Thursday, June 20, 2019
The 43rd edition of SF Bay Area's Frameline festival, self-described as "the world's longest-running and largest showcase of queer cinema," runs from June 20 to 30 this year. From among the 174 films from 38 countries in the line-up, I've prescreened 16 that reflect a personal passion for foreign language films and documentaries.
As is often the case, Frameline's line-up of Ibero-Latin American cinema is where a lot of the fest's best movies can be found. My top pick from the region is Santiago Loza's Brief Story from the Green Planet, a weird yet endearing Argentine road movie that won the Teddy Award – arguably queer cinema's highest accolade – at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Bathed in a sheen of sensual other-worldliness, Brief Story's story is centered on middle-aged drag performer Tania. After her grandmother dies and she's bequeathed a barely alive space alien, Tania is tasked with returning the creature to the exact location where her granny found it. Hitting the road with two childhood friends, the trio traverse towns, fields and forests to reach their destination, encountering good and bad humanity – and some hilarious 50's-style space robots – along the way. The ending is especially glorious.
Another Argentine film worth a good look is Mateo Bendesky's Family Members, an offbeat character study of alienated siblings. Neurotic New-Ager Gilda and her prickly teen brother Lucas travel to a remote seaside town to dispose of their mother's remains (the "remains" consist of a lone prosthetic hand). When a bus strike impedes their return to Buenos Aires, their testy relationship is given time to thaw. Lucas also cautiously considers the attentions of Guido, an older townie and fitness enthusiast. I was particularly touched by a scene in which Lucas and Guido visit an internet café and finally manage an intimate conversation – but only as spoken through video game avatars. Family Members also impresses with its strong visual sense, wry humor and handsome widescreen cinematography.
Mexico is represented by three films at Frameline43 and Bani Khoshnoudi's melancholic Fireflies was my favorite. Arash Marandi (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Shadow) stars as Ramin, a gay Iranian refugee stranded in the port city of Veracruz. When he's not working at menial jobs like pineapple-picking (where co-workers call him Aladdin and Kalimán), Ramin hangs out at the harbor trying to arrange transport to Greece or Turkey. He has contentious Skype sessions with his ex-boyfriend in Tehran and develops a guarded friendship with Guillermo, a volatile co-worker and former Honduran gang member (effectively played by Luis Alberti, the guide who taught Sergei Eisenstein about gay sex in Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato). The film's emotional center, however, lies in Ramin's relationship with Leti, the live-in receptionist at his hotel who has her own set of problems. Exchanging English classes for Danzón lessons, they become friends and bond over their shared Middle-Eastern ancestry – Leti's Lebanese great-grandfather married a Mexican woman and subsequently opened their Veracruz hotel. Ultimately, Fireflies is an empathetic statement about living in a state of abeyance.
From Mexico, I'd also recommend Marcelino Islas Hernández's History Lessons and Hari Sama's This is Not Berlin. The former presents us with an ultra-unlikely friendship between Véronica, a sad-sack 30-year teaching veteran dying of cancer, and Eva, a bratty, sultry student (complete with Bettie Page bangs) who latches onto Véronica and drags the older woman way out of her comfort zone. At times the film strains a bit too hard for edginess, such as when Eva suckers her teacher into paying for an abortion, or when married Véronica has sex with her student's sketchy friend Tupo (Mexican indie stalwart Gambino Rodriguez). A road trip taken by the mismatched women concludes with a memorably tender, lesbian-lite denouement. Compared with History Lessons' relative low-key demeanor, This is Not Berlin explodes with chaotic energy. Set in Mexico City roughly a decade after last year's Roma, but in the same upper middle-class milieu, Hari Sama's film is a sprawling valentine to the capital city's mid-80's art-punk underground scene as experienced by two high-school buddies getting their first tastes of freedom and debauchery.
Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante grabbed international attention four years ago with his award-winning feature debut Ixcanul. He's followed that up with Temblores (Tremors), presented by Frameline as its 2019 World Cinema Centerpiece. As a filmmaker, Bustamante has made an impressive transition from Ixcanul's universe – one steeped in rural folklore – to the terrain of privileged urbanites inhabited by Temblores. After his deeply religious family discovers he's gay, the consequences become dire for married business consultant Pablo. He's fired for violating his company's "flawless moral code" and barred from contacting his young children. The pain is somewhat assuaged by boyfriend Francisco, a level-headed and gregarious massage therapist who tries working behind the scenes – often in cahoots with the indigenous domestic workers of Pablo's family – to maintain a line of communication. Guilt and the pull of family obligation get the better of Pablo, and he subjects himself to brutal, evangelical-run gay conversion 'therapy.' Unfortunately, Pablo's harsh trajectory as experienced in this affecting quasi-melodrama, risks being perceived as archaic from the bubble of 2019 San Francisco. Those seeking an even bleaker portrait of Latin American LGBTQ life will be sated by Alexandre Moratto's Socrates, an earnest but fairly artless litany of awful things that befall a poor 15-year-old São Paulo teen following his mother's death. The film is notable for the Independent Spirit Award best actor nomination afforded lead Christian Malheiros for his committed screen debut (he lost to Ethan Hawke in First Reformed).
