Wednesday, April 4, 2018

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



Spotlight on Space

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

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


Dark Wave

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

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


French Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-published on The Evening Class.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

61st SFFILM Fest 2018 – U.S. Cinema



As someone whose passion for cinema lies primarily with foreign language movies, it has been slightly discomforting to watch U.S. indies and documentaries carve out an increasingly larger slice of the total SFFILM Festival pie. To witness, all three of this year's Big Nights are U.S. indies that premiered at Sundance, and 38 of festival's 99 feature films hail from that same festival. When one looks closely at the U.S. films selected, however, it becomes impossible to grouse when there are more terrific-sounding films than a person could possibly watch over the course of a two-week festival. Here's a subjective survey of the U.S. narrative and documentary features I'm intrigued by at this year's SFFILM Fest.


Narrative Features

The only U.S. narrative feature I had the opportunity to preview is a film I can't imagine not being on my 2018 top ten list. Chloé Zhao's The Rider premiered at Cannes last year, winning the top prize in the Director's Fortnight sidebar. It's about as close to a documentary as a narrative film can get, with non-professional actors playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. The Rider's aching heart is the character Brady (Brady Jandreau), a young Lakota rodeo rider and horse trainer who has sustained a massive head injury. The film transports us alongside Brady's personal journey as he struggles to find another way to live while remaining true to himself. It's a transcendent tale of wounded masculinity, guided by Zhao's sure-handed direction and Jandreau's revelatory, intuitive lead performance. The Rider opens in theaters on April 20, but believe me, you won't want to miss SFFILM Festival's April 7 screening with director Zhao and Brady Jandreau in person.

Sometimes a festival's most tantalizing options are scheduled in tandem. For me, 2018's toughest film choice occurs on Friday, April 6 when Paul Schrader's First Reformed is slotted up against John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties, both with their respective directors in attendance. Touted as a "grindhouse art film," Schrader's First Reformed achieved ecstatic reviews when it toured last autumn's fest circuit (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York), with many calling it his best work since 2002's Autofocus. The film stars 2017 SFFILM Fest tributee Ethan Hawke as a dying, guilt-ridden New England church minister who suddenly finds comfort in the idea of becoming a suicide bomber. Distributor A24 will release First Reformed in cinemas next month.

In contrast, Mitchell's film (technically a USA/UK co-production) premiered to some seriously scathing reviews when it played out-of-competition at Cannes nearly a year ago. The film has its defenders, however (and the trailer does look pretty fabulous, particularly Sandy Powell's costume designs.) What's kind of shocking is that despite Mitchell's reputation (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and the presence of Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning in the cast, no film festival north of the Rio Grande has wanted to touch it. (San Francisco will be its "North American" premiere and it appears distributor A24 has no immediate plans for theatrical release). Based on an award-winning 2006 sci-fi short story by Neil Gaiman (who will also attend the screening), How to Talk to Girls at Parties stars Tony Award winner Alex Sharp as a 70's London punk who goes to a party and hooks up with a lady space alien. In the end, my evening's film selection could be determined by venue, with Mitchell's movie getting a boost by virtue of its screening at the Castro.

For many years, new LGBT cinema was pretty much the provenance of San Francisco's Frameline festival. More recently, SFFILM Fest has upped its LGBT roster, possibly because there's so much more product available. (Frameline has also begun programming many of the same films that appear at SFFILM, realizing the two festival's audiences don't necessarily cross over). The LGBT section at this year's fest contains a record nine films, with all but two being of U.S. origin. The one I'm most looking forward to is Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a familial drama about three mixed-race brothers whose laconic existence in upstate New York is tempered by their parents' volatile relationship. The focus is on the youngest of the three who's realizing he's somehow "different" from his siblings, which has led some critics to proclaim We the Animals as "this year's Moonlight." A major reason I'm excited to see this film is the casting of Raúl Castillo as the father. The Mexican-American actor first caught my attention in Aaron Katz' idiosyncratic indie mystery Cold Weather, several years before he achieved minor fame playing the character Richie in HBO's Looking. I'm also intrigued by the casting of Sheila Vand as the mother (she was the Iranian vampire girl in A Girl Walks Home at Night Alone), as well as this being the narrative feature debut for documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar. In a Dream, the director's excellent 2008 doc about his father, Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, won the audience award at SF DocFest and was shortlisted for the Oscar.

