My first Port Townsend Film Festival was in 2016, and my first marathon review of the Film Festival for the Port Townsend Leader was in 2017. This year has brought some especially welcome …
My first Port Townsend Film Festival was in 2016, and my first marathon review of the Film Festival for the Port Townsend Leader was in 2017. This year has brought some especially welcome changes.
The Film Fest now allows attendees to make digital reservations for their chosen shows, so they can spend less time waiting in line, and the festival's handouts include guides to all the places to buy snacks and drinks between screenings. My goal is, as always, to watch as many as a dozen films in four days.
Thursday, Sept. 21: Day 1
"Red, White & Brass" (2023) preceded by "joyful" (2021).
In eight wordless minutes, "joyful" director Simantini Chakraborty takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of multiple countries and continents, contrasting the hectic pace of modern society, and the ways in which we're despoiling our planet and ourselves, with uplifting moments of unadorned grace, as she exhorts us to cherish life while we have it.
"Red, White & Brass" director Damon Fepulea'i sustains this spirit with his underdog comedy, based on real-life events, about how the 2011 Rugby World Cup's Tonga versus France game in Wellington, New Zealand, inspired a local Tongan church group to start their own brass band, so they could get tickets to the game for free by performing at the match.
From "The Bad News Bears" in 1976 to "Brassed Off" in 1996, watching unskilled misfits overcome the odds to develop their talents, and come together as a team, possesses its own innate appeal, but what makes "Red, White & Brass" stand out within that sub-genre is the authenticity of its amusing and endearing insights into New Zealand's Tongan culture.
It's hilarious to see self-styled "gangsters" cowed into sheepish manners by the moral admonishments of an elderly Tongan mom (my Filipino friends might recognize shades of their own families), while another young Tongan man copes with being treated as "too white" by his peers, for not being as familiar with the heritage they share.
And I doubt I'm spoiling the conclusion for anyone by revealing this initially discordant crew achieves a rousing rhythm in time for their big show.
Friday, Sept. 22: Day 2
"Before I Change My Mind" (2022)
Director Trevor Anderson presents a tonally tumultuous profile of a genderqueer adolescent, Robin, who moves to Alberta, Canada, from my childhood hometown of Spokane, Washington, in 1987.
You don't need to be LGBTQ to relate to Robin's hardships and heartaches, but it helps if you can remember how it felt to tense up before you got punched in the face by your fellow kids.
Robin falls under the spell of the school bully, who deals with his own repressed feelings for other boys by peer-pressuring and preying upon them, which leads the otherwise benign Robin to make the sort of petty moral compromises that the victimized too often go along with to fit in, even when it means perpetuating a cycle of abuse.
Not that Robin has many positive role models.
His single dad is as gifted at fixing computers as Robin is at creating art, but both are incurably socially awkward among their own age groups.
We only catch glimpses of Robin's mom in fragmentary flashbacks, but enough to guess why his dad moved to Canada without her.
Even Robin's outwardly "good girl" acquaintance, Izzy, gradually reveals a casual thoughtlessness.
"Before I Change My Mind" is as authentic as, but even more harrowing than, Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade" in 2018, and in both cases, I'm glad I saw those films, but I never need to see them again.
Anderson dares to leave his conclusion messy, after his characters stage a hilariously misfiring, but all-too-era-appropriate, subversion of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"PATROL" (2023), preceded by "The Forest Beyond" (2023)
In 16 minutes, "The Forest Beyond" directors Jeremy Seifert and Fred Bahnson find a fleeting moment of optimism within an otherwise oppressively downbeat environmental trend, as a young woman from the Shipibo people, of the Amazon River in Peru, travels to see virgin forestlands for the first time, at the outskirts of her ancestral lands, even as she recalls how her elders predicted the current decline of those forests and their wildlife.
"PATROL" directors Brad Allgood and Camilo De Castro paint an even bleaker picture of how the self-appointed protectors of the Nicaraguan rainforest struggle to beat back technically illegal cattle ranching interests, that are nonetheless tacitly supported by President Ortega's government.
With terrain that remains impassible enough that it can only be crossed by foot or by water, these patrols are always a step behind the impoverished ranchers whom the cattle companies rely upon to convert nature reserves into de facto commercial properties.
An especially bitter karmic blow is dealt to these defenders of the Earth onscreen, as a hurricane forces them to seek shelter in tarps and thatched huts, while winds blow metal roofs off industrial buildings, leaving our patrol shivering in their wet T-shirts and jeans, before one of them surveys the storm's damage to the ecosystem.
Even as he concludes, with rueful dispassion, that the hurricane was likely a symptom of man-made climate change, the camera lingers on his face as it crumples into silent tears, long enough to make me ethically uncomfortable with its invasiveness.
"Year of the Fox" (2022)
Ivy, a contemplative teen adopted by a privileged but dysfunctional couple, splits her final stretch of high school between her mom in Seattle and her dad in Aspen, after they divorce, but her already complicated relationship with her mercurial father is profoundly impacted by the secrets being kept by the rich and/or beautiful party elites in their famous Colorado resort town.
Ivy's greatest strength, which is her earnestness, becomes her most vulnerable weakness when she hobnobs over cocktails with her fashionably fast friends, as well as with her parents' perpetually on-the-make acquaintances.