Although technically an Argentine film, I situate Lucio Castro's End of the Century within Spanish cinema's realm, given its Barcelona setting and national identity of a main character. In this laconic two-hander we're first introduced to Ocho, a handsome marketing executive and aspiring poet who's recently ended a 20-year relationship. After checking into an Air B&B he heads to the beach and spies Javi, a kid's TV show director who's married to a German man. The 13-minutes between the movie's opening frames and the pair's inevitable hook-up are entirely free of dialogue, which is the first indication Lucio Castro is in possession of strong directorial chops. Naturalistic post-coital dialogue reminiscent of Andrew Haigh's Weekend leads to Ocho and Javi's realization they were briefly an item 20 years ago. In an eye's blink we're off on an extended flashback, before doubling back to the present for the film's enigmatic third act. End of the Century is an intricate and affable riff on life's "what-if" moments.
The other Spanish film I previewed was Arantaxa Echevarría's Carmen & Lola, which is set within Madrid's tight-knit Roma community. Teenage graffiti artist Lola wants to be a teacher, a lofty aspiration in a culture where hairdressing is the only respectable 'profession' afforded women. She's also attracted to her own sex, signaled in a hilarious scene of her stumbling upon lesbian porn in an internet café. Lola's big IRL crush is her cousin's gorgeous fiancée Carmen. Their see-sawing affections occupy the movie's bulk until the relationship is discovered by Lola's family, at which point shit inevitably meets fan. I'd recommend Carmen & Lola for its fascinating, eyeball-deep immersion into Spain's Roma culture, and the searing chemistry between lead actresses Zaira Romero and Rosy Rodríguez.
Of all the works previewed for this year's festival, I was most impressed by Ali Jaberansari's Tehran: City of Love. The un-ironic title for this exquisitely crafted, deadpan social satire would be "Tehran: Triptych of Thwarted Desire." When we first meet Hessam, a man-bun sporting, ex-bodybuilding champ turned trainer, he's posing for beefcake pix in hopes of landing a film role with "France's most famous actor," Louis Garrel. Hessam's story arc follows his excruciatingly awkward and unrequited crush on a younger bodybuilder put in his charge. The film's other two (straight) protagonists are equally unlucky in love. Manipulative Mina works as a skincare clinic receptionist who arranges fake 'dates' with her workplace's hunkiest male clients. Meanwhile Vahid, a depressed funeral vocalist whose fiancé recently split, struggles to transform himself into an ebullient wedding singer. With a surfeit of delicious visual jokes and captivating supporting characters, director Jaberansari masterfully weaves these three stories into a pathos-filled, near perfect movie.
It's almost unheard of for Frameline to program just one French film, but there you have it. Luckily School's Out, Sébastien Marnier's delectably disturbing thriller with metaphysical overtones, is a clear standout. Hunky Laurent Lafitte (Isabelle Huppert's rapist neighbor in Verhoven's Elle) stars as Pierre Hoffman, a new teacher whose immediate predecessor attempted suicide by jumping out a classroom window. The kids who witnessed it, a Children of the Damned pack of arrogant and secretive "intellectually advanced" 9th graders, immediately challenge Pierre's authority and begin stalking him. That's OK because he's stalking them, too, observing their hyper-aggressive gameplay at a local quarry where a mysterious DVD cache is buried. As humans and animals act increasingly skittish and the town's nuclear plant looms on screen, can apocalypse be far behind? It's all a bit overstuffed and not everything adds up, but otherwise this is tremendously skillful entertainment. Zombie Zombie's score is worth singling out, particularly two unnerving, dirge-like arrangements of Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River" and "Free Money" which we see performed by the school's choir. I also dug how Pierre's homosexuality, apart from helping to brand him as an outsider, is coolly sublimated (and limited to an attraction towards the school's athletic math teacher, played by French rapper Gringe). Lastly, French film fans will welcome the sight of Emmanuelle Bercot, Pascal Greggory and Grégory Montel (Netflix's Call My Agent!) in the supporting cast of teachers and administrators.
Two remaining narrative features I previewed hail from Romania and Indonesia. Marius Olteanu's Monsters is a puzzle-like domestic drama divided into three acts, the first of which accompanies an irritated woman on an all-night taxi ride around Bucharest. The second watches as a man endures an amusing-for-us, hellish-for-him Grindr date, and the Act Three reveals the woman and man as two halves of a crumbling marriage. Monsters' strict formalism – encompassing shifting aspect ratios, extended tracking shots and long talky scenes played out in real time – may be an acquired taste. Stephen Dalton's Hollywood Reporter review tags the film's target audience as "masochistic misery junkies who attend film festivals and art house theaters." You all know who you are. 'Acquired taste' is an equally apt heads-up for Garin Nugroho's opaque Memories of My Body. I'm a huge fan of the filmmaker's eye-popping Opera Jawa from 2006. With its cultural density and enormous plot ellipses, however, I floundered my way through Memories, even with the aid of a press kit. Ostensibly it's 'about' the boy-to-man journey of Juno and his transformation within the world of traditional Javanese lengger dancing. On the plus side, the movie is visually arresting and rarely dull.
