2017 Seattle International Film Festival capsule movie reviews

2017 Seattle International Film Festival capsule movie reviews

Here are bite-sized capsule reviews of the films screening at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival. This article will continue to be updated throughout 2017 SIFF.


'After the Storm'

The latest from director Hirokazu Kore-eda ("Our Little Sister") is a subtle meditation that ponders the fleeting nature of life and the bonds of family. Don't expect to this film to wrap up all the loose ends in a nice little bow. "After the Storm" is totally OK with leaving things a little messy - this film is more concerned with emotional truth that following some narrative formula. (Score: 3/5)


Straightforward and without any frills, "Backback" methodically lays out a damning point-by-point argument against publicly-funded charter schools. While the film presents an upfront and clear agenda, the tone is always measured yet pressing. Timely and terrifying to any parent, "Backpack" is an eye-opening look at a politicized subject that is apparently much more complex than a few talking points parroted by some talking head. This is a call to action for any mother, father and student. (Score: 4/5)


'Bad Black' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

This ultra low-budget action Ugandan action is flick is hilariously absurd and unlike anything you've ever seen. Yes it's made with a shoestring budget and yes the plot is crazy, but "Bad Black" was made by filmmakers who truly and sincerely love cinema. This eccentric, exaggerated action/exploitation flick (featuring some of the best narrative voice over ever) is a movie experience. The explosions are silly. The violence is over-the-top. This film is pure fun. (Score: 5/5)


Don't be fooled by the cute "troubled couple turn their marital blowouts into songs" premise - "Band Aid" has much more dramatic depth than it first lets on. A sharp, witty script and great chemistry between its lead stars keep this this dramedy humming along. While the film sometimes wanders a bit, "Band Aid" is at its best when the main characters are baring their souls (either on stage or in each other's faces). (Score: 3/5)


Classic example of an intriguing premise tortuously stretched out to a feature-length film using every lazy plot point possible. "The Bar" achieves flickering moments of genuine tension, but overall this should have been a short film. The central conceit - how otherwise civil people quickly devolve into self-serving savages - is painfully obvious and borderline trite. It shoves the narrative forward with a series of frustratingly lazy story points - and still suffers massive plot holes. (Score: 2/5)


'Becoming Who I Was' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Sublime and beautiful, this moving documentary chronicles the relationship between a boy and his mentor through the years and across India. What begins as a modest film culminates in an unexpectedly epic and poignant journey. The heart of this film is the affecting relationship between a child and his father figure. "Becoming Who I Was" is a bittersweet story of sacrifices made out of love, faith and devotion - to each other and their Buddhist beliefs.  (Score: 4/5)


A slasher, wherein a babysitter must protect a pre-teen boy from a deadly home invasion, is itself a fun but thin B-flick premise. Then comes the twist - and "Better Watch Out" breaks the rules of the genre's typical conventions and become something else: a dark, devilishly fun and sinister ride. This smart, twisted and unpredictable thriller revels in torturing the audience and subverting their expectations. This is a perfect fit midnight film festival selection.  (Score: 3.5/5)


"The Big Sick" starts out as a good, well-written little rom-com -- then the movie becomes something much more substantial. It's a drama that works on several dimensions - a relationship, family and a personal drama. But the real trick "Big Sick" pulls off: it remains consistently laugh-out-loud funny, unflappably charming and intimately sincere from start to finish. Kumail Nanjiani proves he is a legit leading man and Holly Hunter steals the show. (Score: 4/5)


Who could have guessed a romantic-comedy-drama -- centered on two volatile characters digging up the horrors of the Holocaust -- might not work? It tries to hit too many disparate notes and tones in telling a meandering, unsatisfying story about dealing with a horrific past. Several jarring, unjustified plot twists just fall out-of-the-sky. Despite solid lead performances and a witty script, the film's few strengths cannot make up for the underlying and prevalent structural deficiencies. (Score: 2/5)


