Saturday, February 28, 2009

SF Silent Film Festival Winter Event 2009

The weather outside was frightening. An overdue winter storm was pounding the Bay Area – and inside the unheated, cavernous Castro Theater, the temperature might have been a few degrees warmer than outdoors. But that hardly mattered to those celebrating the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's (SFSFF) 4th Annual Winter Event. We were movie lovers spending our entire Valentine's Day in the chilly bosom of our favorite silent movie palace.

The SFSFF Winter Event started four years ago as in interim fix for silent film junkies – a bonbon to tide us over until the main festival in July. This year's affair packed plenty into one day: four outstanding features, a tribute to a pioneering female director, live musical accompaniments, an informative and well-researched program guide, pithy on-stage introductions and last but not least, door prizes!

The program began with the first of four shorts by Alice Guy Blaché, the world's first female director. Between 1886 and 1920, Guy Blaché directed over 300 films – first for Gaumont in France and then for her own studio, Solax (the largest pre-Hollywood film studio in the U.S.). In the first short, The Detective and His Dog, we saw an example of the "Dog Rescue" film, an allegedly popular genre of the era. It contained some pretty sophisticated cross-cutting for 1912, and might also be the first film in which someone is tied up to a rapidly approaching buzz saw. Three other Guy Blaché shorts were screened throughout the day and evening, including Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913), Falling Leaves (1912) and a fragment from The Pit and the Pendulum (1913). It's worth mentioning here that The Detective and His Dog (and the entire afternoon's program) was accompanied on piano by the talented Philip Carli. This was his SFSFF debut, and everyone agreed he's a great addition to the festival's rotating line-up of musicians.

At 12 noon there was a packed house for Buster Keaton's first "real" feature, 1923's Our Hospitality. The film got a heartfelt introduction by SFSFF Board Member Frank Buxton, who showed the audience a 1949 publicity still from a summer stock production of Three Men on a Horse. The photo depicts two men; a bartender and his customer. The latter is obviously Keaton, "and the young man on the left is me, at age 19," the now 79-year-old Buxton reminisced.

Our Hospitality is pure Keaton genius. Set in 1830, it's the story of a man who returns home to claim an inheritance, oblivious to the fact he's at the center of a Hatfield-McCoy type family feud. Among its highlights are an outrageous stunt at the edge of a raging waterfall, and hilarious (but historically accurate) depictions of the earliest bicycles and passenger trains. One gag in particular encapsulates Keaton's imaginative powers for me. When his character first learns of his inheritance, the image of a grand antebellum mansion appears in something akin to a thought bubble above his head. A half hour later, a disappointed Keaton is seen standing in front of his real inheritance – a rickety old shack. The mansion appears above his head once again, and we see it get blown to smithereens! A brilliant cinematic moment in 1923 or any other year. Finally, it was a joy to hear howls of laughter coming from the kids in the Castro audience. After 86 years, these images still have the power to delight a new generation.

Up next was A Kiss From Mary Pickford, a Russian comedy from 1927 with an interesting history. In 1920, Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks and took off on a European honeymoon. They had become so insanely popular that in London, Pickford was dragged from her car and trampled by a riotous mob that tore at her hair and clothes. A few years later the couple visited Moscow – where they were equally the rage – and during a film studio tour Pickford was encouraged to plant a kiss on actor/comedian Igor Ilyinsky (
Aelita: Queen of Mars). That simple moment was captured on camera and became the nucleus for director Sergei Komorov's film.

