Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Favorite Bay Area Repertory/Revival Screenings

The Bay Area continues to be an incredible place to experience repertory cinema. There are few places on the planet where it's possible to see a film every day of the year and not watch a single new release. In 2010 I caught 47 revival screenings at various local venues. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the most memorable.

Showgirls (Castro Theater)
What better way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my fave film of the 1990s. Peaches Christ brought an expanded version of her infamous Showgirls Midnight Mass preshow to a sold-out Castro, complete with exploding on-stage volcano and free lapdances with every large popcorn. It inspired me to inaugurate my iphone's movie camera feature and create a YouTube channel to post the results. Apart from Peaches' Castro world premiere of All About Evil, this was the most fun I had at the movies in 2010.

Armored Car Robbery (Castro Theater, Noir City)
I was blown away by this taut and tidy 67-minute slice of obscure 1950 B-Noir about the aftermath of yes, an armored car robbery outside L.A.'s Wrigley Field. It would be brought back to mind months later with the Fenway Park heist of Ben Affleck's The Town. Other 2010 Noir City highlights included the double bill of Suspense (1946) and The Gangster (1948), both starring British ice-skating queen Belita, and 1945's San Francisco-set Escape in the Fog, which begins with a woman dreaming about an attempted murder on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Pornography in Denmark (Oddball Cinema)
There's something weird and wonderful going on each weekend at Oddball Cinema, a funky alternative film venue tucked inside the Mission District warehouse digs of Oddball Film + Video. In the spring they screened a 16mm print of this landmark 1970 documentary by local porn-meister Alex de Renzy, which became the first hardcore to show in legit U.S. theaters and be reviewed in the NY Times. Introducing the film was writer/film scholar Jack Stevenson, who was on tour promoting his book, "Scandinavian Blue: The Erotic Cinema of Sweden and Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s."

Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story (VIZ Cinema, 3rd i's Queer Eye Mini-Film Festival)
3rd i is best known for the SF International South Asian Film Festival it puts on each November. Back in June they packed SF's snazzy subterranean VIZ Cinema with this revival of Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher's 2000 documentary – seen in a new director's cut with 43 extra minutes. The audience went nutso at the climax of "Barcelona," Mercury's soaring duet with Montserrat Caballé from the 1986 summer Olympics. Further repertory kudos to 3rd i for bringing an exquisite 35mm print of 1958 Bollywood classic, Madhumati, to the Castro.

Mädchen in Uniform (Castro Theater, Frameline)
A whole lot of LGBT folk must've played hooky from work to catch this mid-day, mid-week revival from 1958 – itself a remake of a 1931 queer cinema classic. Romy Schneider and Lili Palmer are respectively radiant as a student obsessively in love with her boarding school teacher – to the extreme consternation of battleaxe headmistress Therese Giehse. Shown in a gorgeous and rare 35mm print, with the inimitable Jenni Olson delivering a dishy intro. Frameline34's other revelatory revival was Warhol's 1965 Vinyl, in which Factory beauties Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick dance a furious frug to Martha and the Vandellas "Nowhere to Hide." Twice.

The Aztec Mummy vs. The Human Robot (Pacific Film Archive, "El Futuro Está Aquí: Sci-Fi Classics from Mexico")
If anything's capable of luring me out of the city on a Saturday night during Frameline, it's bunch of Mexican monster movies from the 50's and 60's. This was double-billed with Santo vs. The Martian Invasion, which had a little too much rasslin' for my tastes. But it boasted a hilarious opening scene in which the Martians explain why they happen to be speaking Spanish. It killed me to miss Planet of the Female Invaders and The Ship of Monsters, also part of this series.

Metropolis (Castro Theater, SF Silent Film Festival)
"When you've waited 83 years, what's another 40 minutes?" Eddie Muller quipped to the antsy, capacity crowd awaiting the Bay Area premiere of Fritz Lang's finally-complete expressionist dystopian masterpiece. In spite of the late start time and disappointing digital format, this was still the repertory event of the year. The Alloy Orchestra performed its celebrated score live and Muller conducted an on-stage conversation with Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña, the Argentine film archivists who discovered the 16mm print of Metropolis with 25 additional minutes. The Alloy Orchestra would return to the fest two days later to perform their heart-stopping score to Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera.

