Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Wrap-Up: Week Two Highlights

Here are some thoughts on five on my favorite programs from the second week of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. (My round-up of week one can be found here.)

Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
SFIFF58's second week got off to an invigorating start with this vibrant and touching evocation of a once hot and happening scene. Based on the experiences Sven Hansen-Løve, who's also the director's brother and co-screenwriter, Eden follows the two-decade trajectory of fictionalized House-music DJ and producer Paul Vallée (baby-faced Félix de Givry) as he scales the heights of Paris clublife before sliding into a morass caused by drug abuse and changing musical tastes. In addition to the breathtaking club sequences, I was impressed by Eden's parade of familiar actresses depicting the women of Paul's life, starting with Arsinée Khanjian (Atom Egoyan's wife and frequent star) as his enabling and long-suffering mother. Greta Gerwig opens the film with a nice turn as the American girlfriend who breaks her French boy toy's heart and she's followed by pixie-ish Pauline Etienne as the steadfast, fellow DJ who shares in Paul's ascendancy. Bad news arrives in the person of beguiling Laura Smet, playing the voracious party girl who expedites Paul's ruin. Then Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani turns up, nearly unrecognizable as the admiring, punkish club kid who rescues and redeems him. Amongst the actors playing DJs and fellow scene-sters, it was a comfort seeing stringy-haired schlub Vincent Macaigne, who seems to be in half the French films I see these days. 

SFIFF58's screening of Eden was enhanced by the personal appearance of Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry. During the Q&A they revealed that several large club scenes, such as the one at MoMA PS1, were filmed guerilla-style at established venues. Eden's budget couldn't possibly accommodate the necessary 4,000 extras. They also had laudatory things to say about Daft Punk. The insanely famous electronic music duo, who were part of this scene and receive a droll portrayal in the movie, convinced all of the artists represented on Eden's soundtrack to accept nominal fees for music rights that would have otherwise cost the filmmaker an unaffordable €1 million. Asked about the participation of Golshifteh Farahani, we were told she came on board because she happened to be dating actor Louis Garrel, a close friend of the director. After the screening, I lacked the stamina to check out the Eden after party, where Hansen-Løve performed a live DJ set. The next morning I had my own after party upon discovering Eden's soundtrack – 42 tracks lasting 4 ½ hours – available as a digital download on Amazon for a measly 11 bucks. Eden opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 26.

Co-screenwriter Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry backstage at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for the 58th SF International Film Festival screening of EDEN. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes' Critics Week sidebar, The Tribe is like no other film you're likely to have seen before. The setting is a Ukrainian school for the hearing impaired where the entire cast "speaks" exclusively in sign language that's never translated via subtitles. This requires the viewer to pay strict attention to the actors and on-screen action, an easy task given the film's riveting storyline and meticulously choreographed, widescreen cinematography. The Tribe's plot shadows the arc of a newly arrived pupil, a male teen who's immediately shaken down by his bullying, tyrannical classmates. He soon becomes a participant in their nihilistic schemes, which includes the nocturnal transport of female students to a local truck stop for purposes of prostitution. The film's only shred of humanity occurs when he falls for one of these girls, a near-fatal error that serves as a catalyst to the film's explosive finale. Audience members who walked out during The Tribe's unbearably frank abortion scene should be grateful they didn't stick around. I've heard a number of negative comments calling the film exploitative and soulless, which could be true. But undeniably, The Tribe is also filmmaking at its most dynamic and original.

