Wednesday, December 2, 2009

November Film Fest Smackdown - Aftermath & Beyond

November is now finito and the final bell has sounded for the 2009 Bay Area Battle of Fall Film Festivals. Some I immersed myself in (Mill Valley, French Cinema Now, 3rd i, SF Latino), some I stuck a toe in (Arab Film Festival, Taiwan Film Week, New Italian Cinema) and others I just watched float by (SF DocFest, American Indian, Chinese and Animation Fests). Here's a blow-by-blow synopsis of how last month ultimately shook out, followed by a glance at some of festival-less December's festive film choices.

The first November festival was the SF Film Society's expanded, week-long French Cinema Now, which overlapped from October. I caught 10 of the dozen films on offer, missing only
The 400 Blows revival and the Michel Gondry documentary. All ten had at least some element of extraordinariness to recommend them. Surprisingly, my two favorites were films that had evaded my Francophilic radar – Sylvie Verheyde's heartfelt coming-of-age-er Stella and Axelle Ropert's odd, small town family melodrama The Wolberg Family. Following close behind were Alain Guiraudie's The King of Escape and Michel Hazanavicius' almost-but-not-quite-as-clever-as-its-predecessor, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, both benefiting greatly from the insight offered by their in-attendance directors.

Crowds seemed lighter this year, except for the powerhouse Closing Night duo of Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia and Claude Chabrol's Bellamy, which were sold out. That night a mini-revolt broke out at the Clay Theater when patrons at the first screening were forbidden from marking their seats with a coat for the second screening, contrary to what had been permitted for the six days previous. Now it's official policy for all Film Society events – if you're seeing back-to-back films you must pick up your stuff, exit the theater and go to the back of the ticket line. This presents a dilemma – does one stay for the end credits and Q&A, or make a beeline out the door to avoid getting a lousy seat for the next film?

The first full weekend in November was a vexing choice between the SF Film Society's Taiwan Film Days and the 3rd i SF International South Asian Film Festival. From the former I only saw the opening night film, Wei Te-sheng's Cape No 7, which was more broad and sentimental than I expected – perhaps not surprising considering it's status as Taiwan's #1 all-time box office champ. An hour into it, and with another hour still to go, I decided I'd seen enough and left behind a sold-out crowd that was clearly having a swell time. Later I heard that Fy Tien-yu's Somewhere I Have Never Dreamed was the film I should have seen, and that the Closing Night screening of No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (Taiwan's 2009 Oscar submission) was a disaster due to a malfunctioning digital projection system. (It was the only film in the series not shown in 35mm – a lesson to be learned here?)

Digital projection also did no favors for my first 3rd i screening the next afternoon, a Castro Theater revival of Guru Dutt's 1960 Bollywood classic, Full Moon. I understand that October's Dutt retrospective at Lincoln Center was also all-digital. But I have to assume the film looked better at the Walter Reade Theater than it did at the Castro, where it resembled a third or fourth generation VHS tape dub. Still, Full Moon was a charmer, and it was neat to have Dutt's son Aran, there to introduce it. I returned to the Castro later that evening for contemporary Bollywood hit Dil Bole Hadippa!, which was screened in glorious 35mm. A group of us expected to take off at intermission, but when the house-lights came up at 11:30 p.m. we were having way too much fun watching poor, confused Shahid Kapoor chase after cross-dressing Rani Mukherjee – the late hour be damned. The only bummer of the evening was a deadly and interminable speech from the festival's main corporate sponsor, which all but murdered the savvy, rousing film intro delivered by Festival Director Ivan Jaigirdar just minutes before.

I came on Sunday for two more 3rd i selections at the Castro. By the time you read this, Tariq Tapa's Srinagar-set indie Zero Bridge may well have won a Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. That would be terrific, because this engaging, lo-fi tale of a young man trying to escape his circumstances deserves to be seen by more than the devoted few who turned up at the Castro on such a gorgeous autumn afternoon. That evening, however, people did come out in droves for the festival's Closing Night film, Yes Madam, Sir, Megan Doneman's fine bio-doc about India's top female super-cop, Kiran Bedi. Both the director and her subject were in attendance, the latter evoking rock star adulation from the crowd with two standing ovations. The Q&A was focused exclusively on Bedi (who curiously side-stepped a direct question about LGBT persecution in India), until The Evening Class' Michael Guillén brought Doneman back up to the stage to talk about how the film came to be. It turns out that Doneman (an assistant editor on the last two The Lord of the Rings films) simply bought a camera, read the instructions on her flight to India and then showed up unannounced on Bedi's Kolcotta doorstep. Shot over the course of six years, the Helen Mirren-narrated film got picked up for U.S. distribution just days before its 3rd i screening and will see some sort of Bay Area release next spring. Doneman was not at liberty to say who the distributor is. Following the screening, the high energy continued at a fabulous closing party up in the Castro mezzanine. It's worth noting that 3rd i, now in its seventh year, had its most successful festival yet in 2009, with a 15% increase in attendance and three sold-out shows at the Roxie Theater. (Pictured, in foreground: Anuj Vaidya and Ivan Jaigirdar from 3rd i, and Kiran Bedi.)

