2014 Seattle International Film Festival

A Totally Subjective Journal

Films are now rated on a 5-star scale: ***** (A+), **** 1/2 (A), **** (A-), *** 1/2 (B+), *** (B), , ** 1/2 (C), ** (C-) ,  * 1/2 (D+), *  (D), 1/2* (D-), 0* (F)   W/O=walk-out

The 24 festival films that I've already seen and reviewed at other venues can be found here.

Every year I submit my film ratings to the "Fool Serious" group, a unique part of SIFF where full-series passholders join together to rate films and have social gatherings during the festival.  At the end of the festival the votes are tallied and each voter gets an individualized record of their votes and a computer rating of "average likability."  I figure that from year to year this is a pretty darn good measure of how much I enjoyed the festival that year compared to past years.  My instinct was that this was probably the best SIFF ever in terms of film quality...and the statistics agreed!
The scale is +4.00 (Absolute Best) to -4.00 (Least liked), 0 is Average.
2014    141 films    1.06 likability
2013    134 films    0.74 likability 
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

Tuesday, June 17-19
I watched five films at the Los Angeles Film Festival (run by the same organization that gives out the Independent Spirit Awards), including two films I missed at SIFF.  I've decided to include my reviews of these here for completion purposes.
JIMI:  ALL IS BY MY SIDE  (d. John Ridley)

André Benjamin (AKA André 3000) from OutKast does an uncanny job of channeling Jimi Hendrix in this narrowly focused biopic. Because of problems obtaining rights to Hendrix's music, the film only covers the year or so period from 1966 to 1967, starting when Hendrix (going under the name Jimi James) was an unknown back-up guitarist in New York, through his relocation to swinging London where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and up to the invitation to perform at the seminal rock concert "Monterey Pop" (where, incidentally, I happened to have watched him play in person and was blown away by this previously unknown genius.)   The film could have used more of Hendrix's music, especially his vocals. Instead it concentrated on Hendrix's affairs and friendships with several girls, including posh Linda Keith (girlfriend at the time with Keith Richards), a plummy performance by Imogen Poots. Director John Ridley (who also wrote the inventive script) had a good eye for the period; but occasionally he would fall into some annoying editorial tics, such as playing a scene totally without any sound or conversely with sound only against a black screen. But the film belonged to Benjamin. Like him or not as an actor, one has to be impressed by the veracity of his guitar playing, and his convincing job of maturing his character as an artist. *** 1/2

THE LIBERATOR  (d. Alberto Arvelo)
This large scale epic film tells the story of Simon Bolivar, scion of a wealthy landowning family in Spain's Venezuela Province, who led a successful revolution to liberate Greater Columbia from 300 years of colonial tyranny. The film roughly covers thirty years of his life, from 1800-1830. Edgar Ramirez was magnetic and dashing in the title role, even if his stolid mien gave little insight into what made the man tick. Other familiar faces (to an anglophone audience) were Danny Huston as a rich English supporter, and Gary Lewis and Iwan Rheon (who is making such a strong showing as Ramsay Snow in "Game of Thrones") as foreign soldiers who joined Bolivar in his war.   I found this film particularly informative up to a point, since my education included little about this George Washington of South America. However, the film seems to say that unlike Washington, Bolivar was unable or unpolitic enough to form a stable Union after defeating the Spaniards. But despite the film's lack of clarity about the historical context, it works as an intimate war epic, with well directed, huge battle scenes and immaculate period costumes and settings. This is stirring stuff; and the film has the size and weight adequate to its subject.  ****

CUT BANK  (d. Matt Shakman)
Cut Bank, Montana, is a little town of 3,000, advertised as the coldest place in the U.S. However, this comic caper thriller takes place in late spring; and the setting is anything but frigid. Liam Hemsworth, handsome behind a full beard, is a young man of dubious intelligence, determined to escape the provincial town with his pretty cheerleader girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) and enough money to make it in the big city. So he invents an elaborate, zany scheme to defraud the government of a $100,000 bounty. That's about all I'm going to say about the cleverly hatched plot, from Roberto Patino's script which lingered for years on the "Black List" of admired, but unproduced scripts. This is Coen Bros. territory, reminiscent of Fargo...but even more outlandishly nutty. The film benefits immensely from its cast of seasoned veteran actors: Bruce Dern, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Oliver Platt and Michael Stuhlbarg, who all have large roles to play in keeping with their well established movie personae. And it is beyond pleasurable to watch them interact, obviously enjoying themselves. I have a feeling that this film is destined for cult classic stature.  ****

1000 TIMES GOODNIGHT  (d. Erik Poppe)
Juliette Binoche is excellent, as usual, playing Rebecca...fearless war photographer on assignment in Afghanistan, mother of two young daughters and wife (apparently in that priority of importance to her.) Despite the film's accurate representation of such horrors of war as child suicide bombers, this is a melodrama about the collateral damage done to the family when the mother has a dangerous calling. Every aspect of the film making was immaculate if a tad overwrought at times. The film had important observations to impart about the corrosive affects of terror. However, rarely have I felt more repelled by the subject matter of a film, as the script overloaded the dice against Rebecca in her struggle to balance career and family.  ***

Michel Houellebecq is a famous French author and poet. In this curiously rudimentary film he plays himself being kidnapped for ransom by a strange family of weirdos. Not much really happens: a lot of talk, some clever and occasionally amusing repartee, but no feeling of actual danger. The film drones on much too long; but I was just curious enough to stick it out to the bitter end. And was disappointed even by that.  * 1/2

Sunday, Jun, 8
The 40th Annual Seattle International Film Festival (actually the 38th, but there's some creative accounting going on) finished tonight.  For me, this was one of the better SIFFs, if not the best ever in terms of the number of films I really liked a lot.  Actually, for once the audience favorite awards (The Golden Space Needles) went right down the line for my first choices:  Picture, director (Richard Linklater) and actress (Patricia Arquette) for Boyhood; and actor to Dawid Ogrodik in Life Feels Good.  I can't recall a similar time when my own and the popular tastes corresponded. 
This was a genre film that was too over-the-top for many; but for me, technically fine.  ***

THE LITTLE HOUSE  (d.  Yoji Yamata)
Taki is an elderly Japanese lady whose death discloses her diary where she writes of living as a housemaid for the Hirai family in a lovely Tokyo house with a red tile roof from 1935 until the end of WWII.  Her great-nephew reads the diary, the contents of which are shown in flashbacks.  That is the structure of this beautifully rendered re-creation of the era, made dramatic by the re-telling of an affair between Taki's mistress and an artist that was employed by her master.  Like every recent film by director Yamata (beloved by me for The Twilight Samurai trilogy), this is filmmaking as lovely and poignant as a Japanese watercolor landscape.  **** 1/2

THE ONE I LOVE  (d.  Charlie McDowell)
Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss are a married couple in need of counseling to rekindle the spark of their relationship. Their couple's therapist (Ted Danson) recommends they take a vacation at a secluded estate, where they encounter doppelgangers of themselves (yes this is not your typical rom-com, rather a weird and mystifying romance/comedy/sci-fi fusion.)  The actors were charming, the special effects worked flawlessly.  But the plot made little sense to me and I didn't relate to the characters at all.  **

Saturday, June 7
GOLD  (d. Niall Heery)
Maisie Williams, the breakout star of TV's "Game of Thrones," plays Abbie, a teenage runner whose step-father (James Nesbitt) is pushing to the limit to win gold medals to prove his fitness regimen is effective.  When Abbie's real father, a hapless deadbeat, appears after a 12 year absence, the family dynamic is unbalanced...comically.  The film has trouble finding a consistent tone:  is it a serious story about a stressed out teenager?  An ironic, adult love triangle?  An offbeat comedy of errors?  It's all of these; but only fitfully hits the mark on any of them.  ** 1/2

Two teenagers, both coping with cancer, meet in a support group.  He's a charmer, she's ironic and plucky.  As played by attractive Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, this is a touching, tragic love story.  The acting is outstanding:  not only the two young principals; but also effective are Sam Trammel and Laura Dern as her concerned, loving parents and Nat Wolff as his best bud, losing his eyesight.   Only an unlikely subplot involving an ex-pat author (Willem Dafoe) and a trip to Amsterdam seemed forced.  This is an effective tearjerker.  ****

CALVARY  (d. John Michael McDonagh)
Brendon Gleeson is superb playing a middle age Irish priest who, while taking confession, is threatened by a parishioner.  The unseen man had been abused as a youth by a priest; and now indicates his intention to kill this good priest a week hence to avenge the past.  That is the set-up for a suspenseful and affecting drama which illuminates the long term effects of priestly misconduct...a fine script, but a distressing story.  *** 1/2

LA MIA CLASSE  (d. Daniele Gaglianone)
An Italian teacher is conducting a class teaching the language to a group of adult immigrants dealing with various issues.  The film is structured as a series of classroom discussions being shot as a documentary.  It's all rather dry and, for me at least, uninvolving (perhaps because I was tired and the sub-titles went by very fast.)  *1/2

Friday, June 6
4 MINUTE MILE  (d. Charles-Olivier Michaud)
Kelly Blatz is reasonably convincing playing Drew, a Seattle high-school track runner embroiled in  family troubles.  He's fatherless with a bad seed older brother (Cam Gigandet),  who insists on involving Drew as a runner in his nefarious deals.  An old, washed up and alcoholic ex-track coach (Richard Jenkins, quite good here), who lost his track star son years before, decides to help train Drew to be a champion miler.  That is the set-up for a sports coming-of-age drama where every plot development follows a familiar and predictable course.  Kim Basinger is wasted as Drew's widowed mother, having nothing to do but show concern.  Blatz has a runner's body and a certain charisma, but his dour and passive character makes him hard to root for as hero.  ** 1/2

FIRST SNOWFALL  (d. Andrea Segre)
Dani is a refugee from Togo, settled in the small Italian Alpine village in the Mocheni Valley with his infant daughter (having lost his wife in childbirth during the difficult transit from Africa.)  He is working for a family that raises bees for honey, while he attempts to obtain his asylum papers.  The valley in autumn is enormously picturesque; and the bee-keeper's family, especially the 11-year old boy Michele (still traumatized from the recent loss of his father) easily incorporate Dani into their quotidian routines.  This is a heartfelt, family oriented drama which doesn't have much of a dramatic story arc...but nevertheless leaves the audience with good feelings.   *** 1/2

CLUB SANDWICH  (d. Fernando Eimbcke)
Utterly typical, overweight teenager Hector, and his bikini wearing mother, Paloma, are just about the only vacationers at an off-season, cut-rate hotel somewhere on the Mexican coast.  They do familiar mother-son activities and bicker easily over things like whether to order a club sandwich or not...at least until another family shows up with a teen-age daughter, Jazmin.  Director Eimbcke has a unique and interesting shooting style, featuring balanced compositions and long silences punctuated by clever and amusing dialogue.  The acting is so naturalistic that it doesn't really seem like acting...and the story is so realistically non-eventful, that it hardly even seems like there is any plot at all.  I had a feeling that this was a far better, more creative film than I was giving it credit for; but, frankly, I never quite got involved with the quirky characters.  ***

