Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Over the span of two decades, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) has transformed itself from a one-day, three-film event into the second most prestigious silent movie showcase in the world. As you would expect, all the stops are being pulled for the 20th anniversary edition which begins this Thursday, May 28 and runs through Monday. The staggering 21-program line-up includes a quartet of canon-worthy classics nestled alongside several highly anticipated restorations. There'll also be Pauline Kael's all-time favorite film (the 1926 French short Ménilmontant), Harold Lloyd's last silent picture (Speedy) and Frank
Capra's first sound film (The Donovan Affair, whose lost soundtrack will be recreated by live actors). The roster of high-profile guests includes Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg and Leonard Maltin.
All of this goes down, as it has for 20 years, at San Francisco's beloved 1922 movie palace, the Castro Theatre. All programs but one feature live music from SFSFF's stable of world-renowned silent movie accompanists, and every attendee receives a program guide full of enlightening essays about the films – all written specifically for the festival. Lovers of bona fide celluloid should find reason to cheer, with a dozen programs boasting at least some element of 35mm film exhibition. (I'll be indicating which ones based on information from the indispensable Film on Film Foundation.) Finally – if you'll permit a sentimental moment from a 40-year SF resident who barely recognizes his cherished city these days – congratulations SFSFF on your 20th anniversary, with wishes for 20 more. You continue to embody all that's ever been unique and wonderful about San Francisco. Now here's my overview of the 2015 line-up.
Silent film virgins could scarcely receive a better education in what made the era great than by checking out the four gems SFSFF has placed in the festival's evening primetime slots. Kicking things off on opening night will be Lewis Milestone's brutally affecting anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, 35mm), which won Academy Awards for Outstanding Production and Best Director. Filmed with side-by-side cameras as both a sync-sound silent and as a talkie, it's the silent version that most film historians now consider superior. The presentation will be introduced by Mike Mason of the U.S. Library of Congress, which recently restored the silent version to commemorate WWI's centennial. My favorite bit of All Quiet trivia has it that comedic actress Zazu Pitts originally played the main character's mother, but erroneous laughter at preview screenings resulted in her scenes being reshot with a different actress. After the screening, opening night revelers will party at the McRoskey Mattress Company, whose top floor loft will be transformed into a 1920's era Berlin cabaret.
Closing out the fest on Monday night is Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, 35mm), which is the movie I'm most anticipating. It was one of three films shown at the inaugural SFSFF in 1996, but alas I've never seen it (or the 1959 remake for that matter). Considered the most expensive Hollywood production of its time and the third highest grossing film of the silent era, Ben-Hur is best known for its legendary chariot race, which was shot with 42 cameras at what's now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles. The long list of stars believed to have worked as extras includes Fay Wray, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore. Legend further has it that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard first met on the Ben-Hur set. The Jesus sequences employ two-strip Technicolor, which is perhaps why it was promoted as "The Picture Every Christian Should See!" Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ will be the only SFSFF20 presentation not to include live musical accompaniment. In its stead, we'll hear a prerecorded score by revered silent film composer Carl Davis, which totally works for me. The program will be preceded by an on-stage conversation between Serge Bromberg and Kevin Brownlow, Ben-Hur having been restored by Brownlow's company, Photoplay.
Occupying the festival's primetime slot on Friday and Saturday evening respectively will be F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) and Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926, 35mm). The Murnau, which I'm shocked hasn't screened at SFSFF previously, stars the great Emil Jannings as a Grand Hotel doorman who faces societal shame when demoted to washroom attendant. This immortal, humanist film is noted for its near total absence of intertitles and the kinetic "unchained camera" technique that was revolutionary for its time. Renowned cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tod Browning's Dracula and 150 episodes of I Love Lucy. Three years after The Last Laugh, Murnau came to Hollywood and made his masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Flesh and the Devil, which SFSFF previously presented in 2007, is remembered for the on-screen chemistry of its two stars, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The handsome pair fell in love while making the film and were reportedly living together by the end of shooting. Kevin Brownlow will introduce this melodrama about two childhood friends whose lives are destroyed by a love for the same femme fatale.
