Thursday, September 18, 2014

Silent Autumn 2014

Autumn doesn't officially begin until next Tuesday. The Bay Area's succession of fall film festivals, however, unofficially launches this Saturday, September 20 with Silent Autumn, a one-day celebration produced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF). The day's five programs include a trio of Laurel and Hardy shorts, a recreation of a "Night at the Cinema in 1914," Rudolph Valentino's swan song The Son of the Sheik, Buster Keaton's The General and the original creep classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While the familiarity of these titles lend the event a "greatest hits" vibe, it's worth noting that with the exception of one Laurel and Hardy short, everything at Silent Autumn will be screening at the 19-year-old festival for the very first time. All of this good fun takes place, of course, at San Francisco's historic 1922 movie palace The Castro Theatre, with live musical accompaniment for each program. I'm especially excited that the singularly fabulous Alloy Orchestra will be on hand to play for two programs, marking their first SFSFF appearance in over two years.

Here's a glance at what the SFSFF has in store for us on Saturday.

11:00 AM
Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts (USA, 1928–29)
I find few things more life-affirming these days than a Castro Theatre full of 21st century children howling at the antics of classic silent comedy. Silent Autumn's tribute to the greatest comedy duo of all time begins with Should Married Men Go Home?, a lesser known film that was the first Hal Roach-produced comedy to bill L&H as a team. That will be followed by Two Tars, in which a pair of sailors encounter a traffic jam that inspires some cataclysmic Roaring Twenties road rage. Finally in Big Business, which SFSFF last screened in 2010 as part of the program The Big Business of Short, Funny Films 1918-1929, the duo star as door-to-door Xmas tree salesmen who inflict tit-for-tat mayhem upon a recalcitrant customer. All three will be screened in 35mm and Donald Sosin will accompany the madness.

1:00 PM
The Son of the Sheik (USA, 1926, dir. George Fitzmaurice)
After appearing in a string a box office disappointments, Rudolph Valentino was talked into doing a sequel to 1921's The Sheik, in which he'd reprise his role as Ahmed Ben Hassan and play the character's son as well. The film caused a sensation at its Hollywood premiere, but the actor fell ill during the pre-release publicity tour and he died on August 23, 1926. The Son of the Sheik arrived in cinemas two weeks later and went on to become one of the actor's greatest successes – some consider it the quintessential Valentino film. This screening will be a new restoration by Ken Winokur and Jane Gillooly of Box 5, and Winokur's Alloy Orchestra will world-premiere their newly composed score. The program will be introduced by Donna Hill, author of "Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol." Out of the 100 plus silent films seen in my lifetime, I've managed to miss every opportunity to experience Valentino, both on the big screen and small (including this year's SFSFF opening nighter The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). So this is the Silent Autumn program I'm anticipating most.

3:30 PM
A Night at the Cinema in 1914 (US/UK, 1914)
In this unique program curated by the British Film Institute, we'll get the opportunity to experience what it might have been like to go to the movies in the UK an entire century ago. Feature length films were a rarity at the time, so the program is comprised entirely of shorts – 14 of them – comedies, newsreels, travelogues and even animation. Selections include everything from a chapter of the popular serial The Perils of Pauline, a newsreel about suffragettes demonstrating at Buckingham Palace, a comedy featuring a "face-pulling" competition, a profile of the Austro-Hungarian royal family (this being 1914 Britain, at least half the films are WWI related), and finally, Charles Chaplin's A Film Johnnie, Charlie's sixth film ever (and one of 36 he made in 1914, his inaugural year as a motion picture artist). Donald Sosin will provide the musical accompaniment.

7:00 PM
The General (USA, 1926, dir. Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton)
Although it wasn't well received by audiences and critics at the time, this Civil War-set comedy/adventure would come to be considered one of the greatest achievements of the Silent Film Era. It placed at #35 on BFI's most recent list of The 50 Greatest Films of All Time, and it was amongst the initial group of films first inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry (along with classics like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard, Casablanca and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Keaton himself is said to have considered it his best work. Sure, you've seen The General before, perhaps multiple times, but does it ever fail to deliver the goods? Besides, this screening will be in glorious 35mm and The Alloy Orchestra will accompany with their now-classic score. Come get it while you can.

9:00 PM
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1920, dir. Robert Wiene)
This eerie masterpiece of German expressionism about a carnival hypnotist and his murderous, clairvoyant somnambulist has been called "the first true horror film" by no less than Roger Ebert. The film has also been credited with introducing the "twist ending" to cinema, and was an early example of a frame story being used to introduce a flashback narrative. I've seen it several times on the small screen and I've even strolled amongst its distorted, hyper-angular sets which used to grace the old Cinémathèque Française in Paris. I have never watched it on a big screen, however, so it's fortuitous I've waited for this new 4K digital restoration from the original camera negative, which premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Silent Autumn will be its US premiere. Donald Sosin accompanies.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Frameline38 2014 Preview

The 38th edition of San Francisco's Frameline, a.k.a. the world's oldest and largest LGBT film festival, launches Thursday, June 19 and carries on through Sunday the 29th. This year's event boasts films from 31 countries, spread across nearly 80 narrative and documentary features and 18 programs of shorts. As in years past, my subjective overview of the line-up will stress the "G" over the "BLT," features films over shorts, and foreign fare over domestic.