There were two documentaries I'd fervently hoped to find in this year's festival. Frameline programmed both, and both are superb. Robert Anderson Clift and Hilary Demmon's Making Montgomery Clift eschews a traditional bio-doc route in favor of something more specific. Namely, it sets to proving the acclaimed actor was not an unstable, self-hating homosexual tortured by his sexuality, but was in fact very full of life and in complete control of his craft. The film's co-director happens to be Clift's youngest nephew, and the biggest weapon in his arsenal is a fount of recordings made by his father, Monty's brother Brooks Clift. Among the controversies into which the film takes a deep dive is Clift's Oscar-nominated performance in Judgement at Nuremberg, which popular belief holds was simply Monty having a real-life, on-screen mental breakdown. Using recorded conversations and Clift's actual annotated shooting script, they irrefutably demonstrate that every spoken word and nuance was intentional. Equally compelling is the film's scrutiny of homophobic director John Huston's lawsuit against Clift over the biopic Freud, which irreparably damaged the actor's career.
Making Montgomery Clift contains enough general interest material regarding the actor's life and career to please casual fans and acolytes alike. I'm not sure the same can be said for Jeffrey McHale's You Don't Nomi, which takes Paul Verhoven's $40 million "masterpiece of shit" Showgirls and risks analyzing it to death. But if you're like me, and Showgirls is your absolute favorite movie of the 1990's, you'll eat up the detailed dissertations on topics like the inherent puns contained within the name Nomi (the first name of Elizabeth Berkley's main character) or whether the film qualifies as camp (as one observer puts it, is camp even possible in the age of Sharknado?). I also devoured the doc's queer reading of Showgirls and its resonance with gay men, as well as a fabulous discourse on the infamous Spago scene (written like "brain-dead Harold Pinter.") Archival interviews with key participants like Verhoven, Berkley, Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan, are augmented by fresh exchanges with Adam Nayman (author of pro-Showgirls bible, "It Doesn't Suck") and our own Peaches Christ, whose legendary Midnight Mass screenings (complete with horrifying "free" lap dances with every large popcorn) almost single-handedly gave birth to the film's oversized Bay Area cult status. If I had one quibble, it might be You Don't Nomi's overuse of clips from other Verhoven works.
Frameline43 closes on Sunday, June 30 with David Charles Rodrigues' Gay Chorus Deep South, which documents SF Gay Men's Chorus recent concert tour of the American South. It's a topic I have zero personal interest in, but ecstatic reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival premiere convinced me to have a look. I'm confident you'll be as touched as I was. In a move that practically defines bravery bordering on foolhardiness, SF's gay chorus chose to tour (along with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir) five southern states with the country's most discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws – namely AL, MS, TN, NC and SC. What emerges from the resulting documentary is a balanced portrait of red-state America that isn't blind to the region's major shortcomings. The film's soul lies with the chorus' ex-Southerners, who'll be anxiously returning to a place that symbolizes hate and rejection. Some will use the tour to reunite with estranged family members. We also spend time with current LGBTQ Southerners, whose resilience has resulted in the creation of strong local communities. Rodriguez's film benefits greatly from the presence of Tim Seelig, the chorus' formidably articulate artistic director who was banished from a Texas mega-church's employ for being gay in 1986, resulting in the loss of home, family and friends.
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
The SFFILM Festival, better known until just recently as the San Francisco International, celebrates its 62nd edition next week. What's different about this fest is that for the first time since 1976, I won't be in attendance due to a recent relocation out of state. That minor detail, however, won't stop me from talking about what excites me in this year's line-up, nor from sharing brief commentary on a handful of films I was able to preview.
The 2019 festival takes off on Wednesday, April 10 with the world premiere of Netflix's Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, featuring on-stage appearances by beloved series' star Laura Linney and writer/creator Maupin. Closing out the fest on April 21 will be Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley as UK whistleblower Katherine Gun. Expected guests for the evening include the film's Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood (2005's Tsotsi) as well as Ms. Gun, the movie's subject. Rounding out 2019's trio of Big Nights will be the Centerpiece Film presentation of Sundance hit The Farewell, featuring Crazy Rich Asians breakout star Awkwafina.
Other acting tributes include Laura Dern on April 14, accompanied by her latest, Trial By Fire, as well as esteemed child actor and longtime festival supporter Claude Jarman, Jr. on April 20. The now 88-year-old Jarman will receive the fest's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, followed by a showing of Clarence Brown's 1949 adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust… in 35mm! Celluloid lovers also won't want to miss the Mel Novikoff Award presentation to BBC series Arena, wherein James Marsh's mesmerizing experimental docu-drama Wisconsin Death Trip from 1999 will also be projected in 35mm. Rounding out the awards roster is pioneering African American documentarian Madeline Anderson. She'll receive the festival's 2019 Persistence of Vision Award, accompanied by two of her early doc shorts.