In A Kiss From Mary Pickford, Illynsky plays a klutzy movie theater usher with an aloof, Douglas Fairbanks-obsessed girlfriend. He becomes a film stuntman, and Pickford's ill-fated smooch results in him also becoming an object of deranged idolatry. The film is a madcap satire of celebrity worship, and it was interesting to see 1927 Muscovites portrayed not as dour proletariats, but as full participants in the Jazz Age. Illynsky is an adept physical comedian, and Komorov packs his film with some great sight gags. My favorite occurred when a fed-up Illlynsky wipes Pickford's lip prints off his cheek, and a mob of eyewitnesses simultaneously faints to the ground in disbelief. Full disclosure – I slept through the entire mid-section of this film and missed all the archival footage of Pickford and Fairbanks' visit to Moscow (including the titular kiss). As a result, however, I was fully rested and alert for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is one of several iconic films that have eluded me over the years. It's considered the supreme representation of silent film art and I always hear gasps of incredulity whenever I admit to never having seen it. Thanks to the SFSFF, I can finally count myself among its fervent devotees. Its storyline is uncomplicated. A wicked City Woman convinces a Simple Farmer to murder his Adoring Wife by drowning her en route to an outing in the Big City. But instead, the excursion rekindles his love, and a sea storm on the return journey becomes the ultimate test of his devotion.

Volumes have been written about this film's greatness (this Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any), so there's really little to add. But indulge me while I recall some of the things that transfixed me as I watched from my seat in the Castro: The revolutionary fluid camera movements. The heartrending lead performances by George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor (winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Actress). The moody and iridescent cinematography in the nocturnal marsh sequence. The stunning dissolves and superimposition of images. The imaginative and vaguely futuristic art direction in the Big City carnival sequence. The drunk pig chase. And best of all, the scene where they walk arm-in-arm into a tangle of street traffic – oblivious to everything in the world but each other. This screening was greatly enhanced by Brian Darr's program notes and Dennis James' spirited accompaniment on Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer.

The SFSFF Winter Event came to a wonderfully comic/horrific close with Paul Leni's 1927 The Cat and the Canary. After a rousing introduction by Midnight for Maniacs' Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, we set off to experience Leni's German Expressionist version of a haunted house movie. The Cat and the Canary is credited for setting the template for this kind of film, in which a group of strangers are forced, for one reason or another, to spend the night in a spooky mansion. It was always my favorite kind of movie as a kid, with films such as James Whale's The Old Dark House, William Castle's House on Haunted Hill and Robert Wise's The Haunting.

In this early rendering, we encounter many tropes of the genre: a maniac on the loose, bookcases that move and lead to other rooms, a gallery of suspicious characters and an austere, malevolent housekeeper (here amusingly named Mammy Pleasant). I was intrigued to see an archetypal gay "sissy" character amongst the houseguests, particularly one who ultimately reveals himself to be the bravest of the bunch. This film was also vigorously accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer, along with Mark Goldstein's live sound effects. We heard creaking doors, gushing winds, ticking clocks and lots of eerie, theremin-ish musical accents. I found it a bit overdone; a classic case where less might have been more. But it was scarcely enough to ruin the experience. And at the end I rushed out onto Castro Street, where after 11 hours indoors, a real dark and stormy night laid in wait.

* * * * *

Another highly anticipated event for Bay Area silent film lovers is the SF International Film Festival's annual pairing of live rock music and a renowned silent film at the Castro. Past combinations have included Deerhoof and Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic, Lambchop and Murnau's Sunrise, and Yo La Tengo with the nature films of Jean Painlevé. This year, however, festival programmer Sean Uyehara has truly outdone himself. On Tuesday, May 5, Bay Area club favorites Dengue Fever will world-premiere their newly composed score for Harry Hoyt's 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World. Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the film stars Bessie Love, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Lloyd Hughes. But most famously, it features the stop-motion animated creatures of Willis O'Brien, the man who gave the world King Kong in 1933.

Dengue Fever are a Southern California band best known for their cover versions of Cambodian garage rock classics from the 60's and 70's. They first came on my radar with a Khmer-language version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," which appeared on the soundtrack for Matt Dillon's directorial debut City of Ghosts. In recent years they've expanded their sound to include surf, psych-rock, klezmer, funk and Ethiopian jazz. I've seen them perform live several times, and can only imagine what they've concocted for The Lost World score. The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival takes place from April 23 to May 7. Tickets for this one-time experience are currently on sale to SF Film Society Members, and General Public tickets will go on sale April 2.