Out of 14 films previewed, my top Frameline38 pick is Bruce LaBruce's sweetly comic Gerontophilia, which I caught at January's Palm Springs International Film Festival. Canadian DYI provocateur LaBruce has been a Frameline mainstay since 1991's No Skin Off My Ass. This latest work represents not only his biggest budget to date, but it's the first of his eight features not to include graphic on-screen sex. Gerontophilia regales us with the tale of Lake, an 18-year-old, heretofore straight lifeguard who discovers he's sexually attracted to old men (in a hilarious scene where he pops a woody giving mouth-to-mouth to a drowning geezer). Lake promptly secures a job in a nursing home and falls in love with a sassy 81-year-old resident, whom he kidnaps and takes on the road. It's the funniest film I've seen this year and I can't think of a more quintessential Frameline experience than watching it in a packed Castro Theatre this Friday night.

Given the emergence of a kinder, gentler Bruce LaBruce, I suspect the most transgressive film in Frameline38 may well be David Wnendt's Wetlands, a German entry that has caused a ruckus everywhere it's been screened. The film's protagonist/narrator is a young woman named Helen. She has a perpetual case of raging hemorrhoids and is a self-described "living pussy hygiene experiment." After a rectal shaving mishap results in acute anal fissures that require hospitalization, Helen reflects back on a life of parental issues and body fluid obsessions – complete with riffs on masturbatory vegetable tests, underwear stains and jizz-covered pizzas. Wetlands has a welcome punk sensibility and I was reminded of Trainspotting more than once (it kicks off with a revolting public restroom scene, for starters). The succession of Helen's infantile infatuations, however, does become wearing, and a murky denouement meant to humanize it all falls somewhat short. And for those who care about such things, the LGBT content of Wetlands is kind of negligible.

Other German language films in the fest include Frameline38's closing nighter, I Feel Like Disco. In this broad, genial-enough coming-of-age dramedy, an overweight gay teen struggles to reconcile with a gruff father following the hospitalization of his beloved mother. All the while he pursues an unlikely friendship with a Romanian teen swimming champ. The title derives from a song by gaudy German popster Christian Steiffen, who plays himself in a handful of fantasy sequences. I've also had a look at Jochen Hick's well-constructed and informative documentary Out in East Berlin – Lesbians & Gays in the GDR. Hick is a veteran non-fiction filmmaker whose works like Via Appia, Sex/Life in L.A. and East/West – Sex & Politics have all played Frameline over the past 25 years. During the festival proper I look forward to seeing Stefan Haupt's The Circle, a docu-fiction hybrid that reveals Zurich, Switzerland to have been the center of European gay life in the 1950's. Finally, enthusiasts of Monika Treut (Gendernauts, Ghosted) should be advised that the prolific queer German filmmaker has a new work in Frameline38, Of Girls and Horses.

French language films always hold a prominent place in Frameline's programming and this year is no exception. Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army, based on the director's autobiographic novel about growing up gay in Morocco, was one of the best films I saw at this spring's San Francisco International Film Festival. (My SFIFF capsule review is here.) At that same festival I also caught Jalil Lespert's rather mainstream and hagiographic biopic of Yves Saint Laurent, which opens at Landmark Theatres' Opera Plaza on July 4th. The production had the blessing of YSL's surviving partner, Pierre Bergé, which means the on-screen couture you see are the exact originals worn by runway models many decades ago. The lead performances from Comédie Française actors Pierre Niney (Saint Laurent) and Guillaume Gallienne (Bergé) are, as they say, better than the movie they appear in.

Another French biopic soon to hit Bay Area theatres is Martin Provost's Violette. It stars one of my favorite French actresses, Emmanuelle Devos, as the lauded 20th century lesbian writer Violette Leduc. Provost directed 2008's memorable biopic of naïve artiste Séraphine de Senlis, and his portrait of Leduc appears to focus on her obsessive friendship with feminist author Simone de Beauvoir (played by another great French actress, Sandrine Kiberlain). Frameline's lone screening of Violette takes place on Monday night, June 23. If you're like me, you'll be back at the Castro Theatre on Tuesday morning for the related documentary, Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love.

Yann Gonzalez' stylized and trippy You and the Night, which venerated magazine Cahiers du Cinéma put on their 2013 ten-best list, is sure to prove one of Frameline38's more outré entries. Set in some sort of hyper-sensualized netherworld, it's "about" a young couple and their transvestite maid who've invited a quartet of archetypes (The Star, The Bitch, The Stud and The Adolescent) over for a late-night orgy. Springing from this set-up are a series of flashbacks, dreams, side-trips and monologues, the latter of which range from risible hooey to achingly poetic. If seeing ex-soccer star Eric Cantona crawl around a cage dressed only in bulging white briefs while getting whipped by a snarling, white fur-clad Béatrice Dalle is your idea of a good time – as it certainly is mine – then You and the Night, çest pour vous. Apart from Cantona and Dalle, the other recognizable cast member is Niels Schneider, who played the object of desire in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats. (Speaking of M. Dolan, the 25-year-old French-Canadian director is probably the world's best known contemporary gay filmmaker. So one wonders why his 2013 film Tom at the Farm, is M.I.A. at Frameline38?)

Unless you've lived under a rock for the past year, you'll know these are awful times for LGBT people in Russia. For Frameline38, the festival has curated a pertinent sidebar, Spotlight: LGBT Films in Today's Russia, from which I've previewed the narrative feature, Winter Journey. This debut film from writer/directors Lubov Lvova and Sergey Taramaev tells the hard-to-believe but no less compelling story of an aspiring gay opera singer and his "relationship" with a bug-eyed, sociopathic thug (a searing performance by Evgeniy Tkachuk). I was struck by Winter Journey's richly inventive cinematography and unsurprised to learn it was shot by ace Russian D.P. Mikhail Krichman, who has worked with top directors like Andrey Zvyagintev (The Return) and Aleksey Fedorchenko (Silent Souls). The other films comprising this Russian sidebar are the narrative feature Stand, the documentary Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda, and a shorts program titled Pussy vs. Putin.