Amongst this year's Live & Onstage presentations, I'd give top priority to hearing Boots Riley deliver the State of Cinema Address. The lefty rapper and musician recently took indie film by storm with his directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, which scored the Centerpiece slot at last year's festival. Other L&O offerings include all-women L.A. band Warpaint's live accompaniment to works by iconic experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (including 1944's seminal Meshes of the Afternoon) and a screening of Andrew Slater's new documentary Echo in the Canyon, about the early years (1965-67) of the Laurel Canyon music scene. Musician Jakob Dylan, who conducts the doc's on-screen interviews, will perform selections from the era live at the Castro Theatre following the screening. Fest-goers can also spend An Evening with Kahlil Joseph, who's perhaps best known for co-directing Beyoncé's Lemonade project.
Over the past decade, documentaries have come to occupy an increasingly larger slice of this festival's pie, with non-fiction works now comprising 47 percent of its total feature film count. That's a daunting number, but I'll try and touch on a representative sampling. The fest's Masters section is a good place to start, with new works by two acknowledged geniuses of the art form. Werner Herzog's Meeting Gorbachev will play the fest prior to its opening at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema on May 10. I had the chance to preview Stanley Nelson's magnificent Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which fits comfortably within a distinguished filmography that includes The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. As a Francophile I was especially intrigued with the section covering Davis' time in Paris – a searing romance with chanteuse Juliette Greco (interviewed on-screen) followed by the creation of his improvisatory score for Louis Malle's 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows. That collaborative project launched a whole new direction in Davis' music. Outside the Masters sidebar there are even more biographical documentaries, most with self-explanatory titles: Ask Dr. Ruth (opening at the Opera Plaza May 3), Halston, RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, Tony Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (the latter a portrait of San Francisco's notorious rock music photographer).
This year's festival is the first to take place in the era of legal recreational cannabis, and SFFILM is not letting 4/20/19 pass unnoticed. First there's the previously mentioned 60's rock-doc Echo in the Canyon at the Castro – a venue where until the mid-80s patrons could smoke weed in the right-hand section unfettered. This festival's real 4/20 pot party, however, is likely to go down at Oakland's Grand Lake, where musician, filmmaker and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy will be on hand to present his new doc about the history of reefer in America, Grass is Greener. A third stoner doc option that Sunday is Hail Satan?, director Penny Lane's comic look at The Satanic Temple.
A total of 13 prizes were awarded to documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival and amazingly, SFFILM has programmed films representing ten of them. Topping the list with three prizes is Honeyland, a female Macedonian "bee whisperer" portrait which won a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change, and a Special Jury Award for Cinematography. The U.S. Grand Jury Prize was given to One Child Nation, which analyzes the consequences of China's infamous 35-year social experiment. The doc receiving the most publicity at Sundance was Knock Down the House, which won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Rachel Lears' film, which pops up on Netflix May 1, follows four female 2018 political candidates – most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – as they strive to topple entrenched incumbents. I'm very intrigued by Special Jury Award for Cinematography winner Midnight Family, which trails a family who run a frantic private ambulance service in Mexico City. At the SFFILM opening press conference it was revealed that travel visas for the Ochoa family to attend the festival were (of course) blocked by the assholes who decide such matters. The remaining Sundance prizewinners one can see are Always in Season (Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency), Jawline (Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker), Midnight Traveler (Special Jury Award for No Borders) and American Factory (Directing Award: U.S. Documentary). The latter film curiously landed in SFFILM's Masters section, of all places. I'm not at all familiar with its co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichart, and an imdb search also yielded nothing from them I recognized.
Amidst the surfeit of documentaries I've yet to mention, here are several of personal interest. Based on Victor Kossakovsky's ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (SFFILM Festival 2012), I'd definitely check out his latest work Aquarela, which sounds like an incredible sensory experience. Echoing that film's aquatic theme is Walking on Water, a reportage on environmental artist Christo's latest project The Floating Piers. Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei is expected to attend the festival for screenings of Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, a closer look at the prisoner letter-writing campaign that was part of his Alcatraz exhibition. The international refugee crisis is the subject of two more SFFILM docs. Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America concerns LGBTQ refugees, and Central Airport THF takes a poetic look at Berlin's defunct Tempelhof Airport, which became a refugee camp in 2015. The latter is directed by renowned Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz (Madame Satã), whose last narrative feature Futuro Beach was co-set in Brazil and Germany. Central Airport THF garnered rave reviews when it premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, and was recently available to watch on Euro streaming platform MUBI. Speaking of Brazil, the fragile political situation in Aïnouz' homeland is the subject of Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy. Finally, Kabul, City in the Wind and What We Left Unfinished uncover aspects of life in Afghanistan, with the second examining the country's film history via a trove of long-hidden works.
