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All films rated on a 5-star (best) scale.

FESTIVAL FILMS Starting May 20, 2016

Sun.  6/12
4 (2016) 
Major director, a favorite of mine.  But the film?  Decidedly not my cuppa.   ***

11:55  (2016,  d. Ari Issler, Ben Snyder)
At the start of this well written and involving American indie film, Nelson (Victor Almanzar) is a marine sergeant, just returned home to the small town barrio of Holyoak, MA from serving in Iraq. Turns out he originally enlisted to escape the consequences of an Hispanic gangland self-defense shooting. But upon his return, he discovers that the past, in the form of his victim's brother, is coming for him on the 11:55PM bus bent on vengeance. His friends and former gang members refuse to come to his aid (except for a wheel-chair riding former marine buddy played by the always reliable John Leguizamo.)   I believe that the film sets out to be an updated version of the famous 1952 Gary Cooper western HIGH NOON (seems to me that the 11:55 title and constant use of clocks to show the same-day passage of time are clear references.) However, the film makers were intent on subverting the usual western genre tropes, mainly the inevitable shoot-em-out. That was the factor that raised this well acted film to semi-classic status. *** 1/2

LAST CAB TO DARWIN  (2016,  d. Jeremy Sims)
70-something Rex (Michael Caton) is a cab driver living in the town of Broken Hill, in the Australian desert outback.  He's white; but has a somewhat more than casual relationship with his Aborigine neighbor lady.  Upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Rex decides to drive the 3,000 km. route to Darwin, where a doctor (familiar actress Jacki Weaver) has become famous for fighting to be able to perform assisted suicides. That is the set-up for an amusing and inventive road trip where the crotchety old man meets up with a series of adventures and interesting companions.  Especially vivid were a young English nurse on hiatus working as a bar-maid in Alice Springs - and an ingratiating Aborigine, a rowdy, alcoholic, ex-rugby player, out for adventure (a star-making turn by young Mark Coles Smith).  Yes, this is another "dying of cancer" film, at least the fifth movie with that theme I've watched recently. But this film was done with such humor and realistic humanism that it was one of the true highlights of the year,  and a great way to end my six weeks-long, 109 film orgy of total immersion into the varied cinematic worlds on view at the Seattle International Film Festival.  ****

Sat. 6/11
  (2016,  d. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman)
This is a classic 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy that somehow I had never watched before.  It was presented with an amazingly pristine B&W print and a wonderful new symphonic score (complete with orchestral "sound effects" and familiar American folksong motifs)  by Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi.  I was impressed by the sheer scope of the Civil War production...cast of thousands of men and horses, vintage trains.  The slapstick comedy seemed a little antiquated; but occasionally struck my funny bone. And there were some uncomfortable moments of pro-Confederacy propaganda that really seem dated for the 21st Century (cf. Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION). Still, I understand why this has remained a cinematic classic...the film making and humorous, clever stunts hold up quite well.    ****

AMAMA:  WHEN A TREE FALLS  (2016,  d. Asier Altuna)
The setting of this family drama is Basque country of northern Spain, among sylvan farmland near San Sebastian.  The Basque tradition has always been that the oldest child inherits all the land; but increasingly, the inheritor has become a matter of choice...in the case of this land-rich farming family a choice made by the elderly grandmother, who ruled with steely silence.  When the eldest son opts to escape his heritage, the future responsibility falls on Amama, the artistic middle daughter (the younger son is considered a wastrel.)  That is the set-up for a drama of conflict...tradition vs. modernity.  The film is gorgeously shot, and makes great use of Amama's sensitive artistry as she illustrates her photographic skills in a one-woman art exhibition. However, I just couldn't engage emotionally with the characters.  So as much as I admired aspects of the film making, the plot seemed contrived and the pacing so lugubrious that I lost interest before the somewhat predictable outcome.  *** 1/2

FRANK AND LOLA  (2016,  d. Matthew Ross)
Frank is a middle-age man obsessively involved with his younger girlfriend, Lola. They have recently settled in Las Vegas.  He is the jealous type; and she has masochistic sexual tendencies. That is the set-up for a psycho-sexual thriller that has all the trappings of film noir with that genre's murky cinematography, but no feeling for the dark reality of the characters' personas. Much of the film's failings for me was due to the casting of Michael Shannon as Frank.  He is a fine actor, with a deep aura of mystery in most of his films.  But he simply lacks the charisma of a romantic lead character.  And as alluring as Imogen Poots is physically as Lola, she is no vamp...her clean-cut American look played against her sexually screwed up character.  The chemistry between the two leads just didn't exist.  And the film, despite its noirish look and rich production design, just felt totally inauthentic.    

NEWS FROM PLANET MARS  (2016,  d. Dominik Moll)
This dark French farce tells the story of Philippe Mars, divorced from his TV news reporter ex- and father of two surly and difficult teenage kids. When the ex-wife must absent herself to cover an EU crisis in Brussels, Philippe is left with the kids, along with his impulsive sister, and a literally crazy work colleague...all jumbled together by happenstance in his chaotic apartment. The plot is complex and increasingly unlikely as Philippe's life falls apart. François Damiens struggled heroically with the lead role; but the quirky script did him no favors.  ***
Fri. 6/10
  (2016,  d. Lisa Robinson, Annie J. Howell)

Clair (a strong performance from "Breaking Bad" actress Betsy Brandt) is a math professor at the University of Ohio.  Her husband, also a professor, leaves one morning on a wilderness survival hike, and then disappears...leaving Clair and her young son Conor in limbo.  Is he dead?  Was this a planned runaway?  That is the set up for this character driven drama, as Clair gradually learns that she really didn't know a lot about her husband's life that he had kept from her. The enigmatic script was quite good at keeping the audience in suspense while staying true to the characterizations.  
*** 1/2

AMERICANA  (2016,  d. Zachary Shedd)
A film editor (stalwart David Call) and his sister (Kelli Garner), while driving on a deserted San Francisco road, accidentally kill a child and perhaps unknowingly drive on (the film here and elsewhere is maddeningly non-specific about details.)  The trauma and its consequence drive him to alcoholism and the solitude of a remote mountain cabin...at least until he is offered a job by a movie producer friend (Jack Davenport) to re-cut the troubled film "Americana" that stars his sister. He has been given a chance for redemption; but other dark factors are at play.  That is the essential set-up for this murky drama that was for me, at least, too enigmatic and pointless to enjoy. **

HOLDING THE MAN  (2016,  d. Neil Armfield)
Tim (Ryan Corr) and John (Craig Scott) became friends while attending a Jesuit high school in Melbourne, Australia in the mid-1970s. Tim was the the artistic type, an aspiring actor introduced in the film playing the role of Paris in a school performance of "Romeo and Juliet." John was a shy rugby star at school, from a pious Catholic family led by his stern father (Anthony LaPaglia).  Tim's father, on the other hand (Guy Pearce) was more liberal and accepting when the two boys fell in love and formed a lasting bond. The film is adapted from the apparently well-known actor Tim Conigrave's memoir of living through the AIDS years, watching his lover die of the disease, and eventually dying himself at the age of 34 in 1994.  I'm sorry if the bare bones of the story is something of a spoiler; but this moving film is really not plot centered.  Rather it is arguably the most realistic depiction ever put on film of the personal consequences of living with AIDS before medicine started to saving victims in 1996.  [On a personal level, it is hard for me to be objective about this film. I can only say that everything about this film: script, acting, music, watching a loved one die...were eerily resonant with my own experiences, a kind of déja vu that only great art can provide.]  Not that the film was flawless, being overly sentimental at times.  And one could quibble with the editorial scheme which was somewhat disorienting as it skipped around the time line strangely. But the film depicted its milieu with absolute truth and sensitivity, that I can attest to from experience.  The two lead actors were superb on every level, portraying love, sexuality, sickness and their inner life and turmoil brilliantly.  Add in the first class production values, and the ambitious scope of the concept,  and this film is simply the definitive AIDS drama, on a par or superior to any previous such film.  **** 1/2

Thurs. 6/9
  (2016,  d. Ned Crowley)
Lenny (Jim O'Heir) is a middle aged momma's boy from Peoria, an accountant who aspires to be a stand-up comedian.  When his mother dies, he sets off on a road trip to Las Vegas in the '53 Olds that he inherits...to live his dream.  Only Lenny is about as funny as cancer.  Anyway, on this trip he encounters a psychotic hitchhiker (Andrew J. West, vividly satanic here);  and the film becomes a repetitive, darkly comic noir that is a pale version of early Coen Bros. films like BLOOD SIMPLE, with a plentiful body count of senseless murders.  Although funny at times, the film was too distasteful to even be considered a guilty pleasure.  **

CHICKEN PEOPLE  (2016,  d. Nicole Lucas Haimes)
This semi-serious documentary pokes gentle fun at several people whose hobby (and in some cases vocation) is raising and exhibiting pedigree chickens for poultry shows.  Their goal is to breed the Super Grand Champion chicken, a perfect specimen according to some arcane 20th century book.  Even a feather out of place could disqualify one of these obsessive chicken farmers from achieving their victory.  The film makers chose their subjects well, including a young man who is also following his dream to be a jazz singer performer in Branson, MO, a housewife, and a full time poultry farmer.  But, honestly, after the amusing concept is introduced, there simply isn't enough interesting material to sustain a feature documentary.  The film seems padded, and overlong.   ** 1/2

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART  (2016,  d. Jia Zhangke)
This contemporary character driven drama tells the story of Tao, a clever and pretty young woman living in Fenyang, an industrial town in Northern China. Tao is played by Tao Zhao, the famed director Jia Zhangke's wife and muse.  The film is divided into three parts, each shot with expanding aspect ratios.  Part one (in the old 4:3 ratio) takes place in 1999, and tells of 19-year old Tao's dilemma of being involved with two men, choosing to marry the one on the capitalist road to wealth, rather than following her heart and going with the the coal miner prole.  The consequences of this decision are shown in part two (shot in 16:9 HDTV format) in 2014, when the divorced Tao, a successful business woman, has been separated from her 7-year old son "Doller," who is living with his rich father and step-mother in Shanghai, but is briefly reunited with his mother for her father's funeral.  The third part (in 2.25:1 scope) takes place in 2025 in Australia where the now 20-something son has followed his exiled, wealthy father...but both are beset with alienation, while Tao remains in China, still in touch with her roots.  The film resonates with authentic characterizations and encapsulates a Chinese society in transition...both at home and in diaspora. I was emotionally moved, totally involved; and by the end of the 131 minute intimate epic film I was so into the story that the unresolved ending left me longing for more.  **** 1/2

