[Liberal Arts & Hello I Must Be Going]

I don’t know if this is true if you didn’t go to a small, liberal arts school, but I did, more or less, and there were times in the years since graduation where the Avenue Q song “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” defined my life.

I wish I could go back to college.
In college you know who you are.
You sit in the quad, and think, “Oh my God!
I am totally gonna go far!”

Josh Radnor is a few years older than me, but in Liberal Arts, his Jesse Fisher is also looking for “an academic advisor to point the way”. He works in college admissions in New York, and he gets a call from an old professor (Richard Jenkins, perfection as usual), inviting him back for his retirement celebration.

Back at his alma mater he meets 19 year old Zibby (yes, it is a ridiculous name, but you don’t care very much because she’s played by Elizabeth Olsen) & they strike up a friendship. It’s about wishing you could go back to college, and working out why that is not an awesome idea.

Liberal Arts is not breaking any new ground, but it’s a pleasant film, elevated by its cast, which in addition to the aforementioned includes Allison Janney, Elizabeth Reaser, and a scene-stealing turn by Zac Efron (no, really). There’s dialogue about how no one is really grown-up, but you have people like Richard Jenkins saying it, which makes it okay. It’s a dose of nostalgia and a cure for it all at once.

(I should mention that I do not watch “How I Met Your Mother”, and so I do not know what effect that might have on your experience watching a Josh Radnor film. So there you go. Also, I would like copies of the CDs Zibby sends Jesse, so if someone could get on that, that would be awesome.)

I saw Liberal Arts on a Monday evening at SIFF, and the next day I saw Todd Luiso’s film Hello I Must Be Going.

On the surface, Hello I Must Be Going is the same story, but with the gender roles reversed. Instead of going back to college after a breakup, Amy (Melanie Lynskey in a fantastic performance) goes back home after her divorce, which is as helpful for her mental health as you might imagine.

At an insufferable dinner party she meets 19 year old Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), a young presumed-gay actor who is the only other person at the party interested in being an actual human being. They connect, and then struggle to hide this bizarre relationship from both sets of parents.

Of the two, Liberal Arts is the most straight-forward accessible picture, but Hello I Must Be Going is the better film. I’m disappointed by its terrible IMDb score. The film is hard on Amy — she’s at a much lower point in her life when Hello begins than Jesse is in Arts, and she still has farther to fall, but it’s a much more interesting journey and a braver performance.

Liberal Arts continues at SIFF at the Uptown.
Hello I Must Be Going continues at Regal Meridian.

[SIFF weekend openings]

Opening Friday are three films that made their Seattle debut at SIFF. Hooray!

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I have a difficult relationship with Lynn Shelton. She’s darling of the Pacific Northwest filmmaking community, but the first film I saw of hers was Humpday, and lo, how I hated it and its typically Seattle faux-edginess and its overwhelming straight privilege. I hated it so much. Flames on the sides of my face! But everyone loved it and her, so I hated her too, just to be thorough. But then, to my surprise, I really liked her earlier film We Go Way Back, which showed in NWFF’s 2010 Arboring Film series. So I had no idea which way it would go for Your Sister’s Sister.

Luckily for all of us, it totally charmed me, so much so that I came back & saw it again at Opening Night. Your Sister’s Sister is the latest entry into my new favorite genre: the development of the unconventional family structure. It’s hard to discuss the plot without sounding like a Lifetime movie blurb writer, so suffice it to say that most of the action takes place in and around a waterfront cabin belonging to the family of Iris (Emily Blunt) & Hannah (Rosemary DeWitt). Iris sends her best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) up to the cabin to clear his head after the death of his brother; eventually all three of them wind up there and relationship drama ensues. Obviously.

In a lot of ways the story is ridiculous, but it’s a story driven by such strong character work that I was sold. It’s funny & sad & awkward & true. Just like life.

The film is also a visual love letter to the Pacific Northwest, full of gorgeous postcard shots. It’s so rare to have films set here that are also shot here, so it was a treat to have several in the festival this year.

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I saw The Woman in the Fifth with friends, and at the end of it one of them leaned over and said they wished there had been more mystery to it. Which was amazing to me, because so far as I was concerned the entire movie was mysterious.

Ethan Hawke stars as Tom Ricks, an American writer & professor who comes to Paris & is promptly relieved of his worldly possessions. This was the first of two films I saw at the festival this year where the action began when the main character was robbed of everything after falling asleep on public transportation. Let that be a lesson to us all.

