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

Sun. June 11 (festival)
No comment; but just not my cuppa.  I didn't walk, however.  **

THIS IS OUR LAND  (2017,  d. Lucas Belvaux)
This timely French political drama tells the story of Pauline (Emilie Dequenne), a home-visitation nurse who was invited to run for her small-town mayorship by the right-wing anti-immigrant party led by a woman who somewhat resembled Marine Le Pen.  Director Belvaux (who made the impressively contemporary "Trilogy" a few years ago), presented an informative and apparently accurate, if fictitious, portrayal of the people and issues that are consuming Europe today.  But it also resonated with our own current American political situation.   *** 1/2

FREE AND EASY (2017,  d. Geng Jun)
In this trenchant, if ploddingly slow, Chinese satire, two con-men, (a soap salesman and a fake monk) attempt to prey on a series of country bumpkins.  They must elude two local cops and cope with their increasingly canny victims.  The film almost degenerates into slapstick; but actually presents a rather amusing take on the greed and money fixation of modern Chinese society. It's just that the torpid pacing just about put me to sleep.  ** 1/2

HANDSOME DEVIL  (2017,  d. John Butler)
Ned (played by cute, red-headed Fionn O'Shea), was a 16-year old Irish prep-school student.  He was an introvert, interested in music...enrolled in a boy's school that is batty for rugby, which made him a picked-on outcast.  His new roommate, Connor (attractive Nicholas Galitzine), was mysteriously expelled from his previous school; but he turned out to be a talented rugby player, so he instantly became a BMOC.   Also new at the school was a closeted gay English teacher (ingratiatingly played by Andrew Scott).   Ned and Connor surprisingly became friends; but there is some sexual ambiguity surrounding both boys...which became the crux of the drama.  I was  totally involved in this well written and acted gay-friendly coming-of-age story.  It made a fitting and positive ending to my 6-week long, 110 film Seattle Film Festival marathon!  ****

Sat. June 10  (festival)
THE WITCHES  (2017,  d.  Nicolas Roeg)
I missed this 1990 kid's flick when it came out...so I was delighted to actually watch the pristine revival print (so superior to the horrible trailer shown previously that I almost didn't attend the screening at SIFF.)   The film was adapted from a fairy tale by Roald Dahl, utilizing the animated creature skills of the Henson studio and some of the best witch's make-up ever portrayed on screen.  In essence it is the story of Luke, young orphan boy (Jasen Fisher) who while visiting an English hotel with his grandmother (Mai Zetterling), encounters a convention of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), and is transformed into a mouse.  Well, that's only a small part of the magically entrancing plot, which works on two levels:  scary cautionary tale for children, and wry satire of primordial, fear-of-the-other superstitions for adults. It was good fun and a superbly crafted film to boot.   ****

TROUBLE  (2017,  d. Theresa Rebeck)
A 50-something brother and sister (Bill Pullman and Anjelica Huston) are feuding over their inherited New England property in this family drama with farcical elements.  Despite a fine supporting cast, the script and direction never quite jelled for me...character motivations were suspect.  And worse, the interaction of the characters with the local police and the laws of property ownership rang false.   I kept rolling my eyes at the ridiculous plot mechanisms.  Too bad.  I liked the cast and wanted to like the film.   **

MR. LONG  (2017,  d.  Sabu)
A taciturn Taiwanese hit man (Chang Chen) was assigned a target in Tokyo by his triad gang boss.  When he failed to assassinate his victim, he went on the run, settling in a semi-deserted enclave populated by a friendly group of impoverished citizens (one small boy, in particular, whose Taiwanese mother was addicted to heroin.)  Needing money to return to Taiwan without his passport, and with the aid of his inventively capitalist neighbors, he started a surprisingly successful mobile noodle stand...at least until his past caught up with him.  That's the set-up for modern day samurai tale, a heartfelt thriller with comic elements.  The frequent bloodshed was stylized, and frankly a little unbelievable;  but I left the theater with a smile on my face.    ****

Fri. June 9  (festival)
SAY YOU WILL  (2017,  d. Nick Naveda)
The setting: the summer of 2006 in Orange County, CA. Sam, a sensitive loner, was in the process of graduating from high school, and spending one last summer working at a video store, before heading to a music college back East. His father had recently committed suicide; his mother was chronically depressed; he had an unrequited crush on a troubled girl from grammar school, and he busied himself composing songs of love and loss. That is the set-up for a well-observed, achingly authentic, coming-of-age film that was clearly semi-autobiographical. Novice film maker, writer-director Nick Naveda was able to draw some superb performances from his cast. Travis Tope and Katherine Hughes were ideally cast as the mismatched teen-age pair. And Michelle Forbes, gave a moving performance as Sam's bereaved mother (coincidentally Forbes played a meth-addicted mother in a film I watched yesterday, Columbus...she is apparently getting type cast as a troubled mom these days.) Even the subsidiary characters were immaculately cast: especially Israel Broussard in the quipster, formerly best friend role, and Sam Trammel as a different kind of father surrogate. The film could easily have gone off the rails into maudlin, teen film angst cliché territory. But Nevada's script played amazingly true-to-life, and was even inspiring...a fine debut effort anticipating more to come from this talented film maker.   ****

THE INLAND ROAD  (2017,  d. Jackie van Beek)
In this intimate New Zealand family drama, Gloria Popata plays Tia, a troubled 16-year old Maori runaway girl. In an effort to avoid spoilers, all I'm going to disclose is that Tia gets involved with two bereaved, white farming families; and with painfully slow steps involving Tia's inappropriate crush on married older men, she gradually comes of age. Like most films from New Zealand, the setting is beautiful. The family drama is well played (especially a blonde 6-year old girl actor, Georgia Spillane, who can't quite understand the death of her father); but I never quite was able to identify with Tia or the other characters; and the film lacked emotional resonance for me.  ***

KING'S CHOICE  (2017,  d.  Erik Poppe)
This was a large scale, involving war epic telling the story of the German 3-day invasion of Norway in April, 1940.  It was centered around the actions of the democratically elected Royal family as they coped, on the run, with the political situation of a parliamentary government in turmoil (for instance the eponymously quisling traitor Vidkun Quisling, who pronounced himself puppet Prime Minister; and the overmatched Norwegian army).  King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) was forced to meet with the German envoy who was directly representing the Fuhrer; and fateful decisions ensued.  The film effectively portrayed the King's heroic thoughts and actions; and while not being exactly a gung-ho patriotic movie; still it was an effective portrayal of actual history unfolding.   *** 1/2