As always, I'm especially excited by Frameline38's line-up of new works from Latin America, beginning with a pair of high-profile Brazilian films that emerged from 2014's Berlin Film Festival. Daniel Ribeiro's The Way He Looks took home the fest's Teddy Award, which is generally acknowledged as the world's most prestigious LGBT film accolade. For this feature directorial debut, Ribeiro expands upon his multiple award-wining 2010 short in which a blind high school student and his female best friend both fall for the same new boy at school. Ribeiro is expected to attend the film's Frameline Showcase screening. Then in Karim Ainouz' Futuro Beach, a lifeguard (played by Brazilian superstar Wagner Moura) becomes involved with a German tourist he rescues from drowning. Frameline audiences might remember Ainouz for his impressive first feature Madame Satã, which played the fest nearly a decade ago.

While Brazilian films are a regular occurrence at Frameline, the same can't be said for Venezuela - it is therefore a pleasure to find two such works in this year's line-up. The first is Miguel Ferrari's My Straight Son, a glossy melodrama set in an upper-class Caracas milieu. On the same day his estranged son arrives from Spain for an extended visit, photographer Diego loses his lover in a vicious gay-bashing. Although the film is overly broad and juggles too many side characters and issues (anorexia, spousal abuse), it's honest and heartfelt and very much recommended. I also thought highly of Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair, another highlight from this year's SF International Film Festival. In contrast to My Straight Son, Rondón's film takes place in the Caracas slums and traces the contentious relationship between a stressed-out single Mom and her 9-year-old effeminate son. Bad Hair deservedly won the top prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival.

My favorite of the Latin American films previewed is Rodrigo Guerrero's The Third One, a 69-minute, formalist accounting of a 3-way between an established gay Argentine couple and a young man they meet on-line. Guerrero's film is essentially composed of four set-pieces. The first is a 15-minute seduction via webcam, followed by a chatty, 20-minute dinner scene at the couple's apartment. The latter is comprised of only two stationary shots; the first with the young man's back to the camera flanked by the couple facing him on the other side of the table, and the second is its exact opposite. Dinner is followed a lengthy sex scene, also consisting of only two shots, discretely filmed from the waist up but as hot as anything you're likely to see at the festival. I'll leave the final act of this naturalistic, sex-positive, drama-free filmic exercise for you to discover on your own. Finally, two remaining Latin American entries I hope to catch during the festival are Holiday, a cross-class relationship story from Ecuador, and I Am Happiness on Earth, the latest from Mexico's preeminent gay director Julián Hernández (A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Broken Sky). The director's fans might also want to check out the shorts program Worldly Affairs, where Hernández has a second film, Wandering Clouds.

Other international features of potential interest include Quick Change, which concerns a Filipina "doctor" administering illegal hormone shots to transgender beauty pageant contenders. It's the second feature of Eduardo Roy Jr., whose debut film Baby Factory was a highlight of CAAMFest a few years back. In Frameline38's Centerpiece Film Lilting, a young British man played by Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Cloud Atlas) reaches out to his deceased partner's Chinese mother (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Pei-Pei Cheng). None other than Christina Ricci shows up in the Australian movie Around the Block, playing a teacher determined to engage her inner-city students through Shakespeare. Floating Skyscrapers is a rare gay film from Poland, with a sexually conflicted competition swimmer at its center. A love affair between two teenage relay runners is the focus of Dutch entry Boys. Then in Cupcakes, Israeli director Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water) returns to the frivolous side he first exhibited in the 2009 TV series Mary Lou, in a campy romp about a group of friends entering a Eurovision-like song competition. Be forewarned that Cupcakes will possibly be accompanied by a political demonstration from folks who believe Frameline should, in their words, "discontinue its financial relationship with the state of Israel." The same issue was raised seven years ago when Fox personally accompanied his film The Bubble to the festival.

After the foreign narrative features, my favorite part of the festival is its eclectic selection of documentaries. Frameline38 kicks off with a really terrific one on opening night. Ben Cotner and Ryan White's The Case Against 8 is a thriller-like account of the five-year battle to overturn California's reviled anti-gay marriage proposition. It begins with the controversial hiring of conservative attorney Ted Olson (he argued Bush vs. Gore before the Supreme Court) and closely follows the selection and vetting process of the four plaintiffs (all of whom are expected to attend the screening). We witness the development of the case's legal strategies, and tag along right up through the landmark Supreme Court decision that was handed down in the middle of last year's festival. Another immensely popular Frameline38 doc is sure to be To Be Takei, which recounts the life and times of everyone's favorite starship Enterprise captain and Facebook maven, George Takei. The beloved actor will be at the screening, along with husband Brad, in order to personally receive this year's Frameline Award. The film is directed by Jennifer Kroot, who did such an amazing job chronicling the Kuchar Brothers in It Came from Kuchar. Another famous gay couple expected to attend the festival are former Congressman Barney Frank and husband Jim Ready, appearing with the documentary Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank).

Other celebrated LGBT folks receiving the documentary treatment at Frameline38 include actor Alec Mapa (Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy) and Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis (Back on Board: Greg Louganis,) both of whom are scheduled to attend the fest. There's also a profile of author/intellectual Susan Sontag (Regarding Susan Sontag) and a 10-years-in-the-making portrait of John Wojtowicz, the real-life bank robber portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (The Dog). The something-for-everyone array of Frameline38 docs also includes a look at gays in roller derby (Derby Crazy Love) and surfing (Out in the Line-Up: Uncovering the Taboo of Homosexuality in Surfing), a celebration of the 30-year-old Folsom Street Fair (Folsom Forever), an exposé of Escuela Caribe, the notorious Christian-run "behavior modification" school in the Dominican Republic (Kidnapped for Christ) and last but certainly not least, the self-explanatory Mondo Homo: A Study of French Gay Porn in the '70s.

