Tuesday, May 2, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 Wrap-Up

The 60th SFFILM Festival recently came to a close after a 15-day orgy of movie-going magic. Personal highlights included getting to share the same air as Ethan Hawke, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, as well as seeing new works from favorite directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky and João Pedro Rodrigues. Here are some thoughts on 20 of the programs I caught at this year's memorable anniversary edition.

Casting JonBenet (USA/Australia dir. Kitty Green)
All I knew about this lurid Boulder, CO child murder case was what I gleaned from standing in supermarket check-out lines in 1997. This singular documentary recounts the whole story with zero archival footage, exclusively relying upon tapes of Boulder residents "auditioning" for a filmic study about the case. The result is an affecting portrait of how media sideshows affect those on its sidelines. This was my first time seeing a film in the astounding new Dolby Cinema on Market Street. Casting JonBenet is currently available to stream on Netflix.

A Tribute to Ethan Hawke
This conversation with one of my favorite actors – conducted by his 2000 Hamlet director Michael Almereyda – was an expected highlight of the festival. There were anecdotes aplenty about Hawke's longtime directorial collaborator Richard Linklater, all of which gave me even greater respect for the versatile Austin filmmaker. And I was especially tickled to hear that Hawke's first acting gig (as a one-line extra in Shaw's "Saint Joan") was at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, where I saw my first Shakespeare play on a school outing back in the 60's. I didn't stay to watch Hawkes' new film Maudie (it opens locally on June 23), because I didn't realize he'd be returning for a post-screening Q&A.

Leaning Into the Wind – Andy Goldsworthy (UK dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer)
While lacking some of the "wow" factor that made Rivers and Tides a surprise arthouse hit 15 years ago, this sequel will still be appreciated by admirers of that first cinematic profile of environmental artist Goldsworthy. The new film finds the artist facing issues of aging and legacy, and keeps tabs on his latest projects (some of which, such as his newfound propensity for crawling through giant hedges, seem rather silly). Local audiences will appreciate the detailed section on the creation of Tree Fall, one of four Goldsworthy pieces to be found in San Francisco's Presidio. This SFFILM Festival screening was the movie's world premiere and unsurprisingly, it immediately got snapped up for U.S. distribution (by Magnolia Pictures).

78/52 (USA dir. Alexandre O. Philippe)
This was my favorite documentary of the festival – a sort-of everything you ever wanted to know about Psycho's shower scene, but didn't know what to ask. Positing the film as Hitchcock's fuck-you to Hollywood after a decade of glossy, star-studded thrillers, this enormously fun and informative doc digs deeps into the minutiae of those world-changing three minutes of celluloid. I was particularly delighted to hear from Janet Leigh's body double, Marli Renfro, and I now know that the stabbing sound effects were achieved by plunging knives into casaba melons.

Score: A Film Music Documentary (USA dir. Matt Schrader)
Although limited by its near exclusive focus on Hollywood tent-pole composers, i.e. John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, et al., there was still much to appreciate in this close-up look at the marriage of orchestral music and film. (A relationship, as the film points out, that began with 1933's King Kong). Among its film's highlights are a fly-on-the-wall look at an Abbey Road recording session and an appreciation for how different composers work with studio musicians. My favorite anecdote had composer Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3, The Fate of the Furious) describing his method for determining a score's effectiveness: he hides in toilet stalls to hear if anyone comes into the theater restroom humming his tunes. The screening was followed by a lively Q&A with director Schrader and composer John Debney (The Jungle Book).

Yourself and Yours (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
I'd have to go back 10 years to find a Hong film I enjoyed less than this one, a surprise given the one-two knock-out punches of 2015's hilarious Hill of Freedom and 2016's deeply moving Right Now, Wrong Then. I'll admit that I fell asleep twice, which could be a problem in a film with possible twins and/or doppelgangers. Anyway, I plan to revisit it ASAP. Fortunately, I'm a SFFILM member and Yourself and Yours is one of 15 films from this year's festival available to stream for free in the organization's Screening Room.

The Lost City of Z (USA dir. James Gray)
I decided to pass up Beach Rats, a film I was dying to see, in order to catch director James Gray in person presenting his latest work. While this engaging-enough mini-epic about an early 20th century Amazonian explorer proved Gray's least interesting film to date, the director himself decidedly did not disappointment. He held the festival audience captive, regaling us with one production "war story" after the next (including how the indigenous peoples who appear in the film asked for two things in return for their participation – help constructing an irrigation system and a shipment of Lands' End cargo shorts). Out Woody-ing Woody Allen in his halting Brooklyn-ese accent, Gray also proved a master impressionist, taking on Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo as well as Benedict Cumberbatch (in a recreation of his phone call to Gray wherein he withdrew from Lost City of Z two weeks before production started).

VR Days 
The highlight of this year's virtual reality showcase was Dreams of O, a tripped-out, slightly creepy in-your-face adaptation of Cirque du Soleil's aqua-spectacular. It came as no surprise to learn that its creators, Felix & Paul Studios, were also behind Nomad: Sea Gypsies, my favorite piece from last year's VR Days (see my review here). I was also taken by Connor Hair and Alex Meader's My Brother's Keeper, in which the viewer intimately experiences the tragedy of siblings fighting on opposite sides of America's Civil War. The wistfulness of Patrick Osborne's Oscar-nominated Pearl, wherein the participant sits in a car's passenger seat and witnesses the years-long evolution of a father-daughter relationship, also made an impression.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (USA dir. David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg)
One of the big thrills of this year's fest was sitting across the aisle from bow-tied Mr. Nye as we both watched this tribute to his life and work. Shot over the course of two years, the doc pays tribute to Nye's adulation by America's schoolchildren and follows his involvement as CEO of Carl Sagan's The Planetary Society as it successfully launches a solar sail project into space. A big chunk is also devoted to his role as the public face of opposition to evolution and climate change deniers, specifically his battles with creationist theme park huckster Ken Ham and bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi. More personally, the film looks at Nye's reason for never having children – the Ataxia disease which profoundly affected his brother and sister. It pained me to skip out on the post-screening panel discussion in order to catch my next movie.

