Sadly, Not Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You

Out of seven films I went to as part of the Seattle International Film Festival, I'd have to say that six were worth the price of admission, which is a considerably better ratio than Hollywood usually seems to be capable of.

Some were fairly forgettable. There was a funny enough Mexican black comedy about corruption, called Herod's Law that featured a a surprising amount of gunplay, a truly unncessary sped-up sex scene, and an appearance by Alex Cox, best known as the director of Repo Man. Cox, who looks amazingly like Steve Buscemi, plays the role of "Gringo." The film was apparently quite controversial in Mexico: it's the first film about corruption to mention the PRI by name, and it seems that the PRI resorted to the most hilariously incompetent tactics to try and stop its release: forcing projectionists to show the film out of focus, and other tactics of the sort usually associated with low-level bureaucratic flunkies who're so accustomed to gross mismanagement that they can't even work the wheels of government properly when they need to engage in a little repression. I guess because of the controversy, the SIFF people flew up the director to answer questions after the screening. I don't know why they bothered; he refused to answer any of the political questions ("So, what exactly are you saying about the PRI in the scene where the mayor murders the madam of the local brothel and takes over the business?")

While I'm being catty, let me state that Long Night's Journey Into Day, a documentary about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, actually seemed more like a documentary about the making of Paul Simon's Graceland. Every few minutes, they'd cut away from the testimony of variously victimized South Africans, show some documentary footage or a long tracking shot of a Cape Town beach, and slam on some reverb-heavy South African music. I mean, really, own up here, the last film I saw that was this heavy on the selection of pop tunes was Forrest Gump. When the soundtrack wasn't cueing the audience to feel excessive uplift, the movie was actually decent, raising some interesting moral issues. Then again, given the material they had to work with, it might have required serious effort not to wind up with a movie of moral gravity.

Also in the category of "great source material, okay film," was the film version of Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles. The woman is a Jim Carrey-class mimic with an astonishing ear for language and mannerism. She is not, I'm sorry to report, much of a filmmaker. There was enough of her doing her thing to make for a pretty riveting hour and a half, but all the same, the movie was horribly edited and fairly incoherently assembled. I guess there are just certain performers you could watch read the phone book, and Anna Deveare Smith is one of them.

The Black House, from Japan, winds up like any of dozens of Hollywood slasher films, but it's a lot more fun than most of them along its journey there. People who call insurance agents asking whether their policies pay out on suicide are Bad News, generally -- but this film does a fairly nice job of misleading you about the precise nature of that news, indeed, of making you think that you might be watching a jolly and cheerful film instead of the gut-churner it ultimately winds up being. Oh, yeah, and there's also one wonderfully disorienting shot where the director does some pretty funky stuff with the camera's focal depth.

Moving up the food chain, Janice Beard, 45 WPM is a really wonderful goofball comedy from England. The titluar character is working temp jobs as a secretary, trying to save up some money for her agoraphobic mother, when she gets embroiled in an industrial espionage scheme. But plot is really secondary in this movie: the place of honor belongs to Janice herself, a wonderfully dizzy self-doubting outsider with a talent for making up absurd stories. Trying to hide from her mother the nature of her job, Janice sneaks into the model kitchen part of a home furnishings store and proceeds to make a videotape of herself "cooking in her kitchen." I'm really not doing her justice, I know. Basically, she's the most appealingly charming and well-rounded character I've seen in a comedy in years upon years. Also starring is Rhys Ifans, best known to audiences as Spike in Notting Hill. Suffice it to say that Ifans may be stuck in romantic comedies, but he definitely has a hell of a range as an actor.

Topping out my list is The Mission, a Hong Kong gangster flick from Johnnie To that distinguishes itself by the relatively small number of shots fired and the near-complete absence of over-the-top effects and/or camera work. It's just a bunch of bodyguards and their elemental coolness, and the film makes it work. They get into firefights and they dive for cover, shoot back, figure out exactly where the bad guys are, then carefully and systematically take them out. Cue bad-ass cha-cha music. In their downtime, they get bored and give each other loaded cigarettes and kick around wadded up pieces of paper. You gotta believe me here, this makes for high-caliber cinema. These guys are just badassity personified. Rip-roaring fun.

Well, that makes six movies I liked, which means it's time for me to speak about the seventh, Silence!, last and most definitely least. The concept seemed intriguing: a silent film (filmed this past year), accompanied by live music and voice-over from actors on stage beneath the screen. The same actors, in fact, who appeared on screen. I've seen enough bizzare stunts like this that pulled it off for me to have reasonably high hopes going in, only to have those hopes cruelly dashed. Silence! is the kind of garbage that too-closely-knit artistic groups produce when they're deprived of the grounding effects of external reality checks. I should have realized how bad things were going to be when I saw the article in The Stranger about the film and the author revealed that he basically knew from other projects every single person with a major part on the Silence! production team. How did it suck? Let me count the ways.

One: the film was "about" the making of a film. A silent film. A silent film about the making of a film. Oooh, deep. Two: most of the dialogue was either recited from a story they decided to use, or was actors repeating lines they'd improvised on the occasion of the film's filming, so that everything sounded like someone declaiming or saying something profoundly incoherent. Three: they had a little kid up there to say a lot of the lines. Stunts like that just bug me. Four, there was no monkey playing a trombone, an essential element to any live accompaniment to a silent film. No trombone-playing monkey is a sure sign of a desparate film.