The miracle of "Brigsby Bear" is the how warm the movie remains, in spite of a plot that could have been exploited for cheap laughs. On paper, nothing about a kidnapping victim's inability to relate to the outside world seems funny at first. "Brigsby" shares DNA with "Room" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" - except this film also has a man-child obsessed with a kid's TV show. Kyle Mooney's performance is exceptional. (Score: 4/5)


'City of Ghosts' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Brutal, urgent and shocking. The latest from "Cartel Land" director Matthew Heineman offers an unflinching look at a band of Syrian citizen journalists fighting an information war against the Islamic State. These men - not journalists by trade - risk their lives to show the world the horrors inflicted upon their home city. This unyielding film shows the intense emotional toll the journalists endure as their friends are assassinated and their own lives are targeted. (Score: 5/5)


Sensitive and eloquent, "Columbus" is the cinematic hybrid of "Lost in Translation" and "Before Sunrise." This beautifully shot work deftly uses visual and aural negative space to frame the isolation and emotional plight of its two leads. Its diligent composition has the minimal amount of plot points possible, yet it leaves no room for unnecessary exposition. Actors John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson are superb in this authentic, subtle and uncontrived drama. (Score: 4/5)


This true story deserves better than this film. "Crown Heights" simply tries to pack too much into one movie. The story is solid and the acting is respectable, but the execution is choppy - the film lurches through time. One moment its 1980, then it's abruptly six months later. And so forth. What the main character suffers is patently unjust - but the totality of its shortcomings denies the film the dramatic impact it rightfully deserves. (Score: 2/5)


A sub category of indie "dramedies" the world can do without is filled with movies packed with cloyingly irreverent humor, a hipster indie soundtrack and overly cute dialogue. "Dean" typifies this tired formula. To its credit, the movie is nice and chugs along with some earnest humor. But it clearly puts comedy over drama. Every joke feels like a "bit," which is especially unfortunate because "Dean" mocks that very misstep. Gently entertaining but wholly derivative. (Score: 3/5)


This intimate documentary is a tender portrait is filmed with an observant, fly-on-the-wall perspective that makes the audience feel as if they are sitting in the room with Dina and her fiance. It's funny without being exploitative and moving in some very surprising ways (especially as Dina's past is slowly revealed). It's an empathetic look at the challenges they face as a people living with disabilities and as a newlywed couple starting a life together. (Score: 4/5)


Only a movie so avant-garde, so self-important and so willfully nonsensical could be pompous enough to call itself "Endless Poetry. If nothing else, this is an uncompromised realization of an artist's surreal imagination. This film's worst sin is its shameless aggrandizing of poets. And the fact that Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote and directed this pretentious autobiographical self-congratulatory celebration of himself and his art only makes this film all the more gross.  (Score: 2/5)


Infused with a magical realism reminiscent of "Amelie," this film has a light metaphysical touch as it ponders the nature of life. Thomas Middleditch's bone-dry comedic lead performance skillfully injects humor into the film - allowing the audience another inroad to Ben's grim outlook. This mix of slightly offbeat, surreal elements and sardonic wit keep "Entanglement" from sinking under the weight of its heady reflections on life and Ben's bleak perspective. (Score: 4/5)


This clunky "thriller" fails one of the basic critic questions: "Is this movie effective?" Its fleeting moments of intensity are outnumbered by its unintentionally funny moments. This failed morality play aspires to explore the true nature of humanity as characters solve puzzles, but the puzzles are ham-handed and its tired themes have been explored in much better films. The fact that the story barely makes sense isn't as troubling as the overacting and poor dialogue. (Score: 1/5)


There's no real plot to speak of here - but that's the appeal of "Ethel & Ernest." This is a loving tribute to a simple life well lived. The concerns and aspirations of this working-class London couple are similar to that of any married couple. It's reminiscent of the comedy-drama "Another Year" or even the more recent poetic drama "Paterson." An overall warmth permeates this fond slice-of-life and loving portrait from a son to his parents. (Score: 4/5)


