Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Arab Film Festival 2009 Line-up

The 13th Arab Film Festival (AFF) kicks off Thursday night, October 15 and continues through Sunday, October 25 in San Francisco (Castro, Opera Plaza), San Jose (Camera 12 Cinemas) and Berkeley (Shattuck Cinemas). This year's line-up of films from the Arabic-speaking world seems typically strong, with an emphasis on gritty street tales from Cairo, films relating to the Palestinian issue and women's rights – and surprisingly (or perhaps not), four narrative features and docs of LGBT interest.

It's unfortunate that AFF has to compete against the Mill Valley Film Festival and SF Docfest in what's become an overstuffed fall festival jam-up – there looks to be some promising films here. AFF outreach to on-line press didn't appear to happen this year, so unlike years past, I wasn't able to preview anything. In the informational capsules below, I apologize in advance for errors, and for a heavy reliance on Variety. As often as not, it's the only available English language resource for news and opinion on these films.

Pomegranates and Myrrh (Palestine, dir. Najwa Najjar)
This year's Opening Night film is a Ramallah-set drama about a Palestinian-Christian folk dancer who marries an olive farmer. When the Israeli government confiscates his family's land and he goes to jail on trumped-up charges of assaulting an Israeli soldier, his new bride is left to deal with the aftermath while fending off the advances of a tempting Lebanese choreographer (Ali Suliman, who starred in Paradise Now and was Hiam Abbas' seductive lawyer in The Lemon Tree). And speaking of Abbas (The Visitor), she's said to have a movie-stealing supporting role here as a no-nonsense café owner. Check out John Anderson's rave review in Variety.

Help (Lebanon, dir. Marc Abi Rached)
Also on board for Opening Night at the Castro is a late night (10:30pm) screening of this controversial film about a homeless teenage boy who befriends a prostitute – one who's being threatened by mobsters and lives with a gay man. In an unprecedented move, the film was banned in Lebanon after initially being approved by censors. The official reason was nudity and tough subject matter, but more plausibly it's because the film's star, Joanna Andraos, is the daughter of a prominent Lebanese parliament member who is up for re-election. Lebanese films have been among the most vital and challenging works at recent AFFs. Perhaps this is another one.

Basra (Egypt, dir. Ahmed Rashwan)
In Yousry Nasrallah's astounding 1999 film
The City (AFF2001), actor Bassem Samra (The Yacoubian Building's straight trade) played a Cairo accountant who moved to France to become an actor. 10 years later in Basra, Samra stars as a photojournalist departing France for Egypt at the start of the Iraq War, going through an existential life crisis that intensifies as Baghdad is captured and an Al Jazeera reporter is killed by US bombs. In addition to being the name of Iraq's second largest city, "basra" means "snap" in Egyptian Arabic; employed in card games when two players have the same card, or when two people think the same thing or say the same word.

Demons of Cairo (Egypt, dir. Ahmed Atef)
Bassem Samra also stars in this grim Cairo tale in which a gang of street urchins are overlorded by a pregnant drug dealer. Samra plays a former kingpin whose release from jail sets off a turf war. In his very mixed Variety review, Jay Weissberg criticizes the film's "over-the-top gore" and "over ambitious narrative." The film's Arabic title,
Al Ghaba translates as The Jungle.

Casanegra (Morocco, dir. Nour-Eddine Lakhmari)
Casanegra is the pejorative nickname given to Casablanca by its underclasses. It's also the name of this neo-film noir that's become a smash hit on home turf and has been selected as Morocco's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Fed up with their dead-end lives, two smalltime crooks/childhood friends take on the classic "one last job" for a big gangster in order to earn money to immigrate to Sweden. According the Jay Weissberg's rave review in Variety, the film is brimming with social critique and its dialogue has become the country's latest street lingo. He goes on to make comparisons with Martin Scorcese and Anthony Mann, and calls the performances by its two non-professional lead actors, "career-making." I'll be disappointed to miss this at the AFF, but will keep my fingers crossed it shows up at Palm Springs in January.

