SIFF 2015 Recap

by Josh Stillman

Each May, the bulk of the entertainment media turns its attention to the Cannes Film Festival in France. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the film world screeches to a halt. For the last six years, the Soho International Film Festival in New York City has provided an affordable alternative to the glitz and glam of the French affair. Populated by independent films from around the world – many of which were self-produced or financed on platforms like Kickstarter – SIFF provides a much-needed outlet for movies and filmmakers that might otherwise go unnoticed.

There were 74 shorts and features at this year’s festival, coming from places as diverse as Croatia, South Korea, and the Philippines (New York and LA, of course, were also well-represented). And while it was impossible to see everything – surely there are many others in the docket worthy of praise – I did manage to single out four comedies that showed a great deal of promise.

  1. Leaving Circadia

Evan Matthew Weinstein’s directorial debut, Leaving Circadia, is an ensemble dramedy about a group of twenty-and-thirty-somethings navigating adulthood in Brooklyn. This isn’t groundbreaking territory by any means – HBO’s Girls and Vimeo’s excellent High Maintenance have all but cornered the market on angst and arrested development in New York’s hippest borough – but Weinstein’s foray has enough comic and dramatic chops to earn a place in the echelon. The cast, strong across the board, is buoyed by standout performances from Larisa Polonsky as the earnest, beautiful realtor Collette and Reginald Huc as Davis, a wealthy and temperamental bachelor; Joseph R. Gannascoli shines in a small but scene-stealing role as the their brownstone’s irascible landlord. As a director, Weinstein at times betrays his inexperience: the central relationship between Tom (Weinstein), a slovenly superintendent, and the striking Collette is wildly implausible, and their romance plays out as a string of tired clichés. He also balances the characters unevenly, giving short shrift to some and dismissing others entirely without explanation. But, barring these shortcomings, the movie is consistently funny and occasionally poignant, and Weinstein doesn’t give in to the temptation of a tidy conclusion. Leaving Circadia has the rhythm and tenor of a strong television pilot, and when it’s over you wish there were a full season to follow.

'Leaving Circadia.' Left to right Larisa Polonsky, Drew Seltzer, Reginald Huc, Evan Mathew Weinstein. Photo by Josh Stillman
‘Leaving Circadia.’ Left to right Larisa Polonsky, Drew Seltzer, Reginald Huc, Evan Mathew Weinstein. Photo by Josh Stillman
  1. All-Stars

All-Stars, directed by Second City alum Lance Kinsey, is a mockumentary in the vein of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in ShowA Mighty WindThis is Spinal Tap). The subject this time is girls’ 10-and-under rec softball, or, more accurately, the parents who support their children with something between religious zeal and nightmarish delusion. Fortunately for us, those parents are played by a collection of stellar comedic performers (Richard Kind, Angela Kinsey, Seth Morris, and Fred Willard, just to name a few). Kinsey also wrote the script, but for the most part he gives his actors free reign to concoct their characters one improvised line at a time (this is a good thing). Superb editing from Vaun Kirby Frechette and Sherril Schlesinger keeps the action bustling along at a brisk pace and assists the actors’ already impeccable comic timing. The movie flags a bit in the final third as it becomes more cinematic and less naturalistic, and Kinsey doesn’t have Guest’s grasp of narrative structure, but All-Stars more than succeeds at its primary objective: making us laugh. It comes as no surprise when Kinsey, who also plays the head coach, deadpans to the camera, “I’d like to coach a team of kids whose parents are all dead.”

  1. Kill Me, Deadly

This noir farce opened the festival and made a huge splash with its madcap, unpredictable sense of humor. Based on Bill Robens’ stage play and directed by Darrett Sanders, Kill Me, Deadly zeroes in on the conventions of film noir – hard-boiled dialogue, sexual innuendo, casual misogyny – and elevates them to ludicrous extremes. But this isn’t just a genre satire – much of the time, the jokes are as absurd and devoid of context as anything in Monty Python or Airplane! Robens’ script is a marvel of inspired lunacy – an extended riff on The Big Sleep‘s suggestive racehorse dialogue becomes increasingly graphic and bewildering, and certain lines defy explanation: “This broad sang like Dr. Frankenstein trying to bring my heart back to life before the villagers set fire to the nightclub.” Starring Dean Lemont as the inept P.I. Charlie Nickels and Kirsten Vangsness as his voluptuous cabaret singer flame Mona Livingston, Deadly also boasts an enormously talented supporting cast, including cameos from comedian Paul F. Tompkins and Criminal Minds heartthrob Shemar Moore in a stupendously bizarre homage to Casablanca. Certain technical flaws, most noticeably the dim and inconsistent lighting, are due to the film’s miniscule budget and can be easily overlooked in light of its otherwise boisterous execution.

  1. Kauboji

Croatia’s 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film failed to receive a nomination, a truly disappointing snub. By turns hilarious and tender, effervescent and plaintive, Kauboji is a testament to what can be achieved through simplicity, understatement, and sincerity. Based on a popular Croatian stage play, the story revolves around a group of blue-collar nobodies in a dismal industrial town coming together to put on a theater show (the similarity to the Full Monty is evident but innocuous). All of the principal actors from the stage production reprise their roles on screen, and their comfort with the material is evident; their performances are three-dimensional, lived-in, and warm, not acting so much as being. Director Tomislav Mrsic, a documentary filmmaker, makes good use of his reserved and observant technique, and demonstrates a cool mastery of characterization and pacing; the rich identities of the protagonists are established effortlessly and immediately, and events unfold with elegant languor. Predrag Dubravcic’s muted cinematography, appropriately drab but lovely nonetheless, serves as a perfect complement to Mrsic’s dispassionate presence. Were it not for the marvelous camerawork, which is inventive but never intrusive, you would hardly know there was anyone working behind the scenes. The screenplay, which Mrsic adapted from Sasa Anocic’s original script, is at once wry, intelligent, adolescent – jokes about feces abound – and ruminative (A bartender consoles the show’s cancer-stricken director (Anocic), “Just as we turn animals into food, so you will turn into a potato. Or grass. And then a chicken.”). There are also moments of sublime beauty – when the nearly mute Ivana (Marica Krmpotic) sings a stirring rendition of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World,” the characters’ on-screen astonishment mirrors our own. In the end, Kauboji is a triumph of guileless charm at the hands of expert craftsmen, capable of inspiring optimism and awe in even the hardest of cynics.