2017 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS

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

Wed. May 24 (press screenings and festival.)
THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE IS  (2017,  d. Max Croci)
COME TOGETHER  (2017,  d. Dong-il Shin)
THE BLOOM OF YESTERDAY   (2017,  d. Chris Kraus)
ENTANGLEMENT  (2017,  d. Jason James)

Tues. May 23 (press screenings and festival)
SOLITAIRE  (2017,  d. Sophie Boutros)
The daughter of a middle class Lebanese Christian family is in love with a Syrian man from an appropriate family. The problem is that the girl's mother detests Syrians because her beloved brother had been killed by a Syrian bomb. When the two families meet to set up the traditional engagement, deceptions and conflicts inevitably are revealed. That's the set-up for this bittersweet romantic comedy, which has enough political context and farcical family dynamics on both sides to entertain while sending an eventually uplifting message.   *** 1/2

THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT  (2017,  d. Tarik Saleh)
The setting is Cairo in January, 2011...during the weeks of the Arab Spring. An undocumented Sudanese maid working in the posh Nile Hilton hotel witnessed the brutal murder of a famous singer. The relatively honest police detective, Noredin, is handed the case to solve, which he slogs through despite what turns out to be a complex web of interference and corruption at the highest government levels. As a plus, the film is a police procedural with high production values, re-creating the political climate that led to the culminating Egyptian revolution of January 25th. But as a murder mystery thriller, at least for me, the plot was too convoluted to grasp. I was left with more questions than answers about the crime and perpetrators.   ***

HEARTSTONE  (2017,  d. Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson
)
The setting is late summer in a small Icelandic farming village. Thor and Kristjan are best friends, in that stage of adolescence where boys are just approaching (Thor) or have achieved (Kristjan) puberty. Thor is a typical 14-year old "boy"...attracted to the girls of the village, full of mischief; but Kristjan is more sensitive, protective of his smaller friend. The boys horse around; but clearly Kristjan has longings that he can't even express to himself. That is the basis for this achingly beautiful and truthful coming of age story that just illustrated that the difficulties of the teen years are universal...felt just as strongly in the sexually liberated Scandinavian climate as anywhere. The two actors playing the boys, Baldur Einarsson and Blaer Hinriksson, were naturals, perfectly embodying their roles, even if most of the other characters (mainly the girlfriends and parents) were sketchily written. But all in all, the central relationship and the bleak and gorgeous mountain setting of rural Iceland made for a film which resonated with a particular poignancy for me.  ****

Mon. May 22 (press screenings and festival)
BAD INFLUENCE  (2017,  d. Claudia Huaiquimilla)
Tano is an alpha-youth living in Santiago, Chile. After getting caught in the confusion of a gas station robbery, the authorities parole him to the country to live with his auto mechanic father. At his new school he befriends out of sympathy his neighbor Cheo, a semi-outcast, shy Mapuche (the indigenous people of the area.) The Mapuche people are involved in a violent strike against the gravel company that is despoiling the community. That is the setting for this coming-of-age story of the two boys, combined with a social commentary drama of present day rural Chile. I found it involving enough to pique my interest; but the film was slow paced and the politics difficult to follow for an outsider.   ** 1/2

THE WEDDING PLAN  (2017,  d. Rama Burshtein)
Michal (a luminous performance by Israeli actress Noa Koller) is a young Hasidic woman living in Jerusalem, unmarried and desperate to find a husband after a long search and myriad meetings with prospective men. I suspect that she's just too modern and opinionated to appeal to the Hasidim men she is introduced to. Still, she's determined...so she sets a wedding date for the 8th night of Hanukkah, depending on God to supply the groom in the intervening 30 days. What ensues is a fun romantic comedy immensely aided by some fine performances (I particularly liked Oz Zehavi who convincingly played an unmarried pop star singer.) This was my second film in two days about the Hasidim (the other being Menashe)...this time from the female point of view. The two films make instructive bookends and gave me an entirely new perspective on present day Orthodox Jewish life.  *** 1/2

Sun. May 21  (festival)
BEACH RATS  (2017,  d.  Eliza Hittan)
In this realistic and disturbing coming of age film, Frankie is a teen-age boy spending a summer in the present day Brooklyn suburbs. At home, his father is dying, his younger sister is a pest, his mother is concerned but unsupportive. He runs with a group of straight boys who are into drugs and girls; but secretly he plies the internet gay chat-rooms to find older men to satisfy his inchoate longings. This is a particularly realistic (at least to my point of view) look at the psychology of the closet and the difficulties of growing up poor in the suburban lower classes today. Frankie was played by the attractive newcomer Harris Dickinson, who managed to project surly masculinity and adolescent homosexual confusion all at once. The film also got the tawdry urban milieu right, especially Coney Island and the summer beach scene. There's no happy resolution to Frankie's story here...which for me just seemed appropriate and true to life.  *** 1/2

