Three Imaginary Girls

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The Imposter

A gritty South African noir, a gorgeous French-Canadian melodrama, and a cloying gay "message movie" from right here in the US of A are among the hits and misses on offer during SIFF 2012's first full week.  

Highlights for Monday-Sunday, 5/21 – 5/27:


Elena{screens May 24 at 7pm at Pacific Place}
Gripping, stylish, gorgeously crafted Russian tale of a coveted bequest, pitiless class conflict, and the misdeeds of a tenuous marriage. He's rich, in poor health, and drawing up a will; her lazy son's trashy family needs dough. But noted filmmaker Andrei Zvyaginstev (The Return) doesn't allow their story to follow any prescribed path. Tension arrives in slight movements and subtle unravelings; it's a beautifully slow burn, and patience is rewarded manifold. Feast your eyes.

How to Survive a Plague
{screens May 21 at 9pm at Pacific Place}
Outsiders throughout history have been organizing to solve seemingly insurmountable problems; the dilemma du jour in mid-'80s NYC was the AIDS crisis. This marvelously thorough documentary focuses on organizations ACT-UP and TAG, their struggles with prevailing ideas of the day and their roles in the mid-'90s breakthrough of combination therapy. Via amazing archival footage we see the activists age and progress over the course of three presidential administrations and millions of deaths. A passionate and extraordinarily moving account of a hard-won turning point.

The Imposter
{screens May 23 at 8:30pm at the Uptown, May 29 at 9pm at the Harvard Exit}
Spellbinding, infuriating, beautifully executed documentary thriller about a French Algerian mystery-man who in 1997 passed himself off as a missing San Antonio teen, fooling international officials and (most astoundingly) the boy's actual family. Queasiness in the first half ends abruptly when an awesomely old-school local P.I. rolls in (complete with Johnny Cash fanfare) and gets the show on the road, leading the crazy-ass story to an edge-of-your-seat climax. The film satisfies, even if the real-life outcomes do not.

Las Acacias
{screens May 26 at 4pm at the Harvard Exit, May 28 at 5:30pm at the Uptown}
Naturalistic performances and a heartrending sense of discovery make for a sweet, poignant South American road movie. A gruff truck driver has agreed to let a young woman ride with him from Paraguay to Argentina; he's not thrilled when she shows up with a baby in tow. But he gradually eases up as the trip progresses and as a connection forms, to the mom and the kid, and there's an understated loveliness in beholding these characters revealing themselves and coming to life.

Starry Starry Night
{Screens May 22 at 9:30pm at Pacific Place}
Charming magical-realist tale of Mei, a 13-year-old who occasionally escapes to a personal fantasy world and who finds a kindred companion in introverted and similarly troubled Lee. The first hour is oddly airless — but then, when troubles deepen and the kids run away in search of a happier moment, their story takes dazzling flight. I dare your eyes to remain dry when the response to "Why doesn't the mist go away?" is, quite simply, "Give it time."

{screens May 22 at 9:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
Guy Édoin's captivating feature debut will surely go down as a SIFF 2012 highlight. The story, about a dairy farm family in Québec's Eastern Townships, focuses on 17-year-old Simon as he broods and deals with raging hormones and comes of age. His mom and dad's individual struggles compete with the farm's imminent bankruptcy; this family just cannot catch a break. And their situation only devolves in the aftermaths of a series of bad decisions, leading to the appearance of an awful douchebag drifter who doesn't help anyone's situation. As bits of characters' pasts are uncovered, subtly and gradually, a resonant rural melodrama plays out before our awe-stricken eyes.


38 Witnesses
38 Witnesses{screens May 21 at 6:30pm at the Uptown, May 23 at 8:30pm in Renton, and May 28 at 9:15pm at the Egyptian}
I generally favor movies that confirm the sorry state of humanity, but 38 Witnesses' execution reminds me a bit of AMC's misguided series The Killing, whose creators were (and maybe still are; I quit watching after season 1) also under the impression that protracted slow periods will always, in every circumstance, no matter how frequently the chain is yanked and the dead horse is beaten, make sporadic dramatic bursts more powerful; i.e., the boring kind of slow-burn. This grim French flick, inspired by an infamous 1960s NYC murder and relocated to present-day Le Havre, examines a community's social responsibility, or lack thereof, when a brutal crime happens in a seemingly oblivious neighborhood. At least there isn't a constant downpour.

