Monday, July 26, 2010

Return of the SFFS Kabuki Screen

Try as we may, even the most diehard cine-maniac among us can't see every single film that's shown at every single Bay Area film festival. With that in mind, the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) re-launches its screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas this week following an eight-month hiatus. The August comeback roster revives three films from this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) and a fourth that will have its Bay Area premiere this week at the SF Jewish Film Festival.

After eight long months away without an official word to suggest otherwise, folks assumed the SFFS's Kabuki screen was history – and at this spring's SFIFF, rumors swirled about the search for an alternate venue. So it was an unexpected pleasure to learn of its revival, and I've heard intimations the screen will continue on into September. Should that happen, we'll hope the line-up includes some films we haven't already had the opportunity to see. Last summer the SFFS Kabuki Screen really hit its stride, with non-stop Bay Area premieres of prime world cinema –
Munyurangabo, Three Monkeys, Eldorado, Julia, La belle personne, Tony Manero – it seemed like I was at the Kabuki every week. While the August line-up contains nothing brand new, it does offer an opportunity to see some worthy titles we might have missed on the first go-round. Showtimes can be found here and don't forget that year-round SFFS members receive $1.00 off the ticket price.

Alamar (July 30 to August 5)
This rich and wondrous Mexican film from director Pedro González-Rubio won the New Directors Prize at this year's SFIFF. That's where I saw it, at a terrific screening with the director in attendance. Set along the gorgeous Yucatan coast, it's a narrative-documentary hybrid about a young boy spending a final summer with his fishermen father and grandfather, before heading off to live with his mother in Italy. The film is completely devoid of drama or conflict, which I found incredibly refreshing. What we get in its stead is a string of lovingly observed scenes that detail an unfamiliar way of life and the bonding of three generations. Visually stunning, it demands to be experienced on the big screen.

Making Plans for Lena (August 6 to 12)
I missed this at the SFIFF, so I'm grateful the SFFS has brought it back, despite the mixed reports I heard from those who did see it. I'm generally a fan of director Christophe Honoré (Ma mère, Dans Paris, Love Songs) and find it hard to imagine not liking a film that has Chiara Mastroianni, Marie-Christine Barrault and especially, franco-hunk Louis Garrel among its cast. Mastroianni stars here as a harried, soon-to-be divorced mother of two who heads off to spend time at the family homestead in Bretagne. Her visit yields little comfort and a lot of contentious confrontation.

Vengeance (August 13 to 19)
It appears to be the consensus of critics and Johnnie To fans alike that this is a minor work in the Hong Kong director's oeuvre. I caught it at the SFIFF and found plenty to like, despite an inclination towards ludicrousness. It probably helps that I'm a nut for French rock and roll idol Johnny Hallyway. The now 67-year-old craggy-faced actor (last seen here in the title role of Patrice Leconte's 2002 Man on the Train) stars as a French chef who enlists the help of some Macau gangsters to extract vengeance upon those who slaughtered his daughter's family. The fact that he's got a bullet lodged in his head and a resultant lousy memory figures prominently in the story. Also in the cast are Sylvie Testud as the daughter and To regulars Anthony Wong and Simon Yam. To is famous for his stylized action set-pieces and Vengeance has got some doozies, most notably a junkyard shootout that threatens to never end.

Army of Crime (August 20 to 26)
I'm planning to catch this week's lone Jewish Film Festival screening of Robert Guédiguian's new film because a.) I'm absolutely dying to see it, and b.) I'll be out of town the week it screens at the Kabuki. I'm a big fan of this French-Armenian director's politically humanist films and this will be his first work to have a Bay Area theatrical release since 2000's The Town is Quiet. The prolific Guédiguian made five other films in the last decade, two of which, The Last Mitterrand and Lady Jane, we had the pleasure of seeing at the SFIFF. His latest critically acclaimed work details the exploits of a group of WWII French resistance fighters – most of them foreign-born and half of them Jewish. Simon Abkarian stars as their Armenian leader and the cast includes Guédiguian regulars Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Ariane Ascaride (the director's wife), plus Virginie Ledoyen and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

SFJFF30 2010 USSR Sidebar

The 30th anniversary edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) launches this Saturday and runs until August 9 throughout the Bay Area. It's an extensive and inspired line-up (my overview is here) and among the highlights you'll find three sidebars: Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, People of the Book (exploring Jewish and Israeli writers) and
Voices of the Former Soviet Union. This last one is comprised of two documentaries and one narrative feature, all of which I've previewed on DVD screener and hereby recommend.

