2016 Seattle International Film Festival capsule movie reviews

2016 Seattle International Film Festival capsule movie reviews

As I work toward my annual goal of watching 50 films screening during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival, here are bite-sized capsule reviews of the films I have screened. This article will continue to be updated throughout 2016 SIFF.

"The Architect" (trailer): This battle of wills between a married couple and their invasive, controlling architect is a perfectly fine little comedy. The film is most engaging when the elements of practicality and artistic expression are at odds. While "The Architect" touches upon some intriguing, unspoken aspects of marriage - related to compromises or when personal wants conflict with the spouse's needs - the film sadly limps to the finish line. A major third act story reveal is unsatisfying and the overall resolution is uninspired. (Score: 2/5)

"Beware the Slenderman": As far as crime documentaries go, "Slenderman" is a perfectly serviceable examination of a peculiar and violent crime. While this particular and infamous crime benefits from the long-form documentary format. The film touches upon several subjects (such as mental health and internet culture) but the content itself is more topically interesting than it is genuinely compelling. "Slenderman" is informative but lacks the fundamental emotional resonance or an urgent call to action inherent to great documentaries. (Score: 3/5)

"The Blackcoat's Daughter": This horror-thriller certainly takes its time in deliberately meting out plot points or reveals. "Blackcoat" moves so tediously that it challenges the audience's patience. Even when all is revealed, "Blackcoat" is little more than a storytelling gimmick (interweaving two apparently separate story lines) that inexplicably takes an unearned supernatural twist too late in the game. The sudden, gory ramp-up in third act violence is a hollow attempt to shock the audience. Luckily an especially chilling performance from Kiernan Shipka ("Mad Men") keeps "Blackcoat" from losing the audience. (Score: 2/5)

"Burn Burn Burn": For a buddy, road trip flick this British dramedy is deceptively more dramatic than it first appears. "Burn Burn Burn" is an enjoyable journey that mines comedy from a pair of complex (some what unlikeable) characters forced to face the truth about their lives. "Burn" works because its two lead characters are multi-dimensional characters - which gives them the foundation to react comically to inherently dramatic plot points. Co-leads Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie each inhabit distinct, well-rounded characters that share the chemistry of deep friendship. (Score: 3/5)

"Café Society" (trailer): This breezy little rom-com works best when Kristen Stewart is on screen - everything else is just a pretty looking, affable (if rushed) period comedy. While undeniably a witty and funny script, "Café" is a bit of cheat: writer-director Woody Allen's playful dialogue and beautifully fleshed out '30s era Hollywood obscures an underdeveloped plot that wanders and lurches forward abruptly. If only "Café" was as satisfying as its bittersweet third act moments, then it might have great instead of just sorta entertaining. Worth watching if only for Stewart's standout performance. (Score: 3/5)

"Cameraperson": This collage of moments is a masterpiece of editing. Each individual clip could stand on its own - but when woven together, "Cameraperson" is a riveting and powerful work of unconventional storytelling. This mesmerizing documentary bounces through space and time, connecting seemingly unrelated moments to create stirring exploration of trauma and living with the memories. (Score: 5/5)

"Captain Fantastic" (trailer): Viggo Mortensen carries this offbeat drama about a free-spirited father who has raised his brood of children to survive in the world, but failed to equip them to actually live in the world. He is the dramatic core that grounds this film, keeping the story focused on his sometimes narrow-minded efforts to raise his family the way he wants and preventing "Captain Fantastic" from just being a hokey pile of platitudes. It charms when it could have been corny. "Fantastic" walks the razor's edge between sincerity and saccharinity. (Score: 3/5)

"Carnage Park" (trailer): The effort to reproduce the gritty, retro vibe of the '70s grindhouse horror exceeded the effort that went fleshing out any sort of story. This thin throwback flick is a classic cinematic case study in "style over substance." It resorts to cartoonish gore, an annoying sound design and silly creepy cackling to lazily manipulate the audience into terror. "Carnage" is all gimmick and no substance. (Score: 2/5)

"Claire in Motion": Most films about a missing person would focus on the thriller aspect of the search but this character-driven defies expectations by focusing not on the missing person, but on the people they left behind. So much of this film is ambiguous, which this film smartly uses to press its lead characters who simultaneously cling to hope while also growing increasingly suspicious of the missing father and husband. "Claire" is an emotionally introspective journey that takes a great risk by immersing the story in uncertainty. (Score: 4/5)

