The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2016)

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Sensation in film is, by definition, an event that is difficult to describe. It privileges the experience of watching, of holistically observing sight and sound work in tandem to produce something nearly indescribable. Such an concept is placed front and center in The Ornithologist, a remarkable, subtly shape-shifting film by Portugese director João Pedro Rodrigues. By turns raucous, menacing, gorgeous, and haunting, the movie is never less than throughly engrossing, moving through its surreal logic with a confidence and daring, the likes of which have been sorely missed from Seattle screens this year.

As might be expected, The Ornithologist follows the eponymous birdwatcher Fernando (Paul Hamy) as he explores a mysterious, possibly haunted forest after his kayak is destroyed by rapids. Through his perilous, somewhat meandering attempts to return to civilization, he encounters various denizens and transients, along with increasingly supernatural and surreal experiences. Impressively, this roster begins with a pair of lesbian Chinese Christian hikers, who first rescue him from the waters and then tie him up with rope and sadistic intentions, and only becomes stranger from there, including a motley cast of possible costumed cult members, bare-breasted hunters on horseback, and of course, many birds, some of which assume a strange symbolic importance.

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Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

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There is something to be said for the recent resurgence of a certain brand of flair in the more independently-minded multiplex films. Whether for good (Don’t Breathe) or ill (La La Land), it is refreshing to see an assertion of directorial style in films made close to the auspices of the studio system, which lends a breath of fresh air to even the most seemingly concrete and inflexible of stock scenarios.

Into this climate comes Edgar Wright, the celebrated English writer-director who, with Baby Driver, makes his American and action film debut. This is not to say that this is entirely unprecedented territory for Wright; he was originally slated to helm the United States-set Marvel’s Ant-Man before he left due to creative differences, and his 2007 film Hot Fuzz contains a substantial amount of suitably frenetic bouts of action. But there is a very different vibe and feeling at work in Wright’s latest film, something that uses the same objects of both homage and derision for something more straightforward and cool, if not altogether serious. Baby Driver is consequently both livened up and slightly weighed down by its influences, which include, among many others, The Driver, Thief, and Bottle Rocket. But they are all connected by Wright’s deft, wonderfully unsubtle touch, all beat-heavy music, tight edits, nicely executed earphone gags, and abundance of feeling.

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Questions of Innovation [THE BIG SICK & A GHOST STORY]

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Just past the halfway mark of this year of 2017, it should be apparent to any attentive observer that, at best, this theatrical release year has been subpar, and at worst it appears to be the worst year for film (not to mention the United States) in living memory. Though I won’t come close to claiming that I’ve seen anywhere near every major release – I have not, for example, seen either Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver or Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, among other presumably worthy titles – there has been a shocking dearth of any wholly satisfying films. Whether it be the usual batch of disappointingly overrated superhero films (Logan, Wonder Woman), a number of fascinating if flawed works from noted auteurs (Personal Shopper, The Beguiled, Staying Vertical), or other sundry curios (Get Out, Your Name, By the Time It Gets Dark), it is somewhat dismaying that my favorite film from this year still remains the admittedly stellar Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. This isn’t to say that certain films haven’t been very good, and I do greatly enjoy a more than a few of the films I just named, but when David Lynch is showing up the entirety of the theatrical selections every week on Showtime with Twin Peaks: The Return, there is more than a little cause for alarm.

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The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

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Respectability, at least in the conventional cultural sense, is a slightly odd fit when discussing the idiosyncratic oeuvre of Sofia Coppola. After her breakthrough works, The Virgin Suicides and the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, Coppola has increasingly moved along her own particular path, making films about well-off disillusioned youth in such disparate locales as 18th-century France (Marie Antoinette), modern Hollywood (Somewhere, The Bling Ring), and the Upper East Side (A Very Murray Christmas). In light of these works, The Beguiled may seem like a departure for the well-acclaimed auteur, who added a Best Director prize at Cannes this year to her not-inconsiderable collection. But the film is very much hers, albeit in a much different vein than before.

For starters, it is a remake, in this case of the 1971 film by the same name directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, which itself was based off the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan. The fertile premise, which Coppola’s version follows faithfully, is set during the latter half of the Civil War and involves a wounded Union soldier (John, played by Colin Farrell) who is found and taken care of by a Christian all-girls school in Virginia. Slowly, he begins to forge connections, some of which involve lust, with practically every remaining occupant of the school, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), student Alicia (Elle Fanning), and headmistress/matriarch Martha (Nicole Kidman).

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SIFF 2017: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016)

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Like a not-so-metaphorical bomb, one of the only truly exceptional films that played at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival landed in the final weekend. That film was Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, the controversial and highly touted “thriller” (for lack of a better term) about a group of young terrorists who plan and execute a highly coordinated series of bombings around the City of Light. Bonello more or less eschews a concrete and obvious stab at relevancy – the group’s ideology is almost totally ambiguous, save for a likely anti-capitalist bent – in favor of something much more oblique, frightening, and ultimately powerful.

