Tonight in Seattle:  

SIFF 2011: Week One Highlights

Ewan McGregor in Perfect Sense

A quirky Southern road-trip comedy delight, a harrowing political thriller, and a haunting sci-fi disaster flick (featuring a nude Ewan McGregor!) are among five gotta-see films, eight fair-to-ok offerings, and six must-avoid duds unspooling at SIFF through May 29.

DON'T MISS:

An African Election
An African Election{screens May 26 at 7pm and May 27 at 4:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
This gripping, well-crafted and fast-paced documentary offers an unprecedented view into the political and social forces at play in Ghana's 2008 presidential election. The west-African nation is often viewed as the continent's barometer of democracy -- it was the first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence -- and director Jarreth Merz provides unique insight into its people and processes. Two leading political parties, the conservative NPP and the more leftist NDC, battle out a very tight race with the threat of violent protest looming (the NDC's chief proponent is take-it-by-force military commander and former president Jerry Rawlings), with a very narrow outcome in doubt until the nerve-jangling final moments. A fantastic documentary, and a fine political thriller.

Bicycle, Spoon, Apple
{North American Premiere. Screens  May 26 at 4:30pm at SIFF Cinema and May 28 at 10am at the Harvard Exit}
Charismatic former Barcelona mayor and Catalonia president Pasqual Maragall was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2007. This touching and informative film documents his decision to go public with his condition, his steadfast determination to beat the disease, and the strength and support of his awesome family over a fateful two-year span. The title comes from three words used to test patients' recall ability; the film provides glimpses of treatments in other parts of the world -- Holland, India, USA -- where the cues vary but the therapeutic principles are remarkably similar. Like many documentaries this could have been a bit tighter, but the Maragalls make it worth the while.

Natural Selection
{screens May 21 at 4pm at Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center, May 25 at 7pm and May 27 at 4pm at the Egyptian}
This Sundancey comedy debut from director Robbie Pickering will surely go down as a festival highlight. Rachael Harris (The Hangover) stars as Linda White, a Texas housewife shattered by the revelation that her super-devout husband prefers donating sperm over engaging in non-procreating sex with her. After he suffers a stroke he reveals another bombshell: he has a son (Matt O'Leary), and he wants Linda to track him down. A crazy, squirmy-funny road-trip to and from Alabama follows, bolstered by on-the-money mid-American Christian details (I died at the Sandi Patty cassette tape) and stellar performances by Harris and O'Leary. A delight.

Perfect Sense
{screens in conjunction with the Ewan McGregor tribute May 21 at 9:15 and May 25 at 4:30pm at the Egyptian}
Citizens of Glasgow (and, we're soon shown, cities across the globe) are inexplicably losing their sense of smell, and Doctor Susan (Eva Green) is among those seeking a cure. She meets a loveable-arsehole chef named Michael (Ewan McGregor) and a sudden, intense affair commences... just as another bizarre sense-loss phenomenon hits the world. An attractive, hypnotic, haunting sci-fi film that marks the return of Nekkid Ewan (yes!) and made me appreciate my senses all the more.

The Whistleblower
{screens May 28 at 6:45pm and May 29 at 1pm at the Egyptian, and May 31 at 6:30pm at Everett Performing Arts Center}
Rachel Weisz is amazing as the fierce cop-turned-U.N.-contractor Kathryn Bolkovac in this based-on-reality conspiracy thriller. In early-2000s Bosnia, she unearths evidence of human trafficking and sexual slavery that implicates fellow peacekeepers and officials; Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn and Monica Bellucci, all excellent in small roles, are among the powers-that-be enabling or stymieing the increasingly horrifying investigation. The Whistleblower starts out like a TV-movie, but evolves to first-rate intrigue with each of Bolkovac's shocking discoveries.

