Thursday, September 22, 2016

Autumn 2016 Bay Area Film Round-Up



Autumn can be a crazy busy time of year for Bay Area cinephiles. While it's been that way for nearly a decade, 2016 could see the phenomenon reach dizzying new heights. As always, Mill Valley Film Festival is the pond's biggest fish, celebrating its 39th edition from October 6 to 16. I'll post a preview shortly before it opens. The San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season of mini-festivals has long been autumn's other major player, but it essentially no longer exists – or at least not under that aegis. I'll especially miss French Cinema Now, which had an impressive eight-year run bringing an awesome mix of new French-language movies to the Bay Area. In happier news, the Film Society has announced an exciting new year-round collaboration with the recently re-opened SFMOMA, details of which I'll share later in this overview.

In 40 years of living in San Francisco, I can't remember a weekend quite as full of quandary-filled film choices as this upcoming one. There are no less than six festivals and retrospectives to choose from. My top pick is SF Film Society's Hong Kong Cinema (Sept. 23 to 25), which returns as a welcome holdover from their Fall Season. This year's line-up features a tribute to renowned director Stanley Kwan, as well as seven popular new HK releases. Kwan will be in town for opening night's 25th anniversary screening of Center Stage (1991), starring the incomparable Maggie Cheung as tragic Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu. I'm excited to revisit this film after experiencing several Ruan performances at recent SF Silent Film Festival editions. The filmmaker returns the following evening to present Rouge (1987), his classic, sensual ghost story starring Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Among the festival's new HK films, I'm betting on Johnnie To's Three. Set within the confines of a modern hospital, To's latest pits a female neurosurgeon and police captain against a criminal patient. Reviews say it contains a climactic hospital shoot-out that's on par with John Woo's Hardboiled. I also wouldn't mind having a look at Fruit Chan's Kill Time, a thriller that sounds even nuttier than Chan's excellent The Midnight After, which played the fest two years ago.

Certain to be clamoring for local filmgoers' attention this Saturday is Anna Magnani – A Film Series. Co-presented by Luce Cinecittà, the Italian Cultural Institute and Cinema Italian San Francisco, this all-day event builds on the success of those organizations' recent Vittorio De Sica and Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospectives. Three iconic Magnani films – Rome Open City (1945), Bellissima (1952) and The Rose Tattoo (1955) plus the relatively obscure The Passionate Thief (1960) – all play the Castro Theatre in 35mm prints. And if that's not enough Magnani for you, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive begins presenting Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema this Sunday, continuing through October 29. The PFA series includes nine films that are not part of the one-day Castro event.

This weekend's other important retrospective is the Roxie Theater's Samuel Fuller: A Fuller Life, which kicks off Friday night with a documentary directed by the iconoclast filmmaker's daughter, Samantha. I caught A Fuller Life at the Castro two years ago and recommend it to Fuller aficionados and newbies alike. The Roxie will screen nine of his movies over the weekend, including stone classics Shock Corridor, Pick Up on South Street, The Naked Kiss, The Crimson Kimono and White Dog, plus rarities Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Forty Guns, The Steel Helmet and Underworld USA (the latter being my favorite discovery at the 2012 Noir City festival). As an added bonus, Samantha Fuller and Fuller's "widow, muse and collaborator" Christa Lang-Fuller will appear at five screenings in conversation with film programmer and archivist Peter Conheim. (For North Bay residents, the San Rafael Film Center holds a slightly altered Fuller retrospective this weekend as well). It's worth mentioning here that the Roxie follows up the Fuller fest with Banned Movie Week (Sept. 25 to 28), featuring I Am Curious Yellow, The Tin Drum, In the Realm of the Senses and a Dusan Makavejev double bill of Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organism. I must say the Roxie has really stepped up its game in 2016. Their adventurous programming choices continuously surprise me and I'm particularly grateful they've installed DCP in the Little Roxie.

If Anna Magnani, Hong Kong and Sam Fuller aren't your thing, there are three festivals of national-regional cinema this weekend as well. The 13th SF Irish Film Festival runs from September 22 to 24 at the Delancey Street Screening Room while across town, the SF Art Institute hosts the 9th Iranian Film Festival. The latter features a rare screening of Tickets, which serves as a remembrance to director Abbas Kiarostami who unexpectedly passed away in July. The 2005 film was co-directed by Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach, and interweaves three narrative threads set on a train trip from Innsbruck to Rome. The fest is where you'll also find Finding Altamira, a historical drama from Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson starring Antonio Banderas as the man who discovered Spain's Altamira Paleolithic cave paintings. Its inclusion in the festival is due to the presence of celebrated Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, Eden) who plays Banderas' wife "Conchita."

Finally, the 8th SF Latino Film Festival continues its 16-day run this weekend at venues throughout the Bay Area. The film I'm most anticipating is César Augusto Acevedo's Land and Shade, which screens one time only at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next Saturday, October 1. Acevedo's film won the 2015 Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or prize (given to a first-time feature filmmaker) and centers on the struggles of Colombian sugar cane harvesters. I've seen and also heartily recommend Salvador del Solar's Magallanes, which has two more screenings during the fest. This intense Peruvian political drama stars favorite Mexican actor Damián Alcázar (Herod's Law, El Infierno) and unforgettable, indigenous Peruvian actress, Magaly Solier (the Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow, Madeinusa).

Now let's peer into to October where the big news is Modern Cinema, the aforementioned collaboration between the SF Film Society and SFMOMA. Over the course of three weekends, viewers can experience 26 essentials of film history (11 of them in 35mm) all united around the seasonally apropos theme of "haunting." Eighteen programs are post-WWII titles (e.g. "Modern") from the vaults of Criterion Collection/Janus Films, the rightfully exulted company that received the Mel Novikoff Award at last spring's SF International Film Festival. The selections run the gamut from Kurosawa's Rashomon (to be introduced by Philip Kaufman) to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, and from Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (to be introduced by Wayne Wang). The remaining eight programs encapsulate a near-complete retrospective of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (with 2002's Blissfully Yours being oddly M.I.A.). The director, whose oeuvre fits snugly within the series' "haunting" motif, will appear in person at one of two scheduled shorts programs. His video installation piece, Phantoms of Nabua is already on exhibit in the museum.