Cracks in the Shell
{screens May 22 at 9pm at the Egyptian, and May 25 at 9:30pm in Everett}
An unsteady, burdened, determined student actress named Fine (Stine Fischer Christensen) gets a coveted lead role in a near-masochist director's play, surprising her instructor and classmates. The character she's playing is self-destructive, irresponsible and sex-crazed — qualities Fine soon finds herself emulating, all while dealing with emotionally exhausting responsibilities at home and an unsatisfying near-relationship with a hottie in a facing window. A well-acted, Black Swan-ish psychodrama that would've been much better with 10 minutes or so shaven from its flabby midsection.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
{screens May 22 at 4:30pm at Pacific Place}
The Duplass International Film Festival continues with the latest directorial effort from bros Jay and Mark. The character Mark (Steve Zissis) plans on a peaceful birthday weekend with his wife and son at his childhood home when estranged brother Jeremy (Mark Kelly) busts in uninvited. Old rivalries boil and, contrary to better judgment, the two resurrect their titular 25-event childhood competition. The film's first half is ugly and joyless, but the story progresses as the manchildren regress.

{screens May 21 at 4:30pm at the Uptown, and May 29 at 8:30pm in Everett}
Local filmmaker (and Stranger Genius shortlister) Megan Griffiths brings us the unsettling based-on-reality story of one Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung), who accepts the wrong ride home one wild night and soon finds herself imprisoned somewhere beneath Las Vegas in a colony of sex slaves. She's re-named "Eden" and her ordeal lasts for more than two years; she survives it by building the trust of boss Beau Bridges' (!) right hand man, Vaughan (Matt O'Leary). Eden is tough to watch at times, but I wonder if it's tough enough — it doesn't pack the wallop something this eye-opening should. Still, it is well-executed, features some very good performances, and has an ending that's hopeful if not quite satisfying.

The Eye of the Storm
{screens May 25 at 6:30pm in Renton, May 26 at 4pm and May 27 at 6:30pm at the Egyptian}
Odd and unwieldy angst-of-the-rich Australian film, based on a Patrick White novel, about a fading matriarch (Charlotte Rampling) who holds a manipulative grip on her estranged would-be heirs (Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis). A fine and extremely watchable cast gives some truly good performances, but the film is overlong and the juicy material could have been executed with a touch more flash/trash.

Gimme the Loot
{screens May 26 at 9:15pm and May 28 at 4pm at Pacific Place}
Two graffiti-writing NYC teens attempt a complicated challenge — to tag the Home Run Apple at Shea Stadium — after one of their rooftop works is defaced by a rival gang. The film features very appealing leads, a pleasing urban energy and a nice youthful vibe overall. It also often has the slapdash look and feel of a debut indie, but I predict we'll see great things from director Adam Leon in years to come.

{screens May 23 at 4pm at the Harvard Exit, May 30 at 9:30pm at the Uptown}
Nicely stylish Dutch film about, per the SIFF description, "a young woman's longing to connect with her elusive father and her compulsive and transgressive sexual route to emotional maturity." The dark subject matter may've seemed more daring and original pre-Shame. Performances are good, but the execution feels shaky and fragmented — and maybe that's the point.

How to Steal 2 Million
{screens May 27 at 8:30pm and May 29 at 3:30pm at the Uptown, May 31 at 8:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
Released after five years in prison, a badass named Jack discovers that his loyalty to his ex-partner-in-crime has been rewarded with betrayal, leading him to pursue one last lucrative heist. Aside from the Johannesburg setting, there's not a lot here that you haven't already seen in crime drama — double crosses, stashed loot, femmes fatales, cigar-cutter mutilations — but if this is your kind of thing, you could do much worse than this South African noir lite.

Liberal Arts  
{screens May 22 at 7pm at Pacific Place, May 27 at 6pm at the Uptown}
Indie romcom (though it's short on the 'com' part) about a 35-year-old bookworm and lost soul (Josh Radnor) who returns to his alma mater to honor a retiring professor and finds his life reinvigorated by a spirited sophomore (Elizabeth Olsen). The cast is undeniably engaging — I could almost recommend the film on Allison Janney's performance alone, and even Zac Efron is fun in a small role — but inefficiencies in script and direction keep this one off the Dean's List.

