Monday, June 8, 2009
SFFS Screen - June/July 2009
After a too-long, 12-week hiatus, the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas finally comes back into play this week. The nine films in the current series – each slated for a one-week run – represent the Screen's most inspired line-up since its launch exactly one year ago. While only three of them are Bay Area premieres, they're three movies I'm really dying to see. As for the other six – half represent the best Latin American cinema to play recent festivals here, two are European films I missed the first time around (and I'm grateful for the second chance), and one's an Oscar-nominated clunker that played the Mill Valley fest last autumn. Here's a list of titles and dates:
Fados (June 5 to 11)
Munyurangabo (June 12 to 18)
Katyn (June 19 to 25)
Three Monkeys (June 26 to July 2)
Eldorado (July 3 to 9)
Julia (July 10 to 16)
The Window (July 17 to 23)
Lake Tahoe (July 24 to 30)
Lion's Den (July 31 to August 6)
For his 41st film, veteran Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura conjures another cinematic excursion into Iberian musical heritage, a passion that has consumed at least half his output since 1981's Blood Wedding. His subject this time out is the longing mournfulness of Portuguese fado music. I passed on seeing this at the 2008 SF International because fado's not my thing and truth be told, I'm a bigger fan of Saura's non-musical films. But I don't plan to miss it this time. The film features performances from several musical artists I respect (Chico Buarque, Lila Downs, Cesária Évora, Caetano Veloso) and judging from the trailer, also appears to be a valentine to my second favorite city in Europe. (Update 6/8/09 Fados is a hit and will be held over for at least one more week).
Premiering to rapturous reviews at Cannes 2007, this little film with an unpronounceable name became a must-see film on the festival circuit. Exactly why it's taken so long to reach the Bay Area – despite its innate appeal for our International, Asian-American and African film festivals – is something I'd love to know. Anyway, it's here at long last. This first paragraph from Robert Kohler's Variety review gives you the gist of its greatness: "Like a bolt out of the blue, Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung achieves an astonishing and thoroughly masterful debut with Munyurangabo which is – by several light years – the finest and truest film yet on the moral and emotional repercussions of the 15-year-old genocide that wracked Rwanda. Pic's supremely confident, simple storytelling and relaxed, slightly impressionist visual style follow a conflict that emerges between two friends as one makes a long-delayed homecoming. This is, flat-out, the discovery of this year's Un Certain Regard." Further reading: Michael Guillen's 2007 Toronto interview with Lee Isaac Chung and scriptwriter Samuel Anderson for The Evening Class.
One of the five nominees for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (losing out to Takita Yôjirô's Departures), Katyn screened at the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival. Although I was unmoved, the film obviously has its defenders. Here's my Mill Valley capsule write-up for The Evening Class: "It's a tragedy that 82-year-old Polish maestro Andrzej Wajda most likely ends his illustrious career with this disjointed, turgid and unremarkable film. Katyn is where the Soviet military massacred as many as 22,000 Polish army officers in the spring of 1940. The film begins assuredly enough, following one family through the events leading up to the tragedy. In the film's huge, muddled mid-section, however (which details the mistreatment of Poles through the remainder of the war and the post-war Soviet cover-up of the Katyn slaughter), things run aground. The story lurches from one event to the next, and significant characters seem to randomly drop from the sky. It's only in the film's final 20 minutes – a sobering flashback to the Katyn massacre itself – that we finally encounter some of the stunning imagery for which Wajda is famous. This is one for auteur completists and WWII buffs only."
This is the film I'm most looking forward to. Despite a mixed critical reaction, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan won a 2008 Best Director prize at Cannes for this moody slice of Turkish noir (and was subsequently invited to return this year as a jury member). In contemporary Istanbul, a man agrees to take the blame for his boss' involvement in a hit and run accident. He receives a short stint in prison and a tidy sum of money, which result in some unpleasant and unexpected repercussions for him and his family. Ceylan works once again with DP Gökhan Tiryaki, the man who also shot the director's 2006 Climates (perhaps the world's most gorgeous-looking digitally-made film to date).
Along with Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero, this second feature from Belgian actor/writer/director Bouli Lanners was the surprise hit of Cannes 2008's Directors Fortnight (with Variety's Leslie Felperin calling it "damn near perfect.") The film was also Belgium's Oscar submission, and I missed seeing it at the Rafael Film Center's "For Your Consideration" series back in January. In this absurdist, melancholic road movie, Lanners himself plays an importer of vintage American autos who one day finds a junkie robbing his home. He befriends the man, and the two take off in the titular vehicle for the junkie's hometown. They have some strange encounters en route, including one with a collector of cars that have crashed in fatal accidents (played by the baddest boogeyman of French language cinema, Philippe Nahon (I Stand Alone, Calvaire, High Tension).
In 1998, French director Erick Zonca set the film world on fire with his acclaimed The Dreamlife of Angels, and followed that up a year later with the featurette, The Little Thief. Who would have thought a decade might pass before he'd be heard from again? Or even more so, that his return would star Tilda Swinton as a drunken L.A. floozy who kidnaps a boy in order to extort money from a Mexican industrialist? Certainly not I. Julia premiered at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and mostly took a trouncing from critics. They all agreed, however, that Swinton's haywire performance is the very definition of fearlessness.
Perhaps my biggest regret at this year's SF International Film Festival was having to miss Carlos Sorin, who was in town to promoting this gem of a film. I caught it on DVD screener and this was my 75-word capsule hold-review for the festival: "My favorite Argentine director returns to SFIFF with this lovely tale of an old man's earthly farewell. At a remote Patagonian hacienda, bedridden Don Antonio dictates the preparations for a visit by his estranged son, a famous European pianist. Amidst the hubbub, he eludes his vigilant housekeepers and slips out for a fateful final stroll in the fields, reconnecting with life's pleasures (like pissing in the breeze). Elegant, nuanced, leisurely, melancholy, reflective, humorous and masterful."
Fernando Eimbcke's second feature recently won Ariels (Mexico's Oscar equivalent) for Best Film and Best Director, adding to a long list of accolades bestowed since its 2008 Berlin premiere. Following the film's SFIFF screenings, there was debate over its relative merits compared to Eimbcke's 2004 debut, Duck Season. Some (myself included), admired Lake Tahoe, but felt it lacked much of the energy and inventiveness of the earlier film. Others felt the exact opposite, and insisted on the latter film's deeper emotional resonance. And no one could agree about those long, between-scene blackouts. Clearly, it's a film I need to see again. What everyone did agree upon was the magnificence of Alexis Zabe's wide-screen, sun-washed color cinematography. (Zabe also shot the B&W Duck Season, plus Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light.) The plot, such as it is: In an extended series of deadpan vignettes, a young man who has just lost his father, and even more recently crashed the family car, interacts with the strange denizens of his small coastal Yucatan town while searching for a new distributor harness.
Perhaps the only women's prison movie to ever compete for a Palme d'Or, this new work from respected New Argentine Cinema director Pablo Trapero (Crane World, Rolling Family, Born and Bred) gets a single screening at Frameline this month, before returning to the SFFS screen in August. Protagonist Julia wakes up one morning to find her boyfriend dead and his male lover wounded. Despite being pregnant and unable to remember how it all happened, she's convicted and confined to a special prison ward where incarcerated women raise their kids until age 4. While receiving generally positive reviews for its humanist look at the issue of prison child-rearing (with unanimous raves for lead actress Martina Gusman, who is also Trapero's wife), the film has been criticized for wallowing in such genre tropes as horny lesbians and vicious catfighting (which I doubt will hinder my enjoyment of Lion's Den one bit).