There's no better way to get a leg up on the latest silent discoveries and restorations than by attending the free admission Amazing Tales from the Archives, which gets Friday's programming underway. This year Serge Bromberg will discuss and screen Figures de cire (House of Wax), a newly uncovered 1914 short by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur, of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie fame). Then the British Film Institute's Bryony Dixon will present new footage pertaining to the infamous RMS Lusitania, with actor Paul McGann (the "I" in Withnail and I) narrating. In recognition of the Technicolor Corporation's centenary, we'll also get to see a two-strip Technicolor tour of Hearst Castle conducted by its architect, Julia Morgan and Hearst himself. Finally, film restorer and SFSFF Board of Directors President Rob Byrne will discuss the restoration of Sherlock Holmes (1916, 35mm), which will screen on Sunday night and is considered THE big archival discovery of the past year. Considered lost until its recent uncovering at the Cinémathèque Française – it had been improperly labeled – the film stars William Gillette as the quintessential Holmes. Gillette performed as the famed detective over 1,300 times on stage, and his mannerisms and costuming are said to be responsible for the Holmes-ian image we still carry today. Sherlock Holmes is believed the only record of his performance. This not-to-be missed event will be the U.S. premiere of a co-restoration undertaken by the Cinémathèque Française and the SFSFF.
Two additional programs highlight recent restorations. In 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History (1913, 35mm), we'll experience the raw footage shot for an all African-American feature, starring Caribbean-American entertainer Bert Williams. Unedited and unreleased due to abandonment by its white producers, the seven reels of footage were discovered hiding in the MoMA's Biograph Studio collection. Highlights are said to include a jubilant two-minute dance sequence and unheard of for its time physical affection between its male and female leads. MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi will present a slideshow of stills and other materials relating to the would-be film. Another exciting new restoration is the U.S. premiere of Barry O'Neill's When the Earth Trembled (1913, 35mm), a 3-reel spectacular depicting the 1906 earthquake and fire. Rob Byrne introduces and discusses the restoration, which was performed by SFSFF in conjunction with Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum. That program will also include the now iconic A Trip Down Market Street, shot days before the earthquake. It's a film this San Franciscan can't watch too many times.
This year's festival includes a welcome collection of French silents, beginning with the double-billed shorts of Avant-Garde Paris. First on that program will be Man Ray's Emak-Bakia (1927, 35mm). I'm excited to finally see this after having experienced Oskar Alegria's weird and wonderful documentary The Search for Emak Bakia at the 2013 SF
International Film Festival. "Emak Bakia" is a Basque term roughly meaning "leave me alone," and Alegria's film is about, amongst other things, a search for the Biarritz seaside mansion (named Emak Bakia) where Man Ray shot this experimental short. Sharing the program will be Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926), which Pauline Kael once called the favorite film of her "entire life." Director Kirsanoff was a Russian aristocrat who fled the revolution, and his 44-minute experimental melodrama is said to be an unforgettable record of 1920's Paris. The story concerns two sisters struggling to survive in the titular working class district, having fled the countryside as children following the double axe-murder of their parents (!?) There are no intertitles, with the movie's narrative being exclusively telegraphed via "the elegance of its images."
A pair of French narrative features also graces this year's SFSFF line-up. Director Jacques Feyder, best known for his 1935 classic Carnival in Flanders, shot Visages d'enfants in 1923 but didn't see its release until two years later. (His following film, Gribiche, played the fest in 2013). Set in the Swiss mountains, this psychological drama explores the consequences of
a young man's cruel resentment towards his stepmother. The film is remembered for its "simple intimacy and emotional poignancy," as well as the authenticity of its setting (Visages d'enfants begins with an 11-minute depiction of a village funeral). Prior to the screening, Serge Bromberg will be awarded the 2015 SF Silent Film Festival Award – his company Lobster Films having completed the restoration of Visages d'enfants in 2004. The other French narrative is André Antoine's The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920). This tale of life aboard two Belgian cargo barges was the director's tenth and final feature. It was never released because the producers found Antoine's raw footage too "documentary-like" and refused the necessary financing to complete the picture. Nor was it ever edited – that is until Henri Colpi, co-editor on such classics as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, sculpted a completed film from the existing footage in 1984.
Although he was born in Iowa and worked exclusively in the U.S., I'm lumping The Amazing Charley Bowers in with the French because of his championing by André Breton and the surrealists. Originally an animator on Mutt and Jeff cartoons, Bowers eventually created his own comedies that blended live action, animation and a penchant for Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. The program will spotlight four of his 15 surviving films, including A Wild Roomer (1926), Now You Tell One (1926), Many a Slip (1927) and There It Is (1928), the latter starring a cockroach detective. Bowers' shorts were restored by Lobster Films and appropriately enough, Serge Bromberg will provide the musical accompaniment.
