Here’s a roundup of Seattle International Film Festival highlights.
The Seattle International Film Festival continues this week at screens all over town. Here are a few highlights from movie reviewers John Hartl, Moira Macdonald, Brent McKnight and Michael Upchurch. For more information, see siff.net. For tips on how to navigate the festival, go to seattletimes.com/movies.
“Backpack Full of Cash” ★★½
Seattle International Film Festival
Through June 11 at Egyptian, Uptown, Pacific Place, SIFF Film Center; also at Shoreline Community College (through June 3), Ark Lodge Cinemas (through June 8), Kirkland Performance Center (through June 4). Individual tickets are $11 weekday matinees ($9 SIFF members), $14 evening/weekend shows ($12 SIFF members); various ticket packages available. Box office: 206-324-9996, siff.net or at festival venues.
The debate over the increasing privatization of public education in America is the divisive, hot-button topic at the center of Sarah Mondale’s documentary. Narrated by Matt Damon, the film explores the rise of charter schools, vouchers, online programs and other for-profit models; growing educational inequality, especially in urban areas; and the devastating impact it has on the poorest, most at-risk students. Occasionally repetitive and sloppy, a fiery passion shines through to highlight this vital, complex, difficult to address topic. Mondale is scheduled to attend both screenings. (7 p.m. June 6, Pacific Place; 4:30 p.m. June 7, Pacific Place) — Brent McKnight
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In this offbeat political fable, the picturesque North Atlantic island nation of Besco (look at those icebergs floating by!) is locked in tough negotiations with an exploitative mining company and the Canadian foreign ministry over iron-extraction rights. Three key players are female: Besco’s smilingly poised and enigmatic president, an earnest government researcher upset to realize how small her role is in this power-play, and a capable American mediator coping with marriage troubles back home. Filmed in Newfoundland, “Boundaries” plays like a low-key remake of “The Mouse That Roared,” complete with a wry feminist wrinkle. (8 p.m. June 3, Uptown; 1:30 p.m. June 4, Pacific Place) — Michael Upchurch
Douglas Trumbull, one of the chief technicians behind both “2001” and “Close Encounters,” directed this ambitious, sometimes transcendent 1983 film about scientists who have made a breakthrough in recording human thoughts, sensations and emotions — and playing them back through the brain of anyone who wants to re-experience them. Louise Fletcher has a showy part as a crotchety chain-smoker and Christopher Walken stands out in another central role. Natalie Wood (who died during the 1981 filming) plays a designer working on the project; some of her dialogue wound up in the mouths of other characters. The plot about government agents using psychological warfare may be the script’s least convincing element — and possibly the most topical. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion emphasizing storytelling and science. (6:30 p.m. June 5, Egyptian) — John Hartl
“Chameleon” is a rough watch. Part psychological thriller, part home invasion, part general brutality, a scene of sexual assault borders on impossible to stomach. A wealthy lesbian couple has their lazy day interrupted when a man stops by unannounced. Naive and awkward, their guest’s sinister intentions quickly become clear. Themes of class, race and entitlement underscore each scene, and there’s violence and manipulation at work even before devolving into brutality. Peeling back layers of civility to expose what lurks below everyday smiles, “Chameleon” pummels the viewer. Director Jorge Riquelme Serrano, producer Daniel Diaz and star Gastón Salgado are scheduled to attend the June 2 and 3 screenings. (9 p.m. June 2, Uptown; 1:30 p.m. June 3, Pacific Place; 9:45 p.m. June 8, Pacific Place) — B.M.
“Come, Together” ★★½
When the husband and father of a middle-class South Korean family loses his soul-crushing middle-management job after 18 years, their carefully contrived world unravels around them. He goes stir-crazy, his wife feels pressure to take risks at work, and their college-hopeful daughter flounders on a waitlist. Cracks form in the facade and petty resentments, long suppressed, bubble to the surface with bitter fights, biting family drama and nihilistic humor. Everyone is lonely and miserable, but at least we can be lonely and miserable together. Director Shin Dong-Il is scheduled to attend the June 3 and 4 screenings. (9 p.m. June 3, Uptown; 11 a.m. June 4, Uptown) — B.M.
“The Devil’s Freedom” ★★★
As if hearing those touched by the ubiquitous savagery of the drug war in Mexico recount their chilling stories isn’t harrowing enough, director Everardo Gonzalez wraps his interview subjects in blank wrestling masks. It’s a simple maneuver, one that provides anonymity while it adds another layer of eerie bleakness as individuals on both sides share shocking tales of kidnapping, torture and murder. Though it occasionally struggles to fill the 74-minute run time, “Devil’s Freedom” paints an unsettling portrait as it explores the lasting consequences of violence on both victims and perpetrators. Gonzalez is scheduled to attend both screenings. (8:30 p.m. June 3, Pacific Place; 4 p.m. June 4, Pacific Place) — B.M.
“Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey”★★★
Anyone who has thumbed a local climbing guidebook has seen the name Fred Beckey, who earned his ubiquity by being the first to climb dozens, if not hundreds of peaks in the Northwest. The film documents the notoriously single-minded and churlish Beckey’s accomplishments and the vagabond climber lifestyle he pioneered. Shot over a decade, “Dirtbag” follows the now 94-year-old mountaineer on climbing trips as he confronts aging and his own legacy. Although it dwells too long on Beckey’s résumé and can meander, it successfully captures Beckey as a character and presents an energetic biography of a Northwest pioneer. Numerous guests from the film will attend both screenings. (4 p.m. June 4, Egyptian; 6 p.m. June 10, Uptown) — Evan Bush
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” ★★★
Everyone has a favorite version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror story about a destructive doctor with a chemistry-influenced evil twin. For some it’s Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 adaptation, which won an Oscar for Fredric March’s savage interpretation. For others, it’s Victor Fleming’s 1941 version, with Spencer Tracy’s relatively subdued version (which once prompted an unenthusiastic studio visitor to ask “which one is he playing now?”). But the silent era was dominated by this scenery-devouring 1920 John Barrymore version, directed by John S. Robertson, which SIFF will screen with a live score by The Invincible Czars. (7 p.m. June 8, Triple Door) — J.H.
If Buster Keaton teamed up with Richard Linklater for a black-and-white Italian remake of “Slacker,” it might look like “Ears.” Director Alessandro Aronadio has a wonderful Everyman in Daniele Parisi, who wakes up one morning with two problems: a persistent ringing in his ears and the news that his best friend Luigi (whom he’s never heard of) has died. Parisi, with his sad-sack eyes and slouching gait, encounters nothing but obstacles as he seeks cures and clarification. Technical twist: The film’s aspect ratio gradually expands from 1:11 to 1:85 as Parisi wanders an increasingly incomprehensible world. (1:30 p.m. June 4, Egyptian; 9:30 p.m. June 6, Uptown) — M.U.
“Finding Kukan” ★★★
Brash, unapologetic personalities make fascinating documentary subjects, even in uneven films. For nearly a decade, Robin Lung attempted to unearth the truth about Li Ling-Ai and her uncredited role in producing “Kukan,” the Oscar-winning 1941 documentary about atrocities in China during World War II. The film has been lost and Li’s involvement all but erased. Through interviews, documents and archival footage, her story takes shape. She was an author, dancer, lecturer, activist and even pilot. At 75 minutes, “Finding Kukan” feels thin in spots, but it’s so compelling that’s easily forgiven. (4:30 p.m. June 2, Ark Lodge) — B.M.
When a hapless, stuttering railway linesman stumbles across a pile of cash on the tracks he’s inspecting, he does the honest thing: report it to the authorities, which makes him a pawn in an ugly game. Corrupt Transport Ministry officials want to use his “heroism” to distract the public from an emerging scandal. A crusading journalist has other things in mind for him. Stefan Denolyubov, as the linesman, and Margita Gosheva, as his nemesis, are painfully on-target in this Bulgarian satire. One crazed twist: Gorsheva’s character is undergoing fertility treatment throughout, even though motherhood seems the last of her priorities. (9:30 p.m. June 5, Uptown) — M.U.
“Infinity Baby” ★★★
In the not-too-distant future, due to a botched stem-cell research project and a hasty deal between liberals and conservatives, a company rents out babies that never age and only poop once a week. “Infinity Baby” rides this quirky concept and all-star cast. The plot revolves around Ben (Kieran Culkin), a commitment-phobe who uses his mother (Megan Mullally) to break up with women. At 71 minutes, much of the film feels like hastily constructed narrative scaffolding, and though it never entirely satisfies, the dark, dry humor provides light laughs in an unusual framework. Director Bob Byington is scheduled to attend both screenings. (9:30 p.m. June 2, Pacific Place; 3:30 p.m. June 4, Ark Lodge) — B.M.
Filmed entirely in South Africa, with a cast made up of the country’s citizens, this powerful, sometimes shocking account of the life of the apartheid martyr, Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, frequently benefits from a strong central performance by Thabo Rametsi that helps to hold the story together. The script tends to build its narrative on philosophical and religious arguments, but they’re often riveting and articulate, especially in courtroom scenes that take the film beyond the expected limitations of action scenes. Rametsi is scheduled to attend both screenings. (6:30 p.m. June 7, Ark Lodge; 3:30 p.m. June 9, Uptown) — J.H.