Another critically acclaimed LGBT film focused on POC is Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On, which stars Dominique Fishback. This is the actress's first lead role since her breakout as prostitute Darlene in the HBO series The Deuce. Here she plays an 18-year-old lesbian recently released from juvie who must resist falling back into the criminal life. Two other promising LGBT youth-focused features in the fest line-up are The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Alex Strangelove. The former stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a teen sent to a Christian "gay conversion" camp after being caught making out with the prom queen. Miseducation director Desiree Akhavan was awarded the Grand Jury Prize (dramatic competition) at this year's Sundance. Alex Strangelove is a Netflix-bound coming-of-age comedy directed by Craig Johnson (The Skelton Twins).

Three formidable entities of American indie filmmaking have new films in this year's festival. Ten years after Debra Granik's Winter's Bone scored four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay, the writer/director has finally made a follow-up feature. Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster and Dale Dickey as a father and daughter forced to move on after their idyllic years of living off the grid in an Oregon state park come to an end. Zellner brothers David and Nathan made a big splash in 2014 with Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Now they're back with a post-modern Western, Damsel, starring Robert Pattinson (following-up on his astounding performance in last year's Safdie Brothers film, Good Time) and Mia Wasikowska. The film is a late addition to the SFFILM Festival line-up and the Zellners are expected to attend its only screening on April 14. Lastly, director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess) creates further distance from his mumblecore roots with Support the Girls, a comedy starring Regina Hall as the stressed-out manager of a Hooters-like sports bar.

If indie movies about cranky geezers going on road trips is your thing, SFFILM Fest has a pair of options. In Shana Feste's Boundaries, Vera Farmiga is a put-upon single mom who's forced to transport her thorny father (Christopher Plummer) after he's kicked out of yet another nursing home for pot dealing. Bobby Canavale, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda co-star. The curmudgeon in Mark Raso's Kodachrome is played by Ed Harris, a renowned photographer who must get to Kansas before the very last developer of Kodachrome film closes its door. Naturally, he can't drive himself, so his estranged son (Jason Sudeikis) and nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) get dragged along for the ride. Kodachrome premiered at Toronto last September and hits Netflix on April 20 without getting a theatrical release. Director Raso, writer Jonathan Tropper and actor Jason Sudeikis are expected to attend the film's single screening on April 7.


Documentary Features

Docs make up roughly 40 percent of all feature films in this year's festival. Contained within the U.S. selection are a dozen which examine some aspect of "the arts." The one I'm most excited to see is Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge's profile of UK/Sri Lankan hip hop star M.I.A. Amongst non-fans she's best known for the infamous "bird" flipped on live TV during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl show (for which the NFL is still trying to sue for $16.6 million). Casual fans know her for "Paper Planes," the ubiquitous 2008 hit single with beats punctuated by gun shots and a cash register's ka-ching. Loveridge is a personal friend of the performer and his documentary is said to be full of warts-and-all footage shot over the course of 20-plus years. The film won the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance and was announced as the prestigious opening night film for this year's New Directors/New Films series in NYC. A second SFFILM bio-doc about a bad-ass woman musician is Kevin Kerslake's Bad Reputation, which takes on the storied career of iconic punk rocker Joan Jett. It was recently confirmed that Jett herself will attend the festival's lone screening of Bad Reputation at the Castro Theatre on April 14.

Two of the most beloved American media figures of all time are also subjects of SFFILM Fest documentaries. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is the latest from director Marina Zenowich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired). She uses obscure performance clips and never-before-seen outtakes to tell the story of the brilliant Bay Area actor and comedian. The film will have one screening only, at the Castro Theatre on April 7. Both festival screenings of Morgan Neville's Sundance hit Won't You Be My Neighbor, his portrait of TV's Mr. Rogers, are already at RUSH. The Oscar-winning filmmaker (Twenty Feet from Stardom) is expected to be in attendance. 

The cinematic arts are represented at the festival by two non-fiction features. Amy Scott's Hal is a profile of revered director Hal Ashby, the Oscar-winning film editor (In the Heat of the Night) best known for directing a string of socially conscious 1970's masterpieces that include Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, Coming Home and The Last Detail. Scott's film boasts interviews with such Ashby alumni as Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant and Jon Voight. Then in Half the Picture, director Amy Adrion takes on Hollywood's dismal record of advocating for women filmmakers, featuring interviews with Ava DuVernay (Selma), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and others. Following the April 9 screening, the fest presents a conversation between director Adrion and Esther Pearl, Executive Director of Camp Reel Stories – A Media Camp for Girls.