TAKE OR LEAVE:

A Barefoot Dream
A Barefoot Dream{screens May 24 at 9pm at the Admiral and May 26 at 7pm at Pacific Place}
This broad, sporty, based-on-reality film works overtime to amp the action and jerk every tear it can (and boy did it succeed on me). A misfit retired Korean soccer player is in East Timor on yet another of his doomed get-rich-quick schemes; preparing to head home, tail between legs, he finds children playing barefoot futbol and, not being someone who learns from past mistakes, opens the territory's only sporting-goods store. Hello, no one there can afford $60 shoes, but the venture shows him that the kids are actually good; the team he forms eventually goes on to compete internationally, and, well, victories and life lessons are in store for everyone. Formulaic, pandering, and pretty damn fun.

Dance Town
{screens May 23 at 6pm at Renton IKEA Arts Center, May 30 at 9pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 1 at 9pm at the Admiral}
A North Korean refugee named Jung-nim defaults to South Korea, whose government assigns her an apartment, a menial job, and a safe haven from persecution. Previously unknown freedom is highlighted by a series of standalone scenes sprinkled throughout her story -- a pregnant teen planning an abortion, a disorderly drunk wreaking havoc, shoppers enjoying a lively outdoor market, buskers performing in a park -- all elements that would've been unimaginable in her home country. Despite making personal connections, notably that of a cute cop who turns out not to be such a stand-up guy, Jung-nim's memories of the husband she left behind leads to a downward spiral of anguish. A well-constructed, eye-opening work that is certainly not the feel-good film of SIFF 2011.

Microphone
{screens May 23 at 9:30pm and May 24 at 4pm at the Harvard Exit}
Khaled, who has just returned to his native Alexandria, Egypt after a long stay in NYC, becomes enmeshed in a thriving underground scene after he happens upon a cooperative of vibrant young artists. Musicians, bootleggers, skaters, designers, graffiti artists, filmmakers and the like rally to put on a big radical festival, despite efforts by the powers-that-be to thwart the project. An interesting precursor to Egypt's remarkable recent social unrest, Microphone is an energetic, fast-moving, well-constructed film (time-lapse sequences of the city and the artists at work are particularly awesome), but an overabundance of characters and a shortage of ideas keep it from striking a resonant chord.

On Tour
{screens May 28 at 9pm at the Admiral, June 9 at 9:30pm and June 11 at 3:30pm at the Neptune}
Acclaimed French actor Mathieu Amalric seems to turn up in at least one SIFF film each year. In this colorful and glittery film, which he also directed, he plays Joachim, the manager of a bawdy troupe of American performers, all of whom are played by actual burlesque stars. As their titular tour around sleepy coastal towns wears on, Joachim's love-hate relationship with sassy feather dancer Mimi Le Meaux (Miranda Colclasure) is highlighted, but his character never shows us much more than his general asshole nature, his tendency to make enemies, and his bad parenting skills. The performances are quite fun (even as most of the girls are better at burlesque than at acting), but the story is thin for its 2-hour runtime.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
{screens May 25 at 7pm at the Neptune, May 28 at 11am at the Egyptian, and May 30 at 3:30pm at Everett Performing Arts Center}
So documentarian Andrew Rossi is granted unprecedented access to the NYT's newsroom for a year, and what we get is a movie about gristly old-schooler David Carr? The inside look at the lobbying process for front-page placement is intriguing, until the film's focus shifts back to the Media desk (touching on the ever-looming endangerment of traditional print media), and the overall result is lightweight and rather underwhelming. Perhaps a single film wasn't the way to go here.

Red Eyes
{US Premiere, screens May 22 at 7pm and May 23 at 4:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
No one was more surprised, than, well, Chile when its national soccer/futbol team qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Following their doomed attempt to qualify for the '06 Cup, loved/loathed manager Marcelo Bielsa was brought on board to revamp the team, and documentarians Juan Pablo Sallato and Ismael Larrain filmed the team's workouts, their international matches, Bielsa's ridiculously unenthused press conferences, a good amount of sweaty locker-room action, and about 920,843 impressions of the Coca-Cola logo. Red Eyes is a safe bet if you're a fan of anything just mentioned; otherwise it's a rather chintzy and melancholy affair. (But at least there are no vuvuzelas.)