THE BAR   (2017,  d. Alex de la Inglesia)
Provocative director Alex de la Inglesia does his usual outrageous thing in this strange, semi-fantasy, horror film. The setting is a quiet Madrid bar, where an attractive young woman wanders in to recharge her phone. Soon the oddly varied clientele hear gunshots from the outside, and viewing through the door, bodies appear and disappear, and the streets seem strangely deserted. Panic ensues; and the situation escalates into a maelstrom of fire and possible biological terrorism as the characters descend into a literal sewer of contention. What started out as a one-room character study became an nontraditional horror film. It was all too much for me...sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing. It would have just been annoying; but de la Iglesia is so skilled at shooting and editing mayhem that despite the ridiculous lack of realism of the plot, the film almost worked as satire.**

MENASHE (2017, d. Joshua Z. Weinstein)
Menashe is an observant Hasidic Jew living in Brooklyn.  He works a menial job as a market checker, speaking Yiddish to family and clients.  His wife, from an unhappy arranged marriage, has recently died, leaving Menashe with a clever preteen son to raise.  Except for the problem that the elderly cult rabbi has issued an edict that the boy must be left in the care of his married uncle (who looks down on Menashe as a "schlemazel" [loser]) until Menashe remarries...a prospect for which the fat and immature man is unready.  That is the set-up for this character driven family drama steeped in Orthodox Jewish lore.  For some reason, I responded favorably to the film, found it enjoyable and informative...perhaps because I, a Jew from a totally secular family, could identify with the characters and feel heartfelt relief that I wasn't born into such a milieu.  *** 1/2

BAD DAY FOR THE CUT  (2017,  d. Chris Baugh)
Donal is a middle age farmer and mechanic tinkerer, who lives with his elderly mother in present day, rural Northern Ireland.  As played by Nigel O'Neill (who looks like a heftier Sam Neill, to the point that they may be distant cousins), Donal is far from a mommy's boy...rather a competent scrapper.  One night, awakened by a noise, he stumbled into the scene of his mother's brutal murder and briefly encountered one of the killers.  Soon he himself became the target of unknown assassins; and he was unwittingly thrown into a revenge story from the Irish Troubles several years before.  Additionally, Donal got involved with a pair of young Polish siblings caught in a sex slave ring that somehow connected to Donal's situation.  It was all very complicated and very violent; and I never was quite able to figure it all out.  But the action was well directed; and bottom line, the film was a better than average thriller.  ***

Sat. May 20 (festival)
FABULOUS ALLAN CARR, THE  (2017,  d.  Jeffrey Schwartz)
Allan Carr (ne Alan Solomon) was a publicist and producer from Chicago who found fame and fortune in Hollywood being flamboyant until his death in 1999. His main product was selling himself as a celebrity with lavish parties and a gift for self-promotion. However, he produced some successful films (Grease, some duds Can't Stop the Music,) Broadway musicals (La Cage aux Folles,) and one historic Oscar telecast in 1989 which (in my opinion unfairly) was a critical disaster. For me, he was an outrageous gay icon, famed for wearing caftans and throwing parties that I wasn't invited to (in those days I was instead a part of the Venice Beach set that revolved around the star Divine.) Still, I admired Carr from afar, and this entertaining documentary definitely does him justice. The film utilizes some glitzy graphics, interviews with friends and colleagues, and rare video clips featuring Carr himself on TV and in action. It's a fascinating picture of a damaged personality who, with grit and determination just about defined an era in Hollywood.    ****

BEATRIZ AT DINNER  (2017,  d. Miguel Arteta)
A deglamorized Salma Hayek plays the eponymous Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant who became a successful new-age therapist in a Los Angeles alternative medicine cancer clinic.  As written in Mike White's script, she is a vegetarian health fanatic, and a liberal activist who had been profoundly damaged as a child by her family's mistreatment by a gringo corporation in her native Mexican small town.  By mischance she is invited to a business dinner at a lavish Newport Beach residence, where she comes in contact with a rapacious billionaire (John Lithgow), an encounter which awakens Beatriz's psychic pain from her childhood.  The film is suspenseful and well acted...but I found it personally painful to watch.  As realistic as Hayek's characterization was, I found it almost impossible to understand and relate to Beatriz's activist motivations in the film.  On the other hand, my identification with and understanding of Lithgow's character was easy and quite disturbing.  I guess that is a tribute to the passions of director Arteta and writer White.  Maybe others will have an easier time relating to and enjoying this film.   ***

TIME TRAP  (2017,  d. Ben Foster, Mark Dennis)
This low budget [in Q&A the director answered: "The budget was $10,000 and it went over-budget], time binding, sci-fi mini-epic, was surprisingly watchable. It told the story of a group of young people who went cave diving to try to rescue a teacher who went missing. Turned out the cave was a time warp out of the present into some unknown future (along with a reference that it was the setting of the legendary "fountain of youth.") This film joins such previous, similar time travel stories (such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and the recent TV series Wayword Pines. However, in this case the script seemed aimlessly ad-hoc, as if the film makers cobbled together the story as the went along to fit the increasing budget. Still, the film had scope and some convincing special effects...enough to mostly keep my interest and actually wish for a higher budget sequel to be made. I think that despite its story flaws, there is definitely an appreciative audience for this film if it manages to get released.** 1/2