Documentaries about photographers have been a popular subject for filmmakers and audiences alike in the past decade, with shutterbugs Robert Frank, Bill Cunningham, Vivian Meier, Annie Leibovitz, Sebastião Salgado and others receiving motion picture tributes. Now we can add Garry Winogrand and James Balog to the list. Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable examines the life and career of the controversial "snapshot aesthetic" street photographer who took over one million photos before his untimely 1984 death at age 56. Winogrand left behind thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, 8mm home movies and audio recordings, all of which director Sasha Waters Freyer employs to tell his story. Following the film's SFMOMA screening on April 14, Freyer will be joined in conversation by author Geoff Dyer, whose new book on the photographer was released last month. The second doc about a famed photographer is Matthew Testa's The Human Element, which profiles James Balog. The environmental photographer is best known for visually documenting the devastating effects of man-made climate change, particularly the rapid disappearance of the world's glaciers (his work was featured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice.) Balog and director Testa are expected to attend the festival.

It has been 15 years since Nathaniel Kahn received an Oscar nomination for My Architect, the filmmaker's bittersweet ode to his famous architect father, Louis Kahn. Following several made-for-TV science documentaries, Kahn finally returns with a new feature this year, The Price of Everything. Using a Sotheby's modern art auction as backdrop, Kahn examines the commodification of art and reflects on how artists lose control of their own creations in today's white-hot art market. Among the artists profiled in the film are Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons. I'd be shocked if The Price of Everything doesn't mention last year's $110.5 million sale of a 1982 Basquiat work, which set a record for an American artist at auction. The graffiti artist turned painter happens to be the subject of another SFFILM Festival documentary, Sara Driver's Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Amongst the score of non-arts related U.S. docs showing at the festival, I had the chance to preview and strongly recommend Bing Liu's Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, Minding the Gap. This empathetic and intimate look at young manhood in the economically depressed city of Rockford, IL is entirely composed of footage shot by the Asian-American director over the course of a decade. Liu's focus is on himself and two close friends, one Caucasian and one African American, who all share a passion for skateboarding as well as dark relationships with past father figures. Their collective self-awareness and articulate fervency is impressive considering the challenges of their environment. The festival's Hold Review policy limits me from saying more, but I guarantee this is a doc you won't want to miss. Liu is expected to attend the film's screenings on April 13 and 14.

Three documentaries I highly anticipate watching during the festival proper are Bisbee '17, Three Identical Strangers and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Bisbee '17 is the latest from Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine) who once again employs his meta-docu-fiction storytelling techniques to reflect on a century-old Arizona strike in which 1,200 miners, most of them Mexican immigrants, were marched into the desert at gunpoint and left to die. Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers recounts the incredibly strange tale of male triplets who were separated at birth and then reunited at age 19 in 1980, briefly becoming media celebrities who hung out at Studio 54 and appeared in the film Desperately Seeking Susan. Lastly, RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been described as a lyric tone poem in documentary guise, which lovingly captures African American life in rural Alabama. Like the bulk of non-fiction films in the festival, all three of these acclaimed works had their world premiere at Sundance, with Three Identical Strangers winning a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling and Hale County This Morning, This Evening bringing home a Special Jury Prize for Creative Vision.

The above-mentioned movies represent just an iceberg's tip of the 39 documentary features appearing in SFFILM Festival 2018, so let's glance at a few others of potential interest. Mercury 13 will have its world premiere here prior to hitting Netflix on April 20. David Singleton and Heather Walsh's film recalls the dashed dreams of a group of would-be women astronauts in the early 60's. (I can imagine the pitch meeting: "It's a white women's Hidden Figures!") Fans of Laura Greenfield's Queen of Versailles will no doubt want to catch her latest glimpse at the lives of the hideously rich, Generation Wealth. Although RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's bio-doc on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 4, I imagine it would be great fun seeing it at the Castro Theatre with the directors present on April 14 (this screening is now at RUSH). Two docs with an eye toward the future profile a budding young chef (Chef Flynn) and aspiring scientists (Inventing Tomorrow). Last but not least, I really hope not to miss the festival's late-addition screening of This One's for the Ladies, Gene Graham's look at an African American male strip joint in Newark, NJ. (that doubles as a kids' karate school by day).




Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

61st SFFILM Festival 2018 – Big Nights, Awards & Tributes, Live & Onstage, Special Events



Nearly two weeks have passed since the press conference wherein SFFILM revealed the exciting line-up for its 61st festival. In my first post for this year's event I talked out the programs that had been pre-announced. That was a simple task given that only three things were revealed in advance: a Tribute to Charlize Theron, a Centerpiece screening of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, and the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards. In this entry, I'll take a look at the considerable roster of programs and events taking place outside the main line-up of films. But first here's an update on the 2018 SFFILM Festival's participating venues.

Two years have passed since the festival left the Sundance (now AMC) Kabuki Cinemas, which had been home base for nearly three decades (with assistance from Landmark's nearby Clay Theatre and Japantown's New People Cinema). In 2016, the fest relocated its headquarters to the then-new Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with the Mission district's Roxie and Victoria Theatres serving as supplemental venues. Last year saw a significantly reduced use of the Alamo, as well as the addition of four downtown venues: the spectacular Dolby Cinema on Market Street, the newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, plus both the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Theater and Screening Room. Two constants amidst all this change have been the Berkeley Art Museum's Pacific Film Archive and of course, San Francisco's jewel, the Castro Theatre.

So what's new for 2018? Well, the Alamo Drafthouse is completely out of the picture, along with the YBCA Theatre. Use of the Dolby Cinema remains roughly the same. There's hardly a better place in SF to watch a movie, but the Dolby can be problematic for all-day festival-goers with its strict no-food-or-beverage policy (that includes water bottles; expect bags and backpacks to be searched). Other venue holdovers from recent years include the Roxie, Victoria and PFA. Over in the East Bay, the festival will make good use of Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre for the first time, with programming scheduled for two nights. The only new San Francisco venue added for 2018 is the Creativity Theater at the Children's Creativity Museum, which supplants the YBCA Theater as a third venue operating in the festival hub near Mission and 4th Streets. The 183-seat theater with stadium seating looks pretty nifty in this picture, and I expect to be spending lots of time there. Finally, the happiest venue news for SFFILM Festival 2018 is that once again the Castro will host the fest for 12 consecutive days – from opening night on April 4 to closing night on April 15. 


Big Nights

For its opening night slot on April 4, SFFILM Festival has selected Silas Howard's A Kid Like Jake, adapted by Daniel Pearle from his own off-Broadway play. In this very much of-the-moment dramedy, Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play Brooklyn parents of a possibly trans young son, who are encouraged by the boy's preschool teacher (Octavia Spencer) to play up his trans identity as a "diversity" ticket into a competitive private school. A Kid Like Jake premiered at Sundance in January and I believe this will be its first public showing since then. Director Howard, who is trans himself (and has directed episodes of the award-winning Amazon series Transparent) will be on hand at the Castro Theatre. This year's opening night party happens at the SF Design Center Galleria.

For a second year running, SFFILM Fest has scheduled its closing night festivities two days before the festival actually ends. I couldn't be more thrilled with the selection of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot, which plays the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 15. The movie premiered to positive reviews at Sundance, providing a crucial boost to Van Sant's career following 2015's universally derided Sea of Trees. DWHWGFOF is a partial adaptation of quadriplegic, Portland cartoonist John Callahan's same-titled memoir, focusing on his years in recovery for alcoholism. While Joaquin Phoenix has drawn unanimous praise for his portrayal of Callahan (a role Robin Williams originally hoped to play), the strongest plaudits have been for Jonah Hill, allegedly unrecognizable as a gay, trust-fund kid who becomes Callahan's AA sponsor. The rest of the tantalizing cast includes Jack Black, Rooney Mara, alt-rocking women Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, and last but not least, Udo Kier. Gus Vant Sant, as well as the film's composer Danny Elfman, are expected to attend. SFFILM Festival's 2018 closing night party will follow at Public Works.


Awards & Tributes

SFFILM Festival's 2018 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award could hardly go to anyone more deserving than Oscar-winning Bay Area filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt). The award's presentation, which up until last year had always taken place at the private Film Society Awards Night Gala, will occur at the Castro Theatre on April 15. The event includes a screening of End Game, Epstein and Friedman's new 40-minute Netflix documentary short about hospice care.

The Mel Novikoff Award is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." For 2018 SFFILM has selected none other than internationally renowned professor, author, film scholar and all-around cinephilic ambassador Annette Insdorf. I first became aware of Insdorf years ago when she co-hosted (along with Roger Ebert) IFC's live red carpet coverage of Cannes' opening and closing ceremonies, and was impressed by her articulate and genial on-screen demeanor. She'll receive her Novikoff Award at SFMOMA on Saturday, April 14, in a program that will include a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.

Experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is the recipient of this year's Persistence of Vision Award, which honors a filmmaker "whose main body of work falls outside of the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." I confess to being a near-philistine when it comes to experimental cinema. I recognize, however, by the revered tones with which my more esoterically inclined cineaste friends speak of Dorsky, that this award comes richly deserved. The director's works are described as "silent short films in which light, nature and everyday surrounds are carefully captured and combined to prismatic, alchemical effect." In an unusual move for the festival, this year's POV program will be presented twice – at SFMOMA on April 6 and at BAMPFA on April 15. Both programs will include screenings of four recent Dorksy works, as well as an on-stage conversation (BAMPFA's will be hosted by Steve Anker, dean of CalArts' School of Film/Video). Presentation of the POV Award itself will only take place at the SFMOMA program.

In addition to actress Charlize Theron, the other film personality receiving a SFFILM Tribute this year is director Wayne Wang. The moviemaker's radically eclectic filmography ranges from early, Bay Area-based indies focused on the Asian American experience (Chan is Missing, Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club) to crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-coms (Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez, Last Holiday with Queen Latifah) to edgier experimental works (Center of the World, Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive). Accompanying the tribute at the Dolby Cinema on April 7 will be a screening of 1995's Smoke with Harvey Keitel – arguably Wang's most popular and critically acclaimed work – in a new restoration overseen by the director. Personal fun fact: I had a tiny, non-speaking part in Wang's Dim Sum, which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.


Live & Onstage

High atop my list of must-sees for this year's festival is Guy Maddin's State of Cinema address at the Victoria Theatre on April 8. From his 1989 feature debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital to 2015's The Forbidden Room, I can't think of another filmmaker who has had more works exhibited at our festival than Maddin. The iconoclast Canadian director also received the fest's Persistence of Vision of Award in 2006. Regrettably, Maddin had to cancel two in-person gigs at last year's 60th anniversary event – the tribute to Canyon Cinema, for which he had selected the films, and the closing night presentation of his Vertigo mash-up, The Green Fog – making his appearance at this year's SFFILM Festival doubly sweet. Maddin has selected "Cinema as Dream State" as the subject for 2018's State of Cinema address, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to ruminate on that particular topic. Be prepared for 60 minutes of thought provoking hilarity.

Speaking of iconoclasts, the Bay Area lost one of its most beloved last year with the passing of Stephen Parr, so it's entirely fitting the festival offer up A Celebration of Oddball Films at its 2018 edition. Oddball was Parr's baby, a 50,000-plus reel collection of industrial, educational and otherwise uncategorizable films housed floor-to-ceiling in a Mission District warehouse. Watch the end credits of almost any documentary that includes archival footage and you're bound to see the name Oddball Films scroll by. Parr also hosted incredibly fun weekend screenings at the warehouse. The first time I climbed Oddball's steep alleyway staircase and walked through the mysterious door covered by shag carpet was for a 16mm Halloween screening of a doc on actress Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), which I watched from a beat-up sofa (or was it a beanbag chair?). The SFFILM Oddball/Parr celebration at the Castro on April 9 will include a selection of films from the archive, accompanied with live music by Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra.

For its annual pairing of a classic silent film with live music accompaniment, the festival has chosen Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 familial comedy I Was Born, But… with a score by alternative rock band Blonde Redhead. This is a group I haven't thought about since the late nineties, but apparently they've kept active and at least have a tangential relationship to the world of cinema. Their second album, "La Mia Vita Violenta" was dedicated to Pasolini, and 2016's boxed-set compilation "Masculin Féminin" of course references Godard. It will be interesting to compare their score to that of Stephen Horne, who accompanied I Was Born, But… at the 2011 SF Silent Film Festival.

Two additional programs round out SFFILM Fest's 2018 Live & Onstage sidebar. In A Thousand Thoughts, director Sam Green (The Weather Underground) stages a "live documentary" about the Kronos Quartet at the Castro Theatre on April 10. The formidable string ensemble will play a live musical score while Green provides live narration during the movie, which itself takes place on multiple screens. A Thousand Thoughts is co-directed by Joe Bini, a Bay Area native who has edited over a dozen films for Werner Herzog, as well as works by Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Nick Broomfield. Then on April 15 at the Victoria Theatre, SFFILM presents Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, described as an "evening of music, animation and interstellar investigations" by director Cory McAbee (The American Astronaut).


