The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

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In her excellent history entitled Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, film scholar Karen Ward Mahar presents a startling fact, unknown to many of even the most avid cinephiles today: in the 1910s and early 1920s, close to half of the people working in the film industry were women. Women worked not just in the capacities that one might expect—as actresses, assistants, makeup artists, and wardrobe designers—but also as writers, producers, editors, and, crucially, directors. Once movies became what Mahar calls a “Wall-Street defined, vertically integrated big business,” however, directing opportunities for women swiftly began to vanish, leaving only a tiny number of American women working as directors from the late 1920s through the 1960s. (Even now, the Directors Guild of America estimates that only 15% of the directors working in Hollywood today are women.) The prospects for women filmmakers by the end of the 1920s were so bleak, in fact, that one of the most prolific and influential directors of her time, Lois Weber, advised young women seeking to break into directing, “Don’t try it; you’ll never get away with it.”

Though some women did “get away with it,” none enjoyed as much popular success as Weber until our own century. Weber is best known for her high-minded social problem films during the “uplift” period of film history. Her projects considered such topics as birth control (Where Are My Children?), capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe), and income inequality (The Blot). Uplift films, however, were far from her only métier; she also directed white-knuckle thrillers (Suspense), comedies (Discontent), and quasi-historical epics. The last category is represented gorgeously in the recently restored The Dumb Girl of Portici. Based on an opera, the film stars the great ballerina Anna Pavlova as Fenella, a young mute girl tragically swept up in a violent revolution. Pavlova’s extraordinarily expressive performance is the centerpiece of this lavish adaptation, but there’s quite a bit more to commend. Opulent sets, stunning costumes, lively ensemble performances, and inventive special effects make this film a genuine pleasure to watch.

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Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle, 2018)

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The first narrative feature film by documentarian Crystal Moselle (The Wolf Pack, 2015) opens with a black screen and the sounds of the city: A train rattles and screeches by, people shout, children play, and a skateboard hits the pavement. Even before we see the film’s protagonist perform her first onscreen skateboard trick, the feeling is already somehow both electric and familiar, much like the story that follows. The film tracks its young heroine as she joins an all-girl skate crew in New York City. (In a move that blurs the line between documentary and narrative film, the fictional crew is made up of members of the real-life crew known as Skate Kitchen.) All the usual elements of outsider stories, sports movies, and teen dramas abound: A young upstart joins a team of mavericks, tests her skills against those of her teammates and those of her opponents, and clashes with members of both as she grows and finds out more about herself. But this film invests the familiar sports-movie and coming-of-age-drama tropes with a raw energy, honesty, frank physicality, and genuine feeling that elevate it from a mere genre film into something precise and visceral.

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Dark Money (Kimberly Reed, 2018)

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As the opening credits come up on Kimberly Reed’s powerful new documentary, we see shots of the remarkable beauty of the natural landscape of Montana juxtaposed with startling images of the human and environmental devastation produced by mining and petroleum companies’ aggressive and essentially unregulated extraction practices. Reed here shows us in microcosm what we stand to lose as a nation if corporate and industrial power is left unchecked. Juxtapositions like this form the structure of the film that ensues, which alternates between the hopeful and the deeply discouraging as Reed pursues her thesis: Untraceable “dark money” political campaign contributions and the corruption that they foster constitute a grave threat to American democracy. A documentary on this subject, while essential, could easily become a tedious screed, of interest only to policy wonks and activists. Reed, however, finds the humanity and the drama in her subject, creating a clear, compelling, and surprisingly even-handed case that citizen vigilance is more important now than it has been in decades.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

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In the wake of not just Avengers: Infinity War, but the length of more or less the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, one could certainly be forgiven for a healthy dose of skepticism. Not to say that there haven’t been noteworthy or even good films in the twenty-strong series – although undoubtedly some would argue even that – but the more pertinent question is that of stakes. In terms of the wider MCU, all of the films involve as their central conflict a villain whose plans at some point involve widespread destruction of an “innocent” public. Even something as far afield from the standard operation like Black Panther couldn’t help but hew to this.

The first exception I can think of to this is Ant-Man and the Wasp, which by design seems to be a comedown from the galactic strife of Avengers: Infinity War. Directed by Peyton Reed (who also directed Ant-Man), this film somehow manages to embody all the qualities that Marvel films had heretofore merely suggested: light, breezy, and emotional in a way more linked to the characters rather than a wider society. This isn’t necessarily to say that this feels especially personal in the way that, say, Black Panther does. But it has more than its fair share of liveliness and sense of play, which makes this feel markedly different from other MCU films.

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Leave No Trace (2018, Debra Granik)

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One of the more pressing concerns of any narrative film is the representation of the environment – in purely geographic terms – that surrounds the characters and plot. In the hands of a carefully attuned director, the setting can (and almost always should) inflect and influence the mood of the film and the course of the events, drawing upon a landscape in order to reflect upon whatever conflicts or crises the figures are involved in. Such an ideal seems to apply to such a film as Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik.

Granik, whose last narrative feature film was the widely lauded Winter’s Bone back in 2010, seems to have developed this sense of location and place as her professed metier: her previous film derived much of its critical cachet from its hard-nosed portrayal of the Ozarks and the people that inhabited it. In a similar vein, Leave No Trace is defined by its primary (though crucially not sole) location: the forests of Oregon and Washington, especially an unspecified public park outside Portland.