The End of the Tour (USA, dir. James Ponsoldt)
One of my most anticipated programs at SFIFF58 was this Centerpiece screening of director Ponsoldt's follow-up to The Spectacular Now. Based on Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky's memoir of a days-long, snowy Midwest encounter with writer David Foster Wallace during the end of his "Infinite Jest" book tour, the movie is a smart, tender and often comical relationship story about tenuous affection between two talented writers. The film is a particular triumph for actor Jason Segel as Wallace, in this his first non-comedic lead role in a narrative feature. I've made no secret of my crush on the big lug, so when the credits got rolling I bee-lined it for the front row. At the Q&A Segel revealed himself to be the gracious and self-effacing everyman I suspected he'd be. Speaking about his admiration for Wallace, Segel confided that he first read "Infinite Jest" with an all-male book group he formed:

"When I bought the book at a small bookstore there was a very Ghost World kind of girl sitting behind the counter. I set "Infinite Jest" down and she rolled her eyes at me and said, "Infinite Jest… every guy I ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf."

Segel also had plenty of things to say about preparing for the role of Wallace, for which he had Lipsky's original cassette tapes as a guidepost:

"The thing I really didn't want it to seem like was "watch Jason Segel try to do "acting." I tried to focus more on the parts of me that were the same as Wallace, as opposed to striving to be something that was outside of myself. There was a real particular music to the way Wallace spoke. I've never seen anybody be able to speak in fully coherent arguments with a thesis and supporting points and a conclusion, and still have it sound conversational."

Best of all was Segel's response to a question from film writer Michael Guillén about the beat-up looking shoes he wore onstage that night at the Kabuki (watch a YouTube clip of that here).

The program ended and I made my way to my next screening. While waiting in the narrow corridor adjoining the Kabuki Cinemas' houses two and three, I looked up to see Jason Segel himself standing there, fully within bear-hugging range (the corridor also leads to the House One backstage entrance). I managed to croak out a feeble "thank you," to which he looked into my eyes and replied, "No, thank YOU." A minute later I barely noticed when Jason Schwartzman brushed against me en route to his House One screening of 7 Chinese Brothers.

Actor Jason Segel backstage at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for the 58th SF International Film Festival's Centerpiece screening of THE END OF THE TOUR. (Photo by Pamela Gentile).

Love & Mercy (USA, dir. Bill Pohlad)
My favorite film of the fest by far was this transcendent biopic of the Beach Boys' troubled genius, Brian Wilson. Starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilson, the film alternates emotionally interlocking vignettes set during the mid-60's creation of his masterpiece LPs, Pet Sounds and Smile, with those of Wilson in the early 90's, a broken man subjected to the dictatorial control of his evil psychiatrist Eugene Landy (an effective Paul Giamatti). A shortlist of Love & Mercy's highlights would include the opening montage of early Beach Boys iconography, the lovingly recreated recording sessions (especially of "Good Vibrations") and the phenomenal sound design that conveys the explosion of musical ideas coursing through Wilson's overheated brain. The movie's revelation, however, is the achingly heartfelt performance by Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue. To my surprise, a review of her extensive IMDb credits tells me I've only seen one other Banks performance – as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W. You heard it here first; she's the supporting actress to beat comes 2015's year-end awards season. Love & Mercy will open in Bay Area theatres next month.

Cibo Matto: New Scene
My 2015 SFIFF experience ended on the highest possible note with an electrifying evening at the Castro Theatre. SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara outdid himself this year, engaging one of my favorite bands of the past 20 years to accompany a septet of iconic avant-garde/experimental films. It was the festival's best music and film combo since 2009's pairing of L.A./Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever with the silent dinosaur flick, The Lost World. Cibo Matto's four members took the stage and launched into a synth-heavy, percussive bass grove that mingled nicely with Miwa Matreyek's Lumerence and its imagery of fluttering eyeball mountainscapes and space-traveling eggs. Next came Grace Nayoon Rhee's two-minute Unicorn, featuring creepy stop-motion rabbits and a priceless punch line. The longest piece of the evening was Cibo Matto's new score for the 1970 film adaptation of Oskar Schlemmer's geometry-obsessed Bauhaus-era Das Triadische Ballet. Hilarious jibber-jabber vocals from band member Miho Hatori morphed into a swirly, pulsating tempo before surrendering to a thundering jazz-funk vibe that rocked the Castro.

