2012 Seattle International Film Festival

A Totally Subjective Journal

Films rated on a 4-star scale: **** (A+), *** 3/4 (A), *** 1/2 (A-), *** 1/4 (B+), *** (B), ** 3/4 (B-), ** 1/2 (C+), ** 1/4 ( C), ** (C-) , * 3/4 (D+), * 1/2 (D), * 1/4 (D-), * (F), W/O=walk-out

Of the 273 feature films scheduled for the 2012 edition of SIFF, I've already seen 18.  My mini-reviews (with a minimum of spoilers) can be found here.

June 28
I received my personalized "Fool Serious" ballot results in the mail today.  For those who might not know:  Seattle is unique in that a large group of Full Series Pass holders band together every festival to rate the films they've watched which is then collated into a group vote and a computerized, personalized record complete with interesting statistics.  What really interested me the most was my "average likability" score for the 2012 SIFF edition, a score which I feel allows me to compare objectively the festival experience from year to year.  The ratings are calibrated from +4 (masterpiece) to -4 (dreck), so that a likability rating of zero is just about average.

I was under the impression that for me this year's SIFF was above average, even if there was a paucity of really great films.  In fact, many of my highest rated films were among those that I watched at previous festivals (however, if I watched them within the past few months I do count them as SIFF films.)  From the figures, this seems to be my best SIFF since 2006...but frankly it doesn't seem to have been that good.

The bottom line is that when I include all films that I'd seen during and before the festival, this did turn out to be an objectively above average SIFF compared with prior years.  Of course the real danger in making comparisons like this is that my tastes do shift and I'm getting older.  The festival is more of a physical ordeal for me these days than it used to be (and I watched far fewer films than usual this year), which probably affected my reaction to the films.    But I'm gratified to see that my overall good impression of SIFF 2012 is borne out by the computer.

Here are the figures:

2012    124 films    0.64 likability
2011    144 films    0.24 likability
2010    153 films    0.50 likability
2009    155 films    0.58 likability
2008    153 films    0.45 likability
2007    149 films    0.56 likability
2006    133 films    0.74 likability
2005    149 films    0.78 likability
2004    146 films    0.84 likability
2003    132 films    0.81 likability
2002    115 films    0.64 likability
2001    123 films    1.00 likability

Thanks are in order to the Fool Serious organization, which provides plenty of companionable people to discuss films with.  It enhances the SIFF experience and helps to make it the best festival I attend year after year.

June 11
Thus concludes a fairly satisfying festival.  I only watched 111 films this year, preferring to husband my strength by often limiting my viewing to 3 or 4 films a day rather than trying to fill every available time slot.  For me, there was a shortage of really great films this year...several of my top-ranked films were ones that I'd already seen previously and skipped this time around.  However, all in all I think this was a stronger festival than last year's, even though the current crop of programmers seem to be more focused on increasing the country count than choosing films for their excellence.  It helped immensely to have the venues clustered in only two areas; and the newly acquired triple-plex that SIFF runs year round is an excellent place to watch films.  What got tiresome fast were the 15 minutes of intros, ads, trailers and interminable programmer's talks which opened every festival screening (except, blessedly, for the press screenings.)  However, the main festival promo, an imaginative and super-complex animated affair, was beautifully done (even after literally dozens of viewings I was still noticing new things...but still, a shorter version by the last week would have been nice).  Impressively, I can't recall any major projection problems (except for a persistent loud buzzing sound  occasionally at the Egyptian and Harvard Exit.)  All the venues were well run; and almost all screenings at least started the promo intros on time.  Even the new "queue card" and pass scanning systems worked pretty well after a short break-in period.  I'm still unsure about coming to SIFF next year.  Time will tell.

June 10
FUTURE WEATHER  (d. Jenny Deller)
A smart 13-year old girl with a passion for science lives in rural Illinois with her trailer-trash teen mom.  She's left on her own when her mother flees to California with only a caring teacher (Lili Taylor) and distracted grandmother (Amy Madigan) for support.  That's the set-up for a nice enough coming-of-age story which offers a realistic teenage girl worldview.  The girl, played by Perla Haney-Jardine, is convincingly age appropriate and does admirably.  The film is a tad predictable; and I didn't think the plot device of the girl's obsession with global warming blended all that well with the family dynamics story.  Despite that, it's overall an engrossing personal story.  ** 3/4

CHASING ICE  (d. Jeff Orlowski)
I had an hour to kill between films; and I decided to watch half of this well-regarded documentary in that space (I don't usually do that, preferring to watch good films in their entirety.)  What I caught was the filmmakers' difficult process of preparing to record on film the effects of global warming on melting glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana.  What I (apparently) missed were what I assume were the results of their effort.  I'll try to watch the conclusion of this fascinating documentary; but in the meantime I can't give it a rating.

GAYBY  (d. Jonathan Lisecki)
A "born fag hag" decides to have a baby with her gay best friend.  The hook of this funny and observant comedy was the decision to try to do it naturally, rather than turkey-baster style.  The film is beautifully cast, with Jean Harris and Matthew Wilkas just about flawless in the two lead roles.  But the film is rich in supporting characters, too, particularly Jack Ferver as the girl's bitchy co-worker and the director himself as the guy's "nelly-bear" best friend. I was prepared to dislike the film based on its controversial premise.  But the film charmed and won me over with its sharp dialog. clever plotting, and spot-on depiction of modern, big-city gay life. *** 1/4

THE CROWN JEWELS (d. Ella Lemhagen)
A boy and a girl from divergent families (he's the son of a factory owner, she's the daughter of a worker in that factory) are born simultaneously and almost switched at birth.  They grow up strangely bonded in enmity...and the film opens when one apparently murders the other.  That's the set-up for this labyrinthine Swedish thriller which is uncomfortably combined with a two-family saga which sprawls over decades.  The film has high production values, gorgeous cinematography, fine period sets and a rather large cast.  However, the plot devolves into some pretty silly mystical stuff which left me shaking my head.  I wish I had ended the festival on a more positive note.   ** 1/4

June 9
MOURNING  (d. Morteza Farshbaf)
A young boy listens to his parents bickering prior to their angrily running off and possibly dying in a car crash.  The boy's aunt and her husband, both deaf, take the boy on a benighted auto trip through Iranian country roads:  furiously, but silently, debating in sign language how to handle their charge.  That's the set-up for an illuminating road trip which doesn't resolve any of the life-altering questions raised by the story, while seeming to artificially ratchet up the suspense quotient.  The acting was flawless, especially the depiction of a deaf couple.  However, despite feeling sympathy for the newly orphaned boy, I was curiously unmoved by the film.  ** 1/2

RECALLED  (d. Michael Connors)
The year is 2004, and a unit of N.Y. National Guard "weekend warriors" is ordered to heavy duty in Iraq.  What ensues is an exciting, suspenseful story of army stubbornness and divided loyalties when one valuable medic soldier feels obliged to go AWOL, abetted by his buddies.  The film is impressively well cast, with a fine lead performance by Seth Gabel (familiar to me from tv appearances).  Even if I have some doubt about some of the characters' motivations, the film was so skillfully directed that it didn't matter.  Intense, understated acting combined with unusually well shot action sequences.  Good film.  *** 1/4

HUNKY DORY  (d. Marc Evans)

Minnie Driver plays a drama teacher at a non-posh English private school in 1976.  Her class is attempting to put on a rock-opera production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest".  What occurs is a sort of "Glee"-like (the American tv series) musical melodrama, with rather mundane people stories alternating with some pretty good musical production numbers (all shot live, no lip-syncing here, which is impressive.)   The film does feature one future star, Aneurin Barnard, who has the looks and musical chops, sort of a mash-up of Glee's Cory Monteith and Jonathan Groff ( Barnard actually did the British version of "Spring Awakening".)   But all in all, this is a pretty wan effort, only partially saved by the great '70s music and an overall attractive cast.  ** 3/4

June 8
I AM NOT A HIPSTER  (d. Destin Cretton)
Brook is a depressed singer-songwriter whose current life and the songs he writes are affected by extended mourning over the death of his mother and a bad breakup (both well in the past; but this is one character who holds on to his grief.)  Dominic Bogart gives a strong, convincing performance as Brook, performing the tortured songs written by Joel P. West as if they were his own.  Also memorable is Alvaro Orlando, who plays the set-upon buddy part with frenetic energy.  This is a painfully personal film about a true artist's journey from despair to something approaching hope though the healing properties of family.  Talented writer-director Cretton proves that even with almost no budget it's possible to make a richly satisfying film.  *** 1/2

EASTON'S ARTICLE  (d. Tim Connery)
Easton is a computer nerd, 1997 style.  Through some unconvincing computer mumbo-jumbo he receives a revealing picture file from the future which sets in motion a set of happenings which circle back on themselves in ironic time-binding fashion.  The script didn't hold water (in my opinion); and the acting was amateurish, to be kind.  But the film did have just enough mystery and suspense to keep my interest.  ** 1/2

LIPSTIKKA  (d. Jonathan Sagall)

