The Seasoned Ticket #222

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

As I’ve done most years since 1984 or so, here’s a little preview of the Seattle International Film Festival, in the form of capsule takes on movies I’ve seen. We begin with a revival that is also a SIFF tribute.

The Incredible Shrinking Man: The 1957 sci-fi classic was one of the favorite films of John Hartl, the loooongtime movie reviewer for the Seattle Times, who died in 2022. Because my parents took the Times, then the afternoon paper, Hartl was the first reviewer I ever followed, and his quiet, responsible approach led me to seek out many titles he recommended (more on TV than on the big screen). This was one of them. Reading a writer for a long time had an interesting effect; while John, a scrupulously private writer, kept himself out of most of his reviews—a quality that so many of today’s over-sharing critics could learn something from—you got to know him anyway, or at least knew about his fondness for sword-and-sandal epics of the 50s, or his love of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, or his dogged championing of certain sleepers (he drove my adolescent self to watch for Colossus: The Forbin Project whenever it was on TV, and I will always be grateful). It’s apt that SIFF includes a Hartl tribute in its lineup, because there would be no SIFF without John Hartl, a statement I will be happy to back up.

The Night of the 12th: A crime drama from director Dominik Moll, who made a splash with his Hitchcockian thrillers With a Friend Like Harry… (2000) and Lemming (2005) and then seemed to wander off a bit. Glad to report that this one is a crisp procedural about a violent murder in a small town, a killing that, as we are warned at the outset, will not be solved. The film has perhaps a too-tidy arc for its lead cop (played by Bastien Bouillon, in a Bressonian performance), but the longer it goes on the more it becomes clear that the film is about a misogynistic world in which men are violent toward women, and this becomes as important a subject as the solving of the case.

The Blue Caftan: Director Maryam Touzani displays a patient touch with this slow-burner about a Moroccan tailor (Saleh Bakri) who practices his meticulous art to a mostly unappreciative (and dwindling) clientele; his ailing wife (Lubna Azabal) begins to notice how stirred he is by the handsome young apprentice who helps in their shop. Or maybe she’s known for a long time, as his visits to the bathhouse seem to be a longstanding habit. The movie may not go anywhere surprising, but its two central performances and rich sense of place are powerful indeed.

Douglas Sirk – Hope as in Despair: A documentary look at the German director who became a Hollywood master. The film feels overly concerned with the story of Sirk’s son, estranged in a divorce and a child star for Nazi films; it’s a fascinating story, all right, and director Roman Huben brings together details that I suspect many of us knew nothing about. But one wishes for a little more about Sirk’s German career, and what he did after scoring a huge triumph with Imitation of Life (1959) and then returning to Europe. Still, we get to root around in the Sirk archives, and watch an amazing clip of Sirk apparently directing Rainer Werner Fassbinder in a stage production. It’s also remarkable to see the writer Jon Halliday, whose 1972 interview book with Sirk is an essential, still around to describe meeting the man. Best of all are the diary entries by Sirk’s Jewish wife Hilde, read by Hanna Schygulla, the Fassbinder goddess who is also interviewed here. Hilde’s words bring a valuable perspective to Sirk’s world—have they been published?

To the North: It claims to be based on a true story, and maybe it is—but in any case, this is a brilliant set-up for a suspense picture. Two stowaways (one Romanian, one Bulgarian, both naïve as hell) sneak onto a cargo ship bound from Spain to Canada. One stays in hiding while the other is caught and promptly vanishes, with the strong implication that he has simply been thrown over the side at the captain’s orders. A Filipino crew member (intense performance by Soliman Cruz) decides to help the young man in hiding, despite the possible consequences. Romanian director Mihai Mincan keeps the pressure on, aided by a creepy-crawly soundtrack.

Year of the Fox: Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths helms this story of a teen (Sarah Jeffery) caught in various kinds of tumult during a challenging year. Her adoptive parents (ace work by Jane Adams and Jake Weber) move apart, dividing our heroine’s life between Aspen and Seattle. As usual, this director’s ability to mind-meld with younger characters is the empathy that carries the day, as you get the sense of a teenage story (written by Eliza Flug) being told from the inside, not by an adult who’s forgotten what it’s like to live in that world— which means the little details, like the way young women arrange themselves around the bathroom at a party, are right on.

Chile ’76: More suspense, this time during the Pinochet years in a seaside area in Chile. A doctor’s wife (Aline Küppenheim, excellent) finds herself drawn into tending a young man whose recent gunshot wound keeps him in hiding at a parish house. Director Manuela Martelli chooses to focus on this dilemma, and leave mostly offscreen the political framework that has created this terror; that decision works well enough for the tension at hand. It all plays a little like a Hollywood treatment of the past, such as Missing or The China Syndrome, and it’s hard to deny the effect. Wild musical score by Maria Portugal, by the way.

Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes: Straight-ahead jazz documentary, but what a fine subject: Roach was not only an esteemed drummer but also a fervent activist, and an elegant presence whether playing or talking. Hard to say whether it’s better as a jazz documentary or a civil-rights documentary, but the film succeeds both ways.

Ingeborg Bachmann—Journey into the Desert: Margarethe von Trotta’s directing debut, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), was in the roster of the first Seattle International Film Festival, which would seem to set a high bar for SIFF filmmakers. Here is her latest, a study of the up-and-down literary romance between Bachmann (luminously played by Vicky Krieps) and Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld). The scenes from this unhappy pairing are interwoven with Bachmann’s later attempt to find meaning in a desert voyage, although these pieces don’t always mesh. The two terrific actors, and the rigorous sense of the period, keep the material engaging.

The Eight Mountains: An ambitious account of the decades-long friendship between city boy Pietro (Luca Marinelli, from Martin Eden) and mountain-bred Bruno (Alessandro Borghi), which plays out mostly at high altitude, including the idyllic spot where the two men collaborate on building a rustic house. The film seems bound for success, and I really wanted to like it more, especially because its observations on masculine friendship are welcome and often well-drawn. It’s awfully pokey, though, and the overall earnestness begins to wear at two and a half hours.

Hold in the Head: From the experimental wing, an Irish picture that gets good mileage out of a creepy central idea: A stubbornly mute filmmaker stages scenes from his life, with actors playing his parents, in some kind of cinematic investigation that remains enigmatic. Playing out in a variety of different technical formats, which reflect the confused state of memories mixed with trauma, this premise sustains itself with some expertly-deployed and much-needed humor. James Devereaux and Lynette Callaghan, who play the actors, are especially good at summoning up very specific actors’ tics and tricks.

Seven Samurai: Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece needs no introduction, but this is another tribute screening: the favorite film of Ruth Hayler, whose experience programming the Seven Gables theater chain (later Landmark) and SIFF itself stretched across the decades. I don’t know how many press screenings I attended with Ruth as presiding host, but surely it was around a thousand. She deserves a great deal of credit for the movies that flourished on Seattle screens during that pre-streaming heyday of the arthouse circuit, and Seattle was fortunate to have her making programming decisions then.


May 12, 2023

Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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