Tuesday, July 21, 2009

SF Jewish Film Festival 2009 - Preview

The 29th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) begins this Thursday, July 23 and continues through August 10 at various Bay Area venues. You'll find me at the Castro Theater much of this coming weekend, catching some of the festival's most highly-anticipated titles like Defamation, The Yes Men Fix the World and Acné. Meanwhile, here are capsule write-ups of eight films I previewed on screener, roughly in order of most favorite to least.

Zion and His Brother
Director Eran Merav makes an assured feature film debut with this gritty, affecting family drama set in working-class Haifa. 14-year-old Zion both worships and despises his older brother Meir, a hot-headed miscreant who makes life miserable for their divorced mother and her older boyfriend. When tragedy erupts over mistaken identity and a stolen pair of shoes, Zion is forced to reevaluate his allegiances and life direction. The performances are first-rate, particularly the never-less-than-amazing Ronit Elkabetz (The Band's Visit, Late Marriage, Or) as the mother, and a remarkably intense Ofer Hayan, making his screen debut as the older brother. I'm still pondering the film's abrupt ending.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Chances are you've never heard of broadcasting pioneer Gertrude Berg, a writing-acting-producing powerhouse who was once the highest paid woman in America. That's an embarrassment Aviva Kempner handily sets right in this breezy, informative documentary. Debuting on radio one month after the 1929 crash, her family sit-com The Goldbergs gave comfort to Americans throughout the Great Depression and WWII, with her character Molly Goldberg yoo-hoo-ing to neighbors from across her Bronx apartment airshaft window. The program brought Jewish family life into millions of homes, and was second in popularity only to Amos and Andy. In 1949 the show made the switch to TV, which resulted in Berg winning the first ever Emmy Award for acting (she'd also win a Tony Award in 1959 for A Majority of One). Kempner's film does a winning job of profiling Berg, from her youth in the family's Catskills resort hotel, to her fierce defense of blacklisted actor and union activist Philip Loeb, the actor who played her husband Jake Goldberg. At the July 28 screening at the Castro, Kempner will receive this year's SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award. And if you want to see more of The Goldbergs, there's a separate festival program comprised of four back-to-back episodes of the TV show.

The Wedding Song (Closing Night Film)
A Jewish girl and Muslim girl, best friends and both of marriageable age, are the protagonists in Karin Albou's powerful new film set in 1942 Nazi-occupied Tunis. Nour desperately wants to wed her finance Khaled, but until he finds employment they must settle for clandestine rooftop trysts arranged by her Jewish friend Myriam. Myriam, on the other hand, is being forced by her increasingly desperate mother (played by the director) into an arranged marriage with the arrogant, wealthy Jewish doctor Raoul (a reliably terrific Simon Abkarian). Meanwhile, the radio blasts anti-Semitic propaganda, Khaled gets a job helping Nazis round up Tunisian Jews and Raoul is sent to a labor camp – all of which tests the girls' loyalties and courage. With one brief exception, Albou sets her film exclusively within the claustrophobic confines of the Tunis medina, effectively mirroring her characters' constricted circumstances. She also takes pain to ensure that her male characters are not one-dimensional monsters – except for the Nazis of course. Finally, I was delighted to hear, of all things, Nina Hagen's Naturträne being used as a musical leitmotif throughout.

A History of Israeli Cinema
At 210 minutes long, this documentary won't appeal to anyone with a mere casual interest in its subject matter. But if you've spent the past 10 years watching Israeli cinema develop into one of the most vital in the world (my own starting point was Amos Gitai's 1999 Kadosh), this doc will provide you with an essential, evolutionary roadmap. From early Zionist works to the "New Sensitivity Cinema" of the 60's to the art films of today, director Raphaël Nadjari skillfully demonstrates how the nation's psyche has been continually reflected in its cinema. Broken into two parts (1933-1977 and 1978-2007), the film never strays from its staid film-clips-and-talking-heads format – and that's OK. My only complaint is that the ample clips are not identified by year of release, making it somewhat difficult to envision a timeline.

