Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Anticipating French Cinema Now 2015

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) concludes its ambitious 2015 Fall Season this weekend with French Cinema Now (FCN), a four-day, 11-film mini-fest whose line-up ranges from Cannes champions to under-the-radar indies to an animated box office behemoth. The festival's eighth edition is also notable for the fact that nearly half its entries were directed by women. Here's a subjective primer on the promising choices available to local Franco-cinephiles this Thursday through Sunday at San Francisco's historic Vogue Theatre. 

If I could only partake in one day of FCN2015, I'd choose Sunday's quadruple bill that begins with Guillaume Nicloux' Valley of Love. This Cannes competition contender boasts Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, co-starring for the first time since Maurice Pialat's Loulou in 1980 (the year Huppert also appeared in Heaven's Gate). The iconic duo plays ex-spouses on a pilgrimage to Death Valley at the behest of a son who committed suicide. Their characters are famous French actors named Isabelle and Gérard and said son has promised to "appear" if they follow explicit instructions he left in a letter. Reviews for Valley of Love were decidedly mixed, with critics uneasy about the film's – as Variety's Guy Lodge put it – "muddling of the metaphysical with the just plain meta." Critics did agree that the immense charms of watching Huppert and Depardieu's reunification, coupled with the spectacular Death Valley scenery trumped most misgivings over the movie's specious spirituality. Depardieu's performance was particularly singled out for accolades. After this year's impressive turn in Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York, perhaps it's time to once again take this guy seriously and blot out the bloated lout we've observed pissing in planes and pandering to Putin.

I have two other reasons for highly anticipating Valley of Love – Death Valley is my third favorite place on the planet, and I recently had the chance to watch director Nicloux's two previous features. Both were compelling for different reasons and now I'm very curious to see what he's done next. Unfortunately, neither The Nun (in which Huppert has a supporting role as a horny Mother Superior) or The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, a comically fabricated documentary about France's gadfly writer/intellectual, have ever screened in the Bay Area. Fortunately both are available on Netflix streaming, however, providing ample ammunition against the whiners who claim Netflix' library is all crap.

Sunday's FCN roster continues on a meta tip with Léa Fazer's Maestro, which riffs on the production of the final film by French auteur Eric Rohmer (here renamed Cédric Rovère). The script is based on the experiences of Jocelyn Quivrin, an immature and struggling young actor who struck up a mutually edifying friendship with 86-year-old Rohmer during the filming of 2007's pastoral costume drama, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. (Quivrin died in a 2009 car accident at age 30, followed by Rohmer the following year). Quivrin's character is played by Pio Marmaï, who has become one of my favorite French actors and is certainly no stranger to SFFS audiences. I first took note of him five years ago as the sexy drug trafficker in Living on Love Alone (SFIFF2011), followed by acclaimed appearances in Aliyah, Nights with Theodore (SFIFF2013 FIPRESCI prize-winner) and last year's FCN opening nighter Paris Follies (playing Isabelle Huppert's side dish). Resurrecting the memory of Rohmer/Rovère is venerable veteran Michel Lonsdale, with another personal favorite, Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner, Populaire) in a supporting role as Quivrin's imagined co-actor/love interest.

Situated in Sunday's third timeslot is the FCN movie I'm most dying to see, Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man. It won the best actor prize at Cannes for Vincent Lindon in a performance Variety's Scott Foundas called "a veritable master class in understated humanism." Like Pio Marmaï, Lindon has been a fixture for FCN audiences in films such as The Moon Child and Welcome. Here in the U.S. he's best recognized as the married building contractor who falls for his son's homeroom teacher in Mademoiselle Chambon, a work that was also directed by Brizé (and which played for several months at Landmark's Clay Theatre back in 2010). In this outing with the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Lindon portrays a laid-off factory worker struggling to support his family before finally finding work as a big-box store security guard. That new job, however, proves an unending source of personal moral conflict. Shot in long, unbroken takes with a mostly non-professional cast, I'm expecting The Measure of a Man to be the kind of heart-wrenching social drama that seems the exclusive provenance of humanist French-language filmmakers like the Dardenne Brothers and Robert Guédiguian.

FCN closes on Sunday evening with In the Shadow of Women, yet another messy male/female relationship drama from post-New Wave auteur Philippe Garrel. While I'm not exactly a fan – for me the director's greatest achievement was spawning his impossibly handsome son and sometime collaborator, actor Louis Garrel – I'll jump at any opportunity to catch his films on the big screen. Garrel's protagonist this time out is a documentary filmmaker (played by Stanislas Merhar, the Almayer of Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly) whose wife is also his film editor. Over the course of the movie they'll both enter into extra-marital affairs, rendering In the Shadow of Women a pointed examination of the double standard applied to women when it comes to infidelity. The film opened the Director's Fortnight sidebar at this year's Cannes and was well received by critics. Some detected more humor than is usual for a Garrel joint, and others remarked that his debut collaboration with legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière resulted in a more cohesive and focused storyline. What hasn't changed is the impressive B&W widescreen cinematography and participation of son Louis, who provide off-camera voiceover narration. In the Shadow of Women clocks in at a brisk 73 minutes, making it the perfect film with which to end an exhaustive day of festival-going.

