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By Mark Bell | June 17, 2014

The Seattle International Film Festival turned forty this year… with no sign of a mid-life crisis.

Already the world’s largest film festival, SIFF made two announcements in 2014 proving that if anything, its health and vitality are merely getting stronger. During the festival’s Opening Night Gala in McCaw Hall, Director Carl Spence announced SIFF’s permanent purchase of the SIFF Cinema Uptown, a long-time hub for the organization’s programming based in Seattle’s Queen Anne District.

Meanwhile, Spence also confirmed that SIFF had obtained the lease for Capitol Hill’s Egyptian Theater, another legendary local landmark that had recently closed its doors. By securing both of these important regional movie houses, SIFF once again proves itself as an ongoing catalyst for the advancement of cinema in Seattle.

Moving from the macro to the micro, I shared the 2014 SIFF experience with over 120,000 fellow filmgoers. Rightfully, the massive swarm of attendees awarded two superb films with the festival’s hallowed Golden Space Needle Awards. Richard Linklater’s stunning “Boyhood” deservedly took Best Feature honors, while Alan Hick’s “Keep on Keepin’ On” earned Best Documentary. Both films are powerful, soul-stirring, and indescribably emotional, and their recognition proves that SIFF audiences have impeccable taste.

As with years past, I was struck by several epiphanies as my eyes took in a mere handful of over 435 features projected over 25 days. My belief that the spirit of music is better expressed onscreen through documentaries than features was reinforced by this year’s films. Some weaved beautiful melodies, while others tortured eardrums with discordant stories. Meanwhile, I witnessed how vague finales can either make or break an onscreen story. Several features sputtered towards unresolved endings, unable to tie together loose threads, while others earned their open-ended ambiguity. Meanwhile, one movie rocked me to my very core. During previous years, “Anvil,” “Let the Right One In,” “Audition,” and “Short Term 12” were among those that left me trembling in the joy of giddy cinematic discovery. This year, I was floored by another select gem.

What follows is a list of five films that, to me, represented the best and worst of this year’s SIFF. Based on its vibrant, celebratory fortieth anniversary vibe, SIFF proved that reaching middle age isn’t such a bad thing after all.

“West” follows Nelly (Jordis Triebel) and son Alexei (Tristan Gobel) as they escape from East Germany into West Berlin in 1975. But this is merely the beginning. Director Christian Schwochow (“The Tower, “November Child”) is more interested in what comes next. Like Gregory Nava’s “El Norte,” “The West” confirms that once you’ve entered the Promised Land, the quest for personal freedom is far from over.

Upon entry to Berlin, Nelly and Alexei are condemned to live in a dreary, overcrowded refugee center. Through Schwochow’s impeccably vivid visual details, we can almost smell the stink of overpopulated apartments. Struggling to gain émigré status, Nelly endures endless interrogations with a Secret Service-styled web of French, British, and American authorities. They’re particularly interested in Nelly’s former boyfriend (and father to Alexei), long since gone missing and presumed dead. Was he a courier for the Communists? An informant to the West German government? Is he still alive?

Those expecting nail-biting tension and spy-movie thrills will be disappointed. Schwochow is much better at character development than suspense. As Nelly, Triebel shines as a woman yearning to leave the past behind, even as she’s haunted by her lost love. Steaming with aggressive sexual energy, she seduces an American interrogator, hoping to find out the status of her old flame. Later, when Nelly suspects that authorities are tracking her to discover his whereabouts, Triebel reflects the tense, nerve-fraying paranoia that precedes madness. Gobel is equally compelling as her resilient son, heckled as an outcast by prejudiced neighbor kids who resent his Eastern roots. As Alexei yearns for his mother’s warmth and acceptance, Nelly’s increasingly mean-spirited suspicion wounds his aching heart.

These are fascinating, sympathetic characters. It’s a shame, then, when “West” simply fizzles out, its key plotline left unresolved. Did the projectionist overlook a missing chunk? After winning us over with its gutsy mother and son, Schwochow simply pulls the plug. Like Nelly, we’re left in a frustrating fog, hungry for closure.

Think Little Red Riding Hood with severe clinical depression, and you’ll get some sense of “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” Blanketed by an oversized crimson hoodie, twenty-something Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) wanders about her disheveled Tokyo apartment like a zombie too despondent to feast on flesh. Her only true connection is shared with an equally passive pet rabbit. Alongside the pristine uniforms and carefully coiffed hair of the giggly secretaries she works with, Kumiko’s unkempt appearance and flat affect guarantee alienation.