I Am Von Höfler
Hungarian documentarian Péter Forgács is a SFJFF regular, which culminated in his receiving last year's Freedom of Expression Award. In his singular style, he tells stories of 20th century European Jews using only narration, sound effects, photos, letters, home movies and ephemera. His remarkable subject this time out is one Tibor Von Höfler – heir to a Pécs leather tanning dynasty who was also a motorcycle enthusiast, erotic photographer, womanizer and pianist – and whose long life bore witness to the Great Depression, WWII (he was half-Jewish on his mother's side) and the rise and fall of communism. Forgács' engrossing new film pieces together a seamless biography, giving the viewer a vivid sense of time and place, customs and mores. It has been hypothesized that an 18th century relative of Von Höfler's served as the inspiration for Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the film's only misstep, Forgács inserts clips from a dated, hippie-ish 1976 short called Werther and His Life, directed by his Balázs Béla Film Studio cohort, Janos Xantus. These clips pop-up throughout, adding incongruity and bloat to the 160-minute running time.

Lost Islands
This was Israel's biggest box office hit of 2008 and it's easy to see why. It's a big, rambunctious family dramedy set in the early '80s with a catchy pop soundtrack. The first half is almost cartoonish in its depiction of family squabbles and teen antics, the latter perpetuated by a pair of unlikely twin brothers who lust after the same classmate. The film takes on emotional weight, however, after a tragic accident causes dreams to be deferred, and the First Lebanon War threatens to destabilize the family and a nation. This is no art film, but it is broad, populist filmmaking at its most enjoyable – with terrific performances, offbeat humor and a genuine love for its characters.

A Matter of Size (Centerpiece Film)
Four overweight Israeli men find self acceptance in sumo wrestling. That's the unique premise of this agreeable, but strictly formulaic comedy which is unsurprisingly on track for a Hollywood remake. Due to his weight, hulking Herzl has lost his job and been 86-ed from his dieting club. Inspired by a televised sumo match at a Japanese restaurant (where he now works as a dishwasher, and whose owner is conveniently a former sumo trainer), he convinces his friends to take wrap themselves in a mawashi and start rasslin'. In the conflicted process, life lessons are learned and romance blooms for all involved. If you've enjoyed plucky British arthouse comedies of recent years (think The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, Waking Ned Devine), you'll probably like this. If not, you probably won't.

Hello Goodbye
Last and least comes this strained, unconvincing farce about a non-observant Parisian gynecologist (Gerard Depardieu) and his convert wife (Fanny Ardant) starting life anew in Israel. With the deck stacked against them from the get-go (his job vanishes, their condo remains unbuilt and their shipping container falls into the Mediterranean), the film bludgeons drama and yuks out of Israeli bureaucracy, his circumcision and her infatuation with a studly, pot-smoking young Rabbi (a wasted Lior Ashkenazi). A jarringly erratic and inappropriate pop music soundtrack (Peter Bjorn and John's Young Folks plays against a praying scene at the Wailing Wall) compliments the narrative like a berserk iPod shuffle. In contrast, the SF Chronicle's Mick LaSalle found the film to be "funny," "perceptive" and "illuminating." Perhaps you will, too.

Monday, July 6, 2009

SF Silent Film Festival 2009

July is here – which means it's time to jump aboard the time machine with the dial set for 1920s San Francisco. The SF Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) returns for its 14th glorious edition this weekend, and lucky Bay Area filmgoers (and scores of devoted out-of-towners) will get to relive the magnificent era of silent movies once more.

SFSFF is a first-rate act, which explains why it's become the most prestigious annual event of its kind in the Americas. How so? First, you begin with a venue like the built-in-'22 Castro Theater, perhaps the nation's most beloved extant movie palace. Next you program an eclectic, challenging and fun group of films and exhibit them with the best possible 35mm prints. Then you hire the cream of internationally renowned silent movie musicians to accompany the films. Throw in a printed program of scholarly essays, informative slideshows before each screening, lots of special guests and a Grand Prize Raffle courtesy of San Francisco's McRoskey Mattress Company – and there you have it. Thanks to the festival, I've gone from being marginally interested in silent cinema, to having the SFSFF be the most anticipated three days of my film-going year.