As expected, the personal highlight of Cibo Matto: New Scene was Yoko Ono's 1970 Fly, which I've always longed to see in its entirety. For 25 minutes, the camera follows a fly in extreme close-up as it circumnavigates the nude body of actress Virginia Lust. And yes, it takes about all of 60 seconds for the critter to wend its way "down there." Cibo Matto saved its hardest rocking-out for this piece, with synth player Yuka Honda supplying some spot-on Yoko-style yowling. In the film's final minutes the camera pulls back to reveal Lust's full elongated body splayed along an attic cot, dotted with perhaps a half-dozen flies. We're then taken to the window for a leisurely gaze at the surrounding buildings before the end credits roll, capped by this priceless divulgement, "Flies supplied by NYC." The evening reached a soothing denouement with mellow accompaniment to Marcel Duchamp's 1928 Anemic Cinema, featuring the gyroscopic spinning of alliterative French puns.

Cibo Matto on-stage at the Castro Theatre, rocking out to the 58th SF International Film Festival's screening of Yoko Ono's 1970 film FLY. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Wrap Up – 10 Highlights from Week One

As all good things must come to an end, so it goes with the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF58). This year's event was one of the most extraordinary I've experienced in four decades of attending the festival. Between the many awesome films accompanied by special guests and the unforgettable one-of-a-kind live performances, I'll be reflecting back upon my grand SFIFF58 experience for months to come.

For lucky members of the San Francisco Film Society, the fest continues through May 31 via the SFIFF Online Screening Room. Here members can stream 13 features and 11 shorts they may have missed during the festival proper. I've already taken a look at Western, winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature, and Bota, an Albanian narrative feature that escaped my attention but was raved about by friends and colleagues. I'll be checking out others in the coming days. Meanwhile, here's a look back at ten of my favorite programs from SFIFF58's first week.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (USA, dir. Alex Gibney)
SFIFF58 got off to a fine start with this complex portrait of Apple Computers' troubling main man, effectively answering the question, "How much of an asshole does a person have to be in order to achieve success?" I was particularly struck by how the prolific Gibney – fresh from ripping new ones for James Brown and Scientology – inserted his own subjective voice into the narration (it was the mass public lamentation following Jobs' death which inspired him to take on the project). I didn't stick around for the Q&A because I was antsy to reach the opening night celebration at Madame Tussaud's on Fisherman's Wharf. Kudos to whoever came up with the idea of a wax museum party! At one point I asked myself, "Is that a statue or is that really Ryan Philippe?" T'was the latter. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine opens at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on September 4.

54: The Director's Cut (USA, dir. Mark Christopher)
I returned to the Castro the next night for Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his maligned 1998 flick 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees of NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut with 44 previously unseen minutes comes shy of being the "minor masterpiece" some critics would have us believe. But as experienced in the company of a whooping, exuberant Castro audience savoring nostalgia for an era never lived firsthand, it made for an enormously fun evening. In addition to Christopher, actors Philippe and Breckin were in the house to reminisce post-screening, expressing joy at finally getting to see the film they remembered shooting. Compelled by the "overwhelming positive response" at the film's SFIFF U.S. premiere, Miramax and Lionsgate issued a statement four days later announcing they'd release 54: The Director's Cut on VOD starting June 2.

Call Me Lucky (USA, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
A Saturday afternoon fire alarm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas interrupted my screening of Mr. Holmes (reuniting a masterful Ian McKellen with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon), which in turn delayed the start of Stanley Nelson's compelling new doc The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Forced to revamp my early evening plans, I decided to cold-walk into a film I knew nothing about, which proved fortuitous. The subject of Bobcat Goldthwait's excellent new doc is Barry Krimmins, the gruff, brilliant political/social satirist – someone in the film likens him to a combo of Noam Chomsky and Bluto – who singlehandedly created Boston's stand-up comedy scene. At the film's midway point we learn of unspeakably horrific acts perpetuated against Krimmins as a young boy, and watch as he turns crusader in the halls of U.S. Congress against early internet behemoth AOL. The film's co-producer Charlie Fonville was on hand for a Q&A, revealing that Robin Williams contributed the seed money that got this worthy project rolling.

