I Do . . . Until I Don’t (Lake Bell, 2017)

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Lake Bell’s comedy I Do . . . Until I Don’t opens with a God’s eye view of a funeral. Mourners hold oddly colorful umbrellas while a drizzle falls and, in voice-over, a woman with an English accent intones a jeremiad against the “‘til death do us part” prison of marriage. There are several visual and thematic cinematic nods here, from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Four Weddings and a Funeral to, winkingly, Bell’s own In a World . . . (2013), a film about a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of voice-over narration. The tone of I Do . . ., however, is different from any of these—at least at first. Among the funeral-goers are Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a married couple who spend most of their time sniping at each other about petty grievances. They are soon to be among the subjects of a documentary by filmmaker Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), whose voice we heard over the opening shot. Prudeck is determined to expose what she sees as the bankruptcy of the institution of marriage by filming unhappy married couples and contrasting them with one happy unmarried couple in an open relationship. And so, as the film gets underway, we watch married people take potshots at each other, make brittle wisecracks at each other’s expense, lie to each other, and generally prove Prudeck’s thesis. We will have to wait for anything like the joy, warmth, or melancholy of Cherbourg or Four Weddings—or even the oddball wit of In a World . . .—until after Vivian’s monomania has nearly wrecked several relationships. Fortunately, the payoff is worth the wait.

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Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)

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Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework. Continue reading

But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

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Equal parts love story, social satire, and broad teen sex comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader has had an enthusiastic following among the LGBTQ+ set (and others) for almost two decades. It’s easy to see why: the actors are full of sweetly winning charm, the satire (of “reparative therapy” camps) is pointed and richly earned, and the story arc is mercifully non-tragic—a rarity for the longest time in queer cinema. For those of us who came of age with mopey, lugubrious lesbian love stories like Desert Hearts (1985), Claire of the Moon (1992), and High Art (1998), it’s impossible to overstate what a blast of fresh air this film was when it first arrived in theaters. (Even today, in fact, a quick Google search of “lesbian movies” gets you hits like “Why are all lesbian movies sad?” and “17 Awesome Lesbian Movies Where No One Dies at the End.”) As we revisit But I’m a Cheerleader well into the new millennium, the film feels every bit as fresh, funny, fun, and necessary as it did when it first came out.

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Friday June 9 – Thursday June 15

Featured Film:

The Seattle International Film Festival, Part Four

The never-ending festival finally ends this weekend, as SIFF 2017 comes to a close with a handful of anticipated films, including Nocturama, Mr. Long, A Ghost Story, The Door, Gook, The Feels, and archival presentations of The Witches and Taste of Cherry. Last week, we reviewed Columbus, Have a Nice Day, The Little Hours, Landline, Wind River, and The Dumb Girl of Portici. We’ll have more reviews in the coming week, along with another episode of The Frances Farmer Show.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

3 Idiotas (Carlos Bolado) Fri-Thurs
Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) Fri-Thurs

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Carlos Bolado) Thurs Only Remixed with DJ NicFit performing a decades-spanning all-Bowie score!

Central Cinema:

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) Fri-Tues
Tommy Boy (Peter Segal, 1995) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Century Federal Way:

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

Grand Cinema:

Obit (Vanessa Gould) Fri-Thurs
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs) Fri-Thurs
Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) Fri-Thurs
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920) Fri Only
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Sat Only
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi) Mon Only Our Review
Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere) Tues Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Survivalist (Stephen Fingleton) Fri-Thurs
Resist, Rebel, Survive (Various) Tues Only

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola) Fri-Thurs
Ami Tumi (Mohan Krishna Indraganti) Fri-Thurs
Raabta (Dinesh Vijan) Fri-Thurs
The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage
Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

Regal Meridian:

God of War (Gordon Chan) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Didi’s Dreams (Kevin Tsai) Fri-Thurs
Sachin: A Billion Dreams (James Erskine) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Violet (Bas Devos) Fri-Sun
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (Maura Axelrod) Fri-Sun Only
The Maury Island Incident (Scott Schaefer) Sun Only Filmmakers in Attendance
The Short Films of Toshio Matsumoto Weds, Thurs & Next Sun Only
Last Men in Aleppo (Feras Fayyad) Starts Thurs
Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969) Starts Thurs

AMC Oak Tree:

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar) Fri-Thurs

AMC Pacific Place:

Beautiful Accident (Wi Ding Ho) Fri-Thurs
Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola) Fri-Thurs
The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Lowriders (Ricardo de Montreuil) Fri-Thurs
Raabta (Dinesh Vijan) Fri-Thurs
Hindi Medium (Saket Chaudhary) Fri-Thurs
3 Idiotas (Carlos Bolado) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

Middle Man (Ned Crowley) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Film Center:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

SIFF Uptown:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Varsity Theatre:

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) Fri-Thurs Our Review Our Podcast
Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

In Wide Release:

Alien Covenant (Ridley Scott) Our Review
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (James Gunn) Our Review