When the line-up was announced last month, I'd hoped to find a program or two worth skipping out on. But of course, it all sounds too good, which means being sequestered in the Castro (with time off to go home and sleep) from 7 p.m. Friday until 10 p.m. Sunday. This year's roster is a typical SFSFF mix of familiar actors (Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, W.C. Fields, John Gilbert) and directors (King Vidor, Josef von Sternberg, D.W. Griffith), with the distinctly less familiar (Soviet-era sci-fi and a French surrealist take on Edgar Allen Poe). Here's a cursory jaunt through the entire weekend's schedule.

Friday, July 10

7:00 P.M. The Gaucho
At the height of his career in 1927, Douglas Fairbanks wrote and starred in this adventure extravaganza, playing a rakish but honorable Argentine bandit called upon to defend a pilgrimage site from plunder. The film co-stars Lupe Velez in her first major role, an actress I only know from a dubious appearance in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (a sordid story involving suicide and a toilet bowl). The film was directed by F. Richard Jones, Mary Pickford has a cameo as the Virgin Mary, and Mexican locations stand in for the Argentine pampas. I'm sure I'll know lots more after reading the film's program notes, written by none other than Hell On Frisco Bay's Brian Darr. Featuring the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. After the screening, the SFSFF opening night party takes place in the Castro mezzanine with drinks and live music.

Saturday, July 11

10:00 A.M Amazing Tales From the Archives
For the fourth year in a row, SFSFF offers this FREE-admission spotlight on film preservation. (And speaking of FREE, kids under 12 get into ALL SFSFF shows gratis!) The program's highlights include a restored 1911 Edison short, How the Hungry Man Was Fed, and Screen Snapshots: 7th Series, with behind the scenes footage of Ramon Navarro and Clara Bow. Presenters are Joe Lindner and Heather Olson of the Academy Film Archive, along with 2008's SFSFF preservation fellowship recipient Anne Smatia. Featuring Stephen Horne on piano.

12:00 P.M. Bardleys the Magnificent
This 1926 King Vidor-directed romantic swashbuckler was considered lost, until a near-complete, but unprojectable print was discovered in a French cellar in 2008. It's been digitally restored and will therefore be projected digitally at the festival, marking a SFSFF first. John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman star in a tale of mistaken identity and political intrigue set in the court of Louis XIII. Featuring the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

2:30 P.M. Wild Rose
A romance between a poor country girl and a rich Shanghai artist is played out in this 1932 film from acclaimed Chinese director Sun Yu. Set against the backdrop of Japan's invasion of Manchuria, the film is said to explore issues of class-ism and the country's rural/urban divide. It stars Wang Renmei as the titular Wild Rose, and Jin Yan, the "Valentino of China." Jin Yan's widow, Qin Yi will be on hand to introduce the screening. Featuring Donald Sosin on piano.

5:00 P.M. Underworld
George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent star as gangster Bull Weed and his moll Feathers, in this slice of 1927 silent proto-noir from director Josef von Sternberg. Ben Hecht wrote the story (in tandem with an uncredited scenario by Howard Hawks) and then demanded his name be removed once he saw what Von Sternberg had done with it. He won an Oscar anyway. This film will be introduced by San Francisco's own Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller. Featuring Stephen Horne on piano.

7:30 P.M. The Wind
Lillian Gish plays a Virginia transplant driven nuts by West Texas wind, sand, cyclones and despicable suitors in SFSFF's 2009 Centerpiece Film. The movie was made under grueling conditions in the Mojave Desert, and Gish is once again directed by Victor Sjöström (The Scarlet Letter). The performance includes a special wind effect used in silent movie scores of the 1920s. Leonard Maltin will do the intro. Featuring Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer.

9:45 P.M. Aelita, Queen of Mars
I missed this at the PFA two years ago when it screened as part of their Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema series, so I'm really glad to see it turn up here. Aided by eye-popping futuristic sets and costumes, the story concerns an earthman who takes a rocket ship to Mars and helps lead a revolution there. Directed by Yakov Protazanov and released in 1924. Featuring Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer and theremin, and Mark Goldstein on the Buchla Lightning.

Sunday, July 12

10:30 A.M. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Before there was Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald, a cartoon character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks at Universal Studios in 1927. Disney lost control of the character in a 1928 legal dispute, and future episodes were produced by Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker). This program highlights eight Disney/Iwerks Oswald cartoons with guidance from Leonard Maltin and Iwerks' granddaughter Leslie Iwerks. Featuring Donald Sosin on piano.

