The communal experience of cinema is a most beautiful thing. In the past year, I’ve witnessed that idea claw its way back into our hearts, minds, and heavily masked faces. We might all still be wearing them, but it’s difficult not to sense the smiles. I could notice just by sitting in the back row at the newly renovated Uptown Theater this past week, warming up for 11 days of excursion, in a way not truly done since before the pandemic closed everything down the first time. While not back to full strength (it was 25 days in year past), the Seattle International Film Festival is ready to roar across the city again, occupying the non-profit’s five screens, as well as four other participating theaters to cover all the bases, multiple neighborhoods, and as many walks of life imaginable. The outreach has never been stronger, or more heartfelt.
The important difference between last year and now, is the freedom of choice. For the 160+ features, and 100 shorts on display over this 11-day stretch, all of them will have their moment on the silver screen, and two-thirds of the slate will also be streaming via the online SIFF Channel. Certain films with major distribution agreements will only play in person, and they probably equate to some of the bigger must-sees, the titles that no doubt will crave that in person component, of being amongst a sea of people. The very idea of opening at a venue as large and iconic as the Paramount with a documentary as timely and relevant as Navalny should be proof alone this festival wants to once more emphasize the idea of uniting together for a shared experience. Or perhaps cleverly told stories like The Duke or Cha-Cha Real Smooth, destined to tickle the funny bone before igniting conversations about humanity.
I, for one, am all for it, after sampling a taste of that community allure, as well as that hot buttered popcorn. Truly strength in numbers as patrons and donors have truly grown in the span of a year to reach a point of eclipse, perhaps to where we can escape from the world again, put the pandemic in the rear view, if only for hours at a time? I’d say yes. Yes, with pride, and a sense of anticipation. Anticipation to drown all five senses in the care of both a good story, and a great neighborhood. Do not be surprised if the experience of a certain film extends to roaming around Queen Anne or Capitol Hill right after.
A really good celebration of art can lend itself to following in a different direction than your friends, your peers, your neighbor sitting in the same row. Yet again, SIFF really thought of everything to ensure this “choose your own adventure” attitude leads to some reward by the end of it all. Though as I’d said last year, time is of the essence. We only have 11 days to wander and conquer. Certain films are bound to sell fast, even online, so I would not dawdle. Feel free to heed the recommendations and recollections from my SIFF journey, but don’t be afraid to forge your own path, and find that filmic enlightenment. Your senses will thank you once the dust settles.
Full information for the films below is at siff.net, and individual tickets start as low as $12. Titles also streaming on the SIFF Channel will be marked by an asterisk.
Note: larger reviews for films covered here are expected to follow in the weeks ahead as their wide release dates narrow closer.
Monday, April 18 – 9 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown (national theatrical rollout begins April 22)
A hidden gem of this past award season finally opens to audiences this month, with a stopover at this year’s fest. A heart stopping exercise of mother-daughter connectivity, as one reaches a crossroads in her life. The other is learning to cope with the stress of grade school. Both are dealing with grief in almost the same way. Writer/director Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) sharpens her focus from blazed period piece to a quiet story with a small cast, as second grader Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) tries to clear her head in the country, while she and her mother (Nina Meurisse) work through the loss of Nelly’s grandma. What follows is her meeting a strange, though likeminded classmate in the woods, with whom a friendship strikes. Likely more than baseline, once the mystery of why they look so similar bubbles up. Sanz is a real champion of that subtle childlike optimism, leaving a graceful ripple across this very simplistic story. The kind that quickly elevates family dramas from pieces of schmaltz, to meaningful tomes relevant to relationships any one of us may have built over years. Only to lose sight of where they’ve landed, then work hard to regain them from a newfound perspective. Sciamma digs deep into her own soul to craft the beauty and heartache of youth, eliciting plenty of healthy tears along the way. (A-)
