[What Did Jaci Think? Early June]

It was refreshing, even while in the midst of the bounty of SIFF, to see a film that is so overtly and unapologetically *about* something. In the case of First Reformed, it’s the moral issue of climate change as seen through the eyes of a pastor experiencing a crisis of faith while leading a shrinking congregation at a church that exists mostly as a historical artifact. Restrained framing, quiet pacing, and strong performances draw us into this haunting story. Turns out, between this and Novitiate, I do find movies about Christian faith to be interesting after all. They just have to be good.

How Long Will I Love U is a high-concept romcom about two people living in the same apartment twenty years apart. I gotta say, folks, if you’re missing romance in cinema, you need to start paying attention to Chinese film. They’ve got you covered. In this one, she’s from 2018 & he’s from 1999. Their apartments converge because of reasons that are actually explained (which I disliked at first – I don’t need explanations – but then came around on as the film became about choosing the life you want to lead instead of the one you think you should want). They explore the differences between the worlds, discover their unexpected connections to each other, and get their HEA. What more do you want?

Ocean’s 8 is an all-lady situation that I can’t be rational about. It’s perfectly cast, albeit merely competently directed. It’s also frothy and forgettable, which is fine, because that’s a perfect excuse to see it again. It’s also queer as fuck, and anyone who tells you different is a liar.

I’m still not over how the trailer for Hereditary seemed to promise a story entirely different in plot from what it gave us, but entirely accurate in tone. It begins as a melodrama, a family tearing itself apart from grief, and it could have honestly stayed that way and been effective and grueling in a completely different way. I loved how the tilt shift effect – recently used comically in Game Night to make the neighborhood look like a game board – here is haunting, making the home a dollhouse, and by extension, the family into dolls, characters moved about by fate. And I will definitely be watching it again, keeping my eyes open for all the wicked details I’m sure I missed the first time around.

Finally, winner of the SIFF 2018 Golden Space Needle award for Best Director, The Guilty is a single-location thriller, set in an emergency dispatch center, and with the action unwinding through phone calls. No one has all of the information, not the cop, not his caller, and not the audience. Pretty effective, even though I figured out most twists right before they happened.

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Eight]

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!)

Puzzle
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.

[What Did Jaci Think? Late May]

Obviously most of my time was devoted to SIFF, but I also took some time out for a few non-SIFF features:

Tully was excellent, a film which, through the lens of the very specific challenges of motherhood, is about examining the difference between one’s life now and the life one imagined having as a younger person. It’s thoroughly lived-in (I knew exactly how the house smelled) and honest in a way we rarely see on screen about the day-to-day ways in which being a parent is hard work.

A different take on motherhood, Breaking In (basically Panic Room in reverse) was not nearly as much fun as it should have been, but really all I wanted was to see Gabrielle Union kick the asses of a bunch of dudes, and I had MoviePass & an open time slot, so there you go.

Solo was fun enough and totally unnecessary, a movie that had me thinking a lot about the movie I wished I was watching instead. One that treated ladies better, obviously, and one that focused on Lando & L3, but also still one lit by Bradford Young. Probably one with a better villain too, but I predictably loved scarred Paul Bettany swanning around in a cape and slicing people open. I still cannot bring to mind the name or the face of the kid who plays Solo, & unlike the other new Star Wars films, I will probably never watch it again.

I’ve seen Stalker once before, but it was an entirely different movie in the theater, forcing my fuller attention, especially important in such a dreamlike film. Plus, it was just wonderful to see everything properly, since it is so full of texture. If you dug Annihilation and have the temperament for slow cinema, you should venture into the original Zone with Stalker.

Beast had me guessing all the way through about what had really happened and how I felt about it. It’s the story of a young woman, an outsider in her own life and family, who meets a young man with whom she has an immediate and intense attraction. Unfortunately… he’s strongly suspected by the townspeople of murdering several teen girls.

Moll, her yellow sundress a clear callback to Disney’s Belle, is pure feral female desire in a way we don’t see enough in film. Truly, both of them are both Beauty and the Beast. Until I saw Eighth Grade, Jessie Buckley was my best actress pick of SIFF2018, & honestly, it’s still a close call. Despite not catching the SIFF screening, Beast is one of my favorite films of the festival.

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Seven]

Queerama

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.

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Six]

Blindspotting

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.

Disobedience

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.

The King

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.

Tyrel

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.

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Five]

Luna

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.)

Waru

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).

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Four]

Prospect

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.

The Place

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.