BEING 17  (2016,  d. André Téchiné)
Damien is a sensitive high school student, living with his physician mother and mostly absent soldier father. At the outset of the film he seems to have a fixation on a fellow student, Thomas, a dairy farmer's son living precariously in a small remote farm in the high, French Pyrenee mountains. However, Thomas becomes combative under Damien's gaze, and the two become enemies at least for a while.  That is the set-up for a beautifully made gay coming-of-age story.  Damien is played by teen-age Kacey Mottet Klein, who as a kid actor  stole the 2008 movie HOME from Isabelle Huppert, and here just about repeats that feat with his interplay with the fine actress playing his mother, Sandrine Kiberlain.  Rounding out the cast, the first-time actor Corentin Fila has extraordinary presence playing Thomas. I love what the great director André Téchiné did with the relationships in this film, they rang truthful...especially when it got down to the convincing sexual awakening of the boys. Téchiné certainly isn't afraid of male nudity; and the film is refreshingly frank without being particularly prurient. This was for me one of Téchinés most emotionally resonant films.  **** 1/2

Wed.  6/8
AWAITING (La Adoptión) 
(2016,  d. Daniela Fejerman)
A Spanish couple fly to Lithuania attempting to adopt a reasonably healthy young child using the corrupt system in place.  This film tells the story of their endless bout with red tape and money grubbers.  The point of the film was to show how difficult the procedure was, and how stressful it became for the couple's relationship.  To that end, the film worked.  Still the endless repetition of problem after problem made for one of the longest 96 minutes I've spent in a while. ***

(L'odeur de la mandarine)  (2016,  d. Gilles Legrand)
This beautiful and involving romantic drama took place in northern France towards the end of WWI in early 1918.  The sound of artillery at the war front can be heard in the distance; but Charles (a strong performance by Olivier Gourmet), a former cavalry captain, has returned to his bucolic horse breeding property after losing a leg in the war.  Needing a nurse to aid in healing the stump, he hires young Angèle (luminous Georgia Scalliet), who has a pre-teenage daughter by her dead soldier boyfriend.  That is the set-up for an unconventional romantic match-up between two strong individuals whose most compelling reason to get together is a love for racing through forests on beautiful, galloping steeds.  The production design is sumptuous and perfect for the period; and the acting ensemble is flawless.  I was fascinated by the characters, and the practicality and realism of their war-scarred relationships.   **** 1/2

(2016,  d. Carlo Lavagna)
The eponymous Arianna is 19, with budding breasts but slow to become a menstruating woman despite the application of daily hormone patches.  Her parents are sympathetic; but Arianna suspects that something is wrong with her that is being withheld.  Going against her physician father, Arianna sets out to find the solution of her sexual mystery.   Italian actress Odina Quadri is ideal for the role:  feminine enough, but also physically boyish.  Early on, the script gives away to a knowing audience any mystery or suspense about Arianna.  Still, the subject is so sensitively handled that we care about her.   *** 1/2

SAND STORM  (2016,  d. Elite Zexer)
Layla is a young Bedouin woman living in the Lebanese desert.  She is being somewhat spoiled and allowed to attend university by her doting, if traditional father (who is in the process of taking a second wife, a rebuff to Layla's strong mother and first wife.)  When it is accidentally outed that Layla is seeing a boy from another tribe while at school, she is forbidden by her parents to ever see him again.  But Layla is a strong, modern young girl; and how she deals with this situation makes for compelling drama with chilling consequences.   ****

Tues. 6/7
  (2016,  d. Florian Cossen)
At the start of this wry comedy, Mike Tyson (no, not the boxer) is a teenage boy, living in a small Ontario town with his nagging mother and absent father. When he fails at a suicide attempt, he discovers to his delight that he has a brain tumor.  That is the set-up for a unique and unpredictable coming of age story that vastly benefits from its lead, 23-year old Alex Ozerov, who immigrated from Russia with his family at age 13 (he reminds me of another young Russian immigrant actor, Anton Yelchin...there is a certain fateful Russian mien to both actor's flawless English.)  Ozerov nails Tyson's teenage angst; and Elena von Saucken's script is filled with inventive and playful dialogue, which somehow manages to overcome the many plot holes.  I loved this film, despite its flaws, leaving the theater with the up-beat message that life is worth living.  ****

MOBFATHERS, THE  (2016,  d. Herman Yau)
The several Hong Kong triads, under the loosening leadership of a dying godfather, go to war to establish the next Dragon Head kingpin.  The contest reduces to choosing one of two faction leaders...either Chuck, ex-con, conscientious family man, or Wulf, upstart, vicious (and gay) ex-cop.  The gangster gangs are pretty well evenly split come election time, as the mob elders' influence wanes.  What ensues is a violent, combative film that I found only occasionally engaging. ** 1/2

SPY TIME  (2016,  d. Javier Ruiz Caldera)
This unabashed Spanish spoof of the Bourne and Bond films is just good fun.  A father and son battle an evil terrorist escapee from prison and his seemingly endless gang of thugs.  The mayhem is inventively shot (thankfully no car chases), and the satire is both pointed and effective.  As silly as some of the stunts were, still they were often laugh-out-loud funny and original.  This is audience pleasing cinema; and it wouldn't surprise me if the film wins the Golden Space Needle popularity award at this festival, like its predecessor OSS 117, a similar spy spoof with a larger budget, but for me, less amiability.  *** 1/2

Mon. 6/6
(2016,  d. Paulina Obando)
Dean Reed was an American pop singer from the late 1950s on.  He had a limited career in the U.S. doing Elvis type songs; but his music caught on in Latin America where he relocated.  In the Pinochet era his politics took a huge leftward turn.  He became vocally anti-American and eventually settled in East Germany until his suicide at age 47.  However, one would never grasp these essentials from this turgid Chilean documentary.  The historical filmed footage of Reed was poorly shot and presented; but at least there was a film's worth of material.  However, the subtitled Spanish narration was next to useless, providing scant content, badly organized.  I had never heard of Reed before, even though I was a pop-music fan in his era.  But other than his Communist politics, I still have no idea about the man from this film.  *

(2016,  d.  Alex Anwandter)
Pablo was a gay teenager living in Santiago, Chile.  He was flamboyantly femme in front of his mirror, but closeted to his work obsessed single father and homophobic contemporaries.  He was open to his lesbian girl friend; and surreptitiously having sex with his long time, straight acting  friend Félix and other pick-ups.  But after a savage, brutal gay bashing by youths in his neighborhood, he was left comatose.  That is the set-up for this dark drama roughly based on a famous 2012 Chilean murder.  However, in Q&A, director Anwandter made it clear that he was not interested in making a biopic about Pablo.  Rather his focus was set on the traumatic effects on the people around Pablo after the bashing, especially Pablo's father Juan (Sergio Hernandez).  The plot was compelling; however for me the film was marred by poor direction:  dark cinematography which concealed details, poor editing with endless closeups that didn't quite convey the inner dialog, and inappropriate, eerie musical cues that worked against the action (to my critical sensibility.)  At least the film wasn't at all coy about the gay sex scenes, even if  they seemed to be placed in the film as random non-sequiturs. ***

(2016,  d. Joost van Ginkel)
This amazingly affecting drama tells six stories of people living in the Netherlands, some natives, some foreign.  The stories are intricately inter-cut, seemingly unconnected.  But the audience is aware that somehow the characters and their dilemmas will eventually meet up.  Each story in itself is compelling and could make a separate film.  The beautiful, young  Bulgaria girls imported as sex slaves by criminals (who have their own stories).  The African illegals scratching out a living in fear of deportation.  A native Dutch family of classical musicians who are ignoring their piano prodigy young son.  I became totally involved with the suspenseful script and these characters.  The production was near flawless, beautifully shot, acted and edited.  The film also incorporated into the fine script a spectacular production of Mozart's Requiem.  I was blown away by this film, and regret missing the screening last autumn for the foreign language Oscar.  Maybe my vote would have qualified the film for deserved recognition.   **** 1/2

Sun. 6/5
 Involving and inspiring drama.  My lips are sealed; but this will get a release. **** 1/2

TRANSPECOS  (2016,  d. Greg Kwedar)
Three U.S. border guards manning a southwest checkpoint become involved in a fatal road trip and ongoing conflict with a powerful, mostly unseen drug cartel.  The film is a tense and violent low budget thriller with convincing performances and an authentic feel for the desert and the drug wars.    *** 1/2

My experience with the virtual reality mini-festival that debuted in this years SIFF was limited to trying out three different versions of immersive head-sets.  I wanted to see if they would work even though I wear glasses for nearsightedness and have presbyopia (eye focusing limitations.)  The answer is all three were easily in focus with my normal glasses.  I experienced HTC's Vive system, which is interactive using paddles to alter the 3-D reality.  The illusion was amazingly vivid; however since the head-set is attached to the computer I kept getting tangled with the cord.  This system will be great for game players (it takes a really powerful computer to run it.)  But what was offered didn't interest me all that much.   The other two systems used Oculus Rift software.  The actual Oculus head-sets were a little uncomfortable; but the immersive visuals and sound were exciting.  The system uses a Windows computer, and a set up much like the X-box.  The animated sci-fi short shown was about a robot war.  The immersive effect was convincing; but standing in front of the fixed set-up I felt somewhat removed from the scene.  The third VR set was GEAR from Samsung, using their high end Android phones as a mobile source (with easy to download software directly to the phone).  The headset was by far the most comfortable and portable; but the resolution of the imagery wasn't as good as the HTC system.   Seated in a 360 degree swivel chair, the illusion of being in the middle of the action in all dimensions was literally amazing.  This demo showed four different short films; but the one reviewed below was the highlight of the entire experience.   Honestly, the GEAR system is the first time I've actually felt like giving up my beloved Windows smartphone for a Galaxy 7 and the dread Android system. 

