Tuesday, April 2, 2019

SFFILM Festival 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.

As always, SFFILM Festival offers up an enticing array of Awards & Tributes. Most noteworthy to me is the April 12 shindig for John C. Reilly – not just because he's an outstanding actor but because his tribute includes a Castro Theatre screening of Jacques Audiard's revisionist western The Sisters Brothers, perhaps the most criminally underseen film of 2018. Laura Linney, in addition to appearing on opening night, will hang around SF for another day to partake in her own April 11 tribute, featuring her Oscar-nominated performance in Tamara Jenkins' 2007 familial dramedy The Savages. Across town that same evening, iconoclastic French director Claire Denis will finally, after several thwarted attempts, receive an SFFILM Fest tribute. That program includes a sneak peek at High Life, her English-language sci-fi thriller starring Robert Pattinson and Juliet Binoche, which opens the following day at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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

MVFF41 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).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Frameline42 2018 – World Cinema

Recognized as the oldest and largest LGBTQ film event in the world, the Bay Area's Frameline festival will celebrate its 42nd edition from June 14 to 24. I've attended the fest since its early beginnings and in my experience, the foreign language narrative features are consistently the most interesting and accomplished works on view. To that end, I'll be spotlighting 10 movies largely culled from Frameline42's World Cinema sidebar, eight of which I've had the opportunity to preview.

The two World Cinema selections not available to preview also happen to be the ones with the most cachet, at least in terms of recognizable stars and festival prizes. Topping the list of films I anticipate catching during the festival proper is Anne Fontaine's Reinventing Marvin, winner of the Queer Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. Told through a series of flashbacks, it's the story of a bullied queer boy in the French provinces who leaves his brutish family to study theater in Paris. There he falls under the sway of a sugar daddy who introduces him to Oscar-nominated actress Isabelle Huppert (playing herself!), who in turn helps Marvin produce a cathartic one-man performance piece. The young adult Marvin is played by rising British-French actor Finnegan Oldfield, who has given memorable supporting performances in movies screened locally by SFFILM in recent years (Nocturama, Les Cowboys, Heal the Living). In addition to grande dame Huppert, Reinventing Marvin boasts a cast of familiar French actors that includes Charles Berling, Grégory Gadebois and Vincent Macaigne. Quite shockingly, the movie does not have a U.S. distributor. (It seems the kind of thing Strand Releasing would have snapped up in a heartbeat). Therefore, Frameline's lone screening at the Castro Theatre on June 22, which is also the film's U.S. premiere, could wind up being the only opportunity we'll ever have to view it.

The other film I'm tremendously excited about seeing during the fest is The Heiresses. This feature film debut by Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi won three of the top prizes at this year's Berlin Film Festival, including the FIPRESCI critics' prize and the prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize, the latter awarded to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." Berlin's best actress award went to Ana Brun, making her screen acting debut in the role of Chela, a middle-aged lesbian of evaporating privilege who has begun selling off her family's fineries. After her lover of 30 years goes to prison for fraud, Chela falls into the role of de facto chauffeur for all her remaining rich friends. Martinessi's character study cum social critique garnered unanimous rave reviews. The Heiresses did acquire a minor U.S. distributor (Distrib Films) but I'd say chances of it showing up in cinemas outside L.A./N.Y. are pretty iffy.

The Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award is considered the world's most esteemed prize for LGBTQ cinema. The 2018 Teddy for best narrative feature went to Brazilian directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon's Hard Paint, a Frameline42 Showcase presentation that's the first of eight films I was able to screen in advance. Set in the coastal city of Porto Alegre, the film concerns itself with the fate of Pedro, a dour young man who's awaiting trial on assault charges for blinding someone who bullied him. His supportive older sister is about to move cross country, and he's barely supporting himself by staging webcam sex shows wherein his body is smeared with florescent paints. Things begin to look up when he romantically and professionally aligns himself with Leo, a dancer who shares his penchant for Day-Glo. When Leo moves to Berlin, however, Pedro's life continues its downward trajectory. While I admired Hard Paint as a moody, empathetic character study, I ultimately found it rambling, anemic and overlong. The soundtrack of Brazilian EDM is extremely good and put to effective use. Directors Matzembacher and Reolon are expected to attend the film's screening at the Castro on June 19.

I was considerably more taken with two other Latin American selections from Frameline42's World Cinema sidebar. Steeped in the Quechuan culture of Peru's high Andes mountains, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio's heartbreaking Retablo confronts acute homophobia in an indigenous culture. Teenager Segundo is apprenticed to his father Noé, a maestro artisan who constructs retablos, elaborately painted wooden boxes with doors that reveal potato-dough figurines representing members of a family or clan. All that changes when he catches the father he adores and respects in a furtive act of gay sexual activity, which is ultimately the catalyst for larger scale tragedy. Aparacio makes a remarkable debut as feature filmmaker, as does actor Junior Behar in his first on-screen appearance in the role of Segundo. Acclaimed Peruvian actress Magaly Solier (Madeinusa, Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow) adds another impressive take on Latin American indigenous womanhood to her filmography, inhabiting the part of the family's desperate matriarch.