The Cook/Pass the Gravy/Big Business (Castro Theater, SF Silent Film Festival)
Each year this festival invites a filmmaker to program a Director's Pick – and past pickers have included the likes of Guy Maddin and Terry Zwigoff. This year Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up) assembled a program of three comic shorts titled The Big Business of Short Funny Films, each of them screamingly funny. First, Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton had a go at each other in The Cook, followed by some hysterical nonsense involving feuding families and a prized rooster in Pass the Gravy. Finally in Big Business, door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen Laurel and Hardy declared war on a disgruntled customer, taking tit-for-tat to absurd heights.

The Boston Strangler (Pacific Film Archive, "Criminal Minds")
This ranks as my personal discovery of the year. Director Richard Fleischer employs a wry tone and magnificent use of wide and split screen to tell the story of 60's serial killer Albert DeSalvo. A restrained Tony Curtis, whose title character doesn't appear until the midway point, gives what must surely be the best dramatic performance of his career. Oscar ® didn't care. With Henry Fonda, George Kennedy and an early appearance by Sally Kellerman as the one girl who got away. Double-billed with 1944's The Lodger, a compelling Jack the Ripper yarn starring Merle Oberon, George Sanders and Laird Cregar.

Johanna (Roxie Theater)
I was woefully resigned to never seeing Kornél Mundruczó's 2005 filmic opera about a junkie performing sex miracles in a subterranean Budapest hospital, which had never screened in the Bay Area or been released on Region 1 DVD. Then the Roxie answered my prayers by showing a gorgeous 35mm print for two nights in November, double-billed with the director's follow-up, 2008's Delta. Earlier in the month, the Roxie revived 36 Quai des Orfèvres, a gritty and stylish 2004 policier that had also inexplicably gone unseen the Bay Area, despite starring Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil.

Honorable Mentions

Traffic (1971, dir. Jacques Tati, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts)
Insiang (1976, dir. Lino Brocka, Sundance Kabuki, SF International Asian American Film Festival)
Black Narcissus (1947, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Pacific Film Archive, "Life, Death and Technicolor: A Tribute to Jack Cardiff")
Hausu (1977, dir. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, Castro Theater)
A Night to Dismember (1983, dir. Doris Wishman, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, "Go to Hell for the Holidays: Horror in December")

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bay Area 2010 Fall Festivals – A Look Back

"My wife and I are now enjoying films at the Arab Film Festival. Then we will see films at the French and Italian film festivals and then finish off with a film at Berlin & Beyond. At the same time, there was the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Taiwan Film Festival. And I have probably missed a festival or two this fall season. Some of these film festivals overlap. Sometimes too much of a good thing can be too much for us poor movie buffs. I suggest that the various film festival directors have a summit and divide up the year so festivals don't overlap or get too crammed together. I suspect attendance would improve and we filmgoers won't get so overwhelmed. Just a thought."

Ralph E. Stone, San Francisco

The above letter appeared in the October 22 San Francisco Chronicle and enjoyed wide circulation among Bay Area cinephiles. It gave voice to our frustrated sense of being in-fest-ed, as Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr would put it, by more movie choices than ever this autumn. Yes, Mr. Stone, you did miss "a festival or two," or even twenty. I was festival-ing nearly every weekend, yet here are some I missed: Iranian Film Festival, Irish Film Festival, Bicycle Film Festival, International Children's Film Festival, Taiwan Film Days, Cinema by the Bay, Chinese American Film Festival, United Nations Film Festival, American Indian Film Festival, Buddhist Film Festival and Tranny Fest. And for the first time this year, my participation in the Mill Valley Film Festival and SF DocFest was necessarily limited to watching DVD screeners.

Having too many choices beats having too few, but like Mr. Stone, I'm certain it would benefit both audiences and festivals alike if the wealth were spread around. While we're holding our breath waiting for that summit to happen, here's my first-day-of-winter report on the seven Bay Area fall film fests I was able to partake in.

SF Latino Film Festival (Sept. 16 – 26)
November 2009 witnessed a resurrection of the Latino Film Festival by the organization Cine + Mas. It was woefully under-attended, a result of being scheduled smack in the middle of a fest-saturated November. This year they shifted to September, making theirs the first major fall fest out of the gate. And a change of venue to the Mission
District's Roxie Theater brought it all closer to their core audience. This seemed to do the trick. Opening night witnessed a large, enthusiastic crowd and I heard reports of healthy ticket sales for the rest of opening weekend, including a near sell-out for Mexico's multiple Ariel-nominated Heart of Time.