"Death By Design": Everyone loves their smart device, but this disheartening expose reveals how the smartphone and tablet sausage is made. "Design" is an earnest documentary that very plainly lays out the awful truth behind the essential technology that we apparently cannot live without. "Design" efficiently and clearly pulls back the curtain to reveal the horrific environmental and human toll inflicted by wanton consumerism. What this documentary may lack in artistic execution it makes up with shocking revelations. (Score: 3/5)

"Disorder" (trailer): The simplicity of this paranoia-inducing, tightly-wound thriller is its genius. Simply dropping an armed guard, who is suffering from PTSD, into a very real threat is nerve-wracking. "Disorder" is absolutely effective in keeping the audience on-edge. It's never clear whether the protagonist's perceived threats are real -- or simply his hallucinations. It allows the audience some insight into the constant anxiety and uncertainty of PTSD - the certainty of danger, but doubting the reliability of his own faculties. (Score: 4/5)

"Don't Think Twice" (trailer): The joy of this comedy is watching a close-knit group of friends completely implode and consume each other with envy. "Don't Think Twice" makes the most of its brilliant ensemble cast, giving each of them a complex and empathetic character arc. Writer-director Mike Birbiglia throws his cast of characters from the relative safety of their hopes and dreams into a genuine crisis of ambition and jealousy. This is one of the very best narrative films of SIFF 2016. (Score: 5/5)

"Equals": Stunning production design is a powerful asset that gives any film credibility -- but there's a problem when production design is the strongest aspect of any film. Unfortunately, this is the case with this obvious and less-than-subtle sci-fi flick. Great science fiction leverages its fantastical tropes to tell emotionally honest stories - but "Equals" spends too much time stuck in building its tedious mythology. Its themes are heavy handed and the script isn't clever enough to overcome a sadly simplistic and dull story. (Score: 2/5)

"The Eyes of My Mother": Going into this movie blind is the best way to get the most out of this nuanced and intimate horror story. "The Eyes of My Mother" is a stark, beautiful film that takes one dark, horrifying turn after another. This is a genuinely surprising film on virtually every level - it's surprisingly empathetic of its main character, a lonely and isolated woman in a story that follows one shocking moment after another. With hints of "Psycho" and "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," this is a must-see of the festival. (Score: 5/5)

"Finding Babel": Somber and haunting, "Babel" is an evocative look back at an acclaimed artist who was very nearly wiped from the history books, a man whose story also serves as a cautionary tale for the modern world. Isaac Babel's story is not merely a one-off biography about one specific man - this is a timeless warning of the dangers of any totalitarian regime. (Score: 5/5)

"Finding Kim" (trailer): Timely and intimate, "Finding Kim" is a personal journey that explores many revealing facets of the transitioning process. This revealing and intimate documentary doesn't strive to definitively answer "every question you were ever too afraid to ask about transgender people" -- it puts a human face to a complex social issue, emotional journey and medical process. The subject's vulnerabilities and concerns are laid bare, offering an genuine insight into a process that, quite frankly, the general public is ignorant of. (Score: 4/5)

"The Fits": Star Royalty Hightower delivers one of the very best performances of SIFF 2016 in this bold, confident and abstract coming-of-age drama. "The Fits" forces the audience back to the awkward feeling of not quite fitting in - establishing a character who wants to maintain her identity but is tempted by the allure of acceptance. This atmospheric, psychological drama taps into very elemental adolescent anxieties - isolation, inclusion and identity - to tell an emotionally true story. Hightower reveals her wisdom with a nuanced, focused breakout performance. (Score: 5/5)

"Folk Hero & Funny Guy": review to come

"The Free World": review to come

"Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story": Any one specific chapter in former NBA star Spencer Haywood's life could have made a compelling documentary - but the unbelievable totality of his life is not merely incredible - it is also riveting, unflinching and ultimately inspiring. His athletic career is a distant cry from the lives of so many multi-millionaire superstar athletes of today - but "Full Court" makes a convincing argument that Haywood was one of the most important figures in basketball history. (Score: 4/5)