FCN2015 gets started four nights earlier with Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days, a prequel to his 1996 film My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. The movie premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight to solid raves, with Variety's Justin Chang calling it "some of the most fluid, emotionally resonant filmmaking of Desplechin's career." A handful of critics even decried the fact that it hadn't screened in the fest's main competition, unlike his two previous works, 2013's wrongly maligned Jimmy P with Benicio Del Toro (never screened in the Bay Area but available on Netflix streaming) and my personal Desplechin favorite, 2008's A Christmas Tale. My Golden Days takes the characters originated by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos in My Sex Life and re-imagines them as teenagers, now played by non-professionals Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet. Amalric is on hand to reprise his character in several scenes as well.

As chance would have it, the final films on Friday and Saturday night both concern themselves with PTSD-stricken Afghanistan war veterans. Both are also directed by women. Described as a "character-driven home invasion thriller," Alice Winocour's Disorder is that rarest of animals, a female-directed genre film. Belgian heartthrob Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Rust and Bone) stars as an ex-soldier turned bodyguard hired to protect the trophy wife (Diane Kruger) of a shady Lebanese businessman. Disorder is Winocour's follow-up to her 2012 feature debut Augustine, which looked at the treatment of female "hysteria" in 19th century France. (Winocour also co-scripted Mustang, the Turkish film that now oddly finds itself France's Oscar® submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film). Disorder premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to positive reviews, with a number of critics singling out the film's nerve-jangling sound design for special praise.

The Afghanistan war vets at the heart of Sarah Leonor's The Great Man are recently returned French Legionnaires, one a Chechen immigrant who enlisted so he'd have a shot at French residency (newcomer Surho Sugaipov) and the other his best friend (the always memorable Jérémie Renier) whose life he saved when the two were out on an illegal mission in Afghanistan. Now back in Paris and living a marginalized existence, the Chechen is killed, compelling the friend to raise his young son. The Great Man premiered at Toronto in 2014, winning kudos from the New York Times' Manola Dargis, who called it "an emotionally affecting, political exploration of identity, trauma and the limits of empathy…so suffused with generous humanity that you're never sure who the title actually refers to." Director Leonor, whose previous film A Real Life played FCN in 2010 (and also proved to be the final screen appearance of Guillaume Depardieu) is expected to attend Saturday night's show.

Two additional FCN2015 films directed by women are Savina Dellicour's All Cats are Grey and Sophie Letourneur's Gaby Baby Doll. The former stars bear-ish Belgian actor/director Bouli Lanners (Eldorado, The Giants) as a detective hired by a teenage girl to help find her unknown father. As it turns out, he doesn't have to look far. The film is a feature adaptation of Delicour's identically titled 2009 short. Then in Gaby Baby Doll, Lolita Chammah plays a flighty libertine who can't stand being alone, setting her romantic sights on a reluctant rural recluse played against type by pop singer/actor Benjamin Biolay (a familiar face to FCN attendees from such films as Stella, Bachelor Days are Over and last year's The Easy Way Out). Chammah is also known for being Isabelle Huppert's daughter, with whom she starred in FCN's 2010 opening nighter, Copacabana.

Rounding out this year's FCN roster are two completely disparate works. Jean-Paul Civeyrac's My Friend Victoria explores race and class via an episodic tale of one French-African woman's ambivalent and shifting relationship with a bourgeois white family. The Doris Lessing short story from which it is based was originally set in London. Last but not least, there's Asterix – Mansion of the Gods, an animated feature that was a French box office smash last winter. Set in 50 B.C and based on the wildly popular Belgian comics – the series' 34 books have sold over 300 million copies worldwide and been translated in over 100 languages – this 13th Asterix film adaptation was co-directed by Louis Clichy and Alexandre Astier. Clichy, a former Bay Area resident who worked on Pixar Studio's Wall-E, Ratatouille and Up is expected to be a special guest at Saturday afternoon's screening. 

Cross-published at The Evening Class.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) is perhaps best known as a showcase for indie-ish Telluride/Toronto movies making their autumnal trudge towards Awards Season glory. For its 38th edition running October 8 to 18, MVFF bookends itself with Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl (starring Eddie Redmayne, who trekked to Marin County last year hawking The
Theory of Everything) and Sarah Gavron's Suffragette (whose lead actress Carey Mulligan will be feted with a MVFF Spotlight tribute). Toronto's People's Choice Award winner Room will also be in the house, with star Brie Larson receiving a MVFF Award "in recognition of courageous work in a career-changing role." 

MVFF's winning formula of mixing red carpet awards bait with indies, documentaries and discoveries from second-tier international fests has been enhanced in recent years by an uptick in big buzz, art-cinema breakouts from major festivals like Berlin and Cannes. This year's line-up boasts an inordinate number of works culled from those two events, including nearly all of the top prizewinners. It's a bonanza for Bay Area lovers of international art cinema and the focus of this subjective overview of the festival's 2015 roster.

Berlin Film Festival

This year's Berlinale bestowed the Golden Bear upon Jafar Panahi's Taxi, the director's third clandestine effort since being banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government in 2010. As with This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Panahi dares to place himself in front of the camera, this time posing as an inept Tehran taxi driver. The film skates a sketchy line between reality and fiction as his "chance" encounters with passengers are recorded by his vehicle's dash cam. Panahi's fares run the gamut from a bloodied accident victim imploring him to film a last will and testament, to two grumpy grannies transporting a goldfish to a sacred spring. He fetches a precocious niece from school (where she's studying filmmaking, natch). These meet-ups obliquely comment upon movie-making, censorship, Iranian social issues and Panahi's own quasi-celebrity. Iranian cinema devotees will also appreciate how he winks at his filmography (the goldfish from The White Balloon) and that of other Iranian directors (Abbas Kiarostami's similarly structured Ten). If you're unable to catch either of MFFF38's two Taxi screenings, it opens theatrically in the Bay Area on October 30.