Opening Night's double bill was a winner. First up was
La Yuma, Nicaragua's first feature film in 20 years and its submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar®. More crowd-pleaser than art film, it boasts a powerhouse debut by Alma Blanco as a woman determined to literally box her way out of a Managua slum. While the story is preposterously overloaded – the titular La Yuma has a gangleader boyfriend, a thieving brother, a sister who's being molested by her mother's boyfriend, a prickly romance with a middle-class university student, a tranny best friend and a boxing trainer who moonlights as a male stripper – it's all served up with vigor and humor. The Roxie audience howled each time Blanco let loose with an obscene tirade, making me regret my lack of fluency in Central American insults. Humor, albeit of a gentler nature, was also in evidence in the evening's co-feature. Leo's Room proved an intelligent, wry look at one Uruguayan university student's struggle with stasis and sexual identity.

Arab Film Festival (Oct. 14 – 24)
Although I wasn't planning on it, at the last minute I found myself available to attend AFF's opening night at the Castro Theater. After welcoming everyone to the 14th edition of the largest and oldest fest of its kind in North America, the evening's hosts got down to handing out the annual Noor Awards (noor being the Arabic word for light). Outstanding Feature Film went to Syria's
Once Again, which surprised me in light of its spare, two-sentence description in the festival catalog. Feature Film Honorable Mention would go to Morocco's The Man Who Sold the World, with its fraternal directing duo, Imad and Swel Noury taking a bow from the audience. (Happily, they would remain in town for their film's screening eight days later). Outstanding Documentary was given to 12 Angry Lebanese. Following the awards, the crowd took delight in the Opening Night film Mascarades, a heartfelt social comedy set in a remote Algerian village. The film's engaging director and star, Lyès Salem, was on hand at the Castro. In the Q&A he revealed that this decidedly feminist film was a tribute to the women who held Algeria together during the 1990s civil war.

I would catch two additional AFF screenings, both of them marred by late start times and 35mm projection snafus. But at least I got to see them on film. Apparently, some film prints were held up in customs, which forced the festival to project watermarked DVD screeners. According to my spies, in at least one case the audience was never advised of the substitution. And as long as I'm complaining, I'll mention that the Arab Film Festival wins the prize for having the most audience members who text and email during movies. Alas, the films themselves were a worthy pair. While Yousry Nasrallah's feminist Egyptian melodrama
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story turned out to be a bit of a head-scratcher, it's a film I'd been dying to see and I'm grateful to the festival for programming it. I was more taken by the Noury brothers' The Man Who Sold the World, a Dostoevsky-based dystopian allegory that featured an intriguing sound design, glorious widescreen compositions and a lively post-Q&A.

Berlin & Beyond (Oct. 22 – 28)
The Bay Area's festival of German-language film went into its 15th edition with two strikes. First, there was resentment over the move from January into an October already overstuffed with festivals. More important was the acrimony people still felt over the Goethe-Institut's unceremonious ousting of B&B founder Ingrid Eggers. While there was some talk of a boycott, film festival sluts like myself found it impossible to forego certain must-see titles. At any rate, attendance was down compared to years past. Newly appointed Festival Director Sophoan Sorn, a Cambodian-born young man who founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival, proved himself a genial and
effusively enthusiastic host. As for Eggers, she's expanding her new German Gems festival, which debuted last February as one-day event. It returns as a three-day mini-fest that'll happen in B&B's original January slot – at the Castro, of course. Competing German film festivals can now be added to that list of things "only in San Francisco."

I only caught three films at this new B&B, starting with Centerpiece Film
When We Leave, directed by Feo Aladag. It's Germany's 2010 Oscar® submission and was met with rapturous applause as the credits rolled. It was also the only film from all of these autumn festivals I truly hated. What can I say? What I perceived as a cheesy melodrama in which a sympathetic protagonist does endlessly idiotic things in order to advance a filmmaker's agenda, others evidently perceived as a noble and tragic social issue drama – that issue being Muslim honor killings. Fortunately, my other two B&B choices were first rate. I knew I needed to see Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber after it was chosen for the ultra-picky New York Film Festival. This hypnotic, observational narrative about one man's obsession with marathon running and bank robbing made good on the promise of Heisenberg's debut Sleeper, which screened at B&B in 2006. The film has been picked up for U.S. release and Michael Guillén conducted a revelatory interview with Heisenberg during the festival (as well as posting this concise overview of the B&B line-up). Equally terrific was Baran bo Odar's The Silence, a visually stunning, character-driven police procedural whose 9 p.m. mid-week screening was criminally under-attended. The 35mm print promised in the B&B catalog was replaced by digital and not announced as such.

