Friday, November 11, 2016

Kent Osborne Is Waiting for the End of the World

Kent Osborne, cartoon cat, and rose-colored sky.
Due to the election, the following review didn't make it into this week's Stranger, but the film is still winding its way around the country (it played for one night only at the NWFF, so it's too late to catch it in Seattle).  

Uncle Kent 2, part of the Northwest Film Forum's Dystopia on Our Doorstep series, starts out as a sequel to Joe Swanberg's 2011 chat-room sex comedy Uncle Kent. While writing down the things he's doing, actor and writer Kent Osborne, the deceptively sane-looking gent from Swanberg's 2007 Hannah Takes the Stairs, does those very things, i.e. sits on the porch, gets high, and prepares for the apocalypse or, as he calls it, "the singularity" (a term swiped from futurist Ray Kurzweil).

That night, Osborne runs into Swanberg at a house party and tries to interest him in directing the script we're watching. "I hate to be a dick," says Swanberg, "but I hate sequels, man." At that point--the 12-minute mark--filmmaker Todd Rohal (The Guatemalan Handshake) takes over, and the tone shifts from awkwardly amusing to just plain weird.

George Miller's 1998 Babe: Pig in the City.
Osborne proceeds to do a jiggly dance, munch on salad, go to bed, and dream of rose-colored skies and blue cartoon cats (Osborne's Adventure Time colleague, Pendleton Ward, provided the animated opening credits).

The next day, Osborne wakes up and returns to his quotidian life as writer for the animated series Cat Agent and travels to San Diego for Comic-Con, where emojis come to life, a Cat Agent cosplayer (Lyndsay Hailey) seduces him, and various randos (including Linas Phillips and "Weird" Al Yankovic) appear and disappear like video-game glitches. All the while, Swing Out Sister's ingratiating plastic-jazz hit "Breakout" refuses to leave his head, culminating in the world's longest masturbation scene.

When Uncle Kent 2, which was co-produced by 2016 Stranger Genius nominee Mel Eslyn, premiered at this year's SXSW, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn mused that it just might be "the craziest movie sequel ever." It's hard to imagine that anyone will ever top Joe Dante and Chuck Jones's similarly self-referential Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in which the co-directors threw all their favorite stuff at the screen to what might stick, but Osborne and Rohal certainly give it a run for the money.

Endnote: Dystopia on Our Doorstep continues at the NWFF through 11/26. Other films in the series include Homo Sapiens and Babe: Pig in the City. Click here for more info. Images from Universal Pictures and Factory 25.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

More SIFF 2016 Guests: Megan Griffiths, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Paulina Obando

Lou Diamond Phillips and Benjamin Barrett.
Between my last SIFF dispatch and this one, I seem to have missed more films than I've seen. It isn't completely my fault. Aside from a full-time job and weekly freelance assignments, two of the films I attempted to see were cancelled.

On Saturday, June 4, I got to the Uptown in time for a 12pm screening of Mekko with director Sterlin Harjo in attendance (I reviewed his documentary about Native American spirituals, This May Be the Last Time, in February). I even caught a glimpse of the filmmaker outside the theater chatting with a pass holder. That's when I found out there was a power outage in the theater. I don't know if they ever identified the cause, but programmer Maryna Ajaja speculated that it might be due to the construction in the area, like at the other end of the block (where Kidd Valley once stood). SIFF staffers said they hoped power would be restored in time for the screening. It wasn't.

Chelle Sherrill and blurry-hand Phillips. 
So, I bided my time until the next screening, Burn Burn Burn with director Chanya Button and Downton Abbey actress Laura Carmichael ("Lady Edith") in attendance. I had seen a trailer for the road trip comedy a few days before, and it didn't look too promising, but The Sun Break's Chris Burlingame and Three Imaginary Girls' Amie Simon praised the film, so I added it to my schedule instead of the competing screening about Austin City Limits, Keith Maitland's A Song for You, which seems likely to air on PBS at some point. (Another film I missed? Maitland's acclaimed historical documentary Tower, which will air as part of Independent Lens's 2016-2017 season.)

Waiting 40 minutes for the first film was one thing, but this time, I waited 30 minutes before they announced that they were going to reschedule the 2pm screening for 3pm, so I waited another hour, but at five minutes after, they canceled the screening altogether, so I took a Pagliacci's break.

Annalisa Cochrane and Zoe McLane as Kit's friends.
Near as I can tell,
neither screening was rescheduled, though they did re-
schedule Queen of Ireland, which was also set to screen that morning. I'm not blaming SIFF for any of this, especially since they had no control over the inconvenient outage, which ended in time for the premiere of Megan Griffiths' The Night Stalker at 5:30pm. They also
gave vouchers to all
of the disenfranchis-
ed ticket holders.

