Port Townsend Film Festival: Day Three closes with awards and an encore for ‘Amira & Sam’

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And so it ends…

Sunday marked the close of the 15th annual Port Townsend Film Festival.  As Annie Hall slouched across the massive outdoor theater screen, citizens and visitors adjourned for another year, sated on film, food and abundant sunshine.  Whether there will be a breakout film from this year’s line-up remains to be seen, but Amira & Sam (which won the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature), Laggies and Life Inside Out appear to be the likeliest candidates.  Each is smartly written, confidently directed and wears its unapologetic heart on its tear-stained sleeve.

Several films distinguished themselves by taking home Festival honors, as well.  The Best Feature Documentary Awards went to Return of the River (Audience Choice) and The Ballad of Shovels and Rope (Festival Choice).  The Invisible Collection also claimed top honors as the Festival’s Best Narrative Feature.  The Festival selection committee is to be commended for presenting such a bold and professionally-crafted group of films.  This is definitely a festival on the rise, and well worth a late-September diversion into the Olympic Peninsula.

 

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“This is all crazy nonsense!”  So sayeth the man credited with creating the ubiquitous “authentic” Chinese dish, General Tso’s Chicken.  As director, Ian Cheney, makes perfectly clear in his deliriously entertaining documentary, The Search for General Tso, it’s anything but authentic.  It’s a Frankenstein monster cobbled together to Americanize the exotic (i.e. take out the flavor and add more sugar).

While searching for the titular General, Cheney’s film serves as a relentlessly funny chronicle of the rise, fall and rise again of Chinese food in America.  More so than most other foreign cuisine, Chinese food’s popularity has been largely determined by shifting social paradigms.  Eccentric interviewees and stream-of-consciousness animation combine into a loving tribute to the adaptability and resiliency of Chinese immigrants.  But don’t worry; the General does make an appearance and The Search yields some definitive and hilarious answers.  In fact, this movie boasts some of the finest comic editing you will see in a movie this year, providing constant chuckles and several gut busters.  And all those Chinese-American hybrids may be ‘crazy nonsense,’ but they still look delicious!

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Lynn Shelton’s latest Millennial angst-fest, Laggies, proves an old adage is still true: Every movie is better with Sam Rockwell in it.  It also proves the old screenwriting adage that it’s damn hard to write a movie about a directionless main character.  Luckily, the script, penned by Andrea Seigel, is funny enough to overcome an otherwise familiar rom-com premise.

Perhaps it’s not fair to say that Megan (Keira Knightley) doesn’t want anything.  She’s just perfectly content to let life do the choosing for her.  After a chance meeting with High School senior, Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), Megan gladly regresses back to her carefree childhood, delaying her decision on a marriage proposal and trying to ignore a career that has completely stalled.  Annika’s father, played by Rockwell, is a suitably-rumpled (but still Rockwell cool) divorce attorney who is understandably cynical about matters of the heart.  Of course, there are sparks between Megan and Annika’s father, but this is more a story about the relationship between Megan and Annika.  One girl is about to embark upon the journey to find her identity while the other woman’s quest never got started.

Shelton’s direction is more assured and disciplined than in her previous efforts, but this movie belongs to Seigel and her script.  The characters are all so whip-smart that it’s easy to see how they’ve analyzed themselves into inescapable corners.  Yes, it’s formulaic and a bit broad at times, but it’s just too funny and adorable not to go along for the ride.  Plus, it’s got Sam Rockwell in it.  Case closed!

 

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It’s incredibly difficult to make a romantic-comedy that both honors the genre while still providing something spontaneous and new.  Amira & Sam is one of those rare birds with its own voice and sensibility.

Sam (Martin Starr) is a Gulf War veteran who survived the war unscathed, only to return home to a country where he feels largely out of step.  He’s a good guy clinging desperately to his ideals, even as his cousin (Paul Wesley), an unscrupulous hedge fund manager, tries to sell him out.  Into his life comes a young Iraqi immigrant named Amira (Dina Shihabi).  She’s got issues of her own; mainly a penchant for selling bootleg DVDs and for busting Sam’s chops.  Not surprisingly, she’s had a few run-ins with the law and has landed on their shortlist for deportation back to a life of misery (or worse) in Iraq.

Writer-director, Sean Mullin, does a masterful job of painting these characters with actions rather than words.  Almost immediately, you understand who Sam and Amira are and, more importantly, you want to see them together.  Each is imbued with a quiet intensity and world-weary charm that makes them sympathetic without sacrificing any depth.  Starr, in particular, gives a commanding performance, showing a mastery of both the comedic and dramatic elements.

This movie received a special encore performance at the Festival and with good reason.  The theater was filled with laughter and tears, which is exactly what you want from an exceptional romantic-comedy.




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