French Cinema Now (Oct. 28 – Nov. 3)
One reason for the Bay Area's autumn festival congestion is the SF Film Society's ever-expanding "Fall Season," which consisted of six festivals and five special events this year. For the first time, I heard a bit of SFFS-aimed grousing from audience members and competing festival staff-members alike. All I know is that by the time French Cinema Now rolled around, I was ready to put myself in the hands of professionals who know how to properly run a cinema event. Their screenings begin
exactly on time, in the format promised, are knowledgably introduced and preceded by an announcement to shut off cell phones and keep them off. (film-415 kudos to programmer Rod Armstrong for his vigilance in this regard.)

Since I saw nine of the 10 films on offer, there's only time here for some general thoughts. For starters, the Bay Area loves those iconic French actresses. Five FCN screenings were sellouts – two showings each of Isabelle Huppert's
Copacabana and Juliette Binoche's Certified Copy, plus a screening of Catherine Deneuve's Hidden Diary. Marc Fitoussi's light-hearted dramedy Copacabana was an ideal fest opener, with Huppert as a middle-aged hippie chick selling vacation timeshares. I felt absolutely giddy watching her in a film where she wasn't poisoning her family or performing abortions or sniffing tissues picked off the floor of a porno video arcade. (After the screening, director Fitousi would have the pleasure of announcing the Giants' win in Game 2 of the World Series.) The malevolence missing from Huppert's role manifested itself in Deneuve's heartless, mean-mouthed mother of Hidden Diary. Her performance was delivered with a vituperative gusto that triggered waves of audience sniggering. Perhaps it's high time for Deneuve to follow Joan and Bette into the land of battleaxed bogeywomen? A remake of William Castle's Straight Jacket, peut-être? Have a look at the poster and tell me you can't picture Catherine wielding that hatchet.

My favorite FCN film turned out to be one that hadn't been on my radar. Katell Quillévéré's intimate
Love Like Poison featured a memorable debut performance by Clara Augarde as a teen grappling with issues of flesh vs. spirit in small town Bretagne. The final, bittersweet film appearance of Guillaume Depardieu was a highlight of Sarah Leonor's distinguished A Real Life. Lucas Belvaux brought his taut, corporate kidnapping thriller Rapt to Opening Night, and the stimulating Q&A went well past midnight. I also enjoyed Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent's documentary about François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard which will have a run at the Roxie Theater early next year. For a nice change of pace there was Bertrand Tavernier's 16th century historical romance, The Princess of Montpensier. I appreciated it mostly for the performances of three favorite French actors: Lambert Wilson, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet and Gaspard Ulliel. FCN closed with Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, a film I was closely in tune with until its mid-film, enigmatic conceit turned tiresome.

3rd i South Asian Film Festival (Nov. 3 – 7)
While I experienced most of this year's 3rd i via DVD screeners, I did come out for three programs. Occupying Saturday night's traditional "Bollywood at the Castro" slot was Punit Malhotra's
I Hate Luv Storys, an affectionate satire of romantic Bollywood tropes that didn't inspire me to stay past the interval. Besides, I needed to be back at the Castro for Sunday morning's highly anticipated 35mm revival of Bimal Roy's 1958 classic, Madhumati. Apart from some scratches in the first reel, this otherwise flawless print looked exquisite on the huge Castro screen. There were some vexing technical difficulties projecting digital subtitles over the 35mm image, but it hardly mattered given Madhumati's easy-to-follow storyline. This was a rare treat, rendered more so by the amusing anecdotes recounted by Manoj Shailendra (the son of renowned Bollywood lyricist Shailendra), who was on hand to introduce the screening.

I returned later that evening for the closing night film, Dev Benegal's
Road, Movie. This tale of a taciturn young man driving a mobile cinema across the Rajasthan desert was a bit clunky, but was redeemed by spectacular desert photography and a contemporary consciousness surrounding water issues. As always, 3rd i's closing party in the Castro mezzanine was a blast. It was there I learned something interesting about director "Q"s groundbreaking, XXX-rated Gandu. It seems that the version screened during the festival was a radical re-edit from the one I watched on screener – and by several accounts, something approaching a masterpiece. Hopefully, 3rd i will bring it back sometime next year (and screen it earlier than midnight).