Laila's Birthday (Palestine, dir. Rachid Mashrawi)
This wry satire about the daily frustrations of life in Ramallah is the one AFF film I've already seen, having caught a screening at this year's SF International Film Festival. It's one I recommend, particularly for the lead performance of veteran actor Mohammed Bakri as a former judge turned taxi driver who's just trying to get through the day (and make it home with a cake and present for his daughter Laila). The film is structured as a series of vignettes, each involving a different taxi passenger with their own particular issue. At the SFIFF,
Laila's Birthday was shown as a digital projection, which did the film no favors. I'd be curious to learn if AFF screens a 35mm print. Alissa Simon's positive Variety review is worth a read.

The Beirut Apartment (Lebanon/Italy, dir. Daniele Salaris)
Not Quite the Taliban (Belgium/Jordan, dir. Fadi Hindash)
In the first part of this LGBT-themed docu-double bill, Italian filmmaker Salaris rents a tucked away Beirut apartment in which to film. Lebanese Queers from all walks of life come there to safely and confidently share their stories and feelings on subjects like sexuality, religion, endless war and politics. The second film takes a look at the hypocritical, hidden nature of contemporary homosexuality in the Arab world, with the director promising to "explode some of our own myths from the inside."

Garbage Dreams (Egypt, dir. Mai Iskandar)
Zaballeens (Arabic for "garbage people") are a 60,000 strong Coptic Christian community which collects and recycles 80 percent of Cairo's garbage – 13,000 tons a day in a city of 18 million people with no municipal garbage collection system. Now Cairo is starting to hire foreign multi-national waste-hauling firms to handle the problem, and the Zaballeen's means of existence is threatened. This documentary was shot over four years and follows three Zaballeen boys as they come to terms with the transition. World-premiering at this year's SXSW,
Garbage Dreams drew acclaim for its cinematography and even-handed portrait of a complicated issue.

Heat Harara (Morocco/Netherlands, dir. Lodewijk Crijns
Two 20-year-old women, one Dutch and one Dutch/Moroccan, take their car to Morocco to buy furnishings for their new henna/nail salon. After a suspiciously calculated car crash, a series of events will lead them to consider smuggling a gay Moroccan back to Holland to rejoin his boyfriend. I couldn't find any English language reviews of this made-for-Dutch TV movie, but it sounds intriguing.

Fawzeya's Secret Recipe (Egypt, dir. Magdy Ahmed Ali)
Egyptian star Ilham Shaheen won a Best Actress prize at last year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival for this populist melodrama set in the slums of Cairo. Her titular character is bawdy, self-reliant, optimistic, on her fifth husband and a rock of tenacity for her family and neighbors. In his generally favorable Variety review, Jay Weissberg praises Ali as a director who "embraces sensitive pro-feminist topics in a mainstream way" and "celebrates female independence while slyly condemning government corruption." On the award-winning lead performance he states that Shaheen "gives Fawzeya her all in a grandstanding perf that's in keeping with the pic's generally high-pitched style."

Salt of This Sea (Palestine, dir. Annemarie Jacir)
The AFF sponsored a sold-out benefit screening of this in Berkeley last spring, which is probably why it's only being shown in San Jose during the festival. In this feature directorial debut, a young Brooklyn-born Palestinian woman (spoken word artist Suheir Hammad) travels to Israel to reclaim an uncle's money left in a frozen bank account since the 1948 Nakba. After being rebuffed by the bank, she hooks up with a waiter (Saleh Bakri, the handsome lothario from
The Band's Visit), with whom she stages a bank robbery. They hit the road, stopping along the way to visit her uncle's now Israeli-occupied home in Jaffa, and the ruins of his ancestral village (the best part of the film, according to all the reviews I've read). Unfortunately, those same reviews described with movie with words like reductive, didactic, agenda-driven, un-nuanced and full of credibility-straining plot turns. Bakri, however, is repeatedly singled out for his fine performance.