ESCAPE ROOM  (2017,  d.  Will Wernick)
A set of over-privileged, whitebread L.A. millennials end a birthday celebration for one of their members by accepting an invitation to play in person a game that they found on the internet.   By using their intellect, they must within an hour escape from a locked room. However, it was not disclosed, nor did the group choose to ponder, the penalty for losing the game.  What ensued was a typical horror film in the mode of "Ten Little Indians" (one by one the characters expire.)  It was all ridiculously unmotivated; and the puzzles of the game seemed to be cheats, at best.  The film had fine cinematography and special effects; but the over-broad acting and poor sound recording detracted from the film's production values. 
And to cap it off, the characters were so unsympathetic in their hubris, that I found myself wishing that they would all die...the quicker the better.  * 1/2

Thur. June 8  (press + festival)
GOD'S OWN COUNTRY  (2017,  d. Francis Lee)
In this bleak, but hopeful gay themed drama, Johnny (Josh O'Connor) is a young man gradually taking over his elderly parents' sheep farm in the contemporary, hardscrabble Yorkshire, England countryside.  Johnny is attracted to men; but deeply closeted.   His infirm father (Ian Hart, convincingly lame)  hires a temporary worker, Gheorghe (attractive Alec Secareanu), a Romanian refugee who grew up on a similar farm in his own country.  When innocent horseplay between the young boss and worker suddenly suddenly turns sexual, the two young men commence on a serious and troubled secret affair.  This was an insightful coming-of-age story.  The relationship between the two men rang especially true...sort of a more enlightened version of <b><i>Brokeback Mountain</i></b>, romantic and yet masculine, without the complication of women and with a minimum of homophobia among family and neighbors.   The film was slow paced; but due to the the fine acting and assured direction from veteran actor Francis Lee making his directing debut, I was totally involved with these characters.    ****

SANTA & ANDRÉS  (2017,  d. Carlos Lechuga)
In 1980s era Cuba, dissident, homosexual writer Andrés (a genial performance by Eduardo Martinez) has been ostracized to a difficult life in the Oriente province, the impoverished easternmost part of the Island.  The local Communist leader has delegated a loyal woman, Santa (Lola Amores), to watch over Andrés and prevent him from contacting the foreign delegates from an international conference.  But Santa and Andrés gradually forge a friendship.  That is the basis of this off-center romance which discloses much about the status of people in rural Cuba under Castro.  The film is slow paced and has little overt action.  But it does successfully portray an unexpectedly humanistic side of the Cuba of that era.   ***

COLUMBUS  (2017,  d. Kogonada)
Columbus, Indiana (not Ohio, as I originally thought), is a small city with outsized modern architecture, including buildings by Eero Saarinen (who incidentally was the architect of Baker House, my famed dorm building at MIT.)  In this slow-to-develop, meditative character driven story  film, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, a fresh and radiant performance) is a young girl, spending her post-high school year as an intern in the local library in lieu of college, and a fan of the local architecture.    Her boss, a youthful MLA librarian amusingly played by yet another Culkin brother (in this case the youngest, Rory, possibly the most talented of all if he is ever given the right leading role) has an unrequited crush on Casey.  But she is more interested in the older, Korean intellectual Jin (John Chu), in town because his famous academic father has been hospitalized and on life support.  The ubiquitous Parker Posey also has a small supporting role.  I wanted to love this film; but honestly, the slow pacing and ambling plotlessness just never fully engaged me (I think I dozed off a few times, missing nothing, apparently).   ** 1/2

NOCTURAMA  (2017,  d.  Bertrand Bonello)
This disturbing, but gripping film tells the story of a group of young Parisian radicals, who plot and carry out a horrendous feat of domestic terrorism:  multiple murders and bombings around the city.  Their motivation is murky and not well defined...seemingly sheer nihilism; but the plot execution is shown in exhausting detail, which held me in thrall.  The group ends up hiding in a huge closed-for-the-night department store, where they variously interact and do their anti-materialistic thing.  The film is suspenseful, and there is a feeling of impending doom.  But as an audience member, I found myself surprisingly ambivalent about these young people who were acting out so destructively.  Maybe some of this had to do with the attractive cast of unfamiliar young French actors; but also, the assured direction and excellent, vivid steady-cam cinematography added to my involvement, despite the revolting violence portrayed.  *** 1/2

Wed. June 7  (press + festival)
AMERICAN FOLK  (2017,  d. David Heinz)
In this affecting road-trip movie, Elliott (played by previously non-actor Joe Purdy) was a professional folk-singer, on his way the morning of 9/11/2001 by plane from L.A. to N.Y to play a gig, when the plane was turned back and all air traffic grounded.  He had befriended his seatmate, Joni (Amber Rubarth), a youthful New Yorker on her way home to tend her sick mother; who then invited him to crash for the night at the Topanga Canyon house she had been staying at during her visit.  By happenstance, the owner of the house had been storing an old hippie van for a New York friend; and the two stranded travelers set off in the van on a cross country drive.  On the way Elliott learns that Joni was an accomplished singer herself; and they encounter a series of adventures that capsulized an America in transition, the drawing together of people in reaction to the events of 9/11.  The result is a tender, lovely film, soaked in the traditions of folk music...a film that had me enthralled and often in tears, following along internally with the familiar tunes the characters were singing along the way.  Of course, it just may be that I am the ideal, sentimental old codger that this film was designed to inspire.  But I think there was more to the film than that:  25 years later, it's time to look back on this traumatic event in retrospect, to reflect on the changes to our society, and to help heal the wounds of that time.  It's unfair to saddle a little American indie film with non-actors and no budget with such a heavy burden.  But this unassuming film rose to the occasion.  Watch for it.  You won't be disappointed.   **** 1/2