Another unmissable debut feature from Latin America is Martín Deus' tempered, low-key Argentine familial drama My Best Friend. A coming-of-age/coming-out tale of sorts, the film centers on Lorenzo, a sensitive and emotionally mature teen living a comfortable life with his supportive family in rural Patagonia. The family's tranquility becomes upended with the arrival of Caito, a rough-edged, somewhat older son of a Buenos Aires family friend who arrives under murky circumstances for an extended stay. Caito wastes no time testing the imposed rules of his new living situation, inspiring Lorenzo to take it upon himself to set Caito, with whom he is both smitten and annoyed, on the right path. I particularly admired My Best Friend for its gallery of complex, fully-fleshed characters and the uniformly excellent actors called upon to portray them.

The five remaining foreign LGBTQ movies I previewed all hail from Europe, with two German language selections distinguishing themselves as standouts. Katharina Mückstein's L'Animale introduces us to five lonely, quietly desperate Austrians whose lives are on the cusp of change, discovery and possible crisis. At the center is Mati, a conflicted high school senior motocross enthusiast who hangs out with the guys and has an expressed distaste for anything girlish. When she's not discouraging the romantic advances of her male best friend, Mati is off exploring her sexuality with an older shopgirl. She also works as a veterinary assistant to her mother, a woman who just recently discovered that her husband is acting on his same-sex desires. L'Animale's title is taken from a 1985 song by Italian composer/performer Franco Battiato. In the film's most affecting sequence, all five main characters, in separate settings, take turns singing the song whose Italian-translated chorus reads, "The animal which is inside of me won't let me live in happiness again." Director Mückstein is expected to attend the film's lone Frameline42 screening on June 17.

In Marcel Gisler's thoughtful and compelling Swiss sports movie Mario, we're shown in considerable detail what can happen when two soccer players with professional aspirations fall in love. Closeted and serious-minded Mario is on a determined career path when Leon, a handsome and gregarious star player from Germany, is transferred to his team and the two are assigned an apartment together. A burgeoning romantic relationship develops and despite their best attempts at discretion, a vindictive teammate unleashes homophobic harassments that draw the attention of the team's owners, the players' agents and Mario's family. Mario reacts by retreating deeper into the closet, enlisting the reluctant help of his female best friend in providing a straight cover. Leon doesn't have the wherewithal for such bullshit. How the lovers sadly fail to reconcile ambition with desire consumes the final chapters of this emotionally honest look at same-sex love in the world of contemporary sports. Aaron Altaras, the actor who plays Leon, is expected to appear at the festival.

The theme of clandestine attraction also comes into play with two other European Frameline42 flicks. Mikko Makela's A Moment in the Reeds is a romantic two-hander about a Finnish grad student who returns from Paris to help his taciturn father renovate the family summer cottage. When he's left to spend several days alone with the handsome Syrian war refugee who's been hired to help out, a passionate affair blossoms in the idyllic lakeside setting. What the film lacks in dramatic momentum, it makes up for with intimately engaging conversations (all in English, for those who are subtitle averse) and the hottest sex scenes of all the films I previewed. The specter of war also permeates the background of Blerta Zeqiri's The Marriage. Set 10 years after the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99, it's the would-be story of two male lovers reuniting, were it not for the fact that one of them is about to be married to a woman. This messy tale of buried secrets and resentments often feels scattershot and over-plotted, but it's well worth watching for the strength of its performances and immersion into local culture. One particularly lovely moment finds the two ex-lovers, one now a musician in Paris and the other a local bar owner, singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me," with spot-on imitations of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. It is anticipated that the directors of both A Moment in the Reeds and The Marriage will attend the festival.

Finally, we have Ellen Smit's Just Friends, a broad, slightly tacky romantic dramedy from the Netherlands whose central romance is between two aimless young men. Yad, a failing Dutch-Syrian med student has returned home and resumed his old job of teaching windsurfing. Much to his conservative family's consternation, he's taken a second job as homecare aide for the elderly, with one of his dottier clients setting him up with her grandson. Joris is a skinhead gym-bunny who flies drones and lives with his crass, plastic-surgery addicted mother while still mourning his father's recent death. Will Yad and Joris overcome their familys' objections to the relationship and find true love? I'm going to be a spoiler and reveal that of all the Frameline42 films I previewed, Just Friends is the only one that concludes with anything remotely representing a happy ending. And that should count for a lot in these god-awful times we're trapped in. It's also worth noting that while Just Friends is almost the antithesis of an "art" film, it had the strongest visual style of all the Frameline42 selections I looked at.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

