Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Columbia City Theater Grand Re-Opening: Kelli Schaefer, Drew Grow, Grand Hallway

The Columbia City Theater in South Seattle celebrated its Grand (Re-) Opening with two free shows June 25 and 26, and it was a pip by all accounts.

Duties with Bizarro Movie Night kept me from seeing the June 25 show (a Hip-Hop extravaganza featuring Mash Hall, Cloud Nice, and DJ Suspence), but I was in attendance, camera in hand, for the Saturday performance by Kelli Schaefer, Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives, and Grand Hallway.

Details (and a slideshow) can be accessed at the Seattle Concerts Examiner by going here. I had an embarassment of riches, photos-wise: Chock it up to great good luck, and great subjects. Only a small portion were used for the Examiner slideshow, and I had to severely truncate the photos that did make the cut, so enclosed please find some of my favorite snapshots of the evening, in all their un-shrunk, un-cropped beauty. Click on each to see a larger version if you like.

Kelli Schaefer:

Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives:

Grand Hallway:

Thanks to the Columbia City Theater, and especially to all three acts for giving such great face--and for a really wonderful show.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Springtime with SIFF

If'n you read the last entry, you know I've been a movie-watchin' mole lo, these last three weeks, and it's been quite the adventure. In addition to seeing more movies in theaters in that span than I did in the preceding six months, I was able to freeload my way into the Seattle International Film Festival Opening and Closing Night Galas, where neon-colored cocktails and much shared movie geekery amongst fellow nerds/journalists flowed freely. And I met some talented and fascinating filmmakers, to boot.

I saw 28 feature films during the run of SIFF. Almost all of them were good-to-great; only a couple were straight-up disappointments. Enclosed please find my evaluations of everything I saw, along with accompanying ratings.

The Extra Man: **1/2
The Fest opening film was a quirky comedy featuring Kevin Kline as a struggling playwright who escorts elderly rich women and takes recently-unemployed Ivy League professor Paul Dano under his wing. Kline's a hoot, as always (he's maturing with the rascally grace of a David Niven), but as for the movie? If there was a such thing as Indie Comedy Generator software, and you programmed in every Indie Comedy cliche (Oddball Father Figure, Quiet Protagonist with Fetish, Funny-Voiced Ancillary Character, etc.), this movie would spit out.

Senior Prom: ***1/2
This comedy about several Mountlake Terrace High Schoolers stumbling towards their senior prom feels rough around the edges and descends into sentiment a little too much at the end. But Nick Terry's directorial debut sports quite a few great belly laughs, and it rings with a front-line immediacy that could only come from someone living through high school themselves (yes, the director's only 17, and yes, I'll pimp my SunBreak interview with him right about now).

How Sex Sold Hollywood: ***
Seattle U professor James Forsher's How Sex Sold Hollywood presentation was pretty skin deep (pardon the pun), but not without some seriously warped highlights. High (low?) points: a silent-era sapphic fever dream of a short called "Dormitory Secrets," and some frankly pornographic cartoons from distaff Max Fleischer studio animators.

The Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould: ***
Classical piano's James Dean gets the doc treatment here. The archival performance footage--Gould throwing himself into playing, tousled hair partly shadowing his face like a high-brow Jerry Lee Lewis--is riveting, and there's no denying his brilliance as a player (or his pronounced eccentricities). Alas, you finish the movie feeling like you don't know anymore about Gould than when you started.

K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces: ***
K-20 re-imagines Japan sans WWII, as a totalitarian nigh-communist regime. Amidst this world, the ultimate master thief steals priceless artifacts, and frames a circus acrobat for the crimes. Said acrobat then becomes a reluctant hero. Terrific art direction and atmosphere (think Metropolis meets The Dark Knight) and exhilarating action sequences are only slightly marred by a few too many dips into the Cuteness Well (I officially propose a permanent moratorium on all adorable imperiled orphans in Asian action movies).

George Romero's Survival of the Dead: **
I'll go to my deathbed defending George Romero's first four Living Dead movies (haven't seen the fifth yet), but his newest one, George Romero's Survival of the Dead, just doesn't cut the mustard. The Irish-born patriarchs of two rival families on a East Coast island lock horns because--get this--one thinks zombies should be exterminated, and one thinks the undead can be rehabilitated and taught to eat non-human meat. The writing's clunky as hell, and (SPOILER ALERT!) Romero de-fangs his revenants by turning them into eaters of horsemeat at the climax; a not-very-scary denouement, unless you're My Little Pony.

Ahead of Time: ****
This concise, solid documentary focuses on the achievements of Ruth Gruber--arctic explorer, World War II Correspondent, and chronicler of the 1947 Exodus. At age 94, Gruber's more articulate and sharp than 99.9 percent of people a third her age; and her restless streak, eloquence, and charm make her an enchanting documentary subject.

Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema: *****
Ace documentarian Chuck Workman serves up a great primer on Underground Cinema, with Anthology Archives curator and filmmaker Jonas Mekas functioning as a charming epicenter. A compelling window into a seldom-explored subgenre of cinema, with generous samples of works by Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and many others.