SIFF 2017: The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

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Few things wipe the sleep away from bleary festival eyes quite like a retrospective screening which, regardless of provenance or even quality, helps to restore the cinematic senses. Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece awaiting rediscovery, but even in the context of revival screenings it’s a bit of rarity: pre-20s cinema mostly lives on the small screen these days. See Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers blu ray set for a recent and relevant example of the curatorial work being done in the home video format, even as streaming continues its march towards total domination. Lois Weber is well-represented in that set, and by programming The Dumb Girl of Portici (which Flicker Alley did not include) SIFF takes part in the same push to move women’s contributions to early cinema from the historical footnotes, where they’ve frequently been resigned, and into the mainstream canon. If it accomplishes nothing else, The Dumb Girl of Portici at least testifies to the clout and studio resources Weber had accrued by the mid-teens, less than a full decade into her career.

Though more than studio scale (it was something of a mega-production), it’s Weber’s stylistic coups that count. The film opens with a little cinema-of-attractions amuse bouche: ballerina turned temporary movie star Anna Pavlova floats onto the screen in dissolve, dancing against the void. Abstraction soon gives way to rather banal plotting. Something about a nobleman donning oppressed peasant clothing and making nice with the eponymous mute. I imagine this felt as rote in 1916 as it does today, though Weber finds flourishes: choreographed dances that prefigure, in primitive form, the geometric patterns of golden age musicals or the cascade of energy unleashed when the vox populi storm the castle perched above their beachside hovels. These crowd scenes in particular serve Weber’s skills well; she has a proto-Langian eye for the way that mobs move as if controlled by a single nervous system and the late film revolt ignites her visual sense. She hacks away at the proscenium staging by hurtling her camera down diagonal axes, typically against the movement of the players. The effect, coming so suddenly after an hour of flat planes, is practically three dimensional. Another dance closes the film, again manipulated with optical printing, though instead of a black vacuum Weber superimposes Pavlova dancing over a series of backlit clouds, Maya Deren’s spirit born a few decades early. As a whole it’s inarguably minor. As festival fatigue sets in, the buried treasures contained within are more than enough.

SIFF 2017: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017)

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

Abstracted images of abs and biceps open Beach Rats, appearing to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. The body is Frankie’s, a closeted teenager whose father dies outside his bedroom while his attraction to virile middle-aged men awakens. Director Eliza Hittman mingles thanatos and eros, ethnography and moralism unproductively, aiming for balance but arriving at regressive parallelism. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan (Robin Lung, 2016)

Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott

Finding Kukan, a feature film debut from Robin Lung, is a documentary that tells the story of one of the first documentaries to win an Academy Award, Kukan: The Battle Cry of China (1941). Positioned in China and operating from a Chinese perspective, a perspective unknown to most white Americans at the time, Kukan aimed at documenting the Chinese experience of World War II and was noted on its initial release for its stunning ground level footage of the devastating bombing of Chungking (now Chongqing). Photojournalist Rey Scott received the Oscar for the film -“For his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions” – but Lung, as she tells us in her documentary, discovered another person central to the creation of Kukan, a person who had gone essentially overlooked: a Chinese-American woman named Li Ling-Ai.

Li Ling-Ai is credited only as “technical advisor” to Kukan, but, as Lung discovers from a 1993 TV interview, Li Ling-Ai seemed to regard the film as her own, a story she herself, not Rey Scott, needed to tell: “I wanted to tell the story of China, the battle cry of the people of China, heroic under suffering.” It’s a curious way to speak about a film for which one is only “technical advisor.” Was she, in fact, more than the technical advisor?

For Lung, the mystery of Li Ling-Ai’s involvement demanded solving, and it set her on what would be a seven year journey. The content of Kukan, Lung quickly found, too, promised to be, in itself, extraordinary, and its print history made the content all the more tantalizing, for, as documentary curator Ed Carter notes, it is the only academy award winning documentary without an extant print. Consequently, Lung’s film and the search her film documents is guided by two questions: 1) who is Li Ling-Ai and why is she so little known, and 2) is there, in fact, some surviving print of Kukan yet to be discovered that might be restored and shown to the world?   Continue reading

SIFF 2017: By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016)

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

Boundaries are under attack in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thailand. The 1976 Thammasat University massacre infiltrates past and present, people and personhood, eating away at the tissue that divides. What’s left over is anyone’s guess: By the Time It Gets Dark shape-shifts into a unclassifiable design, the root contagion ultimately wreaking havoc beyond Suwichakornpong’s control. A kaleidoscopic final shot throws acid, though it seems that the film might spore on, finding forms both banal and beautiful forever.

SIFF 2017: Chronicles of Hari ( Ananya Kasaravalli, 2016)

The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.

These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.

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Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.

This is the first film of  Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?

 

SIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

Outsider status in gymnI long for the land that isn’t
For all that is I’m tired of wanting

Sami Blood, Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice: “Mom?” More knocking. The same voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice. It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman, turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

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In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and even shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, away from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin. Continue reading