Saturday, April 16 – 1:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian/Wednesday, April 20 – 6:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown (theatrical rollout slated for August 26)
Shortlisted for the Oscars’ International Feature category this past season, Spain’s submission examines the pitfalls of corporate politics and self-preservation in a time where identity means power. Would not have been my choice, but the level of self-aware comedy in play makes up for any manner of admissible hesitation. Scale company maven Mr. Blanco (Javier Bardem) is king of his hill, quick to bite whenever advancement tips in his favor. He’s the sort of generalissimo type leader looking out for his constituents while discreetly offing those who look him the wrong way. His dual sides reach a major breaking point ahead of his securing a major industry accolade, as colleagues past and present place a figurative blade on his throat. Bardem is much more at home with a role fitting of his maturity, unlike his portrayal in something like Being the Ricardos, where the range of disconnect was impossible to overlook. Both of his eyes are direct on the ball, riding shotgun to writer/director Fernando Léon de Aranoa’s concise sense of timing. Everything hits Blanco’s fan for a reason, often for worse over better, staining one’s reputation without the chance for recovery. Seeing Bardem play this mild bad guy so straightforward opens the door for all myriad of misfortune humor to land rather eloquently. Perhaps a tad messily by the end, but who ever said business isn’t always a clean arena? (B+)
Friday, April 15 – 8:30 PM/Monday, April 18 – 3:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Like View From the Top or Airport before it, any time cinema turns its eyes to the airline industry, we rediscover the wrinkles in its business plan, and the lengths its workers go to merely survive the G’s. In this tender Belgian dramedy, 20-something Cassandre (Adèle Exarchopoulos) navigates the friendly skies, and a not so friendly ground below. Not too far away from her family, and never close for long to anything tangible like a steady date, Cassandre is the poster child of faking that “service with a smile”, committed to her work, and yet burned out by the emotion of it all. Both tie in to just why she puts the job over everything else, even visiting family over Christmas, with the revelation as chilling as the clues.
Writer/directors Emmanual Marre and Julie Lecoustre give their story a mild melodramatic turn, stopping short of slipping into a trap of female-led story convention. With the goal being something of survival, their artistic license zooms to rather experimental lengths, treating their work like a mockumentary at times. Shot in that slick, quiet verite style, they dance rather full-footedly around their lead’s personal struggle with a firm intimacy. But a little more so on being a self-aware satire on the service industry, and the arduous shortcuts often encountered in sustaining a positive workplace culture. Neither director holds back in their vision, handling events with both a warm sympathy and a brutal honesty. Such is Belgium, specifically its potpourri of feeling. And here, it’s a stew. Mixed between ingredients of anguish, longing, regret and workaholism, Zero F**** Given makes a clear runway to play around with these emotional states, keep them light and relatable. A bit reckless, unsure of its landing, but incredibly easy to glide through. (B)
Wednesday, April 20 – 6:30PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian/Saturday, April 23 – 3:00PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Now this is how one would describe an ideal “first introduction” to an established director whose work has carried its legion of fans. Masaaki Yuasa had pleased audiences multiple times over with films like Ride Your Wave and Lu over the Wall, among other works. Continuing that trend of defying the attitudes and conformities of other dimensions with a modern twist, Inu-Oh finds itself at the crossroads of folk musical and traditional fantasy. Almost like if Donovan redefined traditional Japanese theater with a western infusion. And that’s only half of it, as a striking visual palette completes a very mesmerizing retelling of Hideo Furukawa’s page-leaping novel.