Though Griffiths' Eden impressed me, I wasn't crazy about 2014 follow-up
Lucky Them, which suffered from an underdeveloped script. A friend who
caught a work-in-progress screening of The Night Stalker wasn't convinced by the scenes with the adult Kit (Scandal's Bellamy Young), so I went into
the film with modest expectations, unlike other locals, who get excited every time Griffiths embarks on a new project. I take things on more of a case-by-case basis, and in this case, The Night Stalker, which aired on LMN on June 12, worked for me. In its bifurcated structure, Griffiths' fourth feature recalls Allison Anders' Things Behind the Sun, another film that aired on cable after screening at SIFF, and centered on a self-destruc-
tive musician who can't move forward until she acknowledges a traumatic event from her past (Anders drew from her own rape for the story).

Richard Ramirez shows off his pentagram. 
I wouldn't say  
The Night 
Stalker works
as well, but it
many of the
stereotypes of
the made-for-
TV true crime genre (soft-
focus flash-
backs, teary funerals for victims, and the like). Al-
though Young isn't as effective as Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays ser-
ial killer Richard Ramirez, her performance grew on me as she became more comfortable with it. She's stiff and self-conscious in the opening se-
quence in ways that go beyond the fact that her attorney character is meeting with a brutal murderer for a face-to-face. Kit aims to elicit a con-
fession from him before an innocent man faces execution for a crime she believes Ramirez committed. Griffiths invented that part of the narrative, but it establishes a plausible reason for Kit, who was fascinated with Ra-
mirez as a teenager, to put her own betrayal and sexual abuse in context.

Phillips, who was a live wire at the screening, is terrific as Ramirez. If he isn't a complete monster, he isn't a wounded little boy either; he's an unrepentant killer. He's also lonely, perceptive, and manipulative. That's a tricky balancing act to pull off. Chelle Sherrill is also good as the young Kit, who lives in fear of Ramirez's evening exploits, but who follows his media coverage the way today's kids follow celebrities on Instagram--not necessarily because they're attracted to them, but because they want to see what they'll do next. And to relieve the boredom of suburban living.

SIFF programmer Hebe Tabachnik with Paulina Obando.
Though Grif-
fiths based her
screenplay on
Phillip Carlo's
book, she drew
from her own
Riverside, CA
childhood for
Kit, who likes
heavy metal as
much as Ra-
mirez. At the
Q&A, Griffiths
said that he
was a big
AC/DC fan,
but she knew
the music
rights would be beyond her means, so she opted for Pentagram instead
(Kit has a Pentagram t-shirt, a Bobby Liebling poster on her wall, and a
Pentagram song plays over the end credits). It turns out to be a particu-
larly apropos substitution, since the band's occult image and Liebling's
soulful voice add spooky gravitas to a film that might have felt too much
like a pop-cult period piece otherwise. It doesn't hurt that the Satan-ref-
erencing Ramirez was fond of pentagrams, although I didn't know that
until I read Bob Calhoun's three-part SF Weekly series on the killer.

At the Q&A, Griffiths and Phillips performed a karaoke duet on Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" from Young Guns II. Clearly, they had fun working together. As SIFF programmer Clinton McClung pointed out on Twitter, Phillips deserves credit for praising women directors and for noting that Griffiths hired women for most (if not all) of the key positions on the film.

***** ***** ***** 

Once I read the description of Miguel Ángel Vidaurre's Red Gringo, I knew I couldn't miss this documentary. The story is so bizarre that I'm surprised I hadn't heard it before. In short, Dean Reed was a Colorado-born pop singer in the 1960s with a fabulous head of hair and a strong South American following. Why he rose above the pack, I couldn't say, but it convinced him to tour the continent. In Chile, the ladies went wild, so he made the surprising decision to stay, but instead of continuing on in a pop vein, he transformed into a protest singer. Despite his American roots, he sang in Spanish, leading me to wonder if any of his original fans felt let down. No longer something foreign or exotic: he had become one of them.

On the basis of the material in the film, Reed was a talented singer, a charismatic performer, and a persuasive speaker. He probably would've done okay if he had remained in the States, but he wouldn't have had the same impact. Sadly, his embrace of left-wing politics may have contri-
buted to his demise in 1986, by which time he had traded Chile for East Germany (over the years, he also lived in Peru and Argentina). Though officials ruled his death an accident, some associates suspected foul play.

McClung with Southside with You director Richard Tanne.
Vidaurre, who worked on the film for six years with his wife, producer Paulina Obando, builds it around archival footage in which Reed speaks for himself through interviews, speeches, and song lyrics, but the scarcity of outside voices gives short shrift to his personal life. Only at the end does a newscaster note the wife (East German actress Renate Bloom) and two daughters he left behind. I'm not sure why Vidaurre chose not to interview them, especially since they've attended screenings in Chile to support the film. My guess is that he wanted Reed to recount his life as a public figure from his own point of view, but it would've been nice to learn more about his private side.