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Three]

Team Hurricane

Your mileage may vary depending if you view the falsity of this picture as self constructed identity for social media consumption or not. I was generous. It suffers from superficiality and an overstimulating MySpace/Tumblr aesthetic which continually undercuts confessionals with memes, devaluing what are certainly real issues for teen girls. On the other hand, if I have to watch a mediocre debut feature, I’d always rather watch one about girls, so well done there.

I Miss You When I See You

A queer mumblecore film from Hong Kong, this follows two school friends as they reconnect as adults when one returns from living abroad. He is living with depression, falling into self-destructive behaviors, the other has retreated into heterosexuality. Better than I expected, largely on the strength of the cast, but overly soft lensing leads to an out of focus effect. The score also intrudes on soft moments; I wish the director had trusted the film.

Revenge

A bright and bloody kickoff to the midnight series, this rape revenge exploitation film lived up to the hype. There are buckets of blood (and even more effective at getting under my skin, plenty of excellent squishy sound design.) Our lead reclaims the strength in her body, seen first as an object by the men around her, but finally as a powerful tool, not only for surviving but also for thriving in a man’s world.

Shakedown

To be honest, my feelings about the film itself (a documentary about an underground black lesbian strip club in LA) were almost entirely overshadowed by the Q&A where a white woman asked a terrible question, first making awkward presumptions about the sexual identity of the people in the film, but then (and far worse) asking why there were no white people in the club, a question she doubled-down on in a little back-and-forth with the filmmaker.

Filmmaker Leilah Weinraub handled the question well, bringing it back to broader issues relating to segregation in LA (which probably the audience member should educate herself on in Seattle as well), but goddamn it people. This should never have been a question. It was a black club. End of fucking story. Spoiler alert, white folks: not everything is about us. This was a queer, black subculture. Accept their generosity in sharing their story with us, learn from it, but don’t demand a place for yourself. I’ve been angry about this all day.

[On Chesil Beach]

On Chesil Beach is a movie about a young asexual woman made by people who don’t know that asexuality is a thing, which can be everything from confusing to upsetting for an audience.

As the credits rolled, I heard someone ask, “I wish someone would tell me what was going on in that girl’s head,” so thoroughly had the film failed to do it.

A character study of a couple refracted through their wedding night – or, more precisely, afternoon – it’s worth seeing for Saiorse Ronan’s performance as Florence, but it’s a frustrating film experience at best and a hostile one at worst.

In short, because of her asexuality and both of their inexperience, their encounter is disappointing for him, traumatizing for her, and funny to the audience I saw it with (though not to me). In their defense, that’s how it’s constructed. The film, though including flashbacks for both characters, firmly prioritizes the perspective of the new husband, Ed (Billy Howle), as he struggles with her zip, struggles with his shoes, struggles with her constant delaying tactics of asking him questions. But it isn’t funny.

Continue reading “[On Chesil Beach]”

[SIFF Despatches: Issue Two]

Warrior Women

A portrait of Lakota activist and organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk, from survival school to Standing Rock, this would make a great double feature with SIFF2017 fave Dolores. I particularly appreciated that all the talking heads were women. While working with a smaller budget and muddy archival footage, they made creative choices, particularly a wrenching scene where discussion of sexual assault was paired with the visual of a horse being roped, upsetting in an earned way.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Based on the YA novel and focusing on the part of the story at the conversion camp, it was hard to watch parts of this with an audience for whom the camp and its religious rhetoric was abstract & hilarious concept and not a real threat of abuse. It’s set in 1993, but the isolation of the teens at camp gives it a sense of urgency: this could be 2018 with their phones taken away.

Skate Kitchen

The first feature from the director of The Wolfpack (a title that could have served well for this too), it’s at least 15 minutes too long, and I didn’t love that the drama revolved around a boy, but it was a treat to spend time with these fearless girls, demanding space in the city for themselves and their skills. Plenty of loving shots of skateboard tricks, but even better, plenty of true teen girl conversations.

The Song of Scorpions

I picked this for the cast alone (Golshifteh Farahani, Irrfan Khan), and it turned out to be a slow-burning, beautifully shot (both bright desert and lowlight, just stunning work by Pietro Zuercher) revenge film. She’s a healer, a scorpion singer, and he’s the man who thinks she should marry him just because he’s never stopped hanging around. It’s slow, in that way that made me grateful I was in a theater and forced to focus.

Let the Sunshine In

It’s possible that if I had more than twenty year old high school French I would have gotten more out of this. I do not, so for me it was a tedious film where for the bulk of the runtime various mediocre men talked a lot of wank at (a luminous as always) Juliette Binoche, then one dances with her instead, in a way that is meant to be romantic but to me felt ridiculous.