61st SFFILM Fest 2018 –Spotlight on Space, Dark Wave, French Cinema

Spotlight on Space

Every year the festival gathers a few films with a common theme and places them under a "Spotlight" umbrella. This year's designated leitmotif is "Into the Great Beyond" and I was able to preview two of the three films. Klim Shipenko's Salyut-7 is a thoroughly satisfying outer space thriller that won Best Picture at last year's Golden Eagle Awards (Russia's Oscar equivalent). Based on actual events, the Salyut-7 episode is sometimes referred to as Russia's Apollo 13. In 1985, two U.S.S.R. cosmonauts were sent to rescue a damaged, unmanned space station before it was captured by Americans. Shipenko's retelling of their close call with oblivion is nerve-wracking, humanist, frequently comic and of course, just a little nationalistic. It also boasts special effects that rival Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. My only complaint is the ending seems a bit unsettled for those not familiar with the actual events. Salyut-7 is already available to stream on Amazon Prime, but you'll want to see it on the biggest screen possible. Which I'm sure is why SFFILM chose the Castro Theatre for its single festival screening on April 8. Sometimes it's great fun to experience another country's big-budget blockbuster. This is such an occasion.

Austrian director Johann Lurf's ⭑ (star symbol) screens in the festival's experimental Vanguard section. It is essentially a 99-minute representational compilation film in which movie scenes of star-spangled nighttime skies are viewed in succession, with their original music scores, aspect ratio and unsubtitled dialogue left intact. Clips from 550 films are experienced in chronological order, beginning with 1905's Rêve de la lune running all the way up to 2017's Girls Trip. A few are easily recognizable – Night of the Hunter, 2001, various stars of Bethlehem, Star Wars and Star Trek. But the hundreds of others? I had no clue I'd just watched the likes of Wayne's World, Antichrist, Stromboli, The Big Lebowski, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Howard the Duck and I Walked With a Zombie. Numerous Japanese clips (Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi) get screen time, as well as experimental works from Man Ray and Maya Deren. The credits end with a year-by-year listing of all 550 films, which would be more beneficial to viewers if presented at the beginning. All the more reason to watch the film again, I suppose. One caveat – given the subject matter, you might be imagining ⭑ as a relaxing and dreamy viewing experience. It isn't. Many clips run just a second or two, and the constantly shifting aspect ratios and audio render it more akin to watching a schizoid astronomer channel-surf.

Dark Wave

I'm not much of a genre film fan, but that hasn’t stopped me from being very excited about the films in this year's Dark Wave section. All four, incidentally, hail from outside the U.S. Robin Aubert's French-Canadian zombie flick Ravenous is already streaming on Netflix, but I've resisted having a look in favor of screaming bloody murder with a live festival audience. The movie scores big bonus points for starring Monia Chokri, the actress who played Xavier Dolan's droll competitor for the attentions of a blond Adonis in 2010's highly underrated Heartbeats. France's Dark Wave entry is Revenge, a female-directed (Coralie Fargeat) rape revenge thriller that's promising to crank the gruesome sub-genres' tropes up to 11, while remaining distinctive and smart. Fargeat's film garnered near-unanimous raves on the festival circuit, with the Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney proclaiming it a "pop art carnage opera" that is "nothing if not relentless." SFFILM Fest's own description boasts that "one could paint a mansion with the amount of blood that gushes" from Revenge. Color me eager to be nauseated.

The other two Dark Wave entries are from the UK and both have secured considerable critical praise. Michael Pearce's Beast is a piece of intense arthouse horror that premiered at Toronto. Set on the remote isle of Jersey, Beast concerns a young woman whose struggle against her controlling family intensifies after meeting a sexy stranger – one who may or may not be a serial killer. The film's trailer is downright unnerving. Jean-Stepháne Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn is a UK/France co-production that premiered as a Cannes midnight screening. Based on true events, the film stars Joe Cole as Billy Moore, a fighter and heroin addict who's arrested and thrown in Thai prison. While there he trains in the art of Muay Thai boxing, eventually becoming a champion who's permitted to earn his release. (The film was shot in an actual Thai prison). Boxing movies are decidedly not my thing, but I'm giving this one a shot.

French Cinema

Bay Area exhibition of French-language films suffered a real blow when SFFILM discontinued its French Cinema Now series two years ago. Couple that with fewer French films than ever achieving local theatrical release (even ones with U.S. distribution), and we're left with general interest festivals like SFFILM and Mill Valley to pick up the slack. The good news is that this year's SFFILM Festival has programmed three films that were a significant part of the conversation surrounding French cinema in 2017. The not so good news is that a dozen or two other noteworthy works will remain elusive to us, at least for the time being.