A pair of Palestinian girls, psychologically impaired by the Intifada of their youth and their teen-age lesbian experimentation, are living in contemporary London.  This film is a disturbing examination of the far reaching effects of a single traumatic youthful experience on the two women's disparate lives.  For me, the film raised more questions than it answered.  But it also sustained a mood of repressed longing which both disturbed and fascinated.  ***

June 7
THE DETAILS  (d. Jacob Aaron Estes)
Tobey Maguire is well cast in this black comedy, playing an OB-GYN doctor increasingly beset with problems mostly of his own making.   Laura Linney is also quite fine playing his crazy neighbor with a semi-fatal attraction.  It's the nature of successful black comedies to go off the rail into the absurd; and this film didn't disappoint there.  I loved the way the film kept me guessing and made its most outrageous plot developments almost believable.   *** 1/4

DRAGON  (d. Peter Ho-Sun Chan)
It is 1917.  A robbery in a rural Chinese store goes wrong when an onlooker (charismatic fighter-actor Donnie Yen) takes out the thieves in an exciting exhibition of martial arts.  That is the start of an investigation by a big-city detective (favorite Asian actor of mine Takeshi Kaneshiro) into the background of the unexpectedly skillful onlooker which leads to much bigger fish.  The action here is quite well choreographed.  The clever story mixing noir mystery elements with martial arts is clearly told; and the fight sequences certainly are viscerally effective.  However, the film was marred for me by a persistent, loud humm in the sound system (the projectionist should be shot for not catching it) which distracted like a buzzsaw inside my head during all the quiet scenes.  Otherwise I would have rated this film considerably higher.  *** 1/4

WHITE CAMELLIAS  (d. Russell Brown)
A middle age, refined lady (played with a wistful somberness by Cybil Shepherd) is throwing an elaborate dinner party to celebrate the visit of a former lover from a past affair in Spain.  What follows is a clever, Tennessee Williams-like drawing room drama, mixing a meditation on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca with a series of revealing conversations by the few guests who show up.  Brown has written some gloriously waspish dialog for his relationship beset characters (continuing to illustrate his skill at crafting clever repartee that he showed in his previous SIFF film The Bluetooth Virgin.)  Also notable is a sweetly memorable performance by David Burtka, playing the party planner whose own relationship with his bitter partner (Peter Page)  is floundering.  The film is a delicate chamber piece, as beautiful to behold and as fragile as the symbolic white camellias which provide the centerpiece of the table laden with gorgeous food (a paella to die for...my favorite dish from my favorite foreign land).  I can't say that I followed the poetic references...my failing since I lack a poetic soul.  But the people story really spoke to me.  *** 1/4

THE INVADER (d. Nicolas Provost)

A black man, illegal immigrant, washes up on a nudist Belgian beach.  Using his own physical magnetism and sexual prowess he survives, stalking a rich white woman in the bargain.  Provost is a director with a provocateur's eye.  His visuals are vividly striking.  The story, however, struck me as unlikely and even a little scary.  However, Issaka Sawadogo is an actor of such strong presence that he manages to humanize this menacing, amoral character.  The film both fascinated and repelled me.  ***

June 6
THE EMPTY HOME  (d. Nurbek Egen)
Kyrgyzstan is not as well represented in film lore as its big neighbor Kazakhstan; but this film goes a significant way to narrowing the gap.  It's the story of youthful Ascel (pretty and game actress Maral Koichukaraeva), pregnant by her teen boyfriend, but betrothed to the region's unsuspecting gangster kingpin.  She watches tv; and dreams of a life away from her squalid hometown.  She escapes to Moscow on her wedding night, intending to get an abortion and lose herself in the big city; but things don't quite go the way she planned.  This film is so obscure that it doesn't even have an IMDb entry yet.  But it is a well crafted, illuminating character study which ought to find an audience.   ***

Sumnu is an Istanbul grad student who sets out on a trek into the mountainous, dangerous Kurd areas of eastern Turkey to do her ethno-musicology thesis on folk elegies.  She meets a film obsessed man; and together they wander about the gorgeous countryside contemplating their navels.  I expected some sort of Turkish version of Maggie Greenwald's 2000 film Songcatcher; but this director is too obsessed with misty landscapes and emulating Theo Angelopoulos (even emphasizing the point by showing a clip from Ulysses' Gaze on a tv set) to actually do anything with his elegy concept.  Honestly, I had trouble staying awake during the long, contemplative sequences.  **

INNOCENCE  (d. Jan Hrebejk)
A rehabilitation doctor gets accused of molesting a 14 year old girl patient.  That's the set-up for this intriguing story of innocence and deception by the masterful Czech director of Kawasaki's Rose.  The film features a fine cast and a mystery-thriller plot which defies expectations (so I'm not going to even try to do a spoiler-free summary).   I particularly admired the psychological astuteness of the screenplay, which gradually develops in layers of unfolding disclosures.  *** 1/2

A CUBE OF SUGAR  (d. Reza Mirkarimi)
A large Iranian family gets together to celebrate a daughter's upcoming wedding (to a Skyped groom who isn't around).  They mostly cook and eat gorgeous feasts, watch the children cavort, and slowly disclose themselves (although I never really got them all straight in my head...too many characters).  Then an event occurs which changes the nature of the gathering.  I loved the feeling of family togetherness in this film, without quite getting into the requisite mood to love the film.  Think of an Iranian version of an Arnaud Desplechin family gathing film like A Christmas Tale and you sort of get what this film was about.  ** 3/4

June 5
UNIT 7  (d. Alberto Rodriguez)
During the five years (from 1987-1992) that Seville, Spain is preparing for Expo 92, a group of four policemen called Unit 7 are given the job of cleaning up the drug trade in the Projects.  At some point they go rogue (sort of like the Rampart police scandal in Los Angeles, which happened about the same time), and start skimming drugs for profit, bashing civilians, and participating in shady doings.  However they get results, so the powers that be turn a blind eye.  That's the set-up for a well made policier which is especially good at disclosing the inner life of one handsome, diabetic cop, played by Mario Casas.  The film is filled with gratuitous violence against women and gays...and a few too many, if well edited, parkour chase scenes.  But all in all it's an exciting, involving action flick.  *** 1/2

LOST IN PARADISE  (d. Ngoc Dang Vu)
A naive country gay boy of 20 heads for contemporary Saigon and immediately gets ripped off by a street smart gay pair.  What follows is a daring Vietnam film about street prostitution, mixed with a tender gay love story and a secondary story about a retarded man's love for a duckling.  OK, put that way it sounds ridiculous.  And I can't even credit the overly emotive actors for my real enjoyment of this film.  However, for all its flaws, it's still a beautifully shot film with an extremely attractive cast.  Sometimes a film touches the heart despite itself...and for me this film did just that.   ***

ITALY LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT  (d. Gustav Hofer & Luca Ragazzi)
A (incidentally, since it's only indicated in passing) gay couple drive a Fiat 500 (which keeps changing paint jobs, eventually making up a rainbow) around contemporary 2011 Italy searching for a reason to stick around and not emigrate to Berlin, in this amusing and informative road-film documentary.  In the course of their travels they visit various regions of Italy; and with interviews and clever graphical elements they construct an intelligent travelogue.  There's a definite leftist, anti-Berlusconi spin to their conversations and discoveries, which makes it all seem timely and relevant.  It took me a while to really get into their whimsical irreverence; but ultimately the film worked for me.   *** 1/4

L  (d. Babis Makridis)
What has happened to Greek cinema?  Every film I see lately seems to suffer from "Dogtooth disease":  a slapstick, incomprehensible silliness which induces in me a desire to flee the theater.  I could only stick around for about 30 minutes of this story of a guy who drives a Volvo around in some sort of aimless transporting of people and goods. Maybe there was an eventual point to the whole thing; but I didn't stick around to find out what it was.   W/O

June 4
WUTHERING HEIGHTS  (d. Andrea Arnold)
Arnold has done something daring with this film:  made an arty, period costume drama which emphasizes the mud and stench of the times...while also bringing an anachronistic racial element that apparently didn't exist in the original Brontë novel. I had no personal investment in the fidelity to the original, never having read the book; nor do I recall previous films.  Thus, lacking that ax to grind, I have to say that I did admire Arnold's dismally bleak re-creation of early 19th century life in the Yorkshire moors.  The unfamiliar, but age appropriate actors struggle gamely with the elements while living out their doomed Gothic romance.  But I did find some of Arnold's techniques irksome:  for instance constant symbolic cutaways to thistles and birds (black and white feathers?  please!), some unnecessarily cruel scenes of animal torture, and the color drained cinematography in old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio.  I'd call this difficult film an admirable failure.  ** 1/2

SIN BIN  (d. Billy Federighi)
The "sin bin" in this film refers to a dilapidated van decked out as a love nest for horny high schoolers.  That's the only original thing about this teen comedy which is remotely engaging.  Well, that's not quite true:  Michael Seater, a too mature for the role Canadian actor who has done a lot of tv work that I've never watched, acquits himself well as the semi-geeky boy who rents out his older brother's van to others while pining away for a popular girl himself.  Quirky teen film genre clichés abound; and I can't imagine that this film will find a receptive audience even among young people.  * 1/2