EVOLUTION OF VERSE (VR short film)  (2016,  d.  Chris Milk)
I watched this amazing short film on a Samsung GEAR VR player. There is no story, only an unforgettable surround experience involving an onrushing train (an homage to the early silent film that provoked gasps from audiences at the time), and other natural and surreal phenomena occurring in gorgeous landscapes. Finally, the film travels inside a womb, greeting a friendly, full-term fetus that was clearly an homage to the "space baby" which concluded Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The immersive effect was total:  sound and 3-D picture wherever the eye traveled. If this is the future of film, I'm there! *****

SUMMER OF '92    (2016,  d. Kasper Barfoed)
This sports oriented drama tells the story of the unlikely Danish soccer team competing in the European championships in 1992.  It is told mainly from the point of view of the unpopular coach (the fine Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen).  The low-budget production combines locker room drama with actors with lower resolution TV footage of the actual games that were played at the 1992 event.  The effect is somewhat cheesy on the big screen compared to previous soccer films such as GOAL!   Still, despite my lack of interest in soccer, the film was emotionally affecting.   ***

Sat. 6/4
(2016,  d. Nagesh Kukunoor)
A cute 9-year old orphan boy, living with his older sister among family in rural India, has been totally blind from age four.  When his sister reads a poster that a famous movie star is offering to provide aid to the blind, the two set out on perilous a road trip to find  the man.  Incidentally, the boy is a wonderful singer, which fits right in with the Indian musical cinema.  This is a feel-good, kid-friendly film...predictable and fun to watch.  Maybe a little too saccharine for my jaded tastes.   ***

MURMUR OF THE HEARTS  (2016,  d. Sylvia Chang)
A brother and sister are separated in childhood when their parents divorce... one moving to Taipei with her mother, the other staying on culturally remote Green Island (off the coast of Taiwan) with his father.   This complex film tells their parallel stories both as children and adults as their separate stories fatefully intersect.  The film's pacing is slow and reflective.  It took me most of the film to figure out the relationships within the four story lines.  Director Chang (a famous Chinese actress) handles her fine cast well.  And the contrast between the sunny childhood scenes and drab current day scenes is well thought out.  But I never really connected emotionally with the story.  ** 1/2

BATTLE OF SEVASTOPOL  (2016,  d. Sergey Mokristky)
Luda is a student in Odessa, Ukraine in 1937 at the start of this epic film.  She proves to be a superior marksman; and when the Germans attacked Russia in 1941 she became a famous sniper ("Lady Death" who was credited with over 300 German kills.)  In late 1942 she was sent by Stalin to the U.S. to help plead for the Americans to start a second front in Europe, where she was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt.  That is the set-up for this totally engrossing film which combines a hugely effective and realistic war story (the siege of Sevastopol) with a fascinating personal story of love and war through the eyes of a female soldier.   **** 1/2

INNOCENTS, THE  (2016,  d. Anne Fontaine)
The setting of this disturbing drama is wintry, post-WWII Poland where Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a young, relatively inexperienced French Red Cross doctor, is taking part in an aid mission.  While working, Mathilde is approached by a young nun who implores her to visit her convent.  Turns out that when Russian troops had sacked the convent months earlier they had raped and inseminated many of the pious and naive nuns who now were en masse awaiting births of children that because of their vows they could not accept.  That is the set-up for an upsetting, difficult to process story of rigorous piety versus the horrors of reality, as seen through the eyes of a non-believer who risks all to help these poor women.  Director Fontaine is working far afield from her usual contemporary French dramas. However, she shows her usual flair for eliciting great performances, particularly from the women in the film.  The film could have been trimmed a bit, since much of the action repeats. But the harrowing story is quite affecting.  ****

Fri. 6/3
  (2016,  d. Paula Ortiz)
Adapted from Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding," this overwrought, operatic and visually ravishing drama tells the story of a woman (gorgeous Inma Cuesta) who married her rich childhood friend (Asier Etxeandia) as a family obligation.  However,  she really had long simmering passions for another childhood friend, poor and already married Leonardo (darkly handsome Alex Garcia) who reciprocated that forbidden love.  The film never quite managed to make all the complex, generations-old family feuds and relationships clear to me; and I was left admiring the film making and the austere Spanish countryside, but bored by the predictably tragic story.   ***

TOWER  (2016,  d. Keith Maitland)
Fifty years ago, on August 1, 1966, a sniper perched on top of the signature campus skyscraper with a high powered rifle reigned terror on the University of Texas below, killing and wounding scores.  This extraordinary documentary tells what happened that day, stories of the dead and the survivors, and the heroes who managed to end the siege.  The film utilizes news footage from that day, along with survivor interviews.  But, above all the film offers superb rotoscoped animated sequences (shot with actors, and then artistically enhanced) re-creating that tragedy in detail impossible by any other means.   In Q&A the director made it clear that this was to be the stories of the relatively unknown victims, heroes and onlookers...that the story of the infamous killer had already been told in detail, giving him more credit in history than he deserved.  And these survivor stories are immensely moving.  But even more, the audience is reminded that this 50-year old tragedy is one that eerily mirrors future campus gun massacres.  This is one of those rare documentaries that is both technically advanced and skillfully edited; but also of vital importance in relating its history to the present day audience.    *****

SPA NIGHT   (2016,  d. Andrew Ahn) 
The milieu of this family drama is Korea Town in Los Angeles (incidentally where I live today, so the setting is very familiar to me.)  An immigrant family is beset by problems.  The family restaurant went broke.  The dutiful teen-age son, no scholar to begin with, is flunking his SATs with little interest in college, disappointing his parents.  Unemployable father is drinking, and mom is working a menial job.  Topping it off, the son, having gotten a job working in a Korean spa-baths, discovers that he might be attracted to men.  Oops.  The film was sold as a gay story; but it is too steeped in homophobia, with sex scenes too coy to qualify as that.  It is really an immigrant family saga and coming-of-age film, with an involving enough script, good low-budget technical credits, and convincing acting (especially Joe Seo as the diligent, if conflicted son).    *** 1/2

PARALYTIC    (2016,  d. Joey Johnson)
 Carson is a mysterious contract killer (played by David Hogan, dreadfully miscast)  who gets involved with the evil Chutro drug cartel in some nefarious plot.  It goes wrong; and the cartel boss wants to eliminate Carson.  The now hunted killer hatches a plot involving a woman sheriff and a paralytic drug the cartel manufactures, to avoid the torture and punishment that the cartel has in store for him.  That's the bare bones of  the plot.  But this turgid Washington state produced film-noir misfires on every cylinder.  The thriller plot is ridiculously inane, the actors are almost all too young and wan to do authentic noir melodrama (only Darlene Sellers as the sheriff is even a smidgen convincing.)   And for me, worst of all was the totally inauthentic use of East Washington state to represent Los Angeles and the Santa Barbara countryside.  This film tested my tolerance for the inane.  But for all its flaws, it was so laughably bad that it was almost good as an unintentional satire.   * 1/2

Thurs. 6/2
(2016,  d. Chad Hartigan)
Morris (a sullen, yet sympathetic performance by pudgy Markees Christmas)  is a 13-year old African-American kid whose father (Craig Robinson) is working as a soccer coach in Heidelberg, Germany.  The film develops as a fish-out-of-water coming of age story, as Morris unhappily copes with the all-white, German teen culture.  He befriends an older rebellious girl, aspires to be a rap singer, runs away, does drugs.  But his bond with his understanding father remains strong.  The film is insightful, with realistic characterizations.  But I never really emotionally connected with Morris or his dilemma.  ***

THE QUEEN OF IRELAND  (2016,  d. Conor Horgan)
This affecting, even endearing documentary tells the story of Irish drag queen "Panti Bliss" ne Rory O'Neill.  Rory grew up gay in a culture where homosexual sex was shunned and illegal until the mid-'90s.  In his 20s she developed his fabulous drag personality working in drag clubs in Japan (note the pronouns carefully:  Rory always was a personable gay man who performed in flamboyant drag and was comfortable in both roles.)  Back in Ireland in the 1990s, she became an infamous performer and television personality who ultimately became instrumental in the historical passage of the Irish marriage equal rights for gays constitutional referendum in 2015.   The film makes great use of vintage home movies, old TV and news footage, and interviews with Rory and "Patti" among others.  But more than anything, what gives the film its vitality and importance is the historical context and Rory's and Ms. Bliss's incisive intelligence and persuasive oratory in furthering the cause of gay acceptance in Catholic Ireland.  **** 1/2

WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING  (2016,  d. Wayne Wang)
In this mysterious and atmospheric drama, novelist Kenji is vacationing at a Japanese seaside resort with his wife Aya.  Kenji (a fine, emotionally clenched performance by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is blocked trying to write his third novel, when he becomes obsessed with a mismatched couple he espies across the hotel's swimming pool.  He eventually identifies the man as Sahara, old and thuggish (played by "Beat" Takeshi), who apparently is  dallying with a very young and beautiful girlfriend Miki.  Soon, Sahara draws Kenji into an obsessive game of cat and mouse by disclosing a secret about his relationship with Miki.  Or does he?  Maybe most of the story is a film-within-a-film invented by the blocked writer as he plots his next novel?  Prolific Chinese-American director Wang never made it clear what was real and what was dreamscape.  Still, the film was beautiful to watch, with sumptuous production design and cinematography which made full use of the seaside setting.  I suspect the film (adapted from a Spanish short story) was a kind of homage to the cinema of early Antonioni, particularly L'AVVENTURA, along with glimpses of Hitchcock's VERTIGO.  At least I had the same sort of mystified confusion I felt watching those suspenseful films when they first came out.  Wang's film is not in that class; but it's a quality effort.  *** 1/2

Wed. 6/1
  (2016,  d. Chanya Button)
At the outset of this involving road-trip dramedy, Dan had already lost the cancer lottery at age 29, dying while bequeathing to his two best friends, Steph and Alexandra his ashes and a thumb drive with video instructions for them to follow.  They are to travel by car to four disparate British destinations out of Dan's past and strew his ashes at each place.  What follows is part travelogue, part revealing character study, but certainly an original take on the dying young genre.  Dan is played entirely as a voice from the grave on a laptop screen by Jack Farthing, a performance mixing wry humor and pathos in equal measure.  Blonde Steph (Laura Carmichael) and lesbian Alex (Chloe Pirrie), gamely go along with Dan's quest; and the journey is never less than entertaining and emotionally resonant.  Novice director Button proves to have a fine eye for details...I would love to follow the girls' itinerary from York through Wales and up to Scotland one day.  But she was equally adept at eliciting wonderful performances from her three main actors.  I was reminded of another English ash-strewing saga, Fred Schepisi's LAST ORDERS, only here the dying young element and technological advancements of the computer age added vigor and timeliness to the well written script. ****

UP FOR LOVE  (2016,  d. Laurent Tirard)
Diane (Virginie Efira) is a lawyer involved in a messy divorce with her former husband and current law partner.  At the outset of the film she becomes acquainted with attractive, rich architect Alexandre (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin)...an ideal lover whose only drawback is that he turns out to be only barely over 4 ft. tall.  That's the set-up for a mismatched-lovers, lame French farce that was so resolutely non-PC that it bordered on the distasteful.  I'm not a big fan of recent French romantic comedies to begin with.  And this one misfires, depending on really poorly executed special effects to show any interaction between the exaggeratedly tall actress and the foreshortened actor.  The actors were game, however, and the film's lush production design made up slightly for the ridiculous story.  **

ONE KISS  (2016,  d.  Ivan Cotroneo)
Lorenzo is a fabulously flamboyant gay high-school student, new to his Italian public school after being adopted by a pair of liberal parents.  He befriends bad-girl Blu, a rebel co-student who was shamed by an earlier sex scandal involving a much older boyfriend.  Additionally, Lorenzo has a crush on handsome, straight and psychologically wounded basketball player Antonio, who also has a thing for Blu.  They make a disparate, and ultimately tragic trio of friends.  All three actors are fine; but Rimau Grillo Ritzberger is especially vivid as Lorenzo.  The director throws a lot of technique into the film, including colorful animation, fantasy and even hallucinatory scenes to enhance the story; but some of these are tricky distractions which impede the narrative.  The director in Q&A confirmed my feeling that the story was loosely based on a true-life American tragedy that famously happened in my Southern California environs.  The film contains an important message; but I don't think the screenplay was effective enough at delivering convincing characters to convey that message.  ***