Bonello, who came to prominence for his acclaimed films House of Tolerance (2011) and Saint Laurent (2014), continues his penchant for stylish and meticulous direction, choreographing both the actual terrorist acts and the second half, a long unraveling of both team and sanity in a massive, labyrinthine department store, with the utmost precision. His Steadicam shots have a genuine sense of motion, snaking through subways and seemingly infinite hallways and watching intently for the slightest change in expression on a character’s face. These faces are key in a way; built from a group of relatively new actors, the diverse ensemble has a freshness and uncertainty about them that fits spectacularly well with the ambiguity about their personas and motives, even being conflated with store mannequins at several points. Nocturama has, as might be expected, a certain sort of cold-blooded brutality to it, but it also has vitality, driven forward relentlessly by a pulsing soundtrack and the vividly clear vision of Bonello.

SIFF 2017: A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Kudos to David Lowery for attempting to introduce fairly mainstream audiences to Weerasethakul, Tsai, Hou, etc. Unfortunately, his coopting of the slow cinema aesthetic has some of the outlines, especially when it comes to the picturesque settings and highly muted performances, but very little of the feeling and passion behind the great works of that style. Well-mounted and occasionally rather involving, A Ghost Story nevertheless ends up with a muddled, unclear sense of purpose.

SIFF 2017: Gook (Justin Chon, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Centering on the first day of the Rodney King riots in LA, Gook turns its eye to an underseen perspective on that monumental event: the Korean-American shop owners. The riot is used mostly as a backdrop to a small-scale story of familial bonds, a feint which works for better and worse. Writer-director-star Chon excels in the more comedic and subdued moments, but his film seems to escape his grasp in the self-consciously “lyrical” moments.

SIFF 2017: I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The unexpected recipient of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes, I, Daniel Blake is a shotgun marriage of the social critique and character study. It is an often funny, sometimes touching, occasionally intensely preachy affair, following the eponymous character and a young single mother caught in a catch-22 relating to the government’s healthcare benefits. The film finds its footing in the little, earnest interactions, while stumbling somewhat with the larger issues at stake.

SIFF 2017: Ma’ Rosa (Brillante Mendoza, 2016)

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Amid the kerfuffle over the generally baffling awards given by the jury headed by George Miller at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, a fair bit of attention was paid to the award for Best Actress, which was given to Jaclyn Jose, the ostensible lead of Ma’ Rosa, the film directed by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. This arose for relatively transparent reasons: among the unusually crowded field vying for the award were a plentitude of truly astonishing performances from the likes of Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Sonia Braga (Aquarius), Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), Adele Haenel (The Unknown Girl), and Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden), all of which were films that ultimately went home empty-handed. Of course, tearing down a film based on what it beat for fairly ephemeral awards is usually unfair, provided of course that said film is worthwhile in its own right.

Unfortunately, Ma’ Rosa is something less than a mixed bag, although there are certain elements that transfix in a way that the whole is unable to sustain. Mendoza’s film concerns itself with a family which owns a convenience store in the depths of Manila headed by the eponymous matriarch, who acts as a third-level crystal meth dealer. Early in the film, she and her husband are arrested for drug dealing on an anonymous tip by clearly corrupt cops, who take them to a back-alley police station and proceed to offer deals to let the couple go. They are forced to first give up their immediate superior and then raise 50,000 pesos ($1000 in US money), a task which is delegated to their three teenage children roughly halfway through the film. They each adopt different tactics, some more drastic than others: begging relatives and friends, selling household items, and even (in the case of the teenage son) prostituting themselves for ambiguous reasons.

Ma’ Rosa takes place in this highly compressed span of roughly 24 hours, which in this instance seems to act more as a stumbling block than anything else. Mendoza and company’s characterization of these people ultimately feels paper-thin, existing more as cogs in the machine that drives what is apparently a hellhole of a city. For her part, Jose appears in what feels like little more than half of the film, and her presence is only slightly less flattened than the rest of the cast.

An additional issue is the frankly ugly cinematography, which almost looks as if it hadn’t been color-corrected at all. This clearly digital look occasionally produces some striking effects, but otherwise is headache-inducing, as the camera careens through crowds and relentlessly tracks one anonymous figure after another.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a slight bit of pathos and interest to be found in Mendoza’s journey through hell. Such single-minded focus, however misguided and unintentionally voyeuristic it feels at times, has a certain amount of merit, and when Mendoza settles down completely (notably in the final scene) something deeper than the surface instinct to survive is conjured. These moments are few and far between, buried among the muddy characterizations and even muddier camerawork, but they are there. Whether that is enough is difficult to judge.

SIFF 2017: Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

A self-consciously NYC network movie, Person to Person follows five loosely tied plot strands over the course of a single day in the Big Apple. Whether it be a crime investigation, a moment of self-discovery, or the chase for a rare vinyl, Defa manages to find the sweet and lovely in every close-up and every little character moment, precisely jumping around in a characteristically lived-in city. It’s clear-eyed and wonderfully executed with gentle precision.