Henna (UAE, dir. Saleh Karama)
In this rare narrative feature from the United Arab Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the theme of rapidly encroaching development is explored through the eyes of an 8-year-old fishing village girl whose parents have divorced. In his decidedly mixed review in Variety, Jay Weissberg says that while the film "just about works as a glimpse into an unfamiliar culture," "the execution lacks any vitality, subsuming the message under stolid filmmaking," and the "mediocre digital quality and flat lighting, coupled with uninspired dialogue, hinder involvement."

Niloofar (France/Iran/Lebanon, dir. Sabine El Gemayel)
The AFF traditionally does not show films from Iran. This year, however, there's one set in an Iranian community within the borders of Iraq (although it was filmed in Iran in the Persian language). In this first feature from film editor El Gemayel (
The Olive Harvest SFIFF2003), a 13-year-old girl is promised in marriage the day she becomes a woman. Managing to hide her menstruations for two years while being clandestinely home-schooled, she executes an escape with the help of an uncle. A step-brother is sent to track her down and save the family's honor. In his mixed Variety review, Robert Koehler finds the material "intrinsically fascinating," but "the determinedly paint-by-numbers filmmaking style and dramatization make for dull stuff on screen."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mill Valley Film Festival 2009 Preview

Since posting my initial overview of this year's Mill Valley Film Festival line-up, the programmers have added an Opening Night screening of John Hillcot's The Road. Based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film stars Viggo Mortensen as a father leading his son across a post-apocalyptic America. The festival kicks off tonight, and here are some capsules of what I've had the chance to preview.

Hipsters (Russia dir. Valery Todorovsky)
I never expected that my favorite film of the fest would be a splashy, wide-screen Russian musical set in 1955 Moscow, but there you go. Hipsters recounts the phenomenon of stilyagi, the name given to Russian youth who rebelled against gray Soviet monoculture by emulating jazz music and fashion from the west. The film follows the transformation of Mels, a stodgy young communist whom love converts into pompadoured, sax-playing free spirit. Full of romance, comedy, bright costumes and cleverly choreographed production numbers – each done in a different musical style with engaging lyrics – Hipsters is clearly an exaggerated, romanticized version of post-Stalinist Russia. But it's a version that doesn't totally whitewash reality. The scorned stilyagi are subject to mob attacks, and one character speaks of an aunt who was arrested because her Stalin portrait hung opposite the bathroom. I'll rarely watch a DVD screener twice, but couldn't resist with Hipsters. This should be a blast to see on the big screen with an audience.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (US dir. Lee Daniels)
Hallelujah, the hype turns out to be justified for this alternately horrifying and humorous hardknock fairytale that won audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is unforgettable as Clarice "Precious" Jones, an illiterate, ridiculed, morbidly obese teen with a hyperactive fantasy life and the most horrible mother in the history of cinema (an unforgettable turn by comedienne Mo'Nique). About to be thrown out of school for being pregnant – for the second time, by her own father –salvation comes in the form of a caring lesbian alternative school teacher (Paula Patton). Daniels directs with compassion and freewheeling imagination, from a first-time screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher. Daniels, Sidibe and Patton are all expected to attend the MVFF Opening Night screening. Opens in Bay Area Theaters on November 13.

An Education (UK dir. Lone Scherfig)
In 1961 London, a bright schoolgirl falls under the sway of a smooth talking playboy, receiving a deliciously poignant education in life whilst jeopardizing her academic future. Scherfig's evocation of pre-Swinging Sixties UK highlife – its nightclubs, racetracks, and weekend jaunts to Paris – is terrific fun, while the performances all resonate, especially Carey Mulligan and a Brit-accented Peter Sarsgaard as the inter-generational couple. Based on a Nick Hornby script, this is by far my favorite film of Scherfig's (Italian For Beginners) and her personal appearance at the festival is reason enough to catch it there before the October 16 theatrical release.