Of the half-dozen MVFF selections I previewed, my favorite was Radu Jude's Aferim! which also copped Berlin's Silver Bear for Best Director. The Romanian filmmaker's two previous works, The Happiest Girl in the World and Everybody in Our Family seemed to make an impression on the international festival circuit but never reached the Bay Area. Jude's latest is a road movie cum neo-Western set in 1835 Wallachia, an area of modern-day Romania alternately controlled by Russians and Ottomans. In this entertaining and engrossing historical tale, a brusque constable and his teenage son are charged with capturing an escaped Roma slave and returning him to his evil boyar master. Featuring impressive period art direction and finely drawn characters, Aferim! is a fascinating look at a long gone era's mores and customs, as well as an arresting portrait of slavery and anti-Jewish/Roma sentiment in 19th century Europe. It also boasts stunning B&W wide-screen cinematography shot on 35mm by DP Marius Panduru (12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective) and should therefore be experienced on as large a screen as possible.

Three additional MVFF38 selections garnered major prizes at Berlin. For their work in 45 Years by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO's Looking), Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay took home both acting awards for this character-driven drama about a long-married couple reevaluating their relationship. Berlin's 2015 Grand Jury Prize was awarded to Chilean director Pablo Larraín's The Club. In this follow-up chamber drama to 2012's Oscar®-nominated No, a Catholic crisis counselor is sent to a beach town retirement home for disgraced priests and nuns. Unfortunately, The Club is one of several enticing MVFF entries not screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center, the only venue readily accessible by public transportation. Finally, the fest will also present Jayro Bustamente's Ixcanul, winner of the prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize given each year to a movie that "opens new perspectives on cinematic arts" (past winners include Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga, Fernando Eimbcke's Lake Tahoe and Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Set in a community of coffee harvesters living at the foot of a Guatemalan volcano, Ixcanul has been named that country's first ever submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® consideration.

Cannes Film Festival

As it did last year, MVFF will screen an impressive seven selections from Cannes' main competition, including several major prize winners. Starting at the top there's Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or winning Dheepan, a searing drama about three Sri Lankan refugees struggling in a Paris housing project. The film was a controversial choice for Cannes' top prize, with many film writers and critics feeling the award more deservedly belonged to first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul. An intense holocaust drama set in Auschwitz during the final days of WWII, Son of Saul did win Cannes' Grand Prix (or second place) and will appear at MVFF38 as well. Cannes' Best Director prize went to Taiwanese master Hou Hsiou-hsien's The Assassin, a visually sumptuous 9th century martial arts epic. In addition to screening at Mill Valley, Hou's first film in eight years will play the San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days on October 12, with the director making an exclusive appearance (which is where I plan to see it). It also arrives in Bay Area theatres on October 23.

The remaining award recipient from Cannes' main competition is Todd Haynes' highly anticipated Carol, where it won a (shared) Best Actress prize for Rooney Mara and the festival's Queer Palm. Set during Christmastime in the early 1950's, Mara plays a department store clerk who becomes romantically involved with a well-to-do married woman (Cate Blanchett). Three additional competition films enjoying Bay Area premieres at MVFF38 include a new iteration of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and the latest from Italian auteurs Nanni Moretti (My Mother) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). The latter stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda and is the director's first feature since 2013's Oscar®-winning The Great Beauty.

It seemed the consensus of many who attended this year's Cannes that the true cinematic revelations were to be found outside the main competition. Happily for MVFF38 attendees, the festival has lined up a promising selection from Cannes' sidebars. From Un Certain Regard I can heartily recommend Grímur Hákonarson's Rams, an affecting tale from Iceland that won the sidebar's top award. The story focuses on two sheep-ranching brothers who haven't spoken in 40 years, despite living right next door in a desolate valley. When disease strikes and they're ordered to destroy prized livestock, the two begrudgingly unite to preserve a family legacy. An abrupt ending had me wondering if the final reel had gone missing. Rams unfolds at a measured pace, is not without humor, and features breakthtaking cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who also filmed the bravura, shot-in-one-take Victoria, a big hit from Berlin which opens in the Bay Area on October 16).

Another rewarding Un Certain Regard selection I previewed was Radu Mutean's One Floor Below. While the director's The Paper Will Be Blue screened at MVFF in 2007, his two lauded follow-ups, Summer Holiday and Tuesday, After Christmas went unseen in the Bay Area (like so much of the New Romanian Cinema canon – hurray for Netflix where I ultimately caught up with both). Muntean's latest is a wide-screen, slow-burner that places its protagonist at the center of a moral quandary. A middle-aged family man who works "expediting" motor vehicle registrations returns home one day and overhears what turns out to be the murder of his downstairs neighbor. He knows who the culprit is, and the culprit knows he knows – yet when the police investigate he says nothing. The film becomes unbearably discomforting as the culprit, who is also a neighbor, insinuates himself into the private life of our protagonist. Eventually, of course, it all has to explode. Be prepared for a head-scratcher of an ending and much screen time hanging out at a Romanian DMV.