Monday, February 16, 2009

SFIAAFF 2009 Line-up

With a multiracial, Hawaii/Indonesia-raised president in the White House, it's fortuitous that the issue of mixed race is also at the core of many films in the 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF). That's the observation with which Festival Director Chi-hui Yang and Assistant Director Vicci Ho kicked off last week's press conference announcing this year's line-up. Additionally, they noted a marked emphasis on films from South Asia, South Korea and Japan this year. I think the program is an even stronger one than usual, at least in terms of containing many of the films I've been hoping to see. Here's a look at some highlights.

The big event is undoubtedly the seven-film spotlight on Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the Japanese auteur best known for his metaphysical thrillers Cure and Pulse. Kurosawa was last here in 2004 for the SF International Film Festival's screenings of Doppelganger, and I've been assured that he will appear at all eight of his SFIAAFF screenings. The series includes his most recent film, the critically acclaimed, Cannes jury prize-winning Tokyo Sonata, as well as four rare, older films which all deal with the theme of revenge. Those are 1997's The Revenge: A Visit From Fate and The Revenge: The Scar That Never Fades, which screen back-to-back at the Pacific Film Archive; and 1998's Serpent's Path and Eyes of the Spider, which are being shown as a late-night, Friday the 13th double-bill at the Castro Theater. A 3rd little-known film directed by Kurosawa in 1998, License to Live is described as a "Tokyo slacker merger of Rip Van Winkle, family melodramas and Samuel Becket-like surrealism." And finally, for those who missed its brief run at the 4-Star Theater in the summer of 2005, the J-horror classic Pulse will screen once only at the PFA on Sunday, March 15 – presenting a real conundrum for those loathe to miss SFIAAFF's annual Bollywood night at the Castro. I'm a big fan of Kurosawa and there are five films in the series I've never seen – bravo to SFIAAFF for finally bringing them our way. It's interesting to note, however, the absence of 2005's Loft and 2006's Retribution, neither of which have screened in the Bay Area.

(Note: As you'll see in the comments section, I was misinformed when told Kurosawa would appear at all of his SFIAFF screenings. He will not be present for Pulse and the two Revenge films at the PFA. He will introduce the late night Castro double bill, but will not do a Q&A afterward. Many thanks to former SFIAAFF Assistant Director Taro Goto (who will be translating for Kurosawa) for this clarification.)

In addition to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, two other international filmmakers of note will be making appearances at this year's SFIFAAFF. Following a screening of 2007's Lust/Caution, Ang Lee will appear in conversation with UC Berkeley Film Studies professor Linda Williams at the campus' Wheeler Auditorium. Then in a festival Special Presentation, Canadian director Deepa Mehta will present her new film, Heaven On Earth at the Castro Theater. You might remember that Mehta was at the festival in 2006 with her Oscar-nominated feature Water. Heaven On Earth is supposed to represent a new direction for her, as she uses fantasy and allegory to tell the tale of an immigrant Toronto bride (played by Bollywood star Preity Zinta) who's stuck in a miserable arranged marriage.

A pair of South Korean films occupy both the opening and closing night slots of this year's festival. Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy, which Festival Director Yang described as "almost a perfect film," is an urban road trip/city symphony flick in which two ex-lovers drive around the streets of Seoul from dawn till dusk. Happily, the couple are played by Jeon Do-yeon, winner of the 2007 Cannes Best Actress prize for Secret Sunshine, and Ha Jung-woo, the hunk hired to impregnate Vera Farmiga's character in Never Forever. The Closing Night feature is Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim's highly anticipated follow-up to In Between Days. The film has won unanimous raves since its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and is the story of two girls fending for themselves after being put in the care of an alcoholic aunt.