“The Landing” ★★½
For a mission that never happened, Apollo 18 occupies a unique place in popular culture. It’s the title of a video game, name of an indie-rock band and a less-than-stellar found-footage horror movie. And now it’s the subject of a faux-documentary. After a troubled re-entry, the final mission to the moon crashed in an isolated Chinese desert. Conspiracy theories, a murder mystery and a central figure who’s either a tragic hero or clever villain combine into what would be a mostly engaging documentary. And as a work of fiction, “The Landing” isn’t bad either. Directors Mark and David Dodson and select cast and crew are scheduled to attend the screenings. (6 p.m. June 4, Kirkland; 9:15 p.m. June 9, Uptown; 3:30 p.m. June 11, Uptown) — B.M.
Writer/director Gillian Robespierre and actor Jenny Slate — who brought the smart, funny rom-com “Obvious Child” to SIFF in 2014 — return with another likable film; this one about a mid-90s Manhattan family in crisis. Dad Alan (John Turturro) is having an affair; daughters Dana (Slate) and Ali (Abby Quinn) know about it but aren’t sure what to do. Not exactly a step forward from “Obvious Child” but of a piece with it, “Landline” feels pleasantly nostalgic (remember when phones were attached to the wall?), and Slate nicely conveys that confusing post-college age when you’re trying to figure out “if the life I picked for myself is the one I want.” Robespierre, Slate and Quinn are scheduled to attend both screenings; the first of which will be followed by a party at the DAR Rainier Chapter House. (5:30 p.m. June 3, Egyptian; 3 p.m. June 4, Uptown) — Moira Macdonald
“Lane 1974” ★★★
The year is 1974 and Karen, who’s re-christened herself “Hallelujah,” has gone off the grid with her three young children. A self-righteous free spirit, she has no idea how abusive her behavior is. But for her watchful 13-year-old daughter Lane, this pastoral California idyll is a child’s nightmare, especially once her desperate mother starts handing off her kids to whoever will take them. The ratted hippie wigs are a bit much, but actors Katherine Moennig and Sophia Mitri Schloss do full justice to this mother-daughter showdown in S.J. Chiro’s memoir-based, Seattle-produced feature debut. (7 p.m. June 2, Egyptian; 2:30 p.m. June 3, Uptown) — M.U.
“The Last Animals” ★★★
University of Washington research professor Samuel K. Wasser provides key commentary for “The Last Animals,” a frightening, nearly hopeless doomsday documentary about the extinction of elephants and rhinos that once thrived in Africa. Writer-director Kate Brooks focuses on the damage done by poaching, both officially approved and otherwise, with some of the profits financing terrorist groups. Testimonials cover a wide range, including England’s Prince William, who helps to bring it all into perspective. (6:30 p.m. June 6, Ark Lodge) — J.H.
“The Man” ★★★½
Sparks fly when street-artist Casper turns up on the doorstep of his world-famous-artist dad, Simon, who ditched Casper and his mother years ago. Prickly and paranoid, Simon is a womanizing mess. Quiet Casper is a much cooler customer. Every father-son exchange feels loaded, especially once Casper starts taking a sexual interest in his father’s second wife and young mistress. Sly performances and a wily script are the draw here. The artwork is big fun, too. (8:15 p.m. June 4, Kirkland Performance Center.) — M.U.
“May God Save Us” ★★★½
Its story is a grim one — a serial killer is raping and murdering elderly women — but this taut Spanish-language crime drama, directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen, is utterly gripping, particularly the performances by its central acting duo. A mismatched detective team (one with suit-and-tie formality and a stutter; the other with a casual manner and an anger-management problem) try to crack the case, in the hot Madrid summer of 2011; along the way, they confront the worst of themselves. Roberto Alamo, as the latter, won a Goya Award (the Spanish Oscar) for his performance; you fear, watching him, for anything in his way. (6:30 p.m. June 4, Egyptian; 3:30 p.m. June 6, Uptown) — M.M.
“My Journey Through French Cinema” ★★★½
Bertrand Tavernier, who began as a film critic before making his 1974 directing debut with “The Clockmaker,” assembled this wide-ranging, three-hours-plus history of French filmmaking, from “Children of Paradise” to “Forbidden Games.” It’s both a salute to the New Wave that sent other critics to filmmaking careers — and a series of demonstrations of how color, music and camera movements can transform a story into a vital piece of cinema. Tavernier’s own adolescent obsession with the films of Jacques Becker gets the movie off to a choppy start, but the variety of inspirations (not to mention the visual quality of the film clips) is astonishing. (3 p.m. June 3 and 7 p.m. June 9, SIFF Film Center) — J.H.