Shifting over to Cannes' Director's Fortnight, MVFF38 has programmed that sidebar's top prize winner as well. Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent employs a bifurcated structure to deliver a meditative critique on the destruction of indigenous cultures (in this case, Amazonian) by colonialist forces. As an admirer of Guerra's The Wind Journeys, which screened at the 2010 SF International Film Festival, this is something I'm greatly anticipating. Another breakout hit from Director's Fortnight was Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang, in which five Turkish sisters pay a severe price for an afternoon's innocent cavorting with teenage boys. The film won the sidebar's Europa Cinemas Label Award and curiously enough was just announced as France's submission for this year's Oscar® race (it's a French/German/Turkish co-production). Other Director's Fortnight selections include Colombian child soldier drama Alias Maria, and A Perfect Day, a black comedy set during the Bosnian War starring Tim Robbins and Benicio Del Toro. Finally, from Cannes' Critics Week sidebar I've read great things about Jonas Carpignano's Mediterranea, a verité-style docu-drama about Burkinabe immigrants working the orange groves of Italy.

Each year the Cannes Classics sidebar premieres restorations of iconic films, as well as recent documentaries about the personalities and craft of movie-making. MVFF38 presents three Cannes Classics docs from this year's edition, including Ingrid Berman: In Her Own Words and Sembene! The latter examines the life and career of revered Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, laurelled as the Father of African Cinema. In conjunction with Sembene!, the fest will also show the filmmaker's groundbreaking debut feature, 1966's Black Girl. The third doc, which I previewed and immensely enjoyed is Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut. The film explores the ramifications of François Truffaut's legendary eight-day 1962 interview with Alfred Hitchcock that became the basis for one of cinema's indispensible guidebooks. Jones mingles dozens of movie clips with commentary from an eclectic group of contemporary directors ranging from Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Wes Anderson to Olivier Assayas. Best of all is getting to hear snippets from the actual tapes of Truffaut and Hitch conversing through a translator. If you can't see this at Mill Valley, hold on until December 11 when Hitchcock/Truffaut arrives in Bay Area theatres.

Although it didn't screen at Cannes, another movie-related doc worth seeing at MVFF is Women He's Undressed by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). Her film explores the considerable highs and lows of Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly, a fellow Aussie who arrived in NYC in 1922 and worked on 285 films for Warner Brothers, Fox and MGM until his death in 1964. Remember Bette Davis' "red" dress in Jezebel? Barbara Stanwyck's costume changes as she slept her way to the top in Baby Face? Bergman and Bogie in Casablanca? Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis' drag in Some Like It Hot? Roz Russell's outrageous frocks in Auntie Mame? They were all designed by three-time Oscar® winner Orry-Kelly. The film's title is misleading as the man was quite gay and Women He's Undressed has a lot to say about LGBT life in studio-era Hollywood (particularly regarding Cary Grant, an intimate "roomate" of Kelly's long before Randolph Scott came along). Armstrong's doc moves briskly, combining loads of clips and stills with contemporary interviews of Leonard Maltin, designer Colleen Atwood, Angela Lansbury and a particularly salient Jane Fonda (whom Kelly dressed in her early works like The Chapman Report and Sunday in New York). The film's only drawback is several ill-considered sequences in which an actor portraying Kelly floats around in a rowboat making pithy remarks about his own life. Otherwise Women He's Undressed is pure catnip for lovers of classic Hollywood movies. 

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Frameline39 2015 Preview Capsules

The following are preview capsules for ten films screening at the 39th edition of Frameline, the world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival. This year's fest runs from June 18 to 28.

Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Denmark dir. Christian Braad Thomsen)
The insanely prolific queer German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have turned 70 this year, had he not died at age 37 after directing some 40-plus feature films in 15 years. This new doc from a longtime Danish friend attempts to psychoanalyze Fassbinder and his work via some fascinating, never-seen-before interviews (including one that was filmed immediately after his first feature, Love is Colder Than Death, got booed by critics at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival). Those interviews mingle with appropriate film clips and contemporary conversations with surviving members of Fassbinder's un-merry band of actors. Amongst the latter I was particularly thrilled to hear from pasty-faced actress Irm Hermann, the ex-office worker whose masochistic on-and-off screen relationship with the director got played out in 19 films. While To Love Without Demands should be essential viewing for Fassbinder aficionados, it's probably overwhelming and a bit academic for neophytes who would be best served by simply watching a handful of his films. To that end, Frameline39 will also be screening the director's final feature, 1982's phantasmagoric sailor's wet dream, Querelle.

54: The Director's Cut (USA dir. Mark Christopher)
A highlight of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival was director Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his much-maligned 1998 movie, 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees at NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut features 44 previously unseen minutes that essentially put back all the gay stuff expunged from the original release. While this new edit isn't quite the "minor masterpiece" some critics have proclaimed, it's an awful lot of fun – whether you're vicariously reliving your own misspent youth or nostalgia-tripping for an infamous era not actually lived firsthand. 54: The Director's Cut is already available on VOD, but it should really be experienced in the company of an exuberant Castro audience on the Friday night of Pride weekend. Director Christopher is expected to attend.