SFIAAFF's annual International Showcase section is where I tend to spend most of my time, and this year will be no exception. First and foremost, I'm anxious to see 24 City, the latest film from Jia Zheng-ke – arguably China's most important contemporary director. Like his previous film Still Life, this is another fiction/documentary hybrid about a nation in transition and people displaced by "progress." The setting this time out is a huge Chengdu munitions factory that's being disassembled to make way for luxury apartments. There are three other International Showcase films I'm highly anticipating. Na Hong-jin's The Chaser is supposed to be a stylish, balls-to-the-wall thriller about an ex-cop-turned-pimp who goes up against a serial-killer and stars the aforementioned Ha Jung-woo. You'll never find a more unlikely combination of directors than Leos Carax (Pola X), Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep), but amazingly, all three contribute segments to the omnibus film Tokyo!. Veteran Filipina actress Anita Linda (who has appeared in 176 films according to imdb) is supposed to give the performance of a lifetime in Adela, which follows a day in the life of a poor woman preparing for her 80th birthday celebration.

There's a pair of LGBT-themed films in International Showcase which sound worth checking out: Chookiat Sakveerakul's The Love of Siam and Peng Lei's The Panda Candy. The former is a 160-minute gay teen romance whose popularity has allegedly brought it cultural phenomenon status in Thailand. It was also that country's 2008 Oscar submission. Peng Lei is the lead singer for the Chinese band New Pants, and his directorial debut The Pandy Candy is about two young women who've been looking for love in wrong places – and may have finally found it with each other.

Bollywood night at the Castro Theater is a consistent highlight of this festival because SFIAAFF audiences can't get enough of Shahrukh Khan on the big screen. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, King Khan plays a nerdy
office worker who creates a motorcycle-riding macho man alter-ego. When the woman he loves starts to fall for his other persona, he finds himself competing against himself (on a dancing reality TV show no less). Another Indian International Showcase film playing the Castro the same day is Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession, described as combining "Bollywood flair, social commitment and film-noir grit to follow one man's political awakening among India's exploited silk weavers." Elsewhere in International Showcase, I'm curious about All Around Us, by Hush director Ryosuke Hashiguchi; Hong Kong juvenile delinquent drama High Noon from first-time, 24-year-old director Heiward Mak; and Cao Baoping's The Equation of Love and Death, starring Zhou Xun (Beijing Bicycle, Suzhou River) as a lady taxi driver on the lookout for her elusive ex.

Bringing things closer to home are three festival programs of considerable local interest. Fans of 2006's Colma: The Musical will be thrilled to know that the film's composer and co-star H.P. Mendoza, has written and directed (and edited and composed the songs for) his own movie. Centerpiece Film Fruit Fly will have its world premiere at the Castro on Sunday, March 15 and I predict this will be THE high energy, fun event of the festival. Described as a "loud and proud, indie-Asian/gay hijacking of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," Fruit Fly stars Colma's L.A. Renigen as a young performance artist who comes to San Francisco in search of her birth mother. Colma director Richard Wong is once again behind the camera.

From Sucker Free City to Watchmen: An Afternoon with Screenwriter Alex Tse will find the 32-year-old San Francisco native in conversation with friend and filmmaker Spencer Nakasako (AKA Don Bonus). Tse's original screenplay for the SF-set Sucker Free City was directed by Spike Lee for Showtime and his adaptation of DC Comics' Watchmen is one of the most anticipated Hollywood films of 2009. The third program of local interest is the world premiere of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, directed by Jeff Adachi (also known as San Francisco's Public Defender). In 2006, Adachi directed The Slanted Screen, an excellent documentary about the history of Asian-American actors in Hollywood. This time he narrows his focus to one particular actor, Oakland-born Goro Suzuki, who would find fame on stage and screen (Flower Drum Song) and television (Barney Miller) as Jack Soo.