TRIP TO SPAIN  (2017,  d. Michael Winterbottom)
In this third foodie documentary collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and actors/impressionists/raconteurs Steve Cougan and Rob Brydon, the film makers tour southwest Spain by ferry and Range Rover. On the way, per usual, they enjoy the scenery, eat fabulous meals, and spend their time trying to one-up one another with their wit and celebrity impressions. Only, after their previous tours of Britain and Italy, they seem to have reached a point of diminishing returns: the same shticks seem overly familiar, and despite the gorgeous settings, I found a certain ennui setting in mid-film. Still, as with the previous films, I'd give up my left nut to be able to personally duplicate their high-life extravagant journey.  ***

Fri. May 19 (festival)
DEATH IN SARAJEVO (2017,  d. Danis Tanovic)
Sarajevo is the historic capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina (a crucial part of the Balkan peninsula and the nexus of conflict between the various factions of the area: Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim). In the 1990s the area was decimated by war and siege. This film tells the present day story of a luxury hotel in the city that is on the verge of bankruptcy and facing a strike by unpaid workers. The hotel is host to a newsworthy event: the 100th anniversary of Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo which precipitated WWI. The film intercuts several stories. First, a TV news crew interviewing experts on the subject of Princip: terrorist or freedom fighter. Another is the internal functioning of the hotel: corrupt manager, dissatisfied employees, the thugs who run an illegal gambling den in the hotel's basement. Yet another is the conference, personified by a famous French luminary whose trigger happy body-guards provide the "death" of the film's title. Director Tanovic manages to hold all these balls in the air with skillful editing. I was amazed by how much of the former Yugoslavia's history (which permeated the plot) that I recognized from the many movies I've watched from the area. Perhaps that was why the film had such resonance for me personally. I think most Americans, in political isolation, would find the meat of this film incomprehensible. Yet, even if only considered as a political thriller, the film still had enough suspense and realistic, complex characterizations to hold interest.  ****

ETHEL & ERNEST  (2017,  d. Roger Mainwood)
The English artist and illustrator Raymond Briggs recounts through realistic 2D animation the story of his parents, Ethel and Ernest. The film episodically spans decades of their lives together, from their meeting and courtship in the late 1920s, through Raymond's birth and childhood during World War II, to the couple's post-war, reasonably comfortable, worker class existence until their deaths in 1971. On the way, the film brings to life the living conditions in the England of its time span with poignancy and a light touch. Much of the success of the story telling is due to the voice actors limning the couple: Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent, who bring the realistically animated characters to life. In addition to being a loving family album of recalled anecdotes, the film creates an accurate snapshot of 20th century England...almost as if it were shot as an epic, expensive live-action film. It's a fine example of filmed animation targeted to adults, instead of the usual children's stories.  *** 1/2

THE MIDWIFE   (2017,  d. Martin Provost)
Claire is a delivery technician (the modern, unisex term for midwife in her native France) at a suburban hospital that is slated for imminent closure. As played by the fine actress Catherine Frot, she's an empathetic, skilled worker, a concerned mother of a grown son, and the daughter of a man who had committed suicide years before after being deserted by the love of his life, a wildly independent woman named Beatrice. The film recounts what happens when, after many years, Beatrice, now dying of a brain tumor, contacts her former step-daughter Claire to try to make amends. Beatrice is played by the preternaturally youthful Catherine Deneuve, in one of her most memorable performances as an elder. The interplay between the two great actresses brings the story to life. Only the French can routinely provide meaty roles like this for older women. Vive la France!  *** 1/2

THE UNKNOWN GIRL  (2017,  d. Dardenne Bros.)
Jenny is a young Belgian medical doctor running a small clinic in Liège for the poor and needy (and amazingly making home visits.)  One evening after hours she carelessly failed to respond to her doorbell.  When it turned out the person ringing the bell had been a youthful black girl who was found dead in the area the next morning, Jenny became obsessed with solving the mystery of the girl's identity.  That's the set-up for a typical Dardenne brothers mystery thriller, where the camera is constantly in motion following the main character doing increasingly frantic and/or dangerous things.  Jenny is portrayed by Adèle Haenel, a young French actress who radiates intelligence as well as a freshly scrubbed beauty...I expect to see a lot more of her in the future.  I figured out the "killer" pretty early in the plot; but there was still enough suspense and mystery to keep me involved.   ****

Thanks to the generosity of a friend (thanks, Steven!), I scored a ticket to the opening ceremony after all.  I'm glad I did, it was definitely worth watching with a huge audience.
Thurs. May 18  (
press screenings)

GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, oTHE  (2017,  d. Sébastien Laudenbach)
This French animated film is a dramatization of a Grimm's fairy tale.  A miller's daughter is sold to a demon in return for vast riches.  And then somehow the girl loses her hands to be replaced with golden ones.  And Prince Charming gets involved.  OK.  You might get the idea that I wasn't fully engaged by the story.  The animation itself was unique enough to arouse admiration...washes of color that only suggested images, never fully formed them.  Very artistic.  Most of the story was told through the sound track.  I always thought that fairy tales had to have a moral, some lesson to learn.  But by the end of this film I was mystified by what the message was.  I guess it boiled down to "don't make a deal with the devil;"  but I might be wrong about this.  **

CITY OF GHOSTS  (2017,  d. Matthew Heineman)
In the ongoing Syrian mess, the city of Raqqa (near the Turkish border) has been one of the most ravaged as ISIS captured it and turned it into the capital of its Caliphate.  This documentary tells the various stories of a group of men from Raqqa who have dedicated themselves to telling the world (though the internet on a site called RBSS, "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently") about their city's fate.  Some have stayed, using their phones to document the destruction, some have moved across the border to Turkey, others to Germany.  But ISIS, that malevolent black flagged movement of Muslim fanatics, is systematically threatening all of these brave freedom fighters, even those who fled to the West.  The film follows these men, wherever they went, telling their stories from their point of view...which can be remarkably paranoia inducing for the audience.  The film isn't a comprehensive look at the conflicts in Syria.  It does show how ISIS filled the void caused by the success of the original revolt of the locals against the Assad regime.  But in terms of getting a close-up view of ISIS in action, this is a valuable asset.  And it is scary.  But the bravery and valor of the RBSS resistance fighters, their skill at reaching out to the world through the internet, is heartening to watch.   **** 1/2

DIVINE DIVAS  (2017,  d. Leandra Leal)
This documentary shows the life and times of a series of elderly Brazilian drag divas who bravely performed (and flaunted their at the time illicit lifestyles) from the 1960s on.  They all worked together in an underground Rio theater called The Rival...a theater owned by director Leandra Leal's grandfather.  Now in their 70s, several of these performers have been brought back for one last, spectacular revival show...and they rise to the occasion.  The film intercuts vintage film footage from the past with the new material showcasing these aging divas.  And additionally fleshes out these acts with interviews with these artists who recount interesting and often amusing anecdotes from their various lives.  It's all quite entertaining, and a little sad to watch the ravishes of age on these divas (who are all my age now, so I felt a particular poignancy that perhaps would have been lost on younger members of the audience.)  This isn't going to be a film for everyone...it is over-long and repetitive.  But personally, I'm glad I was able to watch these stories and admire the pluck of these brave pioneers of the sexual revolution.  ***

THE BIG SICK  (2017,  d. Michael Showalter)
This riotously funny and poignant romantic comedy tells the more or less true story of Pakistani-American stand-up comedian (and comic actor, familiar from HBO's "Silicon Valley" series) Kumail Nanjani's on-again, off-again and on-again relationship with his future "white" wife, Emily Gordon.  The two wrote the script (and Kumail plays himself opposite the adorable Zoe Kazan as Emily.)  In essence this is a culture clash story.  Pakistani parents want Kumail to enter into an arranged marriage with a nice ethnic girl.  Kumail falls for an inappropriate Caucasian girl whose parents (the wonderful combine of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) are more liberal.  But still the relationship is fraught with problems.  I'm not a huge comedy fan...but this film was genuinely laugh provoking throughout, not only due to the familiar stand-up routines, but also the way Nanjani's wry persona copes with his everyday life experiences.  It all seemed honest and fresh.  *** 1/2

Wed. May 17  (press screenings)
FINDING KUKAN  (2017,  d. Robin Lung)
This entertaining and informative documentary tells the story of the making of a lost documentary film called "Kukan," which apparently won an Oscar for best doc in 1942.  That old film was a compilation of color film shot in China during the Japanese conquest of that country by Rey Scott, an American photo journalist (and a Caucasian.)  However, current day film maker Robin Lung discovered that a Chinese-American woman from Hawai'i named Li Ling-Ai, was most likely the driving force behind the film, acting as the de facto, if uncredited producer.  But Li's role was minimized as "technical adviser" at the time; and there remained no copy of the film itself.  Ms. Lung determined to search for the film and for information about the people involved.  Her efforts, along with an old video of an interview with the mysterious Li Ling-Ai, comprise the current documentary.  And to a great extent, much of the mystery behind the lost film was successfully solved in the process of making the current film; and some of the original footage turned up...incidentally providing an invaluable historical filmed record from that era.  Nice job, Ms. Lung.    *** 1/2