In which a youthful, blind Biwa player named Tomona intends to avenge the loss of his father, following in the guidance of an aging villager. Crossing paths with the titular character, a mysterious dancing figure named Inu-Oh, the pair gain notoriety and scorn, reshaping the 15th century art of Nogaku into Bowie-esque glitter rock. With the lyrics, physicality, and political pushback to match, as the shoguns come calling before the clash of style threatens to overturn their grip on the community. Quirky at first glance, a little unsure of its territorial conquest theme, but no less managing to blend the old and new in raising that high middle finger at the disapproval of society. Marking its American premiere here at SIFF, Inu-Oh’s wild on-screen flair is bound to tantalize all the senses, and leave the heart strumming in short order. All while Yoshihide Ôtomo’s underscore buries deep, lasting earworms. All evidence of animation overall making a big welcome gesture in 2022. (A-)
Friday, April 15 – 6:15PM – AMC Pacific Place 11/Saturday, April 16 – 3:30PM – Majestic Bay Theatres (Ballard)
The latest in a long line of foodie docs leaving a growing ripple on artistic inspiration. Covers the unique journeys of four chefs – A conformist, an artist, a TV star, and a country boy – marking their influence on the cutthroat Tokyo culinary scene, striving for better than their best. It’s the sort of documentary that doesn’t overstay its welcome, but whose stories would’ve been better served as a Netflix miniseries versus a tight two-course entree. Delicate enough for the eyes and taste buds. (C+)
Friday, April 15 – 7PM – Shoreline Community Center/Monday, April 18 – 6:30PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Famed director Roger Michell’s ultimately final work is a fair reflection of both his career and the fond gumption of the working class inundating his childhood. Hard to believe, this was all based on a true story, at a time when Britain’s post-industrial age showed a certain excess of decorum and protocol. Classical everyman Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is perhaps the antithesis of that spirit, sticking his head out for the underserved while continually making sense of a tragic familial death. When trying to protest the television license fee goes nowhere, he makes the brazen move of kidnapping Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery. Varied controversial hijinks ensue as the mystery boils into stunning revelation, some of whom spring up in Richard Bean and Clive Colman’s screenplay a bit too late to best match the weight of the situation. I could never deny a simple pleasure as Broadbent playing the quirky card, however. With a resolute Helen Mirren portraying wife Dorothy, and Fionn Whitehead opting in as elder son and mediator Jackie, I felt like I was witnessing a clear-cut window of both strife and satisfaction, taking account of a shrewd thrill with an upbeat nature. The story Michell works with is fine, but can’t go the extra mile on brevity. A fun little crime spree, all the same. (B-)
Saturday, April 23 – 8:00 PM/Sunday, April 24 – 1:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Not too distanced from the Covid-dampened release of his debut film S***house, writer/director Cooper Raiff is out for a second chance at theatrical redemption for his kindhearted filmmaking motif. Cha-Cha Real Smooth (named after the early 2000s dance trend) finds Raiff working with a larger budget and heightened stakes, in the guise of a 20-something slowly stepping into adulthood. He plays Andrew, a college marketing major looking for his first real job. While that’s festering, he’s back home with brother David (Evan Assante), mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), and her new boyfriend Craig (Brad Garrett). And his quickness with odd jobs, part-time in fast food, rest of the time as a bar mitzvah hype man, makes him a hot commodity in his hometown. He gains some reliable skills, and a small crush with the already engaged Domino (Dakota Johnson), filling a small father figure divot for her autistic daughter Lola (a vivacious Vanessa Burghardt).
Slight age difference or no, Andrew and Domino have a genuine spark together, recognizing and discovering just what all they’re looking for out of life, and how to accomplish it. It may equal a few broken hearts and/or ribs, with Raiff aware of just what kind of balm will best suit a given scene or emotional beat. His eye for blending the sympathetic with the informal is sharp as doornails, and just as tactful. And his chemistry with Johnson is nothing short of genuine, accurate to a real “friends on the brink” situation. Growing up often is that precarious, requiring a heavy heart and a collected mind to accept inevitable change. Here lies a total cinematic high wire act in action, the rigors of life at its most transitionary. And likely just as essential, the laughs that emerge while escaping at the other side. (A-)
