Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November Film Fest SmackDown - Round One

As the Bay Area's overstuffed October film calendar fades into fatigued memory – and just to recap, there was the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Arab Film Festival, SF DocFest, YBCA's Koji Wakamatsu retrospective, PFA's Julien Duvivier, Ermanno Olmi and Robert Beavers retrospectives, and ending tonight, the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now – local cinephiles take cold comfort in knowing it was all just a preparatory cakewalk for November. Here's what lies in wait for the
next week alone – the 3rd i Film Festival, SF Film Society's Taiwan Film Days, the American Indian Film Festival, PFA's New Spanish Cinema series (plus kickoffs for Ingrid Bergman in Europe and Alain Resnais retrospectives) and last but not least, the launch of a revamped SF Latino Film Festival. One hates to bitch about too much of a good thing, but really. With 52 weeks in the year, there's gotta be a way to do this without cannibalizing the same finite, overlapping audience. Please. Meanwhile, here are the coming week's overwhelming possibilities.

The 3rd i San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival returns for its seventh edition November 5 to 8, with two nights apiece at the Roxie and Castro Theaters. Sure to be a highlight is Saturday's Castro revival of legendary producer/star Guru Dutt's 1960 Bollywood classic Full Moon (Chaudhvin Ka Chand). Set amongst the Muslim aristocracy of early 20th century Lucknow, this lushly photographed film follows a love triangle beset with comic misunderstanding, mistaken identity and ultimate tragedy. Any disappointment I had over the film's digital, rather the 35mm presentation, has been tempered with the announcement that Dutt's son Aran will be on hand to introduce the screening. That night, 3rd i's Saturday at the Castro concludes with recent Bollywood hit My Heart Goes Hooray! (Dil Bole Hadippa!). Although this girls-just-wanna-play-cricket pic doesn't star Shahrukh Khan, I'm not exactly dreading 148 minutes of watching Shahid Kapoor (Rani Mukherjee in Drag King mode might be a different story). And anyone with a taste for the wildly different won't want to miss Friday's late-night Roxie screening of Quick Gun Murugun. This ambitious masala mish-mash pits a gaily-garbed vegetarian caballero against a criminal carnivore – while spoofing vintage Bollywood, Spaghetti Westerns and a hundred other things. Expect a lot of cartoonish violence, special FX and in-jokes infinitum (plus a color-palate influenced by Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger).

There are several non-Bollywood narrative features in the line-up. Of the two I previewed I'm most enthusiastic about
Bombay Summer. This moody, hang-loose
Indian indie chronicles the evolving friendship between three Mumbai 20-somethings – Geeta, a graphic design company exec who still lives at home, Jaider, her coddled poet boyfriend, and Madan, a drug deliveryman and photographer who comes between them. In the dark, uneven British anti-family comedy Mad, Sad & Bad, three damaged adult siblings stumble through the weeks leading up to the death of their widowed, alcoholic mother. A 17-year-old Kashmiri boy's struggle to escape his fate is at the center of Bay Area director Tariq Tapa's neo-realist feature debut Zero Bridge. The film was just recently nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. The directors for all three of these films are expected to attend.

3rd i can be counted on to present some terrific documentaries, and this year is no exception. While I haven't previewed it, closing night film Yes Madam, Sir appears to be one not to miss. The film is about Kiran Bedi, India's first elite policewoman, and Variety's Richard Kuipers calls it "an enthralling chronicle of her brilliant, tempestuous career" in a full-on rave review. Both Kiran Bedi and the film's director, Megan Doneman, are scheduled to attend. Of the three docs I've seen, I most strongly recommend Opening Night film Supermen of Malegaon, a charming story of cinema-obsessed textile mill workers making their own inspired version of Superman. Anyone who was blown away by Manufactured Landscapes' unearthly images of Bangladesh's "ship-breaking" industry will want check out Ironeaters, a sobering, multi-angled look at a back-breaking business that feeds an estimated three million Bangladeshis. The contradictory disconnect between "Kama Sutra India" and "no public kissing India" is the fascinating subject of Kaushik Mukherjee's brave documentary Love in India. Other docs in the fest include Warrior Boys (South Asian gangs in Vancouver), Searching for Sandeep (Australian lesbian finds romance on-line) and Children of the Pyre (kids living off Varanasi's cremation industry).