Safety Not Guaranteed
{screens May 23 at 7pm and May 25 at 4:30pm at the Uptown}
An unusual classified ad inspires three Seattle journalists (including Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Rec and Jake Johnson of New Girl) to investigate an eccentric supermarket clerk (Mark Duplass, again), who believes he's solved the riddle of time travel. A quirky journey ensues, of course. Great cast and fun cameos (look, it's Kristen Bell! And Lynn Shelton!), but this wildly uneven film, despite a lovely ending, just doesn't quite achieve the offbeat emotional payoff it aims for.

Step Up to the Plate
{screens May 26 at 1:30pm and May 29 at 6:45pm at the Egyptian, June 1 at 6:30pm in Kirkland}
Smart and poignant despite its unfortunate English title, this mouthwatering documentary follows famed restaurateur Michel Bras as he prepares to hand over the reins of his three-star eatery in remote Laguiole, France to his son Sébastien. The film doesn't have the emotional heft of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, or the narrative drive of Kings of Pastry, but the Bras' spectacular creations make this a solid bet for food-doc fans.

{screens May 23 at 6:30pm and May 24 at 3:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
A floundering Paris novelist sets up shop in Venice in an effort to unlock his writer's block; he gets more than he bargained for when the locals' dramas start playing out around him. Attractive Euro-settings and an interesting (if sprawling) narrative keep things relatively watchable, but inaccessible characters and their often incomprehensible choices keep the proceedings oddly distant.


Any Day Now
Any Day Now{screens May 26 at 6pm and May 27 at 2:30pm at the Harvard Exit}
Frustrating based-on-reality weeper that features quite possibly the worst filmed drag performance since Holiday Heart. A closeted gay couple in late-'70s L.A. (Alan Cumming and Garrett Dillahunt, aka the dad from Raising Hope) become unofficial foster parents to an unwanted teenager with Down Syndrome (Isaac Leyva) after his druggie mom is put away — then things go horribly awry when authorities discover the true nature of Alan and Garrett's relationship. Don Franklin eventually pops up in a small role, sporting a bad afro wig but providing a much-needed spark in an otherwise maudlin and burdensome dud.

Sleepwalk with Me
{screens May 23 at 9pm at the Uptown}
Topics covered in Mike Birbiglia's attempt to bring his one-man show to the big screen include adventures in standup, struggles with chronic sleepwalking, and attempts at holding down a successful long-term relationship (girlfriend played by Lauren Ambrose, whose musical number toward the end is the highlight). Maybe this material works in its off-Broadway incarnation, or as a This American Life segment, but unless you happen to be a die-hard Birbiglia fan it's not appealing or interesting enough to carry an 80-minute movie.

{screens May 24 at 4pm at the Egyptian}
A Danish sports agent named Anna (the usually brilliant Paprika Steen) has left her creepazoid teen son and estranged husband in chilly Copenhagen and taken up residence in caliente Buenos Aires with a hunky futbol star (charismatic and frequently nude Sebastian Estevanez, the best part of the movie). The story commences as the husband and son visit unexpectedly, with all the fish-out-of-water non-hilarity you expect. Subsequent action goes down during a big local soccer match called the Superclásico: events transpire that make the husband look like even more of a schlub, all while the son has a ridiculous love affair with a completely different hot local. Silly garbage, and not the fun kind.

Year of Grace
{screens May 25 at 6:30pm and May 26 at 4pm at Pacific Place, May 27 at 3:30pm in Everett}
If you enjoy spending time with selfish, exasperating assholes, this is the movie for you. Young wannabe go-getter David (asshole #1) moves from his podunk village to Barcelona — very little of which we actually get to see — on a university program that arranges room and board with a cantankerous local elder lady named Grace (asshole #2). The two eventually develop an unlikely friendship, and interact with other assholes, and very little happens that doesn't involve general assholery. Even the title pisses me off. I wish I'd skipped it.

For selections through 5/20, check out my Opening Weekend roundup. Happy SIFFing!