[Films Worth Getting Up For: The Summer]

This summer I haven’t been writing much, and when I have, it’s about movies I wasn’t impressed with. That’s no fun! Over on the (also neglected) real life blog I stole a concept from a friend, writing quarterly posts about things “worth getting up for”. So here’s my “films worth getting up for” this summer.

A caveat: I spend a lot of time seeing revival film, but for the purposes of this post I am ignoring all of that. Obviously it was worth getting up for things like Grand Illusion, a Buster Keaton double feature, and Dirty Dancing. This post is about new stuff that lit my socks on fire.

* The Imposter. A must-see, truly stranger-than-fiction documentary. The set-up is that 13 year old Nicholas Barclay goes missing in Texas. Three years later, the family gets a call from police in Spain, saying he’s been found there. In spite of the fact that the man in custody is clearly older than 16 & bears no physical resemblance to Barclay, they welcome him into their home.

The documentary includes interviews with the family, various officials involved in the process of bringing this person from Spain, a private detective (fascinating in his own right), and the imposter himself, Frédéric Bourdin. He is astonishingly willing to discuss how he pulled it off and why he did it.

The film also includes family home video and some dramatic recreation, and basically you’re going to sit there exclaiming “WHAT?” a lot. So you should see it with other people and leave time to talk it over.

* Old Goats is a local film starring non-actors, both of which are often warning signs. Luckily, it is also utterly delightful. Borne of director Taylor Guterson’s desire to capture the personalities of the three leads, the film sets up a fictional structure in which Brit, Bob, and Dave are essentially playing themselves. And they are hilarious as they deal with retirement, dating, technology, and their own histories. It’s an earnest, crowd-pleaser sort of film, and you don’t need to be an old goat yourself to enjoy it.

* Robot and Frank is also a film that tackles aging, but further along than the Goats. Frank Langella plays Frank, a retired thief who is having trouble living on his own. Rather than moving him into a care facility, his son (James Marsden) brings him a robot assistant.

Frank is initially resistant to the idea, but he starts developing a relationship with the robot when he discovers that the robot may know the definition of terms related to morality, but does not see how they apply to the world. That is, the robot has no qualms helping Frank return to his old profession.

It’s set in the “near future”, where all the smartphones are see-through and we Skype on our tv, but of course most things don’t change. Frank is trying to hold on to his independence while aging, his son is worried about his memory issues, and his daughter (Liv Tyler) is a Eat Pray Love sort of traveler, who is horrified at the prospect of robot labor.

* Moonrise Kingdom. I wound up seeing this three times in the theaters, once on opening day & then twice more when it moved to SIFF Cinema. It’s a lovely film, & like most Wes Anderson films I like it more each time I see it.

* There’s a lot of writing out there on Beasts of the Southern Wild, both positive and negative, which I’m not interested in recapping here but you should absolutely seek out. For me, Beasts was a powerful criticism of systems & institutions: systems that ignore climate change & the environment for the sake of profit, systems that cut off the Bathtub from the City and then allowing the Bathtub to be flooded for the sake of the City, and most of all the top-down attempts at intervention that came after, unlooked for, untrustworthy evacuation & medical services. I did not see it as poverty porn, nor as condemnation of the people living in the Bathtub and the decisions they made within the choices they were allowed.

* Samsara is a guided meditation on the journey of life. Wait, come back. Shot in 25 countries over the course of five years, it’s a hyper-real, gorgeous, & true presentation of life on this planet. Must see in the theater.

* The Bourne Legacy. I’m a fan of the Bourne franchise, and this was another smart & satisfying popcorn movie. The greatest weakness was that they tried too hard to tie it to the previous Bourne films. Not necessary, guys! I like knowing where it fits in the timeline — I’ve said a lot that I love how the third movie takes place during the last ten minutes of the second one — but there was definite Matt Damon overkill. We get it, guys. Trust this story.

* Finally, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I will write about properly once I can say something other than ALL OF THE FEELINGS.

What movies set your socks on fire this summer?