LADY MACBETH  (2017,  d. William Oldroyd)
In this austere English drama (which was definitely not based on Shakespeare's Scottish play), Katherine (a strong performance by Florence Pugh) was a young bride who had been sold by her father to a cruel, elderly 19th century country squire who had then forced her to marry his middle-age son who was, for unknown reasons, uninterested in bedding his bride.  In frustration, during her "husband's" absence, the sexually alluring maiden turned to the powerfully attractive gameskeeper (Cosmo Jarvis) for solace.  They commenced a torrid affair which led to...well, a typically bleak Gothic tragedy unfolded.  It was well acted; and the deserted, stark moors of rural England were suitably depicted.  I only wish I were able to relate to these characters and their situation.  But the relationships never caught fire for me; and the film seemed tedious and superficial.  ** 1/2

SHE'S THE BOSS (2017,  d. Ham Tran)
This Vietnamese farce takes place at a large Saigon bank corporation, where dating between employees is forbidden. When, due to a computer glitch, excess sums had been dispensed by the bank's ATMs to various people, the job of getting the money back was delegated to a female head of department who, incidentally, was having a secret affair with one of her underlings. The two lovers, in some pre-marriage pact, then engaged in a battle of the sexes type of contest to see who could restore more of the dispensed money faster. It was all done at a frenetic pace with shrieking and annoying over-acting throughout, in the worst tradition of Asian comedy style. I can safely say that I hated the film; but stuck it out to the predictable end simply because leaving would have required too much energy. However, I must admit that the brightly lit sets and surprisingly capitalistic message (coming from the People's Republic of Vietnam), gave the film a gloss that at times was hard to resist.  *

PARIS PRESTIGE  (2017,  d. Hamé Bourokba,  Ëkoué Labiley)
I stuck with this dark and turgid story of the Paris underworld of bars and nightlife for a half hour.  Since I was unable to relate to the characters or their situation by that point, I bailed (something I almost never do.)  W/O

Tues. June 6 (festival)
MAY GOD SAVE US  (2017,  Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
This Spanish policier takes place in Madrid, 2011.  Someone is raping and murdering old ladies.  Two detectives:  stuttering and competent Velarde (Antonio de la Torre) and tough cop with anger issues Alfaro (Roberto Alamo) discern that there is a serial killer on the loose, a man with a mother fixation.  The film raises a number of red-herrings on the complex and over-long trail leading to the perp...including territorial in-fighting among the police.  The film worked as a dark, yet involving police procedural, even though there was an annoying discontinuity in the chain of police work which led to the final resolution.  *** 1/2

WALLFLOWER  (2017,  d.  Jagger  Gravning)
At the start of this murky drama, we witness a horrifying act of domestic terrorism, as a man dressed in black and wearing an ammunition harness, and toting a shotgun and pistol, attacks and slaughters the partygoers at a Seattle house.  The film then flashes back 24 hours, to disclose that the killer was a psychologically wounded young man from Montana, a social misfit attending a rave where drugs and alcohol flowed freely.  He was invited to attend an after-party where he awkwardly encountered several young women and the stoned host.  However, after interminable, more or less embarrassing conversations, I still found the psychological motivation for the killing spree unfathomable and the bloodletting gratuitously gruesome and stomach churning.  One word for this film:  ugh!  *

KILLS ON WHEELS  (2017,  d. Attila Till)
Two disabled-from-birth youths and a former fireman, paralyzed from the hips down by an accident three years before, join together in a for-profit crime spree.  Or maybe not, since the two boys are busy drawing a comic book about their capers.  The Hungarian film combines action and comedy with social commentary about the disabled.  One gets to know and like these misfit characters (authentically disabled amateur actors) as they gad about town in their wheelchairs.  But there is a certain aura of unreality about their crimes...it all comes too easy.  Still, the characters and their hi-jinks were just too much fun for this viewer to resist. *** 1/2

Mon. June 5 (press + festival)
GOOK  (2017,  d. Justin Chon)
This involving B&W drama takes place on April 29, 1992 (a red-letter day in Los Angeles history: start of the Rodney King verdict based uprising (aka riots) in Paramount, CA, a minority enclave in South L.A. At the start of the film, Kamila is a precocious, pre-teen black girl living with her older brother, a resentful gang-member with anger issues. Kamila occasionally does part-time work for two Korean-American brothers (the "gooks" of the title, although I did learn that "gook" actually means "country" in Korean) who own a barely successful shoe-store...part of the Asian community of shop owners who were perceived by their neighbors at that particular time as exploiting the poorer minorities. As the riots grew in scope, the characters became embroiled in their various dramas, some horrifying, some hopeful, some tragic. [Personal note: I lived in L.A. at the time, and watched from the relative safety of my Hollywood Hills apartment the city burn below. For me, the film seemed particularly evocative and relevant.]  *** 1/2

IN THE RADIANT CITY  (2017,  d. Rachel Lambert)
Andy (Michael Abbott, Jr.) is a quietly morose, 30-something man who has returned after a 20 year absence to his small-town Kentucky birthplace.  Turns out he had been instrumental in the murder conviction of his older brother...in a fatal fire whose actual cause is shrouded in the mystery of scantily written flash-backs.  In the course of his arrival, Andy meets his delinquent teen-age niece, and eventually hooks up with his family:  sickly mother and resentful sister.  Issues of family, of disloyalty, of guilt come out as Andy confronts his repentant brother in prison.  It's all a little murky and slow, and maybe a tad too arty for my tastes.  But the fine acting makes up for a script which meanders and lacks a satisfactory resolution.   **

THE ORNITHOLOGIST  (2017,  d.  Joäo Pedro Rodrigues)
In this strangely mysterious drama from the controversial (but fascinating and gay) Portuguese director J. P. Rodrigues, Fernando (in a charismatic performance by Paul Hamy) was a gay ornithologist, studying the birds of present-day northern Portugal, navigating the rivers by kayak and camping solo in the neighboring jungle-like forest.  His kayak was wrecked, and he apparently drowned when he got caught in a series of river rapids.
[I'm going to go into SPOILER territory here to try to explain the film, so beware.]   After an interlude, he was resuscitated by a pair of Chinese lesbian pilgrims, who drugged and trussed him, preparing to torture him, until he managed to escape.    He then became involved with a series of misadventures, including a sexual tryst with a deaf-mute goatherd named Jesus.  Finally he was killed and, for some reason transformed into a dead man named Anthony (played by the director himself).  The film is steeped in Christian mythology, which was totally opaque to me until I was turned on to a Wikipedia page which totally explained the metaphorical background of the main character.  Here is the summary from that page, the knowledge of which made the entire film make sense:  "Saint Anthony of Padua (Portuguese: St. António de Lisboa), born Fernando Martins de Bulhões (1195 – 13 June 1231), also known as Anthony of Lisbon, was a Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order. He was born and raised by a wealthy family in Lisbon, Portugal, and died in Padua, Italy."  I hope that helps others who might have been as mystified as myself by the film despite really enjoying it.  *** 1/2