THE HOUSE (d. Zuzana Liová)
This is contemporary Czech dysfunctional family drama:  crotchety father despises his elder daughter's husband and is over-protective of his high school age younger daughter, for whom he's in an unending process of successively building and tearing down a brick house.  That's the set-up for an interesting take on family dynamics which took its time to develop (i.e. was a little overlong), but ultimately satisfied with its well limned characterizations and fine acting.  ***

OVERHEARD 2  (d. Alan Mak & Felix Chong)
This Hong Kong policier/thriller takes place in the murky world of stock market manipulation during the 2007 worldwide meltdown.  Honestly, I couldn't entirely follow the complex main story of treachery and revenge...for most of the film I couldn't really figure out which side to root for.  But the film has at least two very inventive road chases, and even manages to make the oscillating stock ticker exciting.  ** 3/4

THE FOURTH STATE  (d. Dennis Gansel)

Moritz Bleibtreu is superb, playing a German fluff journalist working for a Moscow based pictorial magazine who becomes deeply enmeshed in government skullduggery.  The film opens amusingly with a title announcing that it is based on a totally fictitious story...which considering the incendiary implications of the plot is a good thing to establish right off the bat.  This is an effective, gut wrenching, paranoid story of the lengths that a repressive government will go to suppress terrorism.  It's also a ripping good tale of a personal journey from naive complicity to courageous understanding.  I'm only downgrading this marvelous film a tad because it does stretch credulity a bit too much.  *** 1/2

June 3
I gave this Malay film 35 minutes.  It was some sort of thriller about a kickboxer who has a contract killer after him.  But, honestly, I couldn't follow the plot...and could find nothing to hold my interest.  When I felt myself phasing out, I decided to make one of my rare walks.  W/O

With nothing in the time slot that I hadn't seen except for this documentary, I decided to give it a try (I usually preference foreign & indy fiction films over docs at SIFF, because I get enough chance to watch documentaries in L.A. during the year.)  I'm glad I watched it.  Utilizing interviews with principals and journalists along with some cleverly designed and edited imagery, the film shows the birth and evolution of "Anonymous", an important milestone in recent internet history.  Even more important, personally, it introduced me to the anonymous web site http://www.4chan.org, which I expect to bring me loads of prurient and time-wasting enjoyment in future days.  *** 1/4

COTEAU ROUGE  (d. André Forcier)
Four generations of a wacked out French Canadian family live in the Coteau Rough, a tumbledown community on the St. Laurence River, and hatch various schemes, many of which involve literally getting away with murder...but in a humorous, ironic way.  It's not exactly a film noir, nor is it the usual family comedy.  Rather, the film is a kind of off-the-wall soap opera, filled with amoral characters playing at being ordinary citizens.  It's good fun, if a little too unrealistic for my tastes.  ** 3/4

KRYPTONITE!  (d. Ivan Cotroneo)

This Italian family dramedy takes place in Naples in 1973.  It's the story of nine-year old Peppino (another fine kid performance at this festival, here by Luigi Catani), bespectacled and bullied, whose extended family (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts) are constantly bickering.  Peppino's depressed mother is played by the luminous Valeria Golino.  In truth, the rather large supporting cast is quite splendid:  the older generation are having relationship problems, the younger generation are experimenting with LSD and tiptoeing into the mod '70s.  And to add to his complicated youth, Peppino has a peculiar older friend who dresses in a Superman costume.   I loved the film while it played as a realistic slice of Italian family life; but when it strayed into fanciful allegory towards the conclusion, the film went just a tad too symbolic for me.  ***

June 2
SUNNY  (d. Kang Hyoung-chul)
Seven Korean women were in an '80s era high school gang called "Sunny" (with the familiar song in English as their mantra).  25 years later, their leader is dying...and the group has scattered.  Using clever transitions, the film alternates between the past (showing the initiation of the seventh member and the group's adventures fighting a rival clique), and the present day when they attempt to have a reunion.  This film is structured exactly the same as Mirage, yesterday's Korean drama which failed for me because I couldn't relate the three characters in the past to the present day group.  With Sunny, because of excellent casting and a script which clearly defined all seven characters, this wasn't a problem for me. Also, even though the individual present day stories were predictable, the director's inventive mise-en-scène and the actors' energetic performances made for a sprightly entertainment.  *** 1/4

BEST INTENTIONS  (d. Adrian Sitaru)
A thirty-something man learns that his mother has had a stroke, and immediately sets out to combat the system.  In this case, the system is a small Romanian town hospital which actually is providing competent care for what turns out to be a minor infarct.  But our neurotic protagonist is not to be mollified.  This film typifies what I've come to expect from new-wave Romanian films:  neutral, documentary style camerawork and a sense of realism approaching the banal.  In a way, this film is a light-hearted version of Mr. Lazarescu, which from me is high praise.  The film does go on a bit too long to sustain its drama-free premise...but in a way that's the entire point of the film.  *** 1/4

PRICE CHECK  (d. Michael Walker)
Parker Posey plays an energetic, ambitious corporate go-getter, charged by a West-coast market conglomerate to revamp a poorly performing subsidiary based in Long Island.  That's the set-up for a frenetic office dramedy which both fascinated with its spot-on characterizations, and repelled with its story of morally suspect office sleaze.  The film's center is occupied by Eric Mobius, an actor of innate strength, here playing a family man struggling to support his lifestyle in a job he despises.  I can't quite put my finger on the reason; but I was totally involved in this film, even though I usually hate office-centered comedies.  Credit the actors, and especially a script which kept challenging expectations in a good way.  And Posey really outdoes herself playing her trademark character to the nth degree. *** 1/2

FUCK MY WEDDING  (d. Nicolas López)

Ariel Levy is a Chilean actor/comedian with a hang-dog, middle-class, schlubby, Jewish persona:  sort of a fairly attractive, young Woody Allen type, without the irony. He was the protagonist in last year's surprisingly pleasant life-style comedy Fuck My Life; and this film is the sequel to that one.  Like most sequels, it doesn't live up to the original.  But this story of a man-child's difficulty to commit to a relationship has enough inventive moments (including a not-so-gay, gay best pal), that it's a reasonably diverting, if not laugh-out-loud, romantic comedy experience.   ** 3/4

June 1
MIRAGE  (d. Jung-Ho Yang)
After a bender, a young Korean man finds himself returned to his childhood haunts in Incheon where he seeks out old friends.  He has just won a literary prize for a manuscript that retells a sordid episode from his high school days; and through flashbacks we gradually relive that experience.  The problem with this film is that, for whatever reason, I was unable to differentiate between the actors and compare the older characters with their younger representations in the flashbacks.  In addition, the originating story, consisting of bullying and some sort of mysterious science fictional disappearance on an offshore island, was too confusing for me to follow.  Despite its flaws, the film still kept my interest, even if it left me totally perplexed.   **
THE FIRST TIME (d. Jonathan Kasdan)
Two high school kids, he's a senior, she's a junior at another school, meet while escaping from a drunken party.  They talk.  And talk.  And talk.  And whatever (the title gives a good clue as to what the "whatever" is).  As played by perky tv star Britt Robertson (whom I've actually admired before in two tv series) and Dylan O'Brien (a good looking kid whose career has heretofore escaped me), they're pretty convincingly age appropriate.  The script is fatally flawed by dialog which comes off as fake and much too clever to be spontaneous; yet the cast actually does a good job of bringing the characters to life.  I especially liked young English actor Craig Roberts who plays the smart-ass pal role.  As teenage romantic comedies go, this at least avoids being raunchy (e.g. Superbad); and actually plays as relevant to modern teen life.  ** 1/2

STARBUCK  (d. Ken Scott)
A middle age guy of no particular distinction donated his semen anonymously to a sperm bank for money in his youth.  It turns out several years later that he has 533 children of various ages and backgrounds; and 142 of them have banded together to attempt to discover the identity of their mystery man father who went by the sobriquet "Starbuck".   That's the setup for this bittersweet, humanistic comedy of personal discovery.  As unlikely as it seems from the plot description, this film actually has become a major festival hit.  And I understand why:  it's well written, poignant and funny.  I wasn't blown away; but on a day of film disappointments, this stood out.  *** 1/4

THE GLASS MAN (d. Cristian Solimeno)

A London based corporation man (schlubby actor Andy Nyman) has lost his job in some sort of scandal.  He can't bring himself to tell his wife (Neve Campbell with a ridiculous English accent); and he's generally non-confronting his life.  That's the set-up for what turns out to be an unfathomable story of deceptions and narrative fakery.  The one redeeming quality of the film is that it looks great, even while it is playing fast and loose with the audience's expectations.  I wanted to exit the theater after about 45 minutes, and wish that I had.  * 3/4

May 31
CHAPITEAU-SHOW (Shapito-shou) (d. Sergey Loban)
A disparate group sets off to the Crimean seaside and more-or-less cavorts in this Russian film of epic length.  What is interesting about this film is the way it is structured:  the film keeps recycling the same time period, only from at least five completely different point of views (forgive me, but after the third or fourth iteration I was losing track).  This already cluttered scenario is further added to by a recurring return to a makeshift tented cabaret show featuring singing and acrobatics, and which acts as a sort of Greek chorus commentary...at least I think that's what was intended.)  In any case, the individual stories, and frankly unpleasant, talky characters, were not quite interesting enough to keep me involved for the entire 3 3/4 hour length of the film.  On the other hand, the direction was sure handed, not an insignificant virtue with so many balls in the air; and the cinematography especially vivid.  For about 3/4 of the length of this film I was buying its cheeky concept.  Then my patience wore out and I wished that the filmmaker had done some significant pruning.  ** 3/4