Wheedle's Groove: ****
You'd never know it from most Northwest music history references, but Seattle had a seriously jumping soul and funk scene in the 1960's and '70's. The terrific Jennifer Maas documentary Wheedle's Groove corrects this massive oversight, covering the scene and its participants in loose-limbed and engaging style. For a music doc that features (sadly) very little actual archival footage of these bands cutting loose, it's incredibly exciting and moving to watch. More details in my Seattle Concerts Examiner piece on the movie's SIFF premiere.

RoboGeisha: *****
Sibling rivalry between mechanically-augmented Geisha Girls; enough arterial spray to put the Icelandic volcano to shame; Japanese robo-chicks with circular saws popping from their mouths; swordfights by the score; and acid-spurting mammaries? If that summary of RoboGeisha and the accompanying trailer don't spell MUST-SEE in bold letters, you've stumbled into the wrong blog by mistake, Bucky.

Brownstones to Red Dirt: ***
There's no denying the total charm and inspiration in the subjects of this doc (grade-schoolers in the New York projects and far-off Sierra Leone exchange letters and bond in mutual friendship); too bad the movie's shot and slurpily-scored, like one of those 'The More You Know' spots on NBC.

Rejoice and Shout: ****
Once you get past the first fifteen over-preachy minutes (yes, I know, it IS about gospel music, but still...), Rejoice and Shout is as absorbing as any music doc that I've ever seen. It traces gospel's evolution throughout the decades, from its origins on the plantations of the south to the present day. Interestingly, the genre was (and still is) as succeptible to trends as any other musical style: The Swan Silvertones brought unearthly doo-wop harmonies to worship music in the 1950's, the Staple Singers proffered Stax soul sizzle (and social awareness) during the '60's, and even 1970's velour soul was represented by smoother-than-smooth Andrae Crouch. At its best, the music's so good the lyrical subject matter's irrelevant (that's a compliment from this agnostic).

Marwencol: *****
My favorite documentary of the Fest was this study of Mark Hogancamp, victim of a memory-wiping, near-fatal beating. For rehabilitation, Mark constructs an intricate pulp universe in his backyard, entirely from GI Joes and Barbies. If it sounds like a gawk-fest, it's not. Director Jeff Malmberg obviously loves his subject, and tells his story with unvarnished honesty as well as affection. More details, and my interview with Malmberg, here.

Reykjavik-Rotterdam: *****
Thrillers don't get more well-engineered and satisfying than this Icelandic gem, in which a parolled former smuggler risks life, limb, and family for the financial promise of That One Last Job. Fast and harrowing-yet-funny as hell, it figures that it's being twisted into a vehicle for Mark Wahlberg.

Garbo: The Spy: *****
The amazing story of Juan Pujer Garcia, a Spanish counter-agent who basically duped the German army into their crushing defeat in Normandy on D-Day (and by extension, helped the allies to win WWII), is so surreal and hilarious you'll swear someone made the shit up.

Disco and Atomic War: ****
This Estonian doc about how clandestine signals from an extra-tall Finnish TV tower titillated and liberated citizens of communist-ruled Estonia kinda charmed the hell out of me. It's also one of those rare documentaries where the re-enactment scenes actually entertained in their own right.

Imani: ****
Caroline Kamya's feature film debut was one of the most subtly rewarding movies I saw all Fest. More details--and an interview with Kamya--here.

Double Take: **
One of my few outright disappointments of the Festival. It's an odd experimental pastiche in which Alfred Hitchcock (starring via archival clips and a little bit of CGI trickery) faces his doppelganger amidst the Cold War. It started out as a short film, and the seams of that origin show: the Hitchcock and Cold War elements just don't gel.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields: ****
Gail O'Hara's and Kerthy Fix's documentary doesn't exactly lay its drily humorous genius subject (yes, I am a fan) bare, but it's a smart and engaging glimpse into Merritt's career, and the love/symbiosis between the songwriter and his bandmate/de facto manager/den mother Claudia Gonson is fascinating. An interview with O'Hara and Fix should be up at the SunBreak soon...

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: ****
Film purists probably balked at its irreverence, but I enjoyed this SIFF archival presentation with musical accompaniment. Stephin Merritt composed the score, and his playful music included some hummable melodies (I found the bits of atmospheric texture scattered throughout to be pretty immersive, too). As for the film itself, it's a dated but fascinating artifact--really the Avatar of its day (1916) what with its underwater cinematography and lavish production values. For a very early silent, it also sports an impressively ambitious structure containing three intersecting stories and flashbacks from multiple sources--pretty heady stuff for a movie that's older than your great-grandparents.

Protektor: ***
Protektor is a WWII love story that follows a Czech radio correspondent and his glamorous, flirty Jewish movie-star wife as they navigate the emerging influence of Nazi Germany on their homeland. The movie sports a great art-deco look and it's edited/shot with arresting style, but the relationship at the core never quite engaged me like I wanted it to. ***

Amer: *****
Probably my favorite fiction/narrative feature of the Fest. This utterly immersive, technically brilliant art-film-in-giallo's-clothing captivated me, and interviewing the directors was a major Festival highlight (jump here for the interview).