I'm super excited to have SFMOMA back as a film venue following a two-year closure for expansion and renovation. While their film programming has always been intermittent, I fondly remember catching major Chantal Akerman and Derek Jarman retrospectives there. At the press conference for Modern Cinema, it was announced SFMOMA and SF Film Society are cooking up two additional three-weekend film events for February and July, 2017. As for the museum's Phyllis Wattis Theater, it was essentially gutted and rebuilt within the existing shell during renovation. The new auditorium looks snazzy, with a 12' X 24' screen, 270 boxy but comfortable new seats with cup holders (!) and a deepened stage with adjacent green room. On the tech side, they've installed a new 4K NEC digital projector, Kinoton 16mm and 35mm projectors and Meyer Sound Cinema Surround System. The new cinema even boasts its own dedicated entrance off of Minna Street.

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts lies directly across the street from SFMOMA, which makes it easy to go catch some of Andy Warhol's Silver Screen: Rarities and Restorations. From October 13 to 30, YBCA has scheduled seven Warhol films spread across five programs, all exhibited in 16mm prints. The series' spotlight piece is 1968's ultra rare San Diego Surf, which Warhol was unable to complete following Valerie Solanas' assassination attempt on him. It has recently been edited together by associate/collaborator Paul Morrissey, as a commission for the Andy Warhol foundation. The irrepressible Taylor Mead and Viva star as a middle-class couple who live with their pregnant daughter (Ingrid Superstar) in La Jolla, where they rent out an extra beach house to a group of sexy surfers (including Joe Dallesandro). Legend has it that cast and crew were furiously harassed by police during the three-week shoot.

The second Warhol program is a double bill of Outer and Inner Space (1965) and Tiger Morse (1967), both featuring Edie Sedgewick talking an amphetamine-fueled blue streak. That's followed by a double bill of My Hustler (1965) and the infamous Blow Job (1964), the latter a 35-minute static shot on a man's face as he receives the titular sex act. The Velvet Underground Tarot Card (1966) comes next, featuring all V.U. band members having their cards read at a raucous party. The film was initially shown as background projection during Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" events. The series concludes with The Life of Juanita Castro (1965), in which a group of actors improvise "a ridiculous yet politically meaningful meditation on Fidel Castro and his family." October's final weekend also finds YBCA hosting Silver Bullets: All-Day Werewolf Marathon, with back-to-back screenings of Teen Wolf (1985), the original The Wolf Man (1941), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Wolfcop (2015).

Another important October film event is the Arab Film Festival, whose 20th edition begins on Friday, October 7 at the Castro Theatre and continues for 10 days at various Bay Area venues. The complete line-up was supposed be announced a week ago, but there's still no word. The festival has revealed its opening night film, however, and it's one I definitely want to see. Clash is the second feature by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab that follows up his well received 2010 debut, the feminist-leaning Cairo 678. Premiering in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to solid reviews, Clash is set within the confines of a police paddy wagon full of both pro-military dictatorship and pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in 2013. The audience only sees what the detainees see through the vehicle's windows. Variety's Jay Weissberg calls it "bravura filmmaking with a kick-in-the-gut message about chaos and cruelty." Somewhat surprisingly, Egypt has named Clash its 2016 Oscar submission. The Arab Film Festival screening in San Francisco will be the U.S. premiere, which is appropriate considering Diab developed the script during a SF Film Society residency program back in 2014.

Looking ahead to November and December, here are some important dates to keep in mind. The French Had a Name for It returns for a third edition on November 3 to 7 at the Roxie Theatre, with a 15-film foray into the world of French film noir. That same weekend will also see the return of the SF Film Society's Doc Stories, another welcome mini-fest that was formerly part of the SFFS Fall Season. The following week brings us the 14th annual 3rd i SF International South Asian Film Festival from November 10 to 13. New Italian Film Festival (aka N.I.C.E.) pops up at the Vogue Theatre from November 16 to 20, albeit without programming or other involvement from the SF Film Society. Finally, the SF Silent Film Festival recently announced the stellar line-up for its one-day, six-program A Day of Silents at the Castro Theatre on December 3. I'm already drooling over the prospect of hearing the Alloy Orchestra accompany Sergei Eisenstein's Strike!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2016




Hot on the heels of last year's 20th anniversary blow-out, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is back with another stunning roster for 2016. The Western Hemisphere's most prestigious silent movie showcase returns to the Castro Theatre from June 2 to 5 and features 19 programs and 11 new restorations, all screened with live music. Only four films have shown at previous SFSFF editions. Marquee-worthy stars such as Pola Negri, Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Emil Jannings appear in films by top directors like Fritz Lang, Yasujiro Ozu, Victor Fleming and Ernst Lubitsch. Special highlights include a pair of René Clément restorations and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates accompanied by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The terrific news for celluloid lovers is that ten movies will screen in 35mm, according to the indispensible Film on Film Foundation


Classics

The festival opens Thursday night with William A. Wellman's 1928 Beggars of Life starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. It's considered Brooks' best Hollywood film, wherein she plays a young woman fleeing police after killing her abusive stepfather. Hopping a freight train disguised as a boy, she hooks up with a fellow traveler (Arlen) and together they spend time in a hobo encampment run by Oklahoma Red (Beery). Brooks did her own stunts and apparently despised Wellman for making her jump on and off moving trains. The actress' penchant for subtlety and underplaying is in full evidence here, rendering her performance completely contemporary. Her next film would be the iconic Pandora's Box. Based on an autobiography by scrappy writer/boxer/ex-hobo Jim Tully, Beggars of Life originally contained several talking sequences and is credited as Paramount's first movie with spoken words. It will be shown in 35mm accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who were also on hand when the festival first screened the film in 2007.

SFSFF21 concludes four days later with the 1919 comedy When the Clouds Roll By, which last played the fest in 2004. It was Victor Fleming's debut feature and the last "Coat and Tie" role for star Douglas Fairbanks before he shifted to swashbucklers. In this enchanting and surreal spoof on psychology, the actor plays a superstitious man who falls under the influence of a mad doctor's nefarious hypnosis experiments. The film is noted for two particular sequences, one of which has Fairbanks running up a wall and across the ceiling, a full 30 years before Fred Astaire's similar accomplishment in Royal Wedding. The other is a surrealistic dream sequence in which an onion, mincemeat pie, Welsh rarebit and lobster all do battle inside the actor's stomach. When the Clouds Roll By will be introduced by Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel and accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.

Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North is one of the silent era's most famous films, which is why I was shocked to discover SFSFF hadn't screened it previously. I'm pretty sure I haven't watched it since a university documentary film class in the early 1970's. This captivating year-in-the-life look at an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic – how they hunt, fish, trade and migrate – is considered the granddaddy of non-fiction filmmaking, although today it would probably be deemed a "docudrama." A number of scenes were apparently staged. The director forced his subjects to hunt with spears instead of their customary rifles, and Nanook's "wife" was actually a common-law spouse of director Flaherty. None of this detracts from its greatness, however, which is why it was one of the first 25 films chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress.

While not even remotely considered a "classic," the Norwegian Arctic setting of The Strongest makes it a appropriate companion piece to Nanook. This 1929 Swedish narrative feature was co-directed by Axel Lindblom, who got his start making Arctic newsreels earlier in the decade. Those experiences inspired him to write a melodramatic screenplay about rival hunting ships and rival suitors, and he enlisted the aid of Alf Sjöberg to co-direct. While Lindblom never made another film, Sjöberg would become Sweden's foremost 20th century theatre director, as well as a filmmaker who had five movies compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (including two that won). The Strongest is said to contain some of the most striking images in silent Swedish cinema. Nanook of the North and The Strongest will both be shown in 35mm and appropriately accompanied by the ethereal sounds of the  Matti Bye Ensemble.


Comedy

The year's most highly anticipated silent film restoration is surely Laurel and Hardy's 1927 The Battle of the Century. The missing second reel, which contains the most insanely epic pie fight in the history of cinema (3,000 pies!) was discovered complete in 2015 by collector John Mirsalis. Now that it's been restored by Lobster Films, one of Hollywood's most deeply mourned lost treasures headlines the SFSFF21 program The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations! On the same bill we'll see The Dancing Pig, a 1907 French short from Pathé Studios, plus the Buster Keaton shorts, The Balloonatic (1923) and Cops (1922). The latter is regarded as one of Keaton's most entertaining two-reelers and features "The Great Stone Face" being chased through the streets of Pasadena. Both Mirsalis and Leonard Maltin will be on hand to introduce the screenings. Meanwhile, check out Matthew Dessem's article at Slate Magazine for a deeper appreciation of this wondrous discovery.  

June is LGBTQ Pride month and Girls Will Be Boys fits right into the festivities. Inspired by Laura Horak's new book of the same title, the program spotlights two comedies with cross-dressing protagonists. First up is Ernst Lubitsch's 1918 I Don't Want to be a Man, made five years before the acclaimed director's arrival in Hollywood. The three-reeler stars Ossi Oswalda, aka "The German Mary Pickford," as a poker-playing tomboy who hits the town for a night of tuxedo-clad carousing, only to discover the grass isn't always greener. That will be followed by Richard Wallace's 1926 What's the World Coming To? in a new 35mm co-restoration by SFSFF, Carleton University and New York University. The opening intertitle of this Hal Roach-produced comedy announces its milieu, "one hundred years from now – when men have become more like women and women more like men." And indeed it is a world where men read "Husbands Home Journal," go to bed with curlers and receive expensive gifts from women on the prowl. Stan Laurel is listed as one of the writers and makes a brief on-screen appearance. Author Horak will be present to do the intro honors.

My first exposure to Pola Negri came four years ago when the fest played The Spanish Dancer. She utterly beguiled me and not just because of her spooky resemblance to 1920's photographs of my Polish grandmother. Negri returns to SFSFF in a new Paramount Archives 4K restoration of Malcolm St. Clair's A Woman of the World. In this 1925 "fish out of water" comedy of manners she plays a newly broken-hearted Italian countess who visits family in Maple Valley, Iowa. Naturally her wicked ways – which include but aren't limited to smoking, drinking and sporting a skull tattoo – provoke outrage amongst the puritanical townsfolk. When the district attorney tries to run her out of town, she responds by bloodily flogging him with a horsewhip. It's said that Negri was lampooning her vamp image in this picture, which had grown stale with the movie-going public. The cast includes the instantly recognizable, walrus-mustachioed Chester Conklin as her cousin.

For ardent admirers of director René Clair (À nous la liberté, Le million, I Married a Witch) this year's festival is all about the restorations of his final two silent features. By virtue of their accorded importance, The Italian Straw Hat (1928) and Les deux timides (1928) screen in the fest's choice weekend primetime slots. Both films are recent co-restorations by SFSFF and Cinémathèque Française and both will be shown in 35mm. Perhaps not coincidentally, each is also an adaptation of 19th century French playwright Eugène Labiche. Straw Hat is described as a fast moving poke at bourgeois manners that uses techniques common to early silent cinema (fixed camera, few close-ups or intertitles, stock characters). The plot concerns the complications that ensue when a horse eats a married woman's hat while she's off dallying with a lover. None other than Pauline Kael called it "one of the funniest films ever made and one of the most elegant as well." In the visually ambitious, "cheerful satire" Les deux timides, a shy lawyer's screw-up results in his wife-beating client going to prison. The tables turn when the ex-jailbird later sabotages the lawyer's relationship with a young woman. In his program notes from Pordenone, Lenny Borger writes that the film "owes much of its freshness and charm to Pierre Batcheff's hilariously Keatonesque performance" as one of the titular timides.


More Restorations

A program of tremendous local interest is Willis Robards' Mothers of Men or Every Woman's Problem, a pro-women's suffrage picture shot entirely in the Bay Area. First released in 1917, it was given a different title upon re-release in 1921. The majority of filming took place in Santa Cruz and over 500 extras were used. Additional footage from Berkeley includes scenes at the downtown train station and a suffrage march on Shattuck Avenue. Mothers of Men is based on a play by Hal Reid, whose actor son Wallace Reid died of morphine addition in 1923 and was married to the film's star, Dorothy Davenport. The story concerns a woman suffragist, turned judge, turned governor, who must prove her husband's innocence when he's falsely accused of murdering a newspaper editor. This restoration is a BFI National Institute and SFSFF collaboration. I recommend visiting the film's website, which has a nifty "then and now" slide show of Bay Area locations used in the shoot.