THE SOUND OF TREES  (2016,  d.  François Péloquin)
The film is set in rural Québec, and tells the story of mildly rebellious 17-year old Jérémie (Antoine l'Equyer, a cute but emotionally vacant actor).  Jérémie works at this father's economically stressed saw mill (the local forests are being destroyed by big industrial companies.)  Honestly not much happens in the film.  The boy has adventures, and subsidiary characters do strangely unexplained things.  The script rambles along to its vague conclusion; but I never got involved enough with the characters to care.   * 1/2

TUES. 5/31
  (2016,  d. Melisa Liebenthal)
This was the 65th film I've watched so far at the 6-week long Seattle International Film Festival (probably another 50 to go)...and my first walk-out.  It's a documentary about a group of alpha Argentinian girl friends who as young kids loved to dress up, wear makeup and have their photos taken.  Now 20-somethings, one of their number has made a documentary about this fatuous, materialistic group which was, at least for me, virtually unwatchable.  As much as I hate shopping, about half-way through this vanity project I decided I'd much rather go to the Nordstrom Rack and find some impractical and very expensive piece of clothing to buy, which I did...70% off original price.  Made me feel as shallow as the girls in the film.   1/2*  W/O

EYE OF THE STORM  (2016,  d. Sékou Traoré)
The setting of this intriguing courtroom drama is the former French colony of Burkina Faso.  Emma is a barrister from a privileged family who with great reluctance takes on a middle aged terrorist client whom the corrupt government desires to publicly execute after a heavily publicized show trial. Facing entrenched opposition, Emma discovers that her client was once a brainwashed child soldier named Blackshouam Vila.  What ensues is a well directed and acted procedural, as gripping as some of the best legal thrillers Hollywood offers.  Vila turns out to be  a large man consumed by rage, but reluctant at first to communicate at all.  In highly dramatic scenes in his cell, the cool lawyer gradually discovers a case that might shake the government regime if she dares to go there.  The film is impressive; but maybe ultimately hits its message of the enduring repercussions of the children ruined by endless war too on-the-nose.   *** 1/2

SLEEPING GIANT  (2016,  d. Andrew Cividino)
In this brutal and chillingly realistic drama, three adolescent boys have a fateful encounter on their summer vacation visiting the gorgeous provincial park Sleeping Giant on the Canadian side of Lake Superior.  15-year old Adam (Jackson Martin) is a relatively naive kid vacationing with his upper middle class family.  He befriends a pair of cousins his age:  smart-Alec Nate (an incandescent performance by Nick Serino), and stolid Riley (Reece Moffett.)  The cousins are lower class, spending the summer at their grandmother's cabin.  Nate in particular is a clever underachiever, quick witted, but consumed by class envy.  Riley is more congenial, content to follow his alpha cousin.  Adam is a shy, smart manipulator.  The combination of these three mostly unsupervised boys as they experiment with alcohol, drugs and sexual rivalry is combustible.  And the film goes there.  Through brilliant performances and perceptively sharp dialogue, the film just punches the audience in the gut.   **** 1/2

MON 5/30
(2016,  d. Susanna White)
This is a flaccid update of the John Le Carré  thriller, where the Russian mafia replaces the Soviets as neo-villains.  The film benefits from a fine cast, especially Stellan Skarsgärd as the convivial mafia money launderer who becomes a whistleblower to MI-6 to save himself and his family from the predatory, novice king-pin of the organization.  However, Ewen McGregor as a British civilian that Skarsgärd involves in his escape plan, and Damian Lewis as the MI-6 operative who is determined to bring the mafia down despite his own government's corruption, both characters are pale shades of previous Le Carré heroes.  For all the film's high production values, the effort fails to match previous spy films - even the recent TV series "The Night Manager," an updated version of a '90s Le Carré novel, left this film in the dust.  Too bad.  I love the spy genre; but there were just too many holes in the plot here for believability.     ** 1/2

(2016,  Thomas Bidegain)
In this updated French version of the classic American Western film (John Ford's "The Searchers,") director Bidegain tells the story of  a young girl induced in the late 1990s by her secret Muslim boyfriend to escape into his religion and its Euro-terrorist network, whereupon  her father and younger brother spend the rest of the film in an obsessive, years-long search to find and maybe rescue the girl.  In the original it was a stalwart John Wayne looking to rescue his niece from American Indian captors.  In the update François Damiens plays the father, and youthful Finnegan Oldfield is particularly effective as the determined brother.  The script jumps through years of the search, paying scant attention to time and place, which is occasionally confusing.   I fear that some will be put off by the slow pace and the sense that perhaps the characters' obsessive search lacked sufficient motivation.
However, the empathy I felt for the characters (especially in the touching and truthful denouement) made the film work for me.  *** 1/2

(2016,  d.  Sabine Hiebler, Gerhard Ertl) 
Mae (Anna Posch) is a rebellious teenager sporting straggly dyed red hair and an attitude.   She and her single mother were traumatized by the death of her ill older brother when she was a kid;  and at the start of this youth-oriented drama she is a runaway living ad hoc with her tagger friends on the streets of contemporary Vienna.  She is soon busted, and sentenced to a month of community service at an AIDS clinic.  There she meets a sick patient, Paul (Markus Subramaniam);  and despite everything they become romantically involved.  Despite what seems like a realistic view of contemporary Austrian youth culture and the plight of AIDS victims (which I personally have seen all too much of with friends over the past decades), I just never could get sufficiently involved with these characters to care about their fate.  However, the pulsating musical track, grungy production design and realistic hand-held cinematography were good enough to hold my interest.   **

Fun docu.  ****

FROM AFAR (Desde allá)  (2016,  d. Lorenzo Vigas)
Armando (Alfredo Castro) is an older man who picks up young men on the streets of Caracas, paying them apparently just for touch-free stimulation.  One day he convinces 17-year old Elder (Luis Silva) to come home with him and gets brutally beaten and robbed for the effort.  However, over the course of the film the man and boy become psychologically co-dependent, until they enter into a sexually explicit relationship with dire consequences.  The film is bleak and slow to disclose its secrets; and the director overuses annoying soft-focus cinematography as a device that I suspect is meant to illustrate each character's isolation.  But the actors have convincing chemistry, even if their ultimate motivations didn't quite add up for this viewer.  ***

ETERNAL SUMMER  (2016,  d. Andreas Öhman)
Isak is a normal 20-something Swedish young man who works hard as a carnival barker and has a somewhat strained relationship with his single father (mom deserted them years earlier.)  He meets up with Em, a psychologically damaged girl with impulse control issues.  Em invites Isak to run away with her in her father's Saab convertible; and the film became a road trip crime spree reminiscent of the American film <b><i>Natural Born Killers</i></b>...except that director Öhman (who made the wonderful 2010 film of brotherly affection SIMPLE SIMON) has humanized his characters to the point that their horrible crimes seem to be irrelevant.  That's quite a feat; but credit attractive actors Filip Berg and Madeleine Martin for fully engaging the audience's sympathy.   Writer-director Öhman makes good use of the beautiful, mid-summer landscapes of the sparsely populated north Swedish countryside. He is definitely a young, world-class auteur I intend to follow.  ****

Sat. 5/28
TENTH MAN, THE (El rey del Once)   (2016,  d.  Daniel Burman)
Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is an overweight, 30-something Argentinean man who has been living in New York.  At the start of the film he returns to Buenos Aires to visit his father Usher for the Jewish holiday of Purim.  Usher is mysteriously missing on an errand; but Ariel is plunged into the chaos of his father's market in the heart of El Once, the crowded Jewish district.  Ariel meets a resolutely non-talkative Orthodox woman, Eva, who turns out to have problems of her own; and a romantic spark is lit (possibly planned all along by Ariel's father).  Ariel was director Burman's 20-something main character (played by charismatic Daniel Hendler) in the wonderful 2004 film A LOST EMBRACE, which took place in a shopping mall in the same urban district.  The current film is as steeped in Jewish culture as all of Burman's films that I have seen before; but with this film, the film maker's frenetic hand-held style, unsympathetic characterizations, and enigmatic scenario left me disappointed and wondering where the once fine director has gone. ** 1/2

INTERVENTION, THE  (2016,  d. Clea DuVall)
Eight 30-ish friends gather together in couples for a weekend at the Savannah, Georgia plantation house where some of them grew up and formed lasting relationships.  One couple is unhappily married, and the others have colluded to form an intervention to persuade their friends to divorce.  However, each couple has their own problems, which get thrashed out during the weekend.  Every generation needs a BIG CHILL type film of its own.  All eight actors in this ensemble (which include familiar indie players such as director DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, Natascha Lyonne, Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter and Ben Schwartz) are fine.  And I was impressed by how truthful and insightful the script was at portraying the various relationship dynamics of the non-married sextet (the lesbian couple, the older guy-younger girl pairing, the engaged to be married couple with doubts).  This sort of film only works if the viewer can identify with the plights of the characters; and for me, despite the predictability of the outcome, it worked ****

EQUALS  (2016,  d. Drake Doremus)
After a planet-wide apocalypse, the survivors formed a society called The Collective.  In their futuristic, utilitarian city, all the inhabitants have gradually been homogenized, with all emotions effectively bred out of the gene pool and relationships forbidden.  However, one young man, Silas (an immaculately coiffed Nicholas Hoult, never more attractive in any of his previous films) contracts the disease of attraction to a co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart, perfectly cast for her usual cool demeanor).  What ensues is a kind of "Romeo and Juliet" ill-fated romance abetted by a couple of older rebels (Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver.)  The film is enhanced by its austere, futuristic production design and all-white identical costumes.  And the eerie, hypnotic musical score adds much to the tension and pathos of the story.  However, as much as I wanted to like the film, director Doremus paced the film so slowly that I literally was lulled into a trance and slept through some of the film.  Not a good sign.   ***

Fri. 5/27
MA MA  (2016,  d. Julio Medem)
At the start of this inspiring melodrama, Magda has separated from her philandering husband and is trying to relate to her pre-teenage son Dani's interest in soccer.  When she is diagnosed with breast cancer by her concerned gynocologist (Asier Etxeandia), and coincidentally meets and falls for the pro soccer scout who is watching her son play (Luis Tosar), it sets in motion a profoundly moving, realistic portrayal of a good woman and mother who is bravely coping with a possibly fatal disease.  Magda is played by luminous Penélope Cruz, who has never been better even in Oscar winning roles.  Her relationship with her young son Dani (a winning kid performance by Teo Planell) is so well played by both actors that by itself it would have made a fine film.  Add in the jeopardy of cancer and found true love (and one amazing plot development that I won't spoil in this review), and one gets a three-hanky weeper that left me devastated.  Basque director Medem has long been a favorite of mine, with an emotional sensitivity that resonates with me in all his films that I've watched.  Here he plays editorial tricks with time that never seem forced and add poignancy to the drama.  He has his actors underplay their painful emotions, which added all the more to my appreciation of the film.  Kudos all around.   **** 1/2