Thursday, June 5
MACONDO  (d. Sudabeh Mortezai)
Ramasan is an 11-year old Chechnyan boy living in Macondo, the poor immigrant populated suburb of Vienna.  His father was killed in the war; and even at 11 he has taken up the job of head of the family, caring for his two younger sisters and helping his struggling, single mother.  He's a good kid; but prone to trouble when he runs with some of the unruly youths of the neighborhood.  When an old army buddy of his father appears, he's faced with conflicting emotions that drive this excellent coming of age story.  The film was blessed with a fine cast, especially child actor Ramasan Minkailov who gave a convincing performance.  The filmmaking was so fluid, the identification with the characters so strong, that this was one of the surprisingly most successful dramas I've seen about the plight of refugees in today's world.   ****

BIG IN JAPAN  (d. John Jeffcoat)
Reminiscent of the Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night, this is a film about a real Seattle grunge band, "Tennis Pro" and their madcap misadventures in Tokyo.  In the film, at least, they're portrayed as a tired veteran band given the opportunity to invigorate their careers by going to Japan where their kind of music might be appreciated.  What ensues is a comic adventure, fish-out-of-water story where the three members of the band cavort entertainingly and gradually catch on with their audiences.  I had never heard of this band, of course.  But I did enjoy their energetic performances which delivered some nice songs (an impromptu cello solo by lead singer/bassist Peterson was especially poignant.)  Obviously "Tennis Pro" the group can't be compared to the Beatles in fame; but this feel-good film does capture the same sort of fun that the seminal '60s film did.  Director Jeffcoat, working with a small crew, has made a little gem of a rock music film.  *** 1/2

IT'S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE  (d. Arid Ostin Ommundsen)
Jenny and Frank are in love and expecting a child when, almost inadvertently they are swept up in a drugs related crime which leads to a killing.  Jenny goes to prison, Frank survives a head wound which leaves him mentally unresponsive.  The child is adopted out to a nice family; but when Jenny is eventually released from prison she wants to reestablish her relationship with her pre-teen daughter.  However the thugs involved in the original crime are still after Jenny's blood to revenge their buddy's murder.  That is the background of this chilling look at a woman in crisis mode.  The film is suspenseful, one cares about Jenny and her daughter's fate.  Still, the film never quite rang true to me the way it characterized the villains. ***

Wednesday, June 4
FUTURO BEACH  (d. Karim Aïnouz)
A couple of German tourists are motorcycling through Brazil when one of them drowns at the treacherous Futuro Beach in Sao Paolo, Brazil.  Donato, the young, gay lifeguard who failed to save the tourist, is drawn into a relationship with the handsome survivor, Konrad, an ex-soldier who owns a motorcycle repair shop in Berlin.  Donato forsakes his family and his teenage younger brother to follow Konrad to Berlin.  That is the set-up for a character driven romantic drama told in three parts:  the meeting in Brazil, the affair in Berlin and the reconciliation of Konrad's with his grown straight brother.  The film is artfully sexually explicit and presents its very real characters with well observed accuracy.  The two leads, Wagner Moura and Clemens Schick are quite fine.  The film is slow and subtle, to the point that it defies easy audience identification.  But it is beautifully shot, with an elegantly constructed script.  For my money, it joins the recent English film Weekend as one of the best portrayals on film of an adult gay relationship.   ****

This film tells the interestingly connected stories of an extended Senegalese family as its members congregate simultaneously in three places:  Turin, Italy, New York City and Dakar, Senegal.  The young people have emigrated to try to better their lives; but their roots remain in their home country.  The film is too rich with characters for me to attempt to summarize the various plot threads without spoilers.   But all of the individuals were vividly portrayed; and despite how foreign and removed from my personal experience these stories were, the film absorbed my interest throughout.   *** 1/2

BLIND DATES  (d. Levan Koguashvili)
Sandro and Iva are a couple of unmarried friends living in Tbilisi, Georgia. Both men have  tried unsuccessfully to use dating sites; but Sandro, a teacher, does fall for the mother of one of his students, the hairdresser Mariana.  However Mariana turns out to be unhappily married to a hot-blooded man who is about to be released from prison for beating up a previous suitor for his wife's affections.  What ensues is a relationship comedy of errors which was realistically done if slow to establish anything I could relate to   For me, the interactions of the characters didn't quite ring psychologically true. ** 1/2

SIDDHARTH  (d. Richie Mehta)
A poor Delhi family sends their 12-year old son Siddharth to work for a month in a far away factory to help support the family.  When the boy mysteriously disappears from the factory job, the husband searches far and wide (as far as Mumbai) with great difficulty to find his lost son. This serious and gritty Indian film eschews the conventions of Bollywood to present a heartfelt and suspenseful family drama which is quite revealing about the plight of the poor in the teeming streets of modern India.  It's a non-sensationalistic exposé of the fate of the many runaway or kidnapped children in that country.   *** 1/2

TO FOOL A THIEF  (d. Ariel Winograd)
This is an Argentine caper film about an art thief (Daniel Hendler) who becomes involved against his will with a rival woman thief in an elaborate con to defraud a rich, but predatory, wine collector.  The plot is so convoluted and contrived that it doesn't quite add up (too many unlikely loose ends), unlike the other superior Argentine caper film Nine Queens which it resembles.  Still, the current film is slickly produced, and on the surface an interesting look at the contemporary art and wine worlds in Argentina today.   ***

Tuesday, June 3
THE GREAT MUSEUM  (d. Johannes Holzhausen)
This documentary is an exhaustive behind the scenes look at the remodel process of the great Vienna museum, the Kunsthistorisches.  The building itself is spectacularly visual; and  the collection of historical artifacts and Hapsburg art is huge (more Victoria & Albert kitsch than London National Gallery).  The film is shot Frederick Wiseman style, with no narration and very little explanatory material other than what people are talking about in meetings and tours of the construction sites.  After a while it all seemed tedious, even if the gradual construction process was educational.  In any case, I'm sure that a visit to the museum now that the project is completed would be enhanced by having seen this documentary.   ** 1/2

LEADING LADY  (d. Hank Pretorius)
A famous American film director is planning a film about an historical Boer woman; and his girlfriend who desperately wants to play the lead travels to South Africa to absorb the culture and win the role.  She finds the land-poor Boer family from the story, and the film becomes an attempt at drawing room farce.  After close to an hour of being with these insipid characters and this uninspired script I bolted from the theater and the unbearable twaddle.  W/O

FAMILY UNITED  (d. Daniel Sánchez Arévalo)
At the start of this Spanish film, Efram, the youngest of five brothers, is set to marry his childhood sweetheart.  His father had courted his mother many years before by taking her to see the Hollywood movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the romantic man wanted to duplicate that film with seven sons.  However his wife had left him after the 5th boy.  Now the family all comes together for the wedding, coincidentally on the same day as the Spain/Netherlands final of the 2010 World Cup.  And through a brilliant script and some of the best and most inventive montage editing ever put on film, many years of truths are disclosed in this single day.  This is a warm family comedy, filled with fresh characterizations and original concepts.  The premise might be silly; but the execution of the complicated story was just about perfect.  Some films just make you feel good. ****

THE BETTER ANGELS  (d. A. J. Edwards)
Shot in gorgeous black & white, this is the reflective, almost wordless story of Abraham Lincoln's childhood, starting when he was about 9 years old and living in a log cabin in Indiana with his father, mother and sister.  The film is narrated throughout by Lincoln's older cousin in a hillbilly accent that I had trouble understanding.  This kind of slow, narration-filled filmmaking is precisely the technique of this film's producer, Terrence Malick, not surprising because director Edwards was involved in the making of previous Malick films.  For me the problem with the script was that until the very end it gave little insight into the boy Abe and how and why he grew up to be the great leader Abraham.  Glorious visuals and authentic characterizations to the nth degree.  But for me that wasn't quite enough to engage my mind. ** 1/2

THE CIRCLE   (d. Stefan Haupt)
In the early 1950s in Zurich, Switzerland, a few gay men formed a semi-secret group they called "The Circle" to get together at social gatherings and publish a magazine that had a worldwide circulation (I read it sporadically when I found a copy.)  This film is the story of two men who met at one of the parties, Ernst, a closeted teacher at a girl's school and Robi, a talented young drag performer.   Ernst and Robi are still around and now married to each other.  Their present day interviews are used as punctuations to nicely achieved re-creations of the era from the 1950s through 1967 when the Swiss authorities cracked down and banned the group in an era when repression of gays even reached the permissive Swiss.  This film is a combination of documentary and love-story drama and works pretty well as both.   *** 1/2

Monday, June 2
MEDEAS  (d. Andrea Pallaoro)
A dairy farming family (father, deaf mother, teen-age boy and girl, two young boys and a babe in arms) live in drought-parched Southern California.  When the film opens they're all happily cavorting at a swimming hole.  But it soon becomes clear that all is not quite right with the family.  Catalina Sandino Moreno is lovely as the deaf mother, nurturing and loving her children but chafing under the gentle tyranny of her husband (a stern Brian F. O'Byrne).  The film was beautifully shot among the brown rolling hills of rural California.  Much of the film is comprised of silences..the family doesn't talk much; but the characterizations are sharply etched.  Implicit in the title, the story is partially based on Greek tragedy but nevertheless, it has a contemporary authenticity.  This is filmmaking of high quality; but for me it moved too slowly and had an unbearably unpleasant outcome.  ***

LIFE FEELS GOOD  (d. Maciej Pieprzyca)
At the start of the film Mateusz is a young Polish boy with severe cerebral palsy.  His mother believes that somehow there is awareness there; but expert psychologists pronounce him a "vegetable."   Initially Mateusz grows up at home among a loving family; but when his mother is no longer able to care for him, he's transferred to an institution for the mentally deficient where he grows up basically ignored, his rich inner life given to the audience through voice-over...but remaining undetected for years by the people in charge of the institution.  The film is based on a true story about such a boy.  Mateusz is played in his twenties by actor Dawid Ogrodik, who is superb (recalling the amazing CP acting of Moon So-ri in the wonderful Korean film Oasis.)  For me, this film was emotionally devastating (a good thing, bringing me to tears).   Entirely realistic, with a beautifully achieved script, it exalted the human condition under the most extremely difficult of circumstances. *****

HELICOPTER MOM  (d. Salomé Beziner)
Maggie is the meddling single mother of a teen-age boy who she is certain is gay.  As portrayed by Nia Vardalos, she is about as annoying a character as ever put on film.  Her son Lloyd (a nicely modulated performance by Jason Dolley) is actually "undeclared," unsure of his own sexuality, as he prepares for prom and graduation from highschool.  That is the setup for a film with such offensive sexual politics that I wish I had never watched it. *

SHAME  (d. Yusup Razykov)
A woman, the wife of a Russian submarine officer, has to deal with tragedy when her husband's ship and all within perish in an accident at sea.  That is the set-up for a Russian character-driven drama which moved so slowly that I slept through too much of it to follow entirely.  It was beautifully shot; and I think there was much emotional content to contemplate.  But it just didn't engage me enough to care about the characters or what transpires.  (This mid-afternoon slump was bound to happen when I attempted to watch six films in one day at a film festival.) ** 1/2

