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SIFF2021 REVIEW: Capsules (Part 1) – Seattle’s Cinematic Crown Jewel Found its Way Back, and We’ve Missed It

Nobody could have imagined it to happen, but as the above trailer makes very clear, it is. With some adaptations. Last year, like so many social confluences falling by the wayside in favor of lockdowns and isolation, we were not as lucky. The Seattle International Film Festival, as we once knew it, had to be canceled amid a time of complete uncertainty. The crown jewel of this city’s cinematic community snuffed out. The rush of a shared experience on a large screen, discovering new names, faces and flavors while navigating multiple neighborhoods. The need to subsist primarily on popcorn, when not visiting great local food joints adjacent to the theaters themselves. The chance to meet famous people who wouldn’t otherwise come to town normally. Those laurels alone could always make a great movie.

2020 was not too kind to events of this nature; we’ve all had to adapt to stay entertained. And we’re still slowly escaping the long, infinite tunnel we’ve been driving through for the last 13 or so months. To know some of the things we’ve taken for granted before then have adapted with us, that’s enough of a reason not to let our guard down. It is in that spirit, and through the support of their members and other donors, that SIFF has risen once again. All from the comfort of home. And so far, it feels just as exciting as being dead center at the Egyptian. The atmosphere may be way different, and the quantity of films presented is significantly reduced; 92 features including five world premieres, and 120-plus shorts. But the core principle of discovery has thankfully remained the same.

As in years past, even if a film ends up falling short, there’s always a little magic accompanying a newfound experience where, any other time of the year, would be near impossible to achieve. The best upside of having a major festival of this nature is its increased accessibility. Most of the films presented are accessible to viewers nationwide via the SIFF Channel app. It’s downloadable to devices in the same vein your favorite streaming service would. Only a handful with certain distribution agreements are geo-blocked to Washington state.

SIFF has certainly thought of everything to mimic as much of an in-person experience as possible, building the right word of mouth to help patrons guide their choices. No direction is a wrong direction with this festival, and in 2021’s edition, the overall 47th installment has proven that even further.

After two years of waiting, this film festival has made a comeback most deserving. And yet, it almost feels bittersweet since it’s only half the time of a typical festival. Time is very much of the essence, which may be part of why this recap is coming a little late. The rest of the way in this article you’ll find quick capsules of my first batch of SIFF 2021 viewings. With only four days and change remaining, the urgency couldn’t be more heightened. There is still time to get in, I hope you do. But be ready to embrace the feeling of being lost in the wider world as only great filmmaking and great storytelling can do.

Full information for the films below is at siff.net, and individual tickets start as low as $12.

Note: larger reviews for films covered here are expected to follow in the weeks ahead.

Mogul Mowgli (not yet rated, 90 minutes)

NOTE: This film is only available to select passholders, otherwise sold out

While it doesn’t reach the same emotional eclipse Sound of Metal effectively shattered, Mogul Mowgli fits the exact mold a counterpart would need to slip into. Speaking less on the fragility of human preservation and more on the idea of mere mortality from both a physical and cultural interpretation, Riz Ahmed makes no small effort of reexploring that cozy niche, portraying a small-neighborhood London rapper looking to make it big on a major European tour. All as his body fails to keep him going, diagnosed with a rare auto-immune illness. His spirit, or more accurately stubborn dogma fuels a performance rooted in optimistic turmoil. It’s a role destined to at least serve as the vocal, homegrown antithesis to an empathically charged blaze of fury. Between the pair, you get to see two unique sides of a brilliant actor finally stepping into his unique prime. (A-)

The Dry (rated R, 117 minutes)

NOTE: Opening Night Film, will play in wide release in June.

Based on Jane Harper’s hit novel, Robert Connolly outdoes the quiet ebullience of his prior feature, the more family-friendly Paper Planes, with a work as gritty, violent, and heated as the landscape it’s shot in. Eric Bana cautiously, but with teeth bared, sinks way too deep as a federal agent, investigating the mysterious death of an old friend amid an increasingly dangerous drought. No detail or clue is ever overlooked through Connelly’s eyes as a storyteller, ratcheting the tension like the tightest coil, one best found in a warbling music box. Once it grabs you, it refuses to let go until the screen finally goes dark, most ardently. Perhaps even hypnotically. Its antagonistic angle could stand for a clarity revision, otherwise, it stays on a rather solid footing throughout. Think Chinatown, but a bit toothier and more heated. (A-)

Summertime (rated R, 95 minutes)

