[Seattle Jewish Film Festival 2011]

I don’t think I’ve ever made it out to the Seattle Jewish Film Festival before, but this year a fellow 3 Dollar Bill volunteer gave me two vouchers, so I was able to check it out. I will definitely be back!

* Nora’s Will intrigued me for the intersection of Mexican & Jewish cultures. The film opens with Nora’s death, and as her ex-husband takes on her funeral arrangements, he challenges her attempts to manipulate the world after she has left it, and discovers that she knew him better than he could ever have hoped to know her. Delightful, subtle, and beautifully acted. Screened with the dark comic short “Banana Bread”. Both recommended.

* He’s My Girl was the film cosponsored by 3 Dollar Bill, which is running it again in next month’s Translations Film Festival. The lead is basically a tool, a musician trying to seduce one young man, while actually being in a secret relationship with a transgender Arab. Complications are kicked up a notch when his ill mother moves in with him and his ex-wife and estranged son reappear. It was more or less Almodovar lite (& French), and I prefer Actual Almodovar. Possibly because when his leads are tools the film acknowledges it and/or manages to make them sympathetic anyway.

[Pickups: February. Revival edition.]

* The Little Princess screened as part of the Children’s Film Festival. This was the 1917 adaptation starring Mary Pickford, and the Film Forum got me in with the magic words “live score”. Performed by Leslie McMichael on three harps, it was a perfect match to a great hour of classic silent melodrama.

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the Children’s Film Festival audience was one of the best behaved I have ever experienced. Adults would do well to take a lesson from them. (Especially, ironically, paying audiences. Free screening audiences know to put the damn phones away.)

* As a tie-in with the SciFi and Fantasy Short Films, SIFF Cinema again ran a series of SciFi on Blu-ray. (Yes, film would be better. But Blu-ray in a theater is still light years ahead of my TV. Plus, audience! And leaving the house! Anyway.) Last year I made it out for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which put me to sleep every damn time I tried to watch it on video, but in the theater? It is just as brilliant as everyone says. If you have the opportunity, take it.)

This year was a change of pace from that, with a double feature of Time Bandits and Galaxy Quest. The former I had never seen before & found utterly charming, and the latter I have long adored, even though I have never seen any Star Trek at all. It still totally works, and it was a treat to see them both on the big screen.

* Earth Girls Are Easy is an 80s classic, terrible and also awesome, and quite formative in my, uh, perception of Jeff Goldblum. In other news, it’s for the best that I don’t live closer to Central Cinema, or I would be there every damn night.

* I saw the American cut of John Woo’s historical epic Red Cliff when it was released in 2009, and was unimpressed. I did think it was unfair to judge on half of the film (especially considering what a fan I am of the talent it had both in front of and behind the camera), so I was delighted when SIFF Cinema programmed the complete version. All 16 reels of it! (insert dreamy sigh).

It truly was a totally different feature, and though there were melodramatic and overly sentimental moments, they felt better earned this time around. The sex scene was still boring, though. Sad but true. The action was epic, dramatic, and absolutely clear, which is not always a given; the cinematography was beautiful; and I can’t imagine seeing it anywhere but on the big screen.

…also, can we take a moment to scan that list of films and giggle about the fact that they are all technically revival? A silent film, scifi/fantasy cheese, and a Chinese epic. Awesome.

[Best of SIFF: Day 2]

* The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is that film we always wanted and never knew we needed: a documentary about yodeling lesbian twins from New Zealand. If you think that sounds intriguing, you’ll love it. Which I did. If it makes you want to claw your ears off, that is fair. Not all the movies are for you.

* Later in the day, I overheard a conversation regarding Ginny Ruffner: A Not So Still Life, where they said that Ginny was clearly more talented than the filmmakers telling her story, and I do think that is true. It couldn’t quite decide what sort of a documentary it wanted to be, and I feel like there is a lot more to know about Ruffner, but I appreciated the opportunity, such as it was, to peek into her world.

* Hipsters was just a crazy lot of fun, a candy-colored musical with plenty of painfully pretty young people rebelling against the conformity of Soviet Russia. I loved it, from the costumes to the cinematography to the choreography, and the 125 minute running time flew past. A++ would boogie again.