FINAL RECIPE  (d. Gina Kim)
Mark is a young Chinese man working in his grandfather's failing Singapore restaurant and learning the art of cooking from a master chef.  His grandfather wants him to go to college and be an engineer...but Mark knows his calling is to be a chef.  To save his grandfather's restaurant, Mark sneaks off to Shanghai to take part in a million dollar cook-off TV show (similar to the American "Top Chef") run by a famed gastronome lady (Michelle Yeoh, as always lovely and sophisticated.)   But this is basically a heartwarming film structured as a farce...so much happens on the way to a rather predictable ending.  The film is beautifully shot...this is foodie porn of such high quality that it easily joins the pinnacles of that genre (such as Babette's Feast.)  It's all so luscious, and the lead actor, Canadian-born Korean extraction pop idol Henry Lau, is so attractive, that the film actually works despite its somewhat clichéd plot.  *** 1/2

BOYS  (d. Micha Kemp)
At the start of this Dutch film, teenager Sieger is trying out for the track team of a local athletic club.  He wins a place on the relay team, and gradually falls for another boy on the team, despite his own confusion and desire to be straight.  That's the set-up for a family-set  coming out story with attractive characters and just enough originality and invention to be worthwhile, despite its too coy treatment of the sex issue.  *** 1/2

Sunday, June 1
Another winner, third film in a row worth watching!   *** 1/2

GOD HELP THE GIRL  (d.  Stuart Murdoch)
Eve is a young girl who at the start of the film escapes from a Glasgow, Scotland mental institution where she has been admitted for depression.  Except this is a post-modern musical and a romantic comedy...so she sings her way out the window.  Eve  is played by Australian actress Emily Browning, and singing the songs of director/songwriter Stuart Murdoch of the indie group "Belle and Sebastian," she has a sweet, sure voice.  In and out of the institution she meets up with cute and slightly fay English singer/guitarist James (Ollie Alexander) and shy Cassie (Hannah Murray, familiar to me from playing Cassie on the TV show "Skins," and comparison with that show is inevitable).  They all have madcap and romantic adventures as they try to form a band.  It's good fun, and the songs are well sung, even if the post dubbing occasionally didn't sync.  The film had a youthful and romantic spirit; but the narrative never quite rang true to life for me, just a predictable story contrived to connect a series of songs.  But then, I fear I was hardly the target age group for this film.   ***

INTERNET'S OWN BOY, THE  (d.  Brian Knappenberger)
This is a comprehensive and quite well done documentary about internet programmer/prodigy Aaron Swartz, who crusaded for free access to information on the web.  Because of his visibility and talent, he joined the company of Snowdon and Assange, made the target of federal prosecution that could have led to massive prison  time and heavy fines.  This led to his suicide at age 26.  The film is told mostly from the point of view of Swartz's supporters and family, since the prosecutors and government agencies refused to be interviewed.  It leaves the impression of massive government malfeasance.  In any case, Swartz himself put many videos that he made on the net, many of them in this film, which show him as a fascinating and heroic martyr to the cause of a freely available and open internet.  ****

BOYHOOD  (d. Richard Linklater)
At the start of this remarkable film, Olivia is a struggling, single mother of a pair of young children, Semantha, 8 and Mason Jr., 6, whose ex-husband Mason Sr. has gone to work on a boat in Alaska.  The film then becomes a smoothly connected series of events in the life of this family as twelve years pass.  What is remarkable is that the same actors play these roles in real time, culminating with Mason Jr. starting college at age 18.  Yes, the film was 12 years in the making...and every element worked perfectly for all that time.  Linklater was lucky in his choice of actors:  Patricia Arquette is simply wonderful as Olivia, a woman struggling to self-actualize, continually making wrong relationship decisions while raising two kids.  The children growing up were also strokes of luck as they illustrated top-flight acting chops through childhood and puberty.  Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr. gives a particularly vivid and intelligent performance through all those years.  But Lorelei Linklater is also quite good as the pesky older sister.  Rounding out the amazing cast is Ethan Hawke as Mason, Sr., a casting that helps connect Boyhood directly to Linklater's outstanding oeuvre.  Like his "Sunrise" trilogy, this is largely a series well written and acted conversations over the years.  But what fantastic and illuminating dialogue he writes!  For my money, I hope this film is remembered at Oscar time as it is a unique film achievement for the ages.     *****

Saturday, May 31
LITTLE ACCIDENTS  (d. Sara Colangelo)
The film opens with a shot of a tram filled with coal miners descending into a mine in a small West Virginia town.  It is soon disclosed that there had been a mine explosion - 10 victims and only one badly injured survivor, Amos (an effectively subtle  performance by Boyd Holbrook).  The film tells the story of three affected families:  the survivor and his ill father, the wife and young sons of one of the dead miners, and the company man and his wife and son who may be scapegoated for following the negligent company's policies.  That is the set up for a low-budget film that works on every level:  affecting script, wonderfully nuanced acting, sure-handed direction by first-time director Sara Colangelo.  The cast is remarkable:  Elizabeth Banks and Josh Lucas play the anguished management couple.  Chloe Sevigni is the set-upon widow, and Jacob Lofland plays her son.  Young Lofland has already made a name for himself in the film Mud and the TV series Justified, and here he is the beating heart of a town reeling from tragedy and searching for redemption.  This little gem of a film is a must-see.  *****

FRANK  (d. Lenny Abrahamson)
Jon (a nimble performance by Domhnall Gleeson) is a wannabe musician working a drudge job. He becomes involved with an avant-garde punk band led by a eccentric singer who hides behind and never discards a paper maché mask (played by Michael Fassbender, whose physical presence is mostly wasted under the mask.) What ensues is a silly, but at times fascinating comedy about relatively insane artists as they produce an album while being secretly recorded on YouTube and Twitter. Eventually they're invited to travel to the SXSW festival for a madcap performance. For me, the film didn't work, too eccentric and diffuse. Your mileage may vary.

RED KNOT  (d. Scott Cohen)
Vincent Kartheiser and Olivia Thirby play a recently married couple having their honeymoon on a scientific voyage to Antarctica.  The scenery is terrific:  lots of penguins and icebergs.  However, the story (of a couple who marry without really knowing each other) is drawn out and boring.  ** 1/2

TIME LAPSE  (d. Bradley King)
What would you do if you, along with your girlfriend and best friend with a gambling problem, discover a camera that shoots Polaroids one day in the future?  That is the set-up for a well written, time-binding thriller.  The story examines human nature at its worst...yet never loses its believability.  Kudos to the writers who wrote a mostly believable story about time paradoxes.  And special commendation to the three superb  actors, Matt O'Leary, Danielle Penabaker and George Finn, who nail their roles in this ill fated Hitchcockian triangle.   Watching this unassuming, low-budget sci-fi film, I was reminded of Primer which had the same sort of impact when it appeared out of the blue at a film festival and presented its intellectual puzzle to challenge the viewers.  *** 1/2

Friday, May 30
FIVE STAR  (d. Keith Miller)
The film is set in grungy, gang infested Brooklyn.  Primo (a very true to life characterization by James "Primo" Grant) is an imposing family man who, in an opening monologue, tells how he missed his son's birth because regretfully he had been in prison at the time. So Primo now works as a legit bouncer; but on the side he controls the local drug trading gang in deep cover with a "five stars" tat signifying his affiliation.  John (rap musician John Diaz) is a young man whose long-deceased father was a well respected kingpin along with Primo in the day.  When John joins up with Primo's gang, despite pleas by his mother to not get involved, it sets in motion a coming of age story set in the very realistic drug gang world of violent reprisals.  Realism was the key here...the actors were very authentic.  Their slang rang true, although their scary milieu was far removed from my experience.  Personally I never really warmed to this film.  The characters were unsympathetic, their world repugnant.  Still, I have to admit that the film definitely worked as a gritty, documentary like depiction of its world. ***

KINDERWALD  (d. Lisa Raven)
The year is 1854, the setting the forests around Lancaster, PA.  A primly reserved German couple have set up camp along with their two towheaded young boys.  One night the kids disappear, and the entire community searches fruitlessly for them.  That is the set-up for a beautifully shot film (the sylvan forests have seldom been so artfully presented on film.)  The film gradually discloses the backstory of its characters as the days pass with no children found. However, for me the plot just seemed to plod along unresolved for too long; and the stoicism of the characters made it difficult to become emotionally engaged. The film's beauty and long silences reminded me of another film:  Carlos ReygadasMexican film, Silent Light, also set in a Germanic cult setting. I only wish that Kinderwald had allowed me to become invested with its characters the way that the earlier film had.  ***

LAYOVER  (d. Joshua Caldwell)
Simone (Nathalie Fay) is a young Parisianne on her way to meeting up with her prospective husband in Singapore when her flight is suspended in Los Angeles for repairs to the plane.  During the 12 hour layover in L.A. she visits an old girlfriend, goes partying, drops E, meets a guy on a motorcycle etc.  In other words, it was a wild night. The film gets L.A. at night exactly right (although for a life-time resident like myself, it was weird to watch a scene shot in Hollywood represent a Downtown club setting.)  It was also a little strange that everybody spoke French in the L.A. world of this film.  Still, I was engaged by the story and found the characters interesting and easy to relate to.   *** 1/2

THE WAY HE LOOKS  (d. Daniel Ribeiro)
Leonardo is attending an up-scale Sao Paulo,  Brazil high school.  He is blind from birth; but also high functioning and as adjusted to normal life as he can be.  His platonic best friend Giovana helps him out; but cute Leo is secretly falling for a new kid in school, Gabriel.  This is a well written coming of age story, and it handles the coming out as gay part beautifully.  The actors are all attractive...especially Ghilherme Lobo as Leonardo, whose gentle portrayal of puppy love and his blindness are completely convincing.   ****

Thursday, May 29
ALEX OF VENICE  (2014, d. Chris Messina)
Alex and George are a married couple living in Venice, CA with their 10-year old son and her father, who is showing signs of early Alzheimer.  Their marriage is on the rocks.  She had gone back to school and is now a workaholic lawyer working for an activist environmental firm on a case to save the wetlands from entrepreneur Derek Luke's development.  George has been a stay-at-home father; but is chafing from that role and decides to escape to Taos leaving Alex to juggle both family and career.  That is the set-up for this complicated family drama which tries to cover a lot of bases...and gets some of the stories right, and misses the mark with others.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director Chris Messina play Alex and George.  I believed their characterizations.  Don Johnson, older but still handsome, plays her father...a former TV actor attempting to act in a Chekhov play while struggling to memorize the lines.  His character doesn't quite ring true.  Director Messina is generally good with actors, and gets the vitality of Venice nicely on film.  But the script lacks a unified focus; and for all the truth of the characters, the film never raises above the level of mild interest.   ***

B FOR BOY  (2014,  d. Chika Anadu)
Amaka is the wife of a successful Nigerian Igbo businessman.  They have a 7-year old daughter; but so far no son to carry on the family name.  Amaka is under tremendous pressure by her husband's family to produce a son, or else the family would force her husband to take a second wife, which neither she nor her husband want.  When Amaka secretly miscarries a boy at six months, she pretends to continue the pregnancy and hatches a plot to buy a baby boy from an advertisement.  This is an interesting story which lays bare the way even strong, upper-class women are subjected to inferior status in certain 3rd world societies, and also the primacy of boy children in these cultures.  The film is too long and too far removed from my experiences to relate to; however its ambiguous ending is so well conceived, that my rating of the film was increased.  ** 1/2