Opportunities to see new Taiwanese films in the Bay Area have been sparse lately. In 2008 and 2009 combined, the SF International Film Festival screened only three, and more tellingly, the SF Asian American Film Festival showed none at all. Is it because the country's three best known filmmakers (Ang Lee, Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiou-hsien) are choosing to work abroad? Or are the films too culturally specific to travel well? Or have recent Taiwan films simply not been very good? Fortunately, the SF Film Society attempts to fill in some gaps with Taiwan Film Days, a three-day showcase of seven recent (2007-2009) films screening this weekend at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema. Based on reviews I've read, the clear winner appears to be the opening night film Cape No. 7, a spirited epic about a cache of WWII unrequited love letters and the formation of an unlikely rock band. The film obviously struck a chord, as it became Taiwan's all-time box office champ and the country's Oscar submission for last year. Speaking of Oscars, we'll also get to see Taiwan's submission for this year, No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (the only film in the series not being screened in 35mm). Other films include Beyond the Arctic, God Man Dog, Somewhere I have Never Traveled, What on Earth Have I Done Wrong and Yang Yang.

(Whether by accident or design, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is showing a brand new 35mm print of Hou Hsiou-hsien's 1989 masterpiece A City of Sadness on Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon. The film follows one Taiwanese family over four years, from the withdrawal of Japanese troops in 1945 to the island's secession from mainland China in 1949.)

Like many people, I had mixed emotions when word got around that our Latino Film Festival was no more. While it was distressing to think of not having a Bay Area festival focused on Latino cinema, the old festival had become too unwieldy (17 days and 15 venues in 2008), with lackluster programming and careless exhibition practices. The hope was that something better might take its place, which appears to be exactly what's happened. Last week a new organization comprised of former Latino Film Festival volunteers and contractors calling themselves Cine+Más, announced details of a new San Francisco Latino Film Festival. The fest kicks off this Thursday night with a Clay Theater screening of Spoken Word, the first film in seven years from director Victor Nuñez (Ruby in Paradise, Ulee's Gold). That'll be followed by three days of screenings at the Mission Cultural Center. I don't dare look at the line-up, given prior commitments to 3rd i and Taiwan Film Days. But the following week the festival takes command of two screens at Landmark's Lumiere Theater for 20 shows over two days (Friday, Nov. 13 and Saturday, Nov. 14). The line-up looks promising and includes two films I'm dying to see – Berlin Silver Bear winner Gigante from Uruguay, and an acclaimed Mexican film that's traveled the fest circuit over the past year, I'm Going to Explode. Other highlights include two films we saw on the SF Film Society's Kabuki Screen earlier this year, The Pope's Toilet and Lake Tahoe, as well as a repeat of Nuñez' Spoken Word. I hope people get out and support these folks in this new endeavor!

(Former Latino Film Festival director Sylvia Perel is also presenting a three-day film festival in Redwood City this weekend. If I lived in Redwood City, I wouldn't miss
Calle 13: Sin Mapa, a documentary about everyone's favorite potty-mouthed Puerto Rican hip-hop/reggaetón group that's been tagged "a very long wait" on my Netflix queue ever since its July release.)

But wait, there's still more! The American Indian Film Festival rolls out its 34th edition with six days at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema (Nov. 6 to 11), followed by three days at the Palace of Fine Arts (Nov. 12 to 14). Among its offerings are an already sold-out screening of Peter Bratt's La Mission (the film which opened this year's SF International Film Festival) and Jim Thorpe, The World's Greatest Athlete, which just had its West coast premiere at Mill Valley. The Pacific Film Archive hosts a four-film New Spanish Cinema series this weekend. The film I regret missing most is Camino, a study of religious extremism and its effect upon 11-year-old girl with cancer. The film recently won six Goya Awards (Spain's Oscar), including nods for Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Actress.

And finally, taking a peek beyond the immediate horizon, there's the upcoming SF Film Society's 4th SF International Animation Festival (Nov. 11 to 16) featuring the local premiere of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox; and Italian Cinema Now (Nov. 15 to 22) honoring director Marco Risi and boasting the local premier of Marco Bellocchio's acclaimed new film, Vincere. Lee Neighborhood Theater's 3rd Annual Chinese American Film Festival (Nov. 12 to 19) returns to the 4-Star Theater with eight films, including John Woo's Red Cliff II. Then on Sunday, Nov. 15 I'll be spending the afternoon and evening in the company of a favorite American actor, as the SFMOMA and Castro Theater co-present Erased James Franco. This four-part event concludes with video artist Carter's new work starring Franco, preceded by the two films which influenced it, Todd Haynes Safe and John Frankenheimer's Seconds. Plus as a special treat, SFMOMA will screen several episodes of the TV show Freaks and Geeks, handpicked and introduced by Franco.