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The Return of SIFF - don't expect any light sabers here
by Greg Ursic

Five days after returning from my movie marathon at the 31St annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF to the regulars) the feeling is finally returning to my butt cheeks and my brain has cleared enough to jot down my thoughts. Once again I was witness to a stunning array of films, but alas in two weeks I only got a sampling of the menu: spanning 25 days (May 19-June 12) SIFF is the longest running festival (in duration) in North America. This year’s roster includes a total of 347 films (182 features, 55 documentaries and 110 shorts) from 59 different countries.

“Sure” you’re thinking, “ I now know a bit about SIFF itself, but where do I go, how much does it cost, and where do I stay if I’m coming from out of town?” All in good time.

Where are the films?

SIFF had to find some extra screening venues this year as the AMC theaters at Pacific Place chose to host some movie about a guy and his shiny sword. The main venues are as follows:

Broadway Performance Hall
1625 Broadway (Broadway and Pine)• 206.325.3113
801 E. Pine St. (across the street from the Broadway Performance Hall)
Harvard Exit
807 E. Roy St. (Roy and Broadway)
1303 NE 45th St (45th and Roosevelt)
Uptown Theater (the last week of the festival)
511 Queen Ave N.(Queen Anne and Mercer)

While there are a number of bus routes listed in the guide (page 255), just remember the #7 University District (catch it at 3rd and Pike), which will get you close to each of the first four venues. For more information, pick up a King County Transit Map and Rider’s Guide, or go online at

Where do I stay?

Since not everyone has friend’s they can “visit” and can’t afford to pay $100+ per night while checking out the festival, the two best budget options downtown are the Green Tortoise Hostel at Pine and 2nd, which costs $48 for a single, or $23 to $26 for a dorm room (depends on # sharing). There are lockers in each room for you belongings, but you need to bring your own lock, and they provide bedding. The price includes the fixings to make your own breakfast, free Internet in the common room and a movie every night. You are allowed to drink alcohol in the common room and there is a designated smoking room.

Another option is the Seattle International Youth Hostel at 1st and union. It costs $59 for a single, or $29 for a dorm room (ask for the small dorm if there is availability). There are discounts for YHA members. Amenities include a tv room (with cable!), a games room, internet stations ($1 for 12 minutes), and a full continental breakfast.

Both hostels have lockers in each room for you belongings, but you need to bring your own lock. Each hostel also provides bedding (you also get a towel at the IYHA). Please note, while the Green Tortoise allows sleeping bags, the YHA does not.

To book the YHA go to and click on “Book a Bed”
To book the Green Tortoise go to and click on “book online from our website”

What will it cost me to check out the flicks?

If you’re the no-holds-barred-see-everything-that’s-screening-movie junkie type and have an overburdened trust fund, have they got the pass for you. For only $900 (US) you’ll get the all access platinum pass, which gets you into to all screenings (including press screenings), the Opening and Closing Galas, receptions, and you and a guest into one private festival reception.

Regular mortals might want to check out the Weekly Passes at $175 which gives you access to all public screenings (Galas and Forums excluded), or the Film Buff 20 Packs ($150) which gives you admission to 20 films priced $10 or less.

If that’s still a bit too rich for your blood, individual feature films are $10 a pop ($8 for SIFF members), and $7 for Weekday matinees and Midnight screenings. There’s also the Secret Festival Membership for $35, which gets you into a different film every Sunday during the festival (4 screenings). The special catch is you don’t know what it will be – it could be a new release that they’re testing, a golden oldie, or anything in between, and you have to sign an oath of silence never to reveal what you’ve seen. Past films have included…well, if I told you that, the festival goons’d hunt me down, so you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

Now on to the movies.


Country: Russia
Year: 2004
Director: Ilya Khrzhanovsky

A bartender serves three people in a late night bar in Moscow. The trio come from very different backgrounds: the beautiful Marina considers herself a “freelancer” and has a penchant for adapting to her surroundings; Oleg a government employee supplies the president with bottled water and Vladimir purports to work as a geneticist for a secret government lab. Their small talk wanders from the mundane to the conspiratorial, until they lose interest and set off on into the night.

Every festivalgoer has that one film that they despise – for me it was this one. More aptly titled From Russia With Loathing, 4 jolts viewers awake with a jarring opening sequence, and plies you with the character’s interesting booze fueled discussions. Soon after however, the story dashes off on a journey punctuated by stark landscapes strewn with mud, and bloated pig carcasses. While largely visually bereft, the relentless cacophony of barking dogs, screaming birds and shrieking crones is a constant aural assault.

An impenetrable ponderous mess, 4 should be avoided at all costs.


