Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, 2015)

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Playing for the next two weeks at the SIFF Uptown is Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s look at The Louvre, a companion piece to what remains his most well-known film in this country, 2002’s Russian Ark. That film, shot in an elaborate and still impressive single-take, weaved through The Hermitage, the museum in St. Petersburg, crossing seamlessly through Russia’s past and present, a guided tour of the fluidity of culture and the ways art, and our collections of art, keep the past alive into the future. Francofonia is no less thematically ambitious, though the single-take approach is abandoned in favor of more conventional shifts between documentary-style glides through the galleries, dramatic recreations, and meta making-of looks at those recreations. The film is framed with a film director (Sokurov himself) in the editing stage of the movie we’re watching, attempting to talk to a ship’s captain caught in a storm at sea (Captain Dirk, seriously). The ship is apparently transporting precious works of art, an extension of the final image of Russian Ark, with the museum as a ship floating in seas of time. Captain Dirk has a bad Skype connection, so the director ruminates about the museum itself, covering, in somewhat random order, its founding as an anti-Viking fortress, its various expansions and decorations, its transformation into a museum filled with the spoils of imperialism and finally its modern state. Taking up the bulk of the film is the story of how the museum’s director (Jacques Jaujard) and the Nazi in charge of cultural artifacts (Franz Wolff-Metternich) kept the collection safe and out of Hitler’s hands during the Second World War.

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Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine, 2014)

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The premise of the newest film from director Anne Fontaine, Gemma Bovery, holds a good deal of promise for lovers of both the cinematic and the literary, particularly for those who welcome witty or playful re-tellings of classic works of literature. Adapted from Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel of the same name (a novel originally conceived as a serial in The Guardian), the film’s story centers around perceived parallels between the literary characters in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – particularly Emma Bovary, her husband, Charles Bovary, and Emma’s lovers –  and the film’s characters. When Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) and her husband, Charles ( Jason Flemyng), move from London to a small town in Normandy, the town’s excitable, bourgeois baker, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), is certain Gemma is the real life equivalent of the fictional Emma, and he makes it his mission to discover her in love affairs and prevent the tragic suicide that plays out in the novel.

Such a set up has all the ear marks of wonderfully droll farce or of a sly satire, a satire that could work on any number of levels – critiquing, perhaps, the often fraught French-English relationship; or the middle class, provincial prejudices; or literary pretensions; or male-female relationships.  The premise also suggests the story might hold some genuine pathos, a tender examination of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings, perhaps.  And by many accounts (here’s one, for example), Simmonds’s original work does function on all those levels. (After watching the movie, I immediate ordered the graphic novel.) Continue reading Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine, 2014)”

Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley, 2014)

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The third film in Hal Hartley’s lunatic epic trilogy about an ex-con with literary delusions and his relations with a garbageman from Queens and his sister opens this week at the SIFF Film Center. Released in 1997, the first film in the trilogy, Henry Fool was, as far as I can tell, Hartley’s most successful release, taking in almost one and a half million dollars at the box office. While his reputation rests on the series of films he made in the early 90s, hallmarks of that decade’s American independent film movement (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth, Amateur, Flirt), his career seems to have sputtered over the last 20 years, with only a couple of features seeing completion. The second film in the trilogy, 2006’s Fay Grim, grossed only 10% of its predecessor, and the new film was funded by Kickstarter. I believe this says more about the state of independent film production distribution and exhibition in the United States than it does about Hartley as a filmmaker.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)

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There is a lot to like about Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. The hypnotic soundtrack by The Octopus Project is a delight. At its center is a wonderful performance from Rinko Kikuchi. Best of all is the premise. The film, based on a true story, is about a Japanese woman who believes the events depicted in her VHS copy of Fargo are real and that somewhere in the Midwest lies a bunch of money, buried in the snow by a bloodied Steve Buscemi.

An engaging opening twenty minutes establishes Kumiko as a fish-out-of-water in her homeland. She steadfastly refuses the hollow aspirations pinned on her by family and society, be they marriage or a cushy job. When tasked with watching a child for a few minutes, Kumiko panics and runs away. Unfortunately, the film becomes much more obvious once she arrives as a fish-out-of-water in America. From here, the movie mostly deals in scenes of the fanatical, clearly demented young woman (we never once explore Kumiko’s very real pain) as she gets a blitz-in-a-blizzard of Minnesota nice.  Continue reading Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)”

Hitchcock at the Uptown

tumblr_mx1nuirpOe1qhsqm1o1_1280Without much fanfare, The SIFF Uptown this week is playing five of the greatest movies ever. Perhaps the lack of publicity (it isn’t even mentioned in this week’s SIFF newsletter (Edit: well, it wasn’t in the first one I got for this week, it was in the second one)) is due to the fact that these films are hardly strangers to Seattle screens, or perhaps because they’re all screening digitally instead of on film. But regardless, the fact remains that there are few better ways to spend your cinematic weekend than watching a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films in a movie theatre.

