Monday, April 23, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Festival Diary I


Thursday, April 19 

It's a breezy but balmy April evening – somewhat of a San Francisco rarity – as the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55) kicks off its 55th edition at the Castro Theatre. The night is dedicated to the memory of Graham Leggat, beloved former Executive Director of the SF Film Society, and I'm guessing that David Bowie was his favorite recording artist given the non-stop mix that plays for the hour before showtime. An image of Leggat is projected on the Castro's enormous screen as Interim Exec Director Melanie Blum delivers opening remarks and Director of Programming Rachel Rosen introduces the film and its director.

SFFS Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and "Farewell, My Queen" director Benoit Jacquot (photo by Pamela Gentile)

It's hard to go wrong with French fare in San Francisco, so for the third time in five years that's what the fest has chosen for its opener. Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen proves to be a mostly fascinating modernist take on familiar historical events, if a bit overbaked in depicting the imagined Sapphic leanings of Marie Antoinette (played by a ravishing Diane Kruger). The Versailles locations and costumes look exquisite projected via real 35mm film and I mourn the fact that 2012 is the year digital will take over. (Roughly 25 percent of SFIFF55's selections will be shown in 35mm, which is actually quite high for a large festival these days.) Jacquot returns to the stage for a comically wry Q&A, then it's off to the Opening Night party at the Terra Gallery on Rincon Hill. At the bar I test drive a Zico BAM (fest sponsor Blue Angel vodka mixed with Zico coconut water) and proceed to eat more food than I should given the late hour. But who can resist mini pulled-pork sandwiches and white cake lollipops dipped in white chocolate. Not I. Following another Zico BAM and a bit of circulating I head home, which is fortunately only two blocks away.

Friday, April 20

After checking out the locations of this year's press office and festival lounge, I head over to the Sundance Kabuki Cinema for Mohammad Rasoulof's Goodbye, the first regular screening of SFIFF55. Already waiting in the passholder's line is a familiar string of friends and colleagues I've come to know during 37 years of attending the festival. As expected, Iranian director Rasoulof's film is very unlike the fanciful allegories of Iron Island and The White Meadows and reflects the tenuous political status of its director, helpfully explained by Rachel Rosen in her introduction. This claustrophobic and paranoiac tale of a pregnant lawyer's preparations to flee Iran is rendered in formalist strokes – most scenes occur in confined spaces, the camera moves but once in the entire film and our heroine's face is frequently obscured or out of frame altogether. Upon exiting the theater, I'm delighted to discover that the festival has finally adopted easy-to-use tear ballots for determining its audience awards.

Next, I decide to pass on seeing Frank Langella act with a robot (Robot and Frank) and head over to the press office's screening room to watch Tokyo Waka, an engaging meditation on the city's wary, but respectful relationship with its crow population. These birds are super smart, cracking nuts by intentionally placing them in the path of moving autos. They're menacing as well. Over 600 crow attacks occur each year and it's hilarious to see a group of school children entering a park wearing helmets. I'm also intrigued to learn that homeless people living in Tokyo parks can have their mail delivered there.

My evening's viewing starts off with a true feather in festival's cap, the world premiere of The Fourth Dimension. Upon entering the theater we're handed a "Creative Brief" of 53 "instructions" that the film's three directors were expected to follow in making their 30-minute films on the titular subject matter, such as "A stuffed animal needs to make an appearance" and "Someone must sing a song that is completely made up." Batting first is Harmony Korine's Lotus Community Workshop, which flip-flops between scenes of Val Kilmer as a madcap motivational speaker and Val Kilmer riding mini-bikes and playing video games with his girlfriend (played by Korine's wife Rachel). That's followed by Chronoeye, a tale of thwarted time travel from Russia's Alexey Fedorchenko, director of last year's enigmatic festival hit, Silent Souls. The third short is my favorite, Polish director Jan Kwiecinski's Fawns, in which a quartet of young rabble-rousers wreaks havoc in an eerily abandoned town. The final shot is sure to be one of the indelible images of this year's festival. All three directors are in attendance for the world premiere, as well as Val Kilmer and co-Executive Producer Eddy Moretti (who cooked up the idea for this project with Korine). The highlight of the chaotic Q&A comes when Fedorchenko's translator suddenly realizes that he's the director of Silent Souls, and she becomes visibly beside herself.

"The Fourth Dimension" team: L to R, Jan Kwiecinski, Eddy Moretti, Harmony Korine, Val Kilmer, Alexey Fedorchenko (photo by Tommy Lau)

SFIFF55 Day Two comes to a fun conclusion with Adam Leon's surprise SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner Gimme the Loot. I sit with festival friend Raquel Cummins, who schools me on a piece of California movie-going tradition with Flicks Candy. Since 1904, these bite-sized chocolate wafers that come in foil-wrapped cardboard tubes were ubiquitous in West Coast theaters, until production ceased in 1989. They've recently been revived and I consume the entire contents of one before the houselights go down. The film is equally sweet, abetted by a raucous energy befitting a film about two NYC graffiti artists scrambling to raise $500, which they'll use to bribe their way into an off-hours Shea Stadium. I'm intrigued by the musical score of vintage gospel tunes that works surprisingly well in a comedy festooned with F-Bombs. Then in one hilarious scene, I'm comforted to learn there's an actual word for a common problem shared by men who wear boxer shorts. In the director's Q&A, a modest and unassuming Leon revealed that his influences for this NYC love letter ranged from the Hope-Crosby road movies to Sidney Poitier's Uptown Saturday Night, and that the soundtrack was assembled from multiple trips to San Francisco's own Amoeba Records.

"Gimme the Loot" director Adam Leon flanked by producers Natalie Difford and Jamund Washington (photo by Tommy Lau)


Debbie Ann said...

love reading your reviews - I hadn't heard of Tokyo Waka and I love crows, so now it is on my must see list. If I ever get to a film festival again.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for your kind words, Debbie. I have a sneaking suspicion that you will indeed be attending a film festival again.

Michael Guillen said...

Fun reading, Michael. A nice extension of your talent to enter the realm of the social and the personable. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is eating. Heh.