SIFF 2022: Capsule Reviews, Part 1

Our first ten capsules for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival runs the gamut between must-see international fare and local films. We’ll continue rolling out our capsule reviews over the coming weeks. Here’s what our team is watching at SIFF.

Hit the Road

Hit the Road. Dir. Panah Panahi.

Returning from their quest to an unsure future, the family encapsulate the film’s striking atmosphere, singing along to cultural staple pop music in a façade of presumed joy while tears streak their cheeks, spiritual catharsis burdened with an infinite melancholy. Though standing in defiant opposition to being a direct stylistic continuance of his predecessors’ approaches, Hit The Road remains an ultimately beautifully tender and humanist story, soaked in the familiar warmth of the country’s penchant for cinematic empathy. Amin Jafari’s cinematography is wonderfully colorful and stunningly framed, imbuing evocative thoughtfulness into each frame and allowing the most important moments to breathe and revel in their existence. The soundtrack, a combination of gentle piano sonatas and upbeat Iranian pop hits, constantly floods the screen’s atmosphere with elevated panache. Immaculately and lovingly crafted, as it continues to endear with its surface of humor and familial quarreling, it infuses immense complexity and a lingering sadness that stays with you, each moment seeping into the fabric of your thoughts. Complex in its ambiguity, hopeful in its sadness, and vigorously full of life even when the visage of death looms overhead, a fascinating film that celebrates its contradictions and uses them to wind into a wonderfully singular and eloquently poetic debut. Read our full review. — Vaughn Swearingen

Hit the Road opens the road movie up for clever reinvention with another must-see picture about an Iranian family and their mysterious, cosmic journey through the hillsides of their country. Where are they going? Are they going somewhere? Why the secrecy and the floating anxiety that the whole journey could give out at any moment? Something about withholding information allows Hit the Road to have an openness of meaning and intention. Panah Panahi is already a world class director following in the footsteps of his widely acclaimed father and lives up to the family billing. Significantly, his exploration of this Iranian family, while not autobiographical, feels deeply personal, making it one of the most significant and emotionally weighted films of this year’s festival. Listen to our interview with Panah Panahi. — Calvin Kemph


Dual. Dir. Riley Stearns.

Perfectly offbeat and delightfully deadpan, a strange and surreal concoction of sterile retrofuturism and disquieting affectation that never quite allows you to get comfortable, all notions of anything resembling familiarity dissolving while it slowly burns through its muted tension. Its construction builds an inherently unsettling atmosphere alongside its undercurrent of odd existentialism, a perfect space where everything goes and it flies by without a second thought, always selling itself with ease. Stearns’ sharply directed and finely tuned piece of flat hilarity never ceases to surprise and amuse, all the levity cementing a foundation for its moments of human exploration. How do we face ourselves, live with ourselves, reconcile with our faults and failures and become the perfect version of ourselves? Is it even possible? What if you could see all of it blossoming in front of your eyes, train for it, prepare yourself for this moment of climactic conflict, waiting for the instant that it all returns to normal. Eventually, it all blends together, we are forever destined to be imperfect, the sum of all our shortcomings as much as we are the totality of our accomplishments. The pain never really goes away. — Vaughn Swearingen

Sweetheart Deal

Sweetheart Deal. Dirs. Elisa Levine, Gabriel Miller.

The scuzzy Aurora Avenue, a highway of ill repute, connecting Seattle to its northern neighborhoods, was designed for transience. In the 1930s, it was built with motorists in mind, flush with gas stations and cheap motels for folks venturing in and out of Seattle to the North. Then, Interstate-5 was built and with it, went the centerpiece of Aurora’s economy. All that was left was a long strip with lots of cheap food, gas, and affordable places to stay. Places don’t become havens for illicit activities by chance: the promise is inherent in the design. Sweetheart Deal explores what’s left, a seedy underbelly of a city and its darkest unspoken dealings just outside downtown. We follow several women in sex work and a man who provides safe haven for them in his RV but right away on camera, seems to have a lot of ulterior motives, which turns out to be a much darker true story then the filmmakers bargained for. The revelation happens after the middle of the movie and the rest is the sad or uplifting fallout of what then happens to these women after their untrustworthy safety net is pulled out. It’s documentary cinema that requires a shower after. Watching Sweetheart Deal is also an agreement with the filmmaker. You’ll trust them and they’ll lead you through hell. It’s extremely uncomfortable where this ends up going and it’s unclear who it really helps, but if watching some women really work their way out of a living hell is appealing (for me, that’s just incredibly difficult), then the filmmakers have a sweetheart deal for you. — Calvin Kemph

Voice of Silence

Voice of Silence. Dir. Hong Eui-jeong.