WEIRDOS  (2017,  d. Bruce McDonald)
Just about anything I could summarize about the plot of this little B&W gem of a film from Canada would be a spoiler.  Bare bones:  summer of 1976 in Nova Scotia.  15-year old Kit runs away from his teacher father's home with his best friend, feisty Val.  They hitchhike to the city to find Kit's mother, who turns out to be a bipolar mess.  Adventures happen and truths emerge.   The kids were played by Dylan Authors and Francine Deschepper; and both are naturals with a fresh youthfulness that rings true to life.  Kit's mom is a cameo by Molly Parker, who maybe overdoes the craziness a little; but she lights up the screen with her energetic performance.   For me it all worked.  It's a mild SPOILER to disclose that this is essentially a gay coming of age story...and a beautifully tender and moving one.  There!  I've said too much.    ****

STRUGGLE FOR LIFE  (2017,  d. Antonin Peretjatko)
An intern is sent to the jungles of French Guyana to supervise the building of a ski facility for future "tourists" using fake snow. That's the set-up for this ridiculous French language comedy/farce about bureaucracy run amok. The script was silly beyond belief; and then when things got dull they threw in a lurid sex scene or a gruesome death. I would have fled the theater in disgust if I weren't boxed in by others who seemed to be equally appalled by the tasteless stupidity on view; but instead I tried to take a nap.   1/2*

Tues.  May 16 (press screenings)
THE MAN (Mesteren)  (2017,  d. Charlotte Sieling)
Simon is a middle-age, world famous Danish artist.  As played by Soren Malling, he's a something of a megalomaniac...an obsessive creator of huge expressionist canvases, aided by a slew of young acolyte employees.  One day Casper, his 28-year old son who had been abandoned along with the boy's mother many years before, walks into Simon's atelier.  It turns out Casper was also a world famous street artist, a Danish version of Banksy, under the name "The Ghost" (was that a pun on Casper the Friendly Ghost?)  Anyway, that is the set-up for a fascinating father-son conflict drama, which pits these two exemplars of the artistic temperament against one another.  Casper is played by the attractive and charismatic Danish actor Jakob Oftebro; and I hope to see more of this actor in the future (actually he's in another upcoming film in this festival playing "Tom of Finland's" lover Jack in that eponymous film.)  But the bottom line is that few films have ever pegged the artistic impulse the way this script and these actors have done.  ****

THE PARIS OPERA  (2017,  d. Jean-Stéphane Bron)
Director Bron has made a cinema verité documentary about the everyday happenings of the Paris Opera.  The film resembles the works of Frederick Wiseman:  lacking narration or title cards to provide background information, instead relying solely on editing to impart its multi-faceted message.  In this case the subject matter included the business and artistic sides of the running of the complex organism of an opera/ballet/choral company during the labor and terrorist troubles of the 2015-16 season.  Add in a confusing mish-mash of performances which left me dying to know details about the performers, conductors and choreographers that simply were not forthcoming in the edit.  Only one character stood out, a young Russian basso opera singing student named
Micha Timoshenko, whose unmistakable talent and outgoing personality outshined the rest of the artists by a mile.  The saving grace for the film were some outstanding cinematography and a marvelous sound mix of music and dialogue, along with the inherent beauty of the opera sets and the corps de ballet.  Too bad they weren't enough to overcome the overly confusing editorial schema.    ** 1/2

Mon. May 15 (press screening)
500 YEARS  (2017,  d. Pamela Yates)
The 500 years refers to the oppression over that length of time of the indigenous Mayans by the white Guatemalans, abetted in the 20th century by American imperialism. This documentary illustrates that systematic oppression with photos and anecdotes, culminating with a kind of "Arab Spring" grass-root revolution in 2015 against the corrupt government. Unfortunately, despite the film makers' best intentions, the resulting documentary is over-long and repetitive.  **

THE WINTER (El Invierno)
  (2017,  d. Emiliano Torres)
Jara, a 30-something itinerant ranchero is hired by the new owners of a remote Patagonian (southern Argentina) sheep ranch to replace the aging foreman, Evans.  The film develops as a kind of mixture of modern-day western, deadly rivalry thriller, and cautionary tale of capitalist greed.  The mechanics of sheep ranching were fascinatingly portrayed, as was the austere beauty of the setting.  However, the characters were so sketchily written that I found it hard to relate to their life style choices.  And the slow pacing and enigmatic script somewhat obscured what was actually occurring behind the scenes.  Still, the film had enough suspense and originality to hold my interest.  ***

THE FARTHEST  (2017,  d. Emer Reynolds)
In 1972, President Nixon gave NASA the okay for the Voyager project:  two unmanned space vehicles that would tour the outer solar system, relaying back hi-res photos.  They would also carry a record of our Earth and its inhabitants into outer-space in the hopes of one day contacting alien intelligence.  The two Voyagers were successfully launched in 1977; and this fascinating and beautifully made documentary tells the story of what the program achieved (and is still achieving) as the ships hurtle beyond the solar system.  The film tells the Voyager story through interviews with the people who ran the program (at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California), and montages of the actual photographs produced in the fly-byes of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  But even more remarkable, it recreates the milieu of the vehicles in space through gorgeously designed special effects sequences.  All in all, this Irish production is both thrilling and informative.  **** 1/2

