[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.