MY BLIND BROTHER  (2016,  d. Sophie Goodhart)
Adam Scott plays 30-something Robbie, blinded in an accident years before caused by his older brother Bill (Nick Kroll, who really is the heart of the film.)  At the start of the film, the guilt-ridden Bill is aiding his blind brother to finish a marathon to support charity when he hooks up for a truncated one-night-stand with a super-neurotic woman, Rose (the skilled comic actor Jenny Slate).   The film develops as a heart-felt farce from there, as the three character interact romantically all the while keeping secrets from each other.  There's much humor in the feel-good script.  It's one of those romantic comedy indie trifles that are fun to watch on video and at festivals; but are probably going to be lost when the film is released theatrically*** 1/2

GOAT  (2016,  d. Andrew Neel)
Let's get the negatives out of the way first.  This hyper-violent, even sadistic film is about two brothers involved in a college fraternity hazing week that has repercussions.  If the viewer can get over that (and I could), the film offers some trenchant commentary on today's alcohol sodden college life along with an involving enough story and some fine young actors in extreme situations.  Ben Schnetzer played Brad,  the sensitive younger brother who at the start of the film was a high school senior who got soundly beaten in a car jacking after attending a drunken party with his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas, who has outgrown his pop teen heart-throb start, becoming  a quite competent actor.)  Next thing Brad has decided to attend his brother's college and pledge his brother's macho fraternity.  The story goes downhill from there as the fraternity bros relived their own horrible hazings as pledges through increasingly violent pranks.  I found the college milieu convincingly real enough; but on occasion I just had to look away from the screen.  Anyway, James Franco has a cameo as a boisterous frat old-boy returned to enliven the start of hazing week.  I did enjoy that.  ***

Thur. 5/26
SPARROWS  (2016,  d. Runar Runarsson)
Ari (youthful Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, expresssively unemotive)  is a Reykjavik teen-ager whose mother and step-father  emigrated to Africa, sending the boy to live with his drunkard father (
(Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) in the small north-western Iceland backwater town that Ari originally grew up in.  His life is mostly one of despair for the displacement...except for his supportive grandmother, the independence of a summer job at a local fishery, and Lara, once his childhood best friend, now girlfriend to a local bully.  The film is just an ordinary coming-of-age story...but for the gorgeous scenery of the mountainous seaport village and Ari's stoic humanity when faced with some really terrible events that mar his life.  It's rare to watch such a downer film that is ultimately edified by the actions of an unexpectedly heroic protagonist.  ****

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE  (2016,  d.  Taika Waititi)
At the start of this comic fable, Ricky is a rowdy sub-teener, a ward of the state who has failed in previous foster homes.  Sulking, he's brought to a new home by a tyrannical social worker.  His new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her lay-about husband Hector (a crusty Sam Neill), are so nurturing that Ricky starts to come around when Bella suddenly dies and Ricky and Hector are forced by circumstances to head into the New Zealand bush to avoid Ricky's being sent off to a borstal institution.  That is the set-up for a totally unlikely story of two weirdly mismatched fugitives evading capture in the wilds.  There is genuine humor in the script, and the director has a real feel for the characters and the setting (Ricky was played by roly-poly young actor Julian Dennison who delivers a classic smart-aleck performance of wit beyond his age.)   But ultimately as much as I enjoyed the journey, I had trouble believing in any of the story. ***

IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW  (2016,  d. Nathan Williams)
Abe is a journalist for a Chicago independent weekly paper.  At the start of this enigmatic thriller, he has arranged a secret rendezvous with Debra, a national security analyst and potential whistleblower who has promised to deliver to Abe a big scoop.  Debra is cautious, and her paranoia meant meeting by car on dusty deserted roads in Eastern Washington state.  Except that it turns out that the two are possibly being followed by a mysterious car.  What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse chase film which I followed  with rapt attention, until it dissolved into a series of unfathomable plot developments that made no sense to me.  These puzzling developments were obviously intended by the writer-director who admitted as much in Q&A when he said that all the clues are in place...but it is up to the audience to come to their own conclusions.  I just threw up my hands and decided that this regressive puzzle of a plot was simply not worth shedding brain cells over.  **

AS YOU ARE  (2016,  d. Miles Joris-Peyrafitte) 
Set in upper New York State in 1994, this involving film is a character driven family and relationship drama disguised as a murder mystery.  Jack (familiar young TV actor Owen Campbell) is a quiet, loner-type teenager living with his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson).  His mom falls for an ex-Marine security guard (Scott Cohen) who has a son Mark of Jack's age (played by charismatic Charlie Heaton).  The boys become friends, even brothers of sorts when their parents move in together.  The pair befriend intelligent classmate Sarah (Amandla Stenberg); but the relationship dynamic is adversely affected by Jack's increasing attraction to straight Mark, an attraction that is not entirely one-sided.  In the complex story, somebody gets killed; and the film is structured around police videos interviewing all the surviving characters.  For me, the film worked as an extremely realistic tale of repressed homosexuality and all of the hardships caused by this during the mid-1990s (and of course  in earlier decades, as in my own similar life experiences in the 1950s and 1960s.)  But the plot mechanics to make the film more of a mystery thriller just got in the way of the people story, at least for me.  Still, 25-year old director Joris-Peyrafitte is potentially a real film making talent to watch for.  *** 1/2

Wed. 5/25
  (2016,  d. François Bourier)
In this amiable family saga, Paul (François Létourneau) is a type-setter and amateur cartoonist who lives contentedly  in 1999 Montreal with his girlfriend Lucie (Julie LeBreton) and young daughter Rose (sprightly child actor Shanti Corbeil-Gauvreau).  On holiday, they drive to Québec city for a family get-together to celebrate Lucie's elderly parents' anniversary.  Turns out Lucie's father, retired Roland (superbly played by Gilbert Sicotte), is ill;  and Lucie's mother Lisette (Louise Portal), along with her two sisters are charged with caring for the old man.  What ensues is a moving tribute to a loving extended family in crisis, with a fine acting ensemble and non-flashy direction that emphasizes the good in its characters.  It's a touching story that rings familiar...at least it brought me to honest tears of recognition.  The film is based on a series of autobiographical graphic novels by Michel Rabagliati; and the film makers made fine use of the author's artistic style in a lovely end-credit animation.  Simple premise, well told. ****

LAND, THE  (2016,  d. Steven Caple Jr.)
Four teen-age skater dudes living in the Cleveland projects, were cutting school and jacking cars for fun and chump change at the start of this despairing contemporary indie drama.  When they jack the wrong car, and rob illicit drugs belonging to a rough adult motorcycle gang of killers, trouble for all four ensued.  The film has a fine cast, especially familiar young actors Moises Arias and Rafi Gavron (and the lead youth Cisco, played by Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., new to me but a real up-and-comer).  The decaying city setting and hopelessness of the slum life for the kids and their families were central themes. This was one of those American indie dramas that may be realistic and convincingly written and acted, but was almost too much of a downer to watch. ** 1/2

WOUNDED ANGEL, THE  (2016,  d. Emir Baigazin)
This enigmatic Kazakhstani film tells the story of four teen-age boys variously caught up in troubled lives in the 1990s, when the Soviet economy was breaking down.  That's about all I can say about the film since I couldn't make sense out of any of the stories and how they interconnected (maybe because the pacing was so slow that I think I slept through some initial exposition that may have explained things.)  *

Tues. 5/24
MAN CALLED OVE, A  (d. Hannes Holm)
 At the outset of this bittersweet Swedish comedy, Ove, a grumpy 59-year old widower is laid off from his job.  He has also lost his self-important position as head of his condo association, and figuring that he has nothing left to live for, he's determined to join his wife by killing himself.  What ensues is an ultimately uplifting story of a old man whose faith in life is reborn through unexpected means. The film examines Ove's life through increasingly revealing flashbacks.  In some ways this film resembles closely the 2013 Swedish film THE HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN ETC. in that it uses the passages of a man's life to create a mirror reflecting current multi-cultural Swedish society.  The film is fun to watch; and actor Rolf Lassgard gives an indelible performance as Ove.  But the story, apparently adapted from a popular novel, was a tad predictable.      *** 1/2

FAMILY FILM  (d. Olmo Omerzu)
The family in this picturesque Czech drama is uniquely dysfunctional.  Mom and dad and family dog go off on an extended vacation sailing around the world leaving their barely adult daughter and teen-age son to fend for themselves with scant supervision by their uncle (or maybe family friend, I was confused by the connection for most of the film.)  What ensues is a coming-of-age film combined with a travelogue and an inspirational (if occasionally unlikely) story of a family overcoming life-shattering obstacles.  The family drama is absorbing enough; and elements of the plot are surprising and unpredictable.  The characters are attractive, even as they consistently act totally irresponsibly (except for the family dog, the most heroic and likable of the bunch.)  I enjoyed this film despite its flaws. ***

ILLEGITIMATE  ( d. Adrian Sitaru)
This Romanian dysfunctional family drama involves incest, abortion (a recurrent theme in Romanian cinema lately), politics...all in a talk-filled stew of family squabbling.  That it works at all is due to the shock factor, and a kind of realism and humanism that seems to pervade the best of contemporary Romanian cinema.  The superb acting ensemble does their best to tell such a distressing story, of which any attempt to summarize would be too full of spoilers.  I think this film might have been upsetting to many in the audience, since its themes are hard to take, and the Romanian dialog is spoken almost too fast for the sub-titles to handle.  But I actually enjoyed the film for its utter realism and how many rules of cinema it broke. ***

LITTLE MEN  (d. Ira Sachs) 
Resolutely indie auteur Ira Sachs has, almost under the radar, become my favorite filmmaker in the gay film genre.  His subtle and revealing screenplays have sensitively covered all ages and shades of the gay sensibility.  This film is somewhat a departure for him, in that there is no overt gay subtext at work as he tells the story of two seemingly heterosexual 13-year old boys living in contemporary Brooklyn who become best friends despite their different personalities and their parents feud over money.  Jake (Theo Taplitz) is the sensitive artist type, whose parents (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) inherit a walk-up apartment above a storefront dressmaker's store.  Tony (Michael Barbieri, a young actor with a huge future, if this film is any indicaton) is the hyper-active son of the dressmaker (feisty actress Paulina Garcia), who can not afford a new lease on her store.  The film tells the story of these families from the boys'  points of view; and it is both wonderful to witness and heartbreaking in its truthfulness.  Sachs in Q&A stated that this film is the end of a trilogy about three disparately aged, involved couples living their lives  in New York City that included KEEP THE LIGHTS ON and LOVE IS STRANGE.  This film about the youngest couple of the three is perhaps the best, and most illuminating of all. ****