San Francisco International Animation Festival (Nov. 11 – 14)
I wasn't expecting to see anything in this festival given the lack of a big-buzz feature like
Waltz with Bashir or Fantastic Mr. Fox in the line-up. You see, I'm not much of an animation enthusiast, with Toy Story III being the only such film I saw in 2010. I'm also not particularly keen on shorts programs. But when I saw that a favorite Bay Area writer had co-curated a program of animated shorts, I snapped up a ticket. SF Bay Guardian Arts and Entertainment Editor Johnny Ray Huston – who unfortunately rarely writes about film these days – put together Channel Drift in cahoots with local video artist/animator Skye Thorstensen. Their fabulously eclectic selection ranged from recent Tostitos commercials to classic works like Suzan Pitt's awesomely trippy Asparagus. A personal favorite was Paul Vester's Abductees, which refashions the drawings and hypnotic regression tapes of alleged space alien abductees into something humorously affecting. In all, this was one of the best times I had at the movies this fall, and I thank the SF Film Society for inspiring me to experience something different.

New Italian Cinema (Nov. 14 – 21)
I was disappointed when I first looked at this year's N.I.C.E. line-up, as the two new Italian films I'd hoped for were M.I.A. (For the record, they're Michelangelo Frammartino's
The Four Times, probably the most lauded Italian film on the 2010 fest circuit, and Pietro Marcello's The Mouth of the Wolf, a docu-fiction hybrid that won the Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award for Best Documentary and was a curious omission from this year's Frameline.) Furthermore, a full third of the N.I.C.E. line-up was given over to the films of Ferzan Ozpetek, with the director in attendance. I'd always felt indifferent towards Ozpetek's work until I saw 2007's risible melodrama Saturn in Opposition, which put me off wanting to see his two latest films, A Perfect Day and Loose Cannons. (N.I.C.E. also presented retrospective screenings of Steam: The Turkish Bath and Facing Windows).

After a bit of research, I managed to find four films that sounded promising. If not for its absurd denouement, Alessandro Angelini's
Raise Your Head might have been one of my Top Ten films of the year. Serge Castellitto gives a career-high performance as a working class shipbuilder who learns that the heart of his deceased son has been transplanted into the body of a Slovenian transsexual. Almost its equal was The Double Hour, the feature debut of fashion photographer and music video director Giuseppe Capotondi. This highly stylized combo of romance/thriller/caper film occasionally approached the brink of ludicrousness, but never quite crossed that line. While Ksenia Rappoport won the Venice Film Festival's Best Actress prize for her role as a double-crossing hotel maid, it was heartthrob Filippo Timi (Vincere's Mussolini) who commanded my attention as the brooding security guard she victimizes. Valerio Mieli's worthy, well-acted Ten Winters followed the rocky, thwarted romance of two Venetian students over the course of 10 years. Six or seven winters would have been plenty for me.

Finally, N.I.C.E. closed with
The First Beautiful Thing, Italy's 2010 Oscar® submission and the latest from Paolo Virzi (whom N.I.C.E. feted in 2008). This nostalgic, flashback laden dramedy tells the story of a sad sack, substance-abusing professor who's dragged back into the life of his ebullient mother (Stefania Sandrelli), now dying of cancer. Shrill and broad, but not entirely unwatchable, it was hard to believe this came from the same director as such comparatively distinguished films as Ovosodo and Caterina in the Big City. On Closing Night, Edoardo Leo's 18 Years Later was given the audience-bestowed City of Florence Award for best film. I missed seeing it at N.I.C.E., but will have an opportunity at next month's Palm Springs International Film Festival, where it's just been announced as part of the 2011 line-up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

3rd i San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

The Bay Area's indefatigable fall film festival marathon continues this week with 3rd i's San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival – we'll just call it 3rd i. Now in its eighth year, the festival is the oldest of its kind in the U.S. The 2010 line-up is comprised of 15 programs (14 features and one collection of shorts), representing the latest in South Asian independent cinema from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the UK and USA. For preview trailers of nearly the entire program, take a look at 3rd i's YouTube channel.