Special Events

For a second year in a row, SFFILM Festival hosts a trio of free public screenings. On April 5 at SFMOMA the fest presents an episode of the new PBS/BBC series Civilizations: How Do We Look?, an updating of Kenneth Clark's landmark 1969 series Civilization. The episode to be shown spotlights China's terra cotta warriors and SF Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu will be on hand to lead a post-screening conversation. A free screening at the Victoria Theatre on April 10 will find acclaimed documentarian Katie Galloway (2011's Golden Gate Award winner Better This World) presenting her new work. The Pushouts takes on the issue of high school dropouts through the story of former Oakland gang member Victor Rios, now a professor at UC Santa Cruz. Jun Stinson's Futbolistas 4 Life will screen at the same program, and it concerns Oakland students raising money for a new soccer field.

The third free screening is of Don Hardy and Dana Nachman's Pick of the Litter, which follows five Labrador Retriever puppies as they train to be guide dogs for the visually impaired. Dogs (as well as masters) are invited to attend the April 7 screening at the Victoria Theatre, with the balcony being set aside as an "animal-free zone." Following last week's dog-friendly screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs at the Roxie (which prompted a write-up in the NY Times), this could signal yet another Bay Area-originated trend. Finally, while these screenings are free, registration is required (and The Pushouts is already at RUSH).

Also operating under the umbrella of Special Events are a pair of Creativity Summits, both of which take place at the Creativity Museum on April 7 and are free to the public (registration required). Both panels are focused on discussions of "presence," or "how technology broadly (and VR & AR in particular) are impacting artistic and cultural practice." The first features multi-hyphenate novelist (The Beach), screenwriter (28 Days Later) and director (Ex-Machina, Annihilation) Alex Garland in conversation with USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Tara McPherson. That will be followed by a panel comprised of VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and WIRED magazine's Peter Rubin. 

Fans of actor/comedian Bill Hader (SNL, The Skelton Twins) will surely not want to miss the festival's special event presentation of his new HBO series, Barry. Hader plays the title character, an ex-Marine turned hitman who travels to L.A. for work and stumbles into an acting class run by a charismatic teacher (Henry Winkler). The series debuted on HBO this past Sunday and SFFILM Festival will show the first three episodes, all of which were helmed by Hader in his directorial debut. Bill Hader, Henry Winkler and writer/producer Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley) are all expected to attend the presentation.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

61st SFFILM Festival 2018 – Early Announcements




SFFILM Festival, which was known for 60 years as the San Francisco International Film Festival, is gearing up to celebrate its 61st edition from April 4 to 17. When the full line-up is revealed at tomorrow morning's press conference, SFFILM's programming team will have their work cut out for them. That's because in the dozen years I've blogged about the fest, never has so little been announced in advance. While it might not be easy topping last year's 60th anniversary extravaganza, I'm encouraged by what's been divulged thus far. What follows is a close-up look at what we already know, followed by some just-for-fun speculation and wishful thinking about what the rest of the festival line-up might hold for Bay Area cinephiles.



⬤ Out of all the films which premiered at Sundance this year, none aroused more personal anticipatory excitement than Boots Riley's feature filmmaking debut, Sorry to Bother You. Now I'm completely over the moon that it'll be our festival's 2018 Centerpiece, with near-simultaneous screenings happening at both the Castro Theatre and Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre on Thursday, April 12. Oakland-based Riley is best known as one-half of the iconic, revolutionary hip-hop duo The Coup, whose songs include such full-mouth titles as "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Grenada Last Night," "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethingCrazy" and "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." The group gained considerable notoriety for the original cover art of 2001's "Party Music" album, which depicted Riley and Coup co-conspirator DJ Pam the Funkstress (1966 – 2017 R.I.P.) blowing up the World Trade Center. The cover was created before the events of 9/11 and delayed the album's release by several months.

Sorry to Bother You is a scathing socio-politico satire set in the world of telemarketing, with a dystopic, gentrified Oakland as a backdrop. Rolling Stone magazine simply called it "a hundred thousand watts of fuck you." The plan on April 12 is for Riley to introduce the film at the Castro and then head across the Bay to introduce it at the Grand Lake. Riley and special guests (co-star Armie Hammer perhaps?) will then do a Skype Q&A for the Castro audience, followed by a live, in-person Q&A for the Oakland audience. Not incidentally, Sorry to Bother You received considerable funding and creative support through SFFILM artist development programs, FilmHouse Residency and the SFFILM/Rainin Filmmaking Grant. Be advised that the Grand Lake screening sold out less than 24 hours after tickets went on sale.