Where Blindspotting spoke to Oakland by way of freestyle, Carlos Lopez Estrada’s directorial follow-up slows down to appreciate those little things you maybe didn’t quite know about LA, told through poetic prose. The way each element weaves together is admittedly a bit inconsistent, a bit uneven. It does move a little clunkily, tapping the brakes too often when the reasoning is not so justified. But then again, that is poetry. It can jump from place to place often at the drop of a dime. And the characters speaking these words, it was too easy to find a piece of my own complicated identity within them. Deserving of a strong cult audience as the temps climb a little. (A-)

 

Super Frenchie (not yet rated, 77 minutes)

Every great SIFF must have at least one film eager to celebrate the real-world splendor of nature. If Warren Miller’s filmmaking principles were to have factored more prevalently the evolution of ski BASE jumping as a popular pastime, you would have Super Frenchie, but with a better grip on its focus. Chase Ogden’s profile of extreme athlete Matthias Giraud tells so much but doesn’t entirely account for the hidden variable. For such a brisk runtime, we get plenty of jaw-dropping visuals; I certainly lost my mind during our first glimpse of GoPro footage during a jump. But its deep thematic plotline needed to be recognized earlier on instead of at the midway point. Make the viewer understand the risks immediately, then show the euphoria. Still one heck of a journey deserving of a giant screen, probably not to the same level as Free Solo… but close-ish? (B)

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (rated PG, 107 minutes)

NOTE: sold out except to current SIFF passholders, restricted to WA state viewers, wide release April 23

The crash course fans of every quadrant, casual observers, and uninitiated humans nowhere near versed in the realm of CTW and its Hensonian partnership alike can appreciate together. Any great television show with enough time and passion can evolve into its own living, breathing organism. Time spent building its lore, and the passion of the creative minds responsible. For Sesame Street, the credit could never just be about Jim, the physical/tactile influence. Joan Cooney (the staunch educating beacon), and especially Jon Stone (the iconoclastic, decisive coordinator) brought in their equal share along the way if not slightly more. While some of the old archival footage can’t be allowed to speak for themselves, with much of the anecdotal interviews often overpowering the echoes of time, voice and image still weave together in an attention-grabbing manner only rivaled by the show itself. (A)

Strawberry Mansion (not yet rated, 90 minutes)

NOTE: sold out except to current SIFF passholders.

What true midnight movies are made of. Artistry with the unholy combination of Jodorowsky, Lynch and Jonze. Set pieces reminiscent of Magical Mystery Tour. Utter quirky shock-and-awe to make John Waters weep in approval. One of the most WTF films one would bear witness to, and it rolls with that in a blaze of pride. I did not expect there to be some middle fingers to capitalism mixed with vivid fever dream imagery and given a Downton Abbey-esque backdrop in the woods of Maryland. Almost exactly how our waking mind would perceive the subconscious side, without completely melting our perception of thought. It stops just short of that, settling on the confusion and dread of consumerism we almost do not consider. Kentucker Audley captures that idea, and coats it in decadent chocolate. And somehow, it is very delicious. Accompanied with short film “The Other Morgan.” (A)

Conductivity (not yet rated, 73 minutes)

Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy gets its screen dues as three conductors in training share their collective and thoroughly wry journey through musical theory and expression. Even with years of choral and theater experience during public school, the discipline of being a conductor, a captain, a leader by which the members of a large symphony place their trust upon, is near impossible to fathom. Oftentimes, it is near physical, and time-consuming, to say the least. We may only have only an hour to spend with this trio of recruits, but that’s plenty to see in their work, and their physicality the lengthy, perhaps painstaking commitments to their craft. Not so much to recognize the nooks and crannies of a musical piece, but to give them breath, elevate their power toward an audience. A very neat and tidy docu destined to speak best to the classical music fan. Accompanied by world premiere short film “Greenwood.” (B+)

Too Late (not rated, 80 minutes)

An unexpectedly biting satire on the pitfalls of stand up, with actual bite in the form of an experienced comedian (Ron Lynch) who’s a bit of a monster, literally. D.W. Thomas makes an impressive feature directorial debut, letting talented comic actors run amok in a phantasmagorical version of an open mic club. And the results are light, yet still quivering. This is a film desperate for the right talent to boost its cache. And we get that greatly in Lynch, and in Alyssa Limperis portraying his loyal talent booker, while she struggles to keep her head above water. Takes up too much of its runtime, however, establishing the cadence of its antagonist’s hunger, peppered with plenty of witty stage jokes. Still managed to hold my attention running high on unashamedly cliched quirks alone. And man, are there plenty in play. Accompanied by weirdly brief short film “Unholy ‘Mole”. (B+)