Moving on to the festival's narrative features, we'll begin with a look at the slim roster of French language films. I can easily recommend the two I previewed. Nathan Ambrosioni's Paper Flags features another unforgettable performance by Guillaume Gouix, here playing a short-fused, newly released convict out to establish a normal life with the help of his wary younger sister. Gouix first came to my attention in the sublime French zombie TV series, The Returned, and more recently in distinguished supporting parts in Gaspard at the Wedding and Lucas Belvaux's This is Our Land. Hopefully, Paper Flags generates more lead roles for him in the future. I also quite enjoyed Olivier Masset-Depasse's Mothers' Instinct, a moody 1950's Belgian thriller with strong overtones of Hitchcock and Sirk. Addressing themes of jealousy and guilt through a female-centric lens, the film stars Veerie Baetens who many will remember from 2012's The Broken Circle Breakdown. For those who salivate over such things, Mother's Instinct also features to-die-for period art direction and costume design. As a Louis Garrel obsessive, it kills me to miss A Faithful Man, the impossibly handsome and charismatic actor's second feature as director. In a plot that sounds redolent of works by his father, Philippe Garrel, Louis plays a guy caught between the romantic attentions of two women, one older and one younger. Garrel co-wrote the film with legendary script maestro Jean-Claude Carrière, for which they won the screenwriting prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival. The fourth French language movie at SFFILM 2019 is David Oelhoffen's Close Enemies, which I'd recommend sight unseen for no other reason than it stars Matthias Schoenaerts.
There's a strong line-up of Latin American narrative features this year, including new works from three SFFILM alumni. Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj (A Useful Life, The Apostate) returns with Belmonte, an enigmatic character study of a still-handsome, middle-aged painter of garish male nudes. Javi Belmonte's peevishly sad-sack demeanor is of no help when dealing with personal crises. These include, but are not limited to, a pregnant ex-wife, an elderly father who may be going gay, and bored rich housewives who buy his paintings just to fuck him. This discomfiting sketch of an artist stuck in limbo is the perfect length at 75 minutes, and its sumptuous color palette has remained lodged in my memory. I was also taken with Benjamín Naishtat's Rojo, admiring it even more than his 2014 breakthrough debut History of Fear. In this deeply unsettling, formalist allegory set in the pre-days of Argentina's 1976 military coup, a small-town lawyer (screen-commanding Darío Grandinetti) gets involved in a real estate scam at the same time he's being pursued by a relentless police inspector (the great Alfredo Castro) over his involvement in a suicide/disappearance. The third filmmaker returning to the fest this year is Argentine director Ana Katz (Musical Chairs, A Stray Girlfriend) with her new film, Florianópolis Dream.
Two other Latin American features with strong critical buzz were unfortunately not available for preview. Lila Avilés' The Chambermaid won the Morelia Film Festival's top prize, as well as kudos from far-flung fests like Marrakech, Minsk and Palm Springs. Avilés debut feature is situated entirely within a Mexico City luxury hotel, wherein the titular maid imagines the lives of hotel guests based on their possessions and odd requests. Alejandro Landes' Monos won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award following its Sundance world premiere and is currently being featured in NYC's prestigious New Directors/New Films series. Set in the mountainous jungles of northern Colombia, the film has intriguingly been touted as a combo of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now. It also boasts a music score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie). A Colombian film I did have the opportunity to preview is Lapü, from the festival's Vanguard section. This entrancing docu-fiction hybrid languidly depicts the Wayuü indigenous tribal custom of digging up and then reburying the dead. Lapü should be of special interest to admirers of Ciro Guerra's recent film, Birds of Passage, which enacts the same Wayuü ritual.
The most notable Asian narrative feature at SFFILM Fest is undoubtedly Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Asako I & II. The Japanese director took the festival world by storm a few years back with Happy Hour, a 317-minute paean to adult female friendship. That film's fervid reception resulted in a 2018 Cannes competition slot for his latest. Clocking in at a tidy two-hours, Asako relates one young woman's years-long obsession with two identical-looking men; a shy teen outcast who becomes a top fashion model, and a down-to-earth sake company marketing manager. Despite skillful direction, engaging script and fine performances, I found it much less profound than Happy Hour, and truth be told, a bit tedious in the final stretch. I was far more impressed with Qiu Sheng's Suburban Birds, a fascinating New Directors entry from China which alternates between two metaphysically linked narrative tracks. In the first, a team of structural engineers investigates why some buildings in the city of Wenjing are starting to tilt. The other lovingly conveys the quotidian (mis)adventures of a small group of pre-teen classmates. How these two threads relate (or not?!) should inspire spirited Q&As with director Qiu Sheng, who is expected to attend the festival. Bonus points are given for the film's use of Sonic Youth's "Little Trouble Girl" in a key scene.
Other Asian options at the festival include two films imminently scheduled to arrive in Bay Area cinemas. Singaporean director Eric Khoo's Ramen Shop hits the Opera Plaza on April 26. More often than not I find Khoo's films queasily sentimental and will probably give this one a pass. Opening at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 17 is Ritesh Batra's Photograph, which reunites the Indian director of 2013's wildly popular The Lunchbox with that film's star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Rounding out the fest's Asian selections are First Night Nerves, the latest from Hong Kong arthouse master Stanley Kwan (Rouge, Lan Yu), and Dark Wave sidebar entry Project Gutenberg. The latter is a Chinese action thriller with a superstar cast (Aaron Kwok, Chow Yun Fat) helmed by the writer of 2002's Internal Affairs (Felix Chong). It should prove extremely fun to watch on the Castro Theatre's enormous screen.