LOVE AND LEMONS  (2014,  d. Teresa Fabik)
In this food drenched rom-com, Agnes is a young Swedish woman who obtains a menial job at an upscale restaurant.  She works her way up to waitress; but her aim is to have a restaurant of her own.  Her working class, retired parents stake her with enough to go into partnership with a chef friend to start their own restaurant; and the story develops totally predictably from there.  This is a paint-by-numbers script.  Still, the characters are pleasant enough (there is an off-again-on-again love story too, of course); and the culinary confections were delightful enough to satisfy the foodie in me.  Too bad the script was just a series of unoriginal clichés.  ** 1/2

TO KILL A MAN  (2014,  d. Alejandro Fernández Almendras)
Jorge is a gentle man, a providing husband, the father of a grown son and teenage daughter.  His family lives in a tough neighborhood in urban Chile, where violence is commonplace.  His son is shot and wounded by a sociopathic neighbor who is slapped on the wrist by the legal system and released after 15 months in prison.  Upon release, that evil neighbor and his gang of friends start hassling Jorge's family.   When the situation escalates without the authorities able to do anything about it, Jorge reluctantly takes the law into his own hands.  This is a story of the dilemma of a good man caught between his own moral standards and the duty to protect his family.  Unfortunately, I found it a very unappealing film to watch.  That isn't to deny that others may find it well made and its subject matter important. It is that; but I wish I had skipped it.     **

Wednesday, May 28
LILTING  (2014, d. Hong Khaou)
Jenn is an elderly Chinese lady (a lovely performance by actress Pei-Pei Cheng) now  living in an English assisted living home and mourning her son Kai (Andrew Leung, handsome young Eurasian actor with a bright future) who has recently died in an automobile accident.  Turns out Kai had a lover of four years, Richard (another amazing, moving performance by veteran actor Ben Whishaw); but Kai never had managed to come out to his strict mother, although he intended to on his final trip to visit her.  Jenn doesn't speak English, Richard doesn't speak Mandarin; but Richard finds a young lady translator and starts a gradual rapprochement with Jenn, who instinctively had disliked him in the past.  All this is presented in present day, flashback, and imaginary scenes that are so well written and so resonant with my personal experiences that I was simply emotionally devastated by this film.  I have rarely been so impressed with the writing and acting, and so moved by any film.  It may not hit others as hard as it hit me...the film felt so personal and disclosed its revelations with such subtlety.   *****

(2014,  d. Sean Mullen)
Sam is a retired army sergeant, recently returned to New York City from Afghanistan.  Fulfilling a promise, he visits his old army bud, a former Arabic translator for his squad, and meets up with that man's niece, Amira, a beautiful Iraqi woman who has been having  problems with the immigration authorities.  Sam is a really stand-up guy; and as played by former former "geek" (in the seminal TV series "Freaks & Geeks") Martin Starr, he is that rarity:  a schlubby yet romantic leading man who pulls off both sides of that equation.  The film is a rom-com which works on several levels:  an off-center love story, a Wall Street scandal story, an immigration problems story.  But above all, a warmly satisfying film, both funny and good natured.  ****

MILITANT, THE  (2014, d. Manuel Nieto)
A Uruguayan university student, part of an ongoing demonstration against authority, is notified that his cattleman father has just died.  He returns home to settle the estate, and gets embroiled in dealing wih his father's debts.  Not much happens in this vaguely activist film.  The main character seems to be sleepwalking through the role with some sort of physical impairment.  The film meanders through a cattle drive and a union hunger strike.  Frankly it all doesn't add up to much.  **

HAPPY CHRISTMAS  (2014,  d. Joe Swanberg)
What if you were an admired, young American indie director, and you had a chance to improvise a home movie - acting as the daddy with your adorable and smart-as-a-whip 2-year old son and accompanied by a series of A-list comic actors.   No story, just an existential romp about parenthood and careers and family, and just being real, warts and all, at Christmas.   The personae:  Swanberg as the career dad; his author-retired-into-motherhood wife (Melanie Lynskey); his crisis driven, binge drinking, single younger sister (Anna Kendrick); her best friend (Lena f*cking Dunham); and kindly neighborhood baby sitter (Mark Weber).  All of them experienced and expert at improvisation.  What a home movie that would make!  Welcome to Happy Christmas and enjoy the heck out of it!  ****

Tuesday, May 27
WEST  (d. Christian Schwochow)
1975, East Berlin:  a woman scientist and her young son say goodbye to the boy's father with the intention of meeting up together in a week.  However, three years pass in a single cut; and Nelly and her now 9 year-old son Alexei have finally been given permission to emigrate to the West.  However her former man friend has been reported dead in a Moscow auto accident; and she must pretend to be married to a West German man to get across the border.  That is the set up of this well made cold war drama detailing the plight of Eastern Europeans trying to adjust to living in the West.  Attractive Nelly and her son Alexei encounter suspected Stasi informers, U.S. emigration authorities, and fellow stateless refugees occupying the same ward in the West Berlin relocation facility in which they must reside upon arrival.  Fatherless Alexei in particular has trouble adjusting to his new life.  The film presents characters that we care about and adds enough suspense and political intrigue to make for an involving psychological thriller. *** 1/2

The Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, have a serious case of Coen Bros. envy.  They've made a Coen-like ironic comedy about a Japanese "office lady" (Rinko Kikuchi in a classically addled performance) who finds a VHS copy of Fargo and becomes convinced that the money stash that Steve Buscemi buried in the snow at the end of that film is actually still there for her to find.  Fired from her job for general dreaminess, off she goes to Minnesota with a stolen company credit card and a self-embroidered treasure map to find the buried loot.  Her madcap adventures in the U.S. as she meets up with a series of eccentrics is comic gold.  Actually, the Zellners are doing homage to the Coens' style, not slavishly remaking one of their films.  It's all a little ridiculous; but also loads of fun.  *** 1/2

STARRED UP  (d. David Mackenzie)
Eric, a 19-year old tough guy is processed into a high security Northern Ireland prison.  His father has been in the same prison since Eric was 5-years old (presumably given a life sentence for killing Eric's mother, although that was never made clear and I could be all wet about this).  That is the setup for a violent and realistic film about prison life and the repercussions of such a father/son relationship. Newcomer Jack O'Connell was excellent in the role of Eric - combining good looks with smoldering resentment and a strong physical presence. Also notable were Ben Mendelsohn as the father, and Rupert Friend as a psychologist trying to curb the prisoners' violent tendencies in group therapy.  In some ways this is a similar film to the superior French prison film The Prophet.  However one problem for me with Starred Up was that I missed 2/3 of the dialogue because of the heavy cockney/Irish accents.  I would have liked this film a lot more if it had sub-titles!  ***

THE AMAZING CATFISH  (d. Claudia Sainte-Luce)
22-year old Claudia was orphaned at age 2, and is now living alone, working in a supermarket demonstrating sausages and depilatory creams.  Gradually, seemingly by fate, she becomes integrated into a large family:  mother, 3 daughters and a young son.  The mother is dying of AIDS; and Claudia gradually takes over the role of surrogate sister/mother.  That is the bare-bones premise of this heartfelt Mexican family drama set in the 1990s.  The film was very women-centered...not the kind of film I usually take to.  However there is no denying that it had emotional resonance and was well done.  ***

Monday, May 26
THE TURNING  (d. various)
Eighteen different directors try their hands at telling 18 short stories searching for a connection and (for me) not finding it. Well, supposedly these are all people living in a small Western Australian seaside town facing turning points in their lives; but the stories don't cohere and the enterprise, aside from some really outstanding cinematography, doesn't merit three hours of ennui (many in the audience didn't return from the intermission).   A few recognizable actors (Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne, Miranda Otto et. at.) do nothing distinguished.  The surprising thing for me was that 18 different directors managed to do work that all looked and felt creatively homogenized into the same film making style.  So much for the auteur theory. **

THE GREEN PRINCE  (d. Nadav Schirman)
In the 1990s, Israel's security police, the Shin Bet, turned the eldest son of a high ranking Hamas chief into an asset in complete secrecy.  His code name was "The Green Prince".  For over 10 years Mosab delivered to his handler information that prevented many suicide bombings; but the source of the inside information had to be carefully disguised.  That's the background of this documentary, which depends greatly on the on-camera interviews with Mosab (now apparently living in San Diego) and his more-or-less disgraced Israeli handler.  There is a fascinating story here:  counterspies, family treacheries, the mechanism of political asylum; but the visuals punctuating the unimaginatively photographed big-head close-up interviews were repetitive and generally didn't add much to the narrative being told.  Perhaps the story would be better told as a tense Hollywood spy thriller, which just may happen..   ***

THE TURNING TIDE  (d. Christophe Offenstein)
Every year France hosts the Vendée Globe, a yacht race where solo sailors  circumnavigate the globe strictly under sail and alone.  Veteran French actor François Cluzet is remarkable undergoing this physically demanding race, substituting for the injured yacht owner (Guillaume Canet).   What complicates the story and makes it into a dramatic film is the 16-year old Moroccan stowaway who appears after a repair stop in the Canary Islands, and who eventually bonds emotionally with the grizzled sailor.  Thus, this no longer resembles a solo ocean trek like in Robert Redford's All is Lost.  Still, there's plenty of tension, choppy seas, and many gorgeous oceanic sunsets to appreciate.  Modern computer and satellite technology meant that the sailor was in video contact with his family and the followers of the race at all times.  The film avoided most cliches of the adventure genre...even the outcome of the race was unexpected, but strangely satisfying. 
    *** 1/2

I ORIGINS  (d. Mike Cahill)
A skeptical young scientist is working on a project involving the duplication in the laboratory of the evolution of the eye.  If his experiment is successful it would prove the theory of evolution and disprove the concept of "Intelligent Design."  That is the set-up for a fascinating, even wonderful love story combined with a convincing depiction of the scientific process in detail.  Michael Pitt, an actor who seems to constantly challenge himself with his choice of roles, does his best work here playing Dr. Ian Gray.  Gray's passion for photographing eyes leads him to fall for a mysterious French girl and embark on an epic journey of discovery.  That's all of the plot that I can give without spoilers.  Let's just say that Mike Cahill has written and directed a film that satisfies both the intellect and the emotions.  Bravo!  **** 1/2

Sunday, May 25
Involving off-center romance with great acting by a veteran actor and an intensely interesting up-and-comer.  ****

HEALING  (2014,  d. Craig Monahan)
Matt Perry (played by Hugo Weaving) is a guard at an Australian low security prison farm.  When Victor, a surly Iranian prisoner is transferred to the farm prior to his release from an 16-year sentence for murder, Perry is determined to help the bitter, closed off parolee to re-integrate into society.  He does this by introducing Victor to an experimental project where inmates bond with injured raptors (in this case a huge eagle with a broken wing) until the birds are ready to re-integrate into the wild.  The symbolism is pretty obvious...healing the birds might heal the prisoners.  There are other prisoners, of course, and the story examines their situations also...but not in as much detail.  In fact, the film is rather sketchy in its development of its characters, which is one reason I had trouble getting involved with the film.  However, it was fun seeing a favorite TV actor in a minor role:  Robert Taylor who plays the eponymous Longmire in that Western series.  I hadn't realized that he was Australian - like just about every actor I end up admiring these days on cable television series (along with the Canadians).  ***

