Tonight in Seattle:  

SIFF 2011: Week Two Highlights

On the Ice

We're nearing SIFF's halfway point, and if you've attended more than a few screenings this year I congratulate you on surviving the queues, tolerating any less-than-pleasant fellow moviegoers you may have encountered therein, dealing with the venues' unique quirks (lavatory-related and otherwise), and making it through the unnerving amount of trailer/bumper clutter in front of each film. If you've yet to attend SIFF 2011, ignore the first sentence and get crackin'! (Because it only seems like it lasts forever.)

Wherever you are on your SIFF journey, I have for you some guidance on films that are worth the pain, and ones that should be avoided like the Egyptian men's room, screening during the fest's action-packed second week (May 30 - June 5).

DON'T MISS:

Amador
Amador{screens May 31 at 4pm at Everett Performing Arts Center, June 2 at 6:30pm and June 4 at 1:30pm at Pacific Place}
The remarkably unenthused Marcela, a young immigrant living on the outskirts of Madrid, learns that she's pregnant, questions her hand-to-mouth boyfriend's intentions, and discovers that the (vaguely Leonard Nimoy-ish) elderly man she's been caring for has died -- but for a number of reasons she decides to keep it all secret. And this is before the film's halfway point! Magaly Solier, the wonderful Peruvian actress who you may remember from Madeinusa or The Milk of Sorrow, is a mesmerizing guide through the story's nifty twists and Marcela's gradual transformation.

Circumstance
{screens June 4 at 6:30pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 6 at 4:15pm at the Egyptian}
Teen besties Atafeh and Shireen explore Tehran's underground scene, fantasize about lesbian bars and the relative freedom of Dubai, and take the occasional road trip with Atafeh's family (at the beach, the gals must remain covered head-to-toe while the guys' asscracks and bulges hang out for Allah and the world to see). And Atafeh's brother, a once-promising musician home from rehab, has replaced his substance addiction with something more sinister. A languid but gripping film that will make your blood boil.

On the Ice
{screens June 4 at 9:30pm and June 5 at 11am at the Harvard Exit, and June 10 at 9pm at Kirkland Performance Center}
It's tough to cover up a crime in Barrow, Alaska, where pooled blood freezes and snowmobile tracks reveal most everywhere you've been. Teens Qalli and Aivaaq return from a seal hunt with the news that their friend James fell into the sea; after several unsuccessful searches, Qalli's cop dad becomes increasingly suspicious of his son's involvement in the incident, leading to an inevitable showdown between Qalli and Aivaaq over what really happened on that desolate ice. There's never a doubt about the ultimate outcome, but On the Ice has a lot up its chilly sleeve: an ominous score accompanies stark visuals and a fascinating setting, working to join disparate elements and fill empty spaces left by story flaws and less-than-perfect performances (think Elaine Miles as Marilyn on Northern Exposure). Glimpses into these characters' frosty day-to-day lives prove even more haunting than the screenplay's Hitchcocky crime suspense.

Sound of Noise
{screens June 5 at 7pm at the Egyptian, and June 9 at 7pm and June 11 at 1:15pm at the Neptune}
A tone-deaf detective pursues a group of aural resistance fighters (ok, terrorists) imposing unannounced public performances on a sleepy Swedish city. The filmmakers' 2001 short Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers involved repurposing apartment furnishings as percussion instruments; Sound of Noise widens its focus to civic and cultural institutions. Even when a late-breaking magical-realist element doesn't really make sense (even within the film's cuckoo logic), it's all such fun you really don't care. Inventive, thoughtful, and hopelessly enchanting.

Venice
{screens May 31 at 9:30pm at Pacific Place, and June 5 at 3:30pm at the Admiral}
Watching this film I felt like I was eavesdropping on another culture's eagerly-awaited screen adaptation of a beloved literary masterwork. In this case, said masterwork is a series of short stories by Polish writer Wlodzimierz Odojewski, detailing the coming of age of a (for whatever reason) Venice-obsessed eleven-year-old named Marek. At the outbreak of WWII, his philandering ice-bitch mom and weak soldier dad send Marek to live with his aunts and cousins in a tiny Polish village. Marek creates his own version of Venice in a flooded basement... and then the realities of war intrude. It can be difficult keeping the many characters straight at first -- I imagine the rather inert story is more meaningful to those familiar with the source material -- but I felt up-to-speed by midpoint, and the moments of whimsical beauty and vicious warfare kept me enthralled throughout the 2-hour runtime. A nice SIFF find.

Weekend
{screens June 3 at 7pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 5 at 4:30pm at SIFF Cinema}
Fascinating account of an intense brief affair that's one of the best "gay" films around. Russell (hairy, insecure, semi-closeted) hooks up with Glen (feisty, confrontational, avant-garde), who the next morning asks Russell to record his feelings about the encounter as part of an art project. The two continue getting acquainted as the weekend progresses (and before Glen leaves the UK for the US on Monday), and yes, there's nude sexytime, but the riveting convos debating Glen's dearly-held Queer Theory 101 philosophies are what make for one outstanding Weekend.