'The Farthest' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

In an age where NASA always seems to announce the discovery of another new distant planet, it seems weird to consider a time when scientists didn't know much about even Jupiter or Saturn. "The Farthest" takes a step back to offer context - that within a lifetime, humans went from sending no objects beyond the Earth to sending a pair of probes beyond the most distant planets. "The Farthest" is an inspiring love letter to scientific curiosity and a pioneering spirit. (Score: 4/5)


'Finding KUKAN'

Part earnest mystery and part eye-opening look at anti-Chinese discrimination, this documentary recounts the forgotten story of a pioneering activist and filmmaker. The film's subject, Li Ling-Ai, is a bigger-than-life spitfire who grabs the audience anytime she's on screen. While "Finding" has the composition of a very fine PBS special, it doesn't quite have the texture of a cinematic work. This documentary is necessary for those interested in Chinese-American history, female filmmakers or cinematic legacy. (Score: 3/5)


From the opening moments, "The Force" establishes a taut, unrelenting tension in Oakland. The camera crew follows officers on unassuming dispatch calls - any one of which can easily turn into something much more serious and deadly. It presents a department eager to win back the public' trust and a cynical community weary of a police force with a history of abusing power. This timely and intense documentary is a master class in editing. (Score: 3/5)


Abandon any preconceived notions you have about this deliberate, thoughtful and melancholic work. It moves at its own pace -
 whether the required patience pays off depends on the viewer but at least it's an unquestionably innovative film. "A Ghost Story"  lingers long after after the credits ends - a quietly heady and haunting exercise that raises more questions than it answers. This tragic, funny and engrossing tone poem contemplates time, legacy and life. (Score: 4/5)


Director Mohamed Ben Attia handles this story - of a conflicted man torn between either conformity or personal freedom - with a humane touch to craft a pained, emotionally mature and internally conflicted story with universal themes. This quiet and pensive drama is a strong showcase for its lead actor, who gives a soulful and understated performance. (Score: 4/5)


'The Hero' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Unsure if it's the ultimate compliment or the ultimate complisult, but it is impossible to imagine anyone but Sam Elliott in the lead role. His knockout turn as an well-past-his-prime actor forced to look back on his life is the main attraction of this earnest dramatic comedy. Elliott's funny, bittersweet and charming performance earns him an automatic spot on the shortlist for best actor performances of the year. (Score: 4/5)


The acerbic adaptation of Stephen Fry's novel is a wickedly funny comedy-mystery anchored by a great lead performance surpassed only by its sharp script. The screenplay accomplishes a rare feat of cinema: truly great voice over. The protagonist's spoken dialogue is sharply honed, weaponized barbs - but his internal monologue is beautifully written, lyrical insight into his open-eyed, unrepentant thoughts. His private thoughts give this brilliant comedy and intriguing mystery a rich texture. (Score: 3/5)


Heart wrenching, humorous and quietly powerful, this masterful takedown of bureaucracy effectively puts a human face on a system that lets people fall through the cracks. Actor Dave Johns is the ideal guide as he tries to navigate the absurd government red tape. The titular character could easily be any of us and Johns is perfectly cast as the frank, witty and earnest everyman stuck in an inflexible system with no room for humanity. (Score: 4/5)


This quiet, moody drama is the antithesis of melodrama. "Radiant City" captures a fractured family living in the aftermath of a trauma that sent one brother to prison and another into self-imposed exile. Director Rachel Lambert's film depicts people living inert lives, torturing themselves as they must finally face a dark event in their history - one they have tried to bury for years. Strong performances from the entire cast keep this brooding film engaging. (Score: 3.5/5)


This film is as utterly absurd as it is offbeat and low-key. The uber mundane screenplay is the true star of this film. "Infinity Baby" uses that high-concept premise as a jumping off point to explore how such a world would handle the ageless babies, and more specifically, how or why anyone would want to have children at all. This is a droll and biting swipe at the commitment-averse. (Score: 3/5)