You Don't Know Jack is just one of six feature documentaries screening in competition, and they all sound equally interesting. Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority profiles the first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress. One woman's fight for the right to pray alongside men in a West Virginia mosque is the subject of The Mosque of Morgantown. Whatever It Takes follows one year in the life of Edward Tom, an Asian-American principal at a rough South Bronx high school. Two friends seek to understand a bloody, 50-year conflict on the Pakistan/India border in Project Kashmir. And in Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, we're offered a warts-and-all portrait of artistic extremism. And although it's not screening in competition, Deepa Mehta's brother Dilip makes his directorial debut with The Forgotten Woman, a documentary about the marginalization of widows in India.

This year's Out of the Vaults selection is Diamond Head, a 1962 miscegenation melodrama in which a racist pineapple plantation owner and U.S. Senate candidate (Charlton Heston) with a pregnant Chinese mistress (France Nuyen), freaks when his kid sister (Yvette Mimieux) hooks up with a no-good native Hawaiian boyfriend (James Darren), despite his having a noble doctor brother (George Chakiris). This screens in 35mm at the Castro on a Sunday afternoon and I wouldn't miss it for anything.

What else? There are six films in competition for the Best Narrative Award, seven programs of shorts, a tribute to Japanese experimental media artist Takahiko Iimura (co-presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque), the launch of HAPAS.US (a social net-working website for multiracial Asian Americans), and Directions in Sound (an evening of underground Asian American club music). Follow the links to find out more. Meanwhile, I'll be attending press screenings and watching screeners over the next few weeks, and will post a SFIAAFF 2009 Preview just before the festival opens on March 12.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

SF IndieFest Preview 2009

A trashy French vampire comedy, a documentary about Big Lebowski fans and a tribute to Japanese pinku soft-core porn – these treats and others await you at the 11th edition of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival – better known as SF IndieFest. Spread out over 19 days (Feb. 5 – 22) and eight venues, this year's bash boasts a roster of 38 feature films, eight shorts programs and six cool parties. I've had the chance to preview a handful of screeners and here are my impressions.

The festival's opening night kicks off with Somers Town, director Shane Meadows' follow-up to the hugely successful This is England. Originally conceived as a 20-minute short to promote the Eurostar train, the final product has the unhappy feel of a sketch stretched out to 70 long minutes. The story follows an unlikely friendship between two teenage boys in a distressed section of northern London. One is a hardscrabble, but sensitive Midlands runaway (played by This is England's Thomas Turgoose) and the other a Polish émigré who's into photography and lives with his Dad. The former becomes a clandestine boarder in the latter's apartment, and their days are spent making mischief and falling for the same French waitress. Although spirited and good natured, the film's bittersweet-ness tends toward preciousness, and too many of the plot turns and dialogues feel strained. What I did like: the crisp B&W monochrome HD cinematography, some charismatic supporting characters and the fully realized relationship between the Polish boy and his preoccupied father. This is a minor stepping stone on the road to Meadow's undoubtedly next great film. Leslie Felperin in Variety, Alison Willmore at IFC blog and others, however, found it to be absolutely terrific on its own.

My heart leapt when I saw that Koen Mortier's Ex-Drummer
was in this year's IndieFest. Reportedly, the film spawned audience outrage as it traveled the 2007 festival circuit, and I'm always curious to see what offends people's sensibilities these days (seeing as how Gaspar Noe hasn't made a feature in six years). The film's protagonist is a famous writer who happily "descends into the depths of stupidity and ugliness" by joining a rock band comprised of the "handicapped." The lead singer is a lisping skinhead rapist, the lead guitarist a deaf junkie, and the bass player is gay and has one arm he can't bend. The name of the band? The Feminists. Their preparation for a rock festival is Mortier's launching pad for all manner of Belgian-style misanthropy. This includes rape, vomiting, hideous wallpaper, a cocaine OD-ing toddler, hardcore MFF group sex, mother-humping, rants about the notion of collective sorrow, mass slaughter and an 18-inch penis – which is, of course, attached to the ugliest guy in the movie. It's a flick I would have considered pretty rad' when I was half the age I am now. But these days I can only shrug and sigh, "Kids…what exactly is your point?" On the plus side,
Ex-Drummer has an undeniable gnarly energy. It also exhibits some great visual flair, as might be expected from a director who formerly made music videos and TV commercials. I've also read that if you speak Flemish, the colloquial-laced dialogue is quite hilarious.