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Beasts of the Southern Wild continues at SIFF at the Uptown through at least September 20th.
The Bourne Legacy is playing at various Seattle theaters.
The Imposter is playing at Sundance Cinemas.
Old Goats continues at SIFF at the Uptown through at least September 20th.
Moonrise Kingdom is playing at various Seattle theaters.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens Friday September 28th at the Harvard Exit.
Robot & Frank continues at the Egyptian through September 20th.
Samsara continues at the Cinerama through September 20th & moves to SIFF on September 21st.

[Psychotronic Cinema]

One of the unexpected bonuses of SIFF taking over the Uptown is that it gave them space to run more cult movie fare. Dubbed Psychotronic Cinema, the series is sponsored by Scarecrow Video & features are often preceded by short films selected by MIFFF, which is a treat. I love short film & don’t get to see it nearly enough.

Features I have caught so far include:

* Stunt Rock is the touching story of an Australian stunt man who takes his big dreams to Hollywood. He works on a TV series, he advises a rock band (who seem much more interested in their Merlin vs Prince of Darkness stage show than their music), & along the way he’s interviewed by a magazine writer (which provides him with a great excuse to flash back to his previous stunt work). That’s it. And it is amazing. Terrible, but amazing. You should take two minutes out of your day to watch the trailer

* Norwegian Ninja reminded me a lot of TrollHunter, in that on a very basic level it’s a deadpan Norwegian government bureaucracy movie. If you only have time for one, TrollHunter is better, but Norwegian Ninja is also fun, part propaganda, part newsreel about how a team of ninjas saved Norway during the Cold War. I am pretty sure it is trufax.

* Finally, The FP is a truly terrible movie about gangs that battle out their turf wars via Dance Dance Revolution. I mean, Beat Beat Revelation. It’s mindblowingly sexist, but it also features such a deep commitment to worldbuilding that you have to think…this is not set decoration happening here. This is just where these guys live. I don’t know if I can recommend it, but I am glad I saw it if only for the obligatory training montage.

In fact, I don’t know that I can recommend any of them, but I can definitely recommend the series. Here’s the thing: these are not going to be movies that you seek out to watch on your own, but late at night, with a cult film audience? They make for a great, weird time out at the movies.

[Rendez-vous with French Cinema]

I had excellent taste — or excellent luck — this month at SIFF’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema. They selected eight features from the Lincoln Center showcase, I made it to four of them, and I enjoyed them all, despite the middling IMDb ratings. Hooray!

* The series opened with The Screen Illusion, a film directed for television by my beloved Mathieu Amalric. It’s an adaptation of the 1639 Pierre Corneille play, which is actually a meta play. In the original text, a father is told he can see the actions of his missing son through a magical device. In the film, he watches his son as recorded on hotel security footage.

It reminded me of the National Theatre’s recent Hamlet, where the characters were always surrounded by castle security. It’s interesting to me that these plays, centuries old, can so easily be updated to a world of constant surveillance. The walls always have had ears!

The update totally works, & is a lot of fun all the way through. I particularly appreciated the skill of the translator; I’ve never studied Cornielle, but the language of the subtitles felt appropriately stylized.

* Moon Child is a drama about the relationship between a young teen with XP and the doctor who has cared for him. Excellent performances from both the kid (dealing with puberty when his life expectancy is barely into his 20s) & the doctor (who has been appointed to a new position & can’t figure out how to break the news to his patient.)

* Last Screening was described as a cross between Psycho & Cinema Paradiso, & that is exactly what it was. If I were going to remake it for the English speaking audience, I would cast a young Don McKellar in the lead, as the cinema manager slash serial killer. Very spare & static, some parts almost a desaturated Almodovar, to great creepy effect.

* Last in the series was 17 Girls, which reminded me quite a bit of Sofia Coppola’s work, particularly The Virgin Suicides. Inspired by an incident in 2008 when the pregnancy rate in particular school quadrupled & a pregnancy pact among the girls was rumored, this film moved the story from a fishing town in Massachusetts to the coast of France.

