May 29, 2006

Seattle Dispatch. 1.

Seattle International Film Festival The segue from obsessing over Cannes to obsessing over the Seattle International Film Festival now begins in earnest with this first dispatch from Sean Axmaker, whose latest interview over at the main site is with screenwriter and storyteller extraordinaire, Stewart Stern. Here, Sean presents his takes on the opening night film, The Illusionist, as well as on A Prairie Home Companion, The Proposition, Conversations with Other Women, The Death of Mr Lazarescu and special presentations of silent classics, The Scarlet Letter and Au Bonheur des dames.

The Seattle International Film Festival is a brambly garden of delights and frustrations for local audiences, a festival so determined to be all things to all people that you have to search for the adventurous and the challenging amidst the crazy-quilt programming, and 2006 is no different. Good, bad, whatever, it's SIFF, the most well-attended film festival in North America, and I guess we wouldn't have it any other way.

Case in point: SIFF audiences lulled into a false sense of opening night delights with last year's uncharacteristically shaggy and individualistic opening night film, Miranda July's idiosyncratic and unpredictable Me and You and Everyone We Know, were brought back down to earth on Thursday, May 25, with this year's gala opening film, The Illusionist. Crafted with a budget-minded luscious sense of period detail to distract from the rudimentary direction and clumsy screenwriting (both from Neil Burger), the film was apparently chosen for its art-house star power (Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti) and pleasant visuals (sets, costumes, Jessica Biel caressed by soft lights).

The Illusionist

The story of a battle of wits between an enigmatic magician (Norton) and a decadent and corrupt Austrian Prince (Rufus Sewell) plotting his way to the throne with the marriage to a beloved Duchess (Biel), who just happens to be the magician's childhood love, is historical intrigue at its silliest, a 19th century game of political and personal brinksmanship played out as a long con royale. Thank the crown for Giamatti as the Chief Inspector, a poor-born opportunist with an interest in conjuring and showmanship and a nascent morality rekindled by the magician's theatrical sleight of hand. His twinkling eyes and theatrical smiles offering everything from cagey mistrust to professional appreciation (often at the same time) gives him the flamboyance the rest of the film so desperately needs in the face of Burger's contrivances, all of which he telegraphs with creaky pieces of misdirection that stick out like a digital effect in a show of 19th century stage illusion.

It's soon to be released, along with the opening weekend's other spotlight offerings. The Robert Altman/Garrison Keillor collaboration A Prairie Home Companion should be a marriage made in ensemble heaven. The frenzy of Altman films of old is now slowing down with age and easing up with the certitude that things will work out and everyone will find their place. And if they don't, then they'll just wing it and everything will be fine. He's at his best when working from a script with a strong, well-structured story, which maintains its shape while he colors outside the lines and doodles in the margins, but Keillor's script is too meandering to hold it up. Altman enjoys the company of the characters and their swirl of sweet-and-sour chemistry but has little luck creating any drama from the situation or any bite to the character collisions. The lolling little comedy is pleasing and good company and decidedly inconsequential.

The Proposition, a jagged Australian frontier western in the key of Peckinpah (the opening scene is a magnificent reworking of the siege of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), is the savage opposite, a family drama with a psychopath at the head of the clan. Nick Cave's sinewy script looks austere and stripped down but echoes with a rich set of characters and conflicts while slowly revealing an entire colonial culture built on institutional racism, and John Hillcoat allows the subtexts the bubble up from the fierce conflicts between law and outlaw, justice and social expediency (Ray Winstone never overplays his moral backbone), and brothers whose sense of loyalty is torn by the fits of sadistic violence perpetrated by its eldest (a nicely underplayed Danny Huston, an actor I like better with every modulated performance).

Conversations with Other Women

Hans Canosa's Conversations with Other Women - a two-hander shot entirely in split screen - could have easily degenerated into high concept gimmick. But the film of two seeming strangers whose slow dance to an impending one-night stand reveals a past history and unhealed emotional scars makes evocative use of the technique, throwing every scene off-balance with the fractured space (exaggerated even more by the apparent use of different takes) and the vast gulf that lies in that simple dividing line. It may be an obvious way to make the point of their distance and isolation, but on screen its effect is less intellectual than visually unsettling - it feels alienated more than it says alienated. It helps to have a strong and intimate story behind it, as well as two actors who bring the weight of their personas to the characters with a smart sense of theatrics and role-playing.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu won the Prix de Certain Regard at Cannes last year and has been a constant on the festival circuit, probably because the chances for any sort of broader theatrical success for this dark, barbed social satire set in the bureaucratic nightmare of Hungarian socialized medicine are roughly equivalent to the chances for universal health care under a Republican administration. Well, any American administration, for that matter. Watching the titular pensioner (played by Ion Fiscuteanu with a prickly independence that is slowly chipped away) get bounced from hospital to hospital, deteriorating to a state of numb incoherence while doctors and admitting nurses scold him like a naughty child and flaunt their authority in order to duck responsibility, is an ordeal. A riveting ordeal, but an ordeal nonetheless, and the bitter humor that Cristi Puiu laces through the odyssey becomes a release for the audience in desperate need of an escape valve.

The Scarlet Letter

My treat for the first weekend was a pair of archival gems, two silent films with live music composed and performed by Donald Sosin (accompanied by soprano Joanna Seaton and percussionist Nick Sosin). Victor Seastrom's The Scarlet Letter (1926 - and yes, his name is Sjöström, but not in Hollywood or on these credits) is a fascinating adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's early American novel, which was nigh on impossible to faithfully adapt in that era. The choices made by Seastrom, screenwriter Frances Marion and star Lillian Gish (who shepherded the production as an uncredited producer) are imaginative and respectful, but it's the luminous performance by Gish that makes it live. It's a visually magnificent production and the print (apart from one reel) was sharp and vivid.

Au Bonheur des dames

Au Bonheur des dames
Courtesy of L'Iconoteque La BiFi a Bercy

The newly restored print of Julien Duvivier's late French silent Au Bonheur des dames (1929) made its North American premiere (with a new score by Sosin) and it was an eye-opener, a mix of poetic realism and expressionism in a story set around a corporate department store that is crushing its competition by design, and the tiny shop across the street holding on by sheer will while the buildings around are literally razed to the ground. The montage effects have been compared to the Russians, but I see Walter Ruttman's Symphony of a City in its portrait of urban destruction and renewal, presented with a sense of loss as well as a sense of the unstoppable force of progress by Duvivier. No word on whether the beautifully restored print (which was a 'pre-opening' event at Le Giornate del Cinema in Italy last year) will get a DVD release, but it is playing in the upcoming San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July.

And don't forget to keep up with the most comprehensive SIFF coverage every weekday in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by dwhudson at May 29, 2006 4:34 AM


Comparing The Illusionist with Me and You and Everyone We Know just because they were both opening night films seems a bit of a stretch. While I wasn't as fond of the opening sequence used to build the story through a childhood friendship that just didn't feel real, the film still entertained. Having since seen Joanna Lipper's remake of Little Fugitive, I think it would have delivered a stronger opening night punch but may not have had the draw of bringing Jessica Biel to the Gala event.

Posted by: Jake Ludington at May 30, 2006 10:13 AM