Endless Poetry (Chile/France dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Latin America's master surrealist once again employs exquisite artifice and outsized emotions in the service of presenting his life story, making this my hands-down favorite film of the festival. The movie picks up where 2013's The Dance of Reality left off, with the director's family leaving tiny Tocopilla for Santiago, where he'll evolve into a celebrated young poet. Endless Poetry concludes with Jodorowsky's departure for Paris, and we can only hope that the 88-year-old filmmaker lives long enough to see this intended five-part project to its conclusion. In addition to being the film's U.S. premiere, the screening was augmented by special guest Bob Taicher, a longtime friend of Jodorowsky's who executive-produced 1973's The Holy Mountain. For those who missed it, Endless Poetry opens in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on July 21.

Asian Dub Foundation: Live Score of George Lucas' THX 1138 (USA 1971)
As a cinephile and four-decade San Francisco resident, I've always been embarrassed to admit I've never seen THX1138. I've resisted because the clips always made it look, well, kind of boring. I still can't say I've seen the film as Lucas intended, but boy did I ever have a blast watching it to the live throbbing beats of the UK's Asian Dub Foundation. I detected little of Lalo Schifrin's original score (was it even audible?) and appreciated that the film's dialogue was necessarily close-captioned. It was a kick watching the Broadway tunnel chase scene, and of course, the futuristic humanoids trudging through the same BART stations I do. Question: can anyone tell me why all the POC in the film are holograms?

The Death of Louis XIV (France dir. Albert Serra)
This intimate and atmospheric portrait of the Sun King's final days just continues to grow in my estimation. It's composed of dozens of lovely moments that revel in the royal decorum of the era. We observe as a succession of servants, family members, doctors, advisors and courtly hangers-on all come to fuss over their beloved Sire, whose gangrenous leg is slowly transporting him to the grave. At the center of it all is Jean-Pierre Léaud's exquisitely haunting performance as Louis, a venerated yet vulnerable man in a big wig, at repose in a little bed.

Brimstone & Glory (USA dir. Viktor Jakovleski)
The Castro Theatre's enormous screen was the perfect place to witness this spectacular documentary about Mexico's National Pyrotechnic Festival. Shot over the course of three years in the town of Tultepec, where virtually every inhabitant is involved in the manufacturing of fireworks (and virtually every building displays a "PELIGRO" sign), the film invites the audience to participate in the festival's incendiary insanity from the safety of a cinema seat. I was not disappointed Brimstone & Glory won the top prize in the Golden Gate Documentary Feature Competition.

Patti Cake$ (USA dir. Geremy Jasper)
This year's Centerpiece Film was a full-on crowd pleaser about the fable-esque rise of a plus-sized, put-upon, white female rapper in New Jersey. The film's boundless energy and propulsive music scenes more than made up for any script misgivings, such as an out-of-nowhere sex scene between Patti and her socially maladjusted music producer. Australian actress Danielle Macdonald gives an unforgettable performance and was on hand for a Q&A in which she talked about the difficulties of learning a NJ accent, learning to rap and learning to rap in a NJ accent.

Everything Else (Mexico dir. Natalia Almada)
It seemed like everyone but me admired this portrait of a lonely, middle-aged female government bureaucrat in Mexico City. The film even won the festival's New Directors Prize. Now I'm as much as fan of "humanism, consistency of vision and formal rigor" as the next cinephile, but sitting through this movie was a ponderously opaque chore. I thought I'd go insane if I had to watch one more scene of her pulling up or pulling down her pantyhose, one more scene of her moping around a public pool, one more scene of her riding the subway, one more scene of her writing in that mysterious ledger she kept at home, one more scene of her, well, doing almost anything.

A Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan
The personal appearance of the world's biggest movie star was, as I mightily expected, the most spectacular thing I experienced at SFFILM Festival 60. I was lucky to have a close-up view of the proceedings, first as I watched SRK's security guards spend 10 minutes hustling him from his limo to the Castro Theatre's front door while surrounded by a Day of the Locusts-sized mob. From my seat near the stage, I got to watch Khan graciously play to his shrieking fan-base and later eloquently navigate the on-stage interview. Regrettably, the conductor of that interview was Rush Hour franchise director Brett Ratner, whose rambling questions were inane and borderline self-serving. The corker was when he implied that Khan's career could be best served by starring in a movie disguised as a Caucasian. The blowback from the audience was brutal and Ratner hadn't a clue as to why. To the festival's credit, he was apparently Khan's choice, so go figure. Because Ratner initially blew off the house manager's instruction to begin the audience Q&A, there was only time for two queries from the crowd. I decided not to stick around for the screening of My Name is Khan and soon found myself on the sidewalk watching the actor wave to a swarm of fans on Castro Street from his limousine perch. For a detailed account of the evening, I recommend reading Reena Rathore' excellent piece at Indiawest.

The Stopover (France/Greece dir. Delphine & Muriel Coulin)
The titular stopover refers to a "decompression" holiday at a ritzy Cyprus beach resort taken by French soldiers traveling home from Afghanistan. For three days they endure VR-enhanced recreations of their shared war experiences, for the purpose of determining who among them is damaged enough to warrant private shrink sessions. For the female soldiers, however, this "burkas to thongs" transition only serves to remind them of the double jeopardy placed upon them by all societies. Those female soldiers are effectively played by Ariane Labed, the French-Greek actress who has become reason enough to see any movie she stars in, and French rock singer/actress Soko. This was one of my top five films of the fest, and a huge leap forward for the filmmaking Coulin sisters, whose previous film was a ludicrous story about 17 high school girlfriends all deciding to get pregnant together (17 Girls).