THE JOURNEY  (2017,  d. Nick Hamm)
In 2006, two powerful Northern Ireland politicians, life-long mortal enemies, had come together in Scotland under the guidance of British P.M. Tony Blair, in an effort to forge a lasting peace ending the terrible "troubles" which had plagued their country for decades.  That is the background for this scintillating historical drama that was both instructive and fantastically well written, acted and directed.  The two elderly men, Protestant reverend and faction leader Ian Paisley and Catholic "terrorist" leader Martin McGuiness were tricked into taking a supposedly unwitnessed auto trip together; and this film tells the (probably) fictionalized story of that fateful meeting.  This is inherently fascinating recent history (that was little known to me beforehand.)  But it is the powerful and incisive acting by the two principles (Timothy Spall in a career capping, Oscar deserving performance as Paisley; and Colm Meaney, no less deserving of an Oscar but not quite as imposing) that make the film so wonderfully memorable.  One hopes this inspiring film gets the release and success it deserves.  *****

Sun. June 4 (festival)
FERMENTED  (2017,  d. Jonathan Cianfrani)
This is a fun and informative foodie documentary about the process of fermentation and how it has permeated our preparation of such staples of food preparation as cheese, sourdough bread, salami, beer, kimchi, miso etc.  Korean-American author Edward Lee narrates the film on camera.  He travels around the U.S. and Japan to visit the most outstanding creators of each of the fermented offerings, committed people who explain their manufacturing processes with clarity and passion.  And it is all presented with enticingly beautiful cinematography.    I guess I had never given much thought before to the micro-organisms that cause fermentation...nor how many of the staples that we take for granted utilize the process.   *** 1/2

LANDLINE  (2017,  d. Gillian Robespierre)
This dysfunctional family dramedy was set in Manhattan in 1995.  The parents (sensitive performances by John Turturo and Edie Falco) are feeling the stress of relationship secrets.  But the film is really about their two daughters.  First up is twenty-something Dana (innately funny and identifiable Jenny Slade), engaged to Ben (an achingly sensitive performance by Jay Duplass), and feeling pre-wedding jitters.  And then there was potty-mouth, hi-school age younger sister, Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn, perfectly cast), who is living a secret life of sex, drugs and clubbing.  Director Robespierre does a fine job of delineating the characters from a particularly feminine perspective.  The film is quite entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.  And it does nail the 1990s era perfectly.    ****

SOUL ON A STRING  (2017,  d. Zhang Yang)
This is a contemporary Chinese epic steeped in Tibetan Buddhism.  It takes place in a gorgeous setting reminiscent of the American West, and follows a pilgrim as he sets out to deliver a sacred stone while being hunted down by a pair of brothers determined to settle an old family feud.  Or something like that.  To be truthful, I couldn't actually follow the story.  Characters who follow the pilgrim come and go, and it is hard to keep them all straight.  I was reminded in a way of Frodo's quest to deliver the ring;  and this film is a similar type of epic...one which managed against odds to draw me in.   It did prove that an entire film of incredible visual imagery could make up for a plot that I couldn't quite engage with.   ***

MY HAPPY FAMILY  (2017,  d. Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross)
50-something Manana is a high-school teacher, wife and mother living in her querulous, elderly parents' Tbilisi, Georgia apartment. The family situation is raucous and crowded; and, in an effort to assert her individuality and find inner peace, Manana (a gloriously transforming performance by Ia Shuglashvili) rents a decrepit, but promisingly open-air apartment to move into on her own...much to the surprise and disapproval of her family (the title "happy family" is decidedly ironic.) That is the set-up for a superbly made film about a woman's mid-life crisis. [Personally, having recently moved into an apartment alone after years of roommates and lodgers, I could totally relate to Manana's decision to seek the satisfaction of solitude.] As written and acted, this is a rare and truthful film about adults with real-world problems and grown-up solutions. **** 1/2

Sat.  June 3 (festival)
(2017,  d. Mani Haghighi)
This strange amalgam of mockumentary, thriller and supernatural mystery starts in 1965 on an island off the coast of Iran.  Three men (a police inspector, a geologist and a sound engineer) arrive at the desert site of an old shipwreck and cemetery to study the circumstances surrounding the death by hanging of a political prisoner.  Suicide or murder?  In any case, some of the investigators apparently were somehow disappeared along with other onlookers.  The film intercuts with sequences taking place 50 years later, when evidence from the past events come to light; and the film makers interview survivors.  That's about all I could glean from the story...since so much of the plot was shrouded in mysteries that I couldn't follow (localized earthquakes, weird creatures appearing as apparitions).  Nevertheless, the film was technically brilliant, with a superb sound track of music and recorded sound effects and gorgeous cinematography.  All I needed to high-rate this film was a glimmer of understanding of what was actually transpiring.  Alas... ***

IVAN  (2017,  d. Alyona Davydova)
The film opens with a little diminutive pre-teen girl named Tonya arriving by bus with her small Toto-like dog Tuzik at a backwater Russian town.  She encounters (by design?  happenstance?) an apathetic, irascible, middle-aged ambulance driver named Ivan, telling him that she has run away from her sick mother and abusive step-father.   The two bond for a short time in mutual sympathy.   This is a good example of the familiar genre of an old curmudgeon brought back to life by a small child, unforgettable done in the 1997 Oscar winning Czech film "Kolya."   This film isn't nearly as fine as that one; but the interaction between the two main characters (played by gruff Kirill Polukhin and clever-beyond-her-years Polina Gukhman) was innocently involving enough to sustain my interest.  ***