Super Happy Fun Monkey Bash! is a nifty 90-minute compilation of Japanese TV weirdness that's assembled each year by the folks at Austin's famed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. (IndieFest will be screening the 2008 edition.) As anyone who trolls for this stuff on YouTube can tell you, it would take 90 hours to scratch the surface of what's actually out there. Presented with absolutely no commentary or context, I found the SHFMB program fairly representative and containing more hits than misses. Half the program consists of innocuous nonsense, like people in bizarre costumes, chimpanzee-hosted talk shows, and A-list American actors shilling for Japanese products. Then there are the TV shows which reveal Japan as a nation of sado-masochistic game show spectators and participants. Genitorture is all in good fun on programs like Championship Ass Catch Battle, in which contestants furiously shake champagne bottles and aim the corks at their opponent's nether regions. There's also Food Russian Roulette, where six businessmen each drink a glass of 'tomato juice' and the guy who gets the glass of Tabasco has to pretend he isn't self-immolating. SHFMB ends with several segments of No Reaction Drama. This involves actors doing a dramatic scene while pretending not to notice the metal pots and wash basins being dropped on their heads. I kid you not.

Although I didn't get to preview any of them, I should mention this year's homage to Japan's pinku genre, I am Curious (Pink): The Second Wave of Japanese Sex Cinema / 1986 – present. Apparently, these wildly imaginative, low-budge soft core porn films have served as springboards for several internationally known Japanese directors – most notably Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Isii and Ryuichi Hiroki. Pinku has a cult following all its own, and SF IndieFest is presenting two double bills on successive Saturdays. New York Decadence: Slave and S+M Hunter screen on February 7 and The Bedroom and Sexy Battle Girls appear on Valentine's Day. For the uninitiated, Wikipedia has a terrific entry on pinku.

Of the films I previewed, the biggest surprise (as in, I was 'surprised' I didn't hate it) was the French vampire spoof, The Teeth of the Night (a.k.a Vampire Party). It's stupid and fun and reasonably clever, and it's something I can almost guarantee you won't see outside this festival. Three best friends are whisked by helicopter to a très exclusive shindig at a mountaintop castle. What first appears to be the height of Euro-chic-ness is actually a trap set by a mob of hungry, horny bloodsuckers disguised as fellow party-goers. They've assembled to celebrate Catherine de Medici's slaughter of Protestants by vampires and are soon unleashing gore galore. Our three friends, along with coterie of distinctively comic supporting characters, all attempt to flee the castle. This is the hook upon which countless sight gags are hung, including fresh twists on all the usual tropes of vampire movies (garlic, holy water, wooden stakes, Latin incantations, etc.). Mindless entertainment rarely gets better than this. FYI the poster tagline translates as, "Avoid getting sucked tonight."

I've saved the best for last, and that's Greg Kohs' Song Sung Blue. Winner of audience and jury prizes at last year's Slamdance Film Festival, this perversely inspirational documentary chronicles the 20-year saga of Thunder and Lightening, a Milwaukee husband and wife Neil Diamond tribute act. It's one of those bizarre stories that could only come from true life, and dare I say, only from the U.S. of A. The tale begins when Diamond impersonator Mike Sardina meets Claire Cartwright, a singing welfare mom with two kids. They fall in love and form an act together. Thunder and Lightning become the darlings of the night club/state fair/wedding circuit, and they experience a career high when Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder joins them onstage for a rendition of Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans." It's a fairytale existence and you hold your breath waiting for it all to come crashing down – which it does.

