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REVIEW – 2023 Seattle International Film Festival: Dispatches from the Movieverse


The first real impression I’ve gained so far from what’s being labeled the 49th installment of the Seattle International Film Festival is simple. Time is a much more symbolic factor than size or scale. As we continue to claw our way out of the pandemic, the annual event showcasing the big city’s appreciation for film is staying methodical in what one hopes will be a return to the 25-day marathon once seen in the before times. For the press, it’d have been close to six weeks. Even with the timespan, and venues, unchanged – 11 days across seven venues – there’s a fortunate sigh of relief when more time can be had to absorb the 200+ unique directions one can traverse through this festival. The in-person and online components are their own distinct features, with a week of streaming encores slated to follow on the SIFF Channel (the week of May 22) after closing night. That alone is a step in the right direction.

More so is the idea of discovery; there’s more to be found, whether it’s something first heard of at Sundance, or not previously discovered in the form of 23 world premieres (six of them features), 30 NA debuts, and 13 first-time US presentations. Either fiction based with 88 narrative features, or factual with 45 documentaries also on the slate. A festival like SIFF encourages all audience participants to wander, explore, find, and see something new with like-minded folks. Even with the challenges of these last few years, that mission statement has not wavered. To start from scratch by finding those same audiences again most effectively equates to reuniting with long-lost friends. They may be the same folks, only the dynamics have been altered. The feeling’s still consistent, with eyes wide open to witness, and to venture, a unique experience the standard sort of moviegoing can only seek to emulate, not duplicate. I, for one, have missed the wild, lasting spectacle of it all; that much has grown once more this year, lending to quite the smile. 18 days might not seem like enough time to dive in, but it’s plenty to savor once more in the moment. As well as the fact their footprint is growing with a major announcement thrown in. In other words, there will be chocolate popcorn again in the future.

The 49th Seattle International Film Festival runs throughout the city and nearby parts May 11-21, followed by its virtual component May 22-28. Full details including tickets and deeper film descriptions are available at siff.net. Titles with virtual access on the SIFF Channel during the aforementioned encore week will be marked with an asterisk (*). Check back here often over the next few days for updated capsules of the film I personally dive into. May it curate your trajectory responsibly.


Punderneath It All*

Tuesday, May 16, 6:30 PM – AMC Pacific Place

Wednesday, May 17, 3:30 PM – Ark Lodge Cinemas

First, it was simple poetry. Now it’s the mere breaking down of words that may sound like another word if one’s crafty enough to find the solution. Pun slams are apparently a thing, they have their own culture, and they’ve grown to a following with a quiet yet loyal leadership. And in the PNW, it’s as strong as ever. In this world premiere documentary, director Abby Hagen highlights the successes of multiple competitive pun slams nationwide focusing intently on the strength and legacy of Seattle’s circuit, and that of Olympia’s growing equivalent. While the rules vary, the principle remains the same – find the right words, tweak them, and give them a genuine flow that will either make someone laugh or make them think. I couldn’t make up my mind, personally, what track to follow here, the structure of this film is a bit too long for its concept, maybe a little short to effectively convey its aim as an unconventional vocab lesson. Either make it a compelling doc short or broaden its scope. It does a fair job as a feature, regardless, and Hagen finds every chance to tickle the funny bone. Even with its structure a little off, there is still much to learn about wordsmithing. I never would’ve known puns could be so… cereal? (hold for applause) (C)


A Disturbance in the Force

Thursday, May 18, 8:30 PM – Shoreline Community College

Friday, May 19, 3:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown

The creatives involved will rebuke or deny their existence. The fans are split down the middle over its presence in the universe. And some may say it’s even canon now – that remains up for debate. Through interviews conducted with both key personnel, and celebrity fanatics, the dark history of The Star Wars Holiday Special, and how the saga itself became such a monumental IP is charted in a new documentary. Once considered an underground corner of the fandom after its one and only TV broadcast in 1978, the internet granted it a second life where anyone might know about it, quick to point out its litany of flaws. Ask anyone involved, they will say it was a troubled production with no clear vision and minimal oversight. Not even George Lucas could feign any support for the project, knowing he had greater sights on the horizon. But therein lies a rather unexpected message. Even when the result leads to an absolute mess (with no time or money left), it helps to take pride in the work, as the future impact can often outweigh the initial exhaustion and shame. To look back on something so misguided and campy might prove embarrassing. But that might also be what makes it fun, to revisit with a few pokes and prods. Just like the special itself, a variety show set in space where lore takes a quiet backseat to nascent thrills, this complimentary account is at its best when recognizing its authorship, and not taking it at all too seriously. A balanced docu, with plenty of laughs. (A-)