(2017,  d. Chloé Robichaud)
The tiny French speaking island nation of Besco lies off the coast of Labrador in the north Atlantic.  [SPOILER:  it's a fictitious country, ruled by a feminist Prime Minister (played by Macha Grenon); but so well described that I had to Google it to be certain that it wasn't a real gem of a nation nestled away in a corner of North America.]  The plot involves the contentious political gathering of a group of foreigners lobbying the Besco government for mining concessions, refereed by an American negotiator (played by one of my favorite actors from TV, Emily VanCamp.)  The political bickering is overshadowed by the personal interactions of the characters (including some hot sex scenes and lots of bar hopping.)  But in essence this is a biting geopolitical satire about the potential dominance of big countries and big industry over small, relatively powerless independent countries, blurring the boundaries between them.  I found the politics somewhat confusing; but the feminist oriented people story was involving enough to carry the film.  *** 1/2

Fri.  June 2  (festival)
(2017,  d.  Renars Vimba)
Raya is a 17-year old high school senior living, along with her younger brother Robis, with their grandmother in rural Latvia.  Her mother has emigrated to London, falling out of touch and leaving her two children in muddy near poverty.  When their grandmother dies, the children fend for themselves in secret, while Raya plots to go to London to find her mother (and incidentally has a surreptitious affair with her handsome English teacher.)  Raya is played by the beautiful young actress Elina Vaska; and she completely nails the role.  The film is an effective drama and coming-of-age story about a brave young girl and a scrappy kid facing and overcoming great odds.  *** 1/2

ON THE ROAD  (2017,  d. Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom returns to the music documentary genre with this intriguing hybrid (half-documentary, half fictitious love story) film.  Ostensibly, the film follows the English rock group Wolf-Alice on a lengthy tour of venues by boat and bus from Ireland through England, Scotland, Wales and culminating in a concert in London.  Although there are copious amounts of concert footage from the band and their opening act, the film concentrates on an affair between the young female photographer Estelle (Leah Harvey) and one of the roadies on the tour, Joe (James McArdle).  It was an interesting concept to combine reality with fiction; but honestly the love affair seemed superfluous.  On the other hand, the group Wolf-Alice (a foursome with a female lead singer-guitarist, a great drummer and two fine guitarists) really grew on me.  Their brand of sweet, hard rock reminded me of an earlier similar group "Jefferson Airplane".  The film comprehensively showed the ins-and-outs of modern day touring.  Perhaps it ran on too long; perhaps a little pruning of the many venues the band played in would have been an improvement.  Nevertheless, the film totally worked for me...simply because I fell in love with the band Wolf-Alice and their music, talent and personalities.  ****

FOOTNOTES  (2017,  d. Kostia Testut, Paul Calori)
This was a French musical about a young girl who, searching for a job, finds work in a provincial, high-end shoe factory which the management plans on shutting down and moving the manufacturing to China.  What ensues is a series of occasional song and dance numbers as the women of the factory go on strike; and the girl commences an affair with a hot truck driver.  In my humble opinion, the songs were terrible, the dance numbers poorly choreographed, and the story fairly ridiculous and cliché filled.   At a moment when the musical film genre is ripe for revival, this retrograde French effort was an unfortunate detour.   * 1/2

INFINITY BABY  (2017,  d. Bob Byington)
This B&W American indie comedy tells of a future company that has invented adorable human babies that never grow and need a minimum of care (weekly diapers, infrequent feeding etc.)  The film centers around three salesmen and their weirdly comic lives:  Kieran Culkin is a serial boyfriend, unable to commit to a relationship, who uses his carping mother (Megan Mullally) to rid himself of his cast offs.  Martin Starr and Kevin Corrigan are a gay couple who seriously consider adopting one of these babies to humorous effect.  It's all quite surreal and strange; but fortunately the fine cast and very short running time make this an off-beat satire worth watching.    ***

Thurs. June 1  (press screenings and festival)
(2017,  d. Mark & David Dodson)
[SPOILER]  This mocumentary (labeled on the IMDb as a documentary), purports to tell the shocking story of the undocumented conclusion of NASA's 1973 Apollo 18 mission (last one to land men on the moon.)  Using actors, simulations and "interviews" from "survivors" shot in 1998, a virtually unnoticed landing of the capsule in China and the death of two of the astronauts by neurotoxin exposure finally came to light.  The film production is done so flawlessly, the actors so convincing, that I assume many will leave the theater anxious to Google Apollo 18.  Bottom line:  good fun, but not a documentary!   *** 1/2

ZOOLOGY  (2017,  d. Ivan I. Tverdovsky)
This Russian film is a broad satire on modern life.  Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova) worked a supervisory job at a Crimean zoo, feeding and relating to the animals.  However, she somehow developed a massive tail descending from her spine, which she kept secret from her co-workers...but not from the physicians she visited for examination and hopefully a cure.  Surprisingly, her X-ray technician consultant turned out to have a fetish for women's tails.  Haha.  It was all done with deadpan seriousness; but ultimately the film, despite its metaphoric message (whatever that was, I was stumped) was just too strange and surreal for my tastes.    ** 1/2

THE HIPPOPOTAMUS  (2017,  John Jencks)
Ted Wallace (played with ascerbic brilliance by Roger Allam), was a blocked poet, who was hired by a girl dying from leukemia to find out if his teenage godson David had mysterious healing powers.  Anyway, that is the simplest introduction to the plot of this wonderfully witty film adapted from a 1994 novel by famed gadfly Stephen Fry.  The film takes place in the almost surrealistically sumptuous estate of wealthy industrialist Michael Logan (Matthew Modine), whose younger son (and his own father during WWII) supposedly had innate healing powers, laying-on of hands, so to speak.  For me, the sparkling dialogue and attractive cast made up for some script shortcomings (are rich and smart people that easily duped?)   Think "Gosford Park" recast as a modern day social satire.   ****

Wed. May 31 (festival)
(2017,  d.  Raymond Yip Wai Man)
In this foodie dramady, two young chefs with contrasting styles (Cantonese street food vs. Michelin 3-star French) battle for restaurant supremacy in their Hong Kong enclave.  A subplot involves winning one's absent father's admiration.  The film is done with maximum glitz:  gorgeous food wrangling in pristine kitchens, colorful sets from street scenes to high-gloss televised contests.  The story develops predictably; but on the way it is involving and fun to watch.  Warning:  if you are a fan of visually enticing food, don't watch this film hungry!  *** 1/4

