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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.