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By KJ Doughton | June 17, 2009

Imagine covering the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival for a magazine, newspaper, or web site. A walk in the park, right? Well, not exactly. More like a stressful, strategic bout of cinema hopping.

The art of covering SIFF requires a savvy ability to jump from a 7:00 screening of “Wonderful World” at the Egyptian to “The Other Bank,” playing Harvard Exit two hours later. Logistically, how can you beat the traffic bottleneck along Lake Union during a frantic commute from Capitol Hill to the University District?

We’re talking over eight theatres spinning a celluloid spider web that reaches from Kirkland to Queen Anne. How do I get from paranoid cyberthriller “Four Boxes” to undead baby bloodsucker “Grace”?

There’s also lots of waiting in line. Lots of coffee. Lots of struggling to find parking.

Yeah, bouncing between theatres is a big slice of SIFF. But there’s another story. The screener story.

Let’s say you’ve spent two hours with the 320-page, phone book-sized SIFF guide, smearing fluorescent ink over preferred movies with a big, fat highlighter. You’ve agonized over what to see and when to see it, mapping out a means to jam the most movies into the shortest time frame. Despite such precise planning, however, you just can’t get to everything.

No sweat. SIFF’s press office houses a well-stocked cabinet of screeners that has saved my a*s on many occasions. This year is no exception. “Terribly Happy” was the first DVD yanked from the screener stack by yours truly.

Consider Joel and Ethan Coen migrating to Denmark. If “Terribly Happy” wasn’t credited to director Henrik Ruben Genz, viewers might rightly believe that the sibling filmmakers had already flashed their passports, boarded a plane, and relocated to Copenhagen. Evoking the sparse landscapes of “Fargo” and the nasty noir aftertaste of “Blood Simple,” Genz’s handsomely framed film feels Coen to the core. We’re introduced to Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a mysterious Copenhagen cop reassigned to rural southern Denmark, following his involvement in some controversial, hush-hush incident in the big city.

Robert’s new stomping ground is a drab, dreary village surrounded by soggy bogs and sordid secrets. His welcoming committee is a sleazy, drug-addled doctor, a wife-beating husband and his h***y wife, and enough depressed alcoholics to take up every barstool in town. Soon, Robert finds himself the object of both the wife’s carnal desires, and the husband’s jealous fists.

Ultimately, however, “Terribly Happy” doesn’t have the envelope-pushing juice of a Coen Brothers thriller. It’s a competent package, but it doesn’t take enough chances. How about a bloody, knife-in-hand-in-window denouement? Where’s the wood-chipper? The closest Genz comes to these classic set pieces is a clever bout of dueling drinking between Cedergren and villainous Kim Bodnia (of “Pusher” fame). Instead of guns, these booze-slinging adversaries whip out beer bottles and chug away until there’s only one man standing.

“Terribly Happy” is a beautifully shot movie, avoiding the frantic, whiplash editing that is all the rage these days. Its decaying towns, dreary bogs, and boozy watering holes are a joy to look at. But with so many nods to the Coens, this film ends up a passable homage, when it might have upped the ante with some truly subversive thrills. In the end, “Terribly Happy” is just not that terribly compelling.

Imagine living in Palestine, loyally serving the Ministry of Justice as a judge for ten years. With the influx of a new administration, however, your job has suddenly gone by the wayside. “Come back tomorrow,” suggest the nameless bureaucrats inhabiting your former office. But with a wife and daughter Laila at home, relying on your bread-winning capabilities, how much longer can you wait?

Abu Laila (Mohammed Bakri) faces this depressing predicament in “Laila’s Birthday,” forced to eke out a meager, blue collar living as a taxi driver while his previous career hangs in limbo. A thoughtful father concerned that Laila is hauling too many heavy textbooks in her school backpack, Abu prepares to leave the homestead for another day of taking fares and transporting cab customers. “Be home before eight,” his wife insists. “It’s Laila’s birthday.”

This selfless goal enables Abu to maintain his sanity during a dismal day of rude passengers, engine failure, and explosions. The humiliation begins as he checks on job status at the Ministry of Justice. Instead of receiving good news, Abu is ordered to move his cab to that curtains can be delivered.

Smokers puff stale stogies in his cab. H***y teenagers make out in his cab. Obnoxious rebels refuse to fasten their seatbelts in his cab. This contempt for rules does not sit well with Abu, a man whose identity and livelihood have been defined by law and order. “The best solution is justice,” Abu proudly proclaims.