Between 1986 and 1992, I made four trips to the USSR and befriended several young people who were finding their way through the societal upheaval known as
glasnost and perestroika. Nearly two decades later, their generation is the subject of Robin Hessman's intimate and revealing film My Perestroika, which won accolades at Sundance and New Directors/New Films earlier this year. The film has only a tangential relationship with Judaism, so many thanks to the SFJFF for programming it.

My Perestroika is the true story of five classmates from Moscow School #57 who experienced, as they tell it, happy childhoods of blissful conformity. "I can't say I wanted to be like everyone else – I simply was like everyone else," one remarks. They graduated as radical changes began taking place in the USSR, and discovered the world wasn't what they thought it was. Now adults in their early forties, we see the niche each has found in this uncharted society. Borya and Lyuba are married history teachers who live in the apartment where Borya grew up. They find it almost impossible to explain the Soviet way of life to their incredulous students. Borya's friends Ruslan and Andrei took completely divergent paths. The former is a subway busker and ex-guitarist for Moscow's popular punk band, NAIV, while the latter owns the Moscow franchise for upscale French shirt retailer, Café Coton. The fifth friend, Olga, is a struggling single mother who services commercial pool tables. What the five now share – besides a penchant for chain-smoking – is a cynicism for politics and wariness for Russia's swing towards hard line patriotism. In casual interviews, they reflect clearly on the events that shaped their lives – the end of the Cold War, the radical act of quitting Komsomol, the dissolution of the USSR, religion, the 1991 coup and the turmoil of the Yeltsin years.

Curiously, the director of this film is American, albeit one who studied filmmaking in Russia. She produced the Russian version of Sesame Street during her 10 years living there, and
My Perestroika benefits from her perspective as both outsider and insider. Eschewing narration or voiceover, Hessman poetically – almost giddily – interfolds her five stories with news footage, propaganda films and pop music, as well as home movies of the five classmates shot by Borya's Jewish father. As Mary Anderson Casavant writes in her review for Filmmaker Magazine, this is "a documentary so good at breaking the rules of historical docs that it makes you question why anyone would follow them."

The sidebar's other documentary is directed a second American who studied filmmaking in Russia. While Kevin McNeer's Stalin Thought of You is more traditional in form, it is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of one man's relationship with "history's most prolific mass murderer." The titular "you" Stalin thought of is Boris Efimov, a Ukrainian-born Jew who was the USSR's top political cartoonist for 70 years. The meat
of this story, as well as the element which connects these two men, is Efimov's beloved brother Mikhail Koltsov, whom Stalin had murdered in 1939. Koltsov was well placed in Soviet hierarchy – a pallbearer for Lenin, editor-in-chief at Pravda, and a military advisor during the Spanish Civil War. The character Karkov in Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is entirely based upon him. Following Koltsov's death, Efimov was branded a "brother of an enemy of the people" and was unable to work. Most amazingly, he wasn't killed as well, or exiled at the very least. Stalin brought him back to lampoon Hitler in his notorious political cartoons, earning him a place on the Gestapo's black list. Efimov would go on to cover the Nuremberg Trials and win the Stalin Prize twice before the despot's death in 1953. It's an astonishing tale, recounted in the film by a clear-minded grand raconteur in the years leading up to his passing at age 108. The film's only drawbacks are a few awkward English-language interjections by the filmmaker, and a scene where he tries to reproach Efimov for his "respect" of Stalin. Efimov rightly accuses him of being naïve.

The third Russian film in the sidebar is of all things, directed by a Russian. Celebrated animator/documentarian Andrei Khrzhanovsky's A Room and a Half is a fanciful meditation on the life and work of Russian-Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. Like
Stalin Thought of You, this screened at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival and it's fortunate that the SFJFF has brought it back. Khrzhanovsky's narrative feature debut begins with an older, exiled Brodsky setting off on a return trip to his beloved St. Petersburg, which he hasn't seen since being "invited" to leave the USSR in 1972. In fact, this trip never happened in real life and Brodsky died in 1996 without ever seeing his family again. Brief scenes of this imagined journey are surrounded by extended, nostalgic flashbacks to Brodsky's bittersweet youth and young adulthood in Leningrad. I was particularly tickled by the film's portrayal of young, Western-emulating Russian bohemians who would transform medical x-rays into forbidden copies of jazz and rock 'n' roll records (a similar milieu is portrayed in the 2008 Russian film musical Hipsters). To aid his storytelling, the director employs animation (cat and bird lovers will be especially charmed), a bit of surrealism (musical instruments fly through a snowy Leningrad night) and at one point he even inserts his characters Zelig-like into archival footage. Throughout it all, excerpts from Brodsky's writings are given voice. The nostalgia-inducing art direction and cinematography, as well as the acting, are impeccable. I envy those who'll get to experience it all in glorious 35mm on the Castro's big screen.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Monday, July 12, 2010