Mon. 5/23
(d. Zhang Yang)
Some of the inhabitants of a small Chinese-Tibetan village decide to undertake the Buddhist pilgrimage to see the Potala Palace in Lhasa and visit their Holy Mountain.  They must undergo the 7-month trip of more than a thousand miles by prostrating themselves (kowtowing) on the road every few steps.  This 2-hour film follows these pilgrims on their arduous journey.   It's exhausting just thinking of their efforts.  The film is a bit over-long and repetitive, and is actually neither a documentary nor a story film, but something in between with non-professional actors apparently following an ad hoc script.  But the fantastically beautiful visuals of the Tibetan terrains on the way, plus the sheer determination of the pilgrims that we gradually get to know somehow managed to inspire this skeptical viewer as well as astonish.  *** 1/2

DISORDER  (d. Alice Winocour)
At the start of this French thriller, Vincent is a soldier flunking his latest physical exam with hearing loss and a clear case of paranoid PTSD.  Now an unemployed mercenary, he takes a job as bodyguard protecting the wife and young son of an absent, shady Lebanese billionaire, which turns into a horror show when mystery ninjas attack the high-security compound, maybe to kidnap the wife or kid...it's never spelled out.    Vincent is played with steely physical charisma by the wonderful Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts; and the married lady he is protecting is portrayed by the multi-lingual, resourceful German actress Diane Kruger.  Director Winocour is very effective at ratcheting up the tension, utilizing an effective score and a script that never fully explains what is happening, right up to a mysteriously unresolved final scene.  Still, for all the narrative flaws, the film was totally absorbing.  ****

OTHER PEOPLE  ( d. Chris Kelly)
David is a 30-year old struggling TV comedy writer (failed pilots and a gig at Saturday Night Live).  He's gay, in a troubled long time relationship with Paul (the wonderfully geeky actor Zach Woods), when he has to return home to Sacramento from his New York City domicile to care for his mother, who is dying of a chemo-resistant, rare cancer.  David is played by pudgy actor Jesse Plemons, familiar from the TV series "Friday Night Lights," whose physical imperfection as a character actor provides him with the ability to be totally realistic as a neurotic, gay momma's boy...plus have the acting chops to carry the film.  David's mother, Joanne, is played by Molly Shannon (her second role this festival as the mother of a gay son...type-casting?).  Shannon is astonishingly good in this role, totally convincing as she literally physically disappears into her illness.  If Shannon is deprived of an Oscar supporting nomination, I'll be surprised (hopefully the film will get a release to showcase this performance.)  This is a family drama, with impressive work also by Bradley Whitford as David's homophobic father, who still loves his children and nurtures his ill wife.  I was immensely moved by this film, which resonated with my own life.  Maybe some will find the cancer and gay son story to be overly familiar territory (it's a staple of indie films, after all.)  But for me, every facet of the script rang true; and the acting and direction were extraordinary.  Except for the familiar plot, I could have given this film a rare for me 5-star rating.   **** 1/2

Sun. 5/22
My lips are sealed; but this Technicolor restoration was luminous on the big screen.  ****

MILES  (d. Nathan Adloff)
At the start of this film Miles Walton is a gay high school senior who is desperate to get out of Springfield, IL and get admitted to a college in Chicago.  His father has just died suddenly, having spent all Miles's college money on a car for his girlfriend; and his mother (Molly Shannon) is supportive...but no financial help.  So Miles joins the high school girls volleyball team to hopefully get an available athletic scholarship to Loyola U.  The film runs with that scheme, which encounters problems.  Miles is played by good-looking, authentic teenager Tim Boardman; and he's the best thing in this film with his fresh-scrubbed enthusiastic performance.  The film is roughly based on the young director's actual experiences in 1999 (despite the "based on a true story" opening tag, the end credits show the usual "fictitious characters, not based on real people" bug.)  The film was an amiable watch, with a good cast; but the uninspired, slow-paced direction and predictable script just made for a middling coming of age film.  ***

WEINER  (d. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
Sex scandal prone politician, Anthony Weiner, ran for New York City mayor in 2013 when fresh allegations of internet improprieties, mostly tattled by a publicity seeking 23-year old woman, surfaced during the campaign.  This documentary was apparently pitched as a "fly-on-the-wall" depiction of the mayoral campaign with full cooperation by subject Weiner and his "good wife" (and Hillary campaign confidante) Huma Abedin.  But circumstances turned it into much more:  a fascinating depiction of a fine politician brought down by his own character flaws.  Fact is, despite everything I'd vote for Weiner for any office.  His honesty, his courageous liberal stances, and his likability superseded his sexual peccadilloes for me.  But not for the NYC electorate, alas.  **** 1/2

WAREHOUSED  (d.  Jack Zagha)
In this two-character, one-set Mexican film, Senor Lino (veteran actor José Carlos Ruiz) supervises a warehouse for a manufacturing company.  Lino is a week away from retirement, when his replacement, clever, young Nin (Hoze Meléndez), appears to be taught the rigid and boring details of his new duties. However, Nin soon discovers that the warehouse seems to be perpetually empty, which serves as a metaphor for the plight of the youthful work force in general in today's Mexico.  This is basically a one-act filmed play which has been compared to "Waiting For Godot."  The actors are fine; and the director manages to solve the problems inherent to shooting in a confined setting with creative camerawork.  From the start I expected to be bored; but gradually the clever interplay between the two characters caught fire and kept my interest.   *** 1/2

Sat. 5/21
RAINBOW TIME  (d. Linas Phillips)
Shonzi is (how to say this in PC language?) a developmentally challenged, mid-30ish adult living with his elderly father.  When his father has a heart attack, Shonzi goes to live with his older brother Todd (Timm Sharp) and Todd's girlfriend Lindsay (Melanie Lynskey) who is undergoing a divorce from her sarcastic ex- (Jay Duplass), largely caused by Lindsay's earlier affair with Todd.  Shonzi develops an inappropriate longing for his brother's girl.  That is the set up for an involving, character driven family dramedy.  Shonzi is a character invented and played by writer-director Linas Phillips, who worked earlier in his career making "rainbow time" videos with special needs kids.  Phillips vests his character with a unique authenticity, especially when it comes to Shonzi's sexually stunted development, which is sometimes hard to take.  But the screenplay is well crafted and often quite funny when it goes farcical.  And the acting ensemble, like the best of the mumblecore genre, works together flawlessly.  *** 1/2

LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP  (d. Whit Stillman)
Director Whit Stillman, bard of the modern hipster talk-fest genre, turns his quirky intelligence to a total change of pace:  a period costume drama and comedy of manners based on a Jane Austen novella, "Lady Susan."  The eponymous Lady Susan is an impoverished, faintly scandalous, upper-class widow with a grown eligible daughter.  Lady Susan is a schemer, who uses her considerable wiles to affect the men of wealthy families, both in London and in their country mansions.  She is played with quick wit by Kate Beckinsale, who lights up the screen as she toys with handsome eligible young nobleman Reginald De Courcy (a star-making turn by actor Xavier Samuel) and plots mischief with her American best friend (Chloë Sevigny.) Stillman proves to be quite adroit at creating an authentic eighteenth-century world.  The script is talky and complicated; but also smart and fun to watch.  I'm not sure I caught all the implications of the fast-paced story...especially who was supposed to be dallying with whom.  But I think that confusion was intentional in Austen's world.  ****

13 MINUTES  (d. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
In 1939, a true-life, devout Christian German man named Georg Elser attempted to kill Hitler and other Nazis by planting a bomb at a Munich meeting hall.  The bomb exploded 13 minutes too late; and Elser was captured and tortured to provide information about the supposed plot.  This film tells Elser's story, mostly in a series of flash-backs which show in brilliant detail from 1932-on the way Germany gradually succumbed to the Nazis.  Elser is played by Christian Friedel, in one of the most incredibly taxing and beautifully played performances I've ever witnessed.  Director Hierschbiegel made one of the best, most insightful Hitler films ever, DOWNFALL; and he clearly understands the period.  The current film, for my money, is a masterpiece of pre-WWII historical movie-making, part character study, part thriller, but always a probing study into the cultural Zeitgeist that created the Nazis.  I couldn't help myself from making the horrendous connection that 1932 and the start of the Nazi ascension to power is eerily like the Trump/tea-bagger movement in today's America.  Yikes!  *****

Fri. 5/20
ANTS ON A SHRIMP  (d. Maurice Dekkers)
This foodie documentary recounts the inner workings of world-class Copenhagen restaurant Noma.  In early 2015, owner and chef
René Redzepi moved his entire staff to Tokyo for a 5-week long experiment of bringing his exciting cuisine to Japan and giving it a Japanese flavor using local ingredients.  The film tells of the months long experimentation phase where Redzepi and his hard-working under-chefs worked to create an original, multi-course tasting menu.   The results were tantalizing to see on screen, and undoubtedly very expensive and delicious.   But the film, mostly about the processes of high-end food service, became a mite tedious before the final triumphant opening and visual disclosure on film of the mouth-watering, exotic courses served.   ***
THE ARCHITECT  (d. Jonathan Parker)

Colin and Drew are a yuppie married couple living in contemporary Seattle.  He's a successful investment maven, she's a dabbling artist.  As played by Eric McCormack and Parker Posey they epitomize the modern up-scale couple in their late 30s, whose child bearing clock is ticking.  To that end, they need a bigger house, and find a gorgeously situated tear-down on the Sound to buy and renovate.  They hire a neurotic architect (James Frain), who offers a plan for a home that is a hideously modern, out-of-control expensive, architectural wonder of impracticality.  From there the film develops as an original and entertaining replay of the 1986 film THE MONEY PIT.  ****


Thurs.  5/19
RARA  (2016,  d. Pepa San Martin)

Sara is 12, almost 13, attending a Chilean middle-school where she is mildly embarrassed that she's living in a home with two moms - in the tentative shared custody (along with her younger sister) of her re-married father.  That is the starting point of this family drama about institutionalized homophobia and the effect it has on one fractured extended family.  There are no evil characters here, only irresolute and confused ones.  This issue-oriented film raised important questions about family and legalities that make for questionable decisions about family matters.  However, I found it hard to empathize with the characters as written in the screenplay.  This was more my failing of empathy than the fault of the film maker.  ***

ICE AND THE SKY  (2016,  d. Luc Jacquet)
This documentary recounts the life story and experiences of French scientist and explorer Claude Lorius from the mid-1950s, when he took part in the first real scientific expeditions to Antarctica, through his eventual breakthrough explorations which provided incontrovertible evidence of global warming gleaned from evidence he gathered by digging deeply into the Antarctic ice shelves.  The film is rich with old 8mm and 16mm films showing early Antarctic explorations by Lorius and others, which is intercut with present day footage of the now 82-year old scientist returning to his beloved continent and reminiscing about his life with voice-over (by an actor in rather florid English.)  The documentary is fascinating, even important, for its historic content and its scientific revelations.   **** 1/2

