By KJ Doughton | May 23, 2013

The smell of SIFF is in the air. Only this year, thanks to Washington Marijuana Initiative 502, it’s a sweeter, more pungent aroma. The 39th Seattle International Film Festival, running from May 16th through June 9, has a pretty sweet line-up as well. As America’s largest film festival, SIFF might not have the bling ‘n buzz of Sundance. But it’s a significantly more colossal beast, 273 films wide and 25 days long. SIFF is an unmatched explosion of cinema candy for the eyes, ears, and mind.

Some of the blast powder in SIFF’s formidable film cannon has already premiered at other festivals (“What Maisie Knew,” “The Spectacular Now”), while much is firing off for the first time during U.S. premieres (“Clutter,” “Capturing Dad”). A few films tread on familiar ground (vampires haunt “Byzantium,” while undead ghouls stagger through “Cockneys versus Zombies”), others prove provocative (“Kink,” “Two Mothers”), and a few are family friendly (“Monsters University,” “Geography Club”).

Meanwhile, there’s a new cache of local Seattle-area films (“Touchy Feely,” “Scrapper”) that will hopefully live up to the regional cinema zeitgeist ignited by last year’s astounding “Eden.” Even that unique new scent wafting around in the Puget Sound breeze will be represented by “Evergreen: The Road to Legalization in Washington.”

Kyle McLachlan (“Blue Velvet”), Peter Greenway (“Goltzius and the Pelican Company”), and Joss Whedon (“Much Ado about Nothing”) have already made the rounds at SIFF for special presentations, while a host of parties, galas, and closing night ceremonies (where Sophia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” will make its North American premiere) will cap off this Emerald City Cinema Celebration.

Yours truly will be on hand to report on a small smidgeon of what’s being served on the stuffed SIFF smorgasbord. Here’s what I’ve seen so far…

In 1994, Irish director Neil Jordan took on the unenviable task of adapting Anne Rice’s macabre best-seller, “Interview with the Vampire” to the screen. Rice created a rich vampire mythology using elegant, erotic strokes that could spike with visceral shocks then relax into leisurely decadence. When Jordan cast the benignly popular Tom Cruise as lead vampire Lestat, it seemed an artistically suicidal move. Cruise might guarantee handsome box-office returns, but at what expense?  Ultimately, Jordan’s game of Russian roulette casting paid off: “Interview…” grossed an estimated $224 million dollars worldwide, and Cruise received favorable notice for his performance.

With “Byzantium,” Jordan returns to feed from the same bloody vein. Based on “A Vampire Story,” Moira Buffini’s onstage play from 2007, “Byzantium” suggests that the familial ties binding mothers and daughters aren’t exclusive to mere mortals. The film’s heroes, voluptuous sex-siren Clara (the sizzling Gemma Arterton) and her 16-year old daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, underplaying brilliantly), are immortal, nomadic predators who have spent two centuries honing their skills at killing to survive. In a creative spin, these vampires puncture arteries not with fangs, but with retractable, switchblade-style fingernails.

“Byzantium” takes off like a bat out of hell, serving up lap-dances, street-chases, and bloody beheadings with enough crimson splatter to keep Dexter employed for months. Jordan’s film then settles into a more relaxed vibe, re-tracing the complex histories behind these resilient bloodsuckers while continuing to track their contemporary adventures.

Taking over a dilapidated hotel christened Byzantium and transforming it into a lucrative brothel, Clara perfects her talent for exploiting pleasures of the flesh for both blood and money. Disgusted with Mom’s seedy livelihood, the more sensitive, cerebral Eleanor (who feeds only off of victims already ill, infirm, and suffering) yearns to come clean about a haunting past kept under wraps her entire life.

“Byzantium” does a seamless job of gradually assembling the complex chain of events that created and shaped these two undead protagonists, guiding us into whorehouses, through orphanages, and onto islands holding the secrets to immortality. This is epic, engaging stuff, pushed into overdrive as an alliance of chauvinistic Old Guard vampires seek to destroy Clara, while Eleanor’s courtship with an ailing young suitor threatens to expose their secrets to the world.

Disappointingly, “Byzantium” collapses during its conventional finale, an anticlimactic, run-of-the-mill chase sequence. Underwhelming, yes – but not to the point of derailing the sublime terror and intrigue that’s gone before.  Jordan succeeds in the ironic task of gifting his fantastical, undead immortals with a grounded, believable humanity. It’s a bloody good yarn.

On a much lighter note – or so its opening scenes would suggest – is “Middleton,” a kind of middle-aged “Before Sunrise.” As Adam Rogers’ amiable comedy begins, an admission tour is getting underway at the quaint university of Middleton College. Two parents, strangers to one another but secretly harboring similar mid-life struggles, meet by chance as their kids are whisked off to see the campus (realistically, their respective spawn don’t want to be seen with these un-cool elders). Edith (Vera Farmiga), a rudely spontaneous free-spirit, is initially at odds with George (Andy Garcia), a tight-assed, emotionally repressed surgeon. But is it any stretch to guess that these polar-opposite parents will soon seize the day together, share madcap adventures, and become kindred spirits?

During its initial stretch, much of “Middleton” drifts about light as a windswept feather, pleasant enough but hardly resonant as it evaporates into zany silliness. Edith steals a pair of bicycles, coaxing George to join her on a slapstick ride before campus security closes in. George clumsily fights his fear of heights to ascend the wobbly steps of a bell-tower. Benign, feel-good chuckles ensue.