In the Grayscale (Chile dir. Claudio Marcone)
Seashore (Brazil, dir. Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)
These two low-key indie dramas from South America are all the more impressive for their being works by debut feature filmmakers. In the Grayscale captures a period in the life of Bruno, a serious-minded 35-year-old Chilean architect who's been hired to design a large-scale public monument in Santiago. The titular grayscale refers to the ambivalent existence he inhabits midway between leaving a 17-year marriage and embarking on a same-sex relationship with Fernando, a high-strung local tour guide from whom he seeks inspiration. Claudio Marcone's film impressed me with its naturalistic, intelligent adult dialogue and a recurring symbolism which manifests itself brilliantly in the final shot.

The two male leads in Seashore are a generation younger and their still-unformed sexualities place them in a sort of "grayscale" as well. Lifelong best friends Tomaz, who's gay, and presumably straight Martin drive to a beach house where Martin is expected to wrap up some sketchy family business. They spend time quietly hanging out until the idyll is broken by an overnight bacchanal of booze, loud music, drugs and for Martin at least, sex with a female friend. The morning after finds the hungover buddies hazily reminiscing about the night's events and it's also the first time we're privy to any discussion of Tomaz' sexuality. One thing leads to another, and well, you can guess where this one's headed. Like everything else in this lovely and enigmatic film, the welcome denouement feels neither false nor unearned. The meaning of the final scene is sure to initiate some post-screening discussions.

Love Island (Croatia dir. Jasmila Žbanic)
In 2006, Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic won the Berlin Film Festival's top prize for Grbavica, a searing drama about a mother and daughter in the aftermath of the 1990's Balkan genocide. One decade and two additionally well regarded features later, she returns with this silly and overbearing comedy set at an all-inclusive beach resort in the Adriatic Sea. Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) stars as Liliane, a very pregnant French landscape architect on holiday with her sweet but boorish Bosnian husband Grebo. Also on the scene is Flora, an ex-lover of Liliane's who works as the resort's social director. The trio is put through a contorted sexual roundelay as Liliane works out whether to stay with Grebo or leave him for Flora. There's a half-baked gay subplot involving Grebo and a male resort employee to boot. In all, it's an innocuously diverting 86 minutes with some genuinely inspired laughs. A handful of musical numbers help lend Love Island a Mamma Mia-like¬ vibe.

The New Girlfriend (France dir. François Ozon)
France's most entertainingly subversive director attended Frameline exactly 15 years ago, presenting his second and third features, Criminal Lovers and Water Drops on Burning Rocks to an appreciative Castro audience. Ozon's 15th film is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that affixed a permanent grin to my face when I caught it at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. French superstar Romain Duris stars as a widower who dresses in his deceased wife's clothes, solely as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in drag, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. Restrictions put upon Frameline by the The New Girlfriend's U.S. distributor is undoubtedly why this sublime film screens just once during the festival, late on a Thursday night way over in Piedmont.

Reel in the Closet (USA dir. Stu Maddux)
This fascinating documentary celebrates the importance of archiving and preserving LGBTQ moving images from an era predating ubiquitous smart-phone movie cameras. Highlights include footage shot in the North Beach lesbian bar Mona's Candle Light in 1950 (with audio!) and an all-male skinny-dipping pool party filmed sometime in the 1940's. Amongst those lending authoritative commentary are Susan Stryker (Screaming Queens: A Riot at Compton's Cafeteria) and renowned photographer Dan Nicoletta, a Frameline co-founder and Harvey Milk compatriot. The film also spotlights the organizations leading the charge to archive these materials, from the Lesbian Home Movie Project of Bucksport, Maine to the U.S. Library of Congress (whose eloquent spokesperson Mike Mashon is a familiar face to San Francisco Silent Film Festival attendees.) Reel in the Closet closes with the advent of video, which was cheaper and allowed people to shoot longer. Regrettably, it resulted in lots of Pride parade footage but little in the way of intimate moving images revealing how LGBTQ people lived their lives (the documentaries of the Queer Blue Light Video Collective being a notable exception).

Tab Hunter Confidential (USA dir. Jeffrey Schwarz)
With his acclaimed bio-docs on Vitto Russo (Vito), Divine (I Am Divine) and Jack Wrangler (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), Jeffrey Schwarz has established himself as our foremost chronicler of notable gay personalities, a talent for which he'll be honored with this year's Frameline Award. Schwarz' excellent new project surveys the turbulent life and career of iconic 50's actor-singer-horseman-heartthrob Tab Hunter, cleverly employing public archival materials to comment upon the man's clandestine private life. Lining up with salient commentary on Hunter (née Arthur Gelien) are such diverse voices as Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, George Takei, Rona Barrett, Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Muller (the Bay Area's Czar of Noir and co-author of Tab's autobiography) and of course John Waters, who revitalized Hunter's acting career by starring him in 1981's Polyester. One of Confidential's many highlights is hearing Hunter open up about his long and complicated love affair with Anthony Perkins. While the film's "Hold Review" status keeps me from divulging more, I promise Frameline39's Castro screening of Tab Hunter: Confidential, with Hunter and Schwarz in person, will be a major highlight of the festival.