Canyon Cinema 50: Guy Maddin Presents The Great Blondino
I considered skipping this tribute to San Francisco's beloved experimental/avant garde distribution company when it was announced that Guy Maddin would not be on hand to personally present his curated selections. The festival nicely rebounded from his absence, however, by having an on-stage Q&A with a stand-in (National Film Preservation Foundation's executive director Jeff Lambert) reading Maddin's pithy emailed responses aloud. As for the four Canyon catalogue films screened (all in 16mm!), I was both amused and disturbed by Gary Goldberg's Mesmer, and particularly appreciated the vintage Bay Area looniness of 1967's The Great Blondino. Perhaps most impressive of all was the roster of tribute attendees. Seated in the audience was a veritable who's who of Bay Area filmmakers, programmers, exhibitors, publicists and cinema scenesters.

The Ornithologist (Portugal dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)
"There are certain things we shouldn't try to understand" is a salient line that arrives near the end of this phantasmagoric odyssey that's both a loopy St. Anthony biopic and an introspective profile of its director's psyche. Those "certain things" not to be understood include topless Amazonian huntresses who speak Latin, a forest of gigantic stuffed animals, riverside gay sex with a wilderness spirit and a pair of lost Chinese lesbian pilgrims who rescue our hero after his kayak capsizes. Even with that said, The Ornithologist is possibly Rodrigues' most accessible and fully realized vision to date and I can't wait to see it again when it opens at Landmark Theatres on July 7.

Maliglutit (Searchers) (Canada dir. Zacharias Kunuk)
My 2017 festival ended with this Inuit bride-knapping tale. While it boasts strong ethnographic interest, I found it neither as dramatically compelling or as filled with richly drawn characters as the director's masterful Atanajurant: The Fast Runner from 2001.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 – The Films

Now that we've had a look at the SFFILM Festival 60 programs announced prior to the opening press conference as well as the Big Nights, Awards & Tributes and Special Events, it's time to zero in on the movies themselves. By my count, there are 100 feature films in this year's fest, which breaks down to 66 narrative and 34 documentary features. Ten of those are revival/repertory screenings. Here's my subjective round-the-world overview of the highlights, accompanied by a few words on those I've had the opportunity to preview.


We'll begin our tour with the French language selections. I had hoped the departure of SFFILM's French Cinema Now mini-fest would inspire an expanded French line-up, but the roster measures with years past. Within that roster, however, lies a sizable chunk of 2016's preeminent French flicks. Leading the pack is The Unknown Girl from Belgian master auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It premiered in Cannes' competition to some of the most lackluster reviews of their career, which is perhaps why the film has taken 11 months to reach the Bay Area. Those reviews hardly diminish my desire to see it – after all, it IS the Dardenne Brothers. The fact that The Unknown Girl also stars Adèle Haenel, who made such a resounding impression in 2014's Love at First Fight, and includes supporting roles for Dardenne-land habitués Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, seals the deal for me.

One of the most revered names in French cinema is Jean-Pierre Léaud, who debuted as a child actor in 1958's New Wave classic The 400 Blows. At age 72 he caps a hallowed career as the lead in The Death of Louis XIV, for which the actor reportedly stayed in character for the entire 15-day shoot. The movie is by experimental Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra, who dipped a little toe into mainstream-ish movie-making with 2013's Casanova-meets-Dracula fantasy Story of My Death. Louis XIV has triggered Serra's warmest critical reception to date. A second mid-career director who generated rave reviews last year was Katell Quillévéré, whom Bay Area cinephiles might remember from French Cinema Now selections Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013). Her latest, Heal the Living, is a poetic drama set in the world of organ transplants (of all things) and stars Tahir Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner and the great Anne Dorval (best known for her maternal turns in the films of Xavier Dolan).

A third important mid-career French director is Bertrand Bonello, who personally attended 2015's festival with his delightfully raunchy and oversized Saint Laurent biopic. His equally controversial and well received Nocturama, which I was able to view at a press screening, hits the festival with a lone presentation at the Castro on April 7. The new movie centers on a group of multi-culti young French radicals who execute an intricately planned quartet of terrorist acts in Paris. Afterwards, they re-group and hide out in an upscale urban shopping mall. Unfortunately, Nocturama's intense, highly calibrated first half comes undone in the second, when these young masterminds inexplicably transform into millennial knuckleheads who fully deserve the ensemble Darwin Award that befalls them.

Elsewhere in the Francophile-sphere we have a glossy-looking Marie Curie biopic from German director Marie Noëlle, and a behind-the-scenes documentary about The Paris Opera (in the event that Frederick Wiseman's 159-minute doc La Danse left you hungry). I especially look forward to catching The Stopover, a pointed social drama starring French-Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, The Lobster) as an Afghanistan war vet decompressing at a Cyprus seaside resort. The film is by sibling directors Delphine and Muriel Collin, whom fest-goers might remember from their 2011 debut 17 Girls. Finally, in what could be the most inspired repertory/revival screening of the entire festival, we have a 50th anniversary presentation of Story of a 3-Day Pass. This romantic drama about a black American G.I. on leave in France was novelist-filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles' (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) feature debut. It's worth noting that SFFILM members can access the organization's screening room, where many festival films will eventually stream for free. Story of a 3-Day Pass is the first title they've announced.

Of the remaining Western European films playing SFFILM Fest, I'm most excited about João Pedro Rodrigues' The Ornithologist. The Portuguese maverick's latest, for which he won Best Director at 2016's Locarno Film Fest, has been intriguingly described as everything from a "happily blasphemous" St. Anthony biopic to a cross between Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake. Another European LGBT prize-winner playing the fest is Francis Lee's God's Own Country. Lee took Sundance's Directing Award in World Cinema for this Brokeback Mountain-ish tale set amidst the Yorkshire moors.