The Whistleblower
{screens 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:

Dance Town
Dance Town{screens May 30 at 9pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 1 at 9pm at the Admiral}
A North Korean refugee named Jung-nim finds a safe haven in 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.

The Last Mountain
{screens June 1 at 7pm and June 2 at 4pm at Pacific Place}
"Mountaintop removal," the use of ultra-powerful explosives to uncover coal veins, is destroying the Appalachians. Scientists, ecologists, enviro-champs (including Robert Kennedy Jr.) and residents of West Virginia's Coal River Valley (who've experienced everything from exponential brain-tumor rates to boulders landing in their yards) struggle to modify antiquated laws that favor ethics-challenged companies like Massey Energy (led by pig Don Blankenship). The message is vitally important, and the stories inspiring, but a shortage of narrative drive and actionable information hinder The Last Mountain's potential power.

Lesson Plan
{screens May 31 at 7pm and June 1 at 4:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
1967's notorious Third Wave experiment, designed by Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones to teach his Cubberly High pupils (including teenaged Philip Neel, who co-directed the film) about the roots and power of fascism, proved to be more successful (and some say more nefarious) than Jones or anyone else could have predicted. The five days of the movement, in which students started out as a cooperative, then were assigned informers, then branched out to recruit new members and expel others branded traitorous, are detailed via interviews with now middle-aged students and with Jones himself. The project inspired articles, movies, and a book that has become required reading in several countries, and the fascinating story deserves a better-crafted documentary than this. Lesson Plan is undeniably enlightening, but it leaves the viewer with questions a more competent film would've addressed.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
{screens 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.

Saigon Electric
{screens 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 the contracted number of 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 30 at 6:30pm at the Harvard Exit, and June 5 at 5:30pm at Kirkland Performance Center}
Documentary chronicling the early days of venture capitalism, which reinvented the way companies get launched (and pretty much formed today's Silicon Valley). The film's topic is rather niche, the subjects are not-that-interesting rich old white dudes, and there are more bad hairpieces and combovers on view than you can possibly imagine. Plus the graphics and music seem like low-end PBS. But 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 (a hell of a deal for Microsoft) -- if you're into that sort of thing.

Win/Win
{screens May 30 at 6:30pm at the Egyptian, June 1 at 4:30pm at the Neptune, and June 10 at 7pm at Kirkland Performance Center}
Ivan, a big-eyed 24-year-old Amsterdam brokerage firm analyst who may or may not have Asperger's, reveals himself to be a data-whiz wunderkind; promoted to a trader position he rakes in huge coin for the firm, and is rewarded with a swanky new apartment and some lovey-dove attention from a pretty receptionist. But as the profits and his reputation soar, Ivan feels increasingly detached. Bear Stearns collapses, a shitty one-minute PowerPoint presentation is given in memoriam of a deceased colleague, and solace is sought via such methods as an all-night missionary church service and a webcam-based gamblers' support group. A bleak drama, but a captivating and well-made one.

SKIP:

Every Song is About Me
{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 fiancé 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. Take a nap instead.

Nobody
{screens 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.

Project Nim
{screens June 3 at 7pm at SIFF Cinema, and June 5 at 1:30pm at the Egyptian}
A big disappointment from documentarian James Marsh after his fantastic Man on Wire. The chimp Nim was nurtured as a human child in a '70s Columbia University project; the goal was to determine to what degree he'd take on human characteristics. As you can maybe imagine, it didn't go well. Neither does Project Nim, with its distractingly stylized talking-head interviews, its use of flat stock music (they couldn't get rights to a single mid-'70s hit?), and its over-reliance on bad re-enactments.

Wasted on the Young
{screens June 2 at 9:30pm at the Neptune, and June 4 at 1:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
There are no authority figures to be seen in the tech-savvy private high school or the posh Australian suburb where Wasted on the Young takes place. So it should come as no surprise when evil Zack, the debonair leader of the popular pack, ends up committing a despicable crime against sweet and pretty Xandrie because she prefers the company of Zack's calmer, smarter stepbrother Darren. When the crime is covered by Zack and his gang of fellow degenerates, the smart kid you're supposed to root for plots an inane revenge instead of providing irrefutable evidence to the damn police. I kept hoping the school had a Veronica Mars type up in there to sort all this shit out; unfortunately such a character would be too clever and too ethical for this glossy and soulless hell-world. An awful movie and a Wasted 97 minutes.

Fantastic round up! While I found much more to like about Project Nim, Wasted On The Young, and Page One than you did, sir, I can't agree enough about Circumstance, On The Ice, and Sound Of Noise. All three are very unique and provocative and shouldn't be missed (for the topics, communities, and ideas involved, worked into awesome filmmaking). Thanks for the amazing three tiered list!

you really are not kidding about "unnerving amount of trailer/bumper clutter in front of each film." that one for the siff film center is the shortest and most hellish. enough already. and nice reviews! I'm seeing On The Ice based on your recomendation alone.
OMG loved On The Ice and yes totally like Marilyn on Northern Exposure!!!

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