The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
Saturday reached a mind-blowing apex with Guy Maddin's fevered paean to the lost films of cinema's early sound era – thereby erasing whatever misgivings I had about forgoing Guillermo del Toro's SFIFF58 tribute across town. Maddin's first full-color, hyper-saturated film begins with a demonstration on How To Take a Bath (inspired by an actual 1937 lost film by exploitation producer Dwain Esper) before submerging into a cockeyed lost submarine adventure. By the end of The Forbidden Room's 131 minutes, we'd been lurched along a plotline stuffed with bladder-slapping contests, lifesaving flapjacks, virgin volcano sacrifice, squid thievery and poisoned leotards. It was a thrill to experience all this on the Kabuki Cinemas' giant House One screen, and the typically generous Q&A from Maddin continued past midnight. Distributor Kino-Lorber is planning to release the film this autumn.

The New Girlfriend (France, dir. François Ozon)
The latest from France's most entertainingly subversive director is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that slapped a grin on my face and wouldn't let go. Actor Romain Duris, whose personal appearance accompanying Chinese Puzzle was a highlight of last year's fest, stars as a widower who dresses in his dead wife's clothes as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in the act, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. This is surely one of Duris' finest performances and the film has secured an assured early slot on my 2015 Top Ten list.

Saint Laurent (France, dir. Bertrand Bonello)
Following The New Girlfriend, I dashed to the Castro Theatre to catch the second half of Bonello's fabulously outré YSL biopic. (I had seen the film previously and wrote about it here. And I now realize nearly all of my favorite scenes are in the film's first half). My Castro sojourn was primarily motivated by the desire to catch an eyeful of Saint Laurent's handsome lead actor, Gaspard Ulliel, who took the stage with his director for a post-screening Q&A. Ulliel was the more gregarious and forthcoming of the two. He talked about the difficulty of dubbing the older YSL (played by veteran Austrian actor Helmut Berger) and discussed the benefits of wearing on-screen costumes that actually came from the fashion designer's personal wardrobe. Of course, someone in the audience couldn't resist asking who was the better kisser, Jérémie Renier or Louis Garrel (the actors who play YSL's two great loves). The reply was Garrel by default. Ulliel never actually kisses Renier in the film (but they appear to do a whole lot else). Saint Laurent opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 16.

Red Amnesia (China, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)
Hill of Freedom (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Sunday evening found me at the Clay Theatre for a pair of superb new Asian films, starting with Wang's enigmatic tale of an old woman haunted by a transgression committed during the Cultural Revolution. Red Amnesia boasts an unforgettable performance by stage actress Lu Zhong, and a shock ending that would have stuck with me long into the night were it not immediately followed by the funniest film I'd see at the festival. Hong Sang-soo's 16th feature received very mixed reviews when it premiered at Venice – thank goodness I didn't let that deter me from catching it at SFIFF58. Told in a compact 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom centers on a Japanese man's mundane escapades in a chummy Seoul neighborhood, where he hopes to reunite and propose marriage to a Korean ex-coworker. The film's humor is largely derived from the fractured English spoken by its characters, making me wonder if Hill of Freedom is nearly as funny to non-English speakers. The film's sole Caucasian character, of course, speaks fluent Korean. Hong's customary device of shuffling his narrative's chronology – in this case initiated by a dropped stack of letters – seemed an unnecessary affectation this time around.

Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live! (USA, dir. Jody Shapiro)
SFIFF58 star-gazing continued on Monday with the appearance of Ms. Rossellini. The former Cover Girl and actress was in town promoting a doc about the stage adaptation of her marvelously oddball Sundance Channel series of low-fi shorts explaining how animals have sex. Director Jody Shapiro, who co-produced and directed the original Green Porno films, captures how Rossellini transformed her cartoon-like mini-movies for the stage via monologue and props. He then tags along as she performs the 75-minute show in three languages and 33 countries, in the process revealing which animal has the longest penis (barnacles!!!) and which are the most incongruously sized (gorillas have two inches while ducks have eight). Following the screening, the affable actress explained how she became interested in animals at a young age and hinted what her next area of pursuit might be (animal intelligence and communication).

Maidan (Ukraine, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
Arriving soon after his two acclaimed narrative features, My Joy (SFIFF 2011) and In the Fog (SFIFF 2013), director Loznitsa's latest work is that rarest of animals – a documentary with definitive style. From November 2013 until February 2014, he shot the popular Ukrainian uprising that took place in Kiev's main square. The film is composed solely of stationary long takes (the camera only moves twice in 134 minutes) that are always kept in deep focus, bringing a crisp clarity to thousands of anonymous faces in the crowds. There are no interviews or narration. A half-dozen succinct inter-titles give background info on the events taking place, as peaceful assembly and protest is ultimately met with violent repression. The result is an immersive experience bordering on virtual reality. Maidan is like nothing I've ever seen before and it's the most memorable documentary I saw at SFIFF58.

Cross published at The Evening Class.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Cinema of the Americas

After three weeks of anticipation, the San Francisco International Film Festival's 58th edition is set to take off tomorrow night. Thus far film-415 has checked out the awards and special presentations announced before and after the opening press conference and surveyed SFIFF58's impressive line-up of new works from France and Asia. In this last pre-fest entry, I'll spotlight some U.S. films of personal interest followed by a look beyond our northern and southern borders.

My favorite documentaries usually center on politics or the arts and there's no shortage of either at SFIFF58. Topping my must-sees is Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Nelson, the consummate documentarian whose Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple won the festival's Golden Gate Award in 2006, will appear at the April 25 screening along with Black Panther Party members. From roughly the
same era of American history there's also Best of Enemies, which analyzes the legacy of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.'s famously caustic 1968 TV debates. Best of Enemies is co-directed by Morgan Neville, whose Twenty Feet from Stardom enlivened the festival two years ago on its way to an Oscar® win, and Robert Gordon, who'll accompany the film's April 24 screening. A Landmark Theatres theatrical release is slated for August. For a red-hot socio-political doc with local import there's Alex Winter's Deep Web, which profiles purported Silk Road owner and founder Ross Ulbricht. Director Winter will be on hand for the film's May 4 showing, along with a panel of special guests discussing the "current states of surveillance, privacy, journalism and where they intersect on-line."

For American arts-related docs, the big event this year is the Castro Theatre showing of What Happened, Miss Simone on the festival's second night. As an obsessed, life-long Nina fan, I've watched her perform live on several occasions and possess nearly her entire discography on vinyl. That's why I was so disheartened by the mixed reviews the film received at Sundance and Berlin. Still, I wouldn't dream of not taking a look for myself. Following the film, director Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Bobby Fischer Against the World) will be interviewed on-stage by radio talk show host Tavis Smiley. Netflix, who bankrolled the film, will hosts its VOD premiere on June 26. For a music doc with a Bay Area angle there's Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents. Don Hardy's film will hopefully unravel some the mystery behind the Bay Area's prolific (over 60 albums!) avant-garde musicians and multimedia artists, perhaps best known for their tuxedo, top hat and eyeball helmet stage costumes. Hardy will attend all three SFIFF screenings.

Other biographical documentaries on the SFIFF58 roster include Douglas Tirola's self-explanatory Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon and Iris, a glowing portrait of fashion maven Iris Apfel. Sadly, the latter will also go down as the farewell film from revered director Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), who passed away last month. In Stevan Riley's Listen to Me Marlon we'll get to experience Brando as never before, via 300 hours of secret audio tapes the actor recorded throughout his life. The film's April 25 screening will feature a special introduction by esteemed movie writer David Thomson. If you miss them at the festival, Landmark's Opera Plaza will host the theatrical release of Iris on May 8 and Listen to Me Marlon on August 7. Finally, none other than Isabella Rossellini is expected to attend the festival's world premiere of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live!, director Jody Shapiro's accounting of the iconic actress' eccentrically educational, how-animals-have-sex stage show.

