SIFF Closing Weekend: Must-Sees Romeos and Por El Camino, Toast, Bon Appetit, Award Winners

by Meredith Brody
June 18, 2011 5:15 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Meredith Brody reports on the SIFF Closing Weekend:
“I’m 81 years old, and since May 5 I’ve seen 110 movies and spent ten days on a walking tour in Peru.”

This startling confession was shared with me, unbidden, by the woman sitting on my left at the 11 am screening of Princess (pictured), a Finnish movie I was sitting in despite having had no intention of seeing it as recently as a few minutes before sitting down in my seat.

I’d set off that morning for a 10 am press screening of The Yellow Sea, a Korean movie, fresh off the boat from Cannes, that had arrived with a pleasant reputation of violence (I like violence in movies, which is where it belongs). I’d plotted a route from the hotel to the year-round SIFF Cinema that passed by Top Pot Doughnuts, planning to surprise my friend Anita Monga with a bagful of sweet treats.

I arrived outside the venue with two minutes to spare, clutching my curiously unimaginative assortment (I’d expected artisanal flavors on offer, but no: bullseye, cinnamon-sugar old-fashioned, maple-glazed chocolate, twist, apple fritter), only to find the place locked up tighter than a drum. The guard next door was no help. I called the Festival’s Guest Office, the only number I had with me, and was told “All the press screenings are in Pacific Place.”

I hotfooted it back to PP, muttering imprecations under my breath, figuring I’d miss 20 minutes of a 2 hour and 20 minute film, only to be told with authority that there were no press screenings scheduled there that day. I called the Guest Office again, got the Press Office number, and yes, I was told, the screening of The Yellow Sea was indeed unspooling at SIFF Cinema.

I gave up. The movie gods apparently intended me to watch Princess, a movie “based on a true story” about a strong-willed woman who insisted on being addressed as “Princess” during her decades-long stay in a mental hospital. I found it rather tedious, with an insufficiently interesting episodic script, a cardboard villain in the form of a callous doctor, and an annoying main character. (However, if I was Louis B. Mayer, I would immediately sign the beautiful Krista Kosonen, who played a depressed lady-in-waiting to Princess, to a long-term contract.) I am amazed when I Google the film later to find out its star, Katja Kookola, has been scooping up awards for her performance all over Europe.

Thompson on Hollywood

Afterwards I march back to the hotel, where I find Anita, who was indeed able to watch The Yellow Sea (pictured) at 10 am, and, while accepting a twist, tells me her favorite Top Pot doughnut is blueberry.

We swirl past the Press Office, where I find that there is a DVD library available for checkout. I don’t come to film festivals to watch movies on DVD, I actually regret the fact that I watch as many movies on DVD or TiVO as I already do, but I’m helpless in the face of free movies, and check out three: Belle Epine and Clink of Ice from France, and a US independent film, Surrogate Valentine -- all narrative, although I know from experience that documentaries lose less of their power on the small screen than fiction films. The DVDS are due back tomorrow by 10am – I’ve obviously bitten off more than I can chew.

Thompson on Hollywood

Anita is introducing Romeos (pictured), from Germany, at 4 pm at Pacific Place, and I join her there. It’s a first feature film about the difficulties encountered during transition from female to male by a young person, from the equally young Sabine Bernardi, who made a documentary about transgendered people half-a-dozen years ago. Well-cast and acted, the film resonates with its audience, some of whom have never considered the broad spectrum of gender and sexuality.

There’s a cocktail party on the 25th floor of the W hotel, where I’m surprised to run into Dan Ireland, a friend from Los Angeles, and am further surprised to learn he was one of the founders of the Seattle International Film Festival, some 37 years ago (but who’s counting?), along with Darryl Macdonald, now director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Where have I been?

We continue catching up at a Festival dinner at Via Tribunali – I am more amazed that I’m choosing food over a movie than that I’m eating Italian food two nights in a row (excellent salumi, crudités, and pickled veg, followed by an extravagance of pizzas, and Nutella calzone for dessert, especially appropriate because I’ve just seen Nutella being eaten with a spoon in fellow diner Sabine Bernardi’s Romeos). Dan, known for his casting coups – first Renee Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, then Jessica Chastain in Jolene -- has just finished mentoring four young directors and helping produce their short films.

I stagger home and attempt to watch my DVDs, but due to the jumpy, sticky hotel DVD player and the not-so-hot transfers, I’m reminded once again that I should only resort to DVDS under optimum viewing conditions. Unfair to the filmmakers, unfair to me.

In the morning I manage to grab a cup of coffee with Lucy Virgen, who’s just spent three days seeing ten examples of the New American Cinema, as a member of the 3-man FIPRESCI International Federation of Film Critics jury. We make a tentative date to meet up at the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico in October.

Today is my Big Film Day: a five film orgy, spread out across the city. The marathon begins promisingly, at the AMC in Pacific Place, with perhaps my favorite film and biggest surprise of the festival: Por El Camino, an unknown quantity -- a first film from Uruguay. A young man and woman become accidental travel partners on the road (hence the title) and visit artists, socialites, and hippies on the way to falling in love. I’m charmed by the lightness of tone, fresh and believable characters, and uncommon landscapes and settings of this beguiling road movie. For once my schedule permits me to stick around for the Q and A, and I’m shocked to learn that the lead actor had never acted before, doesn’t intend to act again – he’s a writer, it seems – and was cast “on Monday, and we were shooting by Friday.”