"Girl Asleep" (trailer): If Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry had a shared "Alice in Wonderland"-ish fever dream, it would look exactly like "Girl Asleep." This is a vibrant, inspired and truly visionary throwback to youthful angst. Founded in an teenage anxiety that everyone can relate to, "Girl Asleep" is an imaginative piece of cinema that is surreal, magical, eccentric, visually striking and elementally familiar. Everything about this film taps into the awkward and unease of growing up, where stepping away from childhood into adulthood is a terrifying leap into unfamiliar territory. (Score: 4/5)

"Goat": review to come

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" (trailer) - The latest from director Taika Waititi ("What We Do in the Shadows") is a funny & endearing family-friendly adventure through the New Zealand brush. The dynamic between the hilarious foster kid and his gruff, reluctant adopted "uncle" (Sam Neill) has flashes of Pixar's "Up." Waititi maintains a light-hearted, adventurous tone that makes "Wilderpeople" totally enjoyable for older kids, but is sentimental (but not saccharine) and sharply written enough for adults to embrace. Anyone who fondly loves "The Goonies" should check out "Wilderpeople." (Score: 4/5)

"I am Belfast": This meditative film exists somewhere between a documentary and a work of poetry. "I Am Belfast" is a poignant, forthright & poetic portrait of Belfast's tragic past & hints at hope for the future. It manages to convey the melancholic and straightforward demeanor of a city that has survived tragedy and endures with a resolute fortitude. "Belfast" feels much longer than its brief 84-minute running time - it tends to allow its moments to linger a little too long. (Score: 3/5)

"Ice and the Sky" (trailer): review to come

"If There's a Hell Below": review to come

"Indigination": review to come

"The Intervention": A stellar ensemble cast, a standout comedic performance from Melanie Lynskey and crisp screenplay come together to make Clea DuVall's directorial debut a satisfying comedic drama. "Intervention" balances its eight main characters, allowing each of them to contribute to the relative chaos. With very little fat to trim, this is a comedy with impeccable timing and drama that keeps the film moving at a nice clip. (Score: 4/5)

"Kedi" (trailer): This documentary isn't merely for cat folk. "Kedi" is an oddly engrossing look at a peculiar cultural dynamic between the people of the ancient city of Istanbul - and the cats who have lived there just as long. Watching the Turkish people genuinely ascribe very human traits upon the neighborhood cats says more about their take on relationships than just being a doc that shows silly people fawn over felines. Simply calling "Kedi" that "cat movie" is reductive. This satisfying doc reveres these cats as equal residents of Istanbul. (Score: 4/5)

"The Land" (trailer): This Nas-produced drama is a well-executed iteration of a drug-crime cautionary tale audiences have seen before. While it shares some plot framework similarities to last year's indie hit "Dope," what this film lacks in clever social commentary it makes up with a textured and lived in neighborhood. "The Land" has a street-level authenticity that hammers home the notion that the promise of quick, easy cash selling drugs is preferable to the blue collar grind that may be their only other alternative. (Score: 3/5)

"The Last King": This gripping action adventure immediately grab's the audiences attention and doesn't let go until the final credits. There are so many moving parts that work in harmony to relentlessly ratchet up the stakes and escalate the threats facing the two brave warriors and their infant king. In what amounts to one movie-length chase sequence, "Last King" also features its share of brutal fights that will satisfy any "Game of Thrones" fan. "The Last King" is a bad ass, sword-swinging action-adventure from beginning to end. (Score: 4/5)

"Life, Animated": Eye-opening, moving and ultimately optimistic, "Life, Animated" captures a pivotal turning point in the life of a young man living with autism. This documentary lets 23-year-old Owen Suskind's warm and bubbly personality shine through, while also very clearly establishing his strengths as well as his limitations. Allowing the audience to connect to Owen through classic Disney characters makes his story accessible, heartbreaking and uplifting. This is a moving primer into the world of autism. (Score: 3/5)

"Lo and Behold": review to come

"Love & Friendship" (trailer): Kate Beckinsale is absolutely exquisite in one of the very best - and certainly the most hilarious - adaptations of a Jane Austen work to date. Writer-director Whit Stillman has wonderfully adapted a dramatic film about romance (more for convenience than true love) that is first and foremost a hilarious comedy that maintains a regal air in tone with a clever wit. (Score: 4/5)