1:30 P.M. Erotikon
Once the kiddies have been cleared from the Castro, the SFSFF heats up with this 1929 Czech silent from Gustav Machatý. This is the director who would scandalize the world four years later with Heddy Lamar's nude swimming scene in Ecstasy. In this melodramatic precursor, a young girl has sex with a stranger, gets pregnant, marries another man and then returns to her former lover. The film is noted for its expressionistic imagery and non-judgmental approach to female sexual desire. It's also the first Czech film to appear in the SFSFF. Featuring the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

4:00 P.M. So's Your Old Man
I guess I was vaguely aware that W.C. Fields made silent films, but it's hard to imagine him without that lilting sneer of a voice. This year we get to experience a "muted" Fields, thanks to the SFSFF Director's Pick program and Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa). Fields plays a New Jersey "put-upon paterfamilias" who invents a shatterproof windshield. After a disastrous demonstration at an auto convention, he meets a Spanish princess who leads the way to redemption. Directed by Gregory La Cava in 1926, the film was remade by Fields eight years later as You're Telling Me. This screening will be hosted by Zwigoff, writer Daniel Clowes (Art School Confidential) and esteemed actor/writer/director/SFSFF Board Member Frank Buxton. Featuring Philip Carli on piano.

6:15 P.M. The Fall of the House of Usher
Of all the films in the festival, this is the one I'm perhaps most intrigued by. French director/film theorist Jean Epstein adapted this Edgar Allen Poe story in 1928, with the assistance of an ultimately disgruntled Luis Buñuel (fresh from making Un chien andalou with Salvador Dali). It's said to be light on plot, but very heavy on atmospherics denoting dread, decay and discomfort. Marguerite Gance (wife of director Abel Gance) stars as Madeleine Usher, the model/muse whose death drives her husband to madness. Featuring Stephen Horne on Piano.

8:15 P.M. Lady of the Pavements
The 2009 SFSFF comes full circle for its Closing Night Film, with yet another vehicle showcasing the talents of Lupe Velez. This time she's a Spanish cabaret singer being pursued by a Prussian aristocrat in 19th century Paris. This 1929 picture would turn out to be maestro D.W. Griffith's final silent film, and it's generally considered the artistic high point of his later career. Two musical numbers and a dialogue sequence were re-shot to qualify the film as a part-talkie, but the original soundtrack discs are considered lost. In the SFSFF presentation, the two musical numbers will be sung live by vocalist Johanna Seaton. Featuring Donald Sosin on piano.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

SF Jewish Film Festival 2009 - The Line-Up

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) turns a ripe young age of 29 this year, continuing its reign as the oldest and largest festival of its kind in the world. Over the course of 18 days (July 23 to August 10) SFJFF will present 71 films from 18 countries – showcasing the best Israeli and Jewish Diasporan cinema to emerge in the past year. Although I missed last week's press conference announcing the line-up, I've poured over the catalog and compiled this list of ten programs I don't want to miss.

1. Acné
Slowly but surely, 2008's bumper crop of acclaimed Latin American films is making its way into Bay Area festivals, rep houses and art cinemas. This first feature from
Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj was a hit from Cannes' Directors Fortnight, and is said to be a bittersweet, deadpan comedy about a teenage boy's raging hormones.

2. The Yes Men Fix the World
I knew this film would turn up in the Bay Area eventually, but I didn't expect to find it at the SFJFF. In this follow-up to 2003's The Yes Men, anti-corporate, anti-government pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno take on Halliburton, Dow Chemical, and first-time film directing duties. If there are any heroes left in this crummy world, it's these guys, and I'm thrilled that Bichlbaum is expected to attend the July 26 screening at the Castro.

3. I Am Von Höfler
For me, the revelation of last year's SFJFF was Freedom of Expression Award winner Péter Forgács, a Hungarian director who transforms the forgotten photographs, diaries
and home movies of European Jews into a singular form of documentary filmmaking. His new 160-minute epic tells the tale of one Tibor Von Höfler – bon vivant, chemist, cad – whose extraordinary life witnessed the German invasion of Hungary, the Holocaust and communism's rise and fall.