Thurs. May 11 (press screening)
THE HERO 
(2017,  d. Brett Haley)
Sam Elliott is playing close to the bone portraying Lee, a 71-year old washed-up former Western movie star.  He's alienated from his family:  ex-wife (Elliott's real-life wife Katherine Ross in a welcome return to the screen) and grown daughter (Krysten Ritter.)  He is subsisting on commercial voice-over gigs that take advantage of his sonorous voice; and living off the reputation of his one great role playing the eponymous "Hero" forty years earlier.  When Lee finds out he has pancreatic cancer, he starts to put his life in order...starting with an affair with a feisty younger woman (Laura Prepon, never better).  It's a given that Elliott is perfect for a role tailor made for him.  And it's obvious that at age 75, I'm the sort of audience that ought to be intrigued by such a realistic, wistful look at male aging.  However, despite some clever dialogue, the script and character development were just a tad too predictable and the outcome too facile for me to commit to loving this film.    *** 1/2

AFTER THE STORM  (2017,  d. Hirokazu Kore-eda)  Watched March 22, 2017
Twenty-four hours in the lives of three generations of an ordinary, if somewhat fractured, lower middle-class Japanese family. Director Kore-eda has no peer in world cinema in creating humanistic narratives about realistic people living normal, everyday lives. His stories are so simple and artless on the surface; but they inevitably say more about the universal human condition than seems possible. There isn't a moment in this film that feels forced or unnecessary, despite its slow pace and lack of cinematic artifice. In that way his films remind me of that other master of the ordinary, the late, lamented Edward Yang (Yi Yi). I left the theater amazed by how such an unsparing look at flawed characters could somehow be so uplifting.  **** 1/2

Wed. May 10  (press screening)
MOKA  (2017,  d. Frédéric Mermoud)
Emmanuelle Devos is touchingly effective playing Diane, a grieving Swiss mother whose teen-age son had been killed by a hit-and-run woman driver who had been observed by a witness driving a mocha ("moka") colored Mercedes.  Her obsessive search for the driver leads her to examine a French couple, especially the wife Marlène (Nathalie Baye, looking 20 years younger than her actual age.)  Diane stalks Marlène, who is the owner of a perfumerie in Evian, across Lake Geneva from Diane's home in Lausanne.  The film becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between the two women, both of whom are really fine actresses of a certain age.  I was intrigued by the film; and, although I figured out the mystery slightly before I should have, just the beautiful Alpine lake scenery was enough to satisfy.  And it isn't a spoiler to divulge that the final scene was particularly poignant.  *** 1/2

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH  (2017,  d. Sarah Mondale)
This muckraking documentary (narrated by Matt Damon) sets out to condemn the plight of K12 education in the U.S.  by illustrating how taxpayer money is being systematically diverted in many places from the public schools, and donated to for-profit corporations running charter schools and on-line private schools.  Every student (but mostly those from immigrant and minority families living in the impoverished central cities) is metaphorically portrayed as carrying a given amount of taxpayer cash in their backpacks, cash that is misused when greedy capitalism takes over the educational environment (Trump appointee Betsy DeVoss is potentially the ultimate villain in this ongoing situation.)  The film focuses on a struggling public high school in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania was particularly hard hit by budget shortfalls under a Republican administration.)  But it also provides a hopeful anodyne to the decline of the public schools by also focusing on the working town of Union City, New Jersey, which successfully has bucked the trend.  The film was enormously effective in making its point...basically that the for-profit schools and the modern trend to teach students only to pass standardized tests...are demonstrably not working for our kids betterment.  But by repeating the same message over and over, it left me feeling that the point could have been reached even better with a bit of judicious editing.  **** 1/2

Tue. May 9  (press screening)
HEAL THE LIVING  (2017,  d. Katell Quillévéré)
Three stories of the people involved in an every-day medical miracle of a heart transplant intersect in this gorgeously shot, immensely moving film.  I'm not going to give any further summary of the plot, since just about anything I write about it would be a spoiler.  Let's just say that the film is immaculately cast with a superb ensemble of French actors (among them one of my favorite actors, Tahar Rahim underplaying beautifully as a compassionate transplant coordinator.)  Special kudos to the cinematographer, Tom Harari, who surprisingly managed to shoot both some of the best surfing footage and most realistic surgery footage ever shot.  Somehow a film that could have been depressing became a triumph of the spirit that moved me to tears without feeling I was being manipulated.  That is the real triumph of the director and writers involved.  **** 1/2