SF Silent Film Festival 2010

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is the biggest and most prestigious event of its kind in the Americas – and it's gonna be even bigger for its 15th anniversary edition which begins Thursday. This year the fest expands from three days to four and will feature a massive 18 programs from seven countries. The line-up includes works by well known directors (Fritz Lang, Frank Capra, G.W. Pabst) and stars (Laurel and Hardy, Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge), as well as rarities like The Flying Ace, a 1926 film that features an all African-American cast. And as a special treat, David Shepard and Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films have curated a selection of shorts by George Méliès (the French fantasist best known for 1902's A Trip to the Moon,) which will play throughout the festival.

If you've been to the SFSFF before, you don't need me to tell you what a fabulous, class act it is and why it's become a "destination festival" for silent film enthusiasts around the world. The programming is eclectic and fun, the best available 35mm prints are used, the cream of silent film accompanists are hired to do their thing and best of all, it all goes down in our beloved 1922 movie palace, the Castro Theater. As the SFSFF says in its mission statement, "Silent filmmakers produced masterpieces and crowd-thrilling entertainments. Remarkable for their artistry and their inestimable value as historical documents, silent films show us how our ancestors thought, spoke, dressed and lived. It is through these films that the world first came to love movies." And it's through the SFSFF that I've come to love silent movies. Here's a cursory walk through the 2010 line-up.

Thursday, July 15

7:00 P.M. The Iron Horse (1924, USA, dir. John Ford)
In response to the success of Paramount's The Covered Wagon in 1923, Fox studios made this idealized epic about the building of America's trans-continental railroad. Filmed mostly in Arizona with a cast and crew of over 6,000 people, it was Hollywood's first big-scale western and is sometimes referred to as "the silent How the West Was Won." Cattle drives, Indian attacks, saloon brawls – things which later became clichés of the western genre – are said to have had their origins here. George O'Brien, now best known for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, stars as a railroad surveyor whose childhood sweetheart marries the man who killed his father. The film culminates with the 1869 driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, and Wild Bill Hickcok, Buffalo Bill and Abraham Lincoln all make fictionalized appearances. Dennis James, who owns the only existing 35mm print of the American version of The Iron Horse, will accompany it on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Friday, July 16

11:30 A.M. Amazing Tales from the Archives: Lost & Found Films
One benefit of having an extra day in the festival is that we get two "Amazing Tales" programs. This first one features presentations by Joe Linder from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, plus Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. The latter duo are now superheroes to silent film lovers everywhere, having discovered a 16mm dupe negative of Fritz Lang's Metropolis that was 25 minutes longer than any previously known version (the restoration of which will be shown at the festival later in the evening.) Donald Sosin accompanies. FREE ADMISSION!

2:00 P.M. A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931, China, dir. Bu Wancang)
This film is one of several collaborations between its prolific director and China's favorite on-screen couple of the silent era, Ruan Ling-yu and Jin Yan (tragically, Ruan would kill herself at age 24). Loosely based on Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona," this adaptation is set in the Chinese army circa 1930 and follows two old friends who become rivals for the same young woman. "Like any Shakespeare comedy, Plum Blossoms is replete with star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity and a satisfying happy ending." Donald Sosin accompanies.

6:00 P.M. Rotaie (1929, Italy, dir. Mario Camerini)
Virtually unknown to American audiences, this late-era Italian silent is noted for its German expressionist influence. Two down-on-their-luck young lovers plan suicide, until they find a lost wallet on a train. They're lured to a seaside resort by a high society sleazeball, who then tries to seduce the girl while her lover gambles away their money at the roulette wheel. A sound version of this film would be released two years later. There will be a live English translation of the original Italian intertitles. Stephen Horne accompanies.

8:15 P.M. Metropolis (1927, Germany, dir. Fritz Lang)
If there's a "star" of this year's SFSFF, it's undoubtedly the new "complete" version of Lang's expressionist masterpiece of futuristic dystopianism. The last
Metropolis restoration occurred in 2001 and it screened at the SF International Film Festival with the fest's former artistic director Peter Scarlett translating the German intertitles. At the time, it was believed the world would never see a more complete version. As I mentioned above, a 16mm print of Metropolis with 25 additional minutes was discovered in Buenos Aires in 2008 – and those minutes are said to contain not just scene trims, but entire subplots. Just as importantly, the Argentine discovery reinstates Lang's original editing, which in previous restorations has been a matter of conjecture.