A lot of delicate and thoughtful beauty to dissect underneath the surface about what it means to feel or be powerless or completely lacking in perceived agency, and how the smallest things such as the inability to communicate, whether intrinsically or because you simply lack the vocabulary to effectively advocate for yourself, can be completely crushing and hopeless. The frustration comes from it all lying beneath the formulaic surface of the modern Korean crime thriller, a genre that has become ubiquitous enough to be rife with landmines of tropes and familiarity that undercut the potential for something much more touching. Yoo Ah-in’s performance is a whirlwind of fascination, and is more than enough to carry the rest on its back, but it’s also not quite enough to break free of the confines that keep this restricted to a few too many rote simplicities. – Vaughn Swearingen

Cat Daddies

Cat Daddies. Dir. Mye Hoang.

A sweetly oriented doc with its heart in the right place, it just can’t find a direction to go or a point to settle down on. Its wider subject matter, as well as its final moments, suggest that this is a film about the often ignored relationships between men and felines, and the social lens this provides to view modern masculinity through. For so long the wider cultural conversation has been pushed towards cat ownership being this strange act of sad loneliness and desperation, and that there’s a sense of weakness involved with a man owning a cat. The pervasive nature of this sensibility has created this strange stigma among men, and the idea of a film existing that could explore this stigma and help to dissolve it is admirable, but the film doesn’t seem to realize its own capabilities. Instead, it’s about so many other things, and while the cat dads here are mostly wonderful, there’s a lingering sense that a more focused energy could have created something as incisive and necessary as it is soft and fuzzy. At the very least, as a proud cat dad, I hope this can inspire a few people to find their own companions and become cat dads themselves. — Vaughn Swearingen

It’s all too precious and the cat-dad relationships are sweet, mostly filled with details you can tell from the poster and premise, and you’ll get exactly those things out of it if it’s what you want. What I didn’t realize is that the movie would reveal my empty cold-heartedness, my uncaring attitudes toward the subjects and their cat companions. How sad and bitter of me, facing imminent Cat Daddyship myself, not to feel this is a totally useful lens to study masculinity and male-pet relationships. Again it’s easy to watch and you already know what you can take away from it, unbelievably my heart turned to stone and I didn’t care, despite really enjoying cats in person and their memetic online currency, I just didn’t attach to anything here. You’re still going to watch it if you already were and I hope that goes beautifully for you. Put a dog on screen doing anything with their “Dad” and I’ll probably cry. Apologies to all the Cat Daddies on The Twin Geeks. — Calvin Kemph

Only in Theaters

Only in Theaters. Dir. Raphael Sbarge.

I watched Only in Theaters on my computer. I watched this whole movie about why I should patronize the cinema for the first in-person festival in my region in several years, and I watched a preview screening on my computer. Ain’t that just the issue? Accessibility once again wins over tradition and cultural value. Then, there is another thing. This is a festival in the Pacific Northwest and a movie about a theater in California. The theater is run as a family business and son Greg Laemmle seems to call most of the shots. As the pandemic winds down and options to sell are broached, he moves to rainy Seattle, Washington. Then he simply comments about the weather, that he has never seen winter before and doesn’t know how so much darkness will change his mood. The good news about Seattle is that the movie market, up till a few years ago, seems to be expanding with the shift of monied business owners and tech workers making up most of the population. Our weather may be gloomy but there is a bright light in the projection booths of our own cinema. If the documentary doesn’t create one, here is our call to action: support SIFF and your local festivals. They usually take place at the theaters that desperately need your support. They are the best way to actionably support the history of cinema and its preservation. Keep the cinemas alive because they are necessary to our understanding of culture and for the influence they can have on the future of cinema. Read our full review. — Calvin Kemph

Ali & Ava

Ali & Eva. Dir. Clio Barnard.