The festival's late shows are traditionally reserved for the offbeat and/or macabre. Friday night's selection is Irvin Willat's 1919 Behind the Door, in which a German-American naval officer seeks revenge against the German submarine commander whose crew raped and brutalized his wife. Hobart Bosworth, whose nearly 300 imdb credits include filmdom's first Wizard of Oz in 1910, stars as the hero. The ubiquitous Wallace Beery, appearing at his sleaziest here, chews up the villain's role. This new co-restoration from SFSFF, the Library of Congress and Russia's Gosfilmofond will screen in 35mm, with the festival's in-house restoration expert Rob Byrne introducing. Saturday's late show is 1929's The Last Warning. It would be the final film from director Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs), who died of blood poisoning that same year. Set in a haunted Broadway theatre, it's the story of a producer who reunites the cast of a play that saw one of its actors murdered on stage. The Last Warning is a new restoration from Universal Pictures and the film is considered a prescient progenitor to the classic horror movies the studio would crank out just a few years later. At the festival's FREE Amazing Tales from the Archives program, Universal's Peter Schade and Emily Wensel will discuss this particular restoration in depth. Also appearing at Amazing Tales will be Georges Mourier, who is currently overseeing a six and 1/2 hour restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon, and festival regular Bryony Dixon from the British Film Institute's National Archive.

One of my favorite SFSFF discoveries has been the work of British filmmaker Anthony Asquith. A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground screened in 2007 and 2014 respectively and now the festival presents a restoration of his 1928 debut feature, Shooting Stars. This tragicomic morality tale about the illusions of filmmaking contains the same Hitchcockian plot twists and expressionist visuals that would come to signify Asquith's style. The plot centers on a husband and wife acting team that's torn asunder when she becomes involved with another actor. Brian Aherne, who would secure an Oscar nomination playing Mexico's Maximillian I to Bette Davis' Carlotta in Juarez, is thought to be particularly good as the film's lunkish, cuckolded husband. I'm thrilled that musician Stephen Horne, who did such a breathtaking job accompanying Dartmoor and Underground, will perform with Shooting Stars as well. Writer and historian David Robinson, who recently retired as director of the Giornate del Cinema in Pordenone, will receive this year's SFSFF Award prior to the screening.

The final two SFSFF21 restorations are from Germany. I'm very excited about Destiny (Der müde Tod) from 1921, which is regarded as Fritz Lang's first masterwork. Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel have both claimed the film as enormously influential, with its proto-surrealism, lavish spectacle and special effects. In this story about one woman's efforts to defy death and save her lover, the character of "Death" itself gets a surprisingly sympathetic, world-weary portrayal by actor Bernhard Goetzke. The film's highlight is said to be three fanciful vignettes set in Persia, Venice and China. Destiny will be introduced by actress Illeana Douglas, who recently hosted the TCM series Trailblazing Women. Douglas is expected to speak on the contributions of Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote many Lang screenplays including Metropolis, M and Destiny.

The other German restoration is Ewald André Dupont's 1925 Varieté, which arrives courtesy of the F.W. Murnau Foundation. Alternately known as Jealousy, the film is a morality play about sexual envy amongst three trapeze artists in Berlin – an older acrobat, his young wife and the hunky star who comes between them. The great Emil Jannings, who starred in the classic The Last Laugh just the year before, was ludicrously overweight for the role and often replaced by stunt doubles. The film is regarded for the kinetic camerawork by master DP Karl Freund (Metropolis, I Love Lucy) as well as its fascinating depiction of 1920's Berlin nightlife. Four years later A.E. Dupont would direct Anna May Wong in her acclaimed silent film Piccadilly. Composer Sheldon Mirowitz, whose Berklee Silent Film Orchestra will accompany the film, introduces the screening.


This and That

In terms of shear spectacle, the event to catch at this year's festival would seem to be Oscar Micheaux's 1920 Within Our Gates. The oldest surviving film made by an African-American director will be accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, performing a new score for strings and voice by composer Adolphus Hailstork. The film's title is lifted directly from an intertitle in D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation, which sought to glorify the KKK and oppression of African Americans. Micheaux's film served as a direct rebuttal to Griffith, with its story of a young woman who travels North to solicit funds for a rural Southern school. It depicts the early years of Jim Crow, the rebirth of the KKK and the Northern urban migration of African Americans. It also unflinchingly dramatizes lynching and rape. A novelist and former homesteader, Micheaux would direct roughly 30 films over three decades. Within Our Gates was a lost film until the early 70's when a print turned up in Madrid's Filmoteca. Restored by the Library of Congress in 1993, the movie's intertitles are an approximation of Spanish translated back into English. This SFSFF presentation will be in 35mm and introduced by Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland Symphony.

SFSFF is progressively making its way through the silent filmography of Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Thus far we've had the pleasure of seeing I Was Born, But..., Tokyo Chorus and most recently in 2014, Dragnet Girl. This year's fest brings us That Night's Wife, a 1930 noir-ish family crime drama that takes place over a single evening. Tokihiko Okada plays a father who commits robbery to buy medicine for his sick daughter, thereby presently a moral dilemma for the cop who tracks him down. The film is notable for Ozu's trademark empathy for everyday characters as well as an expressionistic 20-minute opening sequence in which the father is pursued through dark abandoned streets. Pay close attention to the family's apartment walls, upon which Ozu advertises his filmmaking influences via American movie posters. That Night's Wife will screen in 35mm.

Thanks to the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, this year's SFSFF audience gets to experience a Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema. The program's 15 films represent various techniques for creating colorized celluloid in the days before Technicolor's invention. All but three hail from France and they span an era from 1897 to 1915. Hand-painting, dyeing and stenciling were all used to embellish images ranging from Dutch windmills to Versailles fountains to Algerian folkdancing. On the EYE Filmmuseum's website, a promotional film for the Fantasia of Color collector's book gives an idea of what to expect.