FEATHER (Piuma)  (2017,  d. Roan Johnson)
Ferro and Cate are a youthful couple, whose schooling is jeopardized when Cate accidentally becomes  pregnant.  The dysfunctional families on both sides get involved as the film develops into a family comedy with farcical elements, covering the 9-months of Cate's pregnancy.  Turns out the baby is going to be a girl, whom the immature parents-to-be name Feather ("Piuma" in Italian.)  However, the central dilemma of the plot becomes what to do when the parents are too young to support a family.   At times the film degenerated into bickering farce, Italian style.  However, on balance, the film had some interesting and timely things to say about romance, love and relationships in modern day Italy (and life in general).  Incidentally,
Ferro was played by young Luigi Fedeli, in a frenetic performance that signaled a vital new presence in Italian cinema.  *** 1/2

Tues. May 30 (press screenings and festival)
LANE 1974  (2017,  d. SJ Chiro)
In this cautionary coming of age memoir, Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss) is the oldest of three girls, daughter of "Hallelujah," an ardently committed hippie woman circa 1974.  The family is surviving, more or less, in the rural countryside and seashore of the California Bay area.  While the irresponsible mother (a fervent performance by Katherine Moennig)  practices free love (separated from the girls' father), forbids sugary foods, and offers a potion of peyote to 13 year-old Lane, the young girl longs for a normal life.  For me, the film hit closely to home...I lived through the era and had close family involvement with the California hippie lifestyle (in some ways I went there myself for a while.)  The film was based on Clane Hayward's book telling of her early life with a counter-culture mom, obviously not a happy time for her.  As a film it is a bit ponderous and, in today's world, almost incomprehensible.  But I can attest that it evokes a reasonably accurate depiction of the hippie lifestyle from back then, not an insignificant achievement.   *** 1/4

AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL  (2017,  d. Rodrigo Grande)
In this fascinating heist thriller, the fine Argentine actor Leonardo Sbaraglia, plays Joaquin, wheelchair bound cripple and computer tinkerer.  One day he rents lodging in his large home to a single woman (Clara Lago) and her young daughter.  That same day he discovers that neighbors are digging a tunnel under his basement to rob a bank vault...a plot he is determined to stop.  The film cleverly develops a complex web of mayhem, danger and deceit from there.  This is enjoyable hokum...somehow all the pieces come together in the end despite the overly complicated plot that often defies belief.   ****

IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD  (2017,  d. Xavier Dolan) +
Second viewing of this Xavier Dolan family melodrama; and honestly I have to downgrade it a bit from my first experience.   Briefly, the film is based on a 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, telling the story of a 30-something man (handsome Gaspard Ulliel), who returns home after a long absence to (perhaps) disclose that he is dying of AIDS.  His family:  dotty (but canny) mom played by Nathalie Baye; contentious older brother (Vincent Cassel) and his meek wife (Marion Cotillard); and adoring younger sister (Léa Seydoux.)  In the claustrophobic confines of the family home, secrets and conflicts are exposed.  Dolan is one of my favorite directors, a true auteur of his films: writer, actor, director, musician.  This is his second adaptation of a theater piece written by another author (the first was "Tom at the Farm.")  And instead of conventionally opening up the confined space of the theater stage, Dolan goes the opposite route, shooting most of the film in extreme close-ups, taking advantage of his his great and skillful cast.  However, the ultimate effect is to stress the extreme talky and theatrical nature of the encounters, which become tiresome and overwrought.  Still, the very magnetism of the cast made up for much of the problems of Dolan's adaptation.  *** 1/2

Mon. May 29 (festival)
THE NET  (2017,  d. Kim Ki-duk)
Nam Chul-woo was a happily married North Korean fisherman with a young daughter, who one morning set sail in his small motorboat to tend his nets.  However, he was fishing in waters that separated South from North; and when the motor was accidentally snagged in his net, the boat drifted across the border, where Nam was interned by the South Korean authorities who were determined to expose him as a spy or, alternately, to make him defect to "freedom".  That was the starting point for this Kafkaesque political drama by the great Korean director Kim Ki-duk.  Nam was caught in a double bind of political cross-currents, leading to a heavily publicized international incident.  The script cleverly explicated the insanity of the Korean partition by both sides.  And actor Ryoo Seung-bum, who played Nam with exasperated passion, personified the dilemma of a person caught like a minnow in a metaphorical, geopolitical net.   **** 1/2

SEARCHERS  (2017,  d. Zacharias Kunak, Natar Ungalaaq)
In the frozen tundra of Northern Canada (apparently in the early 1900s), a set of rogue, unattached men attack a peaceful family while their men are out hunting caribou.  When the hunters return to their home, they found a scene of chaos:  their igloo ransacked, the grandfather and younger son murdered, and the wife and teenage daughter kidnapped.  The surviving father and older son set off by dog sled to rescue their loved ones.  That is the set-up for this snowbound revenge film, which resembled in a way such Westerns as John Ford's "The Searchers" (coincidence?), or a  hyper-violent Sam Peckenpah flick.  Director Kunak (who previously directed the extraordinary "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner") used a rudimentary filming style, featuring long shots of tiny people in vast white frozen spaces.  This isolating, documentary style may have fit the period and characters; however, because of this I had trouble throughout the film distinguishing the good characters from the bad.  The film worked somehow despite this; but the impact of the drama was lessened, at least for me. ***

THE ODYSSEY  (2017,  d. Jérôme Salle)
This big budget French biopic told the story of oceanographer and documentary film maker Jacques Cousteau and his family.  Lambert Wilson and Audrey Tautou played the Cousteau parents, who refitted a large boat they named the Calypso, and set off with their two young sons and a large crew to explore the ocean depths.  For the next 30 years, they made films and supported save-the-oceans environmental causes.  Their younger son, Philippe (another wonderful, charismatic performance by Pierre Niney) turned to aviation to abet his family's causes.  The film has large scope, with beautiful underwater sequences and an extended tour of the Cousteaus' pioneering excursion to Antarctica.  I'm old enough to have followed the Cousteaus'  filmed adventures on television; but the family's history of triumphs and hardships were new to me; and made for a fascinating and involving true life story.   ****