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

Other films I've seen since May 31 include Author: The JT Leroy Story, Lamb, Olympic Favela, Mountains May Depart, The Love Witch, A Walk on the Moon, Captain Fantastic, and Southside with You (other non-SIFF films include Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, T-Rex, Golden Gate Girls, Nefertiti's Daughters, and Maggie's Plan). Of the films I was sorry to miss, Cameraperson, Creepy, Dead Slow Ahead, and The Fits top the list.

And that's a wrap! SIFF '16 concluded on Sunday with a gala screening of Jocelyn Moorhouse's starry adaptation of Rosalie Ham's 2000 novel, The Dressmaker. The Golden Space Needle (audience award) for best film went to Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortsensen (see the full list here). Moorhouse, Ross, and Mortensen all came to town over the final weekend to support their films. My favorite award: best actor special mention to Jumpy the Dog in Ti West's In a Valley of Violence.

Postscript: Burn Burn Burn will return to the Uptown on June 18.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

SIFF 2016 Guests Include Shunji Iwai, Ti West, Martin Bell, and Erin "Tiny" Blackwell

Shunji Iwai at the Egyptian on May 26.
The 42nd Seat-
tle Interna-
tional Film Festival pas-
sed the midway
point on Memo-
rial Day. Here are a few
thoughts and
images from the first 12 days.  

In this photo, director Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice, SIFF '05) ponders an audience member's question after the second screening of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, a three-hour tragicomedy about a soft spoken high school teacher (Haru Kuroki, reuniting with the director after 2015's The Murder Case of Hana & Alice) who finds her true self through a series of fabricated encounters.

I first became acquainted with Iwai, who got his start in television, when SIFF screened the dreamy murder mystery All about Lily Chou-Chou in 2002, and I've made an effort to keep up with his work ever since.

The last Iwai film to appear at the festival, 2011's Vancouver-shot Vampire with Kevin Zegers, marked his first English-language feature. It'll be interesting to see if he ever makes another. Though the downbeat, if sympathetic horror film had its detractors (the Fool Serious crowd gave it low marks), I enjoyed Iwai's idiosyncratic twist on a disorder previously explored in George Romero's Martin and Robert Bierman's Vampire's Kiss.

Forbidding length aside--at least for those who find 179-minute films challenging--the cautiously optimistic A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is likely to find more admirers as it continues to make the rounds.

Clinton McClung at the Egyptian on May 29.
SIFF's cinema programming director Clinton McClung, one of my favorite presenters, introduced the first screening of Ti West's In a Valley of Violence (my other favorites include Beth Barrett and Dustin Kaspar, largely because they all seem comfortable on stage, they have no interest in airs and graces, and their improvisations can be pretty hilarious).

West last came to Seattle to promote 2012's horror anthology V/H/S. His fourth feature and first Western stars Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, Larry Fessenden, Toby Huss, a completely-over-the-top James Ransone, and scene-stealing border collie Jumpy.

Though I wasn't wild about his last film, the Jonestown-inspired docu-thriller The Sacrament, In a Valley of Violence proves he has no problem making the move to marquee names like Hawke and Travolta, both of whom are very good. If anything, Travolta's part, as a small town sheriff, could've been bigger. Hawke's primary foils are Ransone as his mortal enemy, Farmiga as his love interest, and Jumpy as his best friend.

At the Q&A, West repeated W.C. Fields's deathless maxim about how movie people should "never work with animals or children," but said that he couldn't have had an easier time with Jumpy, who shares a trainer, Omar von Muller, with Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier from The Artist.

Ti West and Clinton McClung.
Other questions revolved around influences and the casting of two actors, Burn Gorman and Karen Gillan, from the Dr. Who and Torchwood universe. West said that the latter connection was purely coincidental, and that he didn't intend the film as direct homage, though he acknowledged that some of the key spaghetti westerns, like Django and High Plains Drifter, were swimming around in his subconscious while he was making the thing. This is most evident in the animated title sequence, the Morricone-like score, and the stoic man-faces-down-vile townspeople plot, which may sound derivative, but he brings his own unique comic tone to the proceedings, and that makes a difference. 

Beth Barrett, Martin Bell, and Erin Blackwell. 
SIFF programming director Beth Barrett conducted the moving Q&A with director Martin Bell (American Heart) and the subject of Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, sequel to his 1984 Seattle-set documentary Streetwise (both made with his late wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark). The film itself is a difficult watch, since Tiny has had 10 children since her Streetwise days, starting when she was 15. Due to her addiction to heroin and other factors, she lost several of those kids to the foster care system (all of them participated in the film).