King Coal

Friday, May 12, 6:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown

Saturday, May 13, 11:00 AM – AMC Pacific Place


In what might best be described as a multimedia poetic essay, director Elaine McMillon Sheldon takes the role of narrative guide through her old stomping grounds. Her experiences growing up in the Appalachians, with its unspoiled wilderness, vast coal mining land, and fervent residents finds capable footing in a visual account spanning years, if not decades. The further back we go (by way of archival footage), the more haunting of an ode it evolves into. Though even when the story knows where it’s going, eventually latching onto a careful representation of the coal industry, its players, and its dangers, its mild dream-like state almost stops its momentum. This is despite eye-catching, museum-like cinematography by Sheldon’s husband Curren. The pair take an intimate, unfamiliar approach to what would’ve otherwise been a standard documentary rooted too much in its tragedy. And while its sense of direction needs an extra beat to establish, the overall tone blends beauty with circumstance, reminding one of disaster, and then of a cautious hopefulness. Coal is a dangerous business, and yet all hope might not be lost. (B+)


Stephen Curry: Underrated

Saturday, May 13, 5:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown

Sunday, May 14, 1:00 PM – Shoreline Community College

(Streaming on Apple TV+ July 21)


We all know this guy is among the greatest to play the game of basketball. But as documentarian Peter Nicks will show, there’s more to this modern legend that we may not have considered. From humble beginnings as a key figure at Davidson College to his many years as a Golden State Warrior, Curry has proven his dominance, work ethic, and near fragility. All three intertwine as we see him recover quickly from injury, guiding his squad to another playoff run, not shying away from past injuries, and prior mistakes he looks to atone for. He may have always been a bit scrawny, and a little more susceptible to the elements. But we find both sides of that idea, his admission of fault, and the way he responds, make for an engaging, eye-opening study of humanity. This is one of those sports documentaries destined for the same immortality as their point of profile. Nothing’s out of place with Curry charting his course from scrappy high schooler to a figurehead of the dynasty to easygoing dad. All of that adds up to a monumental effort, one made for a large screen. (A-)


Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia

Saturday, May 13, 1:30 PM – Shoreline Community College

Saturday, May 20, 11:00 AM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian

This was the film I knew I’d be most excited about in this year’s fest. A return to that zippy, children’s book-like animated realm of a decade prior. And even without Benjamin Renner’s unique directorial voice shining through, there’s still plenty of candidness to be found, coupled with routine surprise and silliness. The best friend duo of a spry mouse and a musician bear find themselves on a road adventure to Ernest’s home country, a cultural hotbed, to repair his prized violin. Having not been home in years, he’s shocked to discover there’s no music to be found. Apart from a single note, it had been outlawed. What turns into a quick errand becomes a quest to save free expression, and to protect freedom of choice. And my oh my, does this road trip turn madcap, boisterous even with its sense of humor. That’s one joy this film prides itself in. Second, is its musical instrumentation, with plenty of jazz involved. Third, the same sort of watercolor art style as in its predecessor. The impact this sequel leaves behind is not as strong or captive, nor as nostalgic with its idea of naive childlike wonder. That doesn’t apply so much as where this sequel thrives best – its unbridled, unsuppressed idea of expression. Best to roll with it, grab an instrument and join the party. (A-)


Past Lives

OPENING NIGHT FILM – Thursday, May 11, 7:00 PM – Paramount Theatre

(A24 will release this film in Seattle on June 16 as part of a nationwide rollout)

The film gaining the most ground out of Sundance, and after witnessing it firsthand with a packed house at the Paramount, I can understand why. In her debut feature film, writer/director Celine Song crafts a sobering cross-exam of relationships challenged by distance and time and questioned by the idea of what could’ve been. Thankfully, without ever leaning too hard on the metrics. It’s a story that remains focused on what’s happening at the moment, be it the present, or a long time ago. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) reconnect in New York for a week, 20 years after being pulled apart in the wake of Nora’s family emigrating from South Korea. Along the way, the two are stuck asking each other where things stand, their affections, and how fate can be an unpredictable, regret-laden mistress. Such heady material must be handled with expert care; Song proves her skill runs a million circles, sharpening her focus like it were the onlooker’s perspective. The way the camera moves about in broad crosses from scene to scene further emphasizes this intimate idea, capturing the curiosity and the determination of closure. Quite easily one of the year’s greatest surprises, not to shock but to stir the mind into a quietly empathic frenzy. (A)