Finally, those hoping to watch some actual 35mm film at this year's festival (as opposed to the now ubiquitous digital) will want to check out Frameline38's retrospective screenings of 1999's Oscar®-winning Boys Don't Cry (a 15th anniversary celebration with director Kimberly Peirce in attendance) and 1994's seminal, groundbreaking Go Fish (a 20th anniversary screening with director Rose Troche and actress Guinevere Turner attending). Rounding out Frameline38's selection of retrospectives will be a new digital restoration of Derek Jarman's Edward II, which will kick off Derek Jarman, Visionary, a 10-film series scheduled for the Pacific Film Archive this summer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) celebrates its 19th edition this weekend with a record-breaking 19 programs spread over four days. For diehard fans who believe nothing in the SFSFF line-up is "miss-able," that's going to mean back-to-back-to-back, 14-hour days happily ensconced in the bosom of San Francisco's renowned 1921 movie palace, the Castro Theatre. This year's fest kicks off on Thursday with the film that made Rudolph Valentino a star and ends Sunday evening with Buster Keaton's biggest commercial success. In between there'll be stops made for an Ozu gangster flick, an anomalous comedy from Carl Dreyer, a tribute to Max Linder, some Soviet sci-fi and a silent Sherlock Holmes.

In an unsettling, if inevitable sign of the times, it appears that only nine of this year's 17 feature films will be screened in 35mm (I've indicated which ones in the SFIFF preview below, based on information obtained from the indispensible Film On Film Foundation's Bay Area calendar.) I've also pointed out which presentations will additionally feature so-called "Orphan" films, i.e."newsreels, outtakes, amateur films, test reels, kinescopes, trailers, promotional and experimental films, early silent narratives, as well as random fragments with no discernible origin."

Thursday, May 29

7:00 PM The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA, 1921, dir. Rex Ingram, 35mm)
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI, this year's festival opens with what many consider one of cinema's first anti-war films. It's also the movie that made Rudolph Valentino a household name and inspired an international obsession with gaucho pants and the tango. (It was also the top grossing film of 1921 and the silent era's sixth biggest all-time box office champ.) The unknown Valentino was hired at the insistence of screenwriter June Mathis, a personal friend who would pen several other Valentino vehicles including Blood and Sand. The actor was reportedly paid less than his fellow cast members and had to provide his own costumes. The latter I find a bit hard to believe. Valentino's co-star Alice Terry would soon marry the film's director Rex Ingram, who would himself go on to discover Ramon Navarro. Musical accompaniment will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. An opening night party will follow the screening at the top floor loft of the historic McRoskey Mattress Company Building.

Friday, May 30

10:00 AM Amazing Tales from the Archives (35mm & digital)
This is always one of the most popular events of the festival, and not just because admission is FREE! First up, Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute's National Archive will present several early nature films and discuss how the genre's pioneers invented equipment and methodology which is still used today. Then Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium will reveal everything there is to know about Fred Ott's Sneeze, the iconic five-seconds-long film which became the first motion picture copyrighted in the U.S. Ott was an assistant to Thomas Edison and in 1894 he was filmed sneezing after having taken a pinch of snuff. Finally, Oscar winners Craig Baron (visual effects) and Ben Burtt (sound design) will employ stills, clips and animation to discuss Charlie Chaplin's significant use of technical effects. Stephen Horne will accompany the proceedings.

1:00 PM Song of the Fishermen (China, 1934, dir. Cai Chusheng, digital)
Shot in an actual fishing village, this was China's first social-realist film and the first Chinese movie to win an international festival prize (at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1935). It was also the second film for actress Wang Renmei, whose memorable debut Wild Rose screened at SFSFF in 2009. Song was responsible for giving Wang her nickname "Wildcat of Shanghai," and during filming she announced her marriage to Jin Yang, who was considered China's Valentino. She consequently had her contract dropped by the Linhua Film Company, who believed a married actress wouldn't appeal to male audiences. This program will also include a pair of "Orphan" shorts, fragments of early (1911 and 1912) travelogues shot in the Umbria region of Italy. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin.

3:00 PM Midnight Madness (USA, 1928, dir. F. Harmon Weight, 35mm)
This silent melodrama is one of 75 once-thought-lost films which turned up in a New Zealand archive in 2009 and has since been restored. Loosely based on "The Taming of the Shrew," it's the story of a wealthy diamond mine owner (Clive Brook) who punishes his gold-digging bride (Jacqueline Logan) by dragging her off to live a miserable existence in Africa. The film was produced by Cecil B. DeMille in between tenures at Paramount and MGM, when he briefly had his own production company, DeMille Picture Corp. Star Clive Brook is best known, at least to me, as Marlene Dietrich's lover in Shanghai Express, and co-star Logan achieved some fame as Mary Magdalene in DeMille's 1927, The King of Kings. The film will be preceded by the "Orphan" film Josephine Baker Visits Volendam, a 1928 Fox Company newsreel in which the American entertainer goofs around during a visit to northwestern Holland. Accompaniment duties will be fulfilled by Stephen Horne.

5:00 PM The Parson's Widow (Sweden, 1920, dir. Carl Th. Dreyer, 35mm)
Eight years before his austere masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer made this rare comedy of manners in which a young man of the cloth is tricked into marrying the elderly widow of his deceased predecessor. A Swedish film set in 17th century Norway and based on a Danish story, it was one of the first Scandinavian movies to employ location shooting (the open air museum of Maihaugen in Lillehammer, Norway, which contains over 200 medieval buildings). One of the film's many highlights is said to be the titular performance by septuagenarian character actress Hildur Carlberg, who passed away just two months before the film opened. This screening will be accompanied by Matti Bye (presumably without his ensemble).

