, a disgraced royal, sound greedy, the truth is more complicated; both have fallen on hard times and their mother has always been their harshest critic. Granted, some viewers will write off the entire film because it's populated by such seemingly shallow people, except I didn't see them that way.

I enjoyed spending time with the sharp-tongued trio, and the more Schepisi reveals about their lives, the more manifest their isolation becomes (the unmarried Basil has been living in London, while the divorced Dorothy has been living in France). In other words, "unlikable" is a fairly reductive assessment, especially when most of the silver screen's wittiest characters could hardly be considered "nice." In that sense, Schepisi's Judy Morris-penned Patrick White adaptation reminded me of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but more in feel and tone than storyline.

What sounds like a play retrofitted for the cinema, however,  makes full use of the medium's possibilities. If anything, Schepisi and DP Ian Baker go too far, but it's fun to watch them wage a war against staginess. Their rococo approach is sometimes awkward, but always quite sumptuous.

Elizabeth, for instance, lives in a gorgeous estate, and Schepisi lingers over every detail of her luxurious surroundings. It's one thing to be rich, it's another to have good taste. But there are several scenes where he zooms in on a rose or cake or bowl of fruit to reveal blooms of mold or worms. The effect isn't as Gothic as it sounds, but it's certainly unsettling. Just as the well put-together Hunters are a mess inside, the decay seems to indicate that their noblesse oblige way of life is coming to an end.

And lest it seem as if this is one of those movies about "rich people's problems," Schepisi pays almost as much attention to Elizabeth's attendants, Mary (Maria Theodorakis), Lotte (Helen Morse), and Flora (the director's daughter, Alexandra Schepisi), who sets her sights on Sir Basil.

They may heed to her every beck and call, but they have lives of their own. There aren't enough of them for the film to bear comparison to The Grand Illusion or even Downton Abbey, but they certainly don't receive short shrift. This is partly because the women know Elizabeth better than her own children, but also because they wouldn't mind a mention in her will either—and why not; she has more than enough goods to go around.

So, the film pivots on a distribution of assets, a process left purposefully ambiguous. In the final scene, Elizabeth's solicitor, Arnold (John Gaden), explains the situation to Basil and Dorothy, but Schepisi had cut away from her last meeting with him, so it isn't clear what she decided. From the start of the movie, her memory had been failing; by the end, it's almost gone, so Schepisi suggests that Arnold finalized the will on his own. In which case, there's a message here about a woman who tried control her children, who tried to control her death, and who believed she could continue to exert control from beyond the grave. But no matter how powerful you think you are: there's always someone more powerful.

The Eye of the Storm plays Everett Performing Arts Center at 6:30pm on May 25, the Egyptian at 4pm on May 26, and the Egyptian at 6:30pm on May 27. Schepisi is scheduled to attend (he also directed Plenty with Meryl Streep and Roxanne with Steve Martin). As always, dates and times are subject to change. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fat Kid Rules the World

I wrote about the Saturday screening of Matthew Lillard's Fat Kid Rules the World  for The Stranger's Line Out here. Now SIFF has added a new screening: SIFF Cinema at the Uptown on Thursday, May 24, at 4:30pm.

Fat Kid cast members, including Matt O'Leary (center)

The fourth and final SIFF screening of Fat Kid Rules the World takes place at Everett Performing Arts Center on Monday, May 28, at 6pm.

Friday, May 18, 2012

SIFF Dispatch #2

EDEN (Megan Griffiths, 2012, US, 98 mins.) 

Click here for SIFF Dispatch #1 (Your Sister's Sister and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon)

I missed Seat-
tle writer/dir-
ector Megan
Griffith's last
film, The Off 
Hours, when
it played SIFF
'11, but I knew
I couldn't miss
Eden, which
arrived with
even greater
acclaim af-
ter premier-
ing at South
by Southwest (where it won the audience award for narrative feature). 

The storyline also caught my attention since Griffiths and co-writer Richard B. Phillips drew from the real-life experiences of a 19-year-old woman sold into sexual slavery. It sounds sensationalistic, except it isn't. Since the press screening, I've talked to several people about the movie, and they all liked it. SIFF '12 has barely begun--and it's already got its first hit.

The story begins in 1994 with Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung, a one-time MTV's Real World cast member in a revelatory performance), a New Mexico high school senior of Korean descent, who helps out her first-generation parents in their gift shop. After getting hold of a fake ID, the inexperienced teen hits the bars one night with a friend, in hopes of meeting cute guys.

That's exactly what happens when Hyun Jae clicks with a firefighter, who offers her a ride home. The next thing she knows, he hands her over to another man, and her long nightmare begins. Federal Marshall Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) runs the warehouse-like Nevada brothel where she ends up, using his law-enforcement career as a cover for his illicit activities. The other girls are mostly foreign-born, and those who try to escape are killed.

Because Hyun Jae lived in Eden Park, they rename her Eden. Bob's right hand man, Vaughan (Matt O'Leary), handles the facility's day-to-day operations. The women, who range in age from 15-19, service clients and perform in porn films. Bob's favorite, Svetlana, enjoys special privileges, like the tabby she totes everywhere. She also ends up with Hyun Jae's class ring; the latter will spend the rest of the film trying to get it back.

Though Hyun Jae tries to make a run for it the first time she gets the chance, she realizes they'll kill her or her family members if she does it again, so she bides her time. Vaughan has a crack addiction, which makes him especially vulnerable, so Hyun Jae works hard to win him over.