Two other Western European films piquing my interest are the UK's Lady Macbeth, which transports the Russian novella "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" (source of the Shostakovich opera) to Victorian England, and Park, wherein disaffected Greek youth live out a nihilistic existence among the ruins of Athens' 2004 Olympics. I'm also likely to take a look at Spain's Next Skin, if for no other reason than it stars Sergi López and Bruno Todeschini. Director Isaki Lacuesta's previous feature, The Double Steps, played the festival in 2012. I previewed and heartily recommend Mister Universo, an Austria/Italy co-production by documentarians Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. I was a huge fan of La Pivellina, which screened in 2010 and landed in my Ten Best list. Their new work rejoins one of Pivellina's protagonists, a young down-on-his-luck Italian lion tamer, as he tracks down a circus strongman who once gave him a treasured talisman.

There are three Eastern European films in the festival, all of which I've watched and recommend to varying degrees. The one not to miss is Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada, a 3-hour familial dramedy set almost entirely within a cramped Bucharest apartment as an extended family gathers to honor their recently deceased patriarch. Puiu is one of the greats of Romanian New Wave and his latest equals previous masterworks like The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005) and Aurora (2010). The festival's only new Russian film is Kiril Serebrennikov's The Student, a somewhat overwrought satire on post-Communist Russia's newfound hyper-religiosity. Its protagonist Venya wages a one-man war against "depravity" at his high school, which includes getting bikinis banned in swim class and terrorizing a Darwinism lecture dressed in a gorilla suit. I was particularly taken by the film's wide-screen compositions, candy-glossed interiors and agitated camera movements.

God's role in a post-Communist world also informs Ralitza Petrova's bleak and austere Godless, in which a morphine-addicted Bulgarian homecare nurse steals her clients' ID cards so her boyfriend can sell them on the black market. The film's milieu of hopelessness gets fed by a murky plot, boxy aspect ratio, sludge pacing and wintry mise-en-scène of soulless public housing blocks. It also has a WTF ending I'd appreciate having someone explain. Godless won prizes for Best Film (Golden Leopard) and Best Actress at last year's Locarno Film Festival.


Hong Sang-soo's Yourself and Yours is the Asian film I'm most anticipating at SFFILM Festival 60. It's the South Korean master's 18th feature in 21 years and I'm grateful this festival religiously keeps us abreast of his work (his Right Now, Wrong Then was my second favorite film of last year). Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker Magazine described Yourself and Yours as "intermittently very funny but also an emotional horror movie" that's the director's "most structurally radical film yet," which for Hong is saying something. During the festival I'm also keen to see Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time It Gets Dark, which finds the Thai filmmaker riffing on a 1976 student protest that was brutally suppressed by government forces. I was very impressed by the director's earlier work, Mundane History, when it screened at CAAMFest back in 2010. I'm also scheduled to catch The Cinema Travellers, a promising-sounding doc about India's mobile movie caravans.

The only Asian film I had a chance to preview was Brillante Mendoza's Ma' Rosa. Like his notorious 2009 Cannes shocker Kinatay, it's a portrait of Philippines police corruption. As is the case with many Mendoza films, Ma' Rosa features a strong female protagonist, in this case a shopkeeper who runs a small notions store on the ground floor of her family home. She also sells drugs to make ends meet, sparking a police raid that results in Ma' Rosa and her (addict) husband being dragged to police HQ and basically held for ransom. Ma' Rosa's dynamic first half-hour reminded me of the breathtaking police slum raid that kicked off Mendoza's 2007 Slingshot, my first unforgettable exposure to this director. Frankly, I'll be surprised if I experience a more bravura piece of filmmaking this year. The energy tapers off in the second half as it becomes concerned with the attempts of Ma' Rosa's three children to raise bail money. That doesn't render the film any less affecting. Jaclyn Jose won Cannes' Best Actress prize for her titular performance.

Latin America

There were two Latin American films on my festival wish list and I was thrilled both made the line-up. Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's autobiographical Endless Poetry picks up where 2013's Dance of Reality left off. His personage, once again played by the director's son Adan, is now in his 20's, freed from his oppressive provincial family and living a poet's life in Santiago. Endless Poetry debuted in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and its April 10 screening at the Roxie Theater will be the film's U.S. premiere. My other must-see from the region is Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante's The Untamed. Following on the heels of 2013's brutal drug cartel drama Heli, for which he won a Best Director prize at Cannes, The Untamed appears to present a new direction for Escalante. Guy Lodge at Variety tantalizingly describes the film as a "strange stew of socially conscious domestic drama and tentacular sci-fi erotica." The Untamed premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, where Escalante was once again awarded a Best Director prize.

I had the chance to preview The Human Surge, a big-buzz 2016 debut feature from Argentine director Eduardo Williams. This singular work is "about" young people in three different locales – Buenos Aires, Mozambique and the Philippines – and their relationship to technology. Someone is always seeking a functioning internet connection. Shot in quasi-documentary style, Williams' film conveys a tremendous sense of place, with elaborate tracking shots that leave the viewer wondering, how'd they do that? Most of the talk surrounding The Human Surge rightly focuses on the awe-inspiring transition sequences that link the film's three locations. One involves an anthill and I'll let the other remain a surprise.

Although none of Argentina's top directors released new films in 2016, the festival still managed to assemble the four-film World Cinema Spotlight, Argentina: A National Cinema in Movement. Apart from The Human Surge, Matías Piñeiro's Hermia & Helena has achieved the most international recognition. The director's recent films have all been oblique Shakespearean riffs, with his latest taking on A Midsummer Night's Dream in a New York City setting. Other titles in the sidebar include Nele Wohlatz' The Future Perfect, about a rebellious Chinese Buenos Aires teenage girl, and Emiliano Torres' Patagonia-set The Winter.