4 DAYS IN MAY  (d. Achim Von Borries)
The May in the title refers to the last days of WWII in Europe, when the unconditional German surrender occurs.  It takes place at a rural orphanage for young girls on the German coast which is occupied by a small squad of Russian soldiers, led by a conscientious captain, facing a much larger contingent of German soldiers who are determined to surrender...but not to the Russians.  The Orphanage is run by a White Russian Baroness, whose smart-as-a-whip, pre-teen nephew serves as translator and point-of-view protagonist.  That is the set-up for a tense, but fascinatingly ironic true (?) story of divided loyalties and courage which transcended nationality.  This is a fine film, beautifully acted (special note of praise for Aleksei Guskov as the principled Russian captain and red-headed, young Pavel Wenzel as the kid).  Its unique, controversial conclusion is one that needs to be seen.  *** 3/4

(d. Benh Zeitlin)
Six-year old Hushpuppy is a smart little thing, living a wild life with her father in rural Louisiana during and after what was probably Hurricane Katrina.  The film is an impressionistic saga of hardship and human resilience...reduced in scale to the point of view of a young child.  Zeitlin has won several festival awards for his direction, which is impressive at making such a small film look so large scale.  Personally, I have trouble when a film goes the allegory route...here with a herd of menacing pig-like creatures which are born from ecologic disaster; and which menace the itsy-bitsy protagonist (played by young Quvenzhané Wallace, bound to be the breakout star of this film).  I suspect that this is going to be this year's Precious, succès d'estime and year-end awards contender.  ***

May 30
MY DAD IS BARYSHNIKOV  (d. Dmitry Povolotski & Mark Drugol)
A gawky, teenage boy is studying ballet at an art school in 1986 Moscow.  He's a smart kid, but unpopular until he gets the notion that his unknown (to him) father was Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was at that time living famously in the U.S. and an enemy of the Soviet.  This despite the fact that his paternal grandparents were Jews and named Fishkin.  The film is a nice enough coming-of-age story, with a present day narration which put the story into context and made it seem as if it were possibly autobiographical.  For me the film did go on too long to support its premise; but the dancing and the boy's pluck made for some entertaining moments.  ***
A smart, pretty girl, working to support her young brother and herself as a market checkout girl in present day France, is publishing a viral blog blowing the lid off of the exploitation of her fellow workers.  What follows is a rather trivial romantic comedy which almost works as a entertaining, feel-good character study, despite its cliché filled script.  This wasn't a bad film; and it does have a fine, if bland, lead actress in Déborah François.  But fluff is fluff.  ** 1/2

VOLCANO  (d. Rúnar Rúnarsson) 
About 5 seconds before Volcano started, as soon as I realized it was an Icelandic film, I recalled that I'd already seen it.  I loved it back in January, gave it *** 3/4, but just didn't feel like watching it again.  So I called it a day and went home to watch "Game of Thrones". 

May 29
DIAZ - DON'T CLEAN UP THIS BLOOD (d. Daniele Vicari)
The July, 2001 G8 summit meeting in Genoa, Italy has been the subject of several movies, mostly centered around the protestors and anarchists who disrupted the event.  This large scale film purports to be a dramatic re-creation of what amounts to a police riot at the Diaz school after the event, a place where many students and bystanders were domiciled before leaving town.  What the film records are shocking abuses of power: brutal beatings, torture etc. on the part of the riot police.  The character development is perfunctory; but the direction of action and the sheer scale of the film are impressive.  This isn't a film for the squeamish...the bloodshed is graphic and seemingly unending.  The film works as an important indictment of the system out of control.  *** 1/4

6 POINTS ABOUT EMMA  (d. Roberto Pérez Toledo)
Emma is blind, but determined to live an independent life along with her seeing-eye dog.  She is also determined to get pregnant to fill a void of love in her life.  That is the set-up for a film of mixed messages and doubtful moral choices.  Verónica Echegui is convincing playing blind (so much so that I was left feeling that this wasn't acting).  What I liked about this film were the interesting supporting characters who made up a small therapy group for variously disabled persons.  But I never quite accepted the veracity of Emma's story, which detracted from an otherwise well made film.  ** 3/4

PRIME TIME SOAP (d. Odilon Rocha)
The setting is 1970 era Brazil under a politically oppressive dictatorship.  But I really don't want to get into the soap opera-ish plot which involves cops and rebels of various stripes, thwarted love affairs, sundered families...and even a hardly believable teenage gay sub-plot.  The film was fatally marred by dark gray sub-titles which were practically indecipherable.  But I'm afraid that even if all the dialog was understood, the film would still be an overblown pot-boiler.   **

AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT  (d. Alex de la Iglesia)
A long-time out-of-work ad man is fortuitously given an opportunity to clean up financially when his story becomes a media frenzy.  Any details would be unforgivably spoiler laden, so let it suffice that José Mota gives a fine, immobilized performance (mostly with his eyes), and Salma Hayek does her best as a prideful, suffering wife.  Director de la Iglesia is in good form handling the acting and the difficult logistics of the shoot.  This is a more-or-less effective satire of the abuses that present day media are capable of, even as the film occasionally goes too far into exaggeration for effect.*** 1/4

POLICEMAN  (d. Nadav Lapid)

Two stories ultimately intersect:  a terrorist police squad centered around a charismatic family man (Israeli hunk Yiftach Klein), and a small group of young Israeli political protestors who are determined to pull off a terrorist act against the rich exploiters.  The film develops its characters beautifully, if a little sketchily on the terrorist side.  However, as a thriller it falls short, with little action and lots of talk.  Still, I was involved enough; and I think the film worked as a rather neutral political statement about present day Israel.  ***

May 28
THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO  (d. Robert Guédiguian)
A 50-something Union organizer loses his Marseilles job along with 19 others, victims of the current economic collapse.  As played by the ubiquitous Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the third film I've seen with him in the past couple of months), he's a good family man content to enjoy life in early retirement with his wife (the director's long-time muse Ariane Ascaride), two kids and three grand kids. However, a shocking event befalls the couple, which leads to a test of character.  The film is a beautiful portrayal of a functional family coping with adversity.  All the characters are nuanced, even the villain (played against type by one of my favorite actors, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet.)  This is a profoundly humanistic film, a treat for mind and heart...I loved it.  *** 3/4

360  (d. Fernando Meirelles)
This film, with a large cast of familiar stars, is yet another take on the La Ronde theme:  following various characters sequentially as they travel the world.  Here it is rather well done, with individual stories which resonate and involve the viewer, even if they don't quite mesh seamlessly into a whole.  It's the kind of film that one admires for its audacious bigness and serious intent, but ultimately feels bloated and overly schematic.  Yet, this cast (Rachel Weitz, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Foster et al) is good enough to carry the film.  ***

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (d. Gian Alfanso Pacinotti)
A lonely Italian man works in a bingo parlor staffed by bigots in a present-day world where little white aliens have landed with unknown intentions.  This is a curious mixture of kitchen sink miserablism and el-cheapo sci-fi which doesn't quite work as either.  However, it is just off-the-wall strange and occasionally funny enough that it barely escapes being a complete waste of time.   **

Johnnie To has made a reputation as an excellent director of smart thrillers; but he also has a romantic streak.  Here he tells the entrancing story of a big action movie star whose personal life goes to hell when his co-star and true-life love leaves him at the alter.  Drunk and in despair he escapes to a high altitude resort which has its own drama going on.  What follows is a feel-good romantic dramedy which totally worked for me despite its inherent sappiness.  It brought me to tears (not all that difficult, but the first time it has happened at this festival).   I'm probably over-reacting...I have the feeling that what I found absorbing and moving is going to come off as silly and trivial to more skeptical filmgoers.  *** 1/2

May 27
BEL AMI  (d. Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormand)
Based on a late 19th century de Maupassant novel, this is the story of George Duroy, a poor ex-soldier of no breeding, who screws his way to fame and fortune in Parisian society.  He's a thorough scoundrel; but as played by lightweight Robert Pattenson (of Twilight renown), Duroy is a pretty, but empty vessel.  It's hard to fathom why three strong, rich and smart women (played successively by Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci) would fall so hard for this man.  Still, the film does have its allure as a costume chamber piece, sort of a bloodless Les liaisons dangereuse,  although the current film is from a later era and covers the intellectual bourgeoisie rather than the nobility.  ** 3/4