Friday, April 15 – 6:15 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian/Saturday, April 16 – 1:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Husband and wife duo Jeff Baena and Aubrey Plaza slip back into the realm of the tawdry and seductive, leaving one to forget how subtle they tried that ploy in efforts past. No one could possibly forget the lewd atmosphere of 2017’s nun comedy The Little Hours. Spin Me Round, regrettably, has to work a little harder to warrant sticking power and rewatch value. What starts out as a journey of a burned out restauranteur rediscovering her mojo while on a work trip to Italy winds up as something rather mysterious, secretive, and a trifle unexpected. Alison Brie is Amber, a Bakersfield restaurant manager, whose expert skill at a major chain franchisee wins her an educational trip to Italy with her peers from across the country. A total first-time experience, never having ventured out of the country before. It grows increasingly complicated from there as the other participants find their inhibitions a bit loose, and the company’s founder (a suave, superlative Alessandro Nivola) even looser. The absolute surprise value needn’t be overstated here, it’s a sudden shocker of a mystery whose clues come off difficult to decipher. But it is that same mystery opening up a Pandora’s Box of rapid-fire one-liners between Brie, Plaza (as the weirdo chaos girl), Molly Shannon, Zach Woods and Tim Heidecker among others. Many familiar players in Baena’s card deck, all game to this insane, yet slighted free-for-all. Best to warm up to its charms, versus diving head first into its calm, sunny waters. (C+)
Sunday, April 17 – 5:30PM/Tuesday, April 19 – 4:00PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
It only seems somewhat ironic this film is available to stream due to this festival’s hybrid nature. The fact that it is such a loyal chef’s kiss to indie cinema, and the filmmakers thriving so confidently in those tightening avenues, allows it to resonate with a chipper sense of self-preservation. Actor turned director Raphael Sbarge explores the very personal story of the Laemmle theater chain, and the family who helped run it across multiple eras of the global cinematic evolution. And yes, even the point where everything shut down in the wake of the pandemic, further placing the arthouse cinema scene on the brink of extinction. As if an already bleak economic picture, world wars, or family squabbles weren’t enough to give current owner Greg Laemmle a wake-up call on why his work literally meant the world, to both his family, and to Los Angeles. Were it not for Greg and his predecessors, foreign, micro budget, or niche genre titles would not have the position they occupy in the cinematic ecosystem. As interviews with those still alive will attest, ranging as far as 105-year-old grandma Alyse, a strong family bond can weather almost anything. And if it’s a family of cinephiles, they know exactly how to face the unpredictable and fight back against the future. A real film epic in and of itself, feeling right at home here at this festival continuing to rise above the Covid graveyard. Without an outlet as diverse as the indie cinema, the handshake between art and entertainment would be lost entirely. (B+)
Friday, April 15 – 9 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian/Saturday, April 16 – 1 PM – AMC Pacific Place 11
Most every one of us is a collector of something, the trade of a highly specific item fueled by its oft-rarity. This SIFF hosts a documentary on the collector’s circuit for Pez dispensers, and the sheer illegality of sneaking past its distribution system. All of which carried forth at the mercy of Midwesterner Steve Glew. He was looking for a wild thrill, what he got was profiteering from smuggling in oddities blurring the central line between candy and toy. Adapted from Steve’s online diaries and spiced by vivid, elaborate reenactments and interviews with subjects going as far as FBI and Homeland officials, we’re treated to a story fitting the typical documentary, but leaps off the page with the same candid snark as Paul Feig on his quieter days. Even insofar as the Spies Like Us-level venture into Eastern Europe, it’d be mistaken for a fictional 90s comedy. It’s unbelievable, a little dumbfounding. Eventually, it burrows into one’s heart, rolling along with the jokes. With Glew being the true jokester he is, even the feds breathing down his neck can seem playful. (B)
Wednesday, April 20 – 8:30 PM/Thursday, April 21 – 3 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Embracing the lazy haziness of a New England summer, co-directors Jordan Tetewsky and Joshua Pikovsky slow roll their way through a quiet coming-of-age clash. 26-year-old Hannah (Hannah Lee Thompson) is happy with life on a rural farm outside of Boston. His older city-boy brother Paul (Roger Mancusi) is not at all convinced, and tries to get her to find a real job, whatever she can get that meets the rules of the corporate system. Trying to live up to the expectations of one, while still maintaining a smidgeon of truth? That would be the textbook definition of a quarter-life crisis, and we see much belonging to the contrary with Thompson’s performance. An aloof, shy, self-righteous heroine on the search for greater success in greener pastures. Literally greener pastures, as the sights of winding hills, tall grass, and August moonlight send the viewer into an endorphin-laced euphoria. A delight for the moment, if not for the long-term. (B+)