The location was an obvious change given the filmmakers, but it really makes it a completely different story to remove it from the particular American debate on sexuality, sex education, abortion, etc. (It was particularly striking in an early scene where teachers complained that they couldn’t force the girls to have abortions!)

However, that transatlantic shift left space to focus on the mysterious motivations of the girls, room for their own contemplation, and the tension of their relationships (largely to each other; in spite of the many pregnancies male characters have very little weight.)

(Side note: according to the SIFF website 3 of the 4 films I saw were meant to be broadcast with filmmaker Q&As which had been recorded at the Lincoln Center screenings. However, no Q&As were shown and no explanation was given. Not a big deal, but it was curious.)

[MIFFF: Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival 2011]

This is the first year I attended the Maelstrom International Fantastic Film Festival, a weekend-long festival highlighting genres that don’t tend to be selected for more traditional programs.

The festival itself was in its third year, and while I believe previous years tended more towards the horror side of things at least as far as features went, this year included strong features without gore. Which worked out much better for me, because splatter-splatter type horror generally is not my thing.

The opening night film was Midnight Son, which I think could best be called a mumblecore vampire movie. Despite that description, I quite enjoyed it.

It’s about a young man who has structured his life around his rare skin condition which means he cannot be exposed to sunlight. He lives in a basement apartment & works as a night watchman. Of course, just as his condition starts to grow more complex and demanding (hello, coffee cup full of blood!), he meets a young woman with a few problems of her own.

It was a treat to see a vampire movie so removed from traditional mythology, and the low budget style was a good match for Jacob’s underground life, even though it went ever-so-slightly over the top at the end. It is hard to resist some traditional gore!

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Boy Wonder was a strong thriller about a boy whose mother was killed in front of him during a carjacking when he was small. Now a teenager living with his recovering alcoholic father, he continues to obsess over finding her killer as well as stalking the city at night as a gritty take on real life superheroes.

He has interesting relationships with the cops at the local precinct, particularly with the outgoing cop who worked on his mother’s case & the lady cop who comes in to fill the retiree’s spot.

The script is tight, the film is very well cast (Bill Sage as the father is particularly effective, I think because I know him best from Mysterious Skin & Precious, both of which bring a clear ick factor), and all threads are brought back together in a satisfying ending.

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The poster on the IMDb page for Absentia sells it as totally the sort of movie it isn’t, which is unfortunate, because it was definitely my favorite feature of the festival for its concept, its subtle creep factor, its use of fairy tale, and most of all for its neat inversion of some expected gender roles.

Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years, and her sister Callie has come to support her as she puts through the paperwork to have him declared dead in absentia.

Once the papers are signed, though, Tricia starts seeing her husband again. Is he still alive? Where has he been? Is she dreaming? What is the deal with the creepy tunnel at the end of the block?

I loved that it starred ladies, that the primary missing characters were men (including the always-creepy Doug Jones) rather than the typical white-girls-in-jeopardy, and that not *once* did someone blame Tricia’s pregnancy for the things she was seeing and feeling. That in particular was a huge thing for me; I kept waiting for someone to blame her visions of her missing husband on hormones, and it never happened.

I strongly recommend it. I raved about it on Twitter immediately afterwards and I still hold to that.

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I saw the trailer for The Selling lots during the festival, and it made me giggle every time, which I felt was a good sign.

Richard Scarry (yes, he tells us, like the children’s book author) is a real estate agent who only wants the best for his clients, even if that means talking them out of houses they can’t actually afford. He needs money for his sick mother’s medical bills, though, so he goes along with his friend’s plan to buy & flip a house for profit.

Trouble is, the house is haunted.

The horror-comedy concept works for about 2/3 of the movie, though it gets a little ridiculous at the end. It’s probably worth it, though, just for Richard & Dave’s initial forays into the house, their challenges renovating, and definitely for the open house. It occurs to me now that it might actually have worked better tightened up into a short.

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Speaking of shorts, I saw the science fiction and fantasy shorts packages. I was excited about how many of the films were not from the United States. Like at the Sci Fi & Fantasy Shorts Festival, I really enjoy seeing the speculative fiction of other cultures, and often a short is the best length of time to play out an idea.