Jake Weber has long since proven his broad range, but he's so perfect at reverting to type by playing Ivy's gaslighting, narcissistic adoptive dad who wields his worldliness like a blunt cudgel — he's like Hart Bocher as Harry Ellis in 1988's "Die Hard," with more polish and a higher IQ — while Jane Adams yet again conveys the near-paradox of a simmering meekness as Ivy's adoptive mom.
On the pulp melodrama spectrum, the plot tropes are barely a few steps shy of V.C. Andrews paperbacks, but they're acted out so well, and executed so deftly, that I had to know what would happen next.
Like Robin in "Before I Change My Mind," Ivy is still figuring herself out in "Year of the Fox," in no small part because she doesn't yet fully understand the folks who ostensibly raised her (not counting her caring live-in maid in Aspen).
And ultimately, Ivy is a good soul to root for.
"The Grab" (2022)
At first, it might sound like a national security scenario too absurd or dull for a Tom Clancy novel, except it's actually happening, and it is existentially terrifying.
In 2014, China bought out Smithfield Foods, the United States' largest pork-producing company, which made reporter Nathan Halverson curious about whether other foreign interests had made significant purchases of American agricultural resources.
"The Grab" director Gabriela Cowperthwaite followed Halverson and the Center for Investigative Journalism for the next nine years, as they connected the dots between China, Saudi Arabia and Russia's acquisitions of crops, livestock and aquifers, not only on U.S. soil, but also in Africa.
These findings lead to the ominous forecast that it's food and water, rather than oil or other fuels, whose increasing scarcity will spark global wars in years to come.
Indeed, "The Grab" contends that the "Arab Spring" of 2010, as well as Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its ongoing attempts to annex Ukraine since 2022, all stem from scrambles to secure such resources.
Halverson and his colleagues have uncovered so many such covert takeovers of resources that they can recall discovering their names on literal hit-lists, and nearly becoming "disappeared" people while in Zambian government custody.
It's fascinating to hear how casually Halverson assumes that all his wireless devices have been hacked, which is one reason why the Center for Investigative Journalism's "treasure trove" of intel is so aggressively air-gapped, on a computer with no Wi-Fi capacity, whose USB ports have been superglued shut.
Saturday, Sept. 23: Day 3
"Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project" (2022)
By luck of the draw, I attended this screening with my mom, a retired English teacher who was in college when Nikki Giovanni started hitting the scene in a big way as a poet.
Mom loved how "Going to Mars" captured so much of Giovanni's inspiring language, which can be challenging for a medium as visual as film, while I was impressed by the visual flourishes that directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson employed to sell Giovanni's writing, which was read aloud by a combination of modern-day Giovanni, Giovanni as a younger woman in archival footage, and the actress Taraji P. Henson.
Giovanni's works celebrate her Black-American culture, but my mom was moved by how Giovanni seemed to speak to her own experiences as a woman, even though my mom is white.
"Going to Mars" conveys how unapologetic and genuine Giovanni has always been about her identity, which was evident in her moxie when she promoted her early poetry by renting a New York jazz club when it was closed on Sunday.
Giovanni has lived through civil rights history, but a stroke has robbed her of many of those memories, so while she still knows those events, she regards it as a blessing in disguise that she can't recall how traumatized she was by hate crimes such as the lynching of Emmett Till.
Per the film's title, I was fascinated by how Giovanni shared jazz musician Sun Ra's Afrofuturist view of outer space exploration as a metaphor for Black transcendence.
Director Vivian Kerr's family dramedy benefits tremendously from casting herself and veteran straight man Anthony Rapp as adult siblings Beth and Ben, whose already strained relationship is tested further when Beth is reduced to living out of her car after she's laid off, and she refuses to tell Ben, even though he and his wife are looking after Beth's daughter in the meantime.
Speaking as someone who's observed the dynamic of older brothers acting as surrogate fathers to younger sisters in my own family, Rapp and Kerr have a lived-in brother-sister vibe, as it's established that Ben essentially raised Beth after their parents died in an accident.
Kerr's portrayal of Beth as having trapped herself in a recursive loop of false promises and overcompensating aspirations, to compensate for her ever-compounding litany of past failures, likewise feels real enough to induce a full-body cringe, whether you've tried to rescue someone from themselves, or whether you've been that person yourself.
In a twist on the typical cinematic trope of a writer who wishes he could branch out into fantasy storytelling, what's hilarious is that Ben has actually built up a profitable fan following as a sort of next-generation George R.R. Martin figure, but his heart isn't in it, because what he truly yearns to publish is his completed biography of jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Lana Parrilla also deserves credit for making Ben's wife nuanced and sympathetic, as she realizes her conflicted emotions over her and Ben's plans for their own family.
Sunday, Sept. 24: Day 4
This morning, self-testing revealed I'd contracted COVID, so my movie marathon has come to a premature close.
I was 41 years old when I first attended the Port Townsend Film Festival, and I'm 48 now.
I will always participate in the Film Festival when I can, but I'm too old to maintain the pace of my younger years, when I marathoned as many as 15 films within a single Film Fest.
My thanks to the fine folks at the festival for providing an excellent experience, and a shout-out to PTFF Executive Director Danielle McClelland for rocking those noir detective outfits.