As always, the festival's bulk is comprised of new works by domestic narrative and documentary feature filmmakers.The top three U.S. narrative films I'm hoping to catch are Beach Rats, The Incredible Jessica James and The Transfiguration, which all appear to share a NYC setting. Beach Rats is the highly praised second feature from director Eliza Hittman. Her poetic portrait of a rough-edged Brooklyn teen who secretly pursues older gay men on-line won Hittman Sundance's Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. As a big fan of former The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, I was taken by her strong supporting performance in Jim Strouse's 2015 People Places Things. The director's new film, a rom-com with the uninspiring title of The Incredible Jessica James, was written specifically for Williams and co-stars Chris O'Dowd. Premiering in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes and screening in our festival's Dark Wave section, Michael O'Shea's elevated genre piece The Transfiguration imagines the life of a teenage African-American vampire.

A handful of well-established U.S. indie filmmakers have new movies playing SFFILM Fest. Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip, The Color Wheel) – stop the presses – has made yet another movie about brittle, unlikeable people. His Golden Exits boasts a promising cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Cholë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker and ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Festival-mainstay Michael Almereyda, whose Experimenter screened on closing night two years ago, comes to SF once again with Marjorie Prime. Mad Men's Jon Hamm stars as a hologram employed to spark memories in a dementia patient (Lois Smith, reprising the stage role she originated). Experimental composer Mica Levi (Jackie) supplies the music and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins co-star.

Also attending this year's festival will be acclaimed director James Gray (Little Odessa, Two Lovers). His adventure yarn The Lost City of Z stars Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson as early 20th century explorers seeking a mythic city in the Amazon jungle. It's also worth noting new films from Interior. Leather Bar director-provocateur Travis Mathews (Discreet) and another SFFILM Fest regular, Mike Ott (California Dreams). Finally, star-gazers need to know that Ellen Burstyn (recipient of the festival's 2016 Peter J. Owens Acting Award) will be on hand for the screening of House of Tomorrow and Kevin Bacon will pop up at the 2-episode presentation of Amazon Studios' new TV series I Love Dick.

Moving on to U.S. documentaries, I'm sure the most popular will prove to be Long Strange Trip. Amir Bar-Lev's four-hour profile of the Grateful Dead screens just once, at the Castro on April 15. I disliked the Dead even in my hippie daze, so I'll be giving this one a pass. The music doc I wouldn't dream of missing is Matt Schrader's Score: A Film Music Documentary, which profiles movie composers Ennio Morricone, Mark Mothersbaugh, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Alexandre Desplat and of course, Bernard Herrmann. Speaking of Herrmann, I'm equally excited about the Dark Wave doc 78/52, which promises to analyze Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene to within an inch of its life. The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's film refers to Psycho's 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits.

Documentaries that survey the lives of notable people are a festival staple. If I only catch one this year it'll be Bill Nye: Science Guy, a personal hero of mine who famously spends much of his time debating creationists and climate change deniers on TV. The April 10 screening will feature a Q&A and conversation between Nye, directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, and Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, former Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. Festival-goers interested in Bill Nye will also want to see Chasing Coral, Jeff Orlowski's look at how rising sea temperatures have decimated the world's coral reefs. Orlowski also directed the impressively frightening Chasing Ice, which the fest played in 2012.

Other personality profile docs in the festival include Dolores, Peter Bratt's look at the work of iconic Latina political activist Dolores Huerta, and This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous from Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple. I had never heard of the transgender YouTube sensation who currently has 2.5 million subscribers, but the fact that Kopple chose to document her story certainly makes this worthy of attention. Following the April 12 screening, Gigi Gorgeous and Kopple will be joined by Ian Roth of YouTube Originals and other guests for a discussion about social media's impact on our lives. Of the many remaining documentaries playing the festival I'll briefly mention three. Former Persistence of Vision award winner Jem Cohen returns with World Without End (No Reported Incidents), an impressionistic portrait of British resort town Southend-on-Sea. Brian Knappenberger's timely Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press uses the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media brouhaha to explore a very timely issue. Then in Casting JonBenet, director Kitty Green offers a fresh take on the infamous (and still unsolved) murder of a six-year-old beauty queen.


Friday, March 24, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 - More Big Nights, Awards & Tributes and Special Events

The first order of business at last week's press conference for the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) was addressing the issue of rebranding. There were hints of impending change in some of the graphics used during last year's festival and now it's become official. Henceforth, the festival's parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, will be officially known as SFFILM, and the preferred name for its annual festival is the SFFILM Festival. According to Executive Director Noah Cowan, the change "provides a new kind of flexibility" to the organization and better "reflects the reality and breadth of our programming." Cowan also clarified that the festival's move to an earlier timeframe was meant to create distance with Cannes and therefore better engage the international film industry.

The press conference was held at the new Dolby Cinema on Market Street, and it was my first visit. Boasting a gargantuan screen and ultra-plush stadium seating – and I imagine the best sound found anywhere – the Dolby joins the pantheon of great Bay Area places to see a movie and I can't wait to experience it during the festival. In addition to the new Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, this year's festival makes extensive use of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) for the first time, both its main theater and screening room, creating a mini festival hub around the area of 4th and Mission Streets. Given that I live a quick 15-minute walk away, this suits me perfectly. In all, SFFILM Festival 60 incorporates eight main venues, not including the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, making this the most spread-out fest in the many decades I've been attending.

Following his opening remarks, Cowan and the SFFILM programming team got down to the business of revealing the 2017 line-up. In my previous post I talked about the programs revealed prior to the press conference, including this year's greatly expanded Live & On Stage section. It turns out that was just the iceberg's tip. The fest has whipped up enough 60th edition specialty events to program a decade's worth of festivals. Here are my thoughts. (An overview of SFFILM Festival's roster of narrative and documentary features will appear before the festival's April 5 start date).