But I’ll be damned if “Middleton” unexpectedly dives into deeper waters, exploring some honest, tough truths about navigating the uncomfortable crossroads of life. It’s not easy making a transition to college. Arguably, it’s even tougher to weather a mid-life crisis, where one’s post- college life is evaluated and scrutinized. As Middleton’s prospective students explore a multitude of hopeful options, George and Edith take somewhat disappointed stock of their lives, careers, and marriages. Sharing a mutual realization that the personal freedom reflected from Middleton’s hallowed halls has been lost over time, these lonely parents bond, fall in love, and must decide whether to act on this attraction, or stay the course down the roads they have chosen.

I’ve always sensed a guarded quality in Garcia’s onscreen presence. His expressive eyes, able to shift from hangdog to steely with a moment’s notice, reflect rage, regret, and peace percolating behind a somewhat chilly veneer. This vigilance is well-served for the role of George, a man so stiffly proper that his emotional affect has petrified into stone. Most certainly, a repressed soul like George would be attracted to the reckless abandon of Edith, and Farmiga nails it with her natural, uninhibited grace. Edith is warm honey to thaw George’s frosty reserve.

Mostly, “Middleton” is competently cute. But it achieves a few transcendent moments, including an ending that doesn’t wimp out. These scenes resonate, like the pangs of emotional panic which surface unexpectedly during both that first week of college and one’s fortieth birthday.

My Dog Killer
Walking into a film entitled “My Dog Killer,” I had pre-conceived notions of some wildly violent, visceral crime flick. Alas, director Mire Fornay is no Nicholas Winding Refn, and “…Killer” is a plodding bore. It does, however, qualify as a cyanide capsule for the eyes and the most depressing movie I’ve ever endured.

The suicide-inducing scene is set at a drab Slovakian vineyard, where adolescent skinhead Marek rides his sputtering scooter down a road of frigid squalor. His only companions are a perpetually pickled dad and “Killer,” an aptly-named pit bull. The cinematography is horribly bleak, depicting a crumbling wasteland of frozen earth, peeling paint, and rusty scrap metal. As Marek attempts to salvage the family farm, he must navigate through a minefield of misery: bullying skinheads and an estranged mom are his only semblance of a support group.

Everyone around him either belittles or neglects this doomed, wannabe-hoodlum, resulting in a scenario that pushes us from an already gloomy forecast into jet-black hopelessness. The film’s only intriguing angle is its startling depiction of Slovakian racism towards gypsies (“No Romas Allowed” signs are posted on a café window).  Any way you slice it, “My Dog Killer” will have the Slovakian Department of Tourism recoiling in complete and utter horror.

“Maybe to someone else, he’s just a cat,” suggests Jon B. Gerster, a gentle-eyed pet lover from Seattle. “But I can look into those eyes and know what he’s thinking. We’re attached from the souls.” Gerster is referring to Boomer, a deceased cat who is still very much a part of his life. So much, in fact, that the animal’s last bowl of food, “last poops,” and a smidgeon of fur have been preserved in baggies, alongside a lovingly-arranged shrine of photos, engravings, and other memorabilia.

“Furever,” the always-thoughtful, sometimes-absurd, and completely amazing documentary by Amy Finkel, reveals the astonishing steps taken by humans to mourn and remember these beloved house pets. Step into Finkel’s visual kennel and become enlightened to our society’s $52 billion dollar love affair with domesticated animals – one which continues well into the afterlife. According to “Furever,” 62% of Americans own pets. Why? “People often disappoint us and break our trust,” explains one of Finkel’s interviewees. “ Animals almost never do that.”

When it comes time to grieve these furry soul-mates, contemporary methods of memorializing are extreme. Cremated pet ashes might become glass-blown “memory beads,” diamond rings, fertilizer, vinyl records, fireworks displays, tattoos, and even gunpowder. Meanwhile, can I interest you in a nose-print pendant, pet hair pottery, commissioned art-sculptures built from articulated skeletons, or an underwater memorial made from pet ash and eco-friendly concrete? And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s forays into freeze-drying, taxidermy, and cloning of these furry friends.

Finkel makes wise choices on a number of levels. Most importantly, she passes no judgment on her distraught mourners and the lengths they will go to maintain connections with lost pets. Nor does she villainize the lucrative “death care industry,” where profit-seeking entrepreneurs market pet caskets, garish memorial services, and elaborate urns (says one salesman, “This is how I ‘urn’ a living”).One featured Sociology Professor persuasively proclaims, “People are particularly adept at using people’s grief to sell them.” On the other side of the coin, an industry talking-head insists that the funeral industry is simply satisfying demand. The public, he says, “came to us.”

In fact, the film’s wisest souls are arguably two pet taxidermists who feel both empathy and dumfounded disbelief towards their clients. One recalls a customer threatening to sue him because the resulting stuffed pet did not have the “life in its eyes that it did when it was alive.” By digging beyond this complex man’s tats, ponytail, and mounted trophies and into his thoughtful humanity, Finkel soundly squashes another stereotype – that taxidermists are bloodthirsty, backwoods rednecks. The label might be better applied to another dog-owner who, according to a featured veterinarian, insisted that his recently-castrated mutt be fitted with a pair of fake testicles.

I’ve never seen a film like “Furever.” Before attending the screening, I feared that the movie might be a cynical critique of pet-owner fanaticism gone awry, or a freak-show pointing its finger at preposterous people unable to let go. It’s anything but. Finkel embraces her characters, and “Furever” made me ponder both the fragility of the human condition, and the awesome balm that pets provide to all of us.

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