The following weekend I pretty much devoted to the newly revamped SF Latino Film Festival and their two-day stint at Landmark's Lumiere Theater. On Friday night I was dismayed to find myself literally the only person in the audience for Emilio Portes'
Meet the Head of Juan Pérez. This was a shame, as this madcap farce about a Mexican circus magician's guillotine obsession had plenty going for it (including being one of only three films in the fest screened in 35mm). It was kind of a shock to see Isela Vega, the voluptuous star of Sam Peckinpah's similarly titled Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, now age 70 and playing the circus' creepy old fortuneteller.

Fortunately, the fest attracted somewhat larger crowds on Saturday, as I settled in for a four-film marathon. First up was Victor Jesus' How Could I Not Love You, an earnestly middling yarn from Mexico about a none-too-bright young man's desire to play professional futbol. That was followed by 1, 2 and 3 Women, a Venezuelan portmanteau film featuring three women's stories by three women directors. I was particularly taken by the first, which concerned an office cleaning lady who finds a wad of cash hidden in a men's toilet stall. Up third was Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Gonna Explode, a popular film on the 2008 fest circuit. Two disaffected misfit teens, a rich boy and a lower class girl, go on the lam – not by hitting the road, but by hiding out on the roof of the boy's family mansion and pilfering supplies as needed. The film works as a wry little satire for a good while before taking its teen-angst nihilism way too seriously. (I'm Gonna Explode is currently available to watch on IFC's Festival Direct). The festival ended on a high note with Uruguayan director Adrián Biniez' Berlin Golden Bear winner Gigante. In this witty, deadpan social comedy, an overweight, Death Metal-lovin' supermarket security guard clandestinely pursues the janitress of his dreams. The film's U.S. distributor is Film Movement, so don't be surprised to find it booked into the SF Film Society's Kabuki screen when it re-launches in January. I'd happily see Gigante again, if only to savor Beniez' masterful wide-screen compositions in 35mm.

Sunday the 15th offered a choice between Opening Night of the Film Society's New Italian Cinema (a party and screening of Marco Risi's
Fortapàsc), or the SFMOMA/Castro Theater four-part event supporting Erased James Franco. I opted for the latter. As it would turn out, a mixture of burnout, ill health and lack of enthusiasm lead me to only see one of the Italian films this year, Closing Nighter Vincere from Marco Bellocchio (a mesmerizing, but confounding saga about Mussolini's mistress and the illegitimate son she bore him). Friends who attended the entire 11-film series were particularly impressed by Marco Amenta's The Sicilian Girl (just picked up for U.S. distribution by Music Box Films), Marco Pontecorvo's PA-RA-DA and to a lesser extent, the festival's City of Florence audience award winner, Donatella Maiorca's Sea Purple.

As for James Franco, a diverse, adoring mob was on hand at the Castro Theater to see mono-monikered artist Carter's quasi-experimental, collaborative video performance piece. In it, Franco "performs" dialogue lifted from his own body of work, as well as lines from Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) and John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966). It helped immensely to have attended screenings of both films earlier in the day. Safe was better than I remembered it, and Seconds, which I had never seen, was a revelation. When Erased James Franco began, the audience cracked up as the opening credits hit the screen – "Starring James Franco as Julianne Moore, James Franco as Rock Hudson, and James Franco as James Franco." After the screening, Franco and Carter came on-stage for a rollicking Q&A. The actor was spiffily dressed in jacket and tie, in contrast to the slovenly appearance he put in at that afternoon's SFMOMA screening of back-to-back Freaks and Geeks episodes. That audience was comprised exclusively of Caucasian women in their twenties, plus a smattering of gay guys.