7:30 PM Ramona (USA, 1928, dir. Edwin Carewe, 35mm)
The great Mexican actress Dolores del Rio stars in this adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson's classic 1884 novel about the persecution of a mixed race woman (Scottish/Native American) in 19th century California. It's director Edwin Carewe, himself part-Chickasaw Indian, "discovered" del Rio at a wedding in Mexico and convinced her and her husband to move to Hollywood. He would ultimately direct her in seven films. Ramona was the first United Artists release to feature a synchronized score, and a recording of del Rio singing the title song can be heard here. The film was considered lost until a print was discovered in the Czech National Archive in 2010 and subsequently restored by the U.S. Library of Congress. The colorful history behind that Czech print includes confiscation by the Nazis, a two-decade stint in the USSR and then a return to Czechoslovakia in the 1960's, where it disappeared from inventory lists for nearly half a century. The venerable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany this presentation.

10:00 PM Cosmic Voyage (USSR, 1936, dir. Vasil Zhuravlyov, digital)
The festival's two Late Shows this year both hail from the USSR, starting with this near-futuristic fantasy about a professor, his female assistant, a boy scout and a cat all journeying to the moon in 1946. The film is noted for its grounding in actual science, thanks to the contributions of Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, as well as for its impressive sets, stop-motion animations, considerable humor and stupefying tracking shots. Although endorsed by the Communist Youth League – they wanted a film that would encourage an interest in space studies amongst the country's young – Cosmic Voyage was withdrawn from release shortly after its 1936 debut and remained unseen until the 1980's. The film will be preceded by the "Orphan" short, Niemeyer Pijptabak, a 1923 animated Dutch advertisement for Niemeyer brand pipe tobacco (presented in 35mm). Both will be accompanied by the Silent Movie Music Company (Guenter Buchwald and percussionist Frank Bockius).

Saturday, May 31

10:00 AM The Good Bad Man (USA, 1916, dir. Alan Dwan, 35mm)
1916 was a busy year for Douglas Fairbanks. He appeared in 11 films – 12 if you count an un-credited role in Griffith's Intolerance – including this Western in which he plays a Robin Hood-like bandit who steals from the rich in order to support "kids born in shame." (The Half-Breed, which was shown at last year's festival and also directed by Alan Dwan, hails from the same year). This screening marks the world premiere of a new restoration, completed via a three-way partnership between the festival, the Cinémathèque Française and the Film Preservation Society. The Good Bad Man will be preceded by the 1906 "Orphan" short, Fragment of Market Street, After the Fire. Donald Sosin will accompany.

12:00 PM Serge Bromberg's Treasure Trove (digital)
If I could only see one program at this year's fest, it would certainly be this new presentation from charismatic French preservationist/master showman Serge Bromberg, whose most recent Bay Area appearance was a mind-blowing program of rare and restored 3-D films at the 2011 SF International Film Festival. This go-round Bromberg will be showcasing a new version of Buster Keaton's 1922 short The Blacksmith, the world premiere of a complete two-reel version of Roscoe "Fatty" Arcbuckle's 1916 The Waiter's Ball and a work-in-progress look at Chaplin's 1916 Night in the Show, in which he plays two different characters. "Other surprises" are promised as well. As always, M. Bromberg will provide his own accompaniment.

2:00 PM The Epic of Everest (UK, 1924, dir. John Noel, digital)
This documentary is the official filmed record of explorer George Mallory and Andrew Irvine's failed (and fatal) attempt to climb the world's highest peak. It features some of our earliest moving images of Tibet and its people, and employed a specially designed telephoto lens which photographed the intrepid heroes from a distance of over two miles. The film was recently restored by the British Film Institute with help from the director's daughter, Sandra Noel. The BFI will receive this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at the screening, and the film itself will be introduced by Bryony Dixon, the BFI's Curator of Silent Film. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.

4:30 PM Underground (UK, 1928, dir. Anthony Asquith, digital)
Saturday afternoon at the festival continues with a second recent BFI restoration, this one produced to celebrate the 150th anniversary of London's subway. This working class love story was the second film for director Anthony Asquith, whose revelatory 1929 A Cottage on Dartmoor thrilled this festival back in 2007. Although an aristocrat by birth, Asquith was also a staunch socialist (and rumored homosexual). His Underground is particularly noted for its German Expressionist lighting, use of Soviet-influenced montage and a climatic chase scene that's said to rival Hitchcock. Should you need further enticement, check out this lovely clip of the film's lovers flirting on a subway station escalator. None other than Leonard Maltin himself will be on hand to introduce the screening and Stephen Horne will accompany on piano.

7:00 PM Under the Lantern (Germany, 1928, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, digital)
For the second year in a row, the festival's Saturday night primetime slot will be taken with a German film about a young woman's descent into prostitution. Let's hope it's half as brilliant as last year's radical reconstruction and restoration of G.W. Pabst's The Joyless Street. The Berlin-set Under the Latern is one of four silents from director Gerhard Lamprecht that were restored by Deutsche Kinemathek and premiered at 2013's Pordenone festival. Musical accompaniment for this screening will come from the Donald Sosin Ensemble, which includes Donald Sosin (composer/piano), Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion), and Sascha Jacobsen (bass).

