Calvin’s Capsules: SIFF 2023 – Part 1

The first of several capsule review dispatches, including blurbs of five interesting movies shown at this year’s festival.

Year of the Fox

Year of the Fox. Dir. Megan Griffiths.

Seattle-based filmmaker Megan Griffiths makes films in, about, and for Seattle. Hers is a specialized niche. Year of the Fox is deeply embedded in the feeling of its spaces. Griffiths directs well in the outdoors, the photography being very green and fertile. The moral story here is a little awkward. The film is about what happens when a young woman seeks out one of her father’s friends. This year of seeking the Silver Fox, so to speak, is entangled in common therapeutic language and outcomes, processing a kind of attachment disorder with the lead character’s father. This is subtle work. It plays between the quiet, liminal spaces of the outdoors, and when the characters are not talking, and are simply looking, the film speaks volumes. We’re always waiting for the Megan Griffiths film that breaks out from our scene and we’re not quite there yet but this is a fair effort at it.

Punderneath it All

Punderneath it All. Dir. Abby Hagen.

Search for Punderneath it All. First thing you will notice is that you cannot query a search engine for this movie. Google will automatically search for “Underneath it All,” which is good for the ska-pop band No Doubt, and not as good for this film’s SEO value. That’s one reason to appreciate it. Another is that the documentary flows without too much pretension. The biggest conflict at the wordplay slam events it covers is how precise the judging should be and whether that takes some of the fun out of it (whether a joke is a bit of referential wordplay or an actual pun, are the dividing lines here). The other central conflict is whether puns themselves are the lowest form of humor, or because most people cannot improv really clever puns, whether they are an artful way to prove one’s dexterity with language. Largely covering the events of the Seattle pun scene, the documentary is naturally small and insular. It doesn’t get further than the surface of the topic, but as an advertorial report about these events that would be really lovely to attend, is a useful call for greater attendance.

Coldwater Kitchen

Coldwater Kitchen. Dir. Brian Kaufman & Mark Kurlyandchik.

A big-hearted documentary, Coldwater Documentary is a lens into actual rehabilitation happening in the justice system. We follow Chef Hill, a lovely man who is giving so much back, as he mentors three men who are finding connections they never had, on the inside or the outside. It’s a thoughtful documentary because it is imbued with the humanity of the Chef at its center and his love for people is so big that it shows in his entire process and especially the food they make together. Chef Hill gives these men the great gift of connection, supplying them with the tools to enter restaurant work beyond basic entry-level service and fast food positions. They craft a refined menu, served to local chefs, and people who can give these men connections on the outside. This is that very rare documentary that is an alternative idea of exactly what jail should be, an opportunity for such growth and to become someone totally new, to become a new person who can reintegrate into society. Watching the film, we come to think that recidivism rates would plummet dramatically if jails were full of men like Chef Hill. We also know he is the exception. But for this brief moment, we see broken systems working in a way we know they never do, and over 30 years, you begin to consider just how many lives Chef Hill has changed for the best. This documentary is a tribute to his career and the power of culinary arts but especially how connection saves so many of us from the worst versions of ourselves.

26.2 to Life

26.2 to Life. Dir. Christine Yoo.

It’s natural to see how marathon running is analogous to the quest for personal freedom over a long jail sentence. Here, the runners train and run and train and nothing else. There is some music apparently composed by an in-house band at the jail. I think that’s a much more interesting documentary. Sam Quentin Mixtape is the artist name and you can find them on Spotify. Their first track on the album is a series of shoutouts from notable rap artists and Kim Kardashian. I want to watch the documentary about this coming together. But alas, we live in a runner’s world, wherein we must entertain dreary athletic documentaries. This one doesn’t have much of a pulse but naturally finds a nice ending when someone leaves and goes to run a marathon.


Feast. Dir. Brilliante Mendoza.

There is a bare superficiality to Brillante Mendoza‘s Feast. The once Cannes winner is subject to typically scathing reviews online now. The work does not explain why on its own, all of its ideas are too nascent and preliminary to sketch out any larger image of any one thing. What does subtract from many sequences are two technical factors: a shaky camera that does not fit any of the shots and a script that does not do anything with the dilemma it introduces, about finding truth in both sides for the victim and aggressor of an accident. Now for all those scathing early reviews, there are enough to wonder why. The short version is that Mendoza is so often chosen as a lone representative of the independent Filipino film market and that other people do make films. The other matter is that his films are just riding off the coattails of this formal inclusion policy, while the works themselves are flagrantly controversial, like a pro Philippines drug war item he made for Netflix and a body of work dubbed “poverty porn”. This follows the track of ideas before conceptual thoughtfulness. Nothing really develops out of anything that is introduced here and the movie inspires nothing in the viewer.

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