Last year's event was such a success, it inspired the organization to expand the fest from four days to five. Therefore, 2010's Opening Night happens on a Wednesday (Nov. 3), at everyone's new favorite Bay Area cinema, Japantown's The Viz. The opening film is Journey From Zanskar, a documentary directed by Frederick Marx (producer of 1994's Hoop Dreams) and narrated by Richard Gere. Journey From Zanskar traces an arduous trek undertaken by 17 Tibetan children en route to a Buddhist school in Manali, India. Director Marx is expected to be in attendance. Following the screening, the festivities continue with Bollyhood Bash!, 3rd i's opening night party at the Bollyhood Café on 19th Street in the Mission.

3rd i remains in the Mission for Days Two and Three, with screenings at the Brava Theater on 24th Street. Thursday's program starts off with Rappers, Readers and Robots: Local Shorts, and is followed by Love, Sex aur Dhoka. This feature by Dibakar Bannerjee consists of three interlocking tales which completely unfold through video camera or security cam lenses. The first story was my favorite. This goofy look at a film student attempting to make a Bollywood-type feature plays irreverently with the genre's clichés. The highlight is an unexpectedly raunchy wedding song in which the female singer exhorts, "I can't hold it any longer. Churn my love juices or fuck off!" The second story has a debt-ridden man trying to make a clandestine porno with a shopgirl. And in the third section, a scorned showgirl is persuaded to take revenge on a conceited superstar.

Friday night at the Brava begins with what is arguably the highest profile film in the festival, Christopher Morris' Four Lions. This UK satire about four idiotic Islamic jihadists gained plenty of notoriety following its Sundance world premiere and will open in Bay Area theaters one week after its 3rd i debut. Next up on Friday is Hammad Khan's Slackistan, which follows a group of privileged and aimless post-college grads in Islamabad as they half-heartedly chart their next moves. I previewed this on screener and found it somewhat derivative, but worthy nonetheless for its energetic direction, attractive non-pro cast and soundtrack of indie-rock from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Friday's line-up at the Brava caps off with an 11:30 p.m., 18-and-over only screening of Gandu (Asshole), whose main character is described in the program capsule as "a shiftless young man who spends his days getting high, masturbating and writing eviscerating Bengali rap." Adam Cuttler reviews the film for Filmbalaya and also posts its (briefly) X-rated trailer which isn't found on 3rd i's YouTube channel.

For Saturday and Sunday, the festival makes its traditional shift over to the Castro Theater. Saturday's roster kicks off with Mostofa Sarwar Farooki's Third Person Singular Number, which is Bangladesh's official 2010 Ocsar ® submission for Best Foreign Language Film. This was the standout of the four films I previewed on screener. The protagonist here is Ruba, a young professional woman whose common-law husband has been jailed for murder. Evicted by her in-laws and refusing to return to her own family, she fruitlessly searches for accommodation – an impossibility for a single woman in the nation's capital of Dhaka. While the film starts off as yet another cinematic diatribe about the horrors of being a woman in an Islamic society, it eventually heads off in some surprising directions. The most charming of these is Ruba's quasi-platonic relationship with a childhood friend who's now Bangladesh's top pop star (an impishly engaging turn by real life singer Topu).

Next on 3rd i's agenda for Saturday are two documentaries, beginning with Nishtha Jain's At My Doorstep. Jain's Lakshmi and Me was a portrait of her pregnant maid and screened to acclaim at 3rd i in 2008. Her follow-up film is a natural extension, profiling the security guard, trash collector, maintenance workers, maids and clothes ironers who serve her suburban Mumbai apartment building. It's a standard, but worthwhile observational doc, enlivened by a security guard who recounts his story in the form of a Bollywood screenplay. The next documentary is The Truth That Wasn't There, which examines press freedom in Sri Lanka during the closing days of that country's lengthy civil war. The film's three directors are student filmmakers who were given unprecedented access to the warzone, resulting in a number of startling discoveries.

Following these two documentaries, 3rd i presents its 2010 Centerpiece Film, Smita Bhide's The Blue Tower. Set in London's "Little India," this low-budget romantic thriller is about a depressed young man with no job, a sexless marriage, menacing in-laws and most importantly, an infirm aunt with shoeboxes full of cash and an attractive Caucasian nurse. This is Bhide's debut feature and she's expected to attend the screening. Finally, 3rd i's late-night Saturday slot at the Castro has always meant a recent Bollywood hit and this year is no exception. Punit Malhotra's I Hate Luv Storys is – surprise, surprise – a love story, this one between a skeptical assistant director and a sentimental production designer who are both working on the same film. The respective roles are played by Bollywood royalty-of-sorts: Imraan Khan (nephew of Aamir Khan) and Sonam Kapoor (daughter of Anil Kapoor). The reviews I'm reading are decidedly mixed, but I trust 3rd i's programmers and will give it a go. (I had similar doubts about last year's Bollywood film, Dil Bole Hadippa!, which turned out to be a blast.)