TWO FOR THE ROAD  (d. Stanley Donen)
Restored gloriously in wide screen color as if it were shot today, one has to wonder why bother.  Well, I do know why:  Donen and its two stars, Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney are revered, Frederic Raphael is a screen writer of note, and the 1967 film enjoys a reputation as a groundbreaking romantic comedy.  But like the also recently restored Pierrot le fou (Godard's road trip film made two years earlier and in my opinion a direct influence on this film), this film's reputation escapes me.  It's the story of a couple who meet cute and then bicker their way through a marriage using the device of intercutting scenes of them driving through France at various stages of the relationship.  For me, the film was ruined by a badly miscast Albert Finney, too menacing a presence to pull off a role that Cary Grant would have slain.  But I have to say that it was nice to see Audrey Hepburn dressed to the nines in gorgeous costumes again.  It's always wonderful when badly treated old films are perfectly and expensively restored; and I'm sure that this film has an eagerly awaiting audience...just not me.  ** 1/4

Oy, where to start?  This is a Canadian film centered on a family:  thirty-something son Noah, a self-involved loser living with his aging parents, is suddenly made responsible for a young son that he never knew existed when social services delivers the recently motherless boy to his door.  Then there are his two best friends: gay Eric, involved in a new relationship with a sardonic conservative man; and possible girlfriend Amanda, supposedly a newly credentialed physician.  What follows is a series of episodes of escalating misfortune punctuated by brittle dialog which tries to be clever and smart, but ends up sounding all wrong at every turn.  It's as if the screen writer deliberately tried to sabotage the audience's emotional response by manipulating and degrading the characters unacceptably.  The actors do try valiantly...for instance Gabrielle Rose is quite convincing as a woman disappearing into Alzheimer's; and I did like the sympathetic gay character played by Lane Edwards and the boy actor Sean Michael Kyer.  But everything else about this film is misbegotten.   * 3/4

THE CONVOY  (d. Alexey Mizgirev)
To round out a disappointing evening, this is a Russian policier/thriller of such profound incomprehensibility that I almost have nothing to say about it.  Something about a seriously disturbed army Captain, charged with rounding up some AWOL soldiers, who encounters corrupt policemen, treachery and other mystifying adventures wandering through Moscow's underbelly.  The film looks fine, vivid colors and convincing low-life locations.  And fortunately it is mercifully short, if endless, at 81 minutes. * 3/4

May 26
CAN  (d. Rasit Çelikezer)
A married couple discover that they can't have children because the man is sterile.  The man is so shamed by this denial of his manhood, that he devises a subterfuge to buy a baby after a fake pregnancy.  This is the set-up for an elaborate time-binding story of family ties, maternal love and sacrifice.  I went into this Turkish film with no expectations and discovered an emotionally powerful film, only marred by the feeling that the underlying psychology of the characters is suspect.  Still, the entire cast is excellent, including one of the best young boy performances ever by Yusuf Berkan Demirbag and a tour de force depiction of post partum-ish depression and motherly devotion by Selen Uçer.  *** 1/4

GOODBYE  (d. Mohammad Rasoulof)
An Iranian woman, married to a politically suspect journalist, is pregnant and desiring of emigrating.  That is the set-up for a harrowing story of helplessness in the face of bureaucracy and the power of the state.  This is throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink at the protagonist filmmaking.  It's powerful stuff; and Rasoulof, who was imprisoned in real life for "propagandizing against the regime" found an ideal actress: beautiful, quietly resolute Leila Zare to portray his protagonist.  This is an important and effective document of current day Iranian oppression; but I found it too much an unremitting downer to feel anything but relief that I am not an Iranian today.  ** 1/2

COMING HOME (À moi seule) (d. Frédéric Videau)
A man kidnaps a young girl and keeps her captive in a basement for years.  His goal is not to sexually molest her (compare this with the recent film Michael, where the captor is truly evil), rather to...what?  That's the flaw of this film:  the motivation of the kidnapper was never clear to me.  Companionship?  Domination?  For the hell of it?  Maybe all of that, or nothing.  In any case, the film is strangely neutral on the act..the kidnapper is more a tortured soul than evil and the girl is feisty and plucky, a survivor type.  There's a kernel of a good film here, the two main actors are quite convincing.  But it somehow doesn't add up.  ** 3/4

THE FIRST ON THE LIST  (d. Roan Johnson)

The film takes place in 1970 in Pisa Italy, amidst a climate of political turmoil which mirrors what was happening around the world...leftist young people in revolt against the system.  Apparently based on a true story, three young men embark on a paranoid trek to escape what they think is a rightist coup by crashing the Austrian border seeking political asylum.  The film is an enjoyable, satiric farce featuring bumbling characters at every level. ***

May 25
JOSHUA TREE, 1951:  A PORTRAIT OF JAMES DEAN  (d. Matthew Mishory)
This film is an "impression" of what James Dean's life was like while he was living in L.A in 1951., studying acting and (apparently) sleeping his way through life with myriads of men.  The film was shot mostly in beautifully realized black and white, lovingly lit chiaroscuro light and shadows.  And the lead actor playing Dean, James Preston, did look something like the original, if somewhat prettier.  But that's about the best I can say for this iconoclastic, wet-dream portrayal of my all-time favorite actor.  If lots of coy man-on-man sex, and characters aimlessly lolling around swimming pools and delivering portentous dialog while wondering desert trails is your thing, then this is the film for you.  I would have thought it to be my cup of tea; but it was all so eye-rollingly pretentious that despite all the male beauty I was bored.  * 3/4

NORTH SEA TEXAS  (d. Bavo Defurne) +
I decided to watch this film again, as I recalled really liking it back in January, but without a clear memory of the film.  It's a coming-of-age film taking place in the 1960s in a Flanders seaside village, centered on a boy who from the age of 6 is a gay prototype.   I actually liked the film more this time:  the characterizations were true to life, the story poignant, the direction sure handed, the cinematography especially vivid.  The actors playing the two boys as teenagers, Jelle Florizoone as Pim and Mathias Vergels as Gino are worthy of mention...possibly the best, most natural depiction of youthful gay exploration since the German film SummerstormThe film is slow and reflective; but my interest and involvement never waned.  *** 1/4

A BETTER LIFE (d. Cédric Kahn)
Yann is an out-of-work trained chef who meets a girl with a young son, falls in love, and embarks on a naively underfunded mission to build a restaurant of his own.  As brilliantly portrayed by Guillaume Canet, he's manic and loyal and totally sympathetic (even as this filmgoer felt like shaking some sense into the character.)  The title is ironic...be warned that this isn't a "feel-good" movie.  But it is a film that totally captivated me and kept challenging my expectations in a good way.  *** 1/2

May 24
EARTHBOUND  (d. Alan Brennan)
Rafe Spall shows some sympathetic acting chops playing Joe, a man/boy whose father (David Morrissey), as he lay dying when Joe was a kid, divulged to him that they were aliens, escaped to Earth from planet Zelaxon,  in rebellion from other aliens who were hunting them down.  This crazy notion, implanted in an impressionable kid, leads to this mixture of screwball love story and over-the-top sci-fi adventure.  What I liked about the film was that its script kept morphing in unexpected directions.  What I didn't like was that the whole thing came off as rather silly, with stock characters that didn't make me care a bit about them.  Still, some amusing fun which almost rose to a guilty pleasure.  ** 1/4

170 Hz  (d. Joost van Ginkel)
Two deaf teenagers, rebelling against their concerned, if controlling parents, form a relationship in this Dutch film.  The boy (played by newcomer Michael Muller, scruffy and strangely magnetic) is on the run and living in an abandoned bus.  The girl (played by Gaite Jansen) is in love and willing to defy her father and run away with the older boy.  The film is gorgeously shot, with an intriguing soundtrack which alternates between the silent world of its deaf protagonists and the real sounds that they can't hear (everything is communicated in sign language which is nicely sub-titled).  This interestingly artistic, even impressionistic brand of filmmaking is often at odds with the pedestrian "Romeo & Juliette"-ish plot.  There's also the matter of the film's slow, hypnotic pacing and droning music track which threatened to put me to sleep...except that the tempestuous relationships and sheer artistry of the production kept me interested.  ** 3/4

CLOUDBURST (d. Thom Fitzgerald)

Olympia Dukakis is amazingly effective playing an 80-ish, foul-mouth lesbian in a 31 year relationship with her kindly, sickly lover (Brenda Fricker, enormous).  Defying family, the ladies embark on a road trip from Maine to Canada to get officially married there.  On the way they encounter a lost young man hitchhiker (attractive Ryan Doucette) who joins their trek.  This is a character driven comedy road trip which is refreshingly fun and emotionally satisfying.  Thom Fitzgerald, who blew me away emotionally with his film The Event, is a consistently fine director of actors...and Dukakis has become something of his muse.  However, the script is just a little too predictable and pat to give the film an unqualified rave.   *** 1/4

May 23
HELLO I MUST BE GOING  (d. Todd Louiso)
Amy is 35, in a depressed funk over her husband's divorcing her for a younger woman, and recently living at home with her monetarily insecure parents.  Melanie Lynskey comes into her own playing Amy, her rapidly changing emotional journey beautifully and subtly expressed in facial and body language.  Equally fine are her parents, played by Blythe Danner and John Rubenstein.  But the revelation here is young Christopher Abbott, one of the boys in HBO's great new comedy series "Girls".  Here he is playing a very mature and grounded 19 year-old with whom Amy has a bittersweet, May/September affair.  This is a little gem of a film, where everything (script, acting, direction) comes together in surprisingly irresistible fashion.  *** 1/2