At this point it's worth mentioning that children 12 and under enjoy greatly reduced ticket prices for all SFSFF programs. Over past years I've come to gleefully anticipate the sound of 21st century children howling at the antics of silent comedy on weekend mornings at the festival. Charley Bowers occupies that timeslot on Sunday this year, while on Saturday it'll be Harold Lloyd's final silent feature Speedy (1928). Lloyd plays a failed soda jerk turned distracted cab driver
who's also a diehard NY Yankees fan trying to save his girlfriend's grandfather's horse-drawn streetcar business. I'm especially dying to see the 20-minute segment set at Coney Island's legendary Luna amusement park, where Lloyd gives himself "the finger" in a funhouse mirror. It represents the first on-screen delivery of the now-obscene gesture. Another Speedy highlight is a frantic taxi ride Lloyd gives Babe Ruth, who was just weeks away from hitting his record-breaking 60th season home run. Director Ted Wilde, who also made Lloyd's Kid Brother, directed the baseball star in the previous year's now-lost feature Babe Comes Home. This program is co-presented by the San Francisco Giants and the comedian's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd will do the introduction.
Comedy continues with a pair of films starring actresses who were enormous stars in their heyday, but whose legacies are now somewhat muted. Robert Thornby's The Deadlier Sex (1920, 35mm) stars Blanche Sweet, who made her first film in 1909 with D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios. Sweet was known for her independence and vivaciousness, qualities not normally accorded Griffith
heroines. Her popularity lasted until the end of the silent era, with Sweet's IMDb profile listing 164 credits (the final one being an appearance on the 1960 TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). The Deadlier Sex will be introduced by Josef Linder of the Academy Film Archive, which restored the film, and will be preceded by Dave Fleischer's Koko's Queen (1926), an animated Koko the Clown short restored by the National Film Preservation Board and EYE Filmmuseum. William Seiter's Why Be Good? (1929) was the final silent film for actress Colleen Moore, who soon retired from Hollywood after making three unsuccessful talkies. Moore plays a "shop girl by day and flapper by night" in a film that was accompanied by a Vitaphone soundtrack with music and sound effects. Why Be Good? was considered a lost film until a print was discovered in Italy sometime in the late '90s. Restoration was completed just last year. The screening will be introduced by Leonard Maltin.
For those who dig comedy with a darker edge, SFSFF20 offers two movies that'll fit the bill. Géza von Bolváry's The Ghost Train (1927, 35mm) is said to give comedy and horror equal weight, with a story about passengers stranded at a haunted station where a phantom train passes each year on the anniversary of a grisly train wreck. The film was a true international
co-production, with a Hungarian director and both British and German actors. (It was shot a UFA Studios in Berlin). The print we'll see contains French intertitles, which will be translated live by actor Paul McGann. Next, Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair (1929) was the director's first "100% all-Dialogue Picture." The soundtrack, however, is permanently lost, in effect rendering the film silent. That imagined soundtrack will be recreated live at the Castro Theatre with actors from the Gower Gulch Players, along with music and sound effects by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Director at NYC's famed Film Forum. Starring Columbia Pictures' square-jawed leading man Jack Holt, The Donovan Affair's plot is one I'm sure you've heard before. The lights go out at a high society dinner party and the titular Mr. Donovan gets a knife in the back. Inspector Killigan (Holt) is called to investigate and he insists on recreating the crime by cutting the lights again. Somebody else gets murdered. Rinse and repeat.
This and That
Rounding out the 2015 SFSFF line-up are two films from Scandinavia. Per Lindberg's Norrtullsligan (1923, 35mm) stars the terrific Swedish actress Tora Teje, whom SFSFF
audiences have seen previously in Mauritz Stiller's 1920 Erotikon and Benjamin Christensen's 1922 Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages. She plays one of four secretaries who share an apartment, and her sardonic observations provide the movie's narration via verbose intertitles lifted directly from the 1908 source novel. The other Scandinavian film is also a novel adaptation, this time from Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author Knut Hamsum. Pan (1922, 35mm) is the only film ever directed by actor Harald Schwenzen and it's a romantic tale about a wealthy woman and a reclusive ex-soldier/hunter.