The Yellow Sea, seen in the spacious stadium seating of SIFF cinema, disappoints me: of the genre “everybody dies” (see, most recently, Takeshi Kitano’s also disappointing Outrage, also on view at SIFF), its scenes of violence and car chases are confusingly staged, shot, and cut. But I give it points for insisting upon knives, swords, and razors as weapons of choice.

Afterwards I dash back to Pacific Place and cannot connect with Rene Goes to Hollywood, a confusing Georgian film (Russia, not Southern) that is part-thriller, part-fantasy: a film school teacher who also delivers propane murders one of his clients – or does he? Curiously I feel fonder of the experience at this remove than while I was watching it.

Thompson on Hollywood

Then I cab over to the University of Washington neighborhood (Hey! It’s commencement day!) for a foodie double bill at the Neptune, something of a gift to myself: Toast (pictured), based on the memoir by British chef Nigel Slater, followed by Bon Appetit, set in a Swiss restaurant. Toast has its moments, notably the committed performance by Helena Bonham Carter as Slater’s detested stepmother, as well as witty and nostalgic set and costume design. But Bon Appetit is a failure, a conventional, tired love triangle, whose not-particularly-well-observed restaurant background isn’t enough to distract me from the poor script – nor from the woman sitting next to me, who amazingly manages to consume a drippy, odiferous burrito, bite by tiny bite, for over an hour, and then cleans her hands with a handiwipe in an equally lengthy and OCD fashion, à la Lady Macbeth.

Sunday is brilliantly sunny, after two grey days – all the better because the Awards Brunch is being held at the Space Needle. I choose a table set at a corner overlooking the water – an astonishing view. There’s also an astonishing view when we’re invited to the buffet: green salad, fruits, adorable little pastries, bagels, eggs scrambled with tomatoes, peppers, and cheese, bacon, sausage, and enormous sides of smoky salmon. Yum.

The awards announcements continue my tradition of rarely having seen anything that receives a prize – even more likely here when I’ve only been in attendance for less than a week out of 25 days. Gandu, from India, won the New Directors Competition; the Fipresci prize went to On the Ice, To Be Heard, about young US poets, won the Golden Space Needle Audience Best Documentary Award; Being Elmo: a Puppeteer’s Journey won the Women in Film Persistence of Vision Award, and the Spanish Paper Birds won the Golden Space Needle Audience Best Film award. I’ve seen none of them. The only award winner I have seen is Circus Dreams, Best Films4Families Feature, chosen by an adorable Youth Jury – and that only because I sat next to its director, Signe Taylor, one night at dinner, and she slipped me a DVD to watch with my 9-year-old nephew, Ben.

I’m amused by Seattle’s generous tradition of reading out 4 runners-up to the first prize in every audience award. Seditiously I think; “if the first prize winner cannot perform all of its duties, does the first runner up take over its position?,” and; “would the winner of the third or fourth position include this knowledge in its forthcoming press releases?”

I take the Monorail over to Pacific Place, where my last two films of SIFF 2011 await: Gorbaciof – The Cashier Who Liked Gambling, a pleasantly tough and cynical little Italian thriller, cast with marvelous faces, among them Toni Servillo (almost unrecognizable from A Quiet Life, seen here at SIFF two weekends ago) whose wordy title belies its long, effective silent sequences; and Funkytown, a mildly amusing multi-character soap opera set in the not-quite-glamorous world of 70s Montreal disco.

I’m a little bummed that I’m being shipped out of Seattle before SIFF’s closing night film, Life in a Day, assembled from YouTube footage shot all over the world on July 24, 2010, by director Kevin Macdonald and producers Tony and Ridley Scott. Not just because it looks like fun, but because it’s screening in the Cinerama Theatre, which projection buffs -- including Dan Ireland -- have touted as a truly excellent venue.

Oh well, I think, at least I’ll get home in time to watch the TiVo’d Tony Awards before I learn who’s won them. I think, having seen The Normal Heart and Jerusalem, among other Tony nominees, that I’m in better position than I was at SIFF to have a dog in the hunt.

I’m en route to SeaTac airport when our driver receives word that two missing passengers are awaiting us back at their hotel. We turn back. I’m the kind of flyer who would rather be an hour early for my flight than a minute late, so I’m ready to excoriate the latecomers. Alas and alack, it turns out to be the young director and star of Por El Camino, Charly Braun and Esteban Feune de Colombi, so I spend the time complimenting them extravagantly on their movie, instead.

And then I stand in the longest security line ever, have to train, breathlessly, to another terminal, and walk onto the plane, sweaty and cranky, just before its doors are shut. Good times.

When I get home I find that there was actually not enough room left on the DVR for the Tonys to record. Adding insult to injury, the cover story of the Travel section of today’s New York Times is entitled “Fork by Northwest,” enumerating more than half-a-dozen new and alluring Seattle eateries to add to the list of those I carefully researched and also didn’t get around to sampling over my two weekends.

But wait! Sun breaks through the clouds. A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt, a documentary about a quirky chef which played at SIFF in between my visits, is unspooling on HBO all this week. The viewing party continues.

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