TWO IRENES  (2017,  d. Fabio Meira)
Two Brazilian families.  Both have 13-year old daughters named Irene.  One Irene is introverted and slow to develop; the other is lushly vivacious.  The two girls become friends, have adventures with boys, reach puberty at a varied speed.  But they share a secret.  No additional plot spoilers from me...but there were enough surprises and realistic character development to keep my interest (although I must admit that the lack of propulsive action caused me to doze off at one point and possibly miss a crucial reveal that eventually became clear.)  ** 1/2

GOLDSTONE  (2017  d.  Ivan Sen)
This austere and slow to develop Australian thriller is the sequel to Ivan Sen's 2013 film Mystery Road..  Like that film it is the story of outback corruption in the gold mining Queensland town of Goldstone.  As in the previous film, the federal detective Jay Swan (a gruff portrayal by the fine aborigine actor Aaron Pederson), was sent to thwart some nefarious badness (in this case a Chinese woman who was reported missing.) Also like the previous film the production values were high (gorgeous cinematography, great score by the director himself, fine cast including Jacki Weaver in her wonderful smiling villain persona, and Alex Russell as the attractive, honest local cop.)   But to quote from my review of the previous film:  "
The film had atmosphere and interesting characters; but failed to present a coherent mystery story."   This is one case where the sequel was marginally more successful than the original film. *** 1/2

Mon. May 8  (press screening)
NOWHERE TO HIDE  (2017,  d. Zaradasht Ahmed)
Nori is an Iraqi family man and emergency room nurse living in north-central Iraq.  This documentary follows him, his wife and his family (2 adorable tweener daughters and 2 cute younger sons) as they attempt to survive the internecine warfare that broke out after the Americans deserted their destabilized country in 2011.  His home and the hospital he worked at were right at the epicenter of the running battles between Shia, Sunni, Kurds and ISIS factions.  Nori shot much of the videos himself; and they are for the most part heartbreakingly realistic.  The chronologically edited documentary covers about five years of the plight of the family as they became war refugees in their own country.  Their suffering is unbearable to watch; but somehow they remained positive and intact as a family.  However, most of the destruction of life and property occur off camera...which is probably why (SPOILER) the family survived, at least until 2016 and the conclusion of the film. **** 1/2

GHOLAM  (2017,  d. Mitra Tabrizian)
Gholam is a thirty-something Irani man living and working two jobs as a cab driver and mechanic in present day London.  His murky past involved some sort of heroic action as a 16-year old fighter in the Iran-Iraq war; but in the present day he is drifting through the drudgery of existence among his fellow Irani expatriates (and some vividly portrayed Londoners).  The film is a bleak examination of Gholam's enigmatic life; but its main saving grace is a fine performance by the great Iranian actor Shahab Hosseini (who seems to be in every film imported from that country) who gives Gholam's character a depth of emotional resonance that wasn't apparent in the script.  Still, by the end of the film I was left puzzled and frustrated by the mysteries surrounding Gholam that remained unexplained.  **

HEDI  (2017,  d.  Mohamed Ben Attia)
Hedi is a 25 year-old Peugeot car salesman, younger son of an upper middle class Tunisian family, and betrothed to a pretty girl in a family arranged, imminent marriage.  However, Hedi is dissatisfied with his life;  and dealing with his pre-wedding jitters, he embarks on a torrid affair with an entertainer at the hotel he's staying at in the course of his work.  The film is a low key romantic drama, which seems to ignore the political and moral implications of a man-woman affair in Muslim Tunisia.  As much as I liked the character of Hedi (stolidly played by Majd Mastoura), I never quite understood the psychology of his character's actions.  But the milieu of the film (the Tunisian seaside) and the fine acting by the entire ensemble were engrossing enough to keep me interested.  *** 1/2

Fri. May 5 (press screening)
I caught my inevitable Seattle cold last night, so I was forced to miss the press screenings.  Hopefully I'll recover by next week!!

Thur. May 4 (press screening)
FOOD EVOLUTION  (2017,  d. Scott Hamilton Kennedy)
This documentary effectively studies the controversy surrounding GMOs (Genetic Modified Organisms) as it pertains to aiding the farming of basic foods by controlling weeds and pests genetically with seed manipulation rather than by the use of poisonous pesticides.  Basically, the film gives equal time to both sides of the issue; however, the film leaves little doubt that the anti-GMO people are as anti-science (and against the application of the scientific method to real world problems)  as the Vax and Climate deniers.   Watching this film, I was convinced by the scientists and the evidence presented by the film makers that GMOs in themselves are not harmful, and actually improve the ability of crops to withstand weeds and pestilence and help feed the 9 billion humans (mostly in the 3rd world) that may inhabit the earth by 2050.  However,
adversarial films like this often only confirm the audience's confirmation bias...the tendency to only hear the side of the argument that one agrees with.  I'm the choir the film is preaching to.  Your mileage may vary.  **** 1/2