CAMILLA DICKENSON  (d. Cornelia Duryée Moore)
Camilla (budding Michelle Williams clone, Adelaide Clemens) is a serious, older-than-her-age 15 year-old girl in 1948 New York City.  She has neurotic parents, and a jealous best girlfriend (whose cute brother, played by Greg Sulkin, is to become her perfectly gentlemanly boyfriend.)   What I liked about this film is its flawless depiction of 1948:  wonderful sets, costumes, hairdos etc. which absolutely pegged the period.  But I was frankly bored by the turgid melodrama and stilted dialogue of the script, which was adapted from an (apparently) popular '50s novel by Madeleine L'Engle that I'd never heard of and have no desire to read.  ** 1/2

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED  (d. Colin Trevarrow)

A Seattle Weekly reporter and two interns are sent to discover the story behind a mysterious classified ad seeking people to go on a time traveling adventure.  They stumble upon a wacked out, paranoid inventor (a convincingly earnest comic performance by Mark Duplass), and a modern-day screwball fable ensues.  I really liked the three reporters, played by recent tv comedy stars Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni.  The clever script develops nicely, more farce than laugh-out-loud comedy.  The film is a little hackneyed and old-fashioned...but definitely an audience pleaser.  ***

May 22
Erik (blondly attractive Danish actor Thune Lindhardt), is a documentary filmmaker from a wealthy family living in New York in the mid-1990s.  At the start of the film he has just broken off an unsatisfying relationship with a man and is playing the field of unsatisfactory phone sex.  He meets Paul, an attractive trick ("I have a girlfriend") played by Zachary Booth, who was familiar to me as Glenn Close's son on the tv show "Damages".  Paul comes out with a vengeance...but he's also a compulsively addicted  crack-head.  Erik and Paul embark on a (to be kind) rocky long-term relationship.  I've always admired Ira Sachs as an important filmmaker who consistently makes artistic gay films of merit.  But this film rang with a truthfulness and honesty that amazed me.  I'm having trouble being objective about this film because it has so many echoes from my own life and experiences in an earlier age, the 1970s, when Erik's story could have been my own in so many ways.  I'm haunted by this film.  I recognize that it is a tough film for some to watch:  it is lengthy and harrowing and may seem unlikely (I'm still wondering how the characters managed such an opulent lifestyle in expensive New York City).  But I recognized an innate truth in the characters and their situation which knocked me for a loop.  *** 1/2

COUNTDOWN  (d. Huh Jong-ho)
A South Korean man working as a debt collector discovers that he is dying of liver cancer and needs a liver transplant.  What ensues is an exhilarating thriller, a chase film, which keeps escalating the stakes as more and more people get involved in what turns out to be a tale of money and revenge.  But it is also a strangely tender story about a man who mourns the death in mysterious fashion of his Down's Syndrome son five years earlier.  It's a curious mixture of genres which works because the director is great at staging his action sequences; and he has the perfect lead actor in Jeong Jae-young who projects both toughness and sensitivity in equal measure.  ***

THE DO-DECA-PENTATHELON (d. Jay & Mark Duplass)
The Duplass brothers have written and directed (but not acted in) a story of intense brotherly competition.  When Mark and Jonathan were young, they invented an Olympics of sorts for themselves:  25 contests, winner is the supreme of the two.  But it was prematurely halted in a tie at 12-12; and that failure to conclude has haunted them, estranged from each other until at middle age they come together at a family gathering.  The film has a certain kind of ironic whimsey I associate with the Duplass brothers.  But for me the film seemed formulaic and didn't engage me the way that the filmmakers' more polished recent efforts (Jeff Who Lives at Home and Cyrus) have.  ** 1/2

I was charmed by the description of this film:  young Jewish boy from L.A. longs for the "white Christmas" of his media influenced imagination.  But the execution didn't work out for me:  the film turned out to be an over-obvious, cliché ridden kids film with some of the worst acting I've seen in a while.  On the other hand, I think the film might work for the audience it was intended for...just not me.   * 3/4

May 21
I'm getting old, obviously.  I'd rather stay at home and watch GIRLS on HBO rather than the wacky 10AM Québecoise comedy at SIFF.
This is the third film I've seen at this festival (joining Liberal Arts and Sleepwalk With Me) where the filmmaker is lead actor/writer/director who has created a quirky personal statement.  Here O'Nan plays a passive, neurotic singer-songwriter, rejected by his band mate (a game Jason Ritter), who is joined on a frenetic road trip by a crazed fellow artist (played full-tilt by Michael Weston) and a girl groupie (vivacious Arielle Kebbel).  The film is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, liberally delivering its understated zingers; but what separates it from the pack are the well crafted, weird songs that O'Nan delivers.  *** 1/4

WELCOME TO DOE BAY  (d. Nesib Shamah, Dan Thornton)
This is a documentary about the small music festival which takes place yearly in August on Orca Island (part of the San Juans, north of Seattle).  The festival is so small that it sells out in about two minutes when tickets go on sale on the internet.  So this film is about as close as most will ever get to the wonderful vibe generated at Doe Bay.  The film is filled with lengthy performances by the (to me) unfamiliar, mostly acoustic bands.  It's sprinkled with interviews with band members, the festival organizers and music critics.  I enjoyed this film, occasionally really grooving on some of the music...but as a documentary it broke no new ground and seemed a lot longer than its relatively short playing time.  ** 3/4

MOSQUITA Y MARI  (d. Aurora Guerrero)
This is a high-school girl's coming of age film set in the Latino area of southeast L.A.  Yolanda is a relatively geeky girl, doing well in school but having trouble making friends.  She develops a crush on her neighbor, Mari, who is pretty, but disinterested in school.  Yolanda starts to tutor Mari in geometry.  They become friends, and Mari nicknames Yolanda Mosquita.  The film ambles on; and although I had trouble finding a window into identifying with the story, the film seemed to be an authentic view of a teenage girl's life as a budding lesbian.  ** 1/2

11 FLOWERS  (d. Wang Xiaoshuai)
This intimate epic is set towards the end of the Chinese cultural revolution of the 1970s.  Intellectuals and their families were sent to the countryside for re-education amidst relative poverty.  This is the story of one of those families, centered on Wang Han, the 11 year-old son.  It's apparently based on the childhood experiences of the auteur, whose narration bookcases the film.  The child actor is quite fine expressing the wonder and terrors of growing up amidst the political turmoil of the times.  I really enjoyed the beauty, authenticity and energy of this film.  *** 1/4

THE STUDENT  (d. Santiago Mitre)

Handsome actor Esteban Lamothe plays a Buenos Aires university student, slightly older and more experienced than most of his fellow students.  His sexual conquests lead him to become more involved with campus politics than his studies.  I liked this film on the character level:  attractive actors, interesting motivations.  But the story was so wrapped up in unfamiliar and confusing Argentinian politics, that it left me just a tad bored.  ** 1/2

May 20
MY BROTHER THE DEVIL  (d. Sally El Hosaini)
Two brothers of Egyptian parentage, the elder a non-so-tough gangster, the younger a promising student, live in the London projects.  The gang is DMG (Drugs, Money, Guns), so it's obvious where this film is going to go.  However it does take a different turn when one of the brothers secretly falls for a man, which has consequences.  Despite the squalor and unpleasant whiff of homophobia, I was drawn into this story by the convincing interaction of the brothers.  It did need subtitling, however, since the accents and London slang were often indecipherable.   ** 3/4

TRISHNA  (d. Michael Winterbottom)
This was supposed to be Winterbottom's re-imagining of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Ubervilles" set in modern day India.  However, I kept waiting around for some recognizable characters from that story to appear.  Frankly, the adaptation was a disappointment.  Not that the film was a failure, precisely.  Here it's the story of a poor country girl exploited sexually and spiritually by a handsome boy who brings her to Mumbai to work in his father's hotel.  The splendid wide-screen cinematography definitely captures the oppressive mass of India.  And the two leads, Frida Pinto and Riz Ahmed are attractive and effective.  But ultimately I had trouble buying the underlying psychology of the story.  ** 1/2

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES  (d. Joe Berlinger)
This is a documentary about the making of Paul Simon's masterwork album, "Graceland", focusing on the political ramifications of his trip to South Africa in the midst of the cultural boycott against apartheid in 1985.  It combines remarkable sequences of the collaborative creation of the songs with contemporary concert footage and present-day interviews with Simon and the many black artists that he discovered and used to effect in the making of the album.  I've always loved Simon's music; but I really didn't have much of an idea of what went into the making of this album and the controversy at the time.  So I was fascinated and a little disturbed by this illustration of how politics can be the enemy of art.  I ended up feeling even more respect for Simon after watching (and listening to with such pleasure) this film. *** 1/2

LOVERBOY  (d. Catalin Mitulescu)

This Romanian film centers on a beautiful young man who makes his living, apparently, from seducing young girls and prepping them for a life of sex slavery.  At least that's my interpretation, although the film never quite comes out and states the case that clearly. In any case, it is an interesting enough character study of a budding sociopath who has enough redeeming characteristics (motherless, cares for his infirm grandfather, treats his girls lovingly) that he's an effective antihero.  The film meanders and lacks a clear narrative line...but it does illuminate a different aspect of the illicit sex trade; and I was interested and appalled in equal measure. ***