Saigon Electric
{screens May 28 at 7:15pm at the Neptune, May 30 at 3pm at Pacific Place, and June 1 at 6:30pm at Everett Performing Arts Center}
Hippity-hop gangs Saigon Fresh and the North Killaz face off in this entertaining piece of dance trash from Vietnam. Mai, a country-girl ribbon dancer new to the big city, meets street-smart Kim of Saigon Fresh, one of two local crews vying for the top spot in a competition sponsored by Samsung (!). Kim is pursued by rich-boy Hai, who gives her a coveted pair of Adidas (!), and Mai catches the eye of Do-Boy, the adorable crew captain and instructor at an endangered local youth center. Will underdogs Saigon Fresh win the big movie-ending dance-off? Will the youth center be saved? Will the Samsung product logo get enough impressions? Is a 106-minute movie too long for such a story? The answer to at least one of these questions is yes.

Something Ventured
{screens May 29 at 1pm at the Admiral, May 30 at 6:30pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 5 at 5:30pm at Kirkland Performance Center}
This documentary chronicles the early days of venture capitalism, which reinvented the way companies get launched (and pretty much formed today's Silicon Valley). The film is quite niche -- the subjects are rather uninteresting rich old white dudes, and there are more than enough bad hairpieces and combovers on view. Plus the graphics and music seem like low-end PBS. But if you're into this sort of thing, some bits are interesting -- particularly the vignettes about financiers behind Atari (a weed-lovin' office climate), Apple (shit-talk about Steve Jobs) and PowerPoint originator Forethought.

SKIP:

Black, White and Blues
Black, White and Blues{screens May 22 at 4pm at the Neptune  and May 29 at 3:30pm at the Everett Performing Arts Center}
Mario Van Peebles's latest is a letdown from beginning to end. A down-on-his-luck Austin bluesman (played poorly by co-screenwriter Morgan Simpson, whose music sounds more like alt-country to me but whatever) takes a road trip to Huntsville, Alabama to claim the estate of his recently deceased grandfather. He and his traveling companion (Michael Clarke Duncan) stop in a series of juke joints along the way, and these musical performances -- that would be the blues part, except when Simpson is playing -- are the best things about Black, White and Blues. Bad acting, bad dialogue, bad movie. (For far better Southern-fried road movie fare, see Natural Selection instead.)

Crying Out
{screens May 22 at 6:30pm and May 23 at 4pm at Pacific Place}
Three emotionally stunted men from three hard-drinking generations make a series of stupid life choices in this off-putting Québec drama. A middle-aged father named Jo goes mad, exhumes his recently-deceased second wife, and goes missing with the body. His elderly dad (a mean old cuss in a nursing home who does things like hiding money in a cow's vagina) and his sexy 20something son (a toilet-paper factory worker who spends his free time drinking, brawling, and womanizing) set out to find cuckoo Jo before the law does. Yeah, it may seem quirky and weird and cool to you now, but Crying Out presents a terrible man's world in which women are either corpses, sex objects or clucking hens. Added to the far-fetched coinkydinks, stilted spectral elements and strained dysfunctional-family healing, it all made me want to cry out... for mercy.

Every Song is About Me
{North American premiere. Screens May 29 at 7pm and May 30 at noon at Pacific Place, and June 6 at 6:30pm at the Admiral}
Boring thirty-something bookstore worker Ramiro becomes even more boring after he's dumped by his fiancée Andrea. Over the course of seven dull-as-dirt vignettes we witness his various attempts to forget her and to rekindle the flame, via a drab Argentinean barmaid who wants to get married for immigration purposes, Ramiro's self-publication of a book of bad poetry, and an endless series of snoozy self-conversations. The film goes for New Wavey but does not succeed. Avoid it.

The Future
{screens May 21 at 7:30pm at Pacific Place and May 23 at 4:30pm at SIFF Cinema}
No, the sound isn't frakked; that's the grating Miranda July-supplied voice of a cat named Paw-Paw, who serves as narrator for the story of Sophie (July) and Josh (Hamish Linklater), a lackadaisical couple who make a pact to take a pre-cat-adoption 30 days to follow their dreams. There's an awkward affair, irksome insecurities, and an inexcusable level of irresponsibility -- even when time is frozen (!) -- in the 91 off-putting minutes that take us through their fateful month. A disappointment.

