SIFF14 - 40DaysOfSilence_Still01

SIFF 2014: Week One Highlights

Our local month-long movie megathon struck again Thursday with Jimi: All Is By My Side, a Jimi Hendrix biopic devoid of Jimi Hendrix music. But even if you missed the opening night soiree there’s plenty more to feast your eyes and ears and emotions on before the cinematic smorgasbord unspools its final reel projects its last digital file on June 8.

The TIG SIFF staff will be here for the duration to help you make sense of the typically mammoth schedule, and as in years past I’ll bring you a roundup of brief capsule previews for films to be screened the coming festival week. I’m happy to report that, so far, the joy-free staleness of Jimi isn’t at all the deal for upcoming offerings. (Many of them, anyway.) In fact, of the SIFF 2014 films I’ve seen to date, the shining gems far outnumber the out-and-out stinkers.

Here are ten features to queue up for, one to avoid outright (yes, only one so far!), and six to be cautiously optimistic/pessimistic about, all screening at some point during the festival’s first week (May 16-22). You’re welcome.

DON’T MISS:

The Case Against 8
The Case Against 8

{screens May 16 at 6:30pm at the Harvard, and May 17 at 11:30am at the Uptown}
A moving and highly entertaining documentary following the six-year battle between California’s same-sex marriage ban (2008) and the Supreme Court declaration of its unconstitutionality (2013). The film makes its revelations beautifully, peppering usual doc elements with legal intrigue and turning tides. I knew very little about the counsel team (led by Republican Theodore Olson and Democrat David Boies, who had been opponents in the Bush v. Gore recount case in 2000), and even less about the plaintiff couples (Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo), but was very happy to spend time with them all. Sure, the film preaches to the choir — but what a beautiful sermon it is.

Difret
{screens May 17 at 6pm at the Uptown, May 18 at 3:30pm at Pacific Place, and May 24 at 3pm in Renton}
After being abducted and raped, a rural 14-year-old Ethopian girl (Tizita Hagere) shoots and kills her attacker in an act of self-defense, pitting herself and a tenacious human-rights attorney (dazzling Meron Getnet) against long-standing tribal traditions. Writer-director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s debut feature is a compelling and devastating adaptation of an extraordinary true story. Wonderfully naturalistic performances (by mostly non-pro actors) lead viewers into the characters’ worlds, and into the tense legal drama that grows from it.

Dior and I
{screens May 17 at 6:30pm at Pacific Place, May 18 at 1pm at Lincoln Square, May 22 at 4:30pm at the Uptown}
Don’t let the grammatical iffiness of the title’s English translation put you off — this documentary about incoming artistic director Raf Simons’ first haute couture showcase at House of Dior is very much on point. Well-versed fashion-doc director Frédéric Tcheng (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Valentino: The Last Emperor) successfully combines the ticking clock and pre-catwalk craziness of Project Runway with the slick production and fashion-fetishism of The September Issue, and peppers in some eerily revelatory narrated snippets from Christian Dior’s memoirs. Simons is an intriguing subject, and his emotions around his creations are palatable. Really fun doc, très à la mode.

Fight Church
{screens May 17 at 1pm at Pacific Place, May 18 at 4pm at Lincoln Square, and May 26 at 12:30p in Renton}
It was news to me: apparently around 700 churches in the United States actually have congregation-supported fight clubs. This brutal but eye-opening documentary focuses on several, and on a few leaders (of the religious and legislative varieties) who staunchly oppose them. There’s quite a lot of unflinching fight footage, and if that brand of controlled violence isn’t enough for you, just wait until one fight club member is shown teaching his very young children to use handguns — scenes more horrifying than those of bloody cage matches. Moral and scriptural relativism vs. logic, fists vs. faith.