Almost Brothers
Country: Brazil
Year: 2004
Director: Lucia Murat

In 1970's Brazil political prisoners and murderers shared the same cells. It is in this milieu, that Miguel a revolutionary thinker from a prosperous family and Jorge a childhood friend would be reacquainted decades later. They quickly rekindle their friendship until the disparate outside world insinuates itself in prison life and their lives continue on divergent paths, only to cross once again.

Murat strives to detail the sharp contrast between Brazil's existing social strata that is in large part responsible for the continuing cycle of violence within the favelas (slums). In spite of the engaging subject matter and a talented cast, the film is hamstrung by the repeated use of fractured timelines, jumping around too quickly and too often, until it eventually feels gimmicky. In addition, several key relationships in the story are never fully examined and fail to realize themselves within the context of the film. For a better treatment of the subject check out City of God.


The Beautiful Country
Country: Norway/USA
Year: 2004
Director: Hans Petter Moland

Although he wasn’t in combat, Binh is a casualty of the Vietnam War: the son of an American GI he is an outcast, known among the Vietnamese as Bui Dai - less than dust. When he discovers that his long-dead mother is alive and relatively well in Saigon, he sets out to find his past and start a new life.

The subject matter calls for careful attention to detail, but none is on display here in this heavy handed effort, which is rife with cliches, inconstancies and absurdities i.e. the circumstances that lead to Binh's need to flee Saigon are ridiculously contrived. There are also continual lapses in Bin mastery of English: one moment he's speaking in monosyllables, the next he has mastered the vernacular,and then he's back to the monosyllabic. The 1970’s stock storm footage is symbolic of the overall cheap quality of the film. With the exception of Nick Nolte who provides some much-needed levity, the story is a rambling, exercise in futility.


Country: Denmark
Year: 2004
Director: Susanne Bier

Michael has always been there for black sheep brother Jannick, he is there to greet him and mend the family fences when Jannick is released from prison. Soon after the homecoming, Michael is shipped off to Afghanistan and makes Jannick promise to look after his family. Twenty-four hours later, Michael disappears on a reconnaissance mission and is presumed dead. True to his word, tough guy Jannick assumes the fatherly role, and much to his surprise he discovers that enjoys it. Several months later Michael is liberated from his captors and returns, only to discover that he’s become a stranger in his own home.

Following on the heels of 2002’s Open Hearts (which also screened at the festival), Bier proves that she isn’t a one hit wonder: Brothers boasts a tight script, great locations, and Bier’s makes ingenious use of split screens to show distance between characters. The story is bolstered by the standout cast, including Connie Nielsen, who gives yet another top notch performance in a different language (English in Gladiator, and French in Demon Lover) and Nikolaj Lie Kaas whose tortured Jannick could stand up to any Oscar contender.

An intricately crafted emotional roller coaster that examines family dynamics and what people are capable of doing to preserve what they hold dear, make Brother a must see.


Country: UK/Denmark
Year: 2004
Director: Juliet McKoen

It’s been two years since Annie disappeared without a trace and her sister Kath alone and distraught tries to kill herself. Rescued by a colleague, Kath decides to conduct her own investigation into the disappearance. After months of searching she comes across videotape that has Annie’s last known image. Kath becomes obsessed with viewing the tape, and it appears that her grip on reality becomes tenuous until she unearths several revealing clues. Or has she?

Let me start by saying that Shirley Henderson acquits herself superbly in her first leading role, plumbing the very depths and range of emotions that Kath calls for. Unfortunately that is not enough to sustain the film: The story contains examines the cycle of grief, yet also contains elements of a thriller, and hints at the possibility of something mystical or paranormal. Unfortunately McKoen never fully commits to any of these themes, and the ending left not only myself, but everyone who exited the theater wholly baffled.
Skip it.


Innocent Voices
Country: Mexico
Year: 2004
Director: Luis Mandoki

Like most 11 year-olds, Chava would rather spend his time playing, but as his family lives on the front line of the war between El Salvador’s army and the guerillas, he must keep a vigilant eye on his siblings. While Chava’s upcoming birthday would normally inspire visions of parties and presents, this one marks a dark milestone, as 12 year-old boys are automatically conscripted.

While there has been a renewed resurgence in post Vietnam films (two at SIFF alone), the proxy wars that were waged in Central America and cost hundreds of thousands of lives have been forgotten by the collective consciousness. Written by Oscar Torres, who survived the brutal war that ripped through El Salvador, Innocent Voices is clearly infused with Torres’ own personal experiences: his skillful blend of pathos, humor and sparks of romance gives the film it’s unique perspective. Lest viewers become complacent, the story’s smooth flow is regularly punctuated by raging gunfights and disturbing imagery.