To Russia With Love (USA dir. Noam Gonick)
A special sidebar at this year's Frameline is Game Changers: Sexuality & Sports, comprised of six features and 17 shorts. Although I couldn't be more disinterested in sports, I found much to appreciate in this documentary about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The film skillfully braids several trajectories, starting with that of its executive producer and poster boy Johnny Weir, the figure skating champ and NBC commentator who comes off as an unaware, haughty fur-clad diva. Then there are the LGBTQ Olympic athletes who struggle with their desire to make political statements during the Sochi games. Ultimately, none do, but who can blame them when arrest and prison enter in the equation. We also follow the valiant efforts of one Konstantin Yablotsky to stage Open Games, an LGBTQ athletic competition scheduled to take place in Moscow three days after the Olympics close. Every Open Games event gets shut down by authorities except for one, a table tennis competition attended by heroic Greg Louganis. The heart of To Russia with Love, however, belongs to Vlad, a gay Sochi teenager who endures intense, daily persecution for his sexuality. Efforts to publicize his plight pay off big time in the film's uplifting climax, when a prominent American athlete selflessly comes to the rescue.

The Yes Men Are Revolting (USA dir. Laura Nix, The Yes Men)
It's been six years since we last heard from political pranksters The Yes Men, when their film The Yes Men Fix the World screened at the 2009 SF Jewish Film Festival (both members Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are Jewish). Well it turns out Bichlbaum is also gay, giving Frameline reason to lay claim to the duo's newest compilation of anti-corporate shenanigans. The Yes Men's antics this go-round exclusively target fossil fuel industries, with some hilariously pointed attacks against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, Shell Oil and the Canadian tar sands industry. Unlike the two previous Yes Men films, Revolting also gives us a peek at their private lives, with Bonanno's decision to lay low and raise a family in Scotland negatively impacting Bichlbaum's own efforts to maintain his first serious same-sex relationship. Just when it appears the Yes Men's days of activism might be over, the Occupy Movement and Hurricane Sandy intercede and pave the way for one of their most outrageous stunts ever. Although The Yes Men Are Revolting opened this week in NYC, as far as I can tell there are no plans for a Bay Area theatrical release. Andy Bichlbaum, who is my idea of a real LGBTQ hero, is expected to be in attendance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015

Over the span of two decades, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) has transformed itself from a one-day, three-film event into the second most prestigious silent movie showcase in the world. As you would expect, all the stops are being pulled for the 20th anniversary edition which begins this Thursday, May 28 and runs through Monday. The staggering 21-program line-up includes a quartet of canon-worthy classics nestled alongside several highly anticipated restorations. There'll also be Pauline Kael's all-time favorite film (the 1926 French short Ménilmontant), Harold Lloyd's last silent picture (Speedy) and Frank
Capra's first sound film (The Donovan Affair, whose lost soundtrack will be recreated by live actors). The roster of high-profile guests includes Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg and Leonard Maltin.

All of this goes down, as it has for 20 years, at San Francisco's beloved 1922 movie palace, the Castro Theatre. All programs but one feature live music from SFSFF's stable of world-renowned silent movie accompanists, and every attendee receives a program guide full of enlightening essays about the films – all written specifically for the festival. Lovers of bona fide celluloid should find reason to cheer, with a dozen programs boasting at least some element of 35mm film exhibition. (I'll be indicating which ones based on information from the indispensable Film on Film Foundation.) Finally – if you'll permit a sentimental moment from a 40-year SF resident who barely recognizes his cherished city these days – congratulations SFSFF on your 20th anniversary, with wishes for 20 more. You continue to embody all that's ever been unique and wonderful about San Francisco. Now here's my overview of the 2015 line-up.


Silent film virgins could scarcely receive a better education in what made the era great than by checking out the four gems SFSFF has placed in the festival's evening primetime slots. Kicking things off on opening night will be Lewis Milestone's brutally affecting anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, 35mm), which won Academy Awards for Outstanding Production and Best Director. Filmed with side-by-side cameras as both a sync-sound silent and as a talkie, it's the silent version that most film historians now consider superior. The presentation will be introduced by Mike Mason of the U.S. Library of Congress, which recently restored the silent version to commemorate WWI's centennial. My favorite bit of All Quiet trivia has it that comedic actress Zazu Pitts originally played the main character's mother, but erroneous laughter at preview screenings resulted in her scenes being reshot with a different actress. After the screening, opening night revelers will party at the McRoskey Mattress Company, whose top floor loft will be transformed into a 1920's era Berlin cabaret.

Closing out the fest on Monday night is Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, 35mm), which is the movie I'm most anticipating. It was one of three films shown at the inaugural SFSFF in 1996, but alas I've never seen it (or the 1959 remake for that matter). Considered the most expensive Hollywood production of its time and the third highest grossing film of the silent era, Ben-Hur is best known for its legendary chariot race, which was shot with 42 cameras at what's now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles. The long list of stars believed to have worked as extras includes Fay Wray, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore. Legend further has it that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard first met on the Ben-Hur set. The Jesus sequences employ two-strip Technicolor, which is perhaps why it was promoted as "The Picture Every Christian Should See!" Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ will be the only SFSFF20 presentation not to include live musical accompaniment. In its stead, we'll hear a prerecorded score by revered silent film composer Carl Davis, which totally works for me. The program will be preceded by an on-stage conversation between Serge Bromberg and Kevin Brownlow, Ben-Hur having been restored by Brownlow's company, Photoplay.