From elsewhere in the line-up I previewed two more worthwhile entries, both of which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In My Room is German director Ulrich Köhler's first film since his woozily mysterious, African-set Sleeping Sickness, which SFFILM screened in 2012. Following a half-hour set-up whereby we're introduced to Armin, a borderline schlubby TV news cameraman, we see him awaken to an existential apocalypse in which people have disappeared but everything else in the world is basically unchanged. The film remains extremely compelling as he begins life anew on an abandoned farmstead. Interest wanes, however, when the arrival of a female co-survivor slowly transforms the narrative into a more traditional relationship drama. In The Harvesters, Etienne Kallos' absorbing study of strained masculinity in a religious Afrikaner farm community, a teenage boy's world shifts dramatically when his family adopts a troubled urban teen whose past includes gay street hustling. I was wowed by the film's widescreen photography of stark South African landscapes, as well as by the empathetic performances of its two adolescent lead actors.
Out of the remaining bounty of narrative features, I'll close with three I'd be damn certain not to miss were I able to attend the festival in person. Loro promises another fevered, collaborative take on Italian politics from director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) and actor Toni Servillo. Their target this go-round is villainous, vainglorious media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Originally shown in Italy as two separate, two-hour movies, this 150-minute "international" version has its detractors. Given the talent involved, however, it remains a personal must-see. I'm certain The Nightingale will also be a must-see for anyone who had the shit scared out of them watching 2014's The Babadook. Jennifer Kent's follow-up film is a female revenge opus set in 19th Tasmania. Lastly, I wouldn't dream of missing the festival's 50th anniversary, 4K restoration screening of John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, featuring an appearance by photographer Michael Childers, the director's life partner and assistant on this ground-breaking, Best Picture Oscar winner. Anyone who attended the Castro Theatre's weekend-long Schlesinger tribute in 2006, or has heard him talk on last year's Criterion Collection release of the film, knows that Childers has some wild tales to tell.
Thursday, October 4, 2018
For most of its life, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) was best recognized for showcasing domestic Awards Season contenders, documentaries, shorts and world cinema "discoveries." Now with its 41st edition (October 4 – 14), the fest continues along a trajectory that began a half dozen years ago, with greater emphasis on prize winners and buzzed-about titles from the world's major festivals. When it comes to turning Bay Area audiences on to new works by significant international narrative filmmakers, MVFF is currently where it's at.
Although I recently moved from the Bay Area and won't experience 2018's event in person, I couldn't help but share my excitement with the line-up. What follows is a subjective festival-by-festival stroll through MVFF41's terrific roster, with thoughts on a few titles I was able to preview.
By the time autumn rolls around, most Sundance films have already played the Bay Area, with the lion's share debuting locally at the SFFILM Festival. Each year, however, there is one Sundance film that is so critically acclaimed, its release is postponed for maximum Awards Season exposure. Last year that film was Call Me By Your Name. This year it's actor Paul Dano's directorial debut, Wild Life, a familial drama set in 1960's Montana starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film receives a Spotlight presentation at MVFF41, with Dano and Mulligan in attendance, and will open in local Landmark Theatres on October 26. Another Sundance holdout getting the Mill Valley Spotlight treatment is The Kindergarten Teacher, accompanied by its star Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie is a remake of Nadav Lapid's acclaimed 2014 Israeli drama about a teacher's obsession with a boy who composes alarmingly sophisticated poetry. Director Sara Colangelo won a Sundance Directing Award for her reinterpretation. The Kindergarten Teacher is scheduled to open at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on October 12, the very day it also becomes available to stream on Netflix.
Premiering in Sundance's World Cinema dramatic competition this year was Babis Makridis' Pity, which I had the chance to preview. This bone-dry, absurdist film fits squarely within the Greek Weird Wave movement, unsurprising given its script was co-written by frequent Yorgos "Dogtooth" Lanthimos co-conspirator Efthymis Filippou. Yannis Drakopoulos (Chevalier) plays a middle-aged Greek lawyer who festishistically wallows in the pity afforded him by merit of having a comatose wife. When she miraculously recovers, we witness the extremes to which the lawyer goes in order to keep his pity party going, such as setting off a tear gas canister to forcibly kick-start a crying jag. Although rigidly formalist – with minimal camera movement or non-ambient music, deadpan dialogue delivery, lethargic pacing and intertitles expressing the protagonist's inner thoughts – there are several moments of gut-busting hilarity. This is a movie that requires much patience, for which the viewer is ultimately rewarded.
While MVFF chose not to program Touch Me Not, the divisive recipient of this year's Golden Bear, it nabbed a number of other Berlin prizewinners. The festival's Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize (aka 2nd place) went to Mug, director Malgorzata Szumowska's fable-esque satire of life in rural Poland. Her film concerns the prejudices faced by a young man who undergoes a facial transplant, following a work-related accident constructing a hillside, Rio-sized Jesus statue. The best screenplay prize at Berlin was awarded to Museo, Alonso Ruizpalacios' impressive follow-up to 2014's Gueros, which I had the good fortune to preview. Based on true events, this rollicking and enormously entertaining heist/road movie combo stars Gael García Bernal as one-half of a duo who rob Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve in 1985. The film's manic second half follows its anti-heroes as they face the impossibility of fencing hot antiquities. Director Ruizpalacios is expected to attend the festival, and his film will open at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre on November 2.
