[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.

[Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival]

* Paulista, a Brazilian film about a collection of folks living in the same building in São Paulo never really clicked for me. It was fine. I gave it a 3 out of 5 at the time, but I can’t remember anything about it less than a month later. So it goes.

* Eyes Wide Open is the film I was probably most excited about seeing, and was definitely the best film I saw at the festival. In an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, butcher Aaron extends a kindness to newcomer Ezri, giving him a job and a place to stay. This being the film festival it is, there’s no question where their relationship will end up, of course, but it makes its way there truthfully. A beautiful, internal film from director Haim Tabakman (first feature) and first time screenwriter Merav Doster, it conveys the pain of not fitting into such a restrictive community while still respecting the desire for the benefits of such a society. I look forward to future projects from them both.

* Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna describes the creation and production of Wainwright’s first opera in the standard documentary format, but was satisfying all the same. It’s worth seeing for fans of Wainwright, of course, but also for anyone interested in music, opera, or the creative process in general. It’s always a joy to see people with a passion for their task at work.

* The Purple Sea suffered unfairly in presentation: there were problems with the sound (that kept resolving themselves just as I resolved to go out and speak to someone, only to return later), and the audience was ridiculous, in particular several people playing with phones throughout drove me crazy. Cut that shit out, people! The film itself is an Italian melodrama, beautiful ladies in love in a town full of dark secrets. It’s a throwback sort of lesbian story in a lot of ways, with the twist that eventually one of the ladies is declared to be male. The way that the new gender presentation plays out both in the town and within the relationship made it worth watching.

* I volunteered at the closing night film, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, and was lucky enough to be able to see it. I regret not being able to see The Real Anne Lister earlier in the week. It was a documentary on Lister and her diaries, both on cracking the code of them and also on the content, and would I think have enriched the experience of the film.

The Secret Diaries was a BBC television costume drama rather than a theatrical film, but it was still absorbing watching a character so full of certainty as to who she was and what she wanted. She had no doubt as to the life she deserved, and was lucky enough to be in a financial position to make it happen for herself. Lister was a Yorkshire heiress in the early 19th century, and the film focuses largely on her unhappy early relationship with the married Marianne. I would have liked to know more about her later relationship, her travels, and her business, so now I definitely need to seek out the documentary.

[A Matter of Size]

A charming Israeli movie in the tradition of The Full Monty, A Matter of Size is the story of a group of fat friends who have had enough of body hating diet groups and opt to give the health-at-any-size world of sumo a try.

The world is not all sunshine and roses: sumo is a club for men only, to the disappointment of at least one woman, and though the film is on the whole really good about the gay character and bear culture, there is one pretty upsetting line delivered to him. Aside from that, it’s a pretty by-the-book story about finding your bliss despite the haters, regardless of if the negativity is coming from the world, your friends, your family, or yourself.

I had been nervous going into it — there is a fine line between laughing with people and laughing at them — but I was relieved to see that the film fell on the right side of that line. In a lot of ways it’s a formula movie, but there’s nothing wrong with a formula elegantly executed.

Two cast/crew notes: The reluctant coach is played by Togo Igawa, who just graced SIFF’s screens this spring in the Golden Space Needle Award winner The Hedgehog, which has me wondering just how many languages he speaks.

Co-director Erez Tadmore also codirected Strangers, a bittersweet romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian who meet in Berlin during the World Cup Finals. It was a selection at SIFF a few years ago.

Verdict: See the original version before the inevitable tone-deaf American remake happens.

[Best of SIFF: Day 3]

* I love short films, but they can be ridiculously hit or miss. The Best of SIFF shorts package was the perfect solution. Every film in it was well-done, regardless of if it was to my taste. Notable to me: Glenn Owen Dodds (with David Wenham playing God as sort of a harried middle manager), Off Season (horror/thriller), and The Little Dragon (stop motion with a Bruce Lee action figure).

* Wasteland was one of my favorite documentaries of the festival, though still falling behind my beloved Marwencol. It follows an artist, Vik Muniz, as he works with the pickers outside of Rio de Janeiro in Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world. They collect, sort, and resell the recyclables from the dump, and Muniz organizes some of them for a large scale photography project incorporating the materials they work with. Through it we get to know the pickers/artists, challenging assumptions about the people who do that work and why.

There are problematic elements of it, though I think the film doesn’t shy away from that. Muniz is upfront about how lucky he is to have changed his circumstances; we visit the São Paulo home where he grew up, but he now lives in New York. Also, I think Walker is not entirely comfortable with Muniz’s position of power, and makes the entirely correct decision to focus largely on the pickers themselves, their pasts, their interests, and how their lives are affected by Muniz for better or for worse.

* The Concert was a totally charming fable about a Russian conductor-turned-janitor, a loss of status due to refusing to fire Jewish musicians. 25 years later he intercepts an invitation for the current orchestra to play in Paris, and pulls together the original team to put on a show. Is it improbable? Of course. Do I care? Not a bit.

* Mao’s Last Dancer was a pretty infuriating final SIFF selection. I have no idea how it scored so high among the audience. I spent some time looking up other reviews, trying to figure out what other people saw in it. It didn’t really clarify things. Instead, I came across things like this, from Time Out Sydney: “A scene in which [ballet director Ben] Stevenson, a driven but gentle and nurturing man, has to explain to Li the meaning of a racist term, is quite affecting.” No. Stevenson was a manipulative asshole, and since he didn’t have enough respect for Li to tell him what the term actually meant, he lied. Affecting, I suppose, but certainly not in the way implied. Whatever, people.

Anyway. Based on the memoir by Li Cunxin, Dancer tells the story of how he was removed from his family at the age of 11 to study ballet in Beijing, a chance event that eventually brought him the the United States to dance in Houston. To stay in the country despite the wishes of the Chinese government, he marries fellow dancer Elizabeth (Amanda Schull from Center Stage, still a mediocre actress, in case you were wondering). Elizabeth, by the way, is treated horribly by Li, by the consulate, and by everyone associated with the Houston Ballet, apparently for the crimes of being a) female and b) not a brilliant dancer. So aggravating.

I thought Joan Chen was marvelous as his mother, but then, she’s always fabulous. She deserved better than this role where, in film’s cringe-worthy emotional climax she and Li’s father are brought up on stage to be reunited with Li at the end of a performance. All the more appalling, really, because I’m sure that’s how it actually happened. Because, as aforementioned, Stevenson was a manipulative asshole. I’m getting angry again just thinking about it.

I did appreciate the unashamedly 80s set design & cinematography. Oh, and of course the dancing. (So far as I know, which is not far because I know fuck-all about ballet.) But that’s about it. The rest was overlong, poorly written, heavy-handed, and generally insulting.

(Also, hee. I had totally forgotten that Li had remarried until I read it in another review. So that should give you some idea of how underdeveloped *that* relationship was. If by underdeveloped you mean NOT DEVELOPED AT ALL, and I do.)

I think that the thing I found most frustrating about the whole thing is that the concept should have been right up my alley. A dance film focused on a Chinese guy? As a romantic lead, no less? This never happens. If it had been even slightly effective I would have been all over it, frustrated as I am with the Western media’s inability to see Asian guys as desirable, as well as their inability to make dance films that don’t star blonde girls.

I guess I’m still waiting.

…and that’s it, kids! 50 SIFF films. Back to the real world of movie going soon: I saw Cyrus last week & Toy Story 3 this weekend, and am planning on Ondine this week. Fair warning!

[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.