40 Days of Silence
{screens May 20 at 7pm and May 22 at 4:30pm at the Harvard}
Here’s something I didn’t know when I saw this textured, haunting film: its Persian title is Chilla, which translates to “quarantine,” and refers to a spiritual practice of penance and solitude in some Persian traditions. And this is what is going down in the film as we observe a young woman who has taken a vow of silence and moved into her grandmother’s old house in Tajikstan, along with three other women. It’s never completely clear what exactly the penance is for, or what bonds these women share, but these specifics are almost secondary to the many stunning glimpses of a beautiful nowhere.

Ida
{screens May 16 at 3:30pm at the Uptown, and May 21 at 7pm at the Harvard}
This gorgeous ’60s-set drama, about a young soon-to-be nun facing hard truths about the (Jewish, it turns out!) family she was separated from at birth during WWII, may prove to be Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s masterpiece. Odd-couple interactions with the prospective nun’s one surviving aunt are beautifully executed, with fantastic performances throughout, and the exquisite black-and-white photography manages to be bleak and dreamy all at once. A quiet stunner, and a SIFF 2014 highlight.

Obvious Child
{screens May 20 at 7pm at the Egyptian, and May 21 at 4:30pm at the Uptown}
Revisit the good-gloomy feelings you get from The Skeleton Twins (see capsule below) with the similarly dark Obvious Child, in which a standup-comedian played by Jenny Slate is dumped, fired, and impregnated in rapid succession. Yeah, these are plot points we’ve seen before, but the characters who encounter them here are often relegated to the cinematic sidelines. Resolutions seem awkwardly fresh, character dynamics squeamishly authentic, and a lot is accomplished in a short-n-sweet (ok sometimes not so sweet) 83 minutes.

The Skeleton Twins
{screens May 16 at 9:30pm at the Egyptian}
Amie and I agree on this one. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are amazing as estranged twins dealing with individual and family issues as they reunite in their native upstate New York town. The goings-on are very funny, but definitely not a laugh-a-minute: as SNL-alum projects go this one falls on the indigo end of the spectrum. But the jubilant scene you’ll be talking about, in which the pair lip-syncs for their lives, is as awe-inspiring as anything else I’ve seen at the movies all damn year. A glorious moment in a good-gloomy film.

A Time in Quchi
{screens May 18 at 5pm and May 19 at 3pm at the Uptown, and May 20 at 6:30pm at Lincoln Square}
This sweet, deliberate, very moving film, about a young man named Bao and the eventful summer he spends with his grandpa in the countryside outside Taipei, brings to mind the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda in its gorgeous evocation of the joys and trials of childhood. As sullen Bao makes new friends, deals with his hyper younger sister, and comes to terms with the fallout from his parents’ impending divorce, the viewer’s heart opens up right along with his.

Venus in Fur
{screens May 16 at 4pm at the Harvard, May 17 at 6:30pm at the Uptown}
A movie version of a play about a play about a novella. Got that? Roman Polanski’s version of David Ives’ chamber piece, about an actress auditioning for the stage adapter of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, is much less like a “filmed play” than a National Theatre Live screening. Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are great fun to watch as they engage in the requisite battle of wits and wiles. And Polanski gives it all a light touch, pleasingly infused with a dark, seedy energy.

TAKE OR LEAVE:

Beyond the Brick: A LEGO® Brickumentary
Beyond the Brick

{screens May 16 at 4pm at Lincoln Square, May 17 at 3:30pm and May 18 at 2:30pm at the Uptown}
Are you experiencing LEGO® brand fatigue lately? I know I am, but if you’re not you could do worse than this doc about the fans and creators of those omnipresent plastic bricks. A very irritating “narrator guy” LEGO® figure (voiced, as it turns out, by Jason Bateman) delivers broad, corporate-video caliber lines that each land with a distinct thud, but in moments when he is not on-screen there’s interesting stuff about the company’s history and presence in the various worlds of architecture, education, science, and art. Even so, this seems more like aLEGO® Movie Blu-ray extra than a sturdy standalone construction.