I strongly recommend catching Laurent Cantet's The Workshop at the festival. It was one of the best things I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Fest and it appears distributor Strand Releasing might no longer be planning a local release. The Workshop premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar and was immediately hailed as the director's best work since 2008's Palme d'or winner The Class. Writer/director Robin Campillo (last year's French Oscar submission BPM) is back on board as co-screenwriter, a position he's assumed on all Cantet's best films. Actress Marina Foïs (never better) plays a renowned author conducting a student summer writing workshop in a depressed coastal town near Marseilles. The goal is to collectively write a locally-set murder mystery. Things take a dark turn when a taciturn student (a brilliant debut by Matthieu Lucci) who's swayed by right-wing Nationalist politics becomes a threat to both his multi-culti classmates and especially the author herself. Not to be missed.

The other two films I referenced were Cannes premieres, as well as the first movies I made sure to work into my festival schedule. Following the disappointment of 2014's turgid The Search, Oscar-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) came back last year with Godard, Mon Amour, a combination spoof and homage to the revolutionary French New Wave director circa 1968. In this crucial year for politics around the globe, Godard was newly married and in love (with actress Anne Wiazemsky, the girl in Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar, who co-wrote the screenplay and is played by Stacy Martin). He was also breaking new ground as a political filmmaker. The impossibly handsome Louis Garrel has been appropriately uglied-up and nerdified to play the lead, and judging from the trailer, he's hilariously spot-on in his inhabitation of M. Jean-Luc. Godard, Mon Amour opens at local Landmark Theatres on April 27. But you'll certainly want to catch the film at its two festival screenings with director Michel Hazanavicius in person. The filmmaker last appeared at a SFFILM event when he attended 2009's French Cinema Now with OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

The third film isn't even really French. It's included here because its star is France's most acclaimed screen performer and Cannes is the film's setting. Hong Sang-soo's Claire's Camera was just one of three new features released by Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker last year. Isabelle Huppert returns for a second Hong collaboration, building on the artistic success of 2012's In Another Country. This time Huppert plays a teacher attending Cannes because a friend has a film screening there. While wandering the streets she strikes up a friendship with a South Korean film sales assistant who's just been fired from her job (frequent Hong star and real-life main squeeze, Kim Min-hee.) Claire believes her Polaroid camera has a mystical power to change lives, a dabble in magic realism that may be a first for the director. Running a brisk 68 minutes, Claire's Camera was appreciated by critics for its melancholic slightness. The title is a hat's tip to Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), the revered French director whose conversation-laden explorations of male/female dynamics Hong's films are frequently compared.

Following the glorious one-two punch of Hong's sublime Hill of Freedom (2014) and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), I was left completely cold by his next two films, Yourself and Yours (2016) and On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). I fully expect Claire's Camera will bring me back into the fold. As for Huppert, Claire's Camera is only one of nine works released since her Oscar-nominated performance in Elle. In the Bay Area we've only been privy to two of them, Michael Haneke's Happy End and the made-for-TV movie False Confessions. At the very least I'm hoping we eventually see Serge Bozon's Madame Hyde, for which Huppert won Best Actress at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. SFFILM Festival has been a past champion of Bozon's work (La France, Tip Top), making Madame Hyde one of the more eye-raising omissions from this year's festival.

As someone who obsessively follows contemporary French cinema, I was surprised to draw a near-complete blank when it came to the rest of this year's SFFILM Fest French line-up. I knew that Janus Films had done a new 4K restoration of Olivier Assayas's fifth feature, Cold Water (1994), so that was nice to see. If you can't make the fest's one-time screening (like me) I'm sure Janus partner Criterion Collection will be releasing it soon enough. I was also clueless that actor Vincent Cassel had made a Gauguin biopic (Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti). I'll basically see anything this actor appears in, especially when it has a South Seas setting and is screening in our fabulous Dolby Theatre. It turns out the film was put into French cinemas last fall without the benefit of any festival exposure. The few reviews out there praise Cassel's performance, but come down hard its on toying with biographical facts. Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is slated for a local Landmark Theatres release on July 27.

Animation fans will no doubt be excited to see The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, a new cartoon feature from Oscar-nominated director Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine). Based on the trailer alone, Marine Francen's The Sower comes off as a pastoral bodice-ripper, but her New Director's Prize from the San Sebastian Film Festival is a hopeful indicator of it being better than that. Out of all these unknown French entities, I'm most looking forward to My Life with James Dean, Dominque Choisy's slapstick valentine to the passion of cinema. Johnny Rasse stars as a gay experimental filmmaker who has a number of amusing encounters as he exhibits his latest film along France's Northern coast. SFFILM Festival will host the movie's North American premiere, with director Choisy expected to attend.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.