The Maid (Chile, dir. Sebastian Silva)
In this heartbreaking and hilarious social satire, Raquel is a housekeeper who's taken care of the same upper class family for 23 years. After a thwarted sense of self causes her to start acting out resentments, the confused family responds by hiring on additional help. The first two maids flee after being terrorized by Raquel. Finally, a woman with a taste for jogging and irreverence joins the household staff – and she's got Raquel's number good. Filmed almost entirely indoors with a handheld camera that reflects our heroine's entrapment, The Maid explores thorny master/servant issues without demonizing the former or martyring the latter. This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for World Cinema will open in Bay Area theaters on November 13.

Soundtrack For a Revolution (US dir. Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman)
This exceptional documentary traces the history of the American Civil Rights Movement via the protest songs which inspired its leaders and participants. As one interviewee states, "They could take away everything else, except our songs – which meant we kept our souls." From "We Shall Overcome" to "Wade in the Water," the film recounts how these songs came to be written and then incorporated into the movement. The directors seamlessly blend moving first-person accounts (Julian Bond, Coretta Scott King, songwriter Guy Carawan), contemporary performances of the songs (The Roots, Ritchie Havens, Wyclef Jean) and a lot of archival material I know I haven't seen elsewhere. Apart from its focus on the music, this is perhaps the most concise and affecting film I've seen on the African American struggle for civil rights, period. Co-director Guttenberg is expected to attend the festival, and a special Concert for a Revolution featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama (who perform in the film) will take place after the Oct. 16 screening.

Dark and Stormy Night (US, dir. Larry Blamire)
I approached this one with trepidation, not having liked Blamire's vintage sci-fi parodies (The Lost Skelton of Cadavra, Trail of the Screaming Forehead). Here he takes on the Haunted House genre, and comes up with a spoof that's ambitious, reverent and often enough, completely nuts. All the tropes show up – the reading of a will, secret panels, an escaped maniac from the local asylum, ancestral portraits with roving eyeballs, expository monologues – everything but the sour-faced female caretaker. Blamire expertly lifts all this from such films as The Cat and the Canary, The Dark Old House and the spooky comedies of The Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. Not all of the two dozen stock characters work equally well, but I happily found my least favorites getting bumped off early in the proceedings. Among the ones who fortunately live through the night are a pair of bickering guy/gal reporters straight out of His Girl Friday, and a turbaned, Andrea Martin-channeling medium.

Shameless (Czech Republic, dir. Jan Hrebejk)
In this droll, melancholic little film about the foibles of adult relationships, TV weatherman Oskar gets the heave-ho when his wife discovers he's screwing their Hungarian au pair. After losing his job, he begins a new career driving drunks home from bars, which is how he meets his new love, an older celebrated Czech songstress. Meanwhile, his ex-wife meets a blue collar single dad who loves her big nose, and the two have sex for the first time in her ex-husband's childhood bedroom. Slight, piquant, and oddly satisfying, Shameless has a low key charm that could use some of the edginess that underscored Hrebejk's earlier works like Up and Down and Beauty in Trouble.

Hellsinki (Finland dir. Aleksi Mäkelä)
Booze was illegal in 1960s Finland, giving rise to a bootlegger underground in the depressed Helsinki neighborhood of Rööperi. This solid, but unremarkable genre yarn follows the fates of three small time gangsters through a decade and a half's worth of up-and-downward mobility. When alcohol starts being sold legally in 1969, more nefarious career options arise for the trio. Krisu (Peter Franzen) takes his thuggery to Sweden and returns home a junkie, while momma's boy Kari intentionally screws up a bank robbery to regain the sanctuary of prison life. Meanwhile, troubled hothead Tom gets married and makes a fortune in the burgeoning mail-order porn biz. The film has been tagged a Finnish Goodfellas, which is in many ways an apt comparison. Actor Peter Franzen is expected to attend the festival.