Friday, May 12, 4:15 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian

Tuesday, May 16, 6:00 PM – Shoreline Community College

I’m enough of an easy sucker for nature docs, particularly those involving the ocean. But the story behind it must compel as much as stark cinematography can. Jean-Albert Lievre’s exploration of whale culture, their presence as the planet’s largest mammals, and their contribution to the overall ecosystem is nothing more than awe-inspiring eye candy without a clear directive or substance. Utilizing the frankness of Heathcote Williams’ same-titled book, so much is described on the ecological plight of these mammoth creatures, their day-to-day patterns, migratory and social habits, and their perception toward Earth’s lingering fate. There’s a lot crammed in, going from cheerful, to amusing, then to dreary, bitter, and effectuating. And all throughout, with everything it’s attempting to say about the sea and its guardians, it was simply impossible to stay engaged. In one ear and out the other, ultimately. (C)


Year of the Fox

Saturday, May 13, 6:45 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian

Sunday, May 14, 12:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown

Megan Griffiths returns to the festival with her sixth feature, continuing her trend for female-led coming-of-age tales in a realm of certain expectations. A fairytale place like Aspen, CO in the late 90s often exudes an idyllic, highly social charm. Quite the positive if that weren’t so painfully undercut by its elitism. That’s the gravity of Ivy’s (a mellow Sarah Jeffrey) plight, stuck in the middle of her parent’s divorce, splitting her senior year between Colorado and Seattle. She finds herself desiring to grow up too quickly and find her independence before the microcosm of societal and patriarchal norms denies her that opportunity. In the vein of more classical 90s teen comedies, Griffiths cashes in on that relatable nostalgia. As a film in 2023 challenging sociological ideals, it manages to play the long game, struggling partway to maintain a level curve. Ultimately, the kinks level out, and we find an eloquent, often abrasive diatribe of adolescent angst and identity crisis, with reality appearing less and less like an illusion. Keep an eye out for an expertly witty turn by Balthazar Getty as “the fox.” (B-)


Seven Samurai (ARCHIVAL PRESENTATION – in 35mm) 

Saturday, May 13, 2:15 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian 

Seven Samurai_Still_06

Akira Kurosawa’s pivotal masterpiece of heroes banding together to help the otherwise helpless came very much alive on the big screen at the Egyptian. And with a well-aged 35mm print, no less. It is the late 16th century; farmers are in danger of losing their crops due to the thievery of raiders just after harvest time. Fed up, one such group recruits a team of ronin to protect their community. Against the backdrop of all-out battle, what they do not expect is the personal turmoil accompanying the stain of war, testing their character and resolve. And at three and a half hours, for the casual movie viewer, this would be quite the endurance test. It is a slow-moving, frequently conversational, witty, and profound piece of filmmaking speaking to not just the pain of conflict (or its price), but to its players on both sides. I may have gone in expecting endless action, I will admit – this was my first time ever with any Kurosawa work. But I left with a fresh perspective of human initiative and sacrifice that may prove unrivaled. One can try, and many have, to match that same concept. And yet, the OG could make the boldest statement. Its loose tone and candor go gangbusters to keep the viewer engaged, so too with Toshiro Mifune’s breakout performance as the ticking timebomb Kikuchiyo. Truly one to watch out for, as the dusty, grainy visuals captured by Kurosawa and DP Asakazu Nakai play out in unrestrained fashion. There were likely some stretches where a scene flies so quickly you cannot remember it. The way Kurosawa invites the viewer to absorb the landscape and that interceding tension, however, that is what keeps the moment alive. A grand spectacle… that I need to see again. (A) 


Lonely Castle in the Mirror 

Sunday, May 14, 4:00 PM – Shoreline Community College 

Friday, May 19, 3:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown 

Director Keiichi Hara spins a mashup of Harry Potter, Hunger Games (sans the deaths), and familiar melodramas, in this animated adaptation of Mizuki Tsujimura’s novel. Seven teenagers from various parts of Tokyo find themselves in a beautiful yet mysterious castle surrounded by ocean. A relative escape from their worrisome trouble or trauma in middle school, which are all emphasized effectively on their unique tracks. And which 7th grader Kokoro, as leader, tries to make sense of, while they gather clues to open a hidden room, where inside they can make one wish to alter their future. As the story moves along, we are quick to recognize the gain and loss of securing this singular wish, as well as the danger of not abiding by castle rules. Stay past 5PM, you simply will not survive. The personal strife of these characters, slow and often clunky to establish, is what will leave one in a reserved whirlwind. When its act finally gains cohesion, it is with a few misty eyes. It might not exactly scream a theatrical anime, but Hara does not ignore a desire for the grandiose, gathering an intrinsic, aesthetically calming snapshot of human obstacles, and friendships affirmed by conquering such. Meanders about a little too much before reaching its toothsome core, but relishes in the adventure all the same. (B-) 