Big Nights

⚫ Having previously announced The Green Fog for Closing Night plus the Centerpiece film Patti Cake$, the only Big Night left to reveal at the press conference was Gillian Robespierre's Landline as the fest's Opening Night selection. While I perhaps expected something more grandiose to kick off SFFILM's 60th birthday, I admit to seriously loving Obvious Child, the 2014 "abortion rom-com" that marked the first collaboration between Robespierre and actress/comedian Jenny Slate. SNL alum Slate now returns to star in Landline, a NYC 1995-set dramedy that premiered to solid reviews at Sundance and co-stars Jay Duplass, Edie Falco and John Turturro. Robespierre, Slate and co-writer/producer Elizabeth Holm are the evening's expected guests and the Opening Night party happens at the Regency Center on Van Ness Avenue.

Awards & Tributes

⚫ As if having Ethan Hawke at the festival wasn't spectacular enough, SFFILM Festival will also pay a Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan at its 60th edition. Expect a mob scene at the Castro Theatre on April 14 when the biggest movie star in the world takes the stage for a conversation with Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. I've been a SRK acolyte since seeing 1995's Ram Jaane at Berkeley's now defunct Fine Arts Theatre on Shattuck, which exclusively exhibited Bollywood product in the '90s. I thrilled to the sight of his train-top dance in 1998's Dil Se and our love affair peaked at a riotous screening of Om Shanti Om at the 2008 SF Asian American Film Fest (now CAAMFest). The SFIFF screened his historical epic Asoka in 2002. While I'm elated to finally experience SRK live, I wish a movie other than 2010's My Name is Khan had been chosen to accompany this tribute. Yes, the film remains a timely rebuke of American anti-Muslim sentiment, but it also queasily portrays African Americans in a manner most politely described as "quaint."

⚫ While it appears the festival has discontinued its Founders Directing Award, it still honors one of the world's most beloved filmmakers this year with A Tribute to James Ivory. Berkeley-born Ivory is of course the director of such high-brow classics as A Room with a View, Remains of the Day and Howard's End, and his 44-year production partnership with Ismail Merchant entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest in independent cinema history. Ivory is also getting considerable attention this year for his screenplay of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, perhaps the most rave-reviewed movie of 2017 thus far. As part of this tribute on April 14 at SFMOMA, the festival will screen a 30th anniversary 4K restoration of Ivory's LGBT milestone, Maurice.

⚫ I've been a fan of multimedia-installation-performance-conceptual artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson's films ever since catching her brilliant biopic Conceiving Ada at the 1998 SFIFF. Ensuing festivals brought out equally compelling works like the Tilda Swinton-starring Teknolust and the documentaries Strange Culture and !Women Art Revolution. This year's SFFILM Festival finally honors Hershman-Leeson with its 2017 Persistence of Vision Award, which celebrates a "filmmaker whose main body of work falls outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." Following an on-stage conversation, there will be a screening of Tania Libre, the filmmaker's new doc about radical Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. This all takes place on April 11 at the YBCA Theatre. Festival-goers are encouraged to visit the nearby YBCA museum whose first-floor gallery currently houses her major exhibition Civic Radar (on display through May 21).

⚫ The festival's Mel Novikoff Award is presented each year to an "individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." This year's long overdue recipient is the Bay Area's own Tom Luddy, whose many accomplishments include co-founding the Telluride Film Festival. An on-stage conversation at the Castro Theatre on April 9 will precede two screenings: Une bonne à faire, an extremely rare 8-minute Jean-Luc Godard short that was filmed on the set of Coppola's One from the Heart at Zoetrope Studios, followed by A Long Happy Life. Released in 1966, this little-seen classic Russian road movie and "Chekhovian drama about the solipsism and narcissism of modern characters" would be the only film directed by Gennady Shpalikov, who committed suicide at age 37.

⚫ Another SFIFF accolade that seems to have fallen by the wayside is the Kanbar Screenwriting Award. In its stead, this year's SFFILM Festival offers up A Tribute to John Ridley, who most recently won an Oscar for penning 12 Years a Slave. Ridley is also recognized for writing the story that became David O. Russell's Three Kings, for writing and directing the Jimi Hendrix biopic All is By My Side, as well as writing the novel ("Stray Dogs") which became Oliver Stone's U Turn in 1997. (More importantly to me, he wrote and executive-produced all 21 episodes of The Wanda Sykes Show.) To accompany this special program on April 12 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the fest will screen the first episode of Guerilla, Ridley's upcoming Showtime series about black radical activism in early 1970's London, starring Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay and Idris Elba.

⚫ The 2017 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, traditionally handed out at the ritzy SF Film Society's Award Night Gala, will be presented for the first time in public on April 10 at SFMOMA. The recipient is filmmaker, artist and writer Eleanor Coppola. The evening will feature a screening of Paris Can Wait, her first feature film since the 1991 award-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness. This comic road movie stars Diane Lane as the wife of a high-profile movie producer (Alec Baldwin) who goes on a Cannes-to-Paris adventure with a seductive Frenchman (Arnaud Viard). Paris Can Wait had its Bay Area premiere in the "Culinary Cinema" sidebar of last autumn's Mill Valley Film Festival and will open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 19.