10:00 PM The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (USSR, 1924, dir. Lev Kuleshov, digital)
Another late night, another Soviet silent – this one being an energetic spoof of American ignorance about the USSR, from one of Russia's foremost film theoreticians, Lev Kuleshov. The story concerns a YMCA executive who travels to Moscow and is kidnapped by a gang thieves pretending to be Bolsheviks (their leader is played by none other than fellow director/theoretician Vsevolod Pudovkin). As a longtime Russophile, I'm especially looking forward to the sightseeing tour of 1924 Moscow which purportedly ends the film. Speaking of comrade Pudovkin, Mr. West will be preceded by the Austrian trailer for his 1927 masterwork, Mother, which was recently discovered in the collection of the Austrian Film Museum and restored (and will be screened in 35mm). The Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany this program.

Sunday, June 1

10:00 AM Seven Years Bad Luck (USA, 1921, dir. Max Linder, digital)
The final day of the festival kicks off with a tribute to Max Linder, the French actor/writer/director now considered cinema's first comedy star and an inspiration to Chaplin. In this American-made feature, Linder's character breaks a mirror and finds that his luck worsens the more he tries to avoid unlucky circumstances. It features his famous empty mirror gag, which would be copied by the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball and others. Four years after making this film, the depression-prone Linder would commit double suicide with his wife. He would be remembered in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds in a scene where German soldiers discuss the relative merits of Linder vs. Chaplin. Also featured in this program is an American two-reeler from 1917 titled Max Wants a Divorce. The films will be introduced by fellow countryman Serge Bromberg, and Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius will accompany the hilarity.

12:00 PM Dragnet Girl (Japan, 1933, Yasujiro Ozu, 35mm)
The festival has screened several Ozu silents in the past, but for one reason or another I've always managed to miss them. I'm therefore doubly determined to not forego this anomalous Ozu gangster film starring future Kenji Mizoguchi muse Kinuyo Tanaka as a gun-toting moll. The film is said to reflect the Japanese master's love of old Hollywood, with its pulpy storyline, moody lighting, proto-noir shadows, fluid camerawork and cluttered mise-en-scène (the latter evoking Joseph von Sternberg). Appropriately enough, the film will be introduced by San Francisco's very own Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, and Guenter Buchwald will accompany.

2:30 PM The Girl in Tails (Sweden, 1926, dir. Karin Swanström, 35mm)
This feminist comedy would be the fourth and final directorial effort of Karin Swanström, a beloved character actress who later became Swedish cinema's most influential figure as head of production for AB Svensk Filmindustri. The story revolves around a small-town girl who attends her graduation dance dressed in male attire and consequently falls in with a feminist collective upon being disowned by her father. (Swanström has a memorable role as the town's leading citizen). Accompanying this feature will be the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

5:00 PM The Sign of Four (UK, 1923, dir. Maurice Elvey, 35mm)
Between 1921 and 1923, actor Eille Norwood portrayed detective Sherlock Holmes in 45 shorts and two features, with The Sign of Four marking his silver screen farewell. No less than Arthur Conan Doyle was said to be an enormous fan of the actor's interpretation of Holmes. In this adventure, Holmes and Dr. Watson (the latter played by Arthur Cullin, substituting for Hubert Ellis who played the venerable doctor in all of the other films) investigate a murder which appears to have roots in India some years earlier. The film was shot on the streets of London and includes a thrilling chase on the Thames. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin on piano and Guenter Buchwald on violin.

7:00 PM Harbor Drift (Germany, 1929, dir. Leo Mittler, 35mm)
The festival's penultimate selection for 2014 is yet another slice of German miserablism from the 1920's. This one is a Hamburg-set parable about an old beggar, a prostitute and an unemployed young man who find a pearl necklace they hope will bring salvation. But of course it only leads to further degradation. Produced by Germany's communist-leaning "Prometheus" film collective, the film is said to be heavily influenced by Soviet cinema and is perhaps the best film directed by the little known Leo Mittler. Stephen Horne will accompany the film on piano, with assistance from Frank Bockius on percussion.

9:00 PM The Navigator (USA, 1924, dir. Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp, digital)
The 2014 SF Silent Film Festival sails into the sunset aboard an empty 370-foot long steamship, together with a pair of hapless passengers played by Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire. This comedy was Keaton's fourth feature and biggest commercial success, with a script written after Keaton's longtime art director Fred Gabourie, had rescued the film's ship from the scrapheap. Officially known as the USAT Buford, the vessel had been used to transport 249 American "undesirables," including activist Emma Goldman, from the US to the USSR in 1919. The movie's underwater scenes were filmed at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, where the water was so cold the crew could only shoot for 10 minutes at a time. Preceding The Navigator will be the 1929 short Pochta, a masterpiece of Soviet animation which follows a letter on its trip around the world. Guenter Buchwald will accompany the short (which will be presented in 35mm) and the Matti Bye Ensemble will do the musical honors for the Keaton film. The program will be introduced by Leonard Maltin and Frank Buxton. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

SFIFF57 2014 Wrap-Up


The 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) concluded last Thursday and I've spent the past seven days reflecting back on what certainly felt like one of the best festivals of recent years. Below are some impressions of 20 films I caught during the 15-day run of the fest, in the order in which I saw them.

No No: A Dockumentary (USA, dir. Jeffrey Radice)
While I wasn't able to attend SFIFF57's opening night festivities, this portrait of Dock "No No" Ellis, the fiercely proud, high living African American major league baseball player who pitched a 1970 no-hitter while tripping on LSD, proved a most excellent way to begin my 2014 festival. Even better was the accompanying 10-minute short, Mike Jacobs' The High Five, which went on to win the festival's Golden Gate Award for best doc short. This joyful look into the celebratory sports gesture revealed that it was created at a 1977 Dodgers game by two future Bay Area sports legends, Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke. I became an accidental sports fan for all of two hours.