Looking over the roster of U.S. narrative features, I've heard really terrific things about Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad's biopic about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Paul Dano and John Cusack play the young and older Wilson respectively, with Paul Giamatti taking on Eugene Landy, the Svengali-like therapist who nearly ruined Wilson's life. What especially excites me about this film is that it's co-written by Oren Moverman, the guy who concocted Todd Haynes' radically offbeat Dylan biopic, I'm Not There. Moverman is a director as well as a screenwriter, and his new film Time Out of Mind will play at the festival's Richard Gere tribute. Love & Mercy director Pohlad will be on hand for the film's May 1 screening.

Five additional domestic features that have my interest piqued were all Sundance breakouts. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was a late addition to the SFIFF line-up. It receives one screening on April 29 and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon will be there. Also garnering lots of Sundance raves was Sean Baker's Tangerine, the shot-on-iPhone 5S odyssey about a L.A. trans-hooker ferreting out her errant pimp/boyfriend on Xmas Day. Director Baker and screenwriter Chris Bergoch are expected to attend both SFIFF58 showings. Two years ago I slept through most of Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, but I'm still game for Results, his new Guy Pearce-starring comedy set in a Texas gym. The main attraction for me is co-star Cobie Smulders, whom I know and adore from the only network TV sit-com I've watched in 40 years (How I Met Your Mother). Results opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 5, followed by Tangerine on July 17.

From the festival's Vanguard section, I'm bracing myself for the unpleasantness of Rick Alverson's Entertainment, which Variety critic Scott Foundas describes as a "dark, weird odyssey through a soulless American nowhere, with perhaps the world’s most abrasively unfunny insult comic as guide." Last but not least, everyone I know is excited about the Bay Area premiere of The Royal Road, the latest personal essay film from San Francisco filmmaker Jenni Olson. Shot on gorgeous 16mm film, Olson uses California's El Camino Real highway as a jumping off point to "burrow into the endlessly mineable terrains of history and memory."

There are two Canadian films in SFIFF58's line-up, Dark Wave entry The Editor and Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room (co-written and directed by former Maddin student Evan Johnson). I believe this will be The Forbidden Room's first screening since its Sundance and Berlin premieres and I'm beyond jazzed we get to partake in it so soon. Inspired by the co-directors' dream of recreating imaginary "lost" films, The Forbidden Room appears indescribable even to those who've seen it. My favorite attempt is from Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema, who characterizes it as "a majestic culmination of Maddin’s prowess in
silent cinema tropes, a delirious, maddening rabbit hole of rippling nightmares that somehow, inextricably, fashion themselves into a cohesive narrative made up of cascading tangents." There's also an eye-popping cast that includes Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Mathieu Amalric.

Maddin's history with the festival goes all the way back to his debut feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital in 1989. He received SFIFF's Persistence of Vision Award in 2006 and who can forget the on-stage foley effects and live Joan Chen narration that accompanied 2007's presentation of Brand Upon the Brain? It's been announced that Maddin will indeed be here to present The Forbidden Room's sole SFIFF screening on April 25. If you've seen him before, you know he's an irresistible hoot. Maddin's expected appearance resolved my second biggest scheduling conundrum of SFIFF58 – whether to see The Forbidden Room or the simultaneous Guillermo del Toro tribute at the Castro. Sorry, Guillermo. (My biggest scheduling conundrum? That would be the excruciating May 5 choice between Cibo Matto performing to Yoko's Fly at the Castro and the lone screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep. The 2014 Palme d'or winner was unceremoniously slipped into SFIFF58's line-up just a few days ago and will make its Bay Area premiere the same day as the film's DVD and Blu-ray release.)