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” shows sensitive compassion for this gloomy young woman, whose frown has fossilized and whose endorphin pump has long since run dry. Sharing top ramen with her rabbit one dark, lonely night, Kumiko stares from a window. Within a neighboring apartment, she spots two lovers blissfully dancing the night away. It’s a poignant juxtaposition to Kumiko’s utter incomprehension of joy, and we feel for her.

There is, however, a small spark of passion flickering beneath all of the frazzled misery… and some quirky onscreen humor to dilute the downbeat vibe. Kumiko is a vicarious explorer of exotic lands. Equal parts Indiana Jones and Rain Man, she hordes maps, and graphs out complex coordinates to distant locales. After screening a fading VHS copy of “Fargo,” she becomes firmly convinced that the film’s briefcase of money, stashed in the onscreen snow by Steve Buscemi, actually exists. Suddenly re-charged and temporarily emerging from her depressed stupor, Kumiko hatches a cockamamie scheme to collect the money, stealing her employer’s company credit card and flying to North Dakota.

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” takes us along for the ride, as its heroine meets a series of good Samaritans who reluctantly assist her in a mission they already know is futile. It’s here that the film resembles “Nebraska.” Like Bruce Dern’s deluded alcoholic pursuing a bogus sweepstakes payoff, Kumiko clearly has no insight into her quest, oblivious to reason. Her blindly unreasonable determination suggests that she’s autistic, developmentally delayed, or simply insane.

Director David Zellner wants his film to be a quirky comedy – a little Coen Brothers humor mixed with some dry Wes Anderson wit and a trace of “Napoleon Dynamite” eccentricity. But the movie rings hollow. Kumiko bilks hotel owners, cab drivers, lonely widows, and thoughtful cops during her bumbling trek across Nebraska, quickly losing our sympathies. Despite Sean Porter’s lovely cinematography, the film’s final stretch is a redundant slog through frozen roadways, frigid snowfields, and a silly cheat of an ending. After sticking with Kumiko on her plodding oddball odyssey, we discover only fool’s gold.

siffforty01JIMI – ALL IS BY MY SIDE
There’s sound, and there’s vision. “Jimi – All is By My Side,” John Ridley’s bio-pic of Jimi Hendrix, has neither. Because Hendrix’s estate denied the filmmakers access to his music, there’s no “Purple Haze.” No “Fire.” No nothing. Granted, the film is set during the guitar genius’ pre-fame days, but the absence of his iconic sound is still a major liability. As for vision, “All is By My Side” provides no insights as to who Hendrix was behind the white Stratocaster whose strings he strangled to such revolutionary effect. Instead, director and writer Ridley, fresh from his Oscar screenwriting win for “12 Years a Slave,” gives us a near-parody: part “Spinal Tap” and part shrill, melodramatic soap opera.

In fact, Ridley could have called his film “The Wind Cries Linda.” Hendrix is really just a clichéd prop, passively playing second fiddle to Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), girlfriend of Keith Richards and alleged catalyst for the guitarist’s legendary fame after spotting him at New York’s Cheetah Club in 1966. She connects him with management, and acts as his muse. She insists that Hendrix (going by Jimmy James at the time) transcend lowly session-man status and unleash his sonic spell onto the music world.

As Hendrix, Andre Benjamin looks the part, but Ridley paints his subject as an impenetrable, naïve simpleton. The spacey six-string maestro insists that the “power of love” will win over the “love of power.” He rejects the inevitable truth that success in music involves commerce, expressing contempt at being labeled.

Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) soon emerges as Jimi’s girlfriend, joining a shrill pseudo-harem of women vying for his affections. “Jimi – All is by my Side” becomes their film, focusing on the various catfights and love triangles surrounding this noncommittal hedonist. Even after being beaten with a telephone, Etchingham stands by her man. Why? We’re given no clue.

Like the guitars that Hendrix would later engulf in onstage flame, “Jimi – All is by my Side” almost catches fire during a handful of promising scenes. Hendrix’s spontaneity and knack for wild improvisation are conveyed during a raucous concert appearance, as he pays tribute to the Beatles in attendance with an electrifying, improvised version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

More often, however, the film sidesteps Hendrix’s humanity in favor of the forgettable women who littered his life, while missing the very music that defined the most influential rock guitarist of all time. Without the fuel, we can’t stand next to the fire.

siffforty01THE BABADOOK
Like many other entries I screened at SIFF, “The Babadook” leaves us with an ending that’s open to interpretation. This time, however, the ambiguity is deliciously mysterious and poignantly metaphorical. As Amelia, the film’s maternal hero, Essie Davis plunges into a brutal role, reflecting the slow, insidious onset of physical and emotional madness. Six years earlier, in a perfect storm of supremely conflicting creation and tragedy, Amelia gave birth to a son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). But the boy’s birthday carries a bitter aftertaste: the same day, en route to the hospital, a cruel car wreck claimed the life of her husband.

