Sunday, May 1, 2016

SFIFF 59: Weekend One

It's been a few years since I've posted here, but as long as Blogger still exists it seems as reasonable a place as any to post these things. SFIFF kicked off last Thursday, and I've been attending at least one film a day. Below are my thoughts on the first four days of the festival (now a week ago).

Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman brings his unique brand of dialogue-heavy comedy ("heavy" seems too weak an adjective) to an adaptation of a Jane Austen novella, featuring Kate Beckinsale as a caustic aristocratic widow. Hilarious, delightful, and biting, it delivers, with apparent effortlessness.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

A surprisingly sad buddy/coming-of-age comedy from Taika Waititi. The tragedy and lightheartedness play off each other well, keeping the sweetness from becoming too strong while depression never gets a chance to settle in. The plot drags in the final act, and an over-the-top car chase scene feels tacked on from another movie, but overall this is that rare example of a "family" movie that doesn't feel dumbed-down.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Author documents the complex saga of JT LeRoy, who gained a literary following in the late 90s and early 00s before being unmasked as a "hoax". Investigating whether that word applies here is, in large part, the film's preoccupation. Nearly all of what's shown to the audience is direct from the mouth of Laura Albert, the woman who penned JT's literary output and embodied him in countless telephone calls with psychiatrists, authors, film makers, and musicians. Under normal circumstances, such an unreliable subject would doom a project like this, but given the nature of the underlying story it only enhances the resulting film. What we get is a dive into questions of what constitutes authenticity, authorship, and above all, identity.

Paths of the Soul

Featuring non-actors engaged in a religious pilgrimage, this Chinese-made, filmed-in-Tibet feature is at its best when it evokes the sense of overwhelming devotion its subjects seem to be experiencing. They travel 1200km from their homes (where they are subsistence farmers or builders) to the religious center of Lhasa. Not content merely to walk that long distance, they only take a few steps at a time before kowtowing, falling to the ground and touching their forehead to it (they equip themselves with leather aprons and wooden mitts to make this at all possible over such a long distance). Only when the action becomes more scripted, such as in an encounter with another pilgrim along the road, does the film flag a bit (though one could argue that the entire point of such scenes is to bring a sense of normalcy to the matter at hand).

Five Nights in Maine

A drama about grief, featuring an ideal cast and a restrained script: David Oyelowo is flawless, and and Diane Wiest presents a multi-layered performance that could have been a cardboard cutout of a mother-in-law. Yet the end result is strangely inert.


The biggest disappointment on my schedule so far, what promises to be an insightful comedy of manners (six friends on a boating vacation decide to compete to see who's "the best in general") degenerates quickly into improvised, poorly-edited not-much-happening.

Very Big Shot

Billed as a comedy, the story follows three brothers in Beirut as they try to make it in the world. The youngest plays it straight, running their family's pizza shop. But the eldest has bigger plans, first as a criminal and then, improbably, as a film producer. This is where the comedy element properly kicks in, after a rather violent first act. Unlike Wilderpeople, the elements aren't tightly woven together, but the structure still works, building the film into a proper satire by its climax.

Blood of My Blood

A story told in two intertwined parts, set hundreds of years apart, this is one of those international films for which I'm lacking the proper cultural context (in this case, Roman Catholic Italy), yet which I nevertheless found enthralling. The first part is a detective story of sorts, where the mystery is whether one character is in cahoots with Satan. The second part involves a "vampire" (whether that designation is literally accurate remains up in the air) now inhabiting the same chambers explored in the first. Altogether enjoyable, and something I'd see again at my earliest opportunity.


A documentary not about anything in particular, separated into 15 parts that, more than anything else, documents the filmmaker's home town of New York and his travels to attend film festivals around the world. But this is not a travelogue, but instead a piece of extended observation. The thing that impressed me most was that I was never bored, despite the relative formlessness of the endeavor, and the shots are not only engrossing but frequently beautiful.

All These Sleepless Nights

Billed as a documentary/fiction crossover, "documentary" here mostly seems to mean using real locations, and the actors' names, but the extent to which the story matches reality is of course impossible for a viewer to derive. Krzysztof and Michal wander from party to party, club to club, often until the morning light. There's a *Jules and Jim*-esque interlude in which Krzysztof enters into a relationship with Eva, an ex of Michal, but the narrative, such as it is, is not the focal point of the endeavor. This hit the same sweet spot of post-adolescent reminiscence (and late night electronic music) that Eden touched last year, and was a great way to close out the opening weekend.

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