* Continuing the musical theme (more or less) next up was Nowhere Boy, the early days of John Lennon biopic. Which was fine, solid stuff, but after sex & drugs & rock & roll I’m finding myself with less patience for the solid biopic. But it is what it is. Aaron Johnson is excellent as Lennon, though there is something Casey Affleck-y about his facial structure that was distracting. Also, seriously. Thomas Sangster (Paul McCartney) is allegedly 20? But he’s looked 11, tops, in everything (Doctor Who, Bright Star, etc). Someday he’ll grow up properly and I won’t recognize him anymore. Hell of an actor, though the best part of this movie was definitely the women in Lennon’s life: his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) & his estranged mother (Anne-Marie Duff). They were fantastic.

* Cell 211 was the last film of the night and the best film of the day. Winner of several Goya awards, it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller set during a prison riot. A newly-hired guard is touring the prison the day before his first day of work when the riot breaks out, and due to an injury moments before, he’s left behind when all the other guards escape. He poses as a new prisoner and has some good ideas of his own that help earn what little trust the leader Malamadre has to give. It’s a complex web of motivations (of guard & prisoner alike), and the cast is amazing. Definitely earned its place in the best of festival.

[K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces]

I got a ticket for K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces thinking it would be a cheesy Japanese pulp movie, and that at the very least Takeshi Kaneshiro would be gorgeous in it. I came out of it in love. With the film, that is. I was pretty nuts for Kaneshiro already.

It’s basically a Japanese swashbuckling superhero movie. Kaneshiro is a circus performer (pardon me while I swoon. No, really) who is framed as the true identity of the titular K-20, a masked supervillian who has been stealing art all over a non-WWII AU Japan. He escapes the police thanks to a band of thieves, and with their help he studies from the old masters of thievery so that he can challenge K-20 and clear his name. Pretty straightforward comic book stuff, but it was great fun. Something I enjoy about Kaneshiro is that even though he’s beautiful, he doesn’t take himself seriously; he’s forever in roles where he gets to make fun of himself, and there is pretty much nothing I like better than that. This role was no different — he wants to clear his name so he can get back to the circus! Awesome.

The whole thing is a fun, steampunkesque ride, and doesn’t feel nearly as long as its running time, even as it hits all the requirements of the genre. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it includes an awesome lady: the fiancée of the chief inspector, who kicks ass all over the place and is the rescuer far more often than the rescued.

It ends with a genre-required sequel set-up, and I really hope it’s happening. Even more, I hope I’ll get to see it with a festival audience. This was one of the rare times where I was grateful a film wasn’t in English; I would have lost too many lines to laughter if it hadn’t been subtitled. Good times!

[Documentary time!]

Prodigal Sons, one of the more popular documentaries at SIFF 2009, returned for a week’s run at SIFF Cinema this winter. Filmed by Kimberly Reed, it’s a documentary that one thought it was going to be about her class reunion after her gender transition, and turned out to be quite different, recording the strain on her family as her (adoptive) brother went through some identity issues of his own. In fact, her appearance at the reunion is easily the least-tense thing about the entire feature. Reed has transitioned away from the man her brother always wished he was. Utterly compelling, but with potentially triggering scenes of family violence.

As probably all of you know, I’m a big fan of street art, so I was pretty stoked to score a pass for Exit Through the Gift Shop, aka the Banksy movie. It purportedly is a street art documentary filmed in part by a French shop keeper named Thierry Guetta, and I’m in the camp who thinks it’s really a Banksy performance piece. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s pretty brilliant. It’s tremendously entertaining, including heist-like sequences and even an origin story (though superhero or supervillain we have yet to see), Guetta is a character in all meanings of the word, both Banksy and Shepard Fairey come off well in it, and Banksy’s a hell of a filmmaker. And all of those things are true regardless of if the film itself is true.

Finally, on a totally unrelated note, Babies was proof positive that I was born without a biological clock. The kids were all freakin’ adorable, but I still have no desire for one of my own. The documentary is beautifully shot & very straightforward: it follows four babies (in Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco, & Tokyo) for the first year of their life. There’s no narration (which I think is a strength), and very little speaking in general. The (non-subtitled) conversations adults have are not the point; it’s all about the babies learning to interact with their very different worlds in very similar ways. Is there more to it than that? No, not really. Which was totally fine with me.