Sunday, May 21, 5:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian 

A delightfully Canadian expression of self-esteem when it is tough to muster, writer/director Chandler Levack frames a candid portrait of post-Y2K cinephile culture and personal introspection in the sleepy hamlet of Burlington, Ontario. Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen) is a true film nerd just trying to survive senior year of high school, with the goal of getting into NYU’s film program. Through shopping, and later working at the town’s key video store, he gains needed life skills, and makes close friends with manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo). But he is not always the smoothest guy to work with, battling an argumentative, anxiety prone personality. Reaching the crossroads of adulthood, those emotions reach a tough brick wall to leap over. And as the tone shifts from sly high school comedy to tender character study, Levack homes in on that resilient spirit bridging the two. All with a period-accurate sense of style, granting a most deliberate time capsule effect. Anyone who endured a wind of change in the early aughts will be most swept up in its nostalgic resonance, as Lehtinen and D’Ugo commit to the realm with endless candor. (A-)


Coldwater Kitchen* 

Friday, May 12, 1:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown 

Thursday, May 18, 1:00 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown 

Some may serve a committed sentence as a criminal, others as a teacher. Only a lucky few can bridge that gap, opening the door to a second chance. That best describes the work of Jimmy Lee Hill, chef, and food tech specialist at Michigan’s Lakeland Correctional Facility. He is guiding a group of incarcerated students through a rigorous culinary training program. As seen in Brian Kaufman and Mark Kurlyandchik’s documentary, it is easy to find how success in civilian rehab varies, so too does the beauty in cuisine. Not everyone comes in from the same path of error, nor all exit prison the same direct course to betterment. It’s the work ethic Hill instills with his comrades making the greatest difference. That much was working well in the directing duo’s favor, showing a different idea of prison life, and negating the stereotype how there’s almost nothing out there in the short term once the debt’s been paid. The vindication is clear in the faces of these inmates. Though in executing this concept to film, it is a trifle muddled as the sequence of events do not exactly follow an order befitting the ebb and flow of life-altering circumstance. Therefore, it was a little too easy to disengage, then reengage as events played out. But at a certain point, the gratefulness for individuals like Chef Hill cuts through a sluggish editing pattern. Evidence is crucial when visualizing a path away from our worst selves. Once it happens, we must stick with it, and then show our thanks. Even as it appears a little obscure in view, Chef Hill is more than deserving of all those kudos. (C+) 


Dancing Queen 

Tuesday, May 16, 6:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown 

Wednesday, May 17, 3:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian 

A Norwegian dramedy with middle-school students surviving the difficulties of hip-hop dancing. Fairly easy concept to grasp, but what director Aurora Gossé injects into this spirited tale gives it plenty of snarky, empathic oomph to elevate it beyond immature action. Seventh grader Mina (Liv Elvira Kippersund Larsson) finds herself intertwined in a dance troupe anchored by social media famous Edwin (Vilijar Knutsen Bjaadal), joining ahead of a major town competition. She may be head over heels for the smug toe-tapper who becomes her stage partner, but he is far from a positive influence, driving her to maddening expectations to win. Like Pitch Perfect, if it converged into Step Up territory, there is much to this story encapsulating the school elective experience with a ferocious attitude. It does get a little messy, dangerous even, brimming with sorrow-laced conflict. But it’s fuel, nonetheless, for Mina to break past her shy ugly duckling shell, discover her authentic self. A jubilant adventure of personal discovery that can stir the mind as much as warm the heart. Larsson wins the moment all throughout. (A-) 


Even Hell Has its Heroes (NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE) 

Wednesday, May 17, 6:15 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian 

Thursday, May 18, 8:30 PM – Ark Lodge Cinemas 

I need to give this documentary, and its focal point, a second chance. And its focal point. Director Clyde Petersen gives dues to the underrated PNW band Earth, a group whose genre of choice is labeled “slow metal”. But their instrumentation only scratches the surface of pure metal, or even rock. Often, their work borders on the jazzy, orchestral, even experimentally classical ala John Cage. I can more than easily appreciate, and embrace, its approach to recanted stories by its participants, deviating from the typical “talking head” profile shot, instead showing them amid their craft, or feigning antics akin to their work in the studio, all while narrating. It almost gives off an echo to The Beatles in Magical Mystery Tour – amusing, yet wildly unpredictable. Therein lies its flaw, wrapped in very concise 16mm photography. While it follows a fair pattern of tangents, organized with a guided hand, it is a bit too unruly for my taste. Not so chaotic as it is overdetailed, as the participants tend to ramble on. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the music were not so hypnotic. On its own, the soundtrack invokes a bevy of strong emotions, a captive genre crossroads if you will. But attempting to focus on both lengthy spoken word and droning chord progression in equal steps leads to much of the band’s history being drowned out. And that is even with a touching ode to Kurt Cobain, incorporated with respect and class. A lot of it just gets lost in the shuffle, and I hope a second viewing in the distant future can help to better appraise its idea, as well as the music in play. (C+)