On the plus side, Bell and Mark never lost touch with her, and Tiny combines present-day footage with material the filmmakers shot in 1999 and 2004. It's clear that the 44-year-old woman is also in a better place than she was during those prior visits, despite some serious health issues. If anything, it came as a relief when she walked to the front of the theater after the screening, because she looks far healthier and happier than she does in the film in which she can be seen smoking, riding a motorized scooter, and nodding out in her garage in a methadone-induced stupor. 

I also took pictures of Nick Pesce, the director of The Eyes of My Mother, and Clea DuVall, the director of The Intervention, but they didn't turn out. Here's a list of the other films I saw from May 19 - 30 (in alphabetical order): As You Are, Evolution, Little Men, Love & Friendship, The Memory of Fish, Other People, Our Little Sister, Sunset Song, Tag, The Violin Teacher, Where Have All the Good Men Gone, and Wiener-Dog. I hope to write about some of these films in the next few months as there's some good stuff here, especially Little Men, Our Little Sister, and Sunset Song, all three of which justify my belief that Ira Sachs, Hirokazu Koreeda, and Terence Davies are three of our finest living filmmakers.

More thoughts and images to come. SIFF '16 runs through June 12. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Secrets, Lies, and Evasions in Matt Sobel's Directorial Debut, Take Me to the River

Robin Weigert and Logan Miller in Take Me to the River.
It's a little
to find that
Matt Sobel's
directorial de-
but has noth-
ing to do with
the classic Al 
Green song--
or the great
Talking Heads
cover--but the
title makes sense by the end. The story revolves instead around a rather naïve California kid and his Oklahoma cousins.

In the prologue, 17-year-old Ryder (Logan Miller, a former Disney XD
star), his mother, Cindy (Robin Weigert, Jessica Jones), and his stepfather,
Don (Richard Schiff, who appeared in SIFF's thematically similar The Automatic Hate) travel to Nebraska for a family reunion. Because of his
yellow sunglasses and bright red shorts, his cousins treat him like an alien; they seem genuinely surprised that he refuses to dress like a hick (the prologue also reveals that he's gay, and they might be picking up on that). It's an overreaction on their part, but things soon go from bad to worse.

The trouble begins with his nine-year-old cousin, Molly (the preternaturally
poised Ursula Parker, from FX's Louie), who has a crush on him. She con-
vinces Ryder to come with her to the barn behind the main house to look at a bird's nest. Minutes later, she runs screaming from the structure, with blood on her dress. It's pretty clear that Ryder didn't do anything, and Molly calms down within an hour or two, but everyone looks at Ryder with suspicion (it doesn't help that he's such a passive, squirrely kid). His par-
ents offer their support, but his uncle, Keith (Josh Hamilton), with whom
Cindy has a strained relationship, is convinced he tried something.

In Molly's room.
Ryder spends
the night in an
house on the
property until
cooler heads
prevail, which
begs the ques-
tion: why did
his family
make this trip
in the first
place? (Other
than to provide a plot for the film, of course.) With the exception of his grandmother, the Okie relatives are small-minded creeps. It makes no sense why Cindy, who grew up on the farm, would want to spend a few hours in a place she was thrilled to leave--let alone several days. 

Fortunately, Keith eventually calms down and apologizes to Ryder, but then
things go from strange to stranger. Azura Skye's jittery performance as his
wife adds to the strangeness, since it's hard to tell if she's just nervous in
general or if she's genuinely scared of her gun-toting husband. After a
tense dinner, Keith suggests that Ryder and Molly return to their grand-
mother's house, where his parents are staying. They use horses to make the trek. On the way there, they pass a river. Ryder wants to keep going, but the strong-willed Molly insists they go for a swim, and so they do.  

On the way to grandmother's house.
Once again,
nothing un-
toward hap-
pens, but Ry-
der is dis-
quieted by
the exper-
ience. There's
a sense that
the flirtatious
Molly doesn't understand what she's doing, and is following her father’s orders, but why would he instruct his underage daughter to act seductively around her teenage cousin?

Not to give too much away, but Ryder proves to be more of a catalyst than
a character, since the film really concerns his mother, and that's to its ben-
efit, because Weigert, who first made her mark as Calamity Jane on
HBO's Deadwood, is a stronger actor than Miller, who spends too much time gazing blankly around him, though that may be exactly what Sobel instructed him to do. In any case, if Take Me to the River, which follows an appearance in last year's The Stanford Prison Experiment, represents part of Miller's attempt to shed his teen idol image, it's a good start. 

Only a few beats later, and it's over (though languorously paced, the film clocks in at a lean 84 minutes). Sobel never spells out what all the stress and tension was about. It certainly wasn't about the differences between California and Oklahoma, between the country and the city, or any other surface trappings. It is, instead, about a secret that no one dares to speak aloud, and becomes apparent more through inference than incident. Sobel found a circuitous path to get there, and the film might have worked better as a short, but the unusual journey marks him as a unique talent.

Take Me to the River is playing SIFF Film Center through April 7.