Last but not least, perhaps the most singular selection at this year's fest is Dan Duyu's fantastical Cave of the Spider Woman (1927, 35mm). A prime example of the "magic spirit" films popular in Shanghai at the time, Cave is based on a chapter from Journey to the West, a Ming Dynasty-era literary work considered one of China's great classical novels. Although it set box office records in 1927, the film was considered lost until its recent discovery and restoration by the National Library of Norway (whose representative Tina Anckarman will be on hand to give an introduction). This program will also include the U.S. premiere of Modern China, an eight-minute look at 1910 Beijing, recently restored by the British Film Institute.
And finally, the last day of the festival commences with the free admission program So You Think You Know Silents, a silent movie trivia contest hosted by Bruce Goldstein of NYC's Film Forum. Yes, there will be prizes!
Cross-published on The Evening Class.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Here are some thoughts on five on my favorite programs from the second week of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. (My round-up of week one can be found here.)
Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
SFIFF58's second week got off to an invigorating start with this vibrant and touching evocation of a once hot and happening scene. Based on the experiences Sven Hansen-Løve, who's also the director's brother and co-screenwriter, Eden follows the two-decade trajectory of fictionalized House-music DJ and producer Paul Vallée (baby-faced Félix de Givry) as he scales the heights of Paris clublife before sliding into a morass caused by drug abuse and changing musical tastes. In addition to the breathtaking club sequences, I was impressed by Eden's parade of familiar actresses depicting the women of Paul's life, starting with Arsinée Khanjian (Atom Egoyan's wife and frequent star) as his enabling and long-suffering mother. Greta Gerwig opens the film with a nice turn as the American girlfriend who breaks her French boy toy's heart and she's followed by pixie-ish Pauline Etienne as the steadfast, fellow DJ who shares in Paul's ascendancy. Bad news arrives in the person of beguiling Laura Smet, playing the voracious party girl who expedites Paul's ruin. Then Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani turns up, nearly unrecognizable as the admiring, punkish club kid who rescues and redeems him. Amongst the actors playing DJs and fellow scene-sters, it was a comfort seeing stringy-haired schlub Vincent Macaigne, who seems to be in half the French films I see these days.
SFIFF58's screening of Eden was enhanced by the personal appearance of Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry. During the Q&A they revealed that several large club scenes, such as the one at MoMA PS1, were filmed guerilla-style at established venues. Eden's budget couldn't possibly accommodate the necessary 4,000 extras. They also had laudatory things to say about Daft Punk. The insanely famous electronic music duo, who were part of this scene and receive a droll portrayal in the movie, convinced all of the artists represented on Eden's soundtrack to accept nominal fees for music rights that would have otherwise cost the filmmaker an unaffordable €1 million. Asked about the participation of Golshifteh Farahani, we were told she came on board because she happened to be dating actor Louis Garrel, a close friend of the director. After the screening, I lacked the stamina to check out the Eden after party, where Hansen-Løve performed a live DJ set. The next morning I had my own after party upon discovering Eden's soundtrack – 42 tracks lasting 4 ½ hours – available as a digital download on Amazon for a measly 11 bucks. Eden opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 26.
|Co-screenwriter Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry backstage at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for the 58th SF International Film Festival screening of EDEN. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)|
The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes' Critics Week sidebar, The Tribe is like no other film you're likely to have seen before. The setting is a Ukrainian school for the hearing impaired where the entire cast "speaks" exclusively in sign language that's never translated via subtitles. This requires the viewer to pay strict attention to the actors and on-screen action, an easy task given the film's riveting storyline and meticulously choreographed, widescreen cinematography. The Tribe's plot shadows the arc of a newly arrived pupil, a male teen who's immediately shaken down by his bullying, tyrannical classmates. He soon becomes a participant in their nihilistic schemes, which includes the nocturnal transport of female students to a local truck stop for purposes of prostitution. The film's only shred of humanity occurs when he falls for one of these girls, a near-fatal error that serves as a catalyst to the film's explosive finale. Audience members who walked out during The Tribe's unbearably frank abortion scene should be grateful they didn't stick around. I've heard a number of negative comments calling the film exploitative and soulless, which could be true. But undeniably, The Tribe is also filmmaking at its most dynamic and original.
