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.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Trip Back in Time

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
May 28-June 1, 2015
Castro Theatre

There's something for everyone, from the silent film novice to the die-hard fan, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, celebrating its 20th Anniversary May 28 through Monday, June 1, 2015. Beyond the careful programming and outstanding selection of accompanists, what makes the festival special is its focus on film preservation and restoration. Friday morning’s programming opens with a free event that provides a unique insight to that world, Amazing Tales of the Archives. Tales serves as a marvelous jumping off point for the festival. It’s a chance to learn of the effort and hard work behind preserving the world’s cinematic history and to sample the diversity of that history. The always entertaining Serge Bromberg is first on the bill. The preservationist, and founder of Lobster Films, will present Jacques Tourneur’s 1914 short Figures de cire (House of Wax) and share the 15 year saga of finding the film.

The following afternoon, Bromberg will receive the 2015 SFSFF Award after a screening of Visages de enfants (1925). The award is given to “organizations and individuals for to honor distinguished contributions to the preservation and restoration of silent-era movies.” Bromberg will also appear on stage in conversation with the legendary silent film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow prior to a screening of the newly restored Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, Dir. Fred Niblo) which closes the festival. Previous SFSFF Award recipient Photoplay (Brownlow is one of its directors) and TCM restored the film. The film will be presented with a soundtrack scored by Carl Davis, probably the highest regarded silent film composer working today.

Film restorer Robert Byrne will also take the stage during Tales to describe the technical, historical, and curatorial aspects of reconstructing and restoring Sherlock Holmes (1916), starring William Gillette. The SFSFF and the Cinémathèque Française joined forces to restore the film, presumed lost until a complete dupe negative was identified in the vaults of the Cinémathèque last year. The restored film will play on Sunday night. Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes on stage and many of the traits we associate with Holmes today were created by the actor and not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For example, Gillette originated the deer-stalker hat as Holmes’ preferred chapeau, so iconic that even Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern day Sherlock still feels compelled to wear at press conferences. Holmes fans should be ecstatic at the prospect of seeing what has been considered the definitive performance of the role for the first time in 100 years. The closest they’ve been able to come to it before, was Orson Welles’ recreation of Gillette’s play and performance on his anthology radio drama, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

The British Film Institute’s senior curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon will also present at Tales. He will screen the BFI’s collection of footage documenting the 1915 torpedoing of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat. The sinking of the passenger ship immediately caused an international outcry and the incident was invoked repeatedly in ongoing effort to enlist the United Sates in the alliance against Germany during World War I. Cecil B. De Mille exploited the incident two years later, for both commercial and propaganda purposes, in his film The Little American (1917) starring Mary Pickford.

The festival recently announced an addition to the Tales line-up, “2015 marks 100 years since the birth of the Technicolor Corporation. In recognition of this centennial, Movette Film Transfer's Jennifer Miko will offer a rare glimpse of a unique home movie shot on the grounds of La Cuesta Encantada, more commonly known as Hearst Castle. We will feast our eyes on a stunning tour--filmed in two-strip Tech--with the architect, Julia Morgan, and the Chief himself, W.R. Hearst.” Donald Sosin will provide the accompaniment for the entire program. Actor Paul McGann, best known for either Dr. Who or Withnail and I depending on the audience, will provide narration for the Lusitania footage. The program is co-presented by Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation

Attending the SFSFF is like traveling back in time.  Attendees see silent film the way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen of a movie palace with live accompaniment and a companionable audience. Some of the festival goers even wear clothes from the 20s which adds to the period feeling. Learn more about this year’s festival and buy tickets at

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

SIFF 2015 Documentaries Take on Music Stores, Drum Machines, Dueling Pundits, and More!

This post was supposed to go up on The Stranger's Slog 
last week, but fell through the cracks, so it lives here now.

Gravitas Ventures

It may sound like a cliché to say that the Seattle International Film Festival offers a documentary to suit every taste, but with 70+ non-fiction films on offer, it's just plain true. That said, I'll always be more interested in documentaries about music, medicine, and politics than those about sports, food, and the environment. Lest it sound as if I'm limiting myself, in my off-hours, I review hundreds of documentaries a year. I try not to go overboard during SIFF, since I'll end up catching some via PBS's documentary series Independent Lens and P.O.V. and others via DVD, so I prioritize the ones that look most interesting, especially if the director or subject will be in attendance (this week's non-SIFF assignments include Mujeres con Pelotas, a film about women's soccer in Argentina).

No Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, aka 808, no "Sexual Healing."

Of this year's slate, so far I've seen Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock & Roll, The Glamour and the Squalor, For Grace, and Best of Enemies. The first two haven't finished playing yet, while there are no more screenings of Best of Enemies and For Grace (read Angela Garbes's interview with co-director and former local Kevin Pang here).

All are worthwhile, but I wanted to call out two that I haven't seen yet. First up: Colin Hanks's All Things Must Pass. Granted, it's the actor's first feature, but as a former record store clerk, I can't resist a film about a global record store chain—it doesn't hurt that the documentary has been winning fans wherever it goes. Even back in the late-1980s and early-1990s, when I was working at Cellophane Square on the Ave., I would drop by Tower Records from time to time. They carried memoirs, magazines, and other music-related items that our cramped space didn't (I would also drop by Peaches, but I guess that's a story for another day). Back then, it never would have occurred to me that the monolithic Tower Records wouldn't be around forever.

May 30 at the Harvard Exit and May 31 at the Uptown. Hanks and producer Sean Stuart are scheduled to attend both screenings.
Thats what Im talking about.
"Roland TR-808 drum machine" by Eriq at Dutch Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Next up: 808, a film about the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine. Without it, Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" wouldn't exist—or they'd exist in forms that wouldn't have gone on to inspire so many other R&B, hip-hop, and electronic artists to take a walk on the wildly synthetic side. The Japanese trio Yellow Magic Orchestra (featuring future Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto) built their entire sound around it, Manchester duo 808 State took their name from it, and Kanye West squeezed an album title and a guiding aesthetic out of it (2008's 808s & Heartbreak). I love a good history-of-an-instrument documentary, so here's hoping this one's at least half as compelling as Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, which is pretty much the master of the form.  

Due to a snafu, this post didn't go up last week as planned, and there are no more screenings of 808, which played twice, but if you happen to be in England on June 7, it plays Sheffield Doc/Fest on that date.

As far as word of mouth goes—I rely on it heavily during SIFF—friends had good things to say about Tab Hunter Confidential, which screened with the actor, matinee idol, and John Waters favorite in attendance. I was unable to track down release dates for For Grace and Tab Hunter, but I'm sure these films will return to Seattle in some way, i.e. if not a theatrical run, then via streaming services.

As for Best of Enemies, which revisits the televised 1968 debates between liberal author Gore Vidal and conservative editor William F. Buckley, Jr., it's a production of ITVS, the engine that powers Independent Lens, so expect a PBS broadcast sometime after the theatrical release on July 31 (Seattle venue TBA). Co-directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for 20 Feet from Stardom) do a great job at staying out of the way of their famously well spoken subjects, making for one of my favorite films of the fest so far.

Find more films, reviews, synopses, and other fest info in SIFF Notes.