The day, however, has just begun. Disrespectful, punk-a*s clerks preoccupied with video games will test Abu’s patience. Roads congested by garish wedding processions will raise his blood pressure. Oh yeah – The endless explosions and gunfire are distracting as well.

“Laila’s Birthday” plays out as a straight-faced slice of life. It could almost be a documentary. Director Rashid Masharawi avoids arty, “look at me” flourishes in favor of messy reality. His film ends on a note of touching, hard-earned humanity that will tax viewers’ tear ducts. Let’s get over ourselves, suggests Masharawi, reminding us that the sun doesn’t rise and set in our own self-absorbed backsides.

Screeners are wonderful tools for maximizing one’s intake of festival films. Gorging on these prized DVD’s, however, doesn’t hold a candle to the most gratifying aspect of covering SIFF: interacting with the living, breathing talents that infuse the event with its dynamic vitality.

Hunkering down at the Seattle International Film Festival Press Office during its third and final week, I’m patiently waiting my turn to interview great everyman actor Paul Giamatti. You know Giamatti. He shows up in half the movies out there, often in a supporting role but more recently cast as the lead. He’s the guy with the receding hairline and St. Bernard jowls. His epic, commanding eyebrows put those of Jacks Black and Nicholson to shame.

This doesn’t make Giamatti sound very attractive. Then again, it depends on how you define attractiveness. His look and manner are deeply, painfully human. Merrily unleashing his id in “Shoot ‘em Up” as the vicious Hertz, Giamatti is so animated and twitchy, we revel in his amoral mayhem. It’s contagious anarchy. Even though he’s not beyond running down infants and fondling female corpses, we kind of like this guy.

Then there’s the anxiety-plagued, defeated side of his resume, playing depressed, troubled losers. But are they really losers? The cranky neurotics from “Sideways” and “American Splendor” might have problems, but we feel for them. We are them. We kind of like these guys, too.

Is this rare ability to convey messy, complicated men in a way that elicits empathy and an “I can relate” reaction from audiences…attractive? Sure. It’s a thing of beauty.

In “Cold Souls,” Giamatti plays… Paul Giamatti. But is the actor truly playing himself? During a pre-movie Q&A at Seattle’s Harvard Exit Theater, a SIFF viewer asks this very question. “I kinda hope not,” he responds with a nervous chortle. “I play him as an uptight, New York actor who just happens to have my name.”

Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” melds the futuristic playfulness of Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” with the off-kilter eccentricity of Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Giamatti stars as a tormented actor, attempting to survive an especially grueling stage production of “Uncle Vanya.” The play is sapping him of sanity. It’s draining and overwhelming.

Desperate for change, Giamatti discovers a state-of-the-art “soul removal” clinic. Tired of your life and eager to be infused with the essence of another? No problem. The persuasive Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) can extract your troublesome, chickpea-sized soul, and even replace it with that of a Russian poet.

It’s here that the Woody Allen comparison takes over. Flintstein’s stark-white office boasts a radiotherapy-style soul-removal machine, and other milk-colored, marshmallowy contraptions reminiscent of the “Sleeper” orgasmatron. During a later sequence based in Russia, the bleak, industrial look of “Cold Souls” suggests Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” Thanks to cinematographer Andrij Parekh, the film’s imagery toggles between real and dreamlike, while remaining visually seamless and convincing.

After proceeding with the soul extraction, Giamatti can’t act. An active libido remains intact, as evidenced by his shameless goosing of a female stage-sharer. But the serious pathos required for “Uncle Vanya” is gone with the wind. Plans to reverse the process and restore his essence are complicated by a Russian soul-smuggling ring, where spoiled, aspiring-actress wives covet the prized souls of American actors (especially Al Pacino). With the help of Olga, a secretive Russian blonde with a Deborah Harry haircut, will Giamatti retrieve both his chickpea soul – and his impassioned acting chops?

“Cold Souls” takes an outrageous premise and makes it convincing, thanks to Giamatti’s appealing, believable angst.

Do I have any last words as the sun once again sets on SIFF? In spite of a fear-inducing recession, the Seattle International Film Festival once again spearheaded a truly global catalyst for peace, goodwill, and happiness. My only disappointment was the inability to connect with any truly mind-blowing movies. Last year, it was “Let the Right One In” and “Anvil.” This year… lots of respectable candidates, but nothing that truly rocked my world.

Not that I’m knocking America’s largest, most reliably sensational film festival. And neither should you. Got problems with SIFF? Then go SIFF and spin!

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