The End of the Tour (USA, dir. James Ponsoldt)
One of my most anticipated programs at SFIFF58 was this Centerpiece screening of director Ponsoldt's follow-up to The Spectacular Now. Based on Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky's memoir of a days-long, snowy Midwest encounter with writer David Foster Wallace during the end of his "Infinite Jest" book tour, the movie is a smart, tender and often comical relationship story about tenuous affection between two talented writers. The film is a particular triumph for actor Jason Segel as Wallace, in this his first non-comedic lead role in a narrative feature. I've made no secret of my crush on the big lug, so when the credits got rolling I bee-lined it for the front row. At the Q&A Segel revealed himself to be the gracious and self-effacing everyman I suspected he'd be. Speaking about his admiration for Wallace, Segel confided that he first read "Infinite Jest" with an all-male book group he formed:
"When I bought the book at a small bookstore there was a very Ghost World kind of girl sitting behind the counter. I set "Infinite Jest" down and she rolled her eyes at me and said, "Infinite Jest… every guy I ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf."
Segel also had plenty of things to say about preparing for the role of Wallace, for which he had Lipsky's original cassette tapes as a guidepost:
"The thing I really didn't want it to seem like was "watch Jason Segel try to do "acting." I tried to focus more on the parts of me that were the same as Wallace, as opposed to striving to be something that was outside of myself. There was a real particular music to the way Wallace spoke. I've never seen anybody be able to speak in fully coherent arguments with a thesis and supporting points and a conclusion, and still have it sound conversational."
Best of all was Segel's response to a question from film writer Michael Guillén about the beat-up looking shoes he wore onstage that night at the Kabuki (watch a YouTube clip of that here).
The program ended and I made my way to my next screening. While waiting in the narrow corridor adjoining the Kabuki Cinemas' houses two and three, I looked up to see Jason Segel himself standing there, fully within bear-hugging range (the corridor also leads to the House One backstage entrance). I managed to croak out a feeble "thank you," to which he looked into my eyes and replied, "No, thank YOU." A minute later I barely noticed when Jason Schwartzman brushed against me en route to his House One screening of 7 Chinese Brothers.
|Actor Jason Segel backstage at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas for the 58th SF International Film Festival's Centerpiece screening of THE END OF THE TOUR. (Photo by Pamela Gentile).|
Love & Mercy (USA, dir. Bill Pohlad)
My favorite film of the fest by far was this transcendent biopic of the Beach Boys' troubled genius, Brian Wilson. Starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilson, the film alternates emotionally interlocking vignettes set during the mid-60's creation of his masterpiece LPs, Pet Sounds and Smile, with those of Wilson in the early 90's, a broken man subjected to the dictatorial control of his evil psychiatrist Eugene Landy (an effective Paul Giamatti). A shortlist of Love & Mercy's highlights would include the opening montage of early Beach Boys iconography, the lovingly recreated recording sessions (especially of "Good Vibrations") and the phenomenal sound design that conveys the explosion of musical ideas coursing through Wilson's overheated brain. The movie's revelation, however, is the achingly heartfelt performance by Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue. To my surprise, a review of her extensive IMDb credits tells me I've only seen one other Banks performance – as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W. You heard it here first; she's the supporting actress to beat comes 2015's year-end awards season. Love & Mercy will open in Bay Area theatres next month.
Cibo Matto: New Scene
My 2015 SFIFF experience ended on the highest possible note with an electrifying evening at the Castro Theatre. SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara outdid himself this year, engaging one of my favorite bands of the past 20 years to accompany a septet of iconic avant-garde/experimental films. It was the festival's best music and film combo since 2009's pairing of L.A./Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever with the silent dinosaur flick, The Lost World. Cibo Matto's four members took the stage and launched into a synth-heavy, percussive bass grove that mingled nicely with Miwa Matreyek's Lumerence and its imagery of fluttering eyeball mountainscapes and space-traveling eggs. Next came Grace Nayoon Rhee's two-minute Unicorn, featuring creepy stop-motion rabbits and a priceless punch line. The longest piece of the evening was Cibo Matto's new score for the 1970 film adaptation of Oskar Schlemmer's geometry-obsessed Bauhaus-era Das Triadische Ballet. Hilarious jibber-jabber vocals from band member Miho Hatori morphed into a swirly, pulsating tempo before surrendering to a thundering jazz-funk vibe that rocked the Castro.