ENDLESS POETRY  (2017,  d. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
In this second of a series of filmed reminiscences, the great film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky recounts an impressionistic chapter of his life story as a young man growing up in Chile.  In typical Jodorowsky style, it is visually dazzling (with cinematography by Wong Kar-wai's fave Christopher Doyle) and maddeningly surrealistic. The director himself played the role of his older self talking to his younger self (played by his real-life son Adan). The young man was in revolt against his bourgeois father and determined to live his life as a poet, until he escaped from Chile entirely to leave for Paris and the future. For me, despite my adoration of Jodorowsky for his previous films (especially El Topo), the current film seemed a tad self-indulgent. But the director's fabulous and original visual sensibility remains intact; and I couldn't help myself from feeling a sense of awe at his artistry.***

Sun. May 28  (festival)
SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS  (2017,  d. Philippa Lowthorpe)
In the innocent era of 1930s England, a mom (Kelly Macdonald) whose husband is away at sea for the summer, vacations to the Lake Country with her brood of five cute-as-the-dickens kids.  The older four of the children are allowed to go on a boating excursion by themselves to a small island in the middle of the local lake, where they encounter a couple of local girls with which they enjoy a mock pirate battle (their boat "Swallow" vs. the girls' tribe "Amazons").   In the meantime, the girls' uncle (Rafe Spall) is a travel writer involved somehow in a real Russian spy story.  Some non-threatening mayhem ensues.  The story is adapted from a contemporary children's adventure book, sort of a more realistic "Narnia" without the fantasy element.  As such it makes little real-world sense; but it's all in good fun, although perhaps a little too complicated for young children.  The fine production values and beautiful scenery almost make up for the unrealistic plot, which, frankly, is full of continuity holes big enough to drive a train through.  ***

BOY TROUBLE (shorts)  (2017,  d.  various)
7 short films with gay or cross dressing themes.  6 ranged from poor to fair;  and one was adequate.  Very disappointing programming. 

PERSON TO PERSON (2017,  d. Dustin Guy Defa)
Four stories of contemporary New York city life are intercut to good effect in this sprawling, mumblecore-ish film.  In the main story, an insecure NY News reporter (Michael Cera) is following a possible murder story with his female intern (Abbi Jacobson).  In the course of their investigation they encounter an elderly watch repairer (Philip Baker Hall), whose friends serve as an observing chorus of sorts.  In parallel stories, which never quite intersect, a record collector is ripped off trying to buy a rare Charlie Parker jazz LP; and a proto-lesbian girl (an interestingly original characterization by Tavi Gavinson), explores her fluid sexuality by experimenting with her best friend's boyfriend's best friend.  In the fine tradition of mumblecore, all of this is shot seemingly ad hoc on 16mm film, with only the fine, realistic performances and frenetic pacing to hold one's interest.  It held mine; but I have a predilection for the genre.  Your mileage may vary.  *** 1/2

Sat. May 27 (festival)
DEAN  (2017,  d. Demetri Martin)
Dean is a morose young man, obsessively grieving for his recently passed mother. As played by the familiar stand-up comedian Demetri Martin (who also wrote and directed, a true hyphenate), Dean wears his heart on his sleeve. He makes a living drawing simple line cartoons, with witty, unexpected punch lines; but recently his artwork has been filled with humorous references to the Grim Reaper. His relationship with his father (sympathetically played by Kevin Kline) is strained. And he suddenly leaves his Brooklyn home to visit L.A. where he is gradually drawn out of his funk by a perky, meet-cute girl (Gillian Jacobs.) The film often was clever and amusing; but the humor was just a tad too downbeat for my tastes; and Martin's satire of the L.A. lifestyle (my home turf) didn't quite work for me.  ***

150 MILLIGRAMS  (2017,  d. Emmanuelle Bercot)
Irène Fanchon was a real-life pulmonologist doctor working in a teaching hospital in the provincial Breton city of Brest, France.  In 2010 she noticed a suspicious series of deaths from diabetic patients using a medicine sold by a huge French pharmaceutical company.  As played by Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, Fanchon was an obsessive, often overly antic voice for her patients in the face of the entrenched health bureaucracy and big pharma.  In her years long fight to get the medicine banned she was aided by a much more cautious fellow doctor (Benôit Magimel, getting heavy in mid-career).  This is an example of a typical "whistleblower" film with a heartfelt and important message that was almost ruined by a script which is both too complex to follow and too lengthy to keep one's interest.  ** 1/2

Fri. May 26  (festival)
BLACK CODE  (2017,  d. Nicholas de Pencier)
This documentary offered several examples of the power of the internet, both to foment popular protests and aid government authorities by spying on and thus controlling the populace The film was based on the lectures of Canadian political science professor Ronald Deibert and his organization "The Citizen Lab." Deibert admires Edward Snowdon's whistleblowing contributions...and the film made use of Snowdon's webcasts to press its point. But the heart of the film were illustrative examples of protests and repression in Tibet, Syria and Brazil. Especially the latter, where an organization called "Media Ninjas" used live streaming phones to record protests and injustices. One extraordinarily edited sequence from a riot in Rio that involved a Molotov cocktail explosion that killed a policeman proved that the state was prosecuting an innocent man by stringing together phone videos from many sources. However, this sequence was an exception. With all the best intentions, the film was poorly structured and sequenced, so that the overall message was lost in tedious repetition.  ***

PROM KING 2010  (2017,  d. Christopher Schaap)
In this modern, gay slice-of-life romantic drama, Charlie is a college student living in New York City.  He's mostly out to friends and family (his mother is particularly supportive); but he's dissatisfied with his sex life...longing 1) to finally experience as a bottom "real" sex;  and 2)  to find true love rather than casual hook-ups.  What ensues is a series of encounters with various men that mostly end in disaster.  That's about it for plot.  However, the film was written and directed by young Christopher Schaap, who also was in every scene playing the central character of Charlie.  And Schaap is the real deal:  a gay auteur making the most auspicious debut since Xavier Dolan burst onto the scene as an 18-year old wunderkind.   Shaap's script is clever and filled with realistic anecdotes that resonate.  He's a personable film presence as an actor who nails the character's naive longing and innate good nature.  His direction is assured, with high production values including vivid cinematography from Aharon Rothschild that capture New York as clearly as an old Woody Allen flick.  The casting of Charlie's friends and boyfriends and family is inspired.  For me, at least, this is the find of the festival so far.  I'm really looking forward to see where Schaap goes from here as a film maker as he branches out from the personal navel gazing of this debut effort.  I predict a bright future.  **** 1/2