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within: ****
I have eternally been enthralled by Burroughs' raggedly brilliant and powerful words, and by his gravel-tinkling-over-sheet-metal voice, so this new documentary on his life and work was an enrapturing view for me. Well-researched and packed with heartfelt reminiscences and testimony.

The Wildest Dream: ***1/2
In the IMAX epic The Wildest Dream, modern-day mountaineer Conrad Anker climbs Mt. Everest, retracing the route of and replicating the conditions endured by British adventurer George Mallory in 1924. The movie touches on deeper emotional and philosophical questions than your average IMAX flick, drawing interesting parallels between Mallory's relationship to his wife and that of Anker's with his own spouse. And if the movie lets that psychological complexity take a back seat to the grandeur sometimes, well, IMAX is first and foremost spectacle-porn...

Dream Home: **
This Hong Kong shocker wants to have its bloody cake and eat it too by simultaneously throwing spurting blood and social commentary at its audience. In her obsessive quest to obtain a mortgage on a high-end Hong Kong flat, a young woman takes to brutally murdering several of the building's occupants (what better way to drive bidding rates down?). The premise is rife with possibilities, but the tone is wildly uneven: One minute you're watching a dippy party guy's disembowelment played for gallows giggles, the next our murderous protagonist is dealing with the failing health of her mesothelioma-wracked former abuser of a father. Gore fans, though, will have a field day.

Howl: ****
I really enjoyed this Allen Ginsberg biopic directed by Times of Harvey Milk directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. James Franco makes an effective Ginsberg (anyone who's played James Dean and Ginsberg in the space of just a few years deserves mad props), and the movie eschews standard beginning/middle/end bio-pic structure by zeroing in on the obscenity trial surrounding Ginsberg's poetic masterpiece, Howl. The only liability: Ginsberg's words are sometimes accompanied by CGI animation that puts a pretty glaring pull date on the movie.

Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives: ***1/2
You gotta love the directness of a movie title like Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, but it's easy to go into it thinking it's gonna be a Troma-style rib-nudging camp-fest. Thankfully, it's got sharper teeth than that. Director Israel Luna's made an honest-to-God gut-level grindhouse action opus here--think Death Wish with a more fabulous wardrobe--without neglecting the humor. It captures the patina of a grindhouse flick amazingly well, and there's a sense of righteous outrage underneath the surface that makes it much more cathartic and empowering than the GLAAD protesting blue-noses out there would have you believe. SunBreak interview with Luna and Trannies star Willam Belli coming soon!

Vengeance: *****
This new Johnnie To gangster epic finished out my SIFF odyssey in stylish and riveting fashion. In it, a French restaurateur (Johnny Hallyday) enlists a trio of hitmen (led by HK action mainstay Anthony Wong) to avenge the massacre of his daughter and her family. It's a purely formulaic set-up--think the Magnificent Seven minus three, combined with (again) Death Wish--but it's beguilingly shot, darkly witty in places, and peppered with twists and wrinkles worth their weight in gold. Hallyday--with his lived-in face, watery blue eyes,and Mephistopheles goatee--is a revelation as a worn-down protagonist with much more of a history of violence than he initially lets on.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Quick Update from SIFF-land

Damn, I love this poster. Just saying. And it does have a bearing on this overdue Petri Dish missive.

The last two to three weeks of my life have been spent split between my day job and the glorious rigor that has been covering the Seattle International Film Festival for the SunBreak.com.

I've seen a ton of great movies, and better yet, I've been able to interview some of the makers of those films in detail. It's been the most inspiring couple of weeks I've had, writing-and-movie-lust-wise, in awhile; though the writing part's been hard to squeeze in 'twixt dashing madly between theaters, home (sleeping and eating can be quite the nuisance sometimes), and the W Hotel (site of most of the interviews I've conducted).

I'm enjoying an actual vacation (or, more likely and aptly, a stay-cation) for the next couple of weeks and plan to use that time to get a lot of creative/writing things up to speed. I'll, of course, be getting the ol' Petri Dish caught up on all that I've imbibed in, pop-culture-wise, for the last month or two--including, I hope, a detailed recap of the 28 movies I saw as part of the SIFF experience. Also, I've still got three or four more interviews to transcribe and post for the SunBreak. And we're working on scheduling another Bizarro Movie Night at the end of this month as well.

In the meantime, feel free to jump over to the SIFF-related posts at the SunBreak. All partisan bias aside, our little upstart site's done a pretty great job of covering the Fest. You can take in the picks, pans, and recommendations from the entire eminent staff at the SunBreak, gnash your teeth in envy at the movies you missed, and sigh with relief at the crap you avoided.

Enclosed please find links to the SIFF interviews I've posted at the SunBreak so far...

Senior Prom director Nicholas Terry (a nice kid who gladly put up with me making him pose for all sorts of goofy pictures, including this artsy-fartsy shot I took of him)

Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet, directors of the mesmerizing giallo-cum-art-film Amer 

Jeff Malmberg, director of SIFF Best Documentary Feature Award winner Marwencol

Three more interviews should go up onto the SunBreak within the next week or so, and they should be pips. Stay tuned...