Monday, February 7, 2011

SF Film Society's Sundance Kabuki Screen – Winter 2011

The San Francisco Film Society's Sundance Kabuki Screen springs back to life this week with a mid-winter bounty for Bay Area cinephiles. Five top-notch films are booked for one-week runs between now and March 4. I'm extremely keen on catching them all.

The SFFS Kabuki Screen was launched in 2008 with the hope of becoming a year-round exhibition venue for the Film Society. Since then, it's brought us some amazing films that otherwise would never have seen a Bay Area theatrical release. Unfortunately, its operation has been intermittent, due, as I understand it, to the vagaries of screen availability at the Kabuki Theater. For example, with the exception of a one-week run of Olivier Assayas'
Carlos back in November, it's been dormant since September. So each time the Screen resurfaces with a line-up of films as vital and consequential as the one now before us, it amplifies the importance of the SFFS one day securing a permanent venue – such as the one it almost seems to have had – or perhaps still might have? – with Landmark's Clay Theater. Until then, we'll just need to sit tight and support the SFFS Kabuki Screen each time it happily resurfaces.

What follows is a brief overview of the five films on offer. Clicking on the titles will take you to more in-depth descriptions on the SFFS website. I've included trailers at the end. And don't forget, SFFS members receive a one dollar discount off ticket prices, plus there's no Kabuki Theater "convenience" fee for the first show of the day, Monday through Thursday.

Opening up the series on February 4 is Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains, a film that's really taken its sweet time getting here. In the Bay Area, we see umpteen documentary and narrative features dealing with the Israel/Palestine conflict each year, so one wonders why the latest film by Palestine's foremost filmmaker (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention) took so darn long? For some reason, none of our local festivals programmed it and IFC Films, which acquired U.S. distribution at least a year ago, has held it back until now. The Time That Remains screened in competition at Cannes 2009, receiving nearly unanimous rave reviews. Loosely based on the director's own family, the film is a string of deadpan Tati-esque vignettes following one Palestinian clan over the course of three generations. It stars the director himself, plus Ali Suliman (one of the aspiring suicide bombers in Paradise Now) and Saleh Bakri (the handsome lothario in The Band's Visit).

A week later on February 11, we'll have the chance to see Italian director Silvio Soldini's new film, Come Undone. If memory serves me, his previous film Days and Clouds was the SFFS Kabuki Screen's biggest hit yet, opening for a one-week run in the summer of 2008 and held over for several weeks due to popular demand. Perhaps lightning will strike twice. Come Undone meticulously examines the course of an extra-marital affair between a Milan accountant and a waiter, focusing on the toll it takes on both the couple and those in their immediate circles. For a considered analysis of the film, I highly recommend Glenn Heath Jr.'s review at Slant Magazine.

The only documentary in the five-film series is Steven Soderbergh's And Everything is Going Fine, a portrait of monologist/actor (Swimming to Cambodia,The Killing Fields) Spalding Gray, who, after a lifelong dance with depression, committed suicide in 2004 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. This is also Soderbergh's first documentary, unless you include the 1985 concert film Yes: 9012 Live (his first time directing) and 1996's Gray's Anatomy. The latter was Soderbergh's inventive take on Gray's monologue about the search for an eye disease cure. (He also cast Gray in his third feature film, 1993's King of the Hill). For this new work, Soderbergh and his editor spent three years shaping over 120 hours of footage into something that maintains the shape and spirit of Gray's wry, autobiographical monologues. And Everything is Going Fine opens on February 18.

I regrettably missed seeing Alexei Popogrebsky's acclaimed How I Ended This Summer when it screened in a closing night TBA slot at last year's SF International Film Festival, so I'm especially grateful that the SFFS is bringing it back on February 25. In this Russian psychological thriller, two men manage an uneasy co-existence while working at a remote Arctic meteorological station. Sergei is a grizzled old-timer anxious to return to his family and Pavel is a young man doing a summer internship. When Pavel fails to relay a piece of horrible news he's received over the station's radio, it sets into motion a struggle for survival between the two men and nature itself. Actors Sergei Puskepalis and Grigory Dobrygin, portraying the film's lone on-screen characters, shared the Best Actor prize at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov won an award for Special Artistic Achievement. Also worth noting is that director Popogrebsky's previous film Koktebel, screened at the SF International Film Festival in 2004.

Last, but certainly not least, on March 4 the SF Film Society Kabuki Screen closes its 2010 winter edition with the film that won last year's Palme d'or at the Cannes Film
Festival. I was unable to attend last December's Buddhist Film Festival screening of Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives at the Rafael Film Center, so I've been wondering ever since just how and when this piece of must-see cinema would materialize in San Francisco. None of the director's previous works (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century) received a local theatrical release, being relegated to festivals and specialty venues like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (and indeed, YBCA is hosting a sneak preview screening of this film on Wednesday, February 23 – most likely an upshot of the venue's close working relationship with distributor Strand Releasing). Kudos to the SF Film Society for giving it the theatrical release it appparently deserves. As Justin Chang states in his review for Variety, Uncle Boonmee is "pretty much the definition of a film that should be experienced, not explained," so I won't attempt a description except to say that it involves a man with kidney failure returning to his rural birthplace to live out his days amongst family, both living and dead. It also features animism, apparitions, out-of-body experiences, talking animals, otherworldly visitors and sex with a catfish.

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