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Nathan Weinbender talks SNIFF

Two weeks ago, I returned to the Seattle International Film Festival for the first time since 2019, which also happened to be the festival’s last in-person event before the pandemic began. Traveling across the state every year has long been a tradition for me, and it was good to be back in theaters to catch a number of hotly anticipated indie films before they go into mainstream release. Here’s some of what I saw.

I’ll start with a couple documentaries, The Territory and Fire of Love, that are National Geographic productions. The former is an on-the-ground look at the Uru-eu-wau-wau people of central Brazil, who are being displaced and killed by corporate deforestation. The film, directed by Alex Pritz, features some remarkable scenes that would be right at home in a Hollywood thriller.

Amazing footage is also the crux of Fire of Love, which tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, married volcanologists and nature filmmakers who captured some of the most remarkable, and ultimately deadly, film footage of active volcanoes.

I also saw One Second, the latest from the great Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, best known for Raise the Red Lantern and the martial arts spectacular Hero. This is lighter fare for Zhang, though it still grapples with themes of political violence and propaganda, leading many critics to speculate that the film’s delayed release was the result of government censorship.

The movie is set in a dusty desert town in the early 1970s, where an escaped prisoner, a child thief and a theater projectionist are trying to get their hands on a missing canister of film before the entire village unites for a screening. Sad, funny and beautifully photographed, One Second is a brilliant film about film itself — as an artform that not only captures memories but has the capacity to manipulate us emotionally and ideologically.

Moving on to two wildly different movies built on deeply uncomfortable family dynamics. The first is a comedy called I Love My Dad, starring Patton Oswalt as a habitual liar who’s tired of being estranged from his troubled adult son and strikes up an online friendship with him through a fake social media profile. It’s a cringe comedy crowd pleaser, though I wish it hadn’t gone so soft in the end. The second, Speak No Evil, is a thriller about a Danish family that bonds with a Dutch family on vacation, and when they agree to reunite for a weekend at the Dutch family’s remote house, queasy tension creeps into their friendship. It, uh, doesn’t end well.
But perhaps the buzziest movie I saw was Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Writer-director Connor Raiff stars as a recent college grad who returns to his hometown feeling lost and unfulfilled, until he begins a strange friendship with a slightly older woman played by Dakota Johnson. The movie seems like it’s going to be a 21st-century riff on The Graduate, but it replaces that film’s 1960s cynicism with Gen Z optimism. This is the rare movie about genuinely good people simply trying their best. Raiff is definitely a filmmaker to watch, and Cha Cha Real Smooth hits Apple+ on June 17.

Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101,” Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.