Tip Top (France, dir. Serge Bozon)
I'm willing to bet no other film in the festival was as universally loathed as this "screwball" policier about two perverse female cops investigating the death of an informant. While I was ambivalent about the director's 2007 drag-king WWI musical La France, his latest had an anarchic spirit I found admirable. For better or worse, my indelible image of SFIFF57 will probably be Isabelle Huppert's tongue lapping up blood droplets that slipped from the tip of her nose.

Queen Margot: The Director's Cut (France, 1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau)
At the last minute I made the decision to forego a 225-minute marathon screening of the French TV series Agnès Varda: From Here to There and catch this 159-minute orgy of 16th century French court intrigue instead. Restored for its 20th anniversary, Chéreau re-cut his acclaimed epic before his death last autumn, choosing the best materials from the film's French, International and U.S. versions. It was both bloodier and sexier than I remembered. And while the film is currently enjoying a week's run at NYC's Film Forum, I'm not aware of any plans to bring it back to the Bay Area. As for the Varda TV series, I caught it at home on DVD screener and it was of course, brilliant and enormously fun. I mean, centenarian Manuel do Oliveira doing Chaplin impersonations?

Chinese Puzzle (France, dir. Cédric Klapisch)
I probably would have skipped this film – it opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on May 23 – were it not for the added value of seeing its director and lead actor in the flesh. If I'd skipped it, however, I might have missed one of the most entertaining evenings I've had in 38 years of attending the festival. This new film finds several characters from director Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls alive and well and living in NYC. In all aspects, Chinese Puzzle is better and much funnier than any three-quel has a right to be. Unfortunately actor Romain Duris, who's a longtime personal favorite and in almost every frame, had little to say during the Q&A save for a few jaunty rejoinders to questions directed at Klapisch. To any Audrey Tautou-haters out there, prepare to be astonished by a scene in which the Amélie actress speaks flawless Mandarin (don't ask), a task Klapisch says she spent three months preparing for. Chinese Puzzle ultimately polled second place for the festival's narrative feature audience award.

Our Sunhi (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
I've see all but one of Hong's 15 features and his latest, for which he won a Best Director prize at Locarno, falls somewhere in the middle of my love-hate continuum for the director and his works. This one, while certainly clever enough, seemed mostly distinguished by its lack of a fractured narrative structure, and by having its female protagonist be as obnoxious as her male counterparts.

Ten Thousand Waves (UK, 2010, dir. Isaac Julien)
For some reason I was oddly unmoved by Issac Julien's MoMA-commissioned installation work, which impressionistically riffs on the tragic 2004 drowning of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in the UK (a tale more straightforwardly told in Nick Broomfield's 2006 narrative feature, Ghosts). Perhaps it was the medium? Instead of being projected onto nine gigantic screens, as it is in a museum setting, all nine differing images simultaneously occupied the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas' large screen in House One. Julien, who was at the festival to receive this year's Persistence of Vision Award, admitted we were possibly the only audience who would ever see it presented that way. I was considerably more taken with the career-spanning conversation between the director and film writer B. Ruby Rich, which preceded the screening.

Norte, the End of History (Philippines, dir. Lav Diaz)
I've long wanted to see a film by this acclaimed Filipino director, but have been intimidated by running times that can stretch as long as 12 hours. This was my final film of the festival's opening weekend and despite wanting nothing more than to go home to bed, I found myself riveted by all 250 minutes of Diaz' boldly original reimagining of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment." If you missed it at the festival, San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will screen it four more times in the latter half of June. I'm seriously contemplating a re-visit.

Tracks (UK/Australia, dir. John Curran)
Mia Wasikowska portrays Robyn Davis, the young Australian adventuress who trekked across 2000 miles of desert outback in 1977, in this better-than-I –expected tale of personal discovery with loads of spectacular landscape photography. My true reason for seeing the movie was actor Adam Driver, adorable as always in the role of a National Geographic photographer who helps Davis secure financing and becomes her contact with the outside world. I left the Tracks knowing more than I'll ever need about the behavior and training of feral camels.

Stray Dogs (Taiwan/France, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Tsai Ming-liang is one of my favorite directors and it was a thrill getting to see his latest work on the big screen. One re-enters a familiar world possessed of Tsai's recurring themes and signifiers – pathos, alienation, endless rain, food abuse, transcendent compositions and of course, his legendary long takes. But seriously folks, those final two shots – a 14-minute static close-up of actors Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi staring at "something," followed by a 7-minute long-shot of them and that "something" – was cruel and unusual punishment for even this longtime fan.

Club Sandwich (Mexico, dir. Fernando Eimbcke)
I knew this would be one of my favorite films of the festival and I was not proved wrong. Director Eimbcke follows up Duck Season and Lake Tahoe with another heartfelt and hilarious deadpan comedy, this one about a pubescent boy encountering first love while on holiday with his single mother at an off-season beach resort. I can't wait to see it again. The screening was enhanced by the personal appearance of the charming Mr. Eimbcke, whose first two films played SFIFF without him in attendance.

Happiness (France/Finland, dir. Thomas Balmès)
This ethnographic docu-drama begins with Bhutan's king telling a cheering crowd of his decision to bring them electricity and the internet. It ends with a shot of bewildered villagers watching WrestleMania. What's the Bhutanese phrase for "be careful what you wish for?" In between there's an affecting tale of a young boy entrusted to a monastery, who eventually accompanies an uncle to the city for the purpose of buying a TV set. As would be expected, the scenery en route is stunning.

The Blue Wave (Turkey, dir. Zeynep Dadak, Merve Kayan)
This was the only film in the festival which failed to engage me in any way. I would suggest re-titling it, Mundane Mini-Dramas of a Bourgeois Turkish Teenager. For the remainder of the festival I lived in mortal fear it might win the SFIFF57 New Director's Prize. (It didn't).