The digital restoration of the new material, still clearly identifiable due to the ravages of time, took one year and €600,000 to complete. This will be the only film at the SFSFF to be screened digitally, which for better or worse is the only format distributor Kino International is releasing it in. Argentine archivists Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña will be on hand to do an introduction, and the incomparable Alloy Orchestra will perform their celebrated original score which has been expanded to accommodate the new material. And don't forget to check out the festival's Metropolis Photo Booth, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Museum.
Metropolis is now on "rush" status, which means tickets are only obtainable by purchasing a Festival Pass, or by making a Patron or Grand Patron donation to the festival – or by waiting in the "rush" line and hoping for the best.

Saturday, July 17

10:00 A.M. The Big Business of Short Funny Films
A few years back the SFSFF instituted a Director's Pick program and the pickers have included Terry Zwigoff and Guy Maddin. This year's selection is by Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning director of Pixar's Monsters, Inc. and Up, who has chosen to screen three comedy shorts. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle directs himself and Buster Keaton as a cook and waiter respectively in 1918's The Cook. Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1998 is the Hal Roach-produced Pass the Gravy, a 1928 yarn about a prize rooster and feuding neighbors. Then in the 1929's Big Business, Laurel and Hardy play California Xmas tree salesmen whose argument with a customer escalates into all-out war. Pete Docter will be interviewed by Leonard Maltin and Dennis James will be this program's accompanist.

12:00 P.M. Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film
The title says it all. The panelists in this special program comprise a who's who of silent film composers and accompanists, including pianists Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne, organist Dennis James, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Alloy Orchestra, and Swedish musician and composer Matti Bye. Chloe Veltman, Bay Area culture correspondent for The New York Times and producer and host of NPR’s VoiceBox, will moderate.

2:00 P.M. The Flying Ace (1926, USA, dir. Richard E. Norman)
Between 1920 and 1928, white film producer/director Richard E. Norman made six feature films that sought an alternative to the demeaning portrayal of African-Americans found in silent cinema. His production company turned out everything from westerns to comedies to gangster flicks, but unfortunately, The Flying Ace is the only one that survives today. In this film, a WWI fighter pilot returns home a hero, only to become embroiled in a battle against railroad thieves. Introducing the film will be Rita Reagan from the Norman Studios Film Museum in Jacksonville, Florida. Donald Sosin provides accompaniment.

4:00 P.M. The Strong Man (1926, USA, dir. Frank Capra)
This slapstick comedy was Capra's second feature, and it stars Harry Langdon as a Belgian soldier who comes to America in search of the female pen pal he corresponded with during the war. He's accompanied by German strongman performer Zandow the Great, whom 98 lb. weakling Langdon must replace when the great one becomes incapacitated. This will be my first Langdon film and from what I read, his wide-eyed, man-child persona is an acquired taste. Those who love him rank Langdon with the greats like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and many consider The Strong Man his best film. Prior to the screening, the 2010 Silent Film Festival Award will be presented to Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury. Their company Photoplay Productions specializes in restorations of silent era films, many of which have graced the SFSFF over the years. Stephen Horne accompanies this one.

6:30 P.M. Diary of a Lost Girl (1929, Germany, dir. G.W. Pabst)
After obtaining incendiary results with Pandora's Box, Pabst and leading lady Louise Brooks collaborated once more on this story of a girl's ruination and a young woman's regeneration. After getting pregnant by her pharmacist father's lecherous assistant, Brooks' character is sent packing to a hellish girl's reform school. She manages to escape, then dabbles in prostitution en route to becoming a countess. The restoration being screened at the festival was made by the Cineteca di Bologna and includes seven minutes of previously censored footage. I only experienced Pandora's Box for the first time several nights ago, courtesy of Netflix' Watch Instantly, so now I'm really hot to catch this follow-up on the big screen. This SFSFF Centerpiece Film is also the Founders Pick, chosen by the festival's originators Stephen Salmons and Melissa Chittick. The film will be introduced by actor/writer/director and SFSFF board member Frank Buxton, and the fantastic Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will provide the accompaniment.