EASTERN BOYS  (2014,  d. Robin Campillo)
The film opens at Paris' North train station, where in a series of very long aerial shots we see a gang of young men come together and disburse among the throngs.  Gradually the camera focuses on one boy and an older man who follows him into the station.  It becomes clear that this is a male prostitute and his prospective john.  They meet and arrange a later assignation at the john's condo.  What happens at that meeting is unexpected - the gang of undocumented Eastern Euro boys led by a handsome psychopath descend on the john's place and strip it of all the valuables.  But Marek, the original young Ukrainian boy, and Daniel, the businessman john, eventually bond despite this; and the film becomes a rather unlikely sweet love story combined with a tense kind of "Oliver Twist" story of young men in bondage to their gang of thieves and whores, unable to escape.  This is a gay film where the sex is rather coy, when it ought to be steamy.  But sex is not the point of this film...rather the film examines the sociology of prostitution and the plight of young runaways and refugees from the East.  I'd like to believe that this ultimately hopeful film is realistic; but I have my doubts.  Still, the film made me care a great deal for its two main characters.  *** 1/2

Saturday, May 24
IGNASI M.  (d. Ventura Pons)
The subject of this documentary is Ignasi M., a flamboyant, 40-ish Catalonian gay man:  HIV+ and an accomplished art restorer by profession.  His separated parents are artists, his wife a paraplegic lesbian, and his two sons are straight (the younger one is an evangelical.)  We learn all this with non-stop interview encounters, punctuated by brief quick-cut montages of Ignasi's racy photographs (hard to watch because of sub-titled narration which interfered with the photos).  Unusual for this excellent director, the film is badly edited.  Long sequences of conversations between Ignasi and his parents, children, co-workers etc. are filled with information that should be illustrated, rather than just talked about.  Perhaps in Catalan these interviews would be understandable; but with sub-titles most of the discussions were too rapid, and thus much more boring than they had to be considering the engaging (but unclear) subject matter.  * 1/2

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY  (d. Hossein Amini)
Budding star Oscar Isaac plays Rydal, a young footloose American in 1962 Greece, working as a tour guide and doing petty cons on the tourists.  While working at the Acropolis, he's introduced to a mysterious American married couple (Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst), and what ensues is a thriller of murder, ex-pats on the lam, and a deadly romantic triangle.  The story is adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel and has a lot of the same feeling of mystery and sexual tension that pervaded The Talented Mr. Ripley by the same author.  The film totally captured the Mediterranean atmosphere of the era: sunny, steamy and seductive.  It built tension organically through interesting characterizations; but then faltered with a too pat ending, when the psychology didn't ring true.  *** 1/2

ELSA & FRED  (d. Michael Radford)
This is an American remake of a 2006 Spanish film of the same name.  I adored that film; it worked for me on every level.  The remake has the identical plot (elderly, unhappy recent widower moves next door to a vivacious old lady who fantasizes about living out an Anita Ekberg fantasy from La Dolce Vita. )  It also has two outstanding veteran actors, Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine in the roles of Fred and Elsa.  The actors do not disappoint; but the story transported into a large Hollywood production just didn't have the same simplicity, the same kind of emotional free spirit of the original.  It has been my experience that English language remakes seldom compare favorably to the foreign originals.  Maybe just making that comparison is unfair, because I'm sure that those who had never witnessed the almost perfectly calibrated original film will enjoy this one for its own good qualities.  It's just that I was disappointed at how far this film fell short.  ***

BEGIN AGAIN  (d. John Carney)
John Carney, the film maker who made the uncomplicated, winning 2007 romantic film with music, Once, has returned to the screen with this much larger scale romantic dramady with an A-cast.  It's the story of Greta, an English singer/song-writer (played by Keira Knightley, who has a sweet singing voice, if not a particularly commercial one).  Greta has come to the U.S. with her up-and-coming rock star/lover (Adam Levine, rather convincing as an actor...at least as good as Justin Timberlake when he started out); but that relationship soon falls apart.  Simultaneously a famous, all but washed-up record producer, played by a scruffy Mark Ruffalo, discovers Greta singing on a dare in a dive bar.  And they hook up musically and embark on making a record and changing their lives for the better.  That sounds like every cliché movie about pop music makers ever made.  But this film has a certain lively authenticity, and characters that actually matter to the audience.  Despite not really having a memorable score of original songs (nothing anywhere near as good as Oscar winning "Falling Slowly" from Once), this is still a film where the very process of making songs can seem exhilarating and novel - which can be said about the entire film:  exciting, involving, fun.   ****

Friday,  May 23
THE  DUNE  (2014,  d. Yossi Aviram)
Hanoch is an Israeli man going through a mid-life crisis.  He splits with his wife and travels to France to find the father that he hasn't had any contact with since he was two-years old.  All he has is a photo taken back then in the sand dunes near Bordeaux, France.  In a parallel story, Ruben is an elderly French policeman in the lost-persons bureau.  He is in a long time relationship with an Italian man, and ready to retire.  But for one last case - a mute suicidal man found with no papers in the same Bordeaux dunes - he goes back to work at his job to solve the mystery of this man's identity.  That is the set-up for this fascinating and ultimately moving character study which examines a challenging father-son relationship. Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi and French actor Niels Arestrup, both very familiar to festival audiences, are spectacularly effective here.  This is a slow film, which discloses its mysteries gradually but stays very true to the psychology of its characters.   ****

TANGERINES  (d.  Zaza Urushadze)
The Caucasus in 1992 was the site of one of an endless series of conflicts...this time between Orthodox Christian Georgia and the Russian supported Islamic Republic of Abkhazia. Caught in the middle was a settlement of ethnic Estonians, mostly farmers and villagers on the Black Sea coast, who settled in the area over a hundred years before.  At the start of the war, most of the Estonians fled back to their now independent country.  However, a tangerine farmer and an elder stayed with the farm to bring in the crop.  The war obtrudes on that task when opposing sides have a skirmish outside their doors, and they take in two badly wounded mortal enemies. That is the set-up for a dramatic chamber piece which speaks volumes about human nature in the process of making war.  The acting and direction are first rate.  This is the kind of anti-war story which packs an emotional wallop.  ****

FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS  (d.  Ferzan Ozpetek)
Elena, a young Italian woman (Kasia Smutniak) is irresistibly attracted to her best friend Silvia's boyfriend Antonio (Francesco Arca, with a body to die for, and knowing how to show it off).  However she is supposed to marry Giorgio, although the spark is lacking.  The year is 2000; and Elena with her other best friend, cute gay waiter Fabio (Filippo Scicchitano) are planning on starting a restaurant/bar.  The film jumps 13 years to the present time, and now each of the characters is coupled; but a cancer diagnosis changes everything.  Ferzan Ozpetek is one of my favorite directors.  I can depend on him to make stories that present both appealing gay and straight characters that ring totally true to me.  This is a rather soap-opera-ish story, though.  However, Ozpetek is skilled at writing sympathetic characters and making sure that the audience (or at least myself) really cares about what happens to them.  *** 1/2

YOU MUST BE JOKING (d. Jake Wilson)

Barb Schwartz is a 27-year old Jewish girl out of Scarsdale who is trying to make it in New York City as a paralegal; but she's dissatisfied with her life.  She's played by newcomer Sas Goldberg, and she is a petite live wire who is as sassy as her name.  She encounters Billy at work. Once Barb's best childhood friend until they lost touch 10 years before, he is now a client of Barb's law firm being sued by a congressman for having released a gay sex tape.  Yes, Billy (played by co-writer director Jake Wilson) is très gai, and making it as a dancer in the chorus on Broadway.  What ensues is a fitfully funny comedy, much of it told as humorous YouTube viral videos, about these two very lively characters coping and trying to find their true selves in the crazy big city.  The film is fast paced, and the characters are likable.  But for me it just wasn't funny enough to sustain a full-length feature comedy.  The end credits, expanding on the YouTube trope, were ace, however.   ***

Thursday, May 22
A PATRIOTIC MAN  (d. Arto Halonen)
A Finnish man with an abnormally high hemoglobin count is drafted by his country's Olympic committee to be a living reservoir for the blood doping of a couple of their champion women cross-country skiers.  That is the set-up for a "based on true events" story that has trouble finding a tone...is it a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal film?  a comedy about a happless guy victim of the system?  an off-center story of unrequited love?  It's all of the above, and for me, at least, none of them were sufficient to hold my interest.  ** 1/2

X/Y  (d. Ryan Piers Williams)
Director Ryan Piers Williams plays Mark, a 30-something wannabe author living in Manhattan, who is in a stale 6-year relationship with Sylvia (America Ferrara, very much removed from her "Ugly Betty" days.)  When Sylvia admits to an affair with her office mate (played by Common) it sets in motion a story of revolving partners among six central characters, that is a well observed view of life among what passes for today's version of New York City, up-scale hipsters.  There's even a bit of gay exploration among these otherwise resolutely straight characters.  For all their shallowness, I found these people believable and interesting.   *** 1/2

BAD HAIR  (d. Mariana Rondón)
Junior is a 9-year old, racially mixed Venezuelan boy living with his recently out-of-work mother and baby brother.  He has long, nappy  hair which he hates, and loves to sing (encouraged by his grandmother.)  However, his homophobic mother is afraid that Junior is gay...and that causes all sorts of problems for the boy.  The setting, in the barrios of Caracas, is depressing.  And maybe because the young actor who plays Junior is quite convincingly a boy, I just thought the psychology of the film rang false.  Too bad.  Otherwise, the frenetic life of this kid making his way through childhood was interesting enough.  **

In 1966, Antonio, a high-school English teacher in Franco's Spain, was determined to meet up with his idol, John Lennon, who was busy acting in the film How I Won the War shooting in Almeria, Spain. It's a beautiful performance by Javier Cámara, who perfectly balances enthusiasm with concern for his students.   He sets off to drive to the small town where Lennon is working; and on the way he picks up two hitchhikers:  a young pregnant girl (luminous Natalia do Molina), escaping from the home for wayward girls that her parents had placed her - and handsome young Juanjo (a tremendously winning performance by Francesc Colomer) running away from his strict father who wants him to cut his Beatle-ish long hair.  That is the set-up for this amazingly involving and wonderful road trip comedy of mutual discovery by all three of the main characters.   This is a humanistic film to treasure.  **** 1/2

ME, MYSELF AND MUM  (d. Guillaume Gallienne)
Guillaume Gallienne adapted his one-man autobiographical play into a film which told his life story through comic vignettes.  The director plays himself at various ages, and also his mother in a bravura performance somewhat reminiscent of John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Except in this film fay Guillaume is an upper-class French lad whose mother has decided is gay, as opposed to his two sportive, straight brothers.  However the film is actually a cri de coeur for sexual self-determination despite appearances.  Gallienne is a major comic talent; but for me the film was a tad self-indulgent and occasionally it lost its sharp edge.  *** 1/2