As expected, the personal highlight of Cibo Matto: New Scene was Yoko Ono's 1970 Fly, which I've always longed to see in its entirety. For 25 minutes, the camera follows a fly in extreme close-up as it circumnavigates the nude body of actress Virginia Lust. And yes, it takes about all of 60 seconds for the critter to wend its way "down there." Cibo Matto saved its hardest rocking-out for this piece, with synth player Yuka Honda supplying some spot-on Yoko-style yowling. In the film's final minutes the camera pulls back to reveal Lust's full elongated body splayed along an attic cot, dotted with perhaps a half-dozen flies. We're then taken to the window for a leisurely gaze at the surrounding buildings before the end credits roll, capped by this priceless divulgement, "Flies supplied by NYC." The evening reached a soothing denouement with mellow accompaniment to Marcel Duchamp's 1928 Anemic Cinema, featuring the gyroscopic spinning of alliterative French puns.
|Cibo Matto on-stage at the Castro Theatre,
rocking out to the 58th SF International Film Festival's screening of Yoko Ono's
1970 film FLY. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)|
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
As all good things must come to an end, so it goes with the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF58). This year's event was one of the most extraordinary I've experienced in four decades of attending the festival. Between the many awesome films accompanied by special guests and the unforgettable one-of-a-kind live performances, I'll be reflecting back upon my grand SFIFF58 experience for months to come.
For lucky members of the San Francisco Film Society, the fest continues through May 31 via the SFIFF Online Screening Room. Here members can stream 13 features and 11 shorts they may have missed during the festival proper. I've already taken a look at Western, winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature, and Bota, an Albanian narrative feature that escaped my attention but was raved about by friends and colleagues. I'll be checking out others in the coming days. Meanwhile, here's a look back at ten of my favorite programs from SFIFF58's first week.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (USA, dir. Alex Gibney)
SFIFF58 got off to a fine start with this complex portrait of Apple Computers' troubling main man, effectively answering the question, "How much of an asshole does a person have to be in order to achieve success?" I was particularly struck by how the prolific Gibney – fresh from ripping new ones for James Brown and Scientology – inserted his own subjective voice into the narration (it was the mass public lamentation following Jobs' death which inspired him to take on the project). I didn't stick around for the Q&A because I was antsy to reach the opening night celebration at Madame Tussaud's on Fisherman's Wharf. Kudos to whoever came up with the idea of a wax museum party! At one point I asked myself, "Is that a statue or is that really Ryan Philippe?" T'was the latter. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine opens at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on September 4.
54: The Director's Cut (USA, dir. Mark Christopher)
I returned to the Castro the next night for Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his maligned 1998 flick 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees of NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut with 44 previously unseen minutes comes shy of being the "minor masterpiece" some critics would have us believe. But as experienced in the company of a whooping, exuberant Castro audience savoring nostalgia for an era never lived firsthand, it made for an enormously fun evening. In addition to Christopher, actors Philippe and Breckin were in the house to reminisce post-screening, expressing joy at finally getting to see the film they remembered shooting. Compelled by the "overwhelming positive response" at the film's SFIFF U.S. premiere, Miramax and Lionsgate issued a statement four days later announcing they'd release 54: The Director's Cut on VOD starting June 2.
Call Me Lucky (USA, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
A Saturday afternoon fire alarm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas interrupted my screening of Mr. Holmes (reuniting a masterful Ian McKellen with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon), which in turn delayed the start of Stanley Nelson's compelling new doc The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Forced to revamp my early evening plans, I decided to cold-walk into a film I knew nothing about, which proved fortuitous. The subject of Bobcat Goldthwait's excellent new doc is Barry Krimmins, the gruff, brilliant political/social satirist – someone in the film likens him to a combo of Noam Chomsky and Bluto – who singlehandedly created Boston's stand-up comedy scene. At the film's midway point we learn of unspeakably horrific acts perpetuated against Krimmins as a young boy, and watch as he turns crusader in the halls of U.S. Congress against early internet behemoth AOL. The film's co-producer Charlie Fonville was on hand for a Q&A, revealing that Robin Williams contributed the seed money that got this worthy project rolling.
The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
Saturday reached a mind-blowing apex with Guy Maddin's fevered paean to the lost films of cinema's early sound era – thereby erasing whatever misgivings I had about forgoing Guillermo del Toro's SFIFF58 tribute across town. Maddin's first full-color, hyper-saturated film begins with a demonstration on How To Take a Bath (inspired by an actual 1937 lost film by exploitation producer Dwain Esper) before submerging into a cockeyed lost submarine adventure. By the end of The Forbidden Room's 131 minutes, we'd been lurched along a plotline stuffed with bladder-slapping contests, lifesaving flapjacks, virgin volcano sacrifice, squid thievery and poisoned leotards. It was a thrill to experience all this on the Kabuki Cinemas' giant House One screen, and the typically generous Q&A from Maddin continued past midnight. Distributor Kino-Lorber is planning to release the film this autumn.
