This is probably my last Despatch for SIFF 2018, but if I skipped a film you’re particularly curious about, hit me up here or on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll see what I can do. Skipping a title doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; it just means I wasn’t immediately inspired to do 75 words on it & I don’t have an editor to force the issue. My full list is here; just do a search on SIFF2018 (or scroll down).
Wild Nights with Emily
This low budget, high concept film was such fun, providing a fresh and irreverent interpretation of the text by juxtaposing the poetry of Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) with the likely longtime romantic relationship she had with her brother’s wife, Susan (Susan Ziegler). Amy Seimetz is perfectly insufferable as the straightwasher of history and framing device. Gets slightly wobbly when the tone darkens. Not just for queer English majors (but goodness, itís a treat for us!)
A lovely film about an alienated housewife (Kelly Macdonald) who discovers a world outside her family through jigsaw puzzle competitions with teammate Robert (Irrfan Khan). What could have been a cookie cutter story is enriched by nuanced characters (everyone maybe needed to be shook up a bit, to think about and communicate their wants and needs for a change) and thoughtful cinematography (her home is all over dark browns, while his is full of sunshine).
My Name Is Myeisha
Almost more of an art piece, this is a filmed production of the complete text of Rickerby Hinds’ spoken word play, Dreamscape. Largely shot on minimalist sets, this film brings you into the rhythms of the life of Myeisha through her death, a fictionalized account of a victim of police violence. Myeisha is fully inhabited by Rhaechyl Walker who originated the role on stage and describes her life through each bullet wound on her body.
Chedeng & Apple
Two ladies in their 60s head out on a road trip after their husbands die. The twist? Newly-out Chedeng is trying to find her first girlfriend decades later. And Apple? She’s on the run because she killed her abusive partner. Oh, and she’s carrying his head around in a Louis Vuitton bag. Like you do. This updated Thelma and Louise (albeit with a much happier ending) was a delight for my last day of festival.
A montage film telling the 20th century history of queer people and gay rights in Britain through film and newsreel footage in the BFI, Queerama surprised me by not being as white and male as I had expected. Though obviously the film deals with heavy themes, it also felt like a celebration, this thanks to the use of music, primarily by John Grant, and to the smart curation of clips that illustrated joy and desire.
If you’re in Seattle, it plays again at NWFF, June 13-17.
A Rough Draft
A mediocre white dude is Chosen, for vague reasons, to be the eternal customs official at a portal to parallel universes. Not how I would hire for a government position, but you do you. Some fun effects, particularly when he strays too far away from his portal and turns translucent, but I expect some aspects of the thin story have more depth if your Russian history is better. Bonus star for the matryoshka attack drones.
The Empty Hands
When Mari’s father dies, he leaves part of his dojo to her, but the controlling interest to a former student. He’ll sign it over, but first she must prove herself as a fighter. There’s an interesting story here about expectations and the pressure we put on ourselves, but the film told the wrong part, including ages on her love life, plus a completely extraneous pedophile ring subplot that served only to develop a male character.
My Big Gay Italian Wedding
I didn’t believe most of this movie about a gay couple returning home to announce both their queerness and their engagement, but also it didn’t really matter. It would be the perfect fluff recommendation except that there is a trans woman character who is treated as a joke for most of the film. She has some lovely moments towards the end, but when audience laughter is just because a trans person exists, that’s a problem.
This is the clearest contender from SIFF for my end-of-year favorites. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s easy chemistry defines the stakes in this story of a man just three days from being off parole and the old friend who is putting his success at risk. It’s a story about friendship, gentrification, race and class, and how hard we must work to change our perspectives. The tension cranks up organically, but it’s also sharp and hilarious.
This worked better for me than for others, partly due to the depth I brought from the novel. A common criticism is the focus on Nivola’s character of Dovid; however, it would have benefitted from more, reflecting the deep roots the three had in the book, a strong, clear unit from childhood. Rachel McAdams was excellent, everything simmering under the surface, but she still felt miscast. Powerful for being a story about truths still undertold.
There’s a point in this documentary about the rise and fall of Elvis and the USA where I realized they were (essentially) never going to interview women. Ethan Hawke has as much screen time as all the women combined. There are flashes of insight (especially with the inclusion of voices like Chuck D) but it attempts to do two or three things (it was re-edited after the 2016 Presidential election) and doesn’t do them well.
The goal of this film seems to be: set the (presumably white) audience with the expectation that something terrible is going to happen to Tyler, not actually do it, and then have the audience sit with their disappointment that they didn’t get to see that violence happen.
What actually happened is that I grew increasingly anxious watching a drunken frat party. There’s a difference between wanting something bad to happen and worrying that it will.
The story of a sexual assault and its aftermath, what makes it interesting is its gender reversal. It’s not going to work for everyone and I don’t entirely buy the ending, but for me the story of a young woman growing up and finding independence from a toxically masculine environment was worth telling. Figuring out who you want to be when those around you don’t support that change is hard work. (PS The puppy’s safe.)
A low budget experiment, this film is made up of eight shorts, each ten minutes long, shot in single takes, directed by and starring Maori women, and all focused on the same ten minutes in a day marked by the funeral for a young boy. Some shorts are stronger than others, but the single take format helps them fit together as a package. (Downside: single take swoopiness on the big screen might cause motion sickness.)
The Devil’s Doorway
A found footage movie that never entirely evades the question of why they’re still filming, this one worked on me thanks to its 1960s Magdalene laundry setting. Those places were horror films in their own right, and this film is just a half a step away from the truth as two priests go to investigate a potential miracle and find a lot more Church sanctioned horror than they had expected. Bonus points for creepy children.
The Widowed Witch
Both deeply sad and dryly funny, this story of a thrice widowed woman in rural China reclaiming her power was a surprise favorite. Deemed a witch by those around her, she embraces the label, solving issues with a keen eye to the humanity at work. There are limits, though, even for a witch. Beautifully shot, predominantly in long, wide, static takes (though there is a potentially triggering sequence from her POV early in the film).
It never would have occurred to me to put Jay Duplass in space; maybe I was wrong about that. This indie scifi never quite jelled for me – the combination of difficulty hearing dialogue through helmet distortion plus my irritation at the blatant Mal Reynolds impression of Pedro Pascal’s character got in the way – but I loved the DIY retro design of it all, the lush rainforest setting, and the lead actress, Sophie Thatcher.
A man sits at the back table at a diner all day long, (all white) people come to him with their wishes, and he assigns them a (generally horrible) task to complete to have the wish granted. More engaging than you’d expect from a single-location film, & I dug trying to work out how the threads might connect, but it was missing something for me. It ended exactly the way I wanted it to, though.
See You Up There
A story of Great War veterans attempting to profit off war profiteers, this film relies on several improbable coincidences, but worked for me thanks to its heightened sense of reality. Also, I’m a sucker for brothers-in-arms stories, especially this borderline queer, Louise Has Two Daddies situation. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, of last year’s terrific BPM, was the perfect choice for the wounded, masked veteran with his huge, expressive eyes. I need a copy of the score.
Making the Grade
Rather than following individuals through testing in a high stakes pass/fail situation, this documentary on piano students working their way through the grade system in Ireland introduces us to students and their teachers at each level. The students (not all young people, also not all white) are seen in their homes as well as in lessons with their kind, firm, and often quietly hilarious teachers. A lovely slice of many lives, funny, moving, perfectly paced.