"Ma Ma": review to come

"Mekko": review to come

"Morris From America": review to come

"The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" (trailer): This documentary sets up an expectation - master musicians looking to push themselves in new, exciting ways - that is, sadly, not paid off. Assembling a sort of "Avengers of maestros" to form an world music supergroup is exciting -- but instead of exploring what it means to blend established art forms to create a wholly new music genre, "Strangers" gets mired in the profiles of five featured musicians from embattled or struggling corners of the world. It exhilarates while exploring music as art - but is bogged down amid stories of personal tragedy. (Score: 3/5)

"My Blind Brother": review to come

"The Nightstalker": Is it possible to make a flat, lumbering and tedious film about a notorious serial killer? The answer is yes. Very little of this flaccid dramatic thriller is subtle or well executed. Lou Diamond Phillips, as serial killer Richard Ramirez, is the single saving grace of a movie that is rudderless and borderline pointless. (Score: 2/5)

"Other People": While the film has emotional moving and true moments, "Other People" retreads subjects that other movieshave explored with more insight. The film has an authenticity to its unflinching honesty about the long, horrible process of dying of cancer - highlighted by Molly Shannon's wonderful performance. Between the mother's long battle with cancer, a strained father-son relationship and the protagonist's struggle with a failing career, "Other People" is unfocused. Any one of those plots could have made a strong single film - cramming them all into one story clutters the film. (Score: 3/5)

"Paralytic": For a mystery, "Paralytic" doles out just enough of its plot to keep the audience awake - but just barely. More disappointingly, the full reveal of the mystery lands with a thud. It manufactures fraudulent "thriller" energy with a tool bag of assorted plot cheats, contrived twists and irritating coincidences. (Score: 2/5)

"The Pistol Shrimps" (trailer): Yes, this eccentric documentary is offbeat and funny but the genuine seriousness these athletes have for their rec league is what gives this film credibility. If these players just treated the league as something silly they do for fun, then this doc would have been just a nice visit with some quirky people who happen to play basketball on the side. "Pistol Shrimps" revels in the silliness of the league, connects the audience with several players and firmly establishes a true team spirit among its eclectic roster of athletes. (Score: 4/5)

"Southside with You" (trailer): review to come

"Tag" (trailer): This Japanese suspense horror flick only has three gears: ultra-violence, mumbo jumbo about surrealism and confused characters wandering around. The unsatisfying plot, when finally revealed, doesn't come close to justifying the over-the-top violence. Cheapening said violence (wherein faceless hordes of schoolgirls are bisected, shot and/or dismembered) makes "Tag" a case study of lazy storytelling that - when all else fails - just resorts to silly violence to fill the running time. (Score: 2/5)

"Tower" (trailer): This intense and harrowing documentary has the energy of a dramatic action film. More importantly, "Tower" punctuates the shock and terror everyone should feel when anyone mentions any mass shooting anywhere - be it any one of several dozen that will happen this year or the first one in Austin. This is not merely a documentary about an event - this is a gripping story about survivors. "Tower" succeeds in making the past feel immediate and timely. (Score: 5/5)

"Weiner" (trailer): This is a masterwork of political satire that has all the key ingredients of gripping drama. This is a man looking for redemption. His mayoral bid is an absolute trainwreck. His politically savvy wife stands by his side - even when many say she should leave him. Having a front-row seat to this disaster is entertaining, but this doc's candid peek into the inner-workers of a political campaign team is fascinating. "Weiner" is one of the most entertaining, insightful and riveting films of 2016. (Score: 5/5)

"Wiener-Dog" (trailer): Each of the four stories - thinly connected only by the titular canine - show flashes of writer-director Todd Solondz's signature misanthropic, darkly funny insights - but none of the stories are particularly memorable. This tale of four character's isolated yearning paints the "unfair" world in broad strokes, denying any non-main character of any depth or relatability. This latest Solondz offering earns points for its grim, biting humor - but essentially experiencing the same nihilistic message told in four different chapters wears quickly. (Score: 3/5)

'Café Society' review: Kristen Stewart shines in breezy Woody Allen rom-com

'Café Society' review: Kristen Stewart shines in breezy Woody Allen rom-com

'High-Rise' film review: Class warfare themes lost amid thin plot, characters

'High-Rise' film review: Class warfare themes lost amid thin plot, characters