Ali & Ava already feels like one of those critical darling works bound to not find traction with a wider audience. A portrait of pre-middle aged love in Bradford, England, one that deals with themes of domestic abuse and racism (the domestic abuse theme is mostly well handled, but perhaps oversteps towards the end), can be an off-putting description. But what is in the film is not what a film is. This is a film about how easy it is to get into situations, to climb up, but how climbing down is more important. Getting to peril is no problem, pulling away from it is the vital part (this is beautifully shown through a visual metaphor in the film). It is a film about music, laughter and connection. The writing, supplemented by improvisation, is astonishingly sharp, never just existing in one register. Your eyes won’t be dry, but that will be as much from laughter as it is from sadness. In fact, I laughed harder at this film in one sequence than I have at any comedy in recent memory. And this was from a well timed joke in a scene of clear peril. It’s indicative of the perfect balancing act this film pulls off. At no point does it duck away from messiness, conflict, ugliness and drama; it just doesn’t let it be defined by it. Life is as much about the laughter as it is about the pain, and these parts come sporadically. That familiar rhythm, that’s the rhythm of Ali & Ava. Read our full review. — Stephen Gillespie

A hazy sonic memory, love remembered through the humming bass and shifting waveforms. There’s something so warmly intimate about that shared synesthesia, music leaving the space of being something deeply personal and becoming a memory of the times where your whole world began to shift. The cold air lifts, the fog dissipates, suddenly the horizon feels attainable. The road along the way is rife with challenge and emotion, each extreme of the emotional spectrum felt with abundance and excess, but every second is worth it. The music sounds better with you. — Vaughn Swearingen

The Territory

The Territory. Dir. Alex Pritz.

Death and decay, an infestation of rot. The crushing destruction of fascism and the mindless fury of capitalism slowly gnawing at the borders of nature’s last stand against complete annihilation. Deep in the lush jungles of the Amazon, in the beating heart of Brazil, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people fight tirelessly against the encroaching threat of complete erasure, an indigenous people whose only desire is to preserve the beauty and balance of our planet. Meanwhile, under the hateful umbrella of authoritarian madness, swaths of invaders come to take what they have been convinced is theirs, too disconnected from their own humanity to understand the consequences of what they sow. Heartbreaking and harrowing but wholly critical in its provided lens into this final fight for the survival of a forest that breathes life into the rock we live our lives upon, an urgent plea of environmentalism to defend these lands from the cognitive dissonance that provides hate the justification for stealing this land. As important as documentary filmmaking gets. — Vaughn Swearingen

Alien on Stage

Alien on Stage. Dir. Lucy Harvey, Danielle Kummer.

Tremendously wonderful, the purity and bliss of creativity on full display, completely untethered and endlessly dedicated. The energy that emanates through the fuzzy footage is persistent and palpable, an infinitely generating positivity that refuses to descend into dramatics or unnecessary tension. This is not a film of conflict or disaster, as the documentarians here are as fond of this group of ragtag bus drivers and their stage show as the ragtag group of bus drivers are fond of their stage adaptation of Alien. Instead, we have a film of simple, resounding success, passion malleable and forming into something grand and beautiful because it is creation for the sake of creation. As the film moves from the creation and formation of this low budget stage adaptation of Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece towards its ultimate performance to an enthusiastic and excitable audience of hundreds, it truly transcends, and the audience reaction to the chestburster translated to the stage may be one of the most genuine and wonderful moments put to screen in a very long time. A film about love for art and its infinitely infectious nature. Fantastic. — Vaughn Swearingen

Crucially, Alien on Stage meets the performance where it stands. It is a fan creation of a fan creation of one of cinema’s most enduring works. It is also a heartfelt and authentically crafted document of workers with a great dream. Alien on Stage is not only the filming of the stage show. Most of the runtime is spent in the planning stages. It investigates the creation of the play and the nuances of how such a thing comes to be. Once it is showtime, the documentary remains dynamic and deeply entrenched in the production. It flutters between the highlights of the show and the mechanics of what’s going on backstage. It is a smart production in and of itself, a fantastic celebration of fan culture expressed exuberantly, with love and passion. Alien on Stage, like the production that inspired it, is a must see event for every fan of the Ridley Scott masterpiece. Read our full review & listen to our interview with the filmmakers. — Calvin Kemph

Fire of Love

Fire of Love. Dir. Sara Dosa.

Over a few decades, the couple have created a captivating body of work. They are wrong about themselves. They are perfect at making films. They film with obvious attention to detail, to color arrangement, to framing. They also love humans, because they are so in love with each other, but especially because they are in love with the cycle of life, and understand it so deeply and with such compassion, that it renders no other choice in the matter. Documentarian Sara Dosa presents their materials as another act of profound compassion. She softly narrates their adventures and has put it together as a testament to love and the world itself. Fire of Love is stunningly pretty. It’s also a great adventure. And it’s a true love story born from the explosive potential of volcanoes. It’s essential that any documentary fan gives it a try. Read our full review. — Calvin Kemph

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