⬤ Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron will be feted with a SFFILM tribute at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 8. After an on-stage conversation during which she'll discuss her formidable career (Monster, North Country, and most fabulously in recent years, Max Max: Fury Road), the festival will screen Tully, Theron's new film from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Tully is a third-time collaboration between Reitman and Cody, and is their second outing with Theron in the lead, following 2011's Young Adult. Oscar-nominated writer/director Reitman (Up in the Air) will join Theron for an on-stage Q&A following the screening. The movie is slated for general theatrical release on April 20.



⬤ Ten narrative features will compete in the festival's 2018 New Directors Competition. I can highly recommend Rungano Nyoni's I Am Not a Witch, a top favorite amongst the 30 films I caught at this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival. Nyoni's movie premiered in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, and is an empathetic, visually striking and acerbically funny satire in which a young village girl is suspected of sorcery and sent off to live in seclusion with other witches. The only other competition film already on my radar is Hlynur Pálmason's Winter Brothers, which won a Best Actor prize at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. This idiosyncratic Danish film is set in the environs of a remote limestone factory and has been compared to the Greek "weird wave" films of Yorgos Lanthimos and others. The eight remaining New Directors Prize entries include works from Cape Verde (Djon África), Sweden (Ravens), Georgia (Scary Mother), France (The Sower), Kyrgyzstan (Suleiman Mountain), Switzerland (Those Who are Fine), Argentina (Tigre) and the USA (Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On).


⬤ Ten films will also compete for the Golden Gate Awards McBaine Documentary Feature Competition. I'm especially looking forward to RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening, a filmic tone-poem centered on an African American community in rural Alabama which garnered terrific reviews when it premiered at Sundance. Two of the doc competition films, Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink's The Rescue List and Denali Tiller's Tre Maison Dasan will also be screening as part of SFFILM's "Launch" initiative, which aims to seek out distribution for non-fiction films that are SFFILM Festival world premieres, as well as "represent the values of our city and region" and "advance a culture of change." The Rescue List takes on the issue of forced child labor in Ghana, and Tre Maison Dasan follows the lives of three boys who share the common hardship of having incarcerated parents.




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When speculating on which other films might make the SFFILM Fest roster, I first look at what's scheduled to pop up in local cinemas during, or shortly after the festival. This year's batch of April releases with potential for fest inclusion are Aaron Katz' Gemini, Chloé Zhao's The Rider, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, Andrew Haigh's Lean On Pete, Ferenc Török's 1945, and last but not least, Sophie Fiennes' Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. I also suspect that a number of films I saw in Palm Springs could also be making SFFILM Festival appearances, including such likely candidates as Laurent Cantet's The Workshop, Xavier Legrand's Custody, Léa Mysius' Ava and Léonor Serraille's Montparnasse Bienvenue.

The following personal 20-film SFFILM Festival wish list is comprised entirely of works that played the international festival circuit in 2017, but have yet to find their way to the Bay Area.

Barbara (France, dir. Mathieu Amalric)
Beast (UK, dir. Michael Pearce)
Casting (Germany, dir. Nicolas Wackerbarth)
Claire's Camera (France/South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Everyone's Life (France, dir. Claude Lelouch)
First Reformed (USA, dir. Paul Schrader)
A Gentle Creature (Russia, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
Godard Mon Amour (aka Redoubtable, France, dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
Hannah (France/Italy, dir. Andrea Pallaoro)
Jeanette, The Childhood of Joan of Arc (France, dir. Bruno Dumont)
Joaquim (Brazil, dir. Marcelo Gomes)
The King (US, dir. Eugene Jarecki)
Lover for a Day (France, dir. Philippe Garrel)
Makala (France, dir. Emmanuel Gras)
A Man of Integrity (Iran, dir. Mohammad Rasoulof)
Mrs. Hyde (France, dir. Serge Bozon)
Razzia (France/Morocco, dir. Nabil Ayouch)
Reinventing Marvin (France, dir. Anne Fontaine)
Rodin (France, dir. Jacques Doillon)
See You Up There (France, dir. Albert Dupontel)

Cross-published on The Evening Class.