Gritty, and at times difficult to watch, Voices is an ultimately enlightening experience.


Layer Cake
Country: UK
Year: 2004
Director: Matthew Vaughn

XXXX may be a coke dealer, but he carries himself as an entrepreneur, a middleman who maintains a low profile, avoids the trappings of the business and refuses to carry a gun. After years spent transforming illegal profits into legitimate enterprises XXXX is set to retire, when he’s tapped to do one last job. On the surface it sounds pretty simple –find Mr. Big’s lost daughter and act as a go-between on one last drug deal. But when you’re the golden goose in an empire of ne’er do wells, no one’s keen on your retirement and gentleman’s agreements prove decidedly ungentlemanly.

Gangster flicks in recent memory have focused on guns and gore. Vaughn however has opted for a more traditional approach, choosing exposition over executions. The film rests largely with Daniel Craig, whose steely charismatic XXXX is a man of carefully chosen words and actions. Every time he seems to have found an equal footing, the velvet hammer comes down from above and his situation becomes more dire and soon it becomes adapt or die.

Layer Cake is cleverly written, well-acted (Colm Meaney and Michael Gambon are chilling as soft-spoken gangsters who back up their words with might) and provides a refreshing change to the gangster genre.


Letter From an Unknown Woman
Country: China
Year: 2004
Director: Xu Jinglei

A novelist and inveterate playboy receives a letter from an anonymous woman. As he reads it he discovers that their paths have crossed repeatedly over the years and while he was utterly oblivious to the significance of their interactions, he becomes keenly aware of her decades long one-sided obsession with him.

Undertaking a remake – in this case Max Ophuls’ 1948 adaptation of Stephan Zwieg’s 1922 novel – is always a risky venture, but Xu, is clearly up to the challenge. Moving the story to pre-Revolutionary China allows the director freedom to shape her own vision: there is a definite Eastern flair to the proceedings, in which the lush opulence of the surroundings is balanced by the leads’ impeccable stoicism, both of whom are tailor made for their roles. Stunning yet subtle cinematography further enhances the look and feel of the film. Deliberately understated, yet simultaneously gorgeous, Letter was one of my favorites at the fest.


Me and You and Everyone We Know
Country: USA
Year: 2005
Director: Miranda July

After separating from his wife, Richard is thrust back into the single life. Still struggling with his breakup, he is not prepared for the attentions of Christine, a quirky artist who develops an instant attraction to him. He’s also overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for his sons, seven year-old son Robby who is involved in an online relationship and fourteen year-old Peter who’s getting to “know” some of his classmates. Welcome to dysfunction junction.

Written, directed and starring Miranda July, Me and You and Everyone We Know enjoyed the distinction of being the first film directed by a woman to open the festival in its 31-year history. It proved to be a wise choice: July’s wonderfully fanciful study of fractured lives and people desperately searching for an emotional connect makes a smooth transition from the sublime to the surreal to silly, without a misstep. As with several other films in the festival, it also deals with the explorations in sexuality, but with more playfulness, and pulls back when it ventures near darker territory.

The casting is superb, although I originally had my doubts about John Hawkes (Deadwood, The Perfect Storm) as a romantic lead, given the film’s non-traditional bent, his casting as Richard makes perfect sense. Brandon Ratcliff, whose timing is impeccable is hilarious as the precocious Robby, and turns what could have been a very disturbing scene into a tender exchange. Finally, July oozes energy as the unrepentantly upbeat Christine.

An enjoyable romp that takes a distinctly different approach to the relationship genre, July’s effort is both serious and amusing, and is well deserving of the Camera D’or at Cannes for the Best First Feature.


My Summer of Love
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 2004
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Mona, a quirky outcast, lives with her brother Phil a former petty criminal turned to the lord, above the pub left to them by their parents. She’s shaken out of her 16-year-old malaise by Tamsin, the bohemian schoolgirl who is everything Mona isn’t – pretty, rich and worldly. Their relationship quickly evolves beyond platonic, and the pair makes plans to leave the quiet Yorkshire countryside, but secrets threaten to shatter their newfound bliss.