Special Events

⚫ One of the most ingenious happenings at this year's festival has to be film historian David Thomson interviewing William R. Hearst III about Citizen Kane, whose protagonist Charles Foster Kane is based on Hearst's grandfather. Their conversation at the YBCA Theater on April 6 will be followed by a screening of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece, long considered the greatest film ever made until its position was usurped by Hitchcock's Vertigo in 2012. Speaking of both David Thomson and Vertigo, he conducts a master class at SFMOMA on April 16 entitled Two or Three Things That Frighten Me in Vertigo. (Two additional SFFILM Festival master classes are Finding Characters in Unlikely Places with Pixar's Newest Short, Lou and We Are All Storytellers: A Pixar in a Box Workshop for Girls, both to be held at the Walt Disney Family Museum).

⚫ Short on funds? SFFILM Festival has your back with a trio of free screenings. On April 8 at the Vogue Theatre the fest presents Rivers and Tides – Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, the acclaimed documentary which had its international premiere at SFIFF in 2002. The film is being shown as a ramp-up to the world premiere of Thomas Riedelsheimer's Leaning Into the Wind, his latest collaboration with the nature-driven artist. Among other things, Leaning observes Goldsworthy as he creates Tree Fall, one of four artworks found in San Francisco's Presidio park.

The next free screening takes place on April 14 when Hayes Valley's outdoor Proxy space hosts a presentation of Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' documentary about the outsized militaristic police response to the 2014 events in Ferguson, MO. Then on April 15 the Castro Theatre will free-screen Defender, Jim Chai's new documentary about Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's heroic Public Defender and sometime film director (The Slanted Screen, You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story).

⚫ SFFILM Festival isn't the only local arts organization celebrating an important anniversary this year. At Canyon Cinema 50: Guy Maddin Presents The Great Blondino and Other Delights, the fest pays tribute to one of the world's most important distributors of avant-garde and experimental cinema. First released in 1967, Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley's 42-minute Blondino is considered one of the early masterworks of American independent filmmaking. I'm far from a fervent devotee of this strain of cinema, but the fact that Guy Maddin will curate and introduce the selections renders this April 15 event at SFMOMA a personal must-see.

Another Bay Area commemoration of note is Disposable Film Festival 10th Anniversary Retrospective. Founded the same year as the iPhone, the festival was created to exclusively showcase people telling stories with DIY personal technology. Disposable co-founder Carlton Evans will be on hand at the Roxie Theater on April 13 to introduce a dozen of the best shorts culled from the festival's first decade.

⚫ For the second year running, the festival will host a VR Days program. When I attended last year's one-day event (read my report here), the only thing I knew about VR was that it stood for Virtual Reality. Now that I'm a bit more seasoned, I look forward to seeing how the technology has advanced in the past 12 months. This year's VR Days takes place at YBCA Forum on April 9 and 10, with tickets being sold for one-hour timeslots between noon and 7:00 p.m. The line-up of VR experiences will include the Oscar-nominated short Pearl, interactive re-enactments of historic battles (My Brother's Keeper) and cinematic dance on camera (Through You).

⚫ This year's annual State of Cinema Address will be given by Dr. Ed Catmull at the Dolby Cinema on April 8. The co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and five-time Academy Award winner is expected to speak on "the importance of skepticism when exploring new technology," after which several Pixar artists will take the stage for a conversation hosted by Wired magazine. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

SFIFF60 2017 Anticipating the Line-Up

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) celebrates its 60th edition next month, marking an impressive milestone for the oldest continuously-operating film festival in the Western Hemisphere. This year’s event arrives and departs two weeks earlier than usual – from April 5 to 19 – and finds itself centered in the city’s Mission District for a second year running. SFMOMA’s newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater, where the SF Film Society has already co-presented two impressive Modern Cinema series, will happily serve as an additional venue for SFIFF60.

I began blogging about SFIFF on its 50th anniversary in 2006. A decade-plus later it has become a tradition that on the eve of the festival’s opening press conference, I offer a recap of what’s been announced thus far, along with a wish list of 20 films I hope to find in the line-up.

⚫ In addition to taking place a fortnight earlier than usual, this year's festival begins and ends on a Wednesday rather than a Thursday. Another change finds 2017’s Closing Night festivities occurring 72 hours before the festival’s official end date. On Sunday, April 16 at the Castro Theatre, SFIFF60 therefore "concludes" with The Green Fog – A San Francisco Fantasia with Kronos Quartet. For this special collaborative event, Kronos will perform a Jacob Garchik score to a re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as constructed by iconoclast Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and his The Forbidden Room co-directors Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson. Without using a single frame of Hitchcock's original, Maddin's "parallel-universe version" will employ "Bay Area-based footage from a variety of sources – studio classics, '50s noir, documentary, experimental films, and '70s prime-time TV." With a live Foley element added to the mix, this promises to be a major highlight of SFIFF60 and as well as one of the festival's most inspired finales of all time.

⚫ SFIFF60 will honor actor-writer-filmmaker Ethan Hawke with a special tribute on Saturday, April 8 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Following an on-stage conversation, there will be a screening of Aisling Walsh's Maudie, which co-stars Sally Hawkins as renowned Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis. It's unclear at this point whether this tribute supplements or supplants the festival's annual Peter J. Owens Award for Acting, which was presented last year to Ellen Burstyn. For those unable to attend this event, Maudie is scheduled to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 23.

⚫ SFIFF is usually the Bay Area's first chance to catch the big hits from Sundance. This year's Centerpiece event spotlights Patti Cake$, Geremy Jasper's ultra-rave-reviewed debut feature which shockingly failed to win a single Sundance prize. The film revolves around a plus-sized, white lower middle class, aspiring teen rapper from New Jersey who enlists the help of her South Asian best friend and an African American lone-rocker musician to achieve her dreams. Think Welcome to the Dollhouse meets Precious meets 8-Mile? Variety critic Peter Debruge called Patti Cake$ "the kind of movie where the energy builds to such levels that a packed-house audience can hardly resist bursting into applause." To that end, SFIFF60 wisely places 2017's Centerpiece film at the enormous Castro Theatre on Wednesday, April 12.