When I wasn't attending film festivals in November, I was out discovering new movie theaters like the VIZ Cinema in Japantown. When it opened back in August, I took note and filed it away – digitally-projected contemporary Japanese genre films not being my thing. Then last month I noticed they were screening a 35mm print of Shinji Aoyama's 2007
Sad Vacation with Tadanobu Asano, a sort-of sequel to the director's 217-minute butt-bruising Eureka from 2000. This was no one-off screening, but a full two week run – so I had to check it out. I'm happy to report that this subterranean, 143-seat cinema is comfy and very brightly lit (you can read without eye strain before the movie starts!) and the 35mm projection and sound is flawless. I understand it's going to be used as a supplemental venue during next year's SF International Asian American Film Festival. (I have no idea who the people are in the photo below, but it was the only on-line image I could find of the theater's snazzy interior).

Finally, just when you thought our fall film calendar couldn't get any more crowded, comes the announcement that Berlin & Beyond, which traditionally kicks off the Bay Area's festival year each January, will be moving to the fall in 2010. There's a seamy backstory to this, involving shabby treatment of beloved, longtime B&B director Ingrid Eggers and the subsequent refusal of the Bay Area festival community to support an Eggers-less B&B. I e-mailed the Goethe-Institute to say they were crazy to move the festival to an already overstuffed autumn. They e-mailed back to assure me they aren't crazy. We will see. Walter Addiego provides more details at SF Gate.

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And now just a few words (yeah, right!) about what to look out for in December. If I only attend one film event this month (yeah, right!) it'll be the SF Silent Film Festival's Winter Event at the Castro on Saturday the 12th. I'll be posting a preview piece on this next week, so stay tuned. Also coming to the venerable Castro this month is a 16-film tribute to producer Samuel Goldwyn (Dec. 2 to 10, including classics like
Guys and Dolls, The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives as well as some rarities), a 13-film overview of Alfred Hitchcock (Dec. 16 to 23, and hell, his films are all classics), and a Midnites For Maniacs "Ladies of the Eighties" triple-bill on Friday, Dec. 11 (Jumpin' Jack Flash, Desperately Seeking Susan and Liquid Sky).

Downtown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Film & Video Curator Joel Shepard has programmed an uncharacteristic bunch of films for December that they're calling "The Joy of Life." This diverse line-up includes Jacques Tati's
Parade, the outrageously fun contempo Bollywood classic Om Shanti Om, W.C. Field's It's a Gift from 1934 (quite possibly the funniest film ever made), the all-singing/dancing That's Entertainment III, and something more emblematic of YBCA, a program of short films by gay provocateur Curt McDowell.

Across the Bay at the Pacific Film Archive, they're currently in the throes of retrospectives for Alain Resnais, Otto Preminger and the European films of Ingrid Bergman. I've got a big, red circle drawn around Sunday the 6th, which is when they'll
be screening The Underground Orchestra (master documentarian Heddy Honigmann's 1998 film about Parisian subway buskers), followed by Roberto Rossellini's 1954 Voyage to Italy with Bergman and George Sanders (which I'm told is referenced in Almodóvar's new film). Then, in a supplemental program to the Preminger series, the indispensable Film On Film Foundation is sponsoring a rare showing of 1963's epic The Cardinal at 7:30.

Finally, I can not recommend highly enough local filmmaker Frazer Bradshaw's Everything Strange and New, which opens at the Roxie on December 6. I caught this cynical, haunting meditation on suburban discontent (filmed in Oakland!) at this year's SF International Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI prize. I can't wait to have a second look.


Maya said...

...and what a film fest smackdown it was, eh? I'm still drenched in sweat.

Incredible overview, Michael. I forget movies almost as soon as I've seen them. I'm amazed that you retain the palpable sense of your reactions. Thanks for letting these events not pass by without comment.

Michael Hawley said...

As always, thanks for your kind comments, Michael.

Unfortunately, ZERO BRIDGE didn't win the Gotham Award for "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You." But it has picked up Indie Spirit nominations for the John Cassavetes Award (given to the best feature made for under $500,000)and the Someone to Watch Award (for director Tariq Tapa).

Brian said...

Dizzyingly comprehensive post, Michael. Thanks for recording your season for those of us who missed most (or all?) of this.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks, Brian. This was an attempt to do something a little different. I'm always doing preview pieces (which is what the publicists want), but I rarely follow up and reflect post-fest on what I've experienced.