“The Paris Opera” ★★★½
This how-the-sausage-is-made documentary about one of the world’s great art institutions has it all: strike threats, rebellious choristers, last-minute cast changes, battles over ticket pricing, an opera production with a live bull onstage, an in-house choreographer (Benjamin Millepied) with itchy feet, and a charming young Russian bass-baritone with a heavenly voice (Mikhail Timoshenko) who’s delighted to get his gig. Director Jean-Stéphane Bron’s I-am-a-camera approach lets players speak for themselves as he eavesdrops on backstage scurrying, painstaking rehearsals and more. (3 p.m. June 3 and 6:45 p.m. June 5, Uptown) — M.U.
“Pow Wow” ★★★
This experimental documentary by Seattle-based director Robinson Devor (“Police Beat,” “Zoo”) circles lots of subjects without quite landing on any — but its evocation of a specific place, California’s Coachella Valley, is indelible. The 1909 manhunt for a Paiute Indian (basis for the 1969 film “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”) forms part of its picture. So do musings on differences between “Western time” and “Indian time,” conflicting attitudes toward the valley’s life-sustaining aquifer, and stark native versus white contrasts in land-use practice, highlighted in gorgeous overhead shots of orderly irrigated suburb ceding abruptly to arid desert expanse. Devor is scheduled to attend the screening. (6:30 p.m. June 5, Ark Lodge) — M.U.
“The Reagan Show” ★★½
This curious documentary, assembled entirely from vintage news clips and White House footage from the Reagan presidency, feels like an exercise in both not-quite-rose-tinted nostalgia and uncanny prescience (it focuses on Reagan’s relationship to Russia and its then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev). Those who remember this president, whether with fondness or dismay, may find the film a fascinating rabbit hole, particularly his comment — in those trademark aw-shucks tones — that “there were times when I wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” Directors Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill are scheduled to attend the June 2 and 3 screenings. (8:45 p.m. June 2, Uptown; 2:30 p.m. June 3, Egyptian; 4:30 p.m. June 7, Uptown) — M.M.
“Susanne Bartsch: On Top” ★★★
Auntie Mame once insisted that “life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” That sentiment is echoed in a new documentary about a nonfictional Mame, Susanne Barstch, who reigned in New York during the post-Warhol era. Raised in Switzerland where she felt “very boxed in,” she created party scenes (“more like full-scale theatrical events”) in London, Tokyo and, especially, New York. When the AIDS era hit, her parties became fundraisers. Her costumes are outlandish and her attitude is pure diva – but her frivolity has a worthy non-conformist agenda behind it. Directors Anthony&Alex will attend screenings at 7 p.m. June 8 and 4:30 p.m. June 9, both at the Egyptian. – J.H.
“The Truth About Love Is …” ★★½
Dora and Davide have little to connect them aside from an initial attraction, until they have kids. But that only carries them so far, and Dora finds herself a single mother. Based on a comedic memoir, Max Croci’s film traces the ups and downs of motherhood. This includes a free-spirited — and childless — BFF, a poet/janitor/manny, and intrusive family members offering questionable advice. Light and breezy, and not particularly deep or substantive, it’s not without authentic, easy charms as it follows the minor heartbreaks and triumphs of parenting. Croci is scheduled to attend the screenings. (6 p.m. June 3 and 3:30 p.m. June 5, Uptown) — B.M.
“Whose Streets?” ★★★
This rousing, passionate new documentary is dedicated to the late Michael Brown Jr., who was 18 and unarmed when he was shot and killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Mo. The killings and uprisings that followed led millions around the country to despair, and filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis capture much of it by emphasizing attempts at turning things around. It seems almost a desperate crusade, though the approach somehow rarely turns cynical. (4:30 June 2, Egyptian) — J.H.
“The Winter” ★★★
An Argentine film of rigorous beauty, “The Winter” focuses on an old, cranky Patagonian sheep-ranch foreman who is replaced by a younger man who has his own good reasons for avoiding company. Less a thriller than a gradual unveiling of parallel fates, “The Winter” examines the tricks of fighting to survive when you don’t know exactly who your enemy is or what the rules are. The setting is bleak but spectacular; the pacing is slow but deliberate; the performances are non-actorly in the best sense possible. (1 p.m. June 3, Kirkland Performance Center) — M.U.
“Without Name” ★★½
A quiet land surveyor, dissatisfied with his home life, takes a mysterious job in an isolated, unnamed Irish forest steeped in myth and legend. And then things get weird. A slow-burn serving of eco-horror, Lorcan Finnegan’s feature skimps on substance, but more than makes up for it with eerie settings, supernatural undertones and a ’70s horror throwback vibe. The first-time director has a knack for finding the bizarre and otherworldly in mundane, everyday imagery. He adds hallucinatory flourishes and auditory tricks to play mind games with the audience as the protagonist tumbles further into madness. (9:30 p.m. June 2, Uptown; 9:30 p.m. June 4, Egyptian) — B.M.