⚫ As has been the case for several years now, the festival pre-announced the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards' New Directors Prize and Documentary Feature Prize. Among the 10 narrative feature contenders, there are three I'm particularly excited about. In Ralitza Petrova's Godless, a morphine-addicted Bulgarian nurse steals senior citizens' ID cards and sells them on the black market. According to Variety's Jay Weissberg, the film "goes to great lengths to rub the viewer's face in the joylessness of life in a post-Communist world." Sounds like a "festival" flick if there ever was one! The jury at last summer's Locarno Film Festival saw fit to award Godless its top prize (the Golden Leopard) as well as its Best Actress accolade to lead player Irena Ivanova. Another film laying claim to a pair of Locarno prizes was Eduardo Williams' The Human Surge. Shot in Buenos Aires, Mozambique and the Philippines, this "adventurously formalist" debut loosely concerns three young men and their relationship to technology. The film had a NYC theatrical release just last week and I'm grateful the festival will be bringing it our way.

The third New Director's Prize nominee I'm anticipating is Francis Lee's God's Own Country, which won Sundance's Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Set amidst the Yorkshire moors, this romance between a hard-drinking young sheep farmer and an itinerant Romanian migrant worker has drawn comparisons to Brokeback Mountain. The remaining competition entries hail from Iran (Duet), Mexico (Everything Else), Lebanon (Heaven Sent), USA (The House of Tomorrow), China (Life After Life), Greece (Park) and Niger (The Wedding Ring).

Over in the GGA documentary feature competition, only one film has surfaced on my radar and that's Peter Nicks' The Force. Nicks previous work was The Waiting Room, a beautifully empathetic portrait of Oakland's Highland Hospital which the fest screened to great acclaim in 2012. The Force marks the second part of a trilogy on the relationship between public institutions and the communities they serve, with this new film setting its gaze upon Oakland's police department. For his work on The Force, Nicks won the Best Director prize in the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance. Other SFIFF60 films competing for the GGA Doc Award span a range of interests from Mexico's National Pyrotechnic Festival (Brimstone & Glory) to falconry in Qatar (The Challenge) to India's movie caravans (The Cinema Travellers).

⚫ Four ambitious programs have thus far been announced as part of the festival's Live & Onstage sidebar. For starters, the UK band Asian Dub Foundation will perform a Live Score of George Lucas' THX:1138 at the Castro Theatre on April 11. Then two nights later on April 13, the Denver-based music/vocal ensemble DeVotchKa will accompany Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent masterpiece The Man With a Movie Camera at the Castro. DeVotchKa is possibly best known for their film score to Little Miss Sunshine, and it'll be interesting to see how their Movie Camera score compares to that of the Alloy Orchestra, which was performed most recently at the 2010 SF Silent Film Festival.

Two additional Live & Onstage presentations have connections to Marin's Headlands Center for the Arts, whose current Director of Programs, Sean Uyehara, served as SFIFF's chief Live & Onstage programmer for a number of years. On April 10 at the Castro, Parallel Spaces: Will Oldham and Jerome Hiler will find actor/musician (and 2008 Headlands Artist in Residence) Will Oldham performing alongside three works by Bay Area experimental filmmaker Jerome Hiler. Headlands' 2014 Artist in Residence, artist and filmmaker Terence Nance, will present the interactive live program 18 Black Girls Aged 1 - 18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines at the Victoria Theatre on April 16, with a separate program focused on 18 Black Boys taking place the following evening.

Predictions and Wish List
Each year I enjoy ruminating on which films might make the cut for SFIFF inclusion, and follow that up with a 20-film festival wish list. Landmark Theatres' upcoming release calendar has been my most dependable crystal ball in years past, as the festival traditionally features many of the arthouse chain's spring and summer offerings. In their weekly mailing to press, however, Landmark no longer lists movies arriving more than several weeks out. That said, there are three films scheduled to open Friday, April 21 that I do consider strong SFIFF possibilities: the animated satire My Entire High School is Falling into the Sea, the Anne Hathaway monster movie Colossal (from Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo) and Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, the Romanian director's follow-up to Beyond the Hills which won the Best Director prize at Cannes last year. Three feature documentaries on Landmark's horizon could also find themselves in the SFIFF60 line-up: Finding Oscar, Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia, and Citizen Jane: Battle Cry for the City.

As for this year's wish list, I could have easily filled all 20 slots with French language films, due in part to the void created by the discontinuation of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now mini-fest. The movies I've chosen below all debuted on the 2016 festival circuit but have yet to make a Bay Area appearance – in other words, it's getting to be now-or-never time.

By the Time It Gets Dark (Thailand dir. Anocha Suwichakornpong)
The Death of Louis XIV (Portugal/Spain/France dir. Albert Serra)
Endless Poetry (Chile dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Heal the Living (France dir. Katell Quillévéré)
Hedi (Tunisia dir. Mohamed Ben Attia)
It's Only the End of the World (Canada/France dir. Xavier Dolan)
A Journey Through French Cinema (France dir. Bertrand Tavernier)
Ma' Rosa (Philippines, dir. Brilliante Mendoza)
Mister Universo (Austria/Italy dir. Tizza Cova, Rainer Frimmel)
Moka (France/Switzerland dir. Frédéric Mermoud)
Nocturama (France dir. Bertrand Bonello)
The Ornithologist (Portugal dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)
Rat Film (USA dir. Theo Anthony)
Safari (Austria, dir. Ulrich Seidl)
Scarred Hearts (Romania dir. Radu Jude)
Sieranevada (Romania dir. Cristi Puiu)
Slack Bay (France dir. Bruno Dumont)
Souvenir (Belgium dir. Bavo Defume)
The Untamed (Mexico dir. Emat Escalante)
Yourself and Yours (South Korea dir. Hong Sang-soo)