Wednesday, May 21

DESERT RUNNERS  (d. Jennifer Steinman)
In 2010 several amateur marathon runners attempted a super-marathon grand slam:  four 250 km races  (over 5 days each) in four of the most forbidding deserts in the world all in one calendar year.  This documentary tells the grueling story of four men and a young woman attempting this feat.  The deserts:  Chile's Atacama, China's Gobi, Egypt's Sahara and the Antarctic tundra.  It's all a crazy challenge to the human spirit, occasionally exhilarating, often downright scary.  One has to be impressed by the tenacity of the filmmakers to follow the runners along in 120F heat and -15F cold, in high winds and arid conditions.  The filmmakers also made some lucky choices of subjects:  interesting and inspiring (and nutso) characters.  I could have rated this film considerably higher; but it was just too exhausting to watch.  *** 1/2

TO BE TAKEI  (d. Jennifer Kroot)
George Takei is one interesting guy.  Of course I knew him as Mr. Sulu from Star Trek, and about his ongoing gay activism.  And I enjoy his daily jokes on Facebook.  But this documentary goes a lot further:  telling the story of his childhood internment in a WWII Japanese camp, his touching relationship with his husband Brad, and his continuing political activism and artistic involvement with diverse projects including a new musical that may get to Broadway.  Touching stuff, and involving throughout...the man is just a pleasure to spend time with.  ****

WE ARE THE BEST!  (d. Lukas Moodysson)
In this charming film, three 13-year old girls try to form a punk band in 1980s Stockholm.   Director Moodysson is one of my favorites...he consistently makes films that ace whichever period they're set in and capture the contemporary Zeitgeist.  In this film the girls are wonderfully portrayed.  However, personally, I had a little trouble relating to their giddy world.  *** 1/2

For those who have expressed concern, I'm restored to good health.  I think this year has been one of especially bad allergies.  But I may have to curtail these reviews a bit due to time constraints and conserving energy.  We'll see.
Tuesday, May 20
STANDING ASIDE WATCHING  (2014, d. Yorgos Servetas)
Antigone is a modern Greek woman, educated in Spain and probably a failed actress after college.  In her 30s she returns to her home village which has been impoverished by the economic Depression.  She finds her once best friend is being abused by a married man;  and  she, herself, gets involved with a handsome, but callow, younger man.  But her "free woman" ethic comes in conflict with the macho Greek men of the village and trouble ensues.  This is a well observed film; but I was never able to get emotionally involved with the characters or relate to their actions, other than the common film trope that most Greek men are sh*ts. ** 1/2

10,000 KM  (2014, d. Carlos Marques-Marcet)
In this two-character film (with the alternate title Long Distance), Alexandra and Sergio are a young Barcelona couple.  She is an artist/photorapher, he a student.  When Alex gets a grant to spend a year creating an art installation in Los Angeles, the two reluctantly decide to attempt a long distance relationship by Skype and e-mail.  This is a ground-breaking film in the way it presents how  high-speed computing facilitates communication.  And the two actors, Natalia Tena (familiar as Osha from Game of Thrones)  and bearded David Verdaguer, were quite good portraying both passion and deprivation.  The film was so well written and shot that one forgets that only two characters inhabit every scene.   *** 1/2

3 MILE LIMIT  (d. Craig Newland)
In 1965, the New Zealand radio waves were controlled by the government which banned any sort of pop music.  A group of young men were determined to start a pirate radio station on a ship outside the 3-mile limit.  This well made, but totally predictable real-life story, was entertaining enough.  But we've seen this before in the 2009 film Pirate Radio...exchange England and New Zealand, add a touch of tragedy and marital discord, and there's not much difference in the stories.  ***

LAND OF STORMS  (d. Adám Császi)
Szabi is a young German/Hungarian soccer player confused about his sexuality, and secretly attracted to a fellow player.  Going against his former pro-soccer playing father, he quits the game and returns to the farm in a remote Hungarian village that he has inherited from his grandfather to hopefully raise bees.  There he becomes sexually involved with Aron, a pious, handsome mamma's boy who is really sexually confused, although leaning straight in his innate desires.  That is the set-up for this drama about sexuality and repression which asks the question is it even ever possible for two men to have a relationship in a religious, macho Eastern Euro backwater.  The actors (especially András Sütö as Szabi), are quite fine.  Although the smoldering, sexual passions are well and tastefully presented, I had a feeling throughout that this relationship was not going to work despite my total involvement with and attraction to the characters.  This is a film that is tough to love; but I did love it anyway.  Your mileage may vary.  ****

Monday, May 19
VIKTORIA  (2014, d. Maya Vitkova)
We meet morose Boryana in 1979 Communist Bulgaria.  Her husband wants a child; but she's determined to escape to the West and not to have children.  However despite precautions and her own mother's scorn, she gets pregnant and delivers a child, Viktoria, who is born with no umbilical chord and declared by the government to be the Baby of the Decade. That is the setup for a lengthy, wide-screen, historical character study, which covers the next 15 years as Viktoria grows up.  It sets mother against daughter for three successive generations.  The film has high production values, gorgeous cinematography and some quite interesting historical montages to set the tone and contexts of the passage of time.  However the plot is as dour as Boryana's long-lasting postpartum depression; and too much time is spent in agonizingly long close ups of blank faces, characters staring into the void.  The film could have used some heavy editing.  **

QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM  (2014, d. Andrei Gruzsniczski)
This is a Romanian film set in the Communist era about a set of characters who are under suspicion by the state.  One is a mathematician who wants his discovery published in the West.  Another is a woman and her son who want to join her husband who had escaped in Paris.  They become the target of an underachieving secret policeman; and the film becomes something of a Romanian version of the Oscar winning German film The Lives of Others.  The film is shot in B&W, which lends a certain authenticity and bleak reality to its portrayal of the times.  The characters are sympathetic and one cares about them...however, the ending of the film leaves a number of  story threads unresolved.  ***

FIRESTORM  (2014,  d.  Alan Yuen)
This is a Hong Kong policier that delivers major mayhem, when a gang of ruthless thieves expend enough firepower in their armored car thefts to partially destroy the city.  So what if the action was so fast and furious that occasionally I lost the thread?  So what if the character development was a tad scanty?  I admit that often I do have trouble differentiating actors in these Hong Kong films.  However, Andy Lau, as a policeman who is determined at all costs to thwart the gang, stood out.   Watching a film like this one wonders where they have to go from here to top this for literally explosive action thrills?  *** 1/2

NG MUST BREAK  (2014,  d.  Ester Marten Bergsmark)
Sebastian is a gender confused young man, increasingly self-identifying as Ellie, in this forthright Swedish film.  Seemingly by fate, he encounters Andreas, a straight leather punk; and they start an on-again-off-again romance and sexual affair that is about as steamy as it comes this side of porn.  The actors portrayed their characters with unusual realism and unpredictability.  It is a rare film that gets the malleability of sexual identity so right.    *** 1/2

Sunday, May 18
A superb film that may never see the light of day in this format.  Too bad for the world;  but lucky for the secret festival members!  ****

IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE  (2014, d. Hans Petter Moland)
The place, a village in snowbound Norway.  Stellan Skarsgard plays Nils, a snowplow driver whose son works as a baggage handler at the local airport.  When the son is killed as an innocent bystander to a cocaine smuggling deal, Nils declares a personal vendetta against the drug lord who ordered the hit, which snowballs into an all out gang war.  This is a thriller with an inventive plot, violence taken to humorous extremes, and a high body count.  For me, however, its mixture of realistic characters and absurd situations was just a tad silly...but nonetheless entertaining.   *** 1/2

DOUBLE, THE  (2014  d. Richard Ayoade)
Director Ayoade creates a bleak Kafkaesque world where timid Simon James toils unappreciated at a meaningless job and worships from afar the pretty and unattainable Hannah (Mia Wasikowska, another fine performance).  One day he encounters a new employee, James Simon, identical to himself (although nobody seems to notice the similarity) who is assertive, gregarious...the opposite personality from himself.  That is the setup for this strange, interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying film which I have to admit I didn't quite get.  What it has going for it is Jesse Eisenberg playing both characters (and incidentally both sides of his usual cinema personae since this role was created specifically for him).  I'm not sure how, but it seems that only with facial expressions and slightly altered lighting the identical actor was able to differentiate his two characters.  This actor never ceases to amaze.  Add points for audacity (adapting Dostoyevsky).  Subtract points for making an annoyingly enigmatic film.  ***

Saturday, May 17
WORDS AND PICTURES  (2014, d. Fred Schepisi)
This is one of those rarities, an intelligent rom-com.  Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche play two teachers at a tony prep school.  He teaches honors English, she honors art.  He's an alcoholic, she's suffering from crippling arthritis. Their mutual antagonism is transmitted to their students in the form of a war between words and pictures for primacy.  For most of the film the two actors shine with their one-upsmanship and clever repartee.  However, when the rom inevitably overcomes the com, as it must in this genre, the film goes soft.  Still, just watching the chemistry between these two actors is a pleasure.  ****

TRACKS  (2014, d. John Curran)
In the 1970s, the young loner woman Robyn Davidson, with the backing of "National Geographic" magazine, attempted a walking trek with 4 camels through Western Australia from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.  2,000 miles of heat and privation through some of the most forbidding and beautiful arid countryside in the world.  Mia Wasikowska plays Davidson with convincing grit and determination.  She's supported fitfully by the magazine photographer (Adam Driver from "Girls," quirky as ever.)  The film is strenuous and scenic, but for my money over-long and too one-note predictable.  But that's what happens when a familiar true story is put on the screen.   ** 1/2

Friday, May 16
Today was one of the best days I've had in years at SIFF, with a fine doc and three wonderful French films.  So what if I'm still fighting a cold...this kind of a film day is what I came to Seattle for!  I got home, took a NyQuill and slept for 9 hours (incidentally oversleeping my Saturday morning flick.)  And ended up feeling a little better, so here's hoping for the best.