Wed. 5/18
WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD MEN GONE  (2016,  d. René Frelle Petersen)
Sofia (Julie Andersen) is a Danish teen-age girl whose step-father, along with his gang of rowdy friends, is tyrannical and physically abusive to her mother, herself and her older sister.  When the two girls run away to find the younger girl's natural father, it sets in motion a series of morally challenging events.  Sofia's father they discover is a crazy ex-soldier, paranoid, a victim of PTSD living a hermit's life as a dairy farmer.  The film becomes a tense drama of broken family ties...but with a ray of optimism due to Sofia's strength of character.  The script is downbeat; but the fine acting and assured direction overcome some of the more unlikely story developments.  *** 1/2

TICKLED  (2016,  d. David Farrier & Dylan Reeve)
In this involving documentary, New Zealand journalist David Farrier becomes intrigued by a sport he discovers while browsing the internet:   competitive endurance tickling.  A straight youth is strapped down, and other strapping boys then tickle him mercilessly, in a kind of S&M sporting ritual.  Farrier is determined to discover more about this sport, which leads him to identifying a mysterious New York millionaire lawyer and ex-con who he finds bankrolls the sport under various fake women's names.  I have to admit that I found the "sport" sort of intriguing to watch.  But Farrier's obsessive detective work on camera which involved trips to the U.S., coping with unceasing litigation, and secretly shadowing his suspect...somehow left me incredulous.  Still, just like in that other similar documentary which coined the word "catfish," Farrier does manage to find the smoking gun.  ****

KEDI  (2016,  d. Ceyda Torun)
This Turkish documentary is the account of thousands of wild and semi-tame cats that roam the streets of Istanbul. Much of the film is shot using wide angle cameras at street level, sort of a cat's-eye view of the world. These scenes are intercut with beautiful aerial and scenic shots of the city. The cats and kittens are cute, of course; and the people interviewed in action, who devote time and treasure to caring for them (mainly with food and love) are verbal in their devotion. Being allergic to cats, and not an admirer of the species, I found that the 79 minute film just seemed endless and repetitive. I'm sure cat lovers will eat it up.  ** 1/2

Tues.  5/17
DEMON  (2016,  d. Marcin Wrona)
Back in 2001 I watched a great Russian film at SIFF directed by Pavil Lungin called THE WEDDING (Svadba).  It was a madcap farce, and my favorite film of the festival.  DEMON is also about a madcap Polish wedding that goes amok; but in this case the groom, a successful Polish ex-pat living in Britain, became inhabited by a "dybbuk" (Yiddish: דיבוק‎, from the Hebrew verb דָּבַק dāḇaq meaning "adhere" or "cling"),  a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person.  The dybbuk in this film was a Jewish woman murdered on the wedding property; and I believe it served here as a metaphor for the Polish Holocaust victims.   However, the symbolism is somehow lost in the confusion of other symbols...failed Catholic exorcism, xenophobia, doddering Jewish elders, incompetent doctors, the bride's family's adherence to despoiling capitalism.  If the film was meant to be just about a comic wedding ruined by a ghost's appearance, somehow the fun got lost in the confusion of direction and editing that was just too out of control.  ***

DON'T THINK TWICE  (2016,  d. Mike Birbiglia)
Back at SIFF 2012, Mike Birbiglia directed a fun comedy about a stand-up comic played by Birbiglia himself (obviously somewhat autobiographical) called Sleepwalk With Me.  Birbiglia as auteur in that film was like Woody Allen doing a mumblecore genre film.  In this followup, Birbiglia plays a member of a funny, but failing  New York improv group called "The Commune."  All the members of the group aspire to act or write for a thinly disguised "Saturday Night Live" type show called in this film "Weekend Live."  What ensues is a moderately funny, bittersweet film about the hardships of the comedy marketplace, and how the performers and writers are either eaten alive by the system, or go on to success or failure in life.  That's a hefty burden for a comedy to aspire to...but Birbiglia succeeds by having a wonderfully adroit comic cast and a smart script.  The title refers to one of Birbiglia's rules of improv:  "Don't think twice" about what to do next in the skit.  The film felt both improvised and tautly written.  I really enjoyed this film.  ****

Mon. 5/16
This is a sequel to a marvelous French kids film of a couple of years back, where an adorable 6-year old boy befriended a fearfully large wild dog during the WWII Nazi occupation. The current film takes place post-war, and Sébastian is now 9, but still wild and totally at home in the gorgeous Alpine terrain. His dog Belle is now his constant companion; and his adoptive grandfather (once again played by Tchéky Karyo) is awaiting the return by plane of his daughter who had served in the French resistance. When the plane crashed and the girl was reported to be missing, the film became a kid-friendly search and rescue adventure.Frankly, the plot had enough logical holes to drive a herd of buffalo through. Nevertheless young Félix Bossuet is such a charmer as Sébastian, so perky and physically adroit for his age, that all my cynical disbelief in the story simply disappeared.  *** 1/2

BUGS  (2016,  d. Andreas Johnsen)
This documentary follows three crusading foodies, who run the Nordic Food Lab (loosely connected to the nearby world-class restaurant Noma), as they travel the world exploring the use and preparation of various insects and bugs as food.  Theoretically this under-utilized source of protein could help solve the world's upcoming population explosion and food shortages.  Some of the images of edible grubs and maggots are revolting; but the enthusiasm of the multi-national trio of gastronomes, Josh Evans, Ben Reade and Roberto Flore, is catching.  Except that I think I'll definitely avoid some of their culinary creations if offered.  Technically, the film could use a more logical editing schema.  As it is the film jumps around confusingly from cooking lessons to insect hunting, to boring, repetitive lectures on sustainable farming.  The message got lost in the verbiage.  ** 1/2

FREE WORLD, THE  (2016,  d. Jason Lew)
Mo is a tough ex-con, released from a falsely convicted prison stretch, who now works in a dog shelter, determined to stay on the straight and narrow. He is played by Boyd Holbrook, a good looking actor that somehow has never before made much of an impact in several of his films and TV shows that I've watched (lately in Narcos)..but here gives an indelibly deep performance. When Mo encounters a needy girl on the run from murdering her abusive cop husband (Elizabeth Moss, great in a role that is something of a departure for her), the two outcasts embark on a desperate road trip to freedom. The film engrossed me despite some inexplicable plot developments. The magnetism of the two leads and the propulsive story of their jeopardy was that strong.  *** 1/2

Thurs. 5/12
MICROBE AND GASOLINE  (2016, d. Michel Gondry)
Two misfit high school boys in Versailles, France become friends.  Daniel (nickname "Microbe")  is small and undeveloped for his age, Théo is the new kid, from a troubled home, but an accomplished mechanic (often smelling of gasoline, thus his school nickname.)  Together they build a makeshift go-cart disguised as a house, and set out for summer vacation on a road-trip through France.  This coming-of-age film is a departure for director Michel Gondry, depending less on animation and filmic invention than his recent work,  and concentrating more on character, realism and whimsy.  What has resulted is a superior family film (at least the PG-14 variety of family film), that avoids clichés and is totally involving.  Much credit to the two young actors, Ange Dargent and Théophile Baquet, who are  convincingly age-appropriate, and a script that is never predictable and quite entertaining.     ****

VIOLIN TEACHER, THE  (2016, d. Sérgio Machado)
  At the start of this film, a former Brazilian violin prodigy found himself creatively stalled.  He took a temporary job teaching favela high school students to perform as an orchestra, especially identifying with one promising violin student who was unfortunately involved with local gangsters.  That's the set up for a film steeped in the appreciation of classical music; but also impaired by a clunky, predictable plot.      ** 1/2

LURE, THE  (2016, d. Agnieszka Smoczynska) 
This scattered and virtually incoherent film tells the story of two mermaids who go to work in a Polish music bar and sex club. The film is visually dazzling; and the musical numbers are wonderfully performed. But none of that makes up for a plot that is so annoyingly obscure and bloodthirsty (don't even ask), that it defies my understanding why anybody would ever want to watch such a film. Of course, your mileage may vary. But if I could conveniently have fled the festival screening I certainly would have after the first half-hour or so of sheer torture, which didn't improve.  *

Wed. 5/11
MIDSUMMER IN NEWTOWN  (2016,  d. Lloyd Kramer)
One year after the shocking and tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT in 2012, the town came together to perform an original musical production of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream,"  utilizing the town's children of all ages as performers.  This documentary tells the story of the making and performance of this event  from the point of view of some bereaved parents, traumatized kids and the Broadway professionals that volunteered to write, compose and direct the show.  The subject of a town's attempting to heal is important; and the kids and parents that were mainly featured were well chosen for emotional impact.  However I couldn't help but come away with the been-there-done-that feeling that I'd experienced the same sort of straightforward, chronological film making about talented kids triumphing over adversity before.  *** 1/2

OLIVE TREE, THE  (2016, d. Iciar Bollain)
The setting is an olive tree grove and farm in present day Spain, where a young girl watches her adored, dementia afflicted grandfather mourn the previous sale and uprooting of their favorite 2,000 year old olive tree at the instigation of the girl's father and uncles.  The girl hatches a plot to recover the tree which involves a clever deception; and the film becomes an eco-friendly road trip north to Germany, and a girl's coming-of-age story.  Unfortunately for me, I just couldn't get all that involved with the unlikely deception and the film was too slow to arrive at the bittersweet resolution. **

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU (2016, d. Richard Tanne)
This film dramatizes the first date of two lawyers in Chicago's southside in the 1980s.  That these two lawyers happen to be Barak and Michelle Obama in their youths is a fitting start to the ongoing legend of the 44th American President.  Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as respectively Michelle and Barak are physically and vocally convincing.  The film is talky (hard to imagine these two being anything else on a first date), and intellectually satisfying, with a smart, illuminating script.  I think if I had been able to watch this film in 2008 I would have been a lot more supportive of candidate Obama, who was a relative unknown to me at the time that I didn't quite trust.  What this film does very well is define what a "community organizer" actually is, and the source of Obama's appeal and oratorical skills that ultimately propelled him to the Presidency.  What it doesn't do is make for a gripping romantic drama.  Too cerebral for that.   Still, it's enjoyable and worth the time to get involved with these people.  ***

Tues. 5/10
SONITA  (2016,  d. Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami)
Sonita was a young Afghani girl living illegally in Iran.  In this suspenseful and inspiring documentary it is disclosed that she was an accomplished rapper (it is illegal for women to sing in Iran) whose mother traveled from Afghanistan to Iran to insist that her daughter submit to the family by returning home to an arranged marriage so that her older brother could use her marriage settlement of $9,000 to buy his own bride.  This documentary tells of the amazing strength, wisdom and luck of this young girl as she fought back against custom with her music and her actions.  As she interacted on screen with the Iranian woman filmmaker, the viewer is alternately terrified for Sonita and elevated by her creativity and courage.  This is one of the better documentaries you'll see at SIFF.  ****