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Wrap-Up Report Part 1



The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) concluded its 59th edition last Thursday following 15 satisfying days of movies and special events. While I have some reservations about the festival's move from Japantown/Fillmore to the Mission district, the transition itself seems to have gone extremely well considering its ambitious scope. I also have to say that House One at Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with its enormous screen and Sony SRX-R515D dual 4K projection system, is now my favorite place to see new movies in the Bay Area – especially while consuming one of Alamo's signature Brussels sprout salads with apple slices, toasted hazelnuts and pecorino cheese.

I had the pleasure of participating in 28 programs at SFIFF59. Here's a look at the special events and documentary features I attended. 


Special Events
The highlight of my festival was getting to see and hear Ellen Burstyn in conversation with SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan on SFIFF59's first Saturday afternoon. The energetic 83-year-old Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner was in town to accept the fest's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. I was shocked that fewer than a hundred people showed up, which was possibly attributable to the event being announced just five days prior. The audience on hand, however, was wildly enthusiastic and the Victoria Theatre's intimacy rendered the encounter all the more special. Following a clips reel of career highlights, Cowan conducted a revelatory and frequently hilarious chat with Burstyn that touched on everything from how she came to hire Martin Scorsese for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to her new-found fame with House of Cards to her feelings about being robbed of a second Academy Award by Julia Roberts. Fortunately Michael Guillén at The Evening Class was also there and has transcribed the talk for all to enjoy.

Ellen Burstyn and SF Film Society Exec Director Noah Cowan share a mirthful moment on stage at the Victoria Theatre. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Exactly one week later, the promise of seeing both Coen Brothers in person packed the 1400-seat Castro Theatre to capacity. The occasion was the festival's presentation of its annual Mel Novikoff Award to Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. After an on-stage interview with Variety critic Scott Foundas, Joel and Ethan Coen joined the conversation and introduced a screening of Criterion's most recent restoration, the brothers' 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an early advocate of the Coen's neo-noir, and they returned the honor by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis character after him. The siblings spent a good half-hour reminiscing about Blood Simple's production. Amongst the rollicking revelations was that Frances McDormand, in her first screen role, was never permitted to see the film's storyboards because the artist compulsively drew her character in the nude.

Filmmakers Joel (far left) and Ethan (far right) Coen flank Mel Novikoff Award Winners Jonathan Turell and Peter Becker of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection in the Castro Theatre mezzanine. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Earlier that same morning I was first in line to participate in the festival's VR Day. As a virtual reality newbie I found the technology cruder than I'd imagined, but was nonetheless impressed by two of the VR experiences I had in my allotted one-hour timeslot. Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart offered stunning 360-degree surface vistas of various terrains on the ex-planet, all based on data recently collected by NASA. The mind-blower of VR Day was Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael's Nomad: Sea Gypsies, which begins by plopping you in the middle of a Borneo lagoon inhabited by Sama-Bajau tribespeople. By turning in your swivel chair you get a full 360-degree survey of the lagoon, complete with thatched huts on stilts and people paddling you by in canoes. After a brief fade to black, you find yourself sitting on the porch of one of those very huts, watching as a family prepares food. Turning around reveals their drying laundry flapping in the wind just inches from your head. Another fade to black lands you in a canoe being propelled across the lagoon by tribesmen standing both in front of and behind you. By looking down at the canoe bottom, you see the still-living fish they've just caught. The possibilities for this technology are obviously staggering.

From my VR experience I was off to hear NY Times Critic-at-Large Wesley Morris deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. The former SF Chronicle and Examiner film critic's topic was "The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies." Morris began by riffing on various contemporary race-related topics, such as the upcoming appearance of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. ("Do you really want to be caught stuffing Tubmans into a stripper's g-string or paying your weed dealer with Tubmans?") Morris ultimately made his way through Poitier's filmography, making extended stops for Lilies of the Field ("In 1964, America was finally ready to see him left alone with white women, even if they were nuns who barely spoke English") and his career "pinnacle" In the Heat of the Night, whose infamous slapping scene Morris analyzed extensively. He barely got started on the actor's post-1967 work – "when the studio system collapsed and Poitier starting working exclusively with black people" – before time ran out and he had to bring the talk to an abrupt conclusion.

NY Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris backstage at the Victoria Theatre waiting to deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

My final SFIFF59 special event was the festival's annual pairing of a silent film with contemporary live music. This year's combo, the first not to be concocted by former SF Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara, was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Dracula flick Vampyr accompanied by alt-rock band Mercury Rev and the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde. The musicians took to the stage wearing black capes and proceeded to unleash an ungodly sound cavalcade that worked fittingly with the dreamlike imagery on screen. The score ranged from quiet noodling to ear-piercing feedback, with Raymonde particularly fun to watch as he played the electric saw and emitted nonsensical castrato-like vocals. The last 15 minutes was an extended crescendo of propulsive, heart-pounding percussion reminiscent of the Alloy Orchestra. As for Vampyr itself, I was especially struck by the lithe, somnambulant lead performance by actor Julian West, who in real life was a gay Russian-Jewish aristocrat and bon vivant named Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg. The baron financed Vampyr on the condition he play the lead and later in life became an editor at Town & Country, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines.

The Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde and members of Mercury Rev strike a pose in the Castro Theatre's side alley prior to performing a live score to Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Vampyr. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)


Documentaries
Compared to similar festivals, SFIFF has been doc-heavy for some years now. For 2016 the section expanded even further, with a whopping 40 percent of the feature film roster being dedicated to non-fiction works. Unless the director is someone like Werner Herzog, Sergei Loznitsa, Patricio Guzmán or others who strive to make their films cinematic, I'm of a mind that most documentaries suffer little when watched privately on a small screen. That of course changes when you have the director and other special guests at a screening, which is nearly always the case at SFIFF. This year I caught five docs at the festival and all but one had talent available for post-screening Q&As.

The aforementioned missing filmmaker was Werner Herzog, whose Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World played to a large, receptive and overtly techie crowd at the Castro Theatre. Divided into ten chapters, Herzog's latest delves into a multitude of tech-related issues both awe-inspiring and fearsome. Topics include hacking, tech addiction, cyber terrorism, illnesses related to radioactive signals, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and a score of others. I was fascinated by the section on robots. Will they be able to fall in love? Will a robotic soccer team be able to beat FIFA's world champions by 2050? It was also a hoot to learn that when the first internet message was sent in 1969 from UCLA to Stanford, comprised only of the word "login," the system crashed immediately after transmission of the letter "o." With Herzog's trademark detached bemusement, Lo and Behold comprehensively looks at how far we've come since then and where we might be heading, but in a manner that was still perhaps a bit too wonky for this low-tech senior.