Anyway. Thus freed, Ricks moves into a seedy hotel run by a seedy guy who gives him a seedy job. Along the way he encounters Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) with whom he has a mysterious affair. In what little spare time he has left he also has a fling with the Polish barmaid and a feud with his neighbor across the hall. The job gets weirder, people die, he’s possibly having flashbacks… It’s very mysterious. I am still full of questions.

That said, it’s beautifully shot, full of rich color, and everyone is excellent in it. I just sort of feel like I need to see it again. Maybe that’s why SIFF brought it back!

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Keyhole is also mysterious, but a mysterious I can handle. A Guy Maddin, hazy black-and-white, soaked-in-symbolism sort of mysterious. Jason Patric is Ulysses Pick, literally battling his way into his home with a crew of gangsters, then struggling past the ghosts of his family’s history in rooms and hallways to find his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), all the way at the top of the house, a sort of circumspect Penelope.

It’s not my favorite Maddin (that would be Brand Upon the Brain!) nor his most accessible (which is probably the alleged documentary My Winnipeg) but it is the strangest take on loss & memory & fatherhood & The Odyssey that you’re likely to see any time soon.

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Your Sister’s Sister opens Friday at the Egyptian.
The Woman in the Fifth opens Friday at SIFF at the Uptown.
Keyhole opens Friday at SIFF at the Film Center.

[A few friendly notes about SIFF]

This was my 16th year attending the Seattle International Film Festival. I was a volunteer, a ticket holder, a SIFF member, a Secret Festival-goer, and a member of the press. Lots of hats. I saw 70 films total, which is respectable. Yes, I have a lot more of them to write about, but first I have a few logistical observations about the festival itself:

* I love that there was a mobile site this year. I did not love how poorly it worked. For example, deep links need to redirect to mobile versions of the deep link, and not to the mobile front page. I can’t even tell you how many times I clicked on a Twitter or email link, & then backed right out of the site after it dumped me at the main page. Also, the mobile version of the checkout page needs to accept voucher and discount codes.

* I don’t know if it was harder to find how to redeem ticket packages this year, but it definitely seemed harder. Working will call, I printed off a lot of ticket package vouchers for people who could not work out how to redeem them online. This was uncommon in past years. I am relatively clever and I’ve bought discount ticket packages for years, and it still took me yonks to figure out how to find & use mine.

* I love volunteering for the festival. Love it. I absolutely will continue to volunteer in future. I did not experience any of the supervisor issues I heard about throughout festival. I judged audiences by whether or not they clapped for the volunteer program spot before films. However, I felt that the communication with volunteers was lacking this year, from training on the many logistical changes to general appreciation to understanding that people add & drop shifts all the time & reminding folks to check in on Shiftboard for new options.

Changing the voucher policy for the final weekend was a bad call. Either all venue volunteers get double vouchers or no one does. Obviously it’s great that folks swooped in & picked up last minute shifts, but people who sign up for final weekend shifts in advance *and* actually show up should not be effectively penalized for planning ahead.

Finally, where is the post-festival thank you? Is there a volunteer party this year or not?

* That said, it was a great year. I really liked that SIFF played on both screens at the Exit, that it opened and closed with local films, and that they did such great work with social media. I went to my first opening night, my first tribute as a ticket holder rather than a volunteer, and my first film up in Everett. I saw back-to-back cult films at the Egyptian, a four hour Russian musical, a kick-ass performance by Don’t Talk to the Cops, and a number of strong first features. I have recommendations for the Best of SIFF series that will go live on the Facebook page on Thursday, and there are several films that have distribution that I’ll be reminding you about throughout the summer. A good time was had by all, or at least by me. I’d just like next year to be even more SIFFtacular!

[SIFF 2012 Week One Features]

* Earthbound was the first genuinely terrible movie I saw at SIFF. Billed as a scifi romantic comedy, it’s about a guy who was told at age eleven that he’s an alien, and apparently never got over it. Amazingly, I had actual hopes for the movie because he’s told this by his father, who is played by David Morrissey. Unfortunately, it’s just bad.

The frustrating thing is that the concept has a lot of potential: a dying father tells his son that they’re aliens on the run, and the kid totally buys into the idea as a survival mechanism. But the film wants to have it all the ways — he’s really an alien! He’s really crazy! Wait, maybe not! — and it’s full of terrible jokes that fall flat & tired ideas like that it is a shocking turn of events when a pretty lady likes science fiction. Ugh.