May 19
FOUR SUNS (d. Bohdan Sláma)
Sláma directed one of my all-timers, The Country Teacher, so I was expecting to be impressed.  Unfortunately this dysfunctional family drama didn't quite deliver.  It's the story of Jára (Jaroslav Plesi), who can't keep a job, whose wife is dissatisfied, whose teenage son is following a path to delinquency, and whose best friend is a mystic going nuts.  Sounds promising...but the story meanders and goes places that were just a tad too unrealistic for my tastes.  But the acting was first class; and for all its strangeness, the film held my interest.  ** 1/2

TAKE THIS WALTZ  (d. Sarah Poley)
Michelle Williams does a star turn as Margot, quietly lovely, an A married to a C, schlubby food writer Lou (convincingly played to type by Seth Rogan).  Then she meets neighbor Daniel, another A, and sparks fly despite her best efforts to deny them.  Daniel is played by Luke Kerby, one of my absolutely favorite actors whom I seek out to watch ever since his turn in the gay comedy Mambo Italiano, and his playing the neurotic Hamlet in the great Canadian tv series Slings and Arrows.  Here he more than ever fills the role of sympathetic, magnetic, irresistible lover.  This film apparently polarizes audiences.  I recognize that it is not without flaws, some questionable plot devices and moral failings.  But I was completely sold by the utter realism of the characterizations.  It's been a while since I saw a film where I was so intensely relating the feelings generated on screen.   *** 1/2

FAT KID RULES THE WORLD (d. Matthew Lillard)
Troy (Jacob Wysocki) is a fat high-school student, smart but failing at life because of his neurotic loser mentality.  His ex-marine father (Billy Campbell) has his over-achieving and thin younger brother to prefer; but he does love his fat son.  Into Troy's life comes a "friend"...druggy, high-school dropout, punk rocker, shameless manipulator, and totally magnetic Marcus.  If there is any justice this film will make a star out of Matt O'Leary, who is crazy wonderful playing Marcus. The film reminded me of a funnier and more humanistic Scott Pilgrim, without the special effects, but with its accurate depiction of teenage disaffection.  Lillard shows a deft directoral touch, a flawless connection with his actors.  I hope this little film finds its audience. *** 1/4

REBELLION  (d. Mathieu Kassovitz)

Kassovitz plays true-life French hostage negotiator Captain Legorjus, who is called on to diffuse a situation in the French colony of New Caledonia in 1988.  Some rebels (or terrorists, depending), have started a news-making uprising in the midst of a heated Presidential election between leftist Mitterand and rightist Chirac.  The story becomes a political hot potato which overwhelms the actual negotiations on the ground.  What ensues is a fascinating, if somewhat confusing (too many mysterious military acronyms, for example), hostage crisis and military adventure.  The film might be too slow to develop for some (one audience member in particular snored incredibly loudly throughout the film, which was a comment in itself).  But it is also Kassovitz's tactical triumph at humanizing this unfamiliar (to Americans, at least) historical adventure.  ***

May 18
SIFF has some kinks to work out with the Q-card system of handling lines.  And the new policy of scanning passes at entry doesn't work for sold-out screenings.  But all in all the first full day of the festival was a hectic success.
DAAS  (d. Adrian Panek)
This murky costume drama (both in plot and appearance) takes place in 18th century Poland and Austria.  It's the apparently based-on-fact story of Jacpb Frank, a Jew who claimed to be the Messiah and capable of healing miracles, and two men that were out to expose him.  Or something like that.  I have to say that I was totally lost by the narrative, which wasn't helped by my confusion between similar appearing actors.  The film looked authentic as to its time, with great costumes and sets.  I'm sure there was an interesting historical tale to be told...but this film did a hash job of telling it.  **

THE INTOUCHABLES(d. Eric Toledano, Olivie Nakache)
François Cluzet plays Philippe, an enormously rich, middle age, recent quadriplegic who can afford the best possible care.  In his innate despair, he chooses as his caregiver an inexperienced sociopath, a black druggie and ex-petty thief (an wonderfully energetic performance by Omar Sy).  The film is slightly reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was a much more serious film.  In this film, the relationship between the two leads has a comic, as well as a heartening tone.  And let's not hesitate to admit that despite its plot which comes close to being predictably sappy, this is one film which works magic:  funny, life affirming, quite entertaining.  Credit to the two lead actors who have remarkable chemistry  *** 1/2

CRACKS IN THE SHELL (d. Christian Schwochow)

A young, inexperienced student actress with problems at home is given the lead in a major avant-garde production by the world-weary director, and suffers, suffers, suffers.  The film has been compared to The Black Swan, but it's not at all as turgid as that drama.  The lead actress, Stine Fischer Christensen, lacks charisma, which is the point of the plot, but also weakens the film a little.  I enjoyed this downer-yet-hopeful film despite its flaws.    ***

May 17  (The festival officially starts tonight...and I won't be there.)
UNFORGIVABLE  (d. André Téchiné)
A middle age French novelist (played by André Dussollier) moves to Venice, Italy and rents a country house from a French ex-pat realtor (Carole Bouquet) whom he falls for.  That is the set-up for one of Téchiné's least typical films, a pretty and moderately intriguing extended family romantic drama which shows off the canals of Venice far more than it explores the hearts of its characters.  The film has more sub-plots than any five films...and most of them left me wishing that I could relate to anybody.  Still, Téchiné is incapable of making an uninteresting film.  Even here, the dramatic momentum of the various stories kept me involved, although I was left wondering exactly what was "unforgivable".   ***

HAIL  (d. Amiel Courtin-Wilson)
This is a film about Australian low-lifes:  a toothless man gets out of jail and hooks up with a woman friend and the audience is subjected to 104 minutes of tedious film-school pretentious visuals in search of a story.  OK, there was a story:  man meets girl, man loses girl, man seeks revenge.  Unfortunately it was all so unremittingly bleak and hopeless that I spent every waking moment (maybe half of the film) wishing I were anyplace else but in the theater.  I didn't walk out...mainly because the wacked out visuals almost redeemed the sordid subject matter.   3/4*

HOW 2 STEAL 2 MILLION  (d. Charlie Vundla)

This is a South African film noir...the second film in a row where a man gets out of prison and gets involved with, in this case, a complex caper.  Complex is the key word:  there are twists and turns, plot reversals and revenges.  It's all shot in a bleached out, colorless murk, which fits the story.  However, unless I missed a lot of the story (which is possible), there were too many plot holes to accept the film's reality.   ** 1/4

May 16
MOONRISE KINGDOM  (d. Wes Anderson)
A disaffected 12-year old boy scout is attending some sort of island summer camp in 1965.  He runs away to join his secret girlfriend, daughter of local weirdos, and a surrealistic farce ensues. I must admit that Wes Anderson's brand of arch irony and whimsey usually escapes me.  But this is a sweet, romantic film, and the first of his since Bottle Rocket that I enjoyed without qualification.  Still, you know I'm going to qualify my praise:  trivial, unlikely, gossamer light entertainment, and a waste of some impressive talents (Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, to say nothing of Bruce Willis who is totally miscast). ***

ANY DAY NOW  (d. Travis Fine)
The setting of this issue drama is 1979, a West Hollywood drag show gay bar.  Alan Cumming, sporting an on-again, off-again Queens accent and long, stringy hair, plays a drag entertainer with a big heart who hooks up with a closeted assistant DA, played by Garret Dillahunt.  Not to give too much away, they try to adopt a sweet teenage Downs Syndrome boy, something that in 1979 was practically unheard of.  The script is probably too much on the nose and obvious; however, the film involved and moved me.  A lot has to do with some superb acting by the entire cast, especially a total commitment to the role by Cumming and a remarkably true to life performance by the young Isaac Layva.  ***

STEP UP TO THE PLATE (Entre les Bras)  (d. Paul Lacoste)

This is a documentary about a French family of 3-Michelin star restauranteurs, 4 generations of Bras.  Like last year's Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it's based on a father retiring and passing on his legacy to his eldest son, who is also a fine and committed chef.  The film is a meditation on the art of cooking.  It is beautiful to look at and one has to admire the complex culinary creations of the Bras through four seasons in their Aubrac region country restaurant (and satellite Japan establishment). However, the film is also rather tedious...with long scenes of nothing much happening and not enough explanatory exposition to satisfy this viewer.  ** 1/2

May 15
THE EYE OF THE STORM (d. Fred Schepisi)
Charlotte Rampling gives an Oscar worthy performance as Elizabeth Hunter, elderly and very rich matron on her deathbed.  Her son and daughter (played with over-the-top sarcasm by Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) have reluctantly come to Australia to give their mother solace, and claim their inheritance.  The film is notable for the acting ensemble and witty dialog.  However, it was hard to find any redeeming qualities to any of the major characters whose self-involvement was legendary.  Still, it's a diverting two hours of upper class pretensions.  ***