This film evenly lays out two sides of an argument and challenges the audience to believe either the "official" story that a hero astronaut was the lone survivor of an accident - or believe an admittedly more far-fetched, sinister story. It presents the tinfoil hat theories with little more than a hunch and some circumstantial evidence - but to this film's credit, credence is given to both sides, thus allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusion. (Score: 3/5)


If you've ever watched any/every indie film about a dysfunctional family - but you want to see one that is peppered with '90s era technology - then this is the film for you! Were it not for a particularly strong cast, "Landline" would completely disappear into the white noise of very familiar "everyone is in a tail spin" indie dramedy territory. And for a movie is just 93 minutes long, it feels 93 hours long. (Score: 2/5)


This richly textured and atmospheric journey that feels like stepping into a time machine and landing in the mid '70s. While the film exposes the impractical realities of a free-spirited, rootless existence, "Lane 1974" fundamentally asserts that children need and want just one thing in life: stability. And nothing about Lane's life is reliable. The film's core follows Lane's increasingly bleak and desperate life, "1974" also finds Lane at the crossroads of childhood and adolescence. (Score: 4/5)


Off-kilter and peculiar (in the vein of 'Punch-Drunk Love'), this dark comedy gives the audience a front row seat to the methodical unraveling of man-child's life. It outright defies the audience to watch an unlikable, off-putting borderline unstable protagonist bulldoze his way through life. At times too cringe-worthy to watch - and equally hard to look away from, "Lemon" is a car wreck in slow motion. At times absurd and confounding, but hilarious through and through. (Score: 4/5)


Wry and crude, this feature-length film perfectly embodies the sardonic vibe of its star-producer Aubrey Plaza ("Parks & Recreation"). While much of the comedy's best bits were packed into the trailer, "Little Hours" is still an overall enjoyable, odd and silly little comedy. There are funnier films on the SIFF slate that pack in more laughs - but at least this flick doesn't follow a tired formula. "The Little Hours" gets bonus points for its unconventional conceit. (Score: 3/5)


This esoteric film is a one-woman, masterclass Cate Blanchett showcase. Admittedly, this ambitious experimental film is not for everyone. There's no story and the dialogue-dense script speaks to the art and literature doctorates in the audience rather than the average movie goer. But the world is better because bold films like "Manifesto" exist. Not everyone will love this performance art experiment - which, ironically, is sort of the point of the film. (Score: 3/5)


'Mellow Mud' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

This Latvian coming-of-age drama is a showcase for its lead actress (Elina Vaska), whose performance is understated, yet  clearly conveys exactly what is on her character mind at any given moment. As a girl abruptly thrust into adulthood, Vaska proves her acting mettle with a character who is capable and in-over-her-head, naive and quick thinking all at once. "Mellow Mud" is a focused and lean drama that grows a complex protagonist out of its straightforward premise. (Score: 5/5)


This Russian drama takes a major risk: "Paradise" presents a Nazi collaborator and an SS officer as multi-dimensional human beings. The film succeeds in addressing why someone might willingly work with Nazi Germany while holding them totally accountable for their crimes. The film itself is shot in black and white but its characters are anything but dichotomous. While the movie meanders a bit, it is an unconventional and  troubling take on the banality of evil. (Score: 3/5)


It's fair to say this film works because lead actress Danielle Macdonald is one of the great cinematic discoveries of the year - she is that good. Comedian Bridget Everett capitalizes on her opportunity to let her acting chops shine. While the film takes some minor deductions for following the underdog formula so stringently, "Patti Cake$" earns a ton of credit because it is an unbashed raucous, rough-around-the-edges and irresistible winner.  (Score: 3.5/5)


Halfway into the film, a peripheral character says to another equally irrelevant character, "Lets hit the road." They walk off-screen, never to return. Folks watching this film would be smart to follow their lead. Can't imagine 'Person to Person' will fare well on a streaming service - it outright challenges the audience to abandon it at every turn. A meandering story, unnatural dialogue and annoying characters make this a perfect storm of aggravating film traits. (Score: 1/5)