My favorite of the docs I caught was Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, a shockingly intimate, fly-on-the-wall look at Anthony Weiner's NYC mayoral run two years after a sexting scandal forced his resignation from Congress. The directors commenced filming the day he declared his candidacy and we tag along every step of the way, from chauffeured-car strategy meetings to wince-inducing confrontations in the home he shares with long-suffering wife, Hillary Clinton's ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin. We're also present when, just as it appears New Yorkers have forgiven Weiner and his campaign is catching fire, new sexting allegations result in his ultimately earning only 4.9 percent of the vote. The film's high point, if you will, is a thrillingly furtive chase through a MacDonald's back exit as Weiner attempts to reach his campaign HQ on election night and avoid an on-camera confrontation with one of his accusers, publicity whore par excellence, Ms. Sydney Leathers. Weiner opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on May 27.

Depressing and enraging issue-oriented docs are a festival staple and this year I saw two, Johan Grimonprez' Shadow World and Sonia Kennebeck's National Bird. The first is based on Andrew Feinstein's book of the same name and it goes into sickening detail about the massive corporate bribery and government corruption commonplace in international arms dealing. From Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal to Donald Rumsfeld's Iraqi chemical weapons sale to Tony Blair's cover-up of BAE's £1 billion Saudi prince payoff to Obama's Terror Tuesday meetings, it's all laid out and contrasted with a cheesy muzak soundtrack emphasizing how innocuous this horror has become in our world. It was particularly dispiriting to learn how corruption over armaments deals has essentially destroyed South Africa's democracy, a subject close to Feinstein's heart as an ex-S.A. parliament member. Perhaps the most powerful scene is an interview with Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, as he describes the unspeakable tortures perpetrated upon him. Director Grimonprez and Feinstein engaged in a spirited post-screening Q&A, and I was especially gratified when Feinstein, completely unprompted, reminded the audience that as wonderful as it would be to have a female president, Hillary Clinton has received more money from the military-industrial complex than any other candidate of either party.

The subject of Kennebeck's equally effective National Bird is U.S. drone warfare, with a special focus on the psychological trauma done to U.S. soldiers who kill civilians halfway across the globe from the (dis)comfort of control booths. The film spotlights three whistleblowers, all of whom fear prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for things they might say while being treated by therapists for PTSD. We accompany Bay Area whistleblower "Lisa" (who was present at the Q&A along with National Bird's director and producer) as she travels on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in an effort to make amends for her transgressions. There, in the film's most affecting sequence, surviving members of a 2010 drone strike that killed 23 civilians collectively speak about the atrocities experienced that day. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 More Awards & Special Events



After weeks of anticipation, the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF59) is finally set to kick off Thursday night. Bay Area cinephiles are going to be crazy-busy for the next 15 days. Thus far I've surveyed the programs that were announced prior to the festival's March 29 press conference, as well as taken in-depth looks at the extensive line-up of French and Asian cinema on offer. This final piece of pre-fest coverage spotlights some of the remaining awards programs and special events that will no doubt help make this festival one for the books.

State of Cinema Address
I couldn't be more pleased with the festival's choice of Wesley Morris for this year's SOC Address. The current NY Times critic-at-large has been one of my favorite film writers since his days at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. His early-aughts departure from the Bay Area launched a productive decade at The Boston Globe, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2012. One of my most cherished Morris reviews is his hilarious 2009 Cannes write-up of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, titled "Charlotte, don't." Here's a sampling: "I don't think I breathed for the last half. My seatmate and I took turns grabbing each other – out of shock, out of stress, out of disbelief. At some point, I found myself reaching around the edges of my chair. I was looking for a seatbelt." Morris will deliver the State of Cinema address at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 30 and is expected to speak on "the radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies."

Peter J. Owens Award
The festival held off until three days before SFIFF59's start date before announcing the recipient of its annual acting award – talk about good things coming to those who wait! None other than Ellen Burstyn will receive this year's Peter J. Owens Award at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 23. At An Afternoon with Ellen Burstyn, the star of stage, screen and TV will discuss her career before introducing a screening of Darren Aronofsky's 2000 shock masterpiece Requiem for a Dream, for which Burstyn was robbed of a second Oscar® by Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. The 83-year-old actress can currently be seen in the fifth season of Netflix' hit series House of Cards. She also has a co-starring role in Todd Solondz' new film Wiener-Dog, which plays SFIFF59 as well.

Contemporary Color
For one night the festival expands from the hip Mission District to the even hipper Hayes Valley neighborhood for a free outdoor screening of Contemporary Color. This new documentary from Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV documents the mega-spectacular event spearheaded by David Byrne in which championship color guard teams performed elaborate routines to music performed live by Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent, Money Mark + Ad-Rock, Tune-Yards and others. Reservations are recommended for this free screening that takes place on Friday, April 29 at Proxy, "a temporary two-block project that mobilizes a flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail within renovated shipping containers." The exact address is 432 Octavia Street. To get an idea of what this film's about, check out David Byrne's mission statement on the Contemporary Color website, or the plethora of amateur YouTube videos shot at the actual Contemporary Colors events last summer (such as this amazing one from Tune-Yards). The filmmaking Ross Brothers, who won the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature at last year's festival for Western, are expected to attend this very special screening.

Kanbar Award
Ellen Burstyn won't be the only Oscar® winner on hand at this year's festival. SFIFF59's Kanbar Storytelling Award will go to Tom McCarthy, the actor-writer-director who took home filmdom's biggest honor for Spotlight's Best Original Screenplay (a film he also happened to direct). An Evening with Tom McCarthy takes place at Berkeley's fabulous new Pacific Film Archive on Tuesday, April 26 and will feature an on-stage conversation conducted by SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan. There will also be a screening of McCarthy's 2003 screenwriting and directorial debut The Station Agent, which won Sundance's Audience Award and introduced much of the world to the talents Bobby Cannavale, Patricia Clarkson and especially, Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. According to the Film on Film Foundation's Bay Area calendar, The Station Agent will be one of two SFIFF59 screenings in 35mm.