Looking southward, 2014 was somewhat of an off year for Latin American cinema. Few films from the region received much critical attention on the fest circuit and the handful of breakouts, like The Way He Looks and Futuro Beach, have already seen their Bay Area festival and theatrical releases come and go. Happily, the one Latin American film appearing on my SFIFF58 wish list did manage to make it onto the roster. With Lisandro Alonso's Jauja, South America's most noted minimalist returns with his first film in six years. Premiering in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to excellent reviews, this trippy, meta-Western is set in a Patagonian outpost with Viggo Mortensen as its unlikely star. The actor also produced and co-composed the score. A second Argentine film I'm hoping to see is Two Shots Fired, an existential comedy repping the first new feature in 10 years from New Argentine Cinema director Martín Rejtman. As he did in 1999 with Silvia Prieto and again in 2004 with Magic Gloves, Rejtman will be personally accompany his latest work to the SFIFF.

Other South American entries at SFIFF58 include new films from Chile (El Cordero), Peru (NN) and Brazil (The Second Mother). Mexico is represented solely by Arturo González Villaseñor's powerful-sounding documentary All of Me, which depicts the women who hand off food to rail-riding Central American immigrants en route to a new life in the U.S.A. From the Caribbean region SFIFF58 offers Murder in Pacot, a drama set in post-earthquake Haiti from the always interesting Raoul Peck (Lumumba). Sand Dollars arrives from Haiti's next-door neighbor and stars Geraldine Chaplin as one-half of an interracial, intergenerational lesbian couple. This work from the Dominican Republic was co-directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, a filmmaking team whose impressive previous features, Cochochi (2008) and Jean Gentil (2011) screened at previous SFIFF editions.

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Asian Cinema

Once upon a time, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) was the principle way Bay Area movie lovers kept up with Asia's key filmmakers. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hong Sang-soo, Brillante Mendoza to name a few, were all directors whose films screened at SFIAAFF, often with the filmmaker in person accompanying a small retrospective. Since SFIAAFF transitioned into CAAMFest, however, they've evolved away from programming the higher-profile Asian art films one might find being discussed, for example, at Fandor's Keyframe Daily or in the pages of Film Comment or Sight & Sound. Luckily for us, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) has stepped up big time. The festival's 58th edition includes nearly every new and noteworthy Asian-centric film my cinephilic heart could desire.

I had almost lost hope of ever seeing Black Coal, Thin Ice, the Chinese neo-noir that won Berlin's Golden Bear and Best Actor prizes well over a year ago. It's one of two Asian features I had the chance to preview on DVD screener and it was well worth the wait. Written and directed by Diao Yinan, this slow-burning, neon-hued policier follows a dejected former detective as he investigates a sad-eyed laundress who might also be a serial Black Widow. Set in the wintry northeastern province of Heilongjiang, Diao's brooding, off-kilter yarn yields a succession of swell surprises – death by ice skates, nocturnal Ferris wheel sex and a beauty parlor shootout that could be the biggest WTF moment you'll have at the festival.

I've also had a look at J.P. Sniadecki's The Iron Ministry, the latest doc from the folks at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab. While less abstract than Leviathan (SFIFF 2013) and not as formally rigorous as Manakamana (SFIFF 2014), Sniadecki's film sticks to the SEL template of visually engaging, observational-yet-immersive non-fiction filmmaking. This intimate look at Chinese passenger trains begins with several minutes of black screen accompanied by grinding metal. Then the camera sets off to probe the train's physical components. When a human element is finally introduced, it's in the form of a boy's brilliantly sarcastic parody of train safety announcements. Sniadecki captures the chummy claustrophobia endured by eating and sleeping passengers and we the viewers are rarely permitted a glance at the train's passing scenery. The director records, and occasionally participates in, guarded conversations about life concerns in contemporary China. The film's bravura set piece has Sniadecki trailing a snack vendor as he wends his way through the train. The one thing everybody wants – instant noodles – is of course the only thing he doesn't have. In anticipation of SFIFF58's screening of The Iron Ministry, the Pacific Film Archive will host a two-night retrospective of the Sniadecki's work, with the director in conversation with local film writer Max Goldberg.