Pawlikowski, the film’s writer/director made it clear in the Q&A after the screening that he changed many elements in the book and that the two were essentially different animals. He joked that “If you like the movie, don’t buy the book”. An exercise in sexual awakenings (handled tastefully), Pawlikowski also tackles the concept of artifice i.e. the faces that we put on for others and what happens when these facades crumble. Natalie Press and Emily Blunt are riveting as Mona and Tamsin, but Paddy Considine whose born-again Phil seethes with a bubbling rage that threatens to spill over consistently upstages them. Well worth the price of admission


Mysterious Skin
Country: USA
Year: 2004
Director: Gregg Araki

In 1981, 8 year-old Brian wakes up in the closet, with a nosebleed. His last memory is his baseball game being rained out – the following five hours are a complete blank. He spends the next decade trying to figure out what happened, and becomes convinced that aliens abducted him. Brian discovers that Neil, one of his former teammates also had some strange experiences, and searches him out in the hope that Neil can shed light on the missing hours. Some questions are better left unanswered.

Audiences have been largely galvanized by onscreen portrayals of violence and sex, but even the most jaded filmgoer cannot help but cringe when the subject matter is child molestation. Araki dares to not only tackle the subject, but also holds it up to a microscope and examines its long-term effects on the victims. Solid writing and painstaking direction aside, it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fantastic turn as Neil that gives the story its dark energy: a street hustler, who revels in being wanted, his only moments of true happiness are also the film’s most disturbing moments.

With the exception of the occasional lapse into melodrama, Mysterious Skin is near perfect in its execution, however the subject matter is pitch black - there were several scenes that I had to watch through my fingers. While you probably won’t like it, you will appreciate it for the excellence of all those involved


Country: Ireland/United Kingdom
Year: 2004
Director: Peter Travis

In 1998, IRA extremists try to interrupt the peace process by detonating a bomb in downtown Omagh: 29 people are killed, hundreds more are injured and the townspeople are left with many unanswered questions. The slow moving investigation leads to the formation of the Omagh Self Help and Support Group composed of Catholics, Protestants, Irish and English, who stand together and press for the truth.

In a film flush with good performances, Gerard McSorely is outstanding as the group’s soft-spoken yet persistent leader. The combination of even pacing, and a lack of melodrama, make for a somber and at times heart-wrenching experience. Omagh demonstrates what happens when the political process takes precedence over the people.


Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1975
Director: Stuart Cooper

When he is drafted, Thomas Beddoes leaves behind his simple country upbringing for the regimented hell of basic training. Army life quickly takes its toll on the cheery young optimist who is thrust into an unfamiliar dreary existence, and he sinks in to despair, worrying about his parents and his pet cocker spaniel. Amidst the monotony, Thomas experiences the bloom of romance just before he must ship out for D-Day, firm in the knowledge that he might not return.

Shot in grainy black and white by John Alcott, one of Kubrick’s favorite cinematographers, Thomas Beddoes’ fictional story is seamlessly intercut with real wartime footage, some of it only recently declassified. The confluence of dynamic images, and oft jarring sound lends the film a documentary style feel. While the pace is sometimes yawn inspiring, Overlord provides an insight into the banality and ferocity of war without zooming in on the gore or dramatizing the heroics of the combatants.


The Overture
Country: Thailand
Year: 2004
Director: Itthi-Sunthon Wichailak

After rival musicians kill Sorn’s brother, his father forbids him from playing for fear that Sorn might suffer a similar fate. Determined to follow his heart, Sorn disobeys his father and practices in secret. Eventually his father relents, and helps Sorn cultivate his musical gift and we follow his tumultuous career as he rises from the ranks of bumpkin musician to renowned master.

Very loosely based on the life of Luang Pradit Phairao, Thailand's ranard-ek (traditional Thai Xylophone) virtuoso, Overture touches upon the effect of the forced Westernization in Thailand from the late 19th century to the 1940's (which included the banning of traditional arts). Had more time been spent on this aspect of the story, it might have been a more engaging exercise, however the writer chose instead to focus on a long-standing competition between Sorn and his arch rival. While I found the instrument’s sound captivating and was absorbed by the dueling ranard sequences, the operatic sense of drama is distracting and ultimately there is not enough substance to keep viewers engaged.


Summer Storm
Country: Germany
Year: 2004
Director: Marco Kreuzpaintner

Best friends Tobi and Achim are members of the rowing elite which has helped raise their status in the mating game. Achim is keen to take his relationship with Sandra to the next level, but Tobi is clearly annoyed by the relationship, as he fears she will come between them. Tobi is so busy meddling in his friend’s affairs that he displays complete indifference towards the beautiful Anke’s affections. The teams’ camping trip in the country only serves to exacerbate Tobi’s concerns and confusion.

Audiences get two coming of age stories for the price of one: the traditional relationship between Achim and Sandra, and Tobi’s struggle to not only connect, but understand and process his orientation. Robert Stadlober plays Tobi with a confused sincerity that makes his character easy to relate to, yet there is a selfishness that occasionally seeps through that will lead you to dislike him. In spite of the blatant metaphor of the approaching storm and the chaos that ensues, the characters are for the most part balanced, and there is enough humor and drama to keep your attention.