VR Day
The only thing I know about VR is that it stands for Virtual Reality. That's something I hope to change on Saturday, April 30 when SFIFF59 presents VR Day, "a pilot program designed to showcase emergent storytellers in virtual reality filmmaking." In order to participate, you buy a ticket for a time slot between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. which entitles the bearer to a 60-minute session using Samsung Gear. That same ticket also allows one to attend several VR artist panels and experience Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Nokia and other Samsung VR tools on a walk-in basis. Featured VR films and stories will include Special Delivery from Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord and Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart, which "creates a stereoscopic virtual reality experience that will bring viewers to Pluto." All of this takes place at Gray Area, a non-profit "supporting art and technology for social good" located in the former Grand Theatre on Mission Street, just down the block from Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre.

Revival Screenings
In addition to classic films being screened in connection with awards programs like Requiem for a Dream, Blood Simple, The Station Agent and Monsoon Wedding, SFIFF59 will host three additional repertory/revival events. In honor of LV-426, the exomoon that harbored the dastardly Xenomorph eggs in the Alien movie franchise, the festival in conjunction with Alamo Drafthouse will host a 30th anniversary showing of James Cameron's Aliens on 4-26-16. Both the Castro Theatre and PFA will host screenings of the classic 1955 UK noir thriller Cast a Dark Shadow, in a brand new digital 2K restoration. The film stars Dirk Bogarde as a sociopathic homme fatale looking to bump off his second wife and is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would make a star of Michael Caine in Alfie as well as direct three James Bond flicks. Finally on May 1 at the Castro Theatre, there'll be a 20th anniversary presentation of Cheryl Dunye's New Queer Cinema breakthrough, The Watermelon Woman, which is recognized as the first feature film directed by a Black lesbian. Following the screening, Dunye will take part in an on-stage conversation with SF State Assistant Professor of Sexuality Studies, Darius Bost. 

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Focus: Asian Cinema



Perhaps it's a just matter of perception, but it appears there might be fewer Asian films at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Admittedly, not many movies from the continent generated festival buzz in 2015 and several of those that did, such as Hou Hsiou-hsien's The Assassin, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendor and Jia Zheng-ke's Mountains May Depart have already played the Bay Area. The biggest surprise is that there isn't a single film representing Southeast Asia. Fortunately, there's still plenty to look forward to from the region, including the film that topped my wish list for SFIFF59 inclusion. Here's a country by country overview. 

South Korea
Of all the films in the festival I'm most excited about Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then. It's the director's 17th feature in a 20-year career, which probably makes him Asia's most prolific (non-genre) arthouse filmmaker. His works never receive a Bay Area theatrical release, so I'm incredibly grateful to SFIFF for screening his movies year after year. I confess that I haven't always been a fan. The protagonists in his early efforts were so obnoxiously pathetic as to render the experience of watching them insufferable. That began to change somewhere around 2009's Like You Know It All and I've been on the Hong love train since. The 65-minute bonbon Hill of Freedom was the funniest movie I saw at last year's festival.

Some critics accuse Hong of making the same movie over and over again. From what I've read, it sure doesn’t sound like Right Now, Wrong Then will change any minds. All the familiar Hong tropes appear firmly in place – an artistic-type male protagonist travels out of town and attempts to hook up with an enigmatic female, accompanied by lots of booze consumption and Hong invariably messing with the story's narrative's structure. More specifically in this new movie, a film director comes to Seoul for a festival and meets an attractive artist while sightseeing, followed by an alcohol-fueled incident that turns things sour. At the film's mid-point the clock gets reset, with the title changing to Right Then, Wrong Now. The entire story gets replayed with slight variances, affording the hero a shot at redemption. The jury at last year's Locarno Film Festival gave the film its top prize, the Golden Leopard, as well as the best actor award to leading man, Jeong Jae-yeong.

While RNWT might be the lone South Korean entry in SFIFF59, it's also worth mentioning Vitaly Mansky's Russian documentary Under the Sun, which adds to the recent groundswell of non-fiction films reporting on life inside North Korea. Under the Sun is one of 11 films competing in the Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition.


Japan
There are three Japanese selections at the festival and I've had an opportunity to preview two. I especially recommend Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Journey to the Shore, which is the director's latest metaphysical exploration and his best film since 2008's Tokyo Sonata. In the pre-opening credits sequence, a piano teacher comes home to find that her husband, played by Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano, has returned home after dying at sea three years previous. He invites her on a journey to experience the villages where he "lived" during his absence, working as a newspaper assistant at one location and a cook/astrophysicist teacher at another. Journey to the Shore is filled with melancholy longing and regret, as well as a goofy kind of sweetness. This being Kurosawa, one keeps waiting for the appearance of some malevolent entity that never (quite) shows up. Stylistic flourishes include the dimming and brightening of interior settings for emotional effect, and an archaically sweeping music score that lies somewhere between Max Steiner and Arvo Pärt. Journey to the Shore premiered at Cannes and received mixed reviews, with some critics calling it an "overlong afterlife story" that's "undecided if it belongs in the arthouse or on afternoon TV." Un Certain Regard jury members rightfully thumbed their nose at these naysayers, awarding Kurosawa the sidebar's Best Director prize.

I've also taken a look at Ryûsake Hamaguchi's Happy Hour, which has the distinction of being SFIFF59's longest movie at 317 minutes. Is it worth the huge time investment? My answer is a qualified yes. Happy Hour centers on the lives of four 30-something women in Kobe who are best friends. When one of them announces her impending divorce, plus the fact that she's having an extra-marital affair, it destabilizes the group and causes the others to question their own relationships with men. Hamaguchi's film is rich with character detail and features several extended set pieces that invite comparisons to Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. I was particularly struck by how the director places his actors within the frame, achieving meaning via their relationship to the camera and each other. Unfortunately Happy Hour wears out its welcome in the plot-heavy final hour, which also includes the least engaging of the aforementioned set pieces. The performances by the quartet of first-time, non-professional actresses are effective, if occasionally awkward. Collectively they won the Best Actress prize at Locarno. The script, which was developed through a series of workshops, also won that festival's Best Screenplay prize. The third Japanese SFIFF59 selection is Eiichirô Hasumi's Assassination Classroom, which screens in the festival's Dark Wave sidebar.