9:30 P.M. Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922, Denmark/Sweden, dir Benjamin Christensen)
In the early 1980s, there was a Bay Area cable station that only screened public domain movies, and it screened the same ones repeatedly. That's where I first caught late-night bits and pieces of this seven-chapter, reverie-disturbing "documentary" exploring "the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients." Reportedly the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made, it was banned in the US for depictions of torture, nudity, satanic worship, sacrilege and sexual perversion. Come for the comprehensive tour of medieval torture devices; stay for the flying witches kissing the ass of Satan (portrayed, as is a brief appearance by Jesus, by the director himself). Making their SFSFF debut accompanying Häxan is Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sunday, July 18

10:00 A.M. Amazing Tales from the Archives: First the Bad News…then the Good!
In this second set of Amazing Tales, clips and slides will be used to discuss various silent film preservation issues. First up is the Library of Congress' Mike Mashon, who will talk about the "fascinating and devastating reality of American silent film survival rates." He'll be followed by Annette Melville from the National Film Preservation Foundation, who will "present a way to bring back some of this history via a major international repatriation project." More good news – the presentation will include a newly preserved print of the 1920 Mutt and Jeff cartoon, On Strike! FREE ADMISSION!

12:00 P.M. The Shakedown (1929, USA, dir. William Wyler)
The great William Wyler directs James Murray (King Vidor's The Crowd) as a boxer who travels from town to town staging rigged fights, until he meets up with an orphan and a benevolent waitress who inspire him to mend his ways. Leonard Maltin will be on hand to interview the Wyler children about their father, and Donald Sosin will accompany the film.

2:30 P.M.
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR, dir. Dziga Vertov)
I recently watched this avant-garde masterpiece for the first time in 30-plus years on Netflix' Watch Instantly, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra's rip-roaring, magisterial score. It unequivocally Blew. Me. Away. – and I can scarcely believe I'll be seeing it on the gigantic Castro screen with the awesome Alloys performing live! If you got shut out of seeing them perform with the sold-out Metropolis, this oughta make for one helluva consolation prize. Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr has done the program notes for this, which I anxiously anticipate reading.

4:30 P.M. The Woman Disputed (1928, USA, dir. Henry King, Sam Taylor)
Norma Talmadge makes her final silent film appearance in this tale of a prostitute who's unable to escape her past. Set in Austria during WWI, her character is coveted by an Austrian and a Russian officer, and she must spend "a night of passion" with the latter in order to save the townspeople who've scorned her. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, the film co-stars Talmadge's off-screen lover, Gilbert Roland. Stephen Horne provides accompaniment.

7:30 P.M. L'heureuse mort (1924, France, dir. Serge Nadejdine)
The 2010 SFSFF closes with a French comedy that captivated the festival's staff at last year's Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Théodore is a failed Parisian playwright who falls off a boat while on holiday and is presumed drowned. When he returns home and learns that that his plays are now all the rage, he impersonates his own brother in order to perpetuate the posthumous acclaim that eluded him while "alive." Director Nadejdine was previously a ballet master in Russia, a job he'd take up again after moving to the US. The character of Théodore is played by Nicolas Rimsky, who also wrote the screenplay from a novel by Countess Baillehache. Leonard Maltin will introduce the film and the Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany it.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wrapping Frameline34 2010

By the time Frameline34's Closing Night film unspooled on Gay Pride Day, everyone seemed to agree it had been the organization's best festival in years. I'm not sure I concur, simply because imho the fest has been on a high for some time now. Or maybe I've just gotten good at sniffing out stuff I'll like, to the exclusion of what might work my last gay nerve. This year's films ranged from the frequently sublime to the occasionally unremarkable, but mileage varies and even those lesser works found receptive audiences. All told, I saw 34 programs – 18 of them prior to the festival at press screenings, other festivals and on DVD screener. Here are some highlights of those I watched during Frameline34 proper.

We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco
If you caught the sneak preview of David Weissman's powerful new documentary, the experience no doubt overshadowed whatever else you might have seen during the 11-day festival. It proved to be unbearably cathartic for some, and anguished sobs could be heard emanating from all parts of the nearly sold-out Castro Theater. The film reflects back to a time – can it really be almost 30 years ago – when a disease turned this city into a war zone and the LGBT community rallied to care for its own. Weissman wisely chose to tell this story from the POV of five who were on the front lines, rather than through a multitude of voices. It received perhaps the longest Castro Theater standing ovation I've witnessed in 35 years, and afterwards Weissman had the audience sit in meditative silence before beginning the Q&A. The version we saw is still being tweaked, which is perhaps why the Frameline34 screening was a 'sneak preview' rather than a premiere. It seemed pretty damn near perfect to me.

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
My hat goes off to whoever programmed this documentary about yodeling lesbian twins from New Zealand immediately after
We Were Here. It served as a counteractive tonic to the previous film's intensity, and was almost more fun than a festival screening has a right to be. Singer-comedian-activists Jools and Lynda Topp took to the Castro stage and kicked things off with a rousing, foot-stomping Maori welcoming song, and later returned to give the audience yodeling lessons. In between we were treated to Leanne Pooley's exceptionally well made and inspirational doc.