This is a fairly chronological documentary about the history of Chinese food in the United States from the mid-1800's on, emphasizing the invention of one now ubiquitous dish:  "General Tso Chicken," which had its start in Taiwan or New York in the early 1960s, depending on ones point of view.  Despite its narrow focus, this is one of the best foodie documentaries to come down the pike:  lusciously photographed, historically informative, and entertaining (some of the interviews are even laugh-out-loud funny.)  ****

CANOPY  (d.  Aaron Wilson)
It is early 1941; and the battle for Singapore between the British and Japanese is in full swing.  At the start of this bloody, yet quietly subdued drama, an Australian pilot has parachuted behind enemy lines into the jungle.  He encounters a friendly Chinese soldier, and together they struggle to keep from getting caught despite unbelievable privations.  There is almost no dialogue, neither protagonist speaks the other's language.  Both mostly remain cyphers going through the motions of survival.  The tension mounts, yet the film was for me strangely uninvolving, possibly because the characters didn't engage my interest.  Werner Herzog did this extremely similar plot much better in the Viet Nam drama Rescue Dawn.  ** 1/2

CHINESE PUZZLE  (d. Cédric Klapisch)
Romain Duris reprises the character of Xavier who was at the center of the 2003 film L'Auberge Espagnole and its 2006 sequel Russian Dolls.  He's now in his 40's, with two kids and an ex-wife.  But he has stayed friendly with most of the characters that inhabited those previous films...and in this film they all meet up for another fluffy adventure in New York City.  But this time the themes are more mature:  raising children, Green Cards, lesbians, making money.  As a romantic comedy, my feeling is that this was a better film than either of the first two...the farce is more concise, the characters less callow, the issues more interesting.  Klapisch has improved as a director; and all his actors have bloomed in maturity.  *** 1/2

ATTILA MARCEL  (d.  Sylvain Chomet)
Director Chomet has heretofore been associated with 2D, adult animated films like The Triplets of Belleville...however I've never quite got his films, found them trying too hard to be charming, and, at least for me, not succeeding.  This film is his first attempt at a live action, modern fable...and finally I did get it, boy did I ever!  It's the story of 30-ish Paul, mute since he lost his parents at age 2, a piano prodigy being raised by his two spinster aunts.  He remembers nothing of his traumatized youth; but a neighbor, an herbalist practitioner of memory recovery (a delicious performance by Anne Le Ny), aids him to relive his past. 
Comedian Guillaume Gouix plays Paul, and he is wonderful playing a mute...he says more with his eyes and gestures than most actors do with spoken dialogue.  And the film is shot in a super-saturated, colorful style that is dazzling to watch.  Chomet, an artist like Michel Gondry with a more humanist bent, has found the perfect property to transition into live-action; and I'm looking forward to see where he goes from here. ****

HUMAN CAPITAL  (d. Paolo Virzi)
What is a man's life worth?  That's the central theme of this superb Italian thriller, which explores the world of high finance and family intrigue in present day Milan.  A cater-waiter has been run off the road and killed by a hit-and-run driver.  In a four part telling of the story from different perspectives, we gradually find the truth behind the crime.  Three families are intertwined in the affair; but any more disclosure of the plot and characters would get into spoiler territory.  Let's just say that I was enthralled by the story and deeply interested in the characters.  Special note of the acting of Valeria Bruni Tadeschi, as a wealthy, if troubled, wife and mother...this is another vivid performance by this wonderful actor.  **** 1/2

Thursday, May 15
Tonight is the official start of the festival; but I'm skipping the opening film.  I hope my health holds up...I've been fighting a cold (or possibly bad allergies).  But for me, in any case, the real festival starts tomorrow morning!  Be there, Ken, or be square.

NIGHT MOVES  (d.  Kelly Reichardt)
Three young eco-terrorists, oddly sympathetic and well meaning but misguided, plan to blow up a dam in South Oregon.  The film focuses on Josh, an idealist who works at an organic farm collective.  As played by Jesse Eisenberg (in his most un-mannered performance ever) he is stoically unemotive.  Yet every nuance of his thought processes shows through his eyes.  This is a great performance.  Dakota Fanning plays Dena, a girl with too much conscience to be a successful terrorist.  Another really fine performance.  The two are briefly joined in their mission by an older, experienced ex-marine, Harmon - Peter Sarsgaard behind a beard.  Like previous Reichardt films, there is nothing flashy in the filmmaking...her method is very low key.  Yet nobody making films today is better than she at writing intelligent dialogue for realistic characters, and presenting moral dilemmas that pack such a punch in the gut and seem so relevant and timely.  ****

FIGHT CHURCH  (d. Daniel Junge, Bryan Storkel)
This documentary presents the nationwide phenomenon of Christian preachers and congregations that devote themselves to a kind of Fight Club ethic, taking up Mixed Martial Arts with religious fervor.  The film is very revealing of a little known movement.  But for me it just went on too long, the people shown were not very interesting, and the many fight sequences didn't really pay off.  **

VENUS IN FUR  (d. Roman Polanski)
This film joins the recent Carnage in Polanski's oeuvre, being essentially the filming of
a one set play, making no pretense of opening up the original for film.  In this film the setting is a Parisian theater where Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is casting a play he has adapted from a scandalous 1870 novel by Sacher-Masoch (from where the word masochism was derived).  Arriving late at the now empty theater, Vanda (Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner) persuades Thomas to let her try-out for the role despite his reluctance.  In this two-character play-within-a-play, they proceed to create the piece, and in the process become transformed into...well there's the rub.  I really couldn't relate to these characters and how they interact.  It was sexy and classical, and both actors, but especially Seigner, gave strong, memorable performances.  But for me, the entire concept of the play didn't make much sense.  Others apparently got it, so boo! me.  ***

Wednesday, May 14
BELLE & SÉBASTIEN  (d. Nicolas Vanier)
The setting of this kid friendly French film are the passes of the high Alps between France and Switzerland in 1943.  Sébastian is a young boy whose Gypsy mother died in childbirth who is being raised to be a shepherd by an old man (Tchéky Karyo).  The village livestock are being attacked by a "beast," a supposedly vicious feral dog.  But Sébastian, as he fearlessly traverses the mountainous terrain, befriends the dog, who is actually a friendly large bitch that he names Belle.  The story involves Nazi soldiers in the village who are charged with stopping Jewish refugees from fleeing through the mountain passes to Switzerland.  However, this really is a story of a boy and a dog, sort of an updated Lassie Come Home with nail-biting suspense.  9-year old Félix Bossuet is extraordinary in the role of Sébastian, cute as a button and physically hardy at clambering through snow and over mountains.  The scenery and cinematography are drop dead gorgeous.  If the story has its unlikely elements, all is forgiven because of the excellence of the actors and the fine direction.   ****

SUNFISH, THE  (d. Soren Balle)
Kesse (a subtle performance by actor Henrik Birch) is a dedicated Danish fisherman of a certain age, who takes his boat out every morning at 4AM to catch his government-set quota of fish.  However, perhaps due to an impending divorce, he has fallen behind in his debts to the bank.  The film tells the story of how this essentially good, hard working man is undergoing a crisis almost beyond his means to cope.  The film is a fine character study; but also a fairly detailed film about the process of modern day fish harvesting. It's slow and something of a downer...but affecting and realistic.  Incidentally, the eponymous "sunfish" is a huge aquarium bottom feeder that is the ugliest fish I've ever seen.  ***

Tuesday, May 13
TIME IN QUCHI, A  (d. Chang Tso-Chi)
A sullen Taiwanese city kid is sent to the country for the summer to live with his elderly grandfather.  That is the set-up for this rather amorphous coming-of-age story.  The scenery is splendid, the kids spirited.  One gets a slice of modern life in Taiwan.  However, for me the film was too long and too story-lite.  ** 1/2

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN  (d. Biyi Bandele)
In recent years Africa has been the site of several tribal conflicts which were the result of the arbitrary admixture of cultures when the colonial powers created nations.  Famous examples from recent films:  the Congo and Rwanda.  This film, apparently based on true experiences, is about Nigeria.  In the 1960s Nigeria was the site of a civil war between the Igbos of the southeast and the Hausas of the north.  The Igbos seceded, forming the state of Biafra, with a flag embossed with a yellow half-sun (thus the film's title).  This film tells the epic story of a family of Igbos caught up in the war as the northerners fought to reclaim the lost territory.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a revolutionary Igbo professor who falls in love with a daughter of privilege (Thandie Newton).  They are at the center of a group of friends and their families and servants who suffer greatly as the war encroaches on their lives.  I had never paid all that much attention to the Biafra civil war when it happened.  So most of the background and the resulting genocide were unfamiliar to me, and frankly disturbing.  But I did get involved with the characters in this film, moved by their plight and the horrors of a war I hardly knew existed.  The film paints a large canvas, mostly successfully. Yet the big picture is often obscured by the less interesting family melodrama.    *** 1/2

THE TRIP TO ITALY, THE  (d. Michael Winterbottom)
In 2010 Michael Winterbottom directed a docu-comedy called The Trip, where comics Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, both skilled raconteurs and celebrity impressionists, wined and dined their way through the English Lake Country.  This film is a sequel of sorts to that film.  In this case the two men spend a week driving, dining well, and trying to out-clever each other through southern Italy from Rome to Naples.  The dialogue sparkles...spending time with these men is a pleasure for the intellect and often a laugh riot.  But this is also a trip through foodie heaven as they dine at six fabulous restaurants and enjoy some of the world's most luxurious and scenic hotels. I enjoyed this film immensely, even though by the end I had the feeling that it all went on a bit long.  Still, I have added all six of these restaurants to my bucket list of experiences I would love to have before I kick the proverbial bucket.  ****

Monday, May 12
IDA  (d. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Poland, early 1960s:  Anna was a young war orphan raised by nuns in relative isolation.  Before she was to take her vows when turning 18, she was told that she should get in touch with her roots before deciding if being a nun was her true vocation. That is the set-up for an exquisite coming of age road trip shot in beautiful black & white (with some of the most eccentric camera angles in recent cinema).  Anna finds her aunt, "Red Wanda," a hard drinking, promiscuous former Communist judge (a superb performance by Agata Kulesza), who tells Anna that her real name is Ida and that she was born a Jew.  Together they set off to find out what actually happened during the war to Ida's parents and Wanda's son.  The film is slow to reveal its secrets, but remarkable for the depth of its character development, with sparse dialogue but revealing body language.  This is a powerful and illuminating examination of the aftermath of the Holocaust.  ****

DIOR AND I  (d. Frédéric Tcheng)
At the start of this documentary, Raf Simon has just been anointed head of the House of Dior, one of the premiere couturier houses in the world.  The film shows some historical footage of the original Christian Dior, and tries to view the present through Dior's eyes with  occasional voice-over.  However the meat of the film is an inside tour of the famed ateliers where many craftsmen and artists work tirelessly to prepare in eight grueling weeks for Simon's (and his "right hand" creative partner Pieter Mulier's) debut show while still satisfying their wealthy clientele.  This is like a commercial free, supercharged "Project Runway."  Nicely shot and intimate without being truly very revealing...still it is fun to try to identify all the celebrities that attend the ultimate, floral strewn runway show.  *** 1/2

ANOTHER  (d. Jason Bognacki)
Two demon sisters are in an eternal bitch fight with each other in this agonizingly terrible horror film.  OK, horror isn't my cuppa; but no film should be this bad.  The actors were to a (wo)man incompetent...obviously not chosen for their acting chops.  The ludicrous special effects were laughable (and I wasn't the only one in the audience laughing out loud.)  I have no idea why I stuck it out to the bitter end (at least it was only 80 tortuous minutes long.)  1/2*

Wednesday, May 7
THE CASE AGAINST 8  (d. Ben Cotner, Ryan White)
California's Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in California passed relatively narrowly in 2008.  Two couples sued in Federal court to overturn the law based on the U.S. Constitution, and were represented by the two attorneys who opposed each other in Bush v. Gore in 2000.  That's the familiar set-up for this documentary of which the filmmakers had unprecedented access to the plaintiffs and their legal process right from the start.  The film makes no pretense of objectivity, which is clear from the film's title.  This is the detailed account of the lawyers and the two couples, lesbian and gay, who brought the suit.  As such it is pretty close to the perfect telling of their story.  Immaculately shot and edited, with the logic of the writing clear as a resounding bell, this is about as definitive an examination of the judicial process and people involved as we could hope for.  **** 1/2