Director Jennifer Kent digs deep into Amelia’s tortured soul, bringing to haggard life a woman unable to reconcile the simultaneous pain and rage associated with that devastating date. As Amelia subconsciously blames Samuel for the accident, he dives into a worsening pattern of unmanageable, disturbing behaviors. As seething anger and ongoing grief wrestle within her fragile mind, a dark cloud of Jack Torrance-caliber madness blankets both mother and son.

Making matters worse is a sinister pop-up book that inexplicably shows up one night on Samuel’s bookshelf. The tome’s central character, Mr. Babadook, is a shadowy ringmaster presiding over threatening rhymes and dark graphics that seemingly grow more violent each time the book is opened. Donned in cape, top-hat, and fangs, Mr. Babadook suggests something Tim Burton might dredge up while in a supremely spiteful mood.

I wouldn’t dare disclose exactly how both the book and its lead character figure into Kent’s story. However, I will proclaim “The Babadook” as a masterful, complex fable exploring both the dangers of repression and the twisted ways in which untreated grief manifests itself. Kent’s cerebral, profound film will likely disappoint gore-hounds seeking a visceral fix. But ultimately, Mr. Babadook’s sneaky, insidious terror tactics trump even the bloodiest slash-fest. There’s sadness beneath the scares, and its wise insights into grief and loss earn our applause.

siffforty01KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON
He’s a brilliant trumpet player – according to Quincy Jones, “the best there’s ever been.” But age has caught up with the ailing musician who, at 91, now spends most days in bed. An oxygen tube dangles from his nose, while a nasty leg sore refuses to heal. Despite grim health, however, the man has his music. Although bronchitis-plagued lungs make it tough to blow a horn, he teaches young musical protégés how to find their own voices, both in music and life. In giving this gift of passion to the next generation of players, the man retains a joyful spirit that many able-bodied men will never know.

The man is Clark Terry, and “Keep on Keepin’ On” documents his extraordinary relationship with a 23 year-old pianist named Justin Kauflin. In the fifth grade, Kauflin lost his vision to a cruel retinal disorder. Despite disability, his fingers soon touched the ivories of a piano, and defined his fate. As the film opens, Kauflin walks the streets of New York with his seeing-eye dog, a black lab named Candy. “I want to be a great jazz musician,” he explains through voice-over. “But now I’m just a nobody, trying to figure things out.”

Over the course of “Keep on Keepin’ On,” Alan Hicks’ supremely moving, spiritually profound, and often hilarious film, Kauflin will figure things out. Terry will guide him. “The mind is a powerful asset,” Terry assures his determined apprentice. “I believe in your talent. And I believe in you.”

After providing us with an initial history lesson on how Terry rose to musical prominence (he mentored Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, and his shoes are a gift from Duke Ellington), Hicks gets to the meat of his story. We watch the perpetually sunny Kauflin, whose uses Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as a ringtone, set up an electric keyboard next to Terry’s bed. Donning a disheveled bathrobe and too tired to sit up, Terry is magically re-animated while instructing his promising student on how to play a new piano riff. “What happens if you went, ‘Diddle-diddle-do-be,’ he asks Kauflin, his face suddenly aglow with enthusiasm.

We observe both each man tackling a formidable challenge. For Terry, it’s the terrible toll that diabetes has taken on his frail body. For Kauflin, it’s an overpowering stage fright that torments his onstage performances. Each man’s respect for the other is conveyed through playful conversation. Kauflin affectionately addresses his mentor as “C.T.,” while Terry offers insight to his young recruit. The difference between an amateur and a master, he explains, is “the desire to excel, and play better than the other m**********r.”

“Keep on Keepin’ On” is almost shocking in its overwhelming sense of goodwill. There’s nothing sentimental or sappy here, and our hearts break as these two charming friend endure suffering and setbacks. On the sidelines, others respect their talent and fortitude. Terry’s tirelessly supportive wife, and Quincy Jones as a dedicated friend to both musicians, demonstrate a tender, thoughtful humanity that’s seldom depicted onscreen. The only villains in Hick’s cast are stage fright and failing health, and his movie bubbles over with smooches, high-fives, and handshakes.

Jammed into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to treat a worsening foot sore, Terry tells his wife, “I hurt all over.” But he still makes time to send Kauflin a set of “good luck socks” for the upstart’s performance in a grueling piano competition. “God bless,” offers Terry. “Straight ahead. Play your a*s off.”

It’s a lovely, selfless gesture – one of many to be found in this profound, beautiful film.

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