China/Hong Kong
There are zero narrative features from China in the festival, which is quite a contrast to last year's powerful and artistically accomplished triple punch of Black Coal Thin Ice, Red Amnesia and Dearest. The closest we come this year is Paths of the Soul, a highly acclaimed docudrama from narrative filmmaker Zhang Yang (Shower, Getting Home). The director's latest recreates a grueling 1,200 mile pilgrimage to Lhasa during which a group of 11 Tibetan Buddhist devotees stop every few yards to prostate themselves. Along the way they endure extreme temperatures, flooded roads and a mini-avalanche. Stops are made en route, once for a participant to give birth, and again for the group to perform manual labor in order to earn travel expense money. In his rave review for Variety, Richard Kuipers calls Paths of the Soul "a stirring study in faith and spirituality that will inspire many viewers to think about big and small questions of life." The other mainland Chinese documentary at SFIFF59 is A Young Patriot. The film traces the disillusioned transition of a die-hard young Maoist as he's forced to confront the realities of his country's rush to cutthroat capitalism. The film's director, Du Haibin, is expected to attend the festival.

The SF Film Society presides over a separate Hong Kong Cinema festival each autumn. That, combined with the fact that Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) films now receive year-round Bay Area theatrical exhibition could explain why there are only two HK flicks at SFIFF59. The one I'm looking forward to is the U.S. premiere of Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, the third directorial effort from ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (known for his work with Gus Van Sant, Zhang Yimou, Pen-ek Ratanaruang and most memorably, Wong Kar-wai). Each section of this docudrama triptych spotlights a different generation, with "actors" playing slightly modified versions of themselves. The first is set amongst a group of elementary schoolchildren, the second focuses on young people involved in the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution" and the third spends time with a group of "speed dating" seniors. According to reviews, the middle segment is by far the most compelling. Also representing Hong Kong at SFIFF59 is Trivisa, a high-octane crime thriller set during HK's 1997 handover to China, which screens in the festival's Dark Wave sidebar.


India
The big news here is that Mira Nair will be given the festival's Irving M. Levin Directing Award, making her the first woman to receive the honor since its inception in 1986 (when it was initially called the Akira Kurosawa Award and later, the Founders Directing Award). The India-born, New York-based filmmaker will be on hand for an An Afternoon with Mira Nair at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 24. The program will include an on-stage conversation, clips reel and a revival screening of the fabulous 2001 Oscar® nominated Monsoon Wedding (in 35mm!). We're also promised a preview of Queen of Katwe, Nair's upcoming biopic of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi starring Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo. Be sure to check out Michael Fox' excellent SF Film Society Blog essay on Nair's career, Mira Nair: Between Two Worlds.

The only new Indian film showing at the festival is Raam Reddy's Thithi, was has gotten plenty of attention since winning the New Directors Prize at Locarno. It screened at last month's New Directors New Films series in New York (along with nine other films playing SFIFF59) and will compete for our festival's New Directors Prize as well. In this folk comedy-of-errors set in a South Indian village, three generations of sons react in very different, but all too human ways to the death of the family's 101-year-old patriarch. At issue is what's to be done with the old man's estate, as the family prepares for the thithi, or final funeral celebration taking place 11 days after death.


Turkey
The festival has done a fine job programming new Turkish cinema in recent years and I'm thrilled they've secured Emin Alper's Frenzy for SFIFF59 inclusion. The director's second feature won the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. Set in an Istanbul shantytown amidst a quasi-apocalyptic, near-future dystopia, Frenzy's protagonist has just been released from prison after 20 years. He's assigned the job of combing through people's garbage in search of terrorism clues and lives with his brother whose occupation is shooting stray dogs. Reviews describe Frenzy with adjectives like "tense," "brooding" and "paranoid," making special mention of its dark visual palette and nerve-jarring sound design of explosions, alarm bells, rattling trucks and clanging metal doors. "A parable about a society brought to heel by its fear of terrorism" is how Jay Weissberg sums up Frenzy in his review for Variety, a description that certainly has applications extending beyond Turkey given our planet's current socio-political zeitgeist.


Iran
While there aren't any Iranian films per se at SFIFF59, there are three very promising-sounding features which are Iranian in terms of either setting or co-production. Radio Dreams is the latest from director Babak Jalali, whose Frontier Blues won the festival's FIPRESCI prize in 2010. Set during a single day at a San Francisco Farsi-language radio station, this bittersweet deadpan comedy stars Moshen Namjoo, a.k.a. the Bob Dylan of Iran, as a station manager awaiting the arrival of Metallica. The Bay Area metal band has promised to come jam in-studio with visiting Afghani rock group Kabul Dreams. Jalali's film, which won the prestigious Tiger Award at January's Rotterdam Film Festival, has been praised for how it gently touches on issues of immigration, national identity and assimilation. A large coterie of the film's talent, including the director, producers and cast members are expected to attend the festival, with Kabul Dreams performing a concert after the April 28 showing at the Victoria Theatre.

Although I'm not a particular fan of genre films, I have no intention of missing debut filmmaker Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, which has garnered terrific write-ups as it's traveled the 2016 U.S. festival circuit. The story takes place in a Tehran apartment building near the end of the Iran/Iraq war where Shideh, a resentful, aspiring female doctor lives with her young daughter. When a missile crashes through the roof of the top floor unit, it unleashes an evil force that takes special interest in the girl. In his favorable review for Variety, Justin Chang asks us to imagine Under the Shadow as "an Asghar Farhadi remake of The Babadook," with "feminist anger blazing at its core." He also praises lead actress Narges Rashidi, who "plays Shideh like an instrument slowly going out of tune, modulating skillfully between maternal tetchiness and scream-queen abandon." The film unsurprisingly screens under the festival's Dark Wave banner.

Finally in the documentary Sonita, an 18-year-old undocumented Afghani refugee lives in a Tehran homeless shelter, all the while aspiring to become a rapper. Tensions come to a head when her mother tries to return her to Afghanistan, where she'll be sold for $9,000 so her brother can afford his own bride. In the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance, Sonita won the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award. Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, who ends up stepping outside her role as objective filmmaker in order to assist Sonita, is expected to appear at the SFIFF59 screenings.

Cross-published at The Evening Class.