Sex, Leather Jackets and Cigarettes
I attended Yale film professor Ron Gregg's informative Frameline lecture, Gay Aesthetics and Iconography in the Films of Andy Warhol, which primed me for that same evening's program of two Warhol shorts and one near-feature,
Vinyl. The latter is a tortured and rambling low-rent interpretation of Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange," but it features a sock-o mid-section in which Warhol Factory beauty Gerard Malanga dances a furious frug to Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Hide." The song ends and then immediately begins again, Malanga dancing with even wilder abandon in the second go-round. Meanwhile, too-cool-for-school Edie Sedgwick does a seductive, sit-down dance off to the side. I just loved seeing this on a big screen in 16mm. In the YouTube clip below, fast-forward to the 3:30 mark for the dance, or watch from the beginning to see how that segment radically contrasts with the rest of the movie.

I Killed My Mother
I was wowed by this film when I first saw it at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and feared the disappointment a second viewing might bring. But nothing doing. Watching it again with a packed, queer audience at the Castro, in lush 35mm, only convinced me that this brutally hilarious and touching tale of an uber-dysfunctional mother-son relationship is the most auspicious debut by a teenage powerhouse writer/director/actor in like… forever. Bravo Monsieur Xavier Dolan! Regent Releasing has picked this up for U.S. distribution and if we're lucky it'll be in theaters soon.

The Consul of Sodom
For close to 25 years, my friend and fellow Frameline fanatic Carlo and I have used the euphemism "masterpiece" to describe any non-porn film that contains full-frontal male nudity. If we say it in a loud, emphatic voice, it means there was also at least one erect penis. We both agreed that
The Consul of Sodom was a MASTERPIECE! Genitalia aside, the film is a smart and passionate portrayal of Catalan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, a gay man of privilege who fought to live an uncompromised life during a time a great repression. Michael Guillén writes eloquently about the film over at The Evening Class.

On These Shoulders We Stand
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
Although they pretty much stick to a talking heads and archival materials template, I appreciated these docs for the information they imparted. Most people are familiar with the history of LGBT rights in New York and San Francisco – but Los Angeles? Now I know all about L.A.'s "masquerading" law that was used to persecute both male and female cross-dressers, as well as the infamous 1968 police raid on The Patch bar. The film features some amazing old photos, several of which tend to get overused. What struck me about the Burroughs doc was its emphasis on the man's influence on punk rock. We get interviews with Patti Smith, Jello Biafra, Iggy Pop and best of all, video footage of a Sonic Youth pilgrimage to Burroughs' Kansas home. The true topper, however, is an audio clip of Burroughs singing Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again," in German!

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's new film about Allen Ginsberg was much better than expected, at least when compared to the tepid reviews it received from Sundance and Berlin. The film's three distinctive strands don't always mesh, but the animated poem is glorious, the obscenity trial is engaging and James Franco gives the Ginsberg portrayal his all. This was Frameline34's closing night film and it was really neat seeing Franco grace the Castro Theater stage for the second time in less than a year.

Spring Fever
This film from Chinese director Lou Ye got universally crummy reviews at Cannes 2009, before shocking the naysayers with a prize for Best Screenplay. I found myself completely caught up during its first third – a vibrant and sexy look at modern urban Chinese living modern lives, with a multi-sexual ménage à quatre at its core. Then it got bogged down in a bunch of strained, unconvincing melodramatics that made me fear, as did Lou's previous film
Summer Palace, that the damn thing might never ever end. And maybe I'm misreading, but Spring Fever appears to say some disturbing things about the poisonous effect gays have on the lives of straights. I expected Lou Ye to be cooler than that. Still, I'm grateful to Frameline for showing it – especially in 35mm – and letting me judge for myself.

Cross published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Friday, July 2, 2010

SFJFF30 2010 A Look at the Line-Up

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) hits the big 3-0 this year, and will celebrate that landmark anniversary with a slate of 57 films from 14 countries. At last week's press conference, Executive Director Peter L. Stein and Program Director Jay Rosenblatt gave a guided tour of this year's films and special events, which will run from July 24 to August 9 at five Bay Area venues. Rosenblatt is a celebrated local film director who now finds himself on the other side of filmmaker/film festival divide. He replaces Nancy K. Fishman, who left the fest after seven years at the programming helm. The SFJFF is the oldest and largest festival of its kind, and was recently named one of the world's 50 leading film festivals by indiewire.