LIBERAL ARTS (d. Josh Radnor)
There's a trend among thirty-something tv comic actors who make it in sitcoms to become movie actor/writer/directors.  Zach Braff succeeded with Garden State, and now Josh Radnor, star of long-running CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother", is going that route with this film.  It's the story of a 35ish, former liberal arts major who is asked to revisit his college alma mater to speak at a retirement dinner for his "second favorite"  professor (played by Richard Jenkins).  This leads him to confront unresolved life issues.  It isn't very funny; but it has a certain young Woody Allenish esprit.  There's a weird cameo by Zac Efron and some fine work by Elizabeth Olsen and Allison Janney.  This is a clever, watchable film which doesn't quite live up to its potential.  ***

YEAR OF GRACE  (d. Ventura Pons)

A poor boy from the country gets a scholarship to a Barcelona art-school along with a live-in situation caring for a crotchety elderly lady.  Rosa Maria Sardà, an Almodovar regular, is quite good as the old lady, and Oriol Pla is energetic and winning as the boy.  However, the script is one situational cliché after another.  I wanted to like this film...the director is one of my faves, and he's been particularly good with coming-of-age stories in the past.  But this film was just too predictable and thinly plotted for me.  ** 1/2

May 14
GIMME THE LOOT (d. Adam Leon)
A pair of teenage African-American taggers live aimless, petty-thieving lives in present day Queens.  The girl (played by Tashiana Washington) is street-smart and feisty, the boy (gawky Ty Hickson) sort of endearingly inept.  Their everyday existence is well portrayed with some humor; and let's give credit to the writer/director's eye for detail and ear for realistic dialog.  I was especially impressed by cute, young Zoë Lescaze, who plays a white artist/druggie, inhabiting an altogether different movie.  This is slice of life, going nowhere filmmaking.  But I enjoyed it.  ** 1/2

HEMEL  (d. Sacha Polak)
Hemel means "heaven" in Dutch; and it is the name of the so-called heroine of this film...an anorexic waif of a girl who sleeps around shamelessly and has daddy issues.  Literally nothing happens in the film (at least during the parts that I managed to stay awake for.)  It's a character study...and I could find nothing about the lead character to care about.  * 1/2

THE IMPOSTER (d. Bart Layton)
Some documentaries are so weird that they defy belief.  This is the story of a 24 year-old Frenchman, discovered in Spain, who pretends to be a 17 year old Texan who had been missing since he was a 13 year-old runaway (or victim).  The documentary is beautifully structured, with dramatic re-creations and present day interviews.  It's a fascinating story of white-trash stupidity (or something more sinister), which one might mistake for a mockumentary...except that no sane person would write such a script.  *** 1/4

May 10
LUV  (d. Sheldon Candis)
Woody is a smart, but somewhat sheltered 11-year old black kid being raised in Baltimore by his struggling grandmother.  His Uncle Vincent has recently been released from prison after 8 years doing time; and this film is a coming-of-age film about Woody's day-in-the-life drive around town with his uncle, experiencing the drug and violence subculture from the bottom up.  I don't know how many people have watched the HBO series, The Wire:  but this film plays like an extended episode from season #4 with only black actors and not nearly as well written.  However Michael Rainey, Jr. is quite convincing as the kid; and rapper turned actor Common is fine in the role of the uncle.  The film is involving enough; but the script is confusing, never quite making the relationships clear enough and containing several big plot holes.   ** 1/2

TEY (Aujourd'hui) (d. Alain Gomis)
At the start of the film we get a subjective point-of-view of a man recently returned from schooling in the U.S. waking up in his Dakar, Senegal environment.  We learn that this is the last day of his life (although it's unclear why or how).  And the film becomes an almost wordless reverie of the man (American actor Saul Williams) going through the motions of his last day.  The film was far too allegorical for my tastes...I never got a handle on what was really happening.  Unfortunately, I phased out through the interminable middle section.  However, the ending, mysterious as it was, almost rescued the film for me.   * 3/4

WETLANDS  (d. Guy Édoin)
This is a film about a dairy farming family in Quebec:  mom, dad and teenage son, struggling to keep their farm going faced with a long, dry summer drought.  Pascale Bussières is earthy and sultry playing the mother, dissatisfied with life and disappointed by her son, who has a history of screwing up badly.  The film's point-of-view character is the young son, played with pent-up anger and repressed sexual ambiguity by Gabriel Maillé.  One thoughtless moment leads to a family crisis; and the drama ratchets up to an unrelenting high pitch.   The direction is impressive:  the attention to the details of dairy farming, the tumultuous family dynamic, the depiction of humid misery all add up to an involving drama.  Maybe even a little too much of a downer for some; but I was totally into the story.  *** 1/4

May 9
EDEN  (d. Megan Griffiths)
This is a nuanced thriller, based on the true story of Chong Kim, a Korean-American teenage girl kidnapped by a sex slave ring in 1994.  I'm not going to disclose anything else about he plot other than to praise the actors and the documentary-like direction.  Jamie Chung is remarkable as Eden, the name given to her by her captors.  Also memorable are Beau Bridges playing against type and an interesting young actor, Matt O'Leary.  This is an issue film which is totally plausible and totally shocking, in the same league as another American indie, Winter's Bone.    *** 1/2

In 2004 a suitcase full of negatives by four Spanish civil war photographers (especially the famous Robert Capa and his partner Gerda Taro) was brought to light in Mexico City.   This documentary is about the story of those photos, the way they were re-discovered, and a moving revisit to the time of the civil war using the photos and interviews with the survivors of that time and their grandchildren.  This is inherently emotional stuff; but I felt unaccountably distanced from the subject matter, possibly because the film's editing structure was scattered.  The response by the audience at the screening was far more positive. ** 3/4

SLEEPWALK WITH ME  (d. Mike Birbiglia)
The actor/director is a stand-up comic; and this film is a wryly amusing comic re-creation of his schtick, which apparently is a physical manifestation (sleepwalking) of his inability to commit to marriage.  Using the technique of talking aside to the film audience and showing his gradually improving stand-up comic act, he dramatizes his family situation and seven year relationship with his girlfriend (a game Lauren Ambrose).  I have no idea how true-to-life the film is (the closing titles disclaim that there is no relationship between the characters and any real life people); but the film has the ring of first-person truth.  I enjoyed the film...Birbiglia is an ingratiating neurotic like Woody Allen, and I'm looking forward to his future film work.  *** 1/4

May 8
THE SEX OF THE ANGELS (El sexo de los ángeles)  (d. Xavier Villaverde)
Bruno and Carla have been a couple since they were 15.  At 24 the sex is still fantastic...until Bruno meets Rai and discovers a bisexuality that he never suspected.  That's the set-up for an over-ripe romantic drama of three ridiculously beautiful people who are ever-so-reluctantly drawn together.  The Spanish cinema seems to focus more than most in male-male-female relationships (for instance 3Some, in 2010).   I have to admit that I really enjoyed this film, despite some of the protracted, eye-rolling plot developments.  A lot has to do with the actors, especially beautiful gamine Astrid Bèrges-Frisbey, who is well on her way to international stardom (this year she was quite impressive as the eponymous Well Digger's Daughter, and had a role in the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean flick)  But the guys (Álvaro Cervantes and Llorenç Gonzáles) are also, let's just say it, hot, and play their attraction to each other quite convincingly.  Caution:  I tend to overrate films like this...much of the overheard discussion about this film was somewhat negative.  But it tackles its still controversial theme with admirable psychological realism and brings a fresh sensibility to young love.  *** 1/4

LAS ACACIAS  (d. Pablo Giergelli)
A truck driver is moving lumber from Paraguay to Buenos Aires, accompanied by a woman passenger and her 5-month old cute-as-the-dickens daughter.  That's about it...I've spoiled the whole plot, unfortunately.  Actually there's a lot more to the film than the plot:  it's a subtle and non-ironic two-person character study that makes its impact with illuminating silences and sparse dialog.  The film won a major prize for best first film at Cannes; and the direction and acting are prize-worthy.  The Argentines seem to do this sort of road trip particularly well.   ** 3/4

VALLEY OF SAINTS  (d. Musa Syeed) 
Lake Dal, in strife torn Kashmir, is the setting for this picturesque romance.  Two young Islamic men are determined to leave their humdrum lives rowing tourists around the increasingly polluted lake and bus to Delhi.  But their journey is postponed by revolt and the ensuing government curfew.  They become involved with a young girl ecologist studying the lake, which actually is the star of the film...a lake covered with moss, home to myriad of houseboats and an ethnic melange.  The film is short, the setting exotic and in its way beautiful.  I liked the characters and appreciated that this is one serious Indian film without the musical trappings of Bollywood.  ** 3/4

I arrived at the festival one day later than I had planned due to a protracted cold which delayed my departure.  The drive to Seattle from Los Angeles was actually very uneventful...and my health kept improving as I traveled north.  The day after I arrived I attended my first group of press screenings at the new (to me) SIFF Uptown theater.  The venue is theater #2, about half the size of the big theater that held SIFF screenings in the past.  I actually like the room, even if the leg room is a little cramped.  The seats seem to be in good repair, although not the most comfortable I've ever sat in.  The sound and picture were fine.  Obtaining my full-series festival pass at the concession stand went without a hitch.  Now if I can only get my health back to 100% (I still have a residual cough), I'll have no trouble getting into the swing of things.