A second Ibero-American film that won a Berlin prize is The Silence of Others, which was executive produced by brothers Augustín and Pedro Almodóvar. This documentary about the victims of General Franco's 40-year fascist dictatorship in Spain garnered the audience award in the festival's Panorama sidebar. Its co-director Robert Bahar will attend the film's MVFF screenings.
Three additional Berlin premieres I had the opportunity to preview were all women-directed films centered on rebellious female characters. I would ordinarily have zero interest in a movie about the early life of the Swedish writer who created Pippi Longstocking, but a rave review in Variety convinced me otherwise. Pernille Fischer Christensen's Becoming Astrid is indeed notches above your standard biopic – a low-key, heartfelt, gorgeously filmed wide-screen portrait tracing writer Astrid Lindgren's journey from restive farm girl with journalistic aspirations to a single mother tempered by hard knocks on the cusp of literary fame. In When the Trees Fall, Marysia Nikitiuk's alternately gritty and fanciful story of amour fou, the life of a rural Ukrainian beauty spills into tumult over her passion for a handsome, smalltime thug. I was particularly struck by the film's contrasts – sensual agrarian landscapes vs. ugly Soviet-era apartment blocks, semi-explicit sex and violence vs. flights of magical realist fantasy. The latter element plays into what could be the most memorable end of a film I've experienced this year. Director Nikitiuk is expected to accompany both MVFF showings of When the Trees Fall.
Laura Bispuri's Daughter of Mine was probably my favorite of all the MVFF films I previewed, a surprise considering my tepid feelings for her previous work, Sworn Virgin. In this emotionally complex, empathetic story of motherhood and forgiveness, a young Sardinian girl gradually learns that her real mother is not the benevolent woman who raised her, but the mercurial town slut whom is she is beginning to physically resemble. Bispuri employs handheld camera and succinct editing to convey the urgency of the two mothers' power struggle, and is aided by a trio of unforgettable performances (including Sworn Virgin star Alba Rohrwacher). The great cult actor Udo Kier is largely wasted in a nondescript supporting role.
I was also greatly taken with Transit, from eminent German filmmaker Christian Petzold. His latest is a knotty, formalist melodrama set in Marseilles during the early advance of German troops through WWII France. Actor Franz Rogowski plays a concentration camp survivor awaiting the transit visas that will allow him safe passage to Mexico. The fact that he has assumed the identity of a dead writer whose estranged wife drifts in and out of the story adds layer upon layer to the film's intrigue. Petzold's extremely bold conceit with Transit is that no effort was made to give the film a period look. The art direction and costumes are all contemporary, with modern day cars traversing Marseille's graffiti-lined streets (cell phones and other technology, however, remain unseen). There's even a spoken reference to a "film in which zombies besiege a shopping mall." The director's clear and quite brilliant intent in all this is to show us how close we are to repeating history.
One could arguably have a sublime MVFF41 experience just by catching the 14 titles culled from this year's Cannes Film Festival, including seven that screened in the main competition. Starting at the top, there's Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters, which won the fest's 2018 Palme d'Or. The supremely humanist director's latest centers on a family living on the economic fringes of modern day Japan. Cannes' third-place Prix du Jury was awarded to Nadine Labaki's Capernaum, a Lebanon-set contemporary fable about a young boy who files a lawsuit against his parents. One of the most anticipated films of the year is Cold War, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's follow-up to his 2013 Oscar winner, Ida. The filmmaker won Cannes' Best Director prize for this elliptical, trans-European B&W saga of star-crossed love between a singer and a jazz musician, loosely based on Pawlikowski's parents. Cold War will screen just once at the festival, accompanied by an on-stage conversation with the director and presentation of this year's MVFF Award.
If there was a scandal in the distribution of main competition prizes at Cannes this year, it was that Lee Chang-dong's unanimously rave-reviewed Burning left empty handed. In a redress of sorts, the festival's FIPRESCI jury awarded Lee's first film since 2010's Poetry its top prize. Burning is scheduled to open at local Landmark Theatres on November 16. The remaining Cannes' competition titles scheduled for MVFF include Ash is Purest White, the latest from "Sixth Generation" Chinese auteur Jia Zhengke, 3 Faces, the fourth clandestine film to be directed by Iranian master Jafar Panahi since his 2010 arrest and subsequent ban from movie-making, and Yomeddine, a road movie and first feature from Egyptian director A.B. Shawsky in which a leper and an orphan search for their respective families. Yomeddine will also screen locally at this month's Arab Film Festival. Although it didn't play in competition, this is as good a place as any to mention Cannes' 2018 opening night film, Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows. The Iranian director's follow-up to 2016's Oscar-winning The Salesman is a Spain-set kidnapping drama starring Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Ricardo Darin. Although it received extremely mixed reviews, it's admirable of MVFF to afford local audiences the opportunity to judge for themselves.