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Friday June 15 – Thursday June 21

Featured Film:

2001: A Space Odyssey at the Pacific Place

Sure the Pacific Place isn’t the ideal spot for watching a classic film, but the Cinerama I guess would rather be one of fifty screens in the area playing the new Pixar movie than be the home of an unmissable film event. Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi epic is of course no stranger to Seattle Screens, but this is a new restoration and it’s playing on 70mm. With the rest of the city suffering its annual SIFF hangover (with the exception, as usual, of the Grand Illusion, which has a restoration of Melvin Van Peebles’s equally classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), you might as well go to the AMC and see a great movie again, even if Christopher Nolan was somehow involved.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) Fri-Thurs
Believer (Lee Hae-young) Fri-Thurs

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

Manos Returns (Tonjia Atomic) Thurs Only

Central Cinema:

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989) Fri-Tues
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

Mountain (Jennifer Peedom) Fri-Thurs

Century Federal Way:

Carry on Jatta 2 (Smeep Kang) Fri-Thurs
Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994) Sun, Mon & Weds Only Subtitled Monday

Grand Cinema:

The Rider (Chloé Zhao) Fri-Thurs
First Reformed (Paul Schrader) Fri-Thurs Our Review Our Other Review
Mountain (Jennifer Peedom) Fri-Thurs
Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993) Sat Only
Madagascar (Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath, 2005) Sat Only Free Screening
Strangers on the Earth (Tristan Cook) Mon & Tues Only
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951) Weds Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

Mary Shelley (Haifaa Al-Mansour) Fri-Thurs
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971) Fri, Sat & Tues Only
Bijou (Wakefield Poole) Thurs Only

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) Fri-Thurs
Kaala (Pa. Ranjith) Fri-Thurs Tamil, Telugu or Hindi, Check Listings
American Animals (Bart Layton) Fri-Thurs
Naa Nuvve (Jayendra Panchapakesan) Fri-Thurs
Veere Di Wedding (Shashanka Ghosh) Fri-Thurs
Race 3 (Remo D’Souza) Fri-Thurs
Sammohanam (Mohan Krishna Indraganti) Fri-Thurs
Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994) Sun, Mon & Weds Only Subtitled Monday

Regal Meridian:

How Long Will I Love U (Su Lun) Fri-Thurs Our Review
First Reformed (Paul Schrader) Fri-Thurs Our Review Our Other Review
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) Fri-Thurs
Race 3 (Remo D’Souza) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Queerama (Daisy Asquith) Fri-Sun
Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf (Thomas Piper) Fri-Thurs
Mama Colonel (Dieudo Hamadi) Thurs Only

AMC Pacific Place:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) Fri-Thurs 70mm
The Rider (Chloé Zhao) Fri-Thurs
American Animals (Bart Layton) Fri-Thurs

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Race 3 (Remo D’Souza) Fri-Thurs
Sid & Aya: Not a Love Story (Irene Villamor) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley) Fri-Thurs
American Animals (Bart Layton) Fri-Thurs
Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio) Fri-Thurs
On Chesil Beach (Dominic Cooke) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Film Center:

Summer 1993 (Carla Simón) Fri-Thurs

Regal Thornton Place:

Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994) Sun, Mon & Weds Only

SIFF Uptown:

Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley) Fri-Thurs
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) Fri-Thurs
Best of SIFF 2018 Full Program 

Varsity Theatre:

The Year of Spectacular Men (Lea Thompson) Fri-Thurs
The Yellow Birds (Alexandre Moors) Fri-Thurs

In Wide Release:

Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross) Our Review
Solo (Ron Howard) Our Review
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony & Joe Russo) Our Review
Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg) Our Review
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) Our Review
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Our Review

SIFF 2018: ★ (Johann Lurf, 2017)

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Science fiction with the boring bits left out. Johann Lurf reconstructs the universe by stripping Hollywood product of the generic narratives that propel mass consumption filmmaking to the heavens in order to focus on the stars themselves. In other words, a montage of voids: only moments of emptiness, of white specks against infinite dark remain. Though an avant-gardist himself, Lurf seems sincere in his desire to engage with popular cinema; he surely could have scrounged up a few more images from the likes of Jordan Belson or Stan Brakhage to include here, but he largely restricts himself to the kinds of movies that draw a crowd—or at least were intended to. He somehow mines wonder from Howard the Duck, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The trajectory from Man Ray to Marvel suggests a real traversal of aesthetic boundaries, and not just of cinematic time, and the final effect of seeing so much discarded matter bent, almost accidentally, into something beautiful is a little like watching light escape a black hole: the rational mind says it shouldn’t work, but it sure is a sight to behold.

SIFF 2018: Un beau soleil intérieur (Claire Denis, 2017)

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Cinema’s seer of texture and touch swaps the pleasures of the eye for the vagaries of spoken language. Denis applies her halting, fragmentary style not to the images—which are atypically steady and clear—but to the words. Un beau soleil intérieur understands how people talk in fits and starts, how romantic (comedy) conversations slip into ellipses; it’s the gaps that matter. So, a Claire Denis film. Still, there’s a sense of perhaps too much light let in, of the genre bending Denis to its will, and not the other way around.

SIFF 2018: First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017)

First Reformed possesses a gravestone’s beauty: cold and white like marble, angular, terminal. Paul Schrader learned his art in the pews; he relishes mounting the pulpit with his camera. And for better or worse, sermons don’t come much more sulphuric than this. Damnation is as American as apple pie (“it’s organic and local”). Hawke devoutly incorporates this chronicle of darkest hours, and Schrader remains, as ever, trapped in the garden.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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

Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.