SIFF 2010: Under the sea and on top of the world

Our Rating

Stephin Merritt of the alt-pop band The Magnetic Fields is one of those musical characters that you either love, or you have simply never heard of him. I adore Magnetic Fields, so I was thrilled to hear that Merritt was going to come to SIFF with his San Francisco International Film Festival-commissioned score to the 1916 silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (7/8).

Much fun was to be had at the evening itself at the gorgeous Paramount Theatre, as Merritt was accompanied by with Seattle-fave Daniel Handler on accordion and vocals, Johnny Blood on tuba and trumpet, and David Hegarty on the mighty organ. Merritt’s goofy score, was replete with some fake dialogue and a handful of jaunty tunes (including the crowd favorite “I Don’t Wanna Wear Pants!” and the oft-repeated “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” song which was sung every time the reel changed… which happened at least seven times). The film itself was mostly entertaining, if mostly bizarre, with Captain Nemo himself looking like a cross between an emaciated Santa Claus and an Ooompa Loompa. There was an overly-long (though I’m sure completely impressive at the time) underwater scene, and many moments that were unintentionally hilarious, like the delayed response text on the screen proclaiming “Shark!” after we had watched sharks swimming onscreen for a least a couple minutes, or the poor actors in old-fashioned diving suits struggling against the “undertow” which had them walking at a 45-degree angle.

I enjoyed the presentation very much, and was smiling the whole time though. But! I have to say, the post-movie experience, with a little bit of online surfing, is proving to be just as entertaining as apparently some SIFF-goers are rather furious about the whole thing. Some decried the whimsical tone as disrespectful to the original film. Others are simply thinking “WTF?!??!” to Stephin Merritt’s style. A response to one negative comment I saw asked the negative reviewer if they were familiar with Merritt at all before the screening, and they admitted no. Again: You either love him, or have never even heard of him. I love Stephin Merritt. 🙂

The Russian film Hipsters (Stilyagi) (6/8) has had more festival buzz than most films, so I was really looking forward to it. It is a visually dazzling musical (the first Russian musical, the director proclaimed at the Q&A), portraying a bunch of “hipsters” in 1950s Stalin-era Moscow that worship American jazz and style. Well, lets call that their interpretation of American style, because the crazy color combinations and the sky-high pompadours are outlandishly wonderful, especially in contrast to the drab, Soviet-gray that predominates the rest of their lives. The musical score is fab, and director Valery Todorovsky seemed surprised at one audience member’s question if the soundtrack would be available (yep, it already is… in Russia at least). The film had a nice charm with a bit of Stalinist drama thrown in (with an especially great musical moment with our hero “Mel” being kicked out of Stalin’s Youth League). If anything, I’d say the movie felt maybe half an hour too long, but I totally enjoyed it all the same. Might be checking eBay to see if I can get ahold of the soundtrack….

Speaking of fantastic visuals, IMAX is simply made for mountain climbing movies. A 70-foot screen is the closest that most of us will get to Mount Everest, much less the summit, so to experience a film like The Wildest Dream (7/8) is a fantastic treat. Climber Conrad Anker, who found the frozen and preserved body of George Mallory (perhaps the first person to summit Everest in 1924) makes a personal quest to retrace Mallory and his climbing partner Irvine’s original path up Everest to see if the route was even possible, considering the simple equipment and climbing gear of the time. Conrad Anker and his own climbing partner Leo Houlding, at one point, even do part of their climb in clothes and boots of the style that Mallory and Irvine would have worn. (The most, well, chilling part of the film shows Leo almost in a panic trying to warm his toes after taking off the leather boots they would have worn). The modern climbers also answer the question if it is possible to scale the extremely difficult “Second Step” near the summit, without the aid of modern gear. There is a surprising amount of original footage from Mallory’s expedition incorporated into the film, plus there is narration in the original words of Mallory, his beloved wife Ruth, Irvine, and the expedition’s photographer (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Hugh Dancy, and Alan Rickman, respectively). But The Wildest Dream was also an example of what is so great about SIFF. Conrad Aker was at the screening for a post-screening Q&A, and if they didn’t cut him short, I’m sure the audience would have come up with hours more of questions. His stories were absolutely fascinating, and I would have loved to have heard more.


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