In addition to the seven competition titles, MVFF has programmed some of the most talked about films from Cannes' various sidebars. Opening up the Directors' Fortnight line-up this year was Ciro Guerra's Birds of Passage. The Columbian director's follow-up to his phenomenal 2015 Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent is a familial drug-war drama set amongst that country's indigenous Wayúu tribe. Also hailing from Directors' Fortnight is Benedikt Erlingsson's rave-reviewed Woman at War, an Icelandic social drama about an environmental activist which is also tinged with comedy and music. Anyone who saw Erlingsson's singular 2013 film Of Horses and Men will know to expect the unexpected.
MVFF also presents four films from Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, including two prize winners. The section's top award was given to Ali Abbasi's Border. A Nordic Noir with supernatural elements, Border's main character is a facially disfigured Danish customs agent possessed of the ability to (literally) sniff out transgressors. Un Certain Regard's screenplay award was given to Sofia, whose writer/director Meryem Benm'Berek will attend MVFF. Her film details the plight of a young Moroccan woman who clandestinely gives birth, and is then given 24 hours to name a father or face prison time. Luis Ortega's El Angel is a fictionalized portrait of Argentina's infamous baby-faced serial killer "Carlitos" Puch, who committed over 40 thefts and 11 homicides before his 1972 capture at age 20. (Still in custody today, he is the longest serving prisoner in that country's history). El Angel arrives in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on November 16.
Rounding out MVFF's wide variety of movies from Un Certain Regard is Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki, the lone Cannes selection I was able to preview. In this rare example of African LGBT-themed cinema, a middle-class Kenyan tomboy with aspirations of becoming a nurse becomes involved with a sensual town beauty. The catch is that both their fathers are running for the same political office. While Rafiki (which means "friend" in Swahili) isn't particularly compelling in terms of cinematic achievement, it is nonetheless chock full of cultural interest, with solid performances and a gallery of interesting secondary characters. It's also mostly in English, which is might be a good selling point for those who are subtitle-averse.
I'm lumping the triumvirate of Venice, Toronto and Telluride into one category because most of the movies up for Awards Seasons consideration hail from one or more of these late summer festivals. Exhibiting awards contenders, more often than not accompanied by their respective actors and directors, has been MVFF's longtime forte. That tradition continues into the fest's 41st edition, starting with the opening night presentation of Green Book. The title refers to "The Negro Motorist Green Book," a guide for African American travelers wishing to avoid racial discrimination along America's highways and bi-ways, which was in print from 1936 to 1966. The film Green Book recounts a 1962 concert tour taken by composer/pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), accompanied by his racist, Italian-American chauffeur and bodyguard Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen carrying 30 extra pounds). This Driving Miss Daisy in reverse was directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, one-half of the Farrelly Brothers who gave us Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, etc.) Fresh from its Audience Award win at Toronto, MVFF's opening night will feature director Farrelly and star Mahershala Ali in person. Speaking of Ali, the festival's closing night film will be If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. The filmmaker's follow-up to his 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner is an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel. Jenkins will attend the screening, accompanied by its star, actress Kiki Layne.
Two of the most prominent films of this Awards Season, as these things sometimes happen, both contain "boy" in their two-word titles. Beautiful Boy is an adaptation of David and Nic Sheff's best-selling father/son memoirs detailing their family's years-long struggle with addiction, relapse and recovery. The film is directed by Felix Van Groeningun (Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown) and stars Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell and Amy Ryan. The filmmaker and all three actors will be on hand for the screening. The other "boy" film is Boy Erased, in which a gay teen (Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges) is forced into a gay conversion therapy program by his Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman). Boy Erased reps actor/filmmaker Joel Edgerton's directorial follow-up to 2016's Loving (he also plays the conversion program's head therapist) and the movie's intriguing supporting cast includes French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan and Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea. The film is part of a MVFF Spotlight on Joel Edgerton, with the actor/director in attendance. Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased are scheduled to arrive at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on October 19 and November 2 respectively.
One much-anticipated film that played all three festivals is Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, which went on to win the top prize (Golden Lion) at Venice. Cuaron's first film since 2015's Gravity is a semi-autobiographical B&W meditation on the director's early 1970's Mexico City childhood, with particular focus bestowed upon the family maid, Cleo. Mexico has chosen Roma as its 2018 Oscar submission, and it's not inconceivable the film could end up being nominated in both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories. Cuaron will be at MVFF to introduce the film personally, where it screens as the festival's Centerpiece.
Other MVFF selections by high-profile auteurs I can't wait to see include Paul Greengrass' 22 July (an English-language recreation of Norway's bloody 2011 domestic terrorist attack, which opens in local Landmark Theatres and Netflix streaming on October 10), Yorgos Lanthimos' first period piece The Favourite (which won a Best Actress prize at Venice for lead Olivia Colman), Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction (working once again with Juliet Binoche), Mike Leigh's historical epic Peterloo, and Widows, Steve McQueen's long awaited follow-up to 12 Years a Slave (starring Viola Davis as a crime widow making good on her deceased husband's heist plans).