Country: UK
Year: 2004
Director: Sally Potter

She is first glimpsed at a high society dinner with her politician husband, where she is abandoned while he presses the flesh. He notices her standing alone as he prepares the dining room, and comments that he would never let her out of his sight. She is flattered, but they are clearly from different worlds: hers, white upper class, his, of Middle Eastern origin and a chef. As her dead marriage weighs ever heavy on her shoulders, she calls him and they choose to pursue a relationship. Can anything good come of a relationship born out of pure energy?

Written in the days following 9/11, Sally Potter wanted to address such lightweight topics as global politics, fidelity, race relations, and love. Potter, known for her visually overpowering work in such films as Orlando and The Man Who Cried, decided to present a work that was aurally innovative: the result was a script written in iambic pentameter and spoken in verse, reputedly the first of its kind since Shakespeare. I was concerned that this approach would prove to be too gimmicky, but quickly forgot about the cadence as I became absorbed in the onscreen relationship between Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian. Potter couldn’t resist the use of some highly stylized cinematography, which enhances the story’s dream like quality.

If you’re in search of a “different” drama, look no further.



Lipstick and Dynamite
Country: US
Year: 2004

Ruth Leitman interviews such luminaries as Gladys "Kill Em" Gillem, and “The Fabulous Moolah”, pioneers in women's wrestling. The women, who shared similar backgrounds of abandonment, abuse, and poverty also suffered at the hands of unscrupulous promoters who took half their earnings and expected a little extra. While they were in the ring however, they got to take out their frustrations on hapless opponents, which often turned out to be men.

The dissection of this subculture is sad, humorous and provides a unique insight into a previously unexplored realm of female empowerment. Thankfully, most emerged from the ring with a stronger sense of self and went on to find fulfillment in professional careers.


Mad Hot Ballroom
Country: US
Year: 2005
Director: Marilyn Agrelo

For the better part of a decade grade thousands of grade five students in the New York City school system have been taking ballroom dancing. Agrelo, at the urging of a friend, followed groups from three different schools for ten weeks as they learned ballroom dancing and prepared for the local championships. Her project almost ended before it began however– Agrelo noted at the post screening Q&A that “The Department of Education said yes to the initial request, then called back a week before shooting and said ‘No’. Thankfully, they acquiesced after a prolonged session of begging.

As someone who is cursed with two left feet, I was stunned by the students' progress in such a short period of time. Their passion for dance is matched by the enthusiasm of their teachers who take the competition very seriously. The dancing takes second place to the candid asides with the kids, which range from hilarious observations of the opposite sex, to remarkable insights on life that, elude most adults.

A true cinematic treat, only the most jaded viewer will not be moved by the gamut of emotions that run through this film.


Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire

Country: Canada
Year: 2004
Director: Peter Raymont

When hostilities flared up in Rwanda in 1994, General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda called for reinforcements to separate the combatants. As the country was deemed to be neither strategically or economically important, his requests were ignored. Dallaire was left to manage the situation with just 450 troops and no supplies. In the aftermath 800,000 Tutsis lay dead, butchered by fanatical Hutu forces.

Dallaire returned to Rwanda for the 10th anniversary of the massacre both to pay homage to the country that he feels he failed and to exorcise the demons that still haunt him. He is candid about his resentment of the UN and fears that the situation could re-emerge elsewhere in Africa with similar results. In addition to Dallaire’s personal memories, Raymont includes interviews with survivors, and disturbing footage of the killings to illuminate the scope of the tragedy. Shaking Hands documents what happens when the world turns a blind eye, and the heavy price – both physical and mental - paid by those who try to do what is right.


Parting thoughts

With hundreds of films at the festival, it’s important to spend some time browsing through the program guide. This ensures that you won’t be completely overwhelmed by the selections and will allow you to make some informed decisions, rather than having to make a snap judgement at the ticket booth. If you can’t make it to your first choice one day, remember that most films have multiple screenings and you might be able to see it on another day. Keep in mind however, that the popular films often sell out well in advance. Tickets are available online at and at the box office, but.

If you’re in need of further guidance check out the many reviews in the local papers, or better yet strike up a conversation with one of the veterans in line and they will be more than happy to let you know what they liked and why. Pace yourself, keep eating and drinking (believe me, it’s easy to forget), and consider bringing a pillow if you’re settling in for some marathon viewing. Most importantly, enjoy.

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 06/01/05 10:55:46
last updated: 06/05/05 08:30:13
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