Man at Bath
{screens May 25 at 9:30pm and May 26 at 4:30pm at the Egyptian}
After Omar leaves Paris for a film festival in New York, he and Emmanel, the trashy-buff boyfriend he kicked to the curb, reflect on their relationship in wildly different ways: Emmanuel engages in consecutive freaky sexploits and solicits an older dude with truly gross predilections, and Omar hooks up with a cute Quebecois film student who offers distraction from his love gone wrong. There's lots of male nudity and explicit adult action -- and I mean lots -- but director Christophe Honoré's arty self-indulgence had me wishing for a fast-forward button; after his amazing 2007 musical Love Songs, this wannabe-provocative kitsch is a big letdown.

Nobody
{North American Premiere. Screens May 27 at 7pm and May 31 at 4:30pm at Pacific Place, and May 29 at 1pm at the Everett Performing Arts Center}
This poorly-conceived modern-day Montagues and Capulets tale begins with a car crash/explosion that looks so fake it's almost funny... and unfortunately that's the high point of the movie. Goran, a cute Russian, and Julia, a young Albanian, fall in love amidst ethnic conflict between their friends and family, who are prone to settling disputes with ridiculous illegal street-racing through the streets of Athens. Even the character we identify with most (Goran, a.k.a. "Nobody", omg) keeps such trashy company we don't have much sympathy for his self-induced tribulations. Don't let the Romeo and Juliet-iness hoodwink you into seeing this terrible film.

I thought the Future was amazing, devastating, quirky and beautifully done. Her husband Mike Mills also did a great job with his movie "Beginners."

Aimee - I liked the first 2 acts of The Future, but wasn't sold on the last, and kind of hated the talking cat. :) But - I could totally see the appeal for some people. LOVED Beginners! Can't stop thinking about it...

I sort of loved the talking cat - and generally I liked the overall vibe of The Future.  I'd point folks to my longer review over at another site via SXSW of the film, if I wasn't currently behind the great firewall of China and hence having trouble looking up the specific entry. Apparently my blog is too subversive to be left unchecked.  Or it could maybe just be blogger that's the target. ;-)

I'm looking foward to a lot of the recs above - but I would suggest anyone who enjoyed Miranda July's last film to not write this one off.  Even if I'm apparently easily influenced by talking cats.

Really looked forward to Saigon Electric - you had me at "entertaining piece of dance trash from Vietnam."

I can theoretically see how someone might not enjoy The Future (it is a real downer!), but I thought that it was amazingly well made and definitely worth seeing. I loved the cat, the awkward hilarity, the almost magic realism & near heightened reality as a way of conveying the emotionally-crushing drift of their relationship. One of the most affecting films I've seen at SIFF this season.
Most people I know loved Future also. I'm just glad there is one other person that didn't either. I hated the cat, but hated the couple more. They just annoyed me greatly and I kept hoping they would both die at the end of the movie to put them out of their misery, as well as myself... Exactly the same with Black, White and Blues. Everyone I know loved it, but I thought the acting and dialogue was just atrocious. It felt like a bad made for tv movie. I busted out loud laughing towards the end... you know for what part. ;-)

Kim, we're kindred spirits. I really enjoyed Ms. July's You and Me and Everyone We Know, but The Future was seriously lacking for me, for many of the reasons you've stated.

Same with Black, White and Blues -- and yes, I know exactly which part. I hurt myself holding back an enormous howl at the press screening.

I just read your take on Man at Bath and we're eye-to-eye on that one as well. You're so right, all the penises in the world can't save a movie.

Never hold in a howl ~ especially enormous ones. You'll be amazed how liberating it is.

SIFF 2011 critical quote of the year: "All the pensises in the world can't save a movie." --Embracey. Awesome. Oh, as for The Future -- I could talk about it for days! So thought-inspiring. However, am pretty sure I never, ever want to see it again. (And I really enjoyed You And Me And Everyone We Know too.)

And all the credit for that glorious quote goes to Kim! Oh how I wish it were my own...

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