LUCKY THEM  (d. Megan Griffiths)
In this wry dramedy, Toni Collette plays a frazzled, Seattle based music journalist who, in order to keep her magazine job must track down her mysteriously disappeared, legendary musical genius ex-boyfriend.  That sounds contrived...but with the aid of some fine actors and an inventive, often funny script, director Griffiths pulls it off.  Collette is aided in her quest by a sly and neurotic retired tech millionaire played by Thomas Haden Church, who decides to make a video documentary of her search with humorous consequences.  Church steals the film with his off-the-wall dialogue.  But also notable is Ryan Eggold, familiar from the hit TV series "The Blacklist," who here shows nice musical chops as a young street-musician who becomes romantically involved with Collette's character.  Well observed and entertaining, this film really won me over.  ****

OBVIOUS CHIL(d. Gillian Robespierre)
Jenny Slate plays a 28-year old Jewish girl-woman who expresses her neuroses as a stand-up comic in a small Brooklyn club.  I was initially turned-off by her raucous act...but I eventually got into her character, a tribute to the likability of the actress.   In this bitter-sweet romantic comedy she gets knocked up by a really straight whitebread guy (Jake Lacy), and has to cope with the consequences of her one-night stand.  This isn't a feel-good film...but somehow despite all this it is funny enough and heartfelt enough that I ended up really enjoying it.  *** 1/2

Tuesday, May 6
40 DAYS OF SILENCE  (d. Saodat Ismailova)
Bibicha is a young woman who, for obscure reasons (in a film full of obscurities) is doing a Muslim religious penance of forty days of silence.  She's doing this in a house with four generations of women, including her all-wise grandmother, her mother and niece.   The scenery is gorgeous:  a valley surrounded by snow covered mountains.  However the time frame isn't clear...one scene takes place in a luscious green field followed immediately by a scene in driving snow.  A heavily pregnant woman is partially in frame in one scene, and then disappears for the rest of the film.   Mysteriously gauzy, out-of-focus scenes recur for no discernible reason.  I managed to stay awake for the entire film; but that's about the best I can say for it.  Incomprehensible and tedious.  For me, no amount of visual beauty can make up for that.  *

I AM BIG BIRD (d. Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker)
Carroll Spinney has performed as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on "Sesame Street" for over forty years.  This documentary tells his story through interviews and rare videos from past performances including the TV special "Big Bird in China."  The film provides valuable insight into Spinney's creative process - how physically taxing it is working inside the extremely tall feathered costume while following a script and having only a video camera for eyes.  But the documentary itself is quite straightforward, linear, with undistinguished cinematography and no particular point of view.  Yes, Spinney is a wonderful man who shines through his characters, a fine husband and father of three.  Yes the Henson company is a  happy place and a model of creativity.  But the documentary itself failed to involve me, except for rare emotional scenes, such as Big Bird singing Kermit's ode at Jim Henson's funeral, which brought me to tears.  I liked Carroll Spinney a lot.  The film?...meh!   ** 1/2 

(d. William Eubank)
A pair of MIT students and their girlfriend drive into the desert to chase down a signal from a super-hacker who has infiltrated their server.  They track the signal to a deserted shack, and as in Blair Witch, when they explore the creepy place all hell breaks loose and the screen goes black along with their consciousness.  What happens to them when they wake up is a sci-fi enigma organized by Laurence Fishburne in a hazmat suit.  Are these aliens?  Is this the Matrix?  Well, it's all very mysterious, and frankly stays that way.  Still, the journey is exciting, the kids are attractive (especially Brenton Thwaites, yet another young Australian actor with charisma to burn and a perfect American accent), and the special effects are adequate for a low budget thriller.    *** 1/2

Monday, May 5
BALLET 422  (d. Jody Lee Lipes)
Justin Peck is a 25-year old journeyman dancer in the New York City Ballet company, part of the Corps de ballet.  However, he did well enough in his study of choreography that he was chosen to choreograph that company's 422nd original ballet.  This interesting, if mildly unsatisfying, documentary shows some of Peck's creative process and the exhaustive months' long rehearsal process to create the ballet.  Done chronologically, the film ends with snippets from the actual production and Peck's momentary triumph before he goes back to being a subsidiary dancer.  The filmmakers chose to do a straight-on verité version, with long shots of the people undergoing their creative processes with little explanation and none of the insights that interviews or voice-over might provide.  This might have worked if the coverage had been better.  Still, the film is not without its pleasures.  The dancers are magnificent, and even though they and all the other creative people (e.g. orchestra members, wardrobe and lighting technicians, and even choreographer Peck himself) remain cyphers, the dancing itself is quite thrilling.  The film is worth watching for that alone.  *** 1/2

(d. Kat Candler)
Aaron Paul, so vivid an actor in the tv show "Breaking Bad," tones down his persona to portray a beer swigging young Texan widower, father of two boys 10 and 13.  The older boy is troubled and difficult, part of a gang of child hellions who play at being wantonly destructive.  He's played by newcomer Josh Wiggins, totally natural and affecting, and convincing as a pee-wee motocross competitor.  The film's conflict starts when Paul's sister-in-law (an extremely toned down Juliette Lewis) takes custody of the younger boy to provide a better environment.  What ensues is a slice-of-life, lower class family drama, that builds rather predictably to a climax and then peters out with no clear resolution...sort of like real life.  The acting was good enough to carry the film despite the cliches of its script.  This is one of those small, personal projects that make film festivals worthwhile.  *** 1/2

(d. Viktor Taus)
Thirty years prior to the onset of the film, Oskar, one-third of a famed trio of clown/mimes, fled Czechoslovakia for France to escape the regime despite the consequences to his family and colleagues.  Now Oskar and his French muse Fabienne are returning to Prague, there to confront the past.  Oskar's two partners in mime were 60-year old Max (now dying of cancer, with a younger helpmate wife and two young children), and embittered Viktor, who is caring for Sylvie, the tightrope walker with dementia that once was part of a lover's triangle involving Oskar and Viktor.  Those are the characters; but how they interact after 30 years of estrangement is the story...and it is slow to occur, and not all that involving, unfortunately.  The film wants to be a bittersweet comedy, and it has its moments.  But the high production values can't overcome the slow pacing, unfocused plot and unlikable characters.  The heavy applause at the end might mean that I was just missing something.  ** 1/2

Friday, May 2
#chicagogirl - THE SOCIAL NETWORK TAKES ON A DICTATOR (d. Joe Piscatella)
This important documentary examines the recent uprisings in Syria to topple the tyrannic, dynastic regime of Bashar al-Assad.  It is told largely from the point of view of Ala'a Basatnah. a 19-year old Chicago student from a Syrian family who, using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype is coordinating several groups of revolutionaries on the ground in Syria.  As the film makes plain from copious videos taken in the midst of the strife in country, this is dangerous stuff...both for her correspondents/photographers in Syria and for herself in Chicago (by the end of the film Ala'a is traveling to Syria herself to become more involved.)  The action footage, mostly from brave YouTubers and shot amidst explosions and snipering, is hand-held and has an immediacy of truth that is impossible to deny.  And yet the regime survives, unlike those of the other Arab Spring uprising countries, due to the Draconian repressive tactics portrayed in this film:  a real smoking-gun.  The revolution in Syria is a work in progress, and this timely film ends with no resolution.  But the bravery of the participants in this film (some of whom were martyred to the cause) is undeniable.  Before watching this I had no particular interest in the seemingly hopeless Syrian situation. But this film affected me and made me care.  **** 1/2

THE SKELETON TWINS  (d. Craig Johnson)
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play Maggie and Milo Dean.  They're twins, who have been estranged for 10 years; and who have plenty of skeletons in their closet.  At the start of the film they're both attempting suicide...which, strangely brings them together in a bittersweet reunion.  Maggie is married to Luke Wilson, salt of the earth man's man, a little dim.  Hader's Milo is gay; and it turns out that he had been cooperatively "molested" as a 15 year old by his teacher (played against type by Ty Burrell.)  That is all set-up for a twisted romantic comedy about sympathetic, screwed-up neurotics who are attempting to deal with their mid-life problems.  I was especially impressed by Bill Hader, whose original take on the gay boy-man character is right on the money.  But all the acting is fine.  There's nothing really innovative here, just an intriguing slice-of-life story well observed, and occasionally amusing.   *** 1/2

THE CONGRESS  (d. Ari Folman)
In this strange sci-fi fusion film, Robin Wright plays 40-something actress, Robin Wright, still beautiful, but over-the-hill Hollywoodwise.  Her agent (Harvey Keitel) arranges a meeting with the predatory head of Miramount Studio (Danny Huston), who pitches her on a one-time buyout of her identity by scanning her into a computer which would then enable her permanently youthful avatar to continue acting forever.  She could disappear and live happily ever after raising her troubled young son and teen-age daughter.  That is the set-up, done with conventional, real 3D actors.  The film then skips 20 years and turns into an animated story of an older Wright attending a Congress of other toons (including her friend voiced by Jon Hamm).  At this point the plot seemed to fall apart (or at least I started to lose the drift.)  So I'm unable to comment further on the story.  The animation (by the creator of the more successful Waltz with Bashir) is 2D and fairly rudimentary as these things go today.  I think there probably was substance here:  a sci-fi story about mankind's future history...sort of a cartoony Matrix.  But the film left me shaking my head perplexed...what the hell was that all about!?  **

Thursday, May 1
MOOD INDIGO (L'écume des jours)  (d. Michel Gondry)
Director Michel Gondry has always had a predilection for the surreal. In his previous film, the documentary Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? he explored the possibility of using his unique talents for animation to express the ideas of the film. In this film he puts his visual inventiveness in the aid of a tragic love story set in an imaginary, candy-apple colored world where the fabulous is ordinary. Think Terry Gilliam, but even more extreme than that artist ever was.

All well and good...but even his original visual sensibility and the talents of his lovers, portrayed by Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris, couldn't sustain a script as predictable as this. For me it was all style and no substance. Despite the frenetic pacing and amazing visuals, after a while I was frankly bored.  **

DAMNATION  (d. Ben Knight, Travis Rummel)
The actual title on screen is rendered as DamNation, which tells the film's message in itself.  According to this fascinating documentary, the history of the United States has been one of damming and taming its rivers. 70,000 plus dams have been constructed over the years, and many are in poor repair and destructive of the environment.

The film is beautifully photographed. It is convincing in conveying the message that in many cases we'd be better off if some of the dams were eliminated. It certainly would benefit the fish. But after a while the film almost seemed like overkill, making the same point over and over. Still, this is a fine example of journalistic film making such as Blackfish and The Cove in blowing the whistle on a little known environmental problems.  *** 1/2

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE  (d. Justin Simien)
This film is a delicious satire on the state of race relations in today's U.S. disguised as a lighthearted college hi-jinx/party film.  It is nicely acted, featuring a cast of mostly young, unfamiliar African-American actors who show great promise.  It is lots of fun to watch; but it isn't exactly subtle in making its point that being black in a white dominated college environment has its unique challenges.  *** 1/2

I arrived in Seattle on April 29, 2014 after an easy drive up the coast from Los Angeles.  The press screenings started on May 1, so let's get on with the reviews!