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Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, 2014)

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The latest from Canadian director David Cronenberg finds him, for the first time, working in America (well, he was here shooting for five days, which is not nothing). Specifically Hollywood, which is a kind of America only in the very loosest sense. He finds it a tangled wasteland of venality and corruption, naturally enough, but one especially marked by all manner of family relationships gone horribly wrong. Julianne Moore (in a performance that might have won her the Oscar in an alternate world where such awards don’t automatically go to the most diseased performance) plays an aging actress trying to win a role that her mother played 30 years earlier. Said mother is now deceased, having died in a fire some years before, and may have sexually abused Moore as a child. She works through these issues with her therapist, John Cusack (his technique with her is talking-while-massaging, though he appears to make his money primarily via infomercials  and airport speaking engagements). Cusack and his wife, Olivia Williams, struggle to maintain their 13 year old son’s acting career while dreading the reappearance of their daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who has been in a sanitarium for seven years after she tried to marry her brother while setting the family home on fire. Wasikowska, through her internet-friendship with Carrie Fischer (playing herself, I guess), gets a job as Moore’s personal assistant and carries on a tentative romance with a chauffeur played by Robert Pattinson (a demotion from his starring role in the last Cronenberg film, Cosmopolis, in which he spent most of the film being driven around town in a limo). Drugs, violence, more incest and more fire ensue.

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Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014)

B6hV5dsCEAEGwAY Continuing this week at the SIFF Uptown is the latest from neo-realist Belgian masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, their first foray into movie-stardom thanks to an Oscar-nominated performance from Marion Cotillard (The Dardennes themselves have never been nominated for an Academy Award, though they have accomplished the rare feat of twice winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival). Cotillard plays a factory worker (solar panels) who has just recently and barely recovered from the suicidal depression that caused a prolonged work absence, thus proving to her bosses that the factory will run just fine without her. She’s been laid off because her co-workers were made to vote on whether they’d rather she continue to work or they get their annual bonus. It’s an absurdly blunt premise that the Dardennes, whatever its worth, remain firmly committed to with their meticulous direct-cinema style. After talking her way into a revote as the film begins, the bulk of the movie follows Cotillard visiting each of her coworkers in turn over the weekend to beg them to allow her to keep her job. The fact that the Dardennes manage to make such a didactic and schematic premise watchable at all is a credit to their skill, and a testament to the fine performances of their cast. Cotillard first and foremost is a stunner, her portrait of a woman desperately trying to keep it together on the brink of disaster is easily on par with her exceptional work in 2013’s The Immigrant, which she probably should have been Oscar-nominated for as well. The only other recognizable face in the film is the man who plays her husband, Fabrizio Rongione, who also played the architect in 2014’s La Sapienza (look for Eugène Green’s very fine film to get a US release in the coming months, hopefully it’ll make it to Seattle), but all the performances are wonderful, each new co-worker bringing a wonderfully individualized set of hang-ups, guilts and possibilities of hope.

Two Days, One Night plays Friday through Thursday at the Kirkland Parkplace Cinema.

National Gallery

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Following a successful two-week run at the Northwest Film Forum late last year, SIFF is bringing Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, National Gallery back for one Monday night this week as part of their Recent Raves series. At about three hours long, Gallery is only a medium length Wiseman film, a look at the venerable British art gallery, the paintings within it, the people that run it and the public that visits it. The 85 year old filmmaker is probably more well-known for his examinations of public institutions in films like Welfare (1975), Titicut Follies (1967), At Berkeley (2013) or High School (1968, followed by a sequel in 1994), but he’s also one of cinema’s great chroniclers of art as work. His dance films (Ballet, 1995; La danse, 2009; and Crazy Horse, 2011) are astounding, and, along with 2010’s Boxing Gym, form with National Gallery as expansive a look at the business, craft and sheer effort that goes into the presentation of art to an audience. Like those other films, Gallery is divided into a series of segments highlighting different aspects of the institution: the tour guides explaining a work or an artist; the craftsmen and women building frames, gallery spaces, designing and testing lighting; restorers at work fixing paintings damaged by time; and administrators debating the best ways to persevere the museums brand and grow its audience. The segments are broken up by shorter series of shots, much like the pillow shots of a Yasujiro Ozu film, where we get to look at the paintings and, as interestingly perhaps, the faces of the people as they look at the paintings. 19th Century landscape painter JMW Turner, himself the subject of a fine biopic directed by Mike Leigh starring Timothy Spall, is one of the featured artists. That film, Mr. Turner, is currently playing at the Sundance Cinemas. The pair would make for an excellent, if lengthy, cross-town double feature.

National Gallery plays at the Grand Cinema on Tuesday, March 3rd.