Clownwise
{screens May 16 at 6pm and May 17 at noon at the Uptown, and May 23 at 1:30pm at Lincoln Square}
A very sour Czech movie about a retired traveling clown who returns to Prague, eventually to reunite with the other two members of his estranged clowning trio for a final show. I found little to enjoy and much to be annoyed about in the clowns’ shticks — maybe that’s a culture-specific thing. But Finnish actress Kati Outinen made me think fondly of Kaurismaki, any of whose films I’d rather have been watching instead of Clownwise. Light, droll (and, ok, Kaurismakian) moments are few and far between here, but they’re nice when they come, and the ending is simply magical.

The Congress
{screens May 17 at 9:30pm at the Uptown, and May 24 at 9:30pm at Lincoln Square}
Ari Folman’s overlong followup to Waltz With Bashir is an often unpleasantly surreal live action-animation amalgam about a desperate aging actress named Robin Wright (nicely played by… Robin Wright) who sells her image to the virtual-reality dream world that was once a major movie studio. Iconography-filled animated sequences range from gleefully trippy to downright unpleasant, but Wright is consistently good both in the flesh and as a cartoon. Biz-focused discussions in the alternate present (clearly a House of Cards-less world) provide some great observations on the current and future states of cinema. Cannabis edibles were made for experiences like this.

DamNation
{screens May 18 at 4pm at the Egyptian, May 19 at 4:30pm at the Uptown, and May 28 at 7pm at Lincoln Square}
This documentary was produced by Patagonia®, and its target demo seems to be people who’d wear Patagonia® products (as do some of the film’s interviewees). Not that the topic isn’t an important one: the engineering of dams has negatively altered landscapes, wildlife populations, and watersheds across the US. Scientists, activists, and politicians all weigh in on the issue, and on what’s being done about it, but the real star of the show is co-director Ben Knight, who isn’t as interesting as the topic at hand and who narrates the film and who is in it A LOT. There’s some great info, and some powerful imagery, but even at 92 minutes it seems too dam long.

Half of a Yellow Sun
{screens as part of An Evening with Chiwetel Ejiofor on May 19 at 6pm at the Egyptian, with an encore screening May 20 at 4pm at the Egyptian}
Disjointed melodrama (based on a popular eponymous novel) that follows two England-educated sisters who’ve returned to their well-to-do family’s home in Nigeria in the late ’60s — just in time for that country’s civil war. One (Anika Noni Rose) falls for a dud of a married Brit; the other (Thandie Newton) goes for a sexy local radical academic (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Thankfully most of the film focuses on the latter couple, because they’re sort of in a different (ok, better) movie than everyone else. Numerous scenes completely sputter out, but the film’s excellent score and strikingly-rendered moments of terrifying chaos might have you believing, particularly in the back half, that you’re watching an amazing recent-historical epic.

Lucky Them
{screens May 22 at 7pm in Renton, and May 23 at 9:15pm at the Egyptian}
Amie enjoyed Megan Griffiths’ latest locally-produced project a little more than I did. It stars Toni Collette as a music writer (very little about her employment situation rings in any way true) searching for a legendary Seattle musician who notoriously vanished years prior. But it’s Thomas Haden Church, as her eccentric, wealthy acquaintance, wedging his way into the quest, who steals the movie. Everything about Lucky Them (no idea what the title is supposed to mean) looks great, but it seems simultaneously intended both for Seattle audiences (e.g., fun cameos by the likes of Charles Mudede and Linas Phillips) and for those who know nothing of the city (e.g., you don’t walk eastbound on Pike from Neumos and end up at the Crocodile).

SKIP:

Another
Another

{World Premiere. Screens May 17 at 5:30pm and May 18 at 2pm at the Uptown}
Phantasmagoric giallo-wannabe nonsense about a young woman who begins behaving strangely, possibly because she’s spawn of — a witch, maybe? Or demon? It’s never really clear, but very little is here. This is the type of movie in which a lead actress’s overdone eye makeup remains intact through a sexual assault, various life-or-death perils (presented in arbitrary slo-mo), and dialogue like “My mother is dead… I have the obituary.” Mascara expenses surely accounted for half the budget of this (bad) rubbish.

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