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.