The inner workings of an arsonist are explored in this psychological drama. "Pyromaniac" elects to turn the usual "whodunit" crime drama formula on its head, instead telling the story completely from the artist's point of view. This intriguing character study, of a troubled and isolated man, sadly squanders the chance to add palpable dramatic tension (in the form of palpable fear on the part of the village) to the mix. A good film that could have been great. (Score: 3/5)


Equal parts absurd, hilarious and uncomfortably prescient, "The Reagan Show" offers a candid look at the Gipper, told in his own words. It reveals how Reagan used the media to carefully manufacture his own public image - while painting a portrait of a President who smiled at the camera while talking out of the side of his mouth. For a film created entirely from decades old TV footage, this film is uncomfortably timely and relevant. (Score: 3/5)


The look and feel of this coming-of-age drama is infused with the angst and freedom of that last summer before adulting. Writer-director Nick Naveda has crafted a movie reminiscent of that pivotal crossroads - a summer that is somehow carefree and absolutely terrifying. Nostalgia has a stigma to it, but this film is nostalgia to an ephemeral feeling and not just the trappings of a specific year. This personal story is universally relatable and accessible. (Score: 4/5)


'Step' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Timely and important, "Step" makes a strong case for the incalculable opportunities afforded by an education. This great doc works as a coming-of-age story, an examination of the education system and an analysis of socio-economic inequalities. And the stakes could not be higher - if any of the featured subjects fails to get into a college, they could be doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents. This great film chronicles strong girls becoming strong women. (Score: 5/5)


'Time Trap' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

This time-bending science fiction flick is a smart, entertaining and lean adventure that grips the audience from start to finish. It absolutely commits to its premise - and like all great science fiction, the primary conceit serves the character and story. For a film that is barely 90 minutes long, it is packed with unexpected twists and turns. "Time Trap" is definitive proof that a film can be fun without sacrificing brains and smart without condescending to the audience. (Score: 4/5)


This beautifully shot and mouth-water film is a sensory delight for the foodie and wanderlust inclined. This third film in "The Trip" series feels very similar to the preceding films, in that it's another welcome road trip with two old friends. It's silly fun with an underlying angst. But the ending is just jarring - it almost feels like the start of a completely different story. Do not go into this film hungry. (Score: 3/5)


Despite having all the ingredients of a strong indie film: great cast, intriguing premise and nice dialogue - but overall poor execution makes this film is a disappointment. Aside from the very basic premise - of two siblings squabbling over a piece of land - very little of this alleged comedy-drama's infrastructure works. Well cast Anjelica Huston and Bill Pullman cannot save a film that seems intent on constantly undermining its own plot points and story flow. (Score: 2/5)


The premise - a woman intent on finding a groom in just a matter of weeks - sounds like some brainless rom-com. But this romantic-drama reflects on the deep impulses that urge people to find "the one" and pulls at the threads of idealized marriage. Lead actress Noa Koler is sensational in this thoughtful, well-written and mature high-concept reflection on the expectations and realities of dating and courtship. (Score: 4/5)


Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has solidified his place as the master of the modern western. Set against the stark snow of Wyoming, "Wind River" establishes its stark backdrop is an uncredited cast member - the film invests time in familiarizing the audience with the characters as well as the unforgiving wilderness. Jeremy Renner delivers a knock-out performance. Sheridan has tight control over the tempo - it effortlessly shifts from thoughtful, all the way to gripping and taut intensity. (Score: 4/5)


'The Work' (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

At point one point in this film, one of the subjects sums up this unflinching documentary best: "This is ugly ass shit." Emotionally gripping and at times hard to watch, this is a complete deconstruction of macho self-reliance and an arresting look at coping with trauma. "The Work" is not merely a bunch of guys dredging up long-buried pain and talking about it - these men confront that pain. This is an exorcism. (Score: 5/5)

'The Farthest': Seattle International Film Festival movie review

'The Farthest': Seattle International Film Festival movie review

'Pyromaniac': Seattle International Film Festival movie review

'Pyromaniac': Seattle International Film Festival movie review