* The story of two deaf teens who run off together, 170 Hz is okay. It’s gorgeously shot, and I found the sound design really interesting (though people seated near me thought it was inconsistent). That said, a solid half of the film is just the couple having sex. Which, whatever. If you’re into that, far be it from me to judge. But I wasn’t that into their relationship in general, let alone into endless close-ups of them expressing their supposed chemistry.

* Cloudburst is one of my favorite features of festival so far. The latest film from Thom Fitzgerald, it follows an elderly lesbian couple as they flee from Maine to Nova Scotia to get married. The film isn’t perfect; it gets occasionally bogged down in some Judge Judy-style family theatrics involving the granddaughter of one of the women.

However, Olympia Dukakis is a force of nature, and most of the picture concerns the accidental forming of an unconventional family with the couple and a young male hitchhiker they pick up along the way, all of which is fantastic. Also, if you’ve never seen a Thom Fitzgerald film, please drop what you’re doing & watch The Hanging Garden. I can wait.

* Finally, week one obviously included a Secret film. It was a lot of fun, as if __________ had directed a __________ take on __________.

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Earthbound plays Saturday 6/2, 9:30 at Pacific Place, Sunday 6/3, 2pm at SIFF at the Uptown, & Thursday 6/7, 6:30 at Pacific Place.
170 Hz plays Thursday 5/31, 9pm at Pacific Place, Thursday 6/7, 7pm at the Uptown, and Saturday 6/9, 2pm at Pacific Place.
Cloudburst has finished its run at the Festival, which figures. I’ll update this if it pops up in a TBA slot or at Best of SIFF.

[SIFF 2012 Week One Documentaries]

Holy pajamas, y’all. How are we into week two of SIFF already? So far I’ve seen 32 films, so it’s way past time I tell you about some of them.

First up, let’s tackle the documentaries:

* Dreams of a Life was a heartbreaking meditation on the life & death of Joyce Vincent, whose remains were found in her London bedsit three years after her death. It combines friend & coworker interviews with recreations of scenes from her life, both remembered & imagined. It’s the sort of story that makes everyone ask “how could that happen?”, but I think a lot of us are really asking “could that happen to me?”

The audience I saw it with seemed frustrated by the lack of hard answers, but it’s not as if director Carol Morley hadn’t tried to find them. There’s a great line in one of the official responses, denying the request for information because essentially “what interests the public is not always in the public’s interest”. So we don’t know why it took three years for someone to break down the door repossessing the flat. We don’t know why the utilities were never shut off for lack of payment, resulting in the tv still being switched on. We don’t know why she spent time in a DV shelter, let alone if that was the only time.

We do know, though, that to cut oneself off from the world that completely is at some point a willful act. You can be removed from friends. You can be removed from coworkers. It’s easier than a lot of people think to be removed from your family. But to arrive at a place in your life with zero lasting connections, for whatever reason, is not a thing that just happens.

* Free Throw was a straightforward piece on the 2011 Compton Free Throw scholarship competition, in which seniors who had achieved a 3.0 GPA or higher had their names drawn for one of eight chances to compete for a $40,000 scholarship. The runners-up got $1000, a disparity that I had a hard time with initially, but at the risk of spoilers, it all turns out better than that. (This year, anyway.) In between getting to know the students, there are also interviews with many of their teachers, all of whom speak to what it is to live and work in an area with such a reputation. The kids are all great. Bring tissues, if you are the type. You know who you are.

* The Standbys was a thin but enjoyable documentary on three actors who are standbys for (largely celebrity) leads in Broadway musicals. We learn about the challenges of being standby vs understudy vs swing. I can’t even imagine the tension of being so close to the dream of being on Broadway, the exhaustion of having to be prepared to, at moment’s notice, kick ass in a role, but then possibly never having the chance to go on.

* Finally, Under African Skies is the documentary I can’t stop talking about. I only saw a DVD screener, and I hope it makes Best of SIFF so I can see it with an audience. It’s a revisiting of the creation of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, and it does an impressive job of telling the story of the controversy clearly, and especially of respecting all of the stakeholders. I came out of it pleasantly surprised by Simon. It is not an easy thing to examine one’s own power & privilege and acknowledge where you have been wrong, and I can only suppose that is a harder task when you’re in the public eye.

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Free Throw plays Friday 6/1, 7pm & Saturday 6/2, 2:30pm, both screenings at SIFF at the Uptown.
The Standbys plays Saturday 6/2, 5:30pm at SIFF at the Uptown and Monday 6/4, 4pm at the Harvard Exit.
Look for Under African Skies on A&E.