The New Girlfriend (France, dir. François Ozon)
The latest from France's most entertainingly subversive director is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that slapped a grin on my face and wouldn't let go. Actor Romain Duris, whose personal appearance accompanying Chinese Puzzle was a highlight of last year's fest, stars as a widower who dresses in his dead wife's clothes as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in the act, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. This is surely one of Duris' finest performances and the film has secured an assured early slot on my 2015 Top Ten list.
Saint Laurent (France, dir. Bertrand Bonello)
Following The New Girlfriend, I dashed to the Castro Theatre to catch the second half of Bonello's fabulously outré YSL biopic. (I had seen the film previously and wrote about it here. And I now realize nearly all of my favorite scenes are in the film's first half). My Castro sojourn was primarily motivated by the desire to catch an eyeful of Saint Laurent's handsome lead actor, Gaspard Ulliel, who took the stage with his director for a post-screening Q&A. Ulliel was the more gregarious and forthcoming of the two. He talked about the difficulty of dubbing the older YSL (played by veteran Austrian actor Helmut Berger) and discussed the benefits of wearing on-screen costumes that actually came from the fashion designer's personal wardrobe. Of course, someone in the audience couldn't resist asking who was the better kisser, Jérémie Renier or Louis Garrel (the actors who play YSL's two great loves). The reply was Garrel by default. Ulliel never actually kisses Renier in the film (but they appear to do a whole lot else). Saint Laurent opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 16.
Red Amnesia (China, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)
Hill of Freedom (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Sunday evening found me at the Clay Theatre for a pair of superb new Asian films, starting with Wang's enigmatic tale of an old woman haunted by a transgression committed during the Cultural Revolution. Red Amnesia boasts an unforgettable performance by stage actress Lu Zhong, and a shock ending that would have stuck with me long into the night were it not immediately followed by the funniest film I'd see at the festival. Hong Sang-soo's 16th feature received very mixed reviews when it premiered at Venice – thank goodness I didn't let that deter me from catching it at SFIFF58. Told in a compact 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom centers on a Japanese man's mundane escapades in a chummy Seoul neighborhood, where he hopes to reunite and propose marriage to a Korean ex-coworker. The film's humor is largely derived from the fractured English spoken by its characters, making me wonder if Hill of Freedom is nearly as funny to non-English speakers. The film's sole Caucasian character, of course, speaks fluent Korean. Hong's customary device of shuffling his narrative's chronology – in this case initiated by a dropped stack of letters – seemed an unnecessary affectation this time around.
Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live! (USA, dir. Jody Shapiro)
SFIFF58 star-gazing continued on Monday with the appearance of Ms. Rossellini. The former Cover Girl and actress was in town promoting a doc about the stage adaptation of her marvelously oddball Sundance Channel series of low-fi shorts explaining how animals have sex. Director Jody Shapiro, who co-produced and directed the original Green Porno films, captures how Rossellini transformed her cartoon-like mini-movies for the stage via monologue and props. He then tags along as she performs the 75-minute show in three languages and 33 countries, in the process revealing which animal has the longest penis (barnacles!!!) and which are the most incongruously sized (gorillas have two inches while ducks have eight). Following the screening, the affable actress explained how she became interested in animals at a young age and hinted what her next area of pursuit might be (animal intelligence and communication).
Maidan (Ukraine, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
Arriving soon after his two acclaimed narrative features, My Joy (SFIFF 2011) and In the Fog (SFIFF 2013), director Loznitsa's latest work is that rarest of animals – a documentary with definitive style. From November 2013 until February 2014, he shot the popular Ukrainian uprising that took place in Kiev's main square. The film is composed solely of stationary long takes (the camera only moves twice in 134 minutes) that are always kept in deep focus, bringing a crisp clarity to thousands of anonymous faces in the crowds. There are no interviews or narration. A half-dozen succinct inter-titles give background info on the events taking place, as peaceful assembly and protest is ultimately met with violent repression. The result is an immersive experience bordering on virtual reality. Maidan is like nothing I've ever seen before and it's the most memorable documentary I saw at SFIFF58.
Cross published at The Evening Class.