Many wondered how the SFJFF would emerge – artistically and financially – from fallout caused by 2009's contentious screening of the documentary Rachel. At the
press conference, the film wasn't even mentioned by name, but was euphemistically referred to as "the earthquake." Anyone who was at the Rachel screening can tell you how painful it was to witness such fractiousness at a Bay Area cultural event. I personally heard one megabucks donor defiantly proclaim he'd never give the festival another dime and it seems he's made good on his threat. I've since learned that in response, many SFJFF fans upped their membership levels to demonstrate support for the festival's diverse programming. While nothing appears to harbor a Rachel-like potential for divisiveness this year, who knows? One SFJFF30 panel discussion is tellingly named, Is Dialogue Possible? How Films Help Us Talk About Israel (…Or Not).

SFJFF30 unofficially kicks off on Saturday, July 10 with a free outdoor Union Square screening of 1987's Dirty Dancing, starring the late Patrick Swayze and a "pre nose-job" Jennifer Grey. The event is co-presented by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation as part of its "Film Night in the Park" series. The festival proper launches two weeks later on Saturday, July 24. This year's opening night film is Ludi Boeken's WWII drama Saviors in the Night, based on the true story of Marga Spiegel, a Jewish woman hidden from the SS by a righteous Catholic farm family. Spiegel herself, now 98, is expected to attend the Castro Theater screening along with director Boeken and actress Lia Hoensbroech. This year's 30th anniversary Opening Night Bash will take place after, rather than before the screening. Opening night itself has been moved from Thursday to Saturday so people can party down without worrying about work the next day.

A highlight of this year's festival is a special program titled Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film, curated by Fishman. In the catalog she writes, "Scratch the bark on your family tree and you might uncover a Jewish gangster or someone who paid off a Jewish gangster." Indeed, at the press conference Fishman revealed that her own grandparents once received an ominous funeral wreath from gangster "Dopey Benny" Fein. The four films in this series include Barry Levinson's 1991 Bugsy with Warren Beatty, 1961's King of the Roaring 20's – The Story of Arnold Rothstein starring David Janssen (TV's
The Fugitive), Mickey Rooney and Diana Dors, 1975's Lepke starring Tony Curtis as mobster Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and finally Howard Hawk's 1932 classic Scarface, "a gangster movie that would have had a Jewish subtext for the Jewish audience of its day because of Paul Muni's career in the Yiddish theater."

Following the screening of Lepke, Fishman will moderate a panel discussion with writers Ron Arons ("The Jews of Sing Sing"), Patricia Brett Erens ("The Jew in American Cinema") and Albert Fried ("The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster"). And if that ain't enough Jewish gangsta for ya, the JCCSF presents an exhibition of paintings by Pat Hamou, "Wise Guys: Mobsters in the Mishpacha," from now until September 15, and the SFJFF will screen four more Jewish gangster movies at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this autumn, starting with John Sayles Eight Men Out on October 3.

Each year the SFJFF hands out a Freedom of Expression Award, honoring "the unfettered imagination, which is the cornerstone of a free, just and open society." Jay Rosenblatt was one of its earliest recipients in 2005. This year's honor goes to
Arab-Israeli writer/satirist Sayed Kashua, who has made a career of skewering Israeli/Palestinian relations in an irreverent manner that "somehow brings Arabs and Jews together in wincing, barrier-breaking laughter." Episodes from the first season of his hit TV sit-com Arab Labor were shown at the festival two years ago, which I regrettably missed. Arab Labor: Season One spent a long time in my Netflix queue listed as "a very long wait," before disappearing from the on-line rental service altogether. Happily, three episodes from Arab Labor: Season Two will have their international premiere at SFJFF30 just prior to Kashua receiving his award. The following day, the documentary Sayed Kashua – Forever Sacred will screen, preceded by an Arab Labor episode from Season One.

When I first glanced at this year's line-up, the film that leapt out was Robert Guédiguian's Army of Crime. I've been a fan of this French-Armenian director's politically humanist films ever since Marius and Jeanette became a U.S. arthouse hit in 1998. Unfortunately, only three of his eight subsequent films ever made it to the Bay Area (The Town is Quiet, The Last Mitterrand, Lady Jane), which makes the appearance of Army of Crime something to celebrate. The film, which details the exploits of a group of Jewish-Communist French resistance fighters during WWII, has received rave reviews across the board. It stars such notables as Guédiguian regulars Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian's wife), as well as Simon Abkarian, Virginie Ledoyen and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. If you're unable to catch the film's lone SFJFF screening on July 28, it'll be back for a one-week run on the SF Film Society's Sundance Kabuki screen on August 20.