While gardening in her front yard one day, Claire is run over by an out of control, senior-citizen driven car, and has her leg partially amputated. Their dwindling gigs become maudlin affairs, and over the course of several despondent years, they gain weight, declare bankruptcy and become increasingly delusional about a potential comeback. Director Kohs was there to film it all and this period occupies a huge mid-section of the documentary. Seemingly oblivious to the presence of a camera, the family has a cringe-worthy, Jerry Springer-esque brawl one Xmas morning. Teenage daughter Rachel gets pregnant and Kohs' camera is there to record the birth. It becomes almost unbearable to watch, and I found myself eyeing the eject button on my DVD remote.

Then, just when it seems certain there will indeed be no third act, Thunder and Lightening get it together. They lose weight (albeit the old-fashioned American way, by taking up chain-smoking) and are soon performing gigs at the Asian Moon Sports Bar in exchange for free buffet food. Bigger and better engagements start turning up and then tragedy strikes again. This final blow adds a whole other layer of poignancy to Kohs' brave and remarkable film, a project which occupied eight years of his life. It may seem like I've laid out Thunder and Lightning's entire story here, but believe me; you haven't heard the half of it. Song Sung Blue does not have a U.S. distributor, so once again, this is something you can only see at SF IndieFest. There doesn't appear to be an official trailer for the film, but you can watch some promotional clips here and here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

SFFS Screen - Winter 2009

2008 was a wildly ambitious year for the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS). In addition to presenting a stellar 51st SF International Film Festival and launching two successful new mini-festivals – French Cinema Now and Québec Film Week – they also assumed stewardship of the 32-year-old Film Arts Foundation and its broad range of services for Bay Area filmmakers. And as if that wasn't a plateful, they also jumped into the film exhibition business with the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

Inaugurated last June as a venue for week-long runs of films with limited distribution, the SFFS Screen played host for three of my favorite films of 2008: Yang Li's Blind Mountain, Andrea Staka's Fraulein and Khuat Akhmetov's Wind Man. I would have attended with greater frequency, but often found the screen programmed with films I'd already seen elsewhere in the Bay Area. The SFFS Screen has been on hiatus for the past 11 weeks, but returns this week with an impressive six-film roster that will take us up to March 12. At that point the it goes dark again in preparation for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (April 23 to May 7). Here's the line-up:

The Pope's Toilet (Jan. 30 to Feb. 5)

Heart of Fire (Feb. 6 to Feb. 12)

Owl and the Sparrow (Feb. 13 to Feb. 19)

Just Another Love Story (Feb. 20 to 26)

Silent Light (Feb. 27 to Mar. 5)

Examined Life (Mar. 6 to Mar. 12)

The indisputable must-see here is Silent Light, the shockingly plainspoken 3rd feature from Mexican cinema's infante terrible, Carlos Reygadas. There are no explicit blowjobs or extreme geriatric sex this time out – just a luminous and ultimately heart wrenching tale of marital infidelity within a rural Mennonite community in northern Mexico. Silent Light premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and had a handful of screenings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts later that year (which is where I caught it). Despite its appearance on many 2007/2008 Top 10 lists, the film has seemingly divided critics. Half see it as a welcome maturation for Reygadas, and half see it as a step backward from the bold (if occasionally half-baked) provocations of Japón and Battle in Heaven. I'm probably leaning toward the latter assessment. That said, there are two scenes in Silent Light that are as unforgettable as anything I've seen in recent years: the real-time sunrise that opens the film, and the scene that convinced me it's entirely possible to for a human being to die of a broken heart. David Hudson (formerly) of the Greencine Daily compiled the reviews from Cannes and Michael Guillén wrote it up from Toronto. Below is a short teaser, and the entire trailer can be seen here.