Superstar (Iran, dir. Tamineh Milani)
An insufferably arrogant and bellyaching movie star has his life changed when an impudent, self-righteous – oops, I mean spunky, precocious young girl shows up and claims to be his long lost daughter from a forgotten affair. This is so not my thing. I'd had all I could stand 20 minutes before reaching the end, which I understand contains some sort of twist. Milani is said to be one of Iran's top directors and this sentimental melodrama made gobs of rials for the country's cinemas. Recommended for those with a curiosity about mainstream Iranian crowd pleasers.

Monday, October 5, 2009

French Cinema Now 2009 Line-up

One year after the smash success of its inaugural French Cinema Now (FCN), the SF Film Society has announced the line-up for its anticipated 2009 follow-up fest. This year's expanded program includes 11 new films and one revival, mostly culled from the Berlin Film Festival and Cannes' Directors Fortnight sidebar. It's an impressive roster – there are seven films I've been jonesing to see, plus four others which look plenty promising. Nothing has the marquee value of last year's Palme d'Or winner
The Class, or all-star ensembler A Christmas Tale, but that's AOK. With the possible exception of the latest Claude Chabrol joint, none of these 11 films are what I'd call sure bets for theatrical distribution – exactly the stuff I want to see at a festival. Here's a brief rundown of what to expect from Oct. 30 to Nov. 4 at Landmark's Clay Theater.

I'd like to say that my #1 object of desire in this year's FCN is some tony art film, but alas, it's comedy OSS 117: Lost in Rio that's got me most riled. I got the biggest kick out of 2006's OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, featuring Jean Dujardin as the vain, meathead-ed, culturally clueless secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. I loved all the inane hijinks and sparkling 1950's art direction, and am counting on more of the same in this Rio-set sequel. An added bonus: director Michel Hazanavicius is expected to attend the film's sole FCN screening on Saturday, October 31.

Another comedy I'm looking forward to is Alain Guiraudie's The King of Escape. This one caught my eye because it stars Hafsia Herzi, the fiery young actress who wowed us in The Secret of the Grain (SFIFF51) and French Girl (SFIFF52). Here she plays a 16-year-old country teen who romantically pursues a dumpy, middle-aged gay tractor salesman – much to his surprise – and her family's extreme consternation. This got some terrific reviews when it screened in Directors Fortnight. Writer/director Guiraudie will be in town for the film's two screenings.

On a more serious note, conflict between a seemingly benevolent French-Arab factory owner and his Muslim employees is at the center of actor/writer/director Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche's Adhen. His first two features, Wesh Wesh (2001) and Bled Number One (2006) were both shown at our 2006 Arab Film Festival. I expected Adhen to show up in this year's AFF (Oct. 15 to 18 in SF, Oct. 23 to 25 in Berkeley), but am just as happy to see it as part of FCN. This is probably the "oldest" of FCN's 11 new films, having premiered in Directors Fortnight in 2008.

Last month's headlines concerning French police raiding and bulldozing immigrant camps in Calais directly relates to another FCN selection, Philippe Lioret's Welcome. Vincent Lindon (La moustache, Friday Night) portrays a swimming instructor with a wrecked marriage who wrestles with helping a 17-year-old Kurdish Iraqi refugee – one determined to swim across the English Channel from Calais to Great Britain. This is one of three FCN offerings which world-premiered at Berlin.

As with last year's FCN, there's one documentary in the 2009 mix, Thorn in the Heart by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep). Combining home movies, interviews and a bit of animation, Gondry's film is a portrait of his Aunt Suzette, a rural schoolteacher for 35 years. Her titular thorn is a troubled relationship with gay slacker son Jean-Yves. This got wildly mixed reviews when it screened as a Special Presentation at Cannes, with many critics damning the project as too personal and of interest only to actual members of la famille Gondry. Given the director's reputation and the subject matter, I plan on giving this a shot.