The Chinese film I'm most anxious to see at the fest is Red Amnesia, the third entry in director Wang Xiaoshuai's (Beijing Bicycles) Cultural Revolution trilogy. Veteran stage actress Lu Zhong stars as an older widow disoriented by the massive changes in modern China. She has strained relations with her two sons – a successful businessman and a gay hairdresser – and she's being stalked by a mysterious stranger who may possess unsavory knowledge of a past transgression. I'm also curious about Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Dearest, which takes on the subject of child abduction in a nation that still enforces a "one-child" policy. In his review for Variety, critic Peter Debruge claims the film's first half "reeks of self-righteous social-issue filmmaking," but then "takes a sharp turn into far more interesting, morally complex territory," once the child in question is returned to his parents. As a possible antidote to all these serious art films, SFIFF58 will also present legendary director Tsui Hark's 3-D historical action-adventure blockbuster The Taking of Tiger Mountain, adapted from one of Madame Mao's infamous Eight Model Plays from the Cultural Revolution era.

South Korea is represented by three films in the SFIFF58 line-up, beginning with the latest joint from prolific auteur Hong Sang-soo. Hill of Freedom is the time-fractured tale of a Japanese man tenaciously determined to regain the romantic affections of a Korean colleague. This 66-minute film with mostly English dialogue received mixed reviews when it played at Venice and Toronto, but I'm delighted for the chance to see it on a big screen. At nearly three times the length, writer-director-actor Park Jung-bum's 180-minute Alive is said to be an immensely powerful and incessantly grim depiction of a rural factory worker's struggles. Park's last film, The Journals of Musan, won the festival's New Directors Prize in 2010. Finally, in Kim Seong-hun's slick police thriller-cum-social satire, A Hard Day for one cop begins with a hit-and-run accident on the way home from his mother's funeral, and then proceeds to get worse. The film's final twist reportedly "brought down the house" at its Directors' Fortnight premiere at Cannes.
Two years ago SFIFF audiences were blown away by The Act of Killing, in which shameless, 1960's Indonesian paramilitary death squad leaders reenacted their crimes in the style of various Hollywood movie genres. Joshua Oppenheimer's stunning documentary would eventually receive an Oscar® nomination. Now the filmmaker returns with The Look of Silence, an equally acclaimed follow-up that shifts focus from perpetrator to victim, following the efforts of one Indonesian family to reconcile the 1966 murder of a beloved brother and son. If you're unable to catch either of SFIFF58's two screenings (one in SF at one at the PFA), The Look of Silence will open at Landmark Theatres on both sides of the Bay comes July 31.

Amongst the remaining Asian selections at SFIFF58, I'm most intrigued by Chaitanya Tamhane's Court. This Indian narrative feature depicts the trial of a 65-year-old social activist and performer, who is charged with murder after a sewage worker listens to one of his songs and then kills himself. Court distinguishes itself by delving into the personal lives of all involved – including the accused, the dead man's wife, the judge and the opposing legal teams – creating an enactment that indicts both India's class and judicial systems. The film created a lot of buzz when it screened at last month's New Directors New Films series at Lincoln Center and it's one of nine competitors for our festival's New Directors Prize. Other SFIFF58 Asian films competing for the same prize include Diep Hoang Nguyen's Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere from Viet Nam, and Afghani Oscar® submission A Few Cubic Meters of Love from director Jamshid Mahmoudi. Rounding out the festival's Asian roster is a pair of films from Japan: Daigo Matsui's Wonderful World End and Dark Wave selection The World of Kanako, a violent thriller starring immediately familiar actors like Kôji Yakusho and Joe Odagiri.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.