Another worthwhile Latin American film in the series is Enrique Fernández and César Charlone's The Pope's Toilet. This was Uruguay's submission for Oscar consideration last year and it's the film the SFFS picked to open this series. Riffing on an actual 1988 visit to Uruguay by Pope John Paul, this bitter but affable social comedy imagines the impact of a papal visit upon one small village. The film's protagonist is Beto, an all too human (and occasionally despicable) father and husband who supports his family by smuggling sundries across the Brazilian border on his broken down bicycle. While his neighbors hatch plans to sell gastric sustenance to the anticipated holy hoards, Beto hopes to profit by building an outhouse for the ages. Will they be rewarded for pinning their economic hopes upon God's representative on earth? The answer becomes the piquant point of the story. This is a first film for co-director Charlone, who is best known for his work as cinematographer on such films as City of God and Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains. SFFS Creative Director Miguel Pendás has a terrific piece on Charlone and The Pope's Toilet at SF360. Here's the film's trailer:

Of the films I've yet to see, I'm most looking forward to Ole Bornedal's nasty, nihilistic romantic thriller, Just Another Love Story. It opened in NYC a few weeks ago to mostly rave reviews, which David Hudson has compiled for the IFC Daily. Here are a few of my favorite quotes. From Stephen Holden in the NY Times, "a stinging slap in the face to the popular notion of Denmark as one of the happiest places on earth." For Andrew O'Hehir at Salon, "Bornedal has made a bloody, show-offy, self-mocking noir…beneath all the dazzling cinematography, propulsive score and overcommitted acting, I found this movie an affecting, mordant comedy about male mid-life crisis in its most extreme form." And according to Anna King in Time Out New York, "Bornedal injects plenty of gallows humor to keep things light, and a fair amount of bloody, full-frontal nudity to maintain just the right quotient of queasiness." Other reviews reference amnesia, mistaken identity, flashbacks and flashforwards, painterly compositions, wheelchair-bound stalkers, Thai gangsters, voluptuous color-saturated wide-screen cinematography and elliptical editing. This may turn out to be a classic case of style over substance, but I seriously doubt it'll be boring. The trailer:

Speaking of queasiness, one of my least favorite film genres is children-in-peril movies and there are two in the SFFS Screen line-up. In all fairness, both have received decent to good reviews and should hit the spot for those filmgoers so inclined. Luigi Falomi's Heart of Fire recounts the travails of a 10-year-old girl forced to fight as a child soldier in the Eritrean war for independence. The good news is that Falomi co-directed The Story of the Weeping Camel, a film I liked very much. Unfortunately, the only trailer I could find is dubbed in German, and it's unintentionally hilarious. The other film is Stephane Gauger's Owl and the Sparrow, which screened at the 2007 SF International Asian American Film Festival. This one's also about a young girl – an orphaned flower vendor living on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City who bonds with a flight attendant and a zookeeper. Reyhan Harmanci has written an interesting article in the SF Chronicle on the making of Owl and the Sparrow, and the trailer is below:

The series finishes out with Astra Taylor's Examined Life, a documentary in which nine
contemporary philosophers/intellectuals ruminate about man's place in the modern world. The unique appeal of the film is supposed to be that in place of static, talking head shots, the subjects are seen out in the world – strolling down 5th Avenue and through San Francisco's Mission District, in rowboats and alongside garbage dumps. Out of the eight names, I only recognize two; Cornel West (of course) and Slavoj Zizek (The Pervert's Guide to Cinema). The others are K. Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer and Sunaura Taylor. Here in the egghead-y Bay Area, the SFFS Screen could have a hit on their hands with this one. Here's the trailer:

Lastly, I wanted to say something about the Sundance Kabuki and the unpopular $1 to $3 "amenities fee" that gets tacked onto each ticket. I know there are people who refuse to patronize the theater (and therefore the SFFS Society screen) because of that surcharge. Well, if your time is flexible there's a way to get around it. For the first show of the day, Monday through Thursday, there is no extra fee. And with the dollar discount you'll get for being a SFFS member, the full ticket price is $7.50 – about as good a movie deal as you're likely to find these days.