For this year's Closing Night, the FCN programmers have selected a formidable pairing of Benoît Jaquot's Villa Amalia and Claude Chabrol's Bellamy, both of which premiered at Berlin. The former represents director Jacquot's fifth outing with Isabelle Huppert, starring here as a respected composer/pianist who radically alters her life after discovering a lover's infidelity. All vestiges of her persona get discarded – family, friends, profession and possessions – sending her on an existential journey southward to an island off the coast of Naples. Relatedly, Huppert has made seven films with Claude Chabrol. In his 57th film Bellamy, the 79-year-old "French Hitchcock" works for the first time with screen legend Gerard Depardieu in a role written specifically for him. His titular character is modeled on Jules Maigret, the beloved French detective created by writer Georges Simenon in 1931. Bellamy is about a Parisian police commissioner who becomes involved in a murder case while vacationing in the south of France. It's said to be the director's wittiest, most accessible film in years – a perfect note on which to end the festival.

There are four FCN selections of which I was previously unaware, starting with Opening Night film The French Kissers. This teen comedy is the directorial debut of comic book writer Riad Sattouf, and is beguilingly described by Screen International's Mike Goodridge as a cross between American Pie and André Téchiné's coming-of-ager Wild Reeds. Newcomer Vincent Lacoste stars as Hervé, a 14-year-old class nerd who finds himself being pursued by the class beauty. Playing his mom is Noémie Lvovsky (the best friend in FCN 2008's Actresses), accompanied by some intriguing cameos from the likes of Emmanuelle Devos, Irene Jacob and Persepolis writer/director Marjane Satrapi. Director Sattouf is expected to attend the screening. (Interesting to note that all three filmmakers attending FNC are directors of comedies).

Another adolescent-centered film is Sylvie Verheyde's Stella. Set in 1977, it concerns an average 11-year-old who has inexplicably been admitted to a prestigious Parisian preparatory school. Hanging out in her parents working class bar has made her tops in pinball and pop music. When it comes to academics, however, she'll need the help and friendship of the class brain, a daughter of Argentine-Jewish intellectuals. This film has received critical raves all around. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing singer/songwriter Benjamin Biolay (a.k.a. Catherine Deneuve's ex-son-in-law) as Stella's father, plus Guillaume Depardieu in one of his final screen appearances (as a sympathetic bar customer).

Ex-film crtitic Axelle Ropert makes her feature directorial debut with The Wolberg Family, a dramedy in which a small town Jewish mayor struggles in vain to keep his family from unraveling. Ropert is best known for the off-beat screenplays she's written for director Serge Bozon (La France SFIFF51). Here Bozon returns the favor by taking on a pivotal acting role as Mde Wolberg's needling Bohemian brother. Making the film a total Bozon Family affair is Serge's sister Celine, who's responsible for The Wolberg Family's wide-screen cinematography. Boyd Van Hoeij waxes rhapsodic in his Directors Fortnight review in Variety.

Yet another 2009 Directors Fortnight selection is Yuki & Nina, a collaborative effort from formalist Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa (2005's A Perfect Couple with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Bruno Todeschini) and actor Hippolyte Giradot (last seen around here in A Christmas Tale and Amos Gitai's One Day You'll Understand). The two co-wrote and co-directed. Giradot also stars as the divorced father of Yuki, a desperate 10-year-old girl determined not to abandon her best friend Nina by moving to Japan with her mother. The story is told entirely from the children's POV and is said to contain elements of magic realism when the duo escape to a forest.

Last year's FCN featured three revival screenings, which represented fully one-third of the fest's line-up – French Cinema Now (and Then) if you will. There's only one vintage film this year, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, chosen to mark the somewhat arbitrary 50th anniversary of French New Wave. It's not a terribly interesting choice, at least when compared to last year's Six in Paris omnibus and two early Arnaud Desplechin works. But it's as appropriate as anything else to mark this commemoration. As unlikely as it may seem, perhaps not everyone has seen this essential classic in 35mm.

French Cinema Now is one element of what is now officially the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season. Be sure and check out Cinema by the Bay (Oct. 22 – 25), Taiwan Film Days (Nov. 6 – 8), SF International Animation Festival (Nov. 11 – 15, line-up TBA Oct. 9) and New Italian Cinema
(Nov. 15 – 22, line-up TBA Oct. 5).