TOM OF FINLAND  (2017,  d. Dome Karukoski)
This biopic follows the life of Touko Laaksonen, who became world famous as the artist Tom of Finland. Tom drew realistic sketches of leather men with huge dicks, built bodies and fetching demeanors that were published in physique magazines and picture books during the era from the 1960s until the artist's death in 1991. His art filled the imagination of generations of gay men (including myself.) The real Touko was a soldier in WWII, a victim of gay persecution in the repressive 1950s in Finland, and finally, after his art was recognized and published in America, he became a revered celebrity. Pekka Strang played Touko with a convincing dispassion. He was surrounded by a series of good-looking men (I was particularly enamored by Lauri Tilkanen who played Tom's ill-fated long time lover, Veli.) The film progressed as a typical biopic; but it had the scope of a large production; and just based on my interest in the subject matter held my interest throughout.  *** 1/2

Thurs. May 25 (press screenings and festival)
ROBERTO BOLLO -  THE ART OF THE DANCE  (2017,  D. Francesca Pedroni)

Roberto Bolle is an Italian ballet dancer, star of the La Scala opera in Milan and currently with the American Ballet Theater. This documentary follows Bolle as he leads a troupe of fellow ballet dancers in performances taking place in 2014 in three historic Italian monuments: Pompeii, the Caracalla baths, and in Verona. The film intercuts interviews with Bolle (a strikingly handsome, tall, perfectly sculptured dancer) with scenes from some ballet performances both in rehearsal and in performance. Among them were a gorgeous pas de deux of the balcony scene from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, performed in a huge Veronese monument complete with stone balcony. But one number, Opus 100, for Maurice, featuring two men dancing to Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" was so beautiful that it brought me to tears. The dance sequences were wonderfully edited, often combining two or more performances to show how intricate and exact the respective choreographies were. However, for all the beauty of each individual number, the film seemed overlong and repetitive...and the interview scenes perfunctory and not very revealing. Yet, for all these structural flaws, the high points were so amazing, the dancing so skilled and beautiful, that I was entranced.   ****

BECOMING WHO I WAS  (2017,  d. Moon Chang-yong,  Jin Jeon)
This documentary follows young Angdu Padma from age 4, when he was recognized as the "Rinpoche," reincarnation of a holy Tibetan lama, to age 13 today. The boy grew up in the mountains of Northern India, far from his politically unreachable Tibetan monastery and putative disciples...cared for by an elderly acolyte, reviled by some as a false Rinpoche, expelled from his local Buddhist temple. The film becomes a road trip as Angdu and his teacher make the dangerous trek to achieve his destiny in Tibet. The film has some beautiful scenery; and Angdu's story is touching and at times affecting.   *** 1/2

SMALL TOWN KILLERS  (2017,  d. Ole Borndal)
In a Danish version of Dumb and Dumber, Ulrich Thomsen and Nicolas Bro play two weaselly crooked contractors who are sexually frustrated in their relationships with their wives. In a drunken moment they hire a Russian hitman to off their spouses...while the equally frustrated women hire an English nanny hitwoman to in turn off their husbands. That is the set-up for this over-the-top farce which brings new lows (or highs, depending on one's point of view) to the "battle of the sexes." It's all clever and funny, and ultimately predictable. The audience ate it up.  *** 1/2

Wed. May 24 (press screenings and festival.)
THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE IS  (2017,  d. Max Croci)
This Italian romantic farce tells the story of Dora (Ambra Angiolini), whose seven year relationship with Davide has ended, leaving her with two adorable young children. Into the mix are the two meddlesome grandmothers and a free spirit male neighbor who takes on the role of baby sitter. The film tries too hard to be witty and insightful about love and relationships. However, the bottom line for me was that it just came off as silly and frivolous.  **

COME, TOGETHER  (2017,  d. Dong-il Shin)
In this bittersweet, social commentary drama, the Parks are a middle class Korean family beset with problems.   The husband is laid off from his long-term desk job, the wife is barely hanging on to her job as a credit card salesman, and their daughter is sweating out the waiting list for college admission.  The film follows these three characters as they desperately (and mostly unsuccessfully) try to cope.  It was an inventive script, insightful in its examination of present day Korean society.  If at times the events stretched credulity, at least they were usually amusing, like watching a train wreck...chaotic, but hard to look away.   Bottom line:  the film fulfills the adage:  "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade."   *** 1/2

THE BLOOM OF YESTERDAY   (2017,  d. Chris Kraus)
Toto is a historian, an author specializing in the Holocaust...perhaps motivated by guilt over his Nazi butcher of a grandfather. As played by the nimble German actor Lars Eidinger, he was supposed to be planning a Holocaust retrospective conference, while personally he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Into his orbit was thrust a young Jewish scholar, Zazie, to be his intern...a girl scarred by the history of her own grandmother killed in Latvia during the war. She was played by the wonderful French actress Adèle Haenel whom I had just seen and admired playing the young doctor in the Dardenne brothers' film The Unknown Girl. Sparks fly between the two protagonists as they travel to Latvia to examine a suspected fatal confrontation between their respective grandparents. The film developed as a kind of screwball romantic comedy in the midst of a serious examination of the present day consequences of the Holocaust. It all worked for me, both the central relationship and the intriguing background of their research.  ****

ENTANGLEMENT  (2017,  d. Jason James)
Thomas Middleditch (star of the HBO series "Silicon Valley" and ubiquitous Verizon commercials spokesman) plays Ben, a hapless wreck of a man after a divorce and five aborted suicide tries.  In a series of miscommunications, Ben gets in contact with a girl who might have been his big sister in an alternate life (played by perky Jess Weixler, familiar as Robyn on "The Good Wife.")  There were elements of fantasy in the story that for me were a give-away of some plot surprises.  And, although the film started as a reasonably entertaining romantic dramedy, by the ending it just felt trivial, like the narrative was a cheat.   ** 1/2

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 cynical and too convoluted to fully 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, THE  (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)
(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.)
(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