Abuse of Weakness (France, dir. Catherine Breillat)
Isabelle Huppert gives yet another startling performance as Maud Schoenberg, a filmmaker who suffers a series of strokes and is subsequently fleeced out of nearly €1 million by a professional conman she wants to star in her next movie. The story is based on real events from the life of director Breillat, and is the ultimate filmic rendering of what it must be like to be totally dispossessed of oneself. Huppert is at her most harrowingly memorable in the physical and speech therapy scenes, as well as the finale where she struggles to explain her victimization to family and associates. "It was me, but it was not me."

The Trip to Italy (UK/Italy, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue the often hilarious shtick they began in Winterbottom's 2010 The Trip with this Italian-set sequel featuring heartier food, lovelier scenery and still more celebrity impersonations (Gore Vidal, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hardy and yes, a Michael Caine redux). It also feels less fresh this go-round and I wouldn't hold my breath for a third installment. Their deconstruction of the word "kumquat" is in itself worth the admission price.

Boyhood (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)
If there was an unqualified masterpiece at SFIFF57, it was surely this incomparable paean to one boy's childhood and adolescence which was 12 years in the making. The screening was the highlight of a program honoring Linklater with 2014's SFIFF Founder's Directing Award at the Castro Theatre. A reel of career highlights kicked off the evening, followed by an on-stage interview conducted by none other than actress Parker Posey, who, along with Ben Affleck and Mathew McConaughey, made her feature film debut in Linklater's 1993 film Dazed and Confused. While perhaps the rambling Posey wasn't the best choice for a cogent inquiry into the director's esteemed filmography, she and Linklater had a genial rapport which easily won over the audience. After the screening, the filmmaker returned to the stage for a Q&A with his daughter Lorelei, who plays the main character's slightly older sister. The now college-age actress who was eight when filming began, described the dozen-years ordeal of making Boyhood as her personal "12 Years a Slave," and admitted begging her father to kill off her character sometime around the fourth year of production. Boyhood, which to the best of my knowledge has no precedent in the history of narrative cinema, opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on July 18.

Freedom Summer (USA, dir. Stanley Nelson)
This exemplary documentary takes an in-depth look at 1964's Mississippi Summer Project, which saw over a thousand volunteers descend upon the Magnolia State to register African American voters (at a time when only 6.7% of Mississippi blacks were registered due to intimidation and archaic literacy tests). While I was familiar with much of this material, of total news to me was the movement's effort to unseat the state's official delegation to that summer's Democratic convention in Atlantic City. This occupies a large chunk of the film and is certain to alter any opinion you might have about L.B.J. Freedom Summer was produced for the PBS series "American Experience" and will air this summer starting on June 24. It polled second place for the festival's documentary audience award.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (USA, dir. David Zellner)
While I'm inclined to avoid films described as "quirky American indies," a slew of rave reviews from Sundance had me checking this one out and boy, am I glad I did. Japanese superstar Rinko Kikuchi (Oscar-nominated for her role in Babel) stars as a malcontented, delusional "office lady" obsessed with finding the money buried by Steve Buscemi in the Coen Brothers' movie Fargo. The film's Japan-set first half is a painfully funny prelude – complete with noodle-slurping pet rabbit – for Kumiko's eventual arrival in a wintry Minnesota. Improperly attired and penniless save for a stolen credit card, she's guided toward her goal by a gallery of benevolently off-key Minnesotans. Writer/director David Zellner and his brother, writer Nathan Zellner were on-hand for a Q&A in which they revealed the story comes from a message-boards-era online urban legend, and that they wanted to create a story about someone in an "extreme state of isolation" using "multiple versions of reality."

Eastern Boys (France, dir. Robin Campillo)
A gay, middle-aged Parisian professional gets more than he bargained for after hooking up with a Ukrainian hustler in this, one of the very best films I saw at SFIFF57. What begins as another film equating danger with gay male erotic desire – à la Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake – slowly morphs into a tender love story of parental-like concern and then transforms again into the most intense, nerve-wracking thriller I've seen in years. Director Campillo is best known for co-writing the films of Laurent Cantet (The Class) and his only previous feature as director is the 2004 zombie flick, They Came Back, which is now sitting atop my Netflix queue.

Manakamana (USA/Nepal, dir. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
This hypnotic, contemplative documentary of sorts consists of only 12 shots, all 10-minute unbroken long-takes of passengers riding a suspended cable car up to (or down from) a mountaintop Nepalese temple. I was particularly struck by how the directors create a sense of suspense and anticipation each time the cable cars finish their run and enter the darkened building where passengers exit and board. For roughly 30 seconds the screen goes nearly black and we watch vague silhouettes leave the car. Seconds later, other shadowy figures get on board and remain mysterious until the car jolts into the sunlight. Three long-haired, Nepalese heavy-metal dudes transmogrify into two old ladies eating rapidly melting popsicles who in turn metamorphose into two young American tourists who then re-emerge as goats.

Night Moves (USA, dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Low-key indie director Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) surprises us once again by following up 2010's lost-pioneers-in-the-desert drama Meek's Cutoff with this quasi-thriller about a trio of Oregon eco-terrorists intent on blowing up a dam. The first hour introduces the film's protagonists – a confident rich girl (Dakota Fanning), a taciturn co-op farmer (Jesse Eisenberg) and a backwoodsman (Peter Sarsgaard) – and meticulously follows every move of their final preparations leading up to and including the big event. The film's moodier second half delves into psychological aftermath, as an unforeseen consequence causes one of the three to consider surrendering to authorities.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.