Best of SciFi: Vorgon’s Lonesome Raid (it isn’t easy being a giant monster), Status (getting a Facebook chip in your wrist doesn’t seem that far away), & Earthship (does the world get better or worse after you’ve been hiding from it for years?).

Best of Fantasy: The Astronaut on the Roof (a meta road movie, which allllmost goes too far with the concept but reins itself in at the last minute), Employee of the Month (finding new jobs for genre characters is challenging, but pole dancing is always an option), Dolls Factory (life *can* be too automated), & The Hollow Man’s Tragedy (what if you had no heart at all?)

I am particularly sorry that I missed the animated shorts package, but my knees can only take so many hours, so I had to miss a few things. Do any of you have favorites from that or the horror set that I should seek out? What did you think of The Melancholy Fantastic?

[SIFF weekend three]

+ Small Town Murder Songs is the rare movie that could have stood to be longer by about 15-20 minutes. I would have very much liked to see some of the subthreads teased out just a little bit more, but I understand that that director saw it the other way, wanting to pare it down to the essentials. Which is fair: it’s his movie!

On one level it’s a straightforward crime thriller, with a young woman* being found dead in a small (largely Mennonite) town in Ontario. The strong direction, the intriguing use of chapter titles, the freakin’ awesome soundtrack (must own!), each kick it up a notch.

It also features the final performance of Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs. (I do not like this particular SIFF theme. Perhaps final performances from two actresses does not a trend make?)

+ The Whisperer in Darkness was my first Lovecraft experience and fine, guys, you win. I am intrigued. This was a 1930s-style adaptation, with a lot of elements common with noir, which of course I love. The team also did a short silent film of The Call of Cthulhu, which I will now have to seek out.

+ I had been looking forward to Amador, but then I read a description of it as “mumblecore Almodovar”. I panicked a little. See, I hate mumblecore. But I love Almodovar! Dilemma! Unnecessary, as it turns out, because Amador was neither of those things. But it was quite good.

Marcela (the luminous Magaly Solier) is in rather desperate financial straits, so she takes on the job of caring for Amador (Celso Bugallo), an older, bedridden man. They gradually develop a quiet friendship in spite of themselves, but then he dies while she is still in great need of the money.

It’s a lovely character-driven film, and one of my favorites of the festival.

+ I had been a little nervous about Boy because it is from Taika Waititi, the same writer-director as Eagle vs Shark. And I know a lot of you love that movie, but it was just. so. painful to watch. For me. I couldn’t handle the embarrassment, & I wound up fast forwarding to see how it ended.

To my great relief, Boy was a sweet movie about Boy who lives on a farm in New Zealand with his grandmother & cousins, his goat, and his little brother Rocky, who thinks he has superpowers. Boy believes that when his father comes back he’ll take him to see Michael Jackson in concert. When his father *does* come back things don’t go exactly as Boy expected. Recommended.

+ Secret #3 was one of my favorite kinds of films. Also, it was from a country from which I have never seen a bad movie. In fact, I think I have only seen awesome movies from there. It was not Cars 2. Pixar is not a country.

+ Project Nim is a heartbreaking must-see documentary from James Marsh (director of my beloved Man on Wire. Nim was a chimpanzee stolen from his mother and given to a family in New York City, who taught him ASL & purported to raise him as a human child. That’s just the beginning of the story, which basically ate my brains. You should see it, but only when you’re feeling emotionally stable. And if you haven’t seen Man on Wire, you should see that too.

+ Finally, Detention was billed as The Breakfast Club-meets-Scream. Which made me nervous, to be honest, especially since parody films almost never work for me. But Detention totally did. It rushes at a breakneck pace, cramming in references to those films and more. But don’t look up which ones: it’s much better to be surprised. It’s totally absurd, a ridiculous amount of fun, and never boring. But you have to be a Bad Teen Movie fan willing to go along for the ride. Which I am.

* why is it always a girl? I mean, I know why. I just get tired.