Monday, May 28, 2018

SIFF 2018: Dueling Ian McEwan Adaptations, Convention-Defying Documentaries, and Stunning Archival Restorations

Dustin Kaspar and Morgan Neville at the Neighbor Q&A
This year's Seattle International Film Festival began on May 17, and I’ve seen as many films as possible, a relatively small number compared to most writer friends due to scheduling and other issues, but here are a few thoughts and impressions about the films I’ve seen.  


Tony Award-winning Hamilton actor and rapper Daveed Diggs, from the Sub Pop trio clipping., co-wrote this punchy film (with costar Rafael Casal) about timely topics--gun violence, racial profiling--that frustrates more often than not. In its attempt to critique gun culture, the film often glamorizes it in ways that Diggs and director Carlos López Estrada probably didn’t intend--guns are filmed, dark and sparkling, like precious jewels and the ultra-violence that breaks out towards the end makes these gents seem more sadistic than merely troubled or confused. For all its faults, Estrada's debut works best as a kale smoothie-powered Pineapple Express-like buddy comedy about Oaktown gentrification. Bonus points for the Bay Area-appropriate Tower of Power tracks.

Carlos Lopéz Estrada introduces Blindspotting
The Children Act 

Screenwriter Ian McEwan's adaptation of his 2014 novel melds law, medicine, and religion more successfully than most films that make the attempt.

Sir Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) lets the material overwhelm him at times, especially in the crucial final moments, but it's a must for fans of McEwan and, especially, Emma Thompson, in a career-best performance as a judge presiding over a life-or-death case concerning a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia (Dunkirk's broody Fionn Whitehead). 

If I have a quibble, it's that Stanley Tucci, who plays Fiona's professor husband, isn't bad, but his bold, declarative Americaness--"I'm gonna have an affair!"--proves somewhat distracting in a film that's so specifically British. SIFF will also be screening Dominic Cooke's adaptation of McEwan's On Chesil Beach with Saoirse Ronan

TheChildren Act screens again at 12pm on 6/3 at the Uptown.

Dead Pigs 

The actors, winners of the best ensemble award at this year's Sundance, are very good--especially The Last Emperor's Vivian Wu as a stubborn beauty salon manager--but this Jia Zhangke-produced ripped-from-the-headlines dramedy never quite gels the way it should. I preferred the comedy to the drama, and the sing-a-long ending reminded me of my least favorite sequence in P.T. Anderson's Magnoliathough the issues Cathy Yan raises about income inequality and corporate malfeasance are simultaneously of-the-moment and resonant. Y
an, who divides her time between the US and China, next directs the Harley Quinn movie starring Margot Robbie as the DC Comics anti-superheroine. 

John "The Brat" McEnroe at the top of his game
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

I appreciated this documentary more than I enjoyed it. 

Julien Faraut's found-footage feature, which takes inspiration from Chris Marker's essay films, uses calming, English-language narration from Mathieu Amalric...and made me sleepy, but it has a certain purity that I respect, since the entirety of the McEnroe-on-the-clay-court footage comes from the French archives. There's nothing that I can recall about his childhood or personal life, but rather a deep dive into his professional career, circa 1984. 

Though French in origin, Faraut's second documentary begins and ends with some quintessentially American sounds: Sonic Youth and Black Flag. Oscilloscope Laboratories, the distributor co-founded by the late Adam Yauch, will be releasing the film, which seems ideal since the director also claims his band, the Beastie Boys, as an influence (hat tip to Steven Erickson, who interviewed Faraut, for that insight).  

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

As much as I like Andrea Arnold, I wasn't crazy about American Honey, but I was impressed with Sasha Lane, her most welcome discovery next to Fish Tank's Katie Jarvis. Lane doesn’t assume the lead in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an unexpectedly fleet-footed film about conversion therapy, but she proves that she's more than a one-hit wonder (at this year’s festival, she also appears in Hearts Beat Loud).

Tilda Swinton and Steven Waddington in Edward II
Lane’s chemistry with Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays the central character, and Forrest Goodluck, a deadpan comedian, is a highlight of director Desiree Akhavan's sophomore feature. At the Q&A, Goodluck, who claims Hidatsa, Mandan, Navajo, and Tsimshian heritage, said that he's working on a zombie film in which only Native Americans are immune to the virus. The Miseducation of Cameron Post opens at the Uptown this August.

Other films I saw and enjoyed: Michael Pearce’s Beast, Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and the loving restorations of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff and Derek Jarman’s Edward II. The latter is worth seeing for any number of reasons, not least the opulent outfits in which future Oscar winner Sandy Powell enrobes Tilda Swinton.

Forrest Goodluck at the Miseducation Q&A
Random notes: I missed the documentaries on M.I.A., Gilda Radner, and Zandra Rhodes, though I did spot Rhodes chatting with film goers in the lobby of the Uptown after a screening of The Faces of Zandra Rhodes. She's a brightly-hued person, from her head down to her toes, much like her creations. Engaging with filmmakers and subjects after screenings has always been one of the best things about SIFF. Though I rarely partake in it, I'm always happy to see those encounters taking place throughout the festival. It's the rare SIFF guest who doesn't arrive ready to share their enthusiasms with the rest of us.