4. Defamation
In the most talked out doc at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Israeli director Yoav Shamir (Checkpoint, Flipping Out) looks into the nature of modern day anti-Semitism from both a global and personal perspective. I'm anticipating that his July 26 Castro Q&A will be the liveliest of the fest.

5. A History of Israeli Cinema
Clocking in at a butt-numbing 210 minutes, Raphaël Nadjari's two-part doc employs
film clips and interviews to survey 60-plus years of Israeli filmmaking. Alissa Simon's Variety review is packed with qualms and quibbles, but one look at the list of participating directors and actors should render this essential viewing.

6. Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg
Who knew that television's first sit-com was about a nice Jewish family in the Bronx. The show was called The Goldbergs and Director Aviva Kempner's film profiles its creator, writer and star, Gertrude Berg – a mega-talent who was also a luminary of radio, Broadway and film. At the July 28 Castro screening, Kempner will receive the festival's 2009 Freedom of Expression Award. Additionally, in a program aptly titled The Goldbergs, you can watch four back-to-back episodes of the popular CBS sitcom (including one that features a young Anne Bancroft).

7. Hello Goodbye
Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu star as a middle-aged Jewish French couple
who leave Paris to start a new life in Tel Aviv. Variety's Jordan Mintzer unkindly characterizes the film as "one oy-vey after another," but the presence of Israeli heartthrob Lior Ashkenazi (Late Marriage, Walk on Water) in the cast pretty much critic-proofs the film for me.

8. Lost Islands
This was Israel's biggest box office hit of 2008, earning an impressive 14 Israeli Film Academy Awards nominations (losing the top prize to Waltz With Bashir). Set in the 1980's with the Lebanon war as a backdrop, the film is about twin brothers in a tight-knit family whose loyalties are put to a test.

9. The Gift to Stalin
Films from Central Asia have become less of a rarity in recent years, and a high
percentage of those I've seen have been quite extraordinary. In Kazakh director Rustem Abdrashov's new feature, a Jewish boy en route to Siberian exile is rescued and raised by an elderly Muslim villager. Of significance to the story is the film's 1949 setting, a time when the USSR used Kazakhstan as an atom bomb testing ground.

10. The Wedding Song
This year's SFJFF closes with Karin Albou's follow-up to her 2005 award-winning La Petite Jérusalem. In 1942 Tunis, two teenage girls of marriageable age – one Muslim and one Jewish – find their futures, and their relationship with each other, challenged by the Nazi occupation of Tunisia.

Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of what's on offer at this year's fest. Depending on time and inclination, here are some others I may check out. SFJFF has
a reputation for its timely, issue-driven documentaries and this year is no exception. Rachel investigates the 2003 incident that saw a 22-year-old American killed while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer in the Occupied Territories. Director Shai Carmeli-Pollak follows last year's tragic Bilin My Love with Refugees, a look at Sudanese refuges who've tried to emigrate from Darfur to Israel. One-third of Bedouin Israeli women live in polygamous households, and Ada Ushpiz' Desert Brides examines their unhappy plight. Emily and Sarah Kunstler direct a profile of their radical defense attorney father in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.

Amongst the remaining narratives, here are a few more that caught my eye. Sundance favorite Adam features Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving in a tale of mismatched young lovers in NYC. (Adam
will be preceded by Eve, a short directed by actress Natalie Portman.) This year's Sundance opening night film was the Australian animated feature Mary and Max, which features the voices of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna) and Toni Collette. Collette also stars in the SFJFF 2009 Australian opening night film, Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger. Noted French actors Charles Berling and Miou-Miou head the cast of Cycles, a family drama Variety's Jordan Mintzer unfortunately describes as "more Lifetime than real life." Israeli features The Tale of Nicolai & The Law of Return and Zrubavel tell stories of immigrants from Romania and Ethiopia respectively. And finally, there's Empty Nest, the latest from top Argentine director Daniel Burman (Lost Embrace, Family Law), which I saw on screener sometime last year. I'm a big Burman fan, but this labored, male mid-life crisis fantasy left me wanting. Perhaps a second look is in order.