TANNA  (2016,  d. Martin Butler & Bentley Dean)
On the south Pacific volcanic island of Vanuatu in the 1980s, two indigenous tribes waged a territorial war.  This film dramatizes a kind of Romeo and Juliette story of the granddaughter of one of the tribes put under pressure to bring the tribes together by making an arranged marriage with the son of the chief of the other tribe.  However, the girl has a mind of her own and is in love with a man of her own tribe.  The film looks authentic, using unknown amateur actors that are actual people of the island, and a setting centered on the local volcano which is used as a metaphor for the couple's passion.  For me the story was too simplistic, and the pacing too slow to keep me enthralled.  However, as an example of pure film making, it had an authenticity that others might find worth watching (I had trouble staying awake.)  ** 1/2

ZOOM  (2016,  d. Pedro Morelli)
This Brazilian-Canadian co-production has a fascinating and original premise, a live action and animation composite film where three stories blend into one another circularly, with the characters in each story somehow creating the characters in the next story in line.  Thus there is no "original" "real" story, just an endless loop of characters creating other characters.   I won't even try in a spoiler free review to explain the details.  Suffice it to say that the various film techniques (including some superb rotoscoped animation) used to join the three stories together are superbly realized.  The film uses some familiar actors:  Alison Pill, Gael Garcia Bernal, Don McKellar and Jason Priestly were the most familiar to me; but the entire ensemble is quite good.  I was entertained from beginning to end by the concept and story, a filmic equivalent to an action filled graphic novel.  ****

Mon. 5/9
IF PROJECT, THE  (2016, d. Kathlyn Horan) 
The "If Project" is an ongoing outreach program by the Seattle Police Department to offer advice and aid to women incarcerated in the Washington Correction Center for Women.  This documentary tells of the founding and current operation of the program through the cooperation of a prisoner, Renata Abramson and a policewoman, Kim Bogucki.  The film is informative and at times uplifting; but also repetitive and somewhat over-long for its content.  ***

CLOSET MONSTER  (2016, d. Stephen Dunn)
Oscar as a pre-teener accidentally witnessed a horrendous gay-bashing which crippled its victim.  The sensitive boy was left emotionally scarred, not helped by his parents' bad marriage and breakup.  Oscar is played as an older youth by the wonderful young actor Connor Jessup, who for whatever reason is getting type cast as a sexually confused, gay teenager (recently in the second season of the great TV series "American Crime").  In this film, despite the horrible trauma of his youth, and despite his father's mental illness and mother's semi-desertion, Oscar does explore his attraction to a straight fellow worker (Aliocha Schneider).  The film is a beautifully realized coming of age story; but the script is somewhat scattered and episodic; and I never quite understood the underlying psychology of Oscar's possibly bipolar father (Aaron Abrams).  *** 1/2

SUNSET SONG  (2016,  d. Terence Davies)
On a bleak, Scottish farm in the years pre-World War I, Chris (played by the beautiful young actress Agyness Deyn) and her three brothers are growing up ruled by their stern, cruel, abusive father (Peter Mullen), whose treatment of their mother is even more terrible and fraught.  That is the set-up for director Davies' epic family drama that spans the WW I era from the point of view of Chris as she grows to womanhood and marries a supportive local boy (Kevin Guthrie) who is scarred irrevocably by his war experience.   This may be Terence Davies' most accessible drama, an emotionally traumatic roller coaster of a film that runs the gamut of degradation and despair to triumph of female will reminiscent of Scarlett O'Hara's and Tess d'Ubervilles' to name two influences I detected in this story.  The film is sub-titled, which considering that the Scottish brogue is not all that impenetrable, is still appreciated.  And much credit must go to cinematographer Michael McDonough, for the amazing imagery which brings the austerity of the Scottish countryside to life.  ****

May 4 thru May 6
CONCERTO - A BEETHOVEN JOURNEY  (2016, d. Phil Grabsky)
Superb Norwegian concert pianist Leif Ove Andsnes spent four years exploring in depth the five Beethoven piano concertos, utilizing in part his own chamber orchestra where his piano was front and center and he conducted the orchestra in the parts in which he didn't play the soloist.  The film basically divides itself into five parts exploring each concerto in depth while relating them to the various parts of Beethoven's life when he wrote them.  The music is superb (Andsnes makes his case that Beethoven was the greatest composer that ever lived.)  Andsnes' commentary is illuminating; but the film bogged down at times when its five part structure became repetitive.   *** 1/2

VIOLATORS, THE  (2016,  d. Helen Walsh)
Three teenage siblings living in a lower class English housing project on their own (with occasional help from social services) find out that their father, who apparently had abused all three, was about to be released from prison.  The film focuses on the 15 year old Shelly (Lauren McQueen) and her struggles to live and support her younger brother while dealing with predators (including another young teenage girl stalker, and a local gangster/enforcer.)  The film's cockney dialog badly needed subtitles...I missed half of the conversations because of the accents and a poor sound mix.  The film reminded me of some other British lower class family dramas, such as Lynne Ramsay's "Ratcatcher," only without the poetry and visual panache of that film.  Instead we're subjected to constant degradation and hopelessness.  I could have skipped this film entirely.  * 1/2

TRUMAN  (2016,  d. Cesc Gay)
 Thomás (Javier Cámara), a Canadian entrepreneur immigrant, leaves his wife and family to visit his old friend Julián (Ricardo Darin), an Argentinian actor living in Madrid.  Julián is dying of lung cancer, and his main concern is finding a place for his aging dog Truman.  That is the set-up for a wonderfully touching story of friendship and the essences of living, loving and loss.  This may be Ricardo Darin's most defining role in a long series of superb portrayals.  The film spoke volumes to me personally, maybe because few films in my lifetime have ever been so true to the experiences and reflections of men of a certain age, as well as an affirmation of life that was as humorous at times as it was poignant.  .  Plus the dog actor who portrayed Truman with a sad-sack personality delivers one of the great canine performances ever.    **** 1/2

HOW MOST THINGS WORK  (2016,  d. Fernando Salem)
Celina (a vibrant performance by Veronica Verez) longs to escape the rut of a dead-end job in an Argentine backwater while taking care of her dying father.  Freeing herself from these constraints, she embarks on a career of traveling salesmen hawking door-to-door an encyclopaedia "How Most Things Work."  What ensues is a bittersweet comedy of self-discovery and personal liberation.  The fine acting and sharp dialog are good enough to make the film worth watching.  ***

SLASH  (2016,  d. Clay Liford)
Neil is an introverted, 15-year old high-school student, secretly into writing "slash" fan fiction stories featuring his favorite sci fi character as a gay adventurer.  He is played with utter, age-appropriate conviction by Michael Johnston.  Naive loner Neil hooks up with a fellow student, Julia (Hannah Marks), a more sophisticated  upper classman who shares his interest in slash.  They set out together to attend a comic-con event.  That is the beginning of a tender coming of age story that develops in surprising and illuminating ways.  It's a wonderful script, and the casting is ideal.  My one reservation is that the film and its director can't quite surmount its low-budget, indie constraints.  But I enjoyed every minute of the film, one of the best portrayals of modern teenage social awkwardness that has ever been portrayed on film.   ****

HORIZONS  (2016,  d. Eileen Hofer)
This documentary tells the story of three Cuban ballerinas.  First and foremost is the now 94-year old Alicia Alonso, who surmounted blindness to become one of the most famous ballet dancers in the world.  Alonso's story is intercut with that of up and coming principal dancer Viengsay Valdes, and teenage ballet student Amanda De Jesus Perez Duarte.  I didn't find any of the stories all that gripping or informative, and the overly impressionistic artiness of the presentation was annoying at times.   **

LAST KING, THE  (2016,  d. Nils Gaup)
In the early 13th century, Norway was legendarily in the grip of a civil war when an usurper assassinated the king and attempted to find and kill the king's infant son and rightful heir. Two loyalist adventurers set out to save and protect the infant; and what ensued is a fast paced chase film on skis with great action cinematography and a touch of unreality (for instance the 1-year old boy never seems to need a diaper change or even cries from hunger...and wounds miraculously heal very quickly.)  I guess this film is no more unlikely than a fantasy that it has been compared to ("Game of Thrones" on skis without dragons.)  The film is a lot of fun to watch if one can suspend the feeling of disbelief.   *** 1/2

INDIGNATION  (2016,  d. James Schamus) 
The year is 1951, and Marcus, son of a New Jersey Jewish butcher, is avoiding the Korean War draft by accepting a scholarship to a Lutheran college in Winesburg, Ohio, where he falls for a mentally ill blonde shiksa goddess (Sarah Gadon) and  tussles with the stern Dean of students (a great performance by playwright Tracy Letts).  Marcus is played with searing intelligence and atheistic passion by one of my favorite young actors, Logan Lerman.  His intellectual battle of wits with the Dean reminds one of the feral battle between student and teacher in "Whiplash."   The film is adapted from a late novel by Philip Roth, and is apparently a fictionalized account of that author's college experience.   It is also the first director effort from successful indie producer James Schamus, and it was worth the wait!  I haven't read the book; but this is a great script, smart and insightful.  I couldn't help but compare this with a recent film that blew me away, "Brooklyn."  This film takes place in the same year, with protagonists that are the exact same age as those in the earlier film.  Both films get the feeling of the early 1950s exactly right; but this one is the male oriented, twisted polar opposite of the Irish immigrant story.  Except for a disappointing, disturbing final scene, this film affected me just as deeply as any film I've seen in recent years...just as "Brooklyn" did last year.  **** 1/2

                                             PREVIOUSLY SEEN

COME WHAT MAY  (d. Cristian Carion)
In May, 1940 up to 10 million French citizens were displaced by the German invasion and their country's instruction to head south. This is the story of a small village which sets off en masse on their ill-fated journey. The story centers on an anti-Nazi German man and his 8-year old son who had been seeking refuge in France (played by the fine German actor August Diehl and new-comer Joshio Marlon) who hook up with a Scottish soldier separated from the British forces trying to escape by way of Dunkirk (played by one of my favorite actors, Matthew Rhys.) The film is complex in terms of characters, and has the same sort of plucky sentimentality that characterized the director's previous war film Joyeux Noel. It's hard to imagine a "feel-good" film coming from such a horrendous historical era; but the director based this film on his mother's experiences at the time. And there is a ring of solemn truth to the film that cannot be understated. And as icing on the cake, the director managed to get Ennio Morricone to provide one of his best scores ever, which added immensely to the gravitas of the characters' plight.  ****

BRAND NEW TESTAMENT, THE  (d. Jaco Van Dormael).
Somewhat silly religious allegory about God on earth in Brussels.  ***

HOME CARE  (d. Slávek Horák)
Occasionally involving dramedy about  a home nurse who herself gets sick.  ***

LAMB  (d. Yared Zeleke)
Simplistic coming of age film about an orphaned young boy who escapes his town with his pet lamb, whose main motivation is saving his lamb at all costs. ** 1/2

HIGH SUN, THE  (d. Dalibor Matani) 
Three dramatic romances spaced a decade apart in a strife torn area between Croatia and Serbia.  Involving stories, well told.  *** 1/2

STRANGER  (d. Yermek Tursunov)
Involving story of a Kazakh boy who leaves civilization before WWII and goes wild as the Soviets take over his former settlement.  *** 1/2