Griffiths lines up a shot

It takes time, but she eventually works her way up the ladder, such that she's spending more and more time alone with the former Army soldier, which allows her to learn how the operation works, and to figure out how she might be able to make a final break--and shut the whole thing down.

Once Hyun Jae gains Vaughan's trust, Eden turns into a two-hander predicated more on character development than action, but it never has the scrappy indie feel that has come to define the work of Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass, and other filmmakers with whom Griffiths has worked (she co-produced Your Sister's Sister). Filmed in Washington and Nevada, the film plays more like a true-crime thriller, and if Griffiths hadn't cast the right actors, it wouldn't work, but she did. Chung and O'Leary play off each other marvelously (and Bridges is suitably oleaginous). 

Because she's dealing with difficult subject matter, I wasn't sure how the Seattle audience would react, but I haven't met anyone yet who wasn't impressed, including Charles Mudede, who praised it in The Stranger, and Sean Axmaker, who did the same in the pages of The Seattle Weekly.

Personally, I wish there'd been more information, by way of inter-titles, at the end: I'd love to know what Chong N. Kim, the film's real-life model, is doing now, but Google handily answered my question. In that sense, the film reminded me of Gerard Naranjo's Miss Bala, which also runs viewers through the ringer with a beauty pageant contestant caught up in a grueling situation--at the center of Mexico's drug war, with brutal cartel members on one side and corrupt drug enforcement agents on the other.  

In both cases, the filmmakers manage to avoid exploiting their actresses while depicting exploitative scenarios, a harder trick to pull off than it seems, or the multiplex wouldn't be littered with cut-rate actioners that claim outrage over the victimization of women while treating them like sexy pawns in scenarios where the hyper-violent male vigilantes are the true stars. In Eden: a female captive becomes her own savior.

Eden plays the Egyptian on May 19 at 9:15pm, the Uptown on May 21 at 4:30pm, and Everett Performing Arts Center on May 29 at 8:30pm. Griffiths, producers Colin Plank and Jacob Mosier, and production designer Ben Blankenship are scheduled to attend all screenings. As always, dates and times are subject to change. Images from Centripetal Films.   

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. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Apéritif...

Brigitte Helm on Fire
Based on the medieval legend of the Mandrake, a root, which grew beneath the gallows from the semen of hanged men, Hanns Heinz Ewers novel Alraune was brought to the screen in 1928 by Ama-Film GmbH and director Henrik Galeen (The Student of Prague 1926, Nosferatu 1922 – as screenwriter). Paul Wegener (The Golem 1920, The Magician 1926) stars as Professor Jakob ten Brinken, the "world famous authority on genetic cross-breeding", who implants a prostitute with the 'seed' of a hanged man in order to study the effects of environment over genetics on the offspring. The resulting child is Alraune, whom Brinken calls 'Mandrake', played by Brigitte Helm (Metropolis 1927, The Love of Jeanne Ney 1927). Alraune is raised in a convent, ignorant of her origins, believing Brinken is her father. Just as the Professor is convinced, his 'experiment' has overcome her genetic history she runs away with a boy and begins a life of troubled encounters with men. Helm is both innocent, alluring and at times intensely evil in this captivating performance of a lovely young girl, both attracted to and in conflict with the men in her life. As in the novel, which this film closely follows, the idea and understanding of love is unknown to Alraune. As she chats with a circus magician she shares her train compartment with, his real intentions unknown to Alraune, he entertains her with slight-of-hand tricks. He produces a live mouse that he places on her leg and it quickly crawls under her skirt as the girl calmly observes. " What? You are not afraid of mice? Little girl. You will make something of yourself." While the film was heavily censored in 1928, this surviving scene must have been, and remains today, tremendously provocative. Brinken eventually finds Alraune, living as a circus performer, just as she rebels against the magician's attempts to control her flirtations with another man. " Stop me if you can!" In one of the most electrifying scenes in all of Weimar Cinema, Alraune opens the door to the lion's cage now on the stage and steps in. As the curtain opens, the crowd reacts in utter horror while, outside the cage, circus performers furiously run in all directions. Alraune stands before several enormous lions she teased only moments earlier, completely motionless, as the camera cuts to a close-up of her penetrating eyes. Once they are away from the circus, Brinken determines to start a new life with the girl, but Alraune again plots to run away with another man. As she is leaving, she finds the Professor's diary and discovers the truth of her existence, "Where do I belong in society?" Alraune bitterly decides to stay with Brinken and seek her revenge, feeling unfit for the man she now loves. She tortures Brinken by constantly flirting with men. As her ultimate insult, Alraune, dressed from head to tow in shimmering silk, seduces Brinken, "Do you really think I haven't known all along that I am not your daughter?" She runs off, depriving him and the torture continues. Financially and morally destitute, Brinken confronts Alraune as she packs her bags to leave. In a harrowing scene, he chases her from room to room with a large knife. Just as her death seems imminent, Alraune is saved by her lover and Brinken is left to suffer "the hell of loneliness and insanity." An overlooked treasure, Alraune represents the height of silent film in the Weimar era. With the exception of early scenes featuring Alraune's 'mother' and the convent, the film is entirely occupied by men, surrounding Helm like the unnoticed setting of a luminous jewel. Originally posted January 21, 2007. Seek out the only version of this astonishing film I know, the terrible (like looking through the bottom of a fish bowl)video recording of a twenty-year-old Australian cable broadcast and you'll be generously rewarded. In the meantime...
The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen another remarkable film starring Brigitte Helm, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929), Friday, July 13, 2012 at 9:15pm with live musical accompaniment performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.