Many who see I Hate Luv Storys will exit the Castro Theater around midnight (the film is a brisk-for-Bollywood 135 minutes) and return at noon on Sunday for Madhumati. This is one of those increasingly rare animals – a Bollywood classic that's being screened in a glorious 35mm print. No one should miss it. This 1958 "gothic romance with reincarnated damsels and revengeful ghosts" is said to have inspired many films that succeeded it, including the 2008 blockbuster hit Om Shanti Om. The film will be introduced by Manoj Shailendra, son of the renowned song lyricist Shailendra (who penned the tunes for Madhumati and approximately 60 other films.)

Following this three-hour epic, 3rd i will present Umesh Kulkarni's The Well, described as a "sensitive, visually evocative and ebullient film about a family gathered at the ancestral home for a summer wedding, which turns into a soulful meditation on life and death seen through the eyes of a young boy." Sunday's third film will be In Camera, which represents the directorial debut of acclaimed documentary cinematographer Ranjan Palit. Here Palit ponders the legacy and import of his images of Indian's downtrodden, as captured in the dozen films he's made over 25 years. Closing out 3rd i's 2010 festival is Dev Benegal's Road, Movie, which had its world premiere at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival. It's the story of a restless young man who drives his father's mobile cinema across the Rajasthan desert, experiencing adventures aplenty en route. After the movie, you'll want to buy a ticket for 3rd i's Closing Night Reception up in the Castro Theater's mezzanine – always one of most fabulous parties of the film festival year.

For two additional perspectives on this year's 3rd i, I strongly recommend reading Frako Loden's preview at The Evening Class and Sandip Roy's over at SF Gate. Also of interest is a recent NY Times profile on that city's South Asian film festival, which is one year younger than 3rd i and shares many of the same titles. It's also worth mentioning that 3rd i does some fantastic year-round programming – so sign up for the mailing list. Back in June they presented 3rd i Queer Eye, an evening of LGBT South Asian shorts, followed by a special, extended director's cut of Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story. Later in the summer came the Battle of the Bollywood Masters, a fantastic lecture/clips presentation pitting composer R.D. Burman against A.R. Rahman – complete with a "special appearance" by camp Bollywood icon, Helen.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Monday, October 25, 2010

French Cinema Now 2010

For as long as I've lived here (35 years come December), the Bay Area has been a swell place to be a French film fanatic. Nearly all French titles with U.S. theatrical distribution get released here. We've got our big, French-heavy SF International Film Festival in the spring, and other fests like Frameline, Mill Valley, the Jewish and Arab Film Festivals fill in gaps during the rest of the year. And yet, with a national cinema as prodigious as France, plenty of good stuff goes unseen.

To that end, French Cinema Now (FCN) was born two years ago. Presented by the San Francisco Film Society as part of its ambitious Fall Season, this mini-fest has become a vital supplement for local Francophiles. FCN2010 plays for one week at Landmark Theaters' Embarcadero Center Cinema from Thursday, October 28 to Wednesday, November 3. It's a smaller line-up than last year – 10 films instead of 12 – but with the same 19 screening slots. The tantalizing roster consists of eight new narrative features and two documentaries. While seven of the films were already on my radar, I have especially high hopes for three that were not. That's because my two favorite FCN films from last year,
The Wolberg Family and Stella, were complete unknowns. Here's a closer look at what's in store.

Copacabana (dir. Marc Fitousi)
Heading into FCN, I had a wish list of two dozen as-yet-unseen French films from 2009 and 2010. So it was very cool when my top choice not only appeared in the line-up, but was selected for opening night. This dramedy from director Marc Fitousi – his second feature – had its world premiere as a Cannes 2010 Special Screening. It earned solid reviews, but even if they'd been scathing I could never resist seeing Isabelle Huppert as a Brazil-obsessed bohemian Mom who starts selling vacation time-shares to impress her conservative daughter. Huppert's real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah, co-stars as the young woman too embarrassed to invite wild maman to her wedding. (Chammah made her 1988 screen debut as one of Huppert's children in Chabrol's Story of Women). Also in the cast is Jurgen Delnaet, who made an impression as the trucker boyfriend in 2008's Moscow, Belgium. Copacabana is