There are two additional French films playing SFJFF30. Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family was the most interesting film I saw at the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series last year. This wildly offbeat drama traces the dissolution of a family headed by a small town Jewish mayor, all set to a soundtrack of eclectic R&B singles from the 60's and '70s. I certainly hope to see it again. The other film is Marco Carmel's Father's Footsteps. It's also about a family, this one an Israeli-Tunisian clan struggling against the seduction of criminal life in 1970's Paris. It was nominated for five 2008 Israeli Academy Awards, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress and Cinematography.

Sometimes the most interesting SFJFF films are from the outer reaches of the Jewish Diaspora. Therefore I was delighted to see three films from Latin America on the roster. Marcos Carnevale's Anita has been selected as the festival's Centerpiece Film, and is about a young woman with Down syndrome searching the streets of Buenos Aires for her mother. The mother is played by legendary Argentine actress Norma Aleandro, with Alejandra Manzo in the titular role of daughter Anita (the latter is expected to attend the festival screening). Ilusiones Opticas is a debut feature from Chilean director Cristián Jiménez. This melancholic comedy has been compared to the works of Scandinavian deadpan masters Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki. The film will be preceded by the short What About Me? by Etgar Keret and Shira Gegen, co-directors of the 2007 Israeli hit comedy Jellyfish. Finally, in Fabian Hofman's semi-autobiographical Te extraño (I Miss You), a Jewish teen is sent to live with relatives in Mexico after his older brother "disappears" during Argentina's Dirty War.

Two films I regretted missing at last year's Mill Valley Film Festival have happily resurfaced at SFJFF30. Tali Shalom Ezer's Surrogate follows an emotionally damaged young man through his sessions with a sex surrogate. The fest catalog warns/promises that "This film contains nudity." A Room and a Half is Russian animator/documentarian Andrey Khrzhanovsky's fanciful riff on the life of Nobel prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. This film was off my radar until rave reviews began pouring in from 2009's New York Film Festival. A Room and a Half also connects two SFJFF30 sidebars. People of the Book spotlights films exploring Jewish and Israeli literary lives and includes Ahead of Time (a doc about acclaimed journalist/photographer Ruth Gruber), Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams and Grace Paley: Collected Shorts. The other sidebar, Voices of the Former Soviet Union, includes Stalin Thought of You and My Perestroika. The former is a documentary about Soviet political cartoonist Boris Efimov and his delicate relationship with the dictator who murdered his beloved Pravda editor brother (this film also screened at Mill Valley). My Perestroika profiles five Russians who came of age during the collapse of the USSR, and it received terrific reviews from Sundance and New Directors/New Films. As someone who travelled frequently to the Soviet Union during this period of radical change, it's a film I'm particularly looking forward to.

SFJFF30 closes in San Francisco – and opens in Berkeley – with The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, Erik Greenberg Anjou's musical documentary about a band that's spent 20 years redefining and popularizing the Jewish dance/folk music genre known as klezmer. Another SFJFF music doc, The
"Socalled" Movie, takes a look at Socalled, a.k.a Josh Dolgin, a Jewish/Canadian rapper/filmmaker/visual artist/YouTube sensation who's so hip he performs with ex-James Brown bandleader Fred Wesley. Socalled is expected to perform live on the Castro Theater stage, and his film will be preceded by Maurice at the World's Fair, a Spike Jonze-directed short made for Maurice Sendak's 80th birthday. And if you didn't get your fill of silent films at the previous week's SF Silent Film Festival, the psych-folk band Moab Strangers will perform a newly commissioned score alongside 1922's over-the-top Jewish immigrant melodrama Hungry Hearts.

But wait, there's more! Relations between a young Israeli woman and the Palestinian mechanic who works at her father's garage leads to tragedy in Keren Yedaya's Jaffa. Set in the port city that adjoins Tel Aviv, it's directed by the maker of 2005's much lauded Or, and features my favorite Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz (Late Marriage, The Band's Visit). Two more films exploring Israeli/Palestinian issues are the documentaries My So Called Enemy and Budrus, the latter having screened at this year's SF International Film Festival. And speaking of the SFIFF, director Sam Green (The Weather Underground) will reprise his "live" documentary Utopia in Four Movements at the SFJFF. Those in the throes of the current baseball season might want to check out the Dustin Hoffman-narrated doc Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. In Ry Russo-Young's feature You Won't Miss Me, a young woman recently released from a mental hospital tries to navigate life in NYC. The film stars Stella Schnabel, daughter of artist/filmmaker Julian, and it won last year's Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. Finally, a married couple's relationship is turned upside down when the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia in the stylish thriller Protektor – a film that happens to be sponsored by my friend Michael Ehrenzweig. There are roughly a dozen more programs I haven't touched on; all the more reason to pick up a SFJFF30 catalog or go on-line for a closer look.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.