Occupying the festival's primetime slot on Friday and Saturday evening respectively will be F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) and Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926, 35mm). The Murnau, which I'm shocked hasn't screened at SFSFF previously, stars the great Emil Jannings as a Grand Hotel doorman who faces societal shame when demoted to washroom attendant. This immortal, humanist film is noted for its near total absence of intertitles and the kinetic "unchained camera" technique that was revolutionary for its time. Renowned cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tod Browning's Dracula and 150 episodes of I Love Lucy. Three years after The Last Laugh, Murnau came to Hollywood and made his masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Flesh and the Devil, which SFSFF previously presented in 2007, is remembered for the on-screen chemistry of its two stars, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The handsome pair fell in love while making the film and were reportedly living together by the end of shooting. Kevin Brownlow will introduce this melodrama about two childhood friends whose lives are destroyed by a love for the same femme fatale.

Restoration Spotlights

There's no better way to get a leg up on the latest silent discoveries and restorations than by attending the free admission Amazing Tales from the Archives, which gets Friday's programming underway. This year Serge Bromberg will discuss and screen Figures de cire (House of Wax), a newly uncovered 1914 short by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur, of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie fame). Then the British Film Institute's Bryony Dixon will present new footage pertaining to the infamous RMS Lusitania, with actor Paul McGann (the "I" in Withnail and I) narrating. In recognition of the Technicolor Corporation's centenary, we'll also get to see a two-strip Technicolor tour of Hearst Castle conducted by its architect, Julia Morgan and Hearst himself. Finally, film restorer and SFSFF Board of Directors President Rob Byrne will discuss the restoration of Sherlock Holmes (1916, 35mm), which will screen on Sunday night and is considered THE big archival discovery of the past year. Considered lost until its recent uncovering at the Cinémathèque Française – it had been improperly labeled – the film stars William Gillette as the quintessential Holmes. Gillette performed as the famed detective over 1,300 times on stage, and his mannerisms and costuming are said to be responsible for the Holmes-ian image we still carry today. Sherlock Holmes is believed the only record of his performance. This not-to-be missed event will be the U.S. premiere of a co-restoration undertaken by the Cinémathèque Française and the SFSFF.

Two additional programs highlight recent restorations. In 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History (1913, 35mm), we'll experience the raw footage shot for an all African-American feature, starring Caribbean-American entertainer Bert Williams. Unedited and unreleased due to abandonment by its white producers, the seven reels of footage were discovered hiding in the MoMA's Biograph Studio collection. Highlights are said to include a jubilant two-minute dance sequence and unheard of for its time physical affection between its male and female leads. MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi will present a slideshow of stills and other materials relating to the would-be film. Another exciting new restoration is the U.S. premiere of Barry O'Neill's When the Earth Trembled (1913, 35mm), a 3-reel spectacular depicting the 1906 earthquake and fire. Rob Byrne introduces and discusses the restoration, which was performed by SFSFF in conjunction with Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum. That program will also include the now iconic A Trip Down Market Street, shot days before the earthquake. It's a film this San Franciscan can't watch too many times.

Cinéma muet

This year's festival includes a welcome collection of French silents, beginning with the double-billed shorts of Avant-Garde Paris. First on that program will be Man Ray's Emak-Bakia (1927, 35mm). I'm excited to finally see this after having experienced Oskar Alegria's weird and wonderful documentary The Search for Emak Bakia at the 2013 SF
International Film Festival. "Emak Bakia" is a Basque term roughly meaning "leave me alone," and Alegria's film is about, amongst other things, a search for the Biarritz seaside mansion (named Emak Bakia) where Man Ray shot this experimental short. Sharing the program will be Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926), which Pauline Kael once called the favorite film of her "entire life." Director Kirsanoff was a Russian aristocrat who fled the revolution, and his 44-minute experimental melodrama is said to be an unforgettable record of 1920's Paris. The story concerns two sisters struggling to survive in the titular working class district, having fled the countryside as children following the double axe-murder of their parents (!?) There are no intertitles, with the movie's narrative being exclusively telegraphed via "the elegance of its images."

A pair of French narrative features also graces this year's SFSFF line-up. Director Jacques Feyder, best known for his 1935 classic Carnival in Flanders, shot Visages d'enfants in 1923 but didn't see its release until two years later. (His following film, Gribiche, played the fest in 2013). Set in the Swiss mountains, this psychological drama explores the consequences of
a young man's cruel resentment towards his stepmother. The film is remembered for its "simple intimacy and emotional poignancy," as well as the authenticity of its setting (Visages d'enfants begins with an 11-minute depiction of a village funeral). Prior to the screening, Serge Bromberg will be awarded the 2015 SF Silent Film Festival Award – his company Lobster Films having completed the restoration of Visages d'enfants in 2004. The other French narrative is André Antoine's The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920). This tale of life aboard two Belgian cargo barges was the director's tenth and final feature. It was never released because the producers found Antoine's raw footage too "documentary-like" and refused the necessary financing to complete the picture. Nor was it ever edited – that is until Henri Colpi, co-editor on such classics as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, sculpted a completed film from the existing footage in 1984.