CHAVELA  (2017,  d. Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi)
Chavela Vargas was a Mexican torch singer born in 1919, who achieved relative fame in Spain and Latin America for her passionate songs of love and loneliness.  She was also an unabashed  lesbian from early childhood.  This documentary tells her story, much of it from interviews with Chavela herself shot during her long life, along with anecdotes told by her lovers and admirers to the film makers.  Additionally the film presents films and videos of her public performances over the years; and they are remarkable at illustrating her talent, which I suspect will come as a revelation to the Anglophone world.  Her music was not my personal cuppa; but her life story was fascinating and needed to be told.  *** 1/2

LEMON  (2017,  d. Janicza Bravo)
I'm going to be honest here:  I disliked this film, didn't get it, and felt that overall it was a terrible waste of a wonderfully talented cast.  As near as I could tell, it was meant to be the comic story of Isaac, a middle age loser (Brett Gelman) who ran an L.A. acting school and whose blind wife (Judy Greer) was leaving him.  In the course of this exercise in mumblecore nonsense, Isaac encounters several people; who live their lives as dysfunctional human lemons...all played by a panoply of familiar Hollywood character actors (Michael Cera, Rhea Perlman, Martin Starr, David Paymer, Megan Mullally, Jeff Garlin, etc. etc. etc.)   The vaguely surrealistic plot was occasionally amusing; but for me it just added up to a confusing mish-mash.   * 1/2

Wed. May 3 (press screening)
Not a particularly auspicious opening day for SIFF press screenings, since all were downer dramatic films, each one more dispiriting than the previous.  But I'm so happy to be here! (and truthfully the films were mostly well made, even as one longed for a break from the despair.)
AFTERIMAGE 
(2017,  d. Andrzej Wajda) (re-watched) 
In post-WWII Poland, the abstract artist and popular professor Wladyslaw Strzeminski came into conflict with the repressive Communist regime that emphasized social realism as the only valid art form.  That is the basis for the great Polish auteur film maker Andrzej Wajda's last film (he died in 2016), continuing his career-long indictment of Stalinism.   Strzeminski was a double amputee, having lost an arm and a leg in World War One;  and the fine actor Boguslaw Linda, aided by amazing special effects, convincingly hobbled through the role (honestly, I had to Google him to make sure he really wasn't an actual amputee.)   The film was beautifully shot and a convincing, if ultimately tragic biopic about an artist destroyed by political expediency.    ****

PYROMANIAC  (2017,  d. Erik Skjoldbjaerg)
In this Norwegian psychological thriller, Dag is the 19-year old son of the chief of a one-truck rural fire department.  The town has experienced a spate of arson fires...and it is soon disclosed that the boy has a compulsion to set fires and then help his elderly father and other volunteers to put them out.  I was never quite convinced of the validity of the film's psychology.  However, the actor Trond Nilssen played Dag as a clever psychopath, with dead eyes and canny cleverness.  His mother suspects the truth; and her conflicted horror provided the emotional catharsis of the story.   Not a pleasant film to watch; but there was just enough suspense to keep me interested.  ***

HELLO DESTROYER  (2017,  d. Kevan Funk)
In this bleak drama, Tyson Burr is a rookie semi-pro hockey player in the Canadian Maritimes.  During one game, goaded to activity by the coach while the team was losing in, Tyson somehow (the action is unclear, typical of this confusingly shot film) disables an opposing player...and is subsequently hung out to dry by the unsympathetic team ownership.  The young, taciturn athlete enters a downward spiral as he returns home to unsympathetic parents and a dispiriting life working in a meatpacking plant.  Even though actor Jared Abrahamson imbues Tyson with a convincing and sympathetic naivete; his passive acceptance of his fate is hard to understand.  As a film, this is just too depressing, even as it probably is very realistic.  ** 1/2




Thurs. May 25 (press screenings and festival)
MELLOW MUD  (2017,  d. Renärs Vimba) 
ROBERTO BOLLO -  THE ART OF THE DANCE  (2017,  D. Francesca Pedron)
SMALL TOWN KILLERS  (2017,  d. Ole Borndal)

Fri. May 26  (festival)
BLACK CODE  (2017,  d. Nicholas de Pencier)
PROM KING  (2017,  d. Christopher Schaap)
TOM OF FINLAND  (2017,  d. Dome Karukoski)

Sat. May 27 (festival)
DEAN  (2017,  d. Demetri Martin)
THE LITTLE HOURS  (2017,  d. Jeff Baena)
150 MILLIGRAMS  (2017,  d. Emmanuelle Bercot)

Sun. May 28  (festival)
SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS  (2017,  d. Philippa Lowthorpe)
BOY TROUBLE (shorts)  (2017,  d.  various)
PENDULAR  (2017,  d. Júlia Murat)

Mon. May 29 (festival)
THE NET  (2017,  d. Kim Ki-duk)
SEARCHERS  (2017,  d. Zacharias Kunak, Natar Ungalaaq)
THE ODYSSEY  (2017,  d. Jérôme Salle)
BEHIND THE CURTAIN: TODRICK HALL  (2017,  d. Katherine Fairfax Wright)