Although he was born in Iowa and worked exclusively in the U.S., I'm lumping The Amazing Charley Bowers in with the French because of his championing by André Breton and the surrealists. Originally an animator on Mutt and Jeff cartoons, Bowers eventually created his own comedies that blended live action, animation and a penchant for Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. The program will spotlight four of his 15 surviving films, including A Wild Roomer (1926), Now You Tell One (1926), Many a Slip (1927) and There It Is (1928), the latter starring a cockroach detective. Bowers' shorts were restored by Lobster Films and appropriately enough, Serge Bromberg will provide the musical accompaniment.


At this point it's worth mentioning that children 12 and under enjoy greatly reduced ticket prices for all SFSFF programs. Over past years I've come to gleefully anticipate the sound of 21st century children howling at the antics of silent comedy on weekend mornings at the festival. Charley Bowers occupies that timeslot on Sunday this year, while on Saturday it'll be Harold Lloyd's final silent feature Speedy (1928). Lloyd plays a failed soda jerk turned distracted cab driver
who's also a diehard NY Yankees fan trying to save his girlfriend's grandfather's horse-drawn streetcar business. I'm especially dying to see the 20-minute segment set at Coney Island's legendary Luna amusement park, where Lloyd gives himself "the finger" in a funhouse mirror. It represents the first on-screen delivery of the now-obscene gesture. Another Speedy highlight is a frantic taxi ride Lloyd gives Babe Ruth, who was just weeks away from hitting his record-breaking 60th season home run. Director Ted Wilde, who also made Lloyd's Kid Brother, directed the baseball star in the previous year's now-lost feature Babe Comes Home. This program is co-presented by the San Francisco Giants and the comedian's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd will do the introduction.

Comedy continues with a pair of films starring actresses who were enormous stars in their heyday, but whose legacies are now somewhat muted. Robert Thornby's The Deadlier Sex (1920, 35mm) stars Blanche Sweet, who made her first film in 1909 with D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios. Sweet was known for her independence and vivaciousness, qualities not normally accorded Griffith
heroines. Her popularity lasted until the end of the silent era, with Sweet's IMDb profile listing 164 credits (the final one being an appearance on the 1960 TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). The Deadlier Sex will be introduced by Josef Linder of the Academy Film Archive, which restored the film, and will be preceded by Dave Fleischer's Koko's Queen (1926), an animated Koko the Clown short restored by the National Film Preservation Board and EYE Filmmuseum. William Seiter's Why Be Good? (1929) was the final silent film for actress Colleen Moore, who soon retired from Hollywood after making three unsuccessful talkies. Moore plays a "shop girl by day and flapper by night" in a film that was accompanied by a Vitaphone soundtrack with music and sound effects. Why Be Good? was considered a lost film until a print was discovered in Italy sometime in the late '90s. Restoration was completed just last year. The screening will be introduced by Leonard Maltin.

For those who dig comedy with a darker edge, SFSFF20 offers two movies that'll fit the bill. Géza von Bolváry's The Ghost Train (1927, 35mm) is said to give comedy and horror equal weight, with a story about passengers stranded at a haunted station where a phantom train passes each year on the anniversary of a grisly train wreck. The film was a true international
co-production, with a Hungarian director and both British and German actors. (It was shot a UFA Studios in Berlin). The print we'll see contains French intertitles, which will be translated live by actor Paul McGann. Next, Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair (1929) was the director's first "100% all-Dialogue Picture." The soundtrack, however, is permanently lost, in effect rendering the film silent. That imagined soundtrack will be recreated live at the Castro Theatre with actors from the Gower Gulch Players, along with music and sound effects by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Director at NYC's famed Film Forum. Starring Columbia Pictures' square-jawed leading man Jack Holt, The Donovan Affair's plot is one I'm sure you've heard before. The lights go out at a high society dinner party and the titular Mr. Donovan gets a knife in the back. Inspector Killigan (Holt) is called to investigate and he insists on recreating the crime by cutting the lights again. Somebody else gets murdered. Rinse and repeat.

This and That

Rounding out the 2015 SFSFF line-up are two films from Scandinavia. Per Lindberg's Norrtullsligan (1923, 35mm) stars the terrific Swedish actress Tora Teje, whom SFSFF
audiences have seen previously in Mauritz Stiller's 1920 Erotikon and Benjamin Christensen's 1922 Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages. She plays one of four secretaries who share an apartment, and her sardonic observations provide the movie's narration via verbose intertitles lifted directly from the 1908 source novel. The other Scandinavian film is also a novel adaptation, this time from Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author Knut Hamsum. Pan (1922, 35mm) is the only film ever directed by actor Harald Schwenzen and it's a romantic tale about a wealthy woman and a reclusive ex-soldier/hunter.

Last but not least, perhaps the most singular selection at this year's fest is Dan Duyu's fantastical Cave of the Spider Woman (1927, 35mm). A prime example of the "magic spirit" films popular in Shanghai at the time, Cave is based on a chapter from Journey to the West, a Ming Dynasty-era literary work considered one of China's great classical novels. Although it set box office records in 1927, the film was considered lost until its recent discovery and restoration by the National Library of Norway (whose representative Tina Anckarman will be on hand to give an introduction). This program will also include the U.S. premiere of Modern China, an eight-minute look at 1910 Beijing, recently restored by the British Film Institute.

And finally, the last day of the festival commences with the free admission program So You Think You Know Silents, a silent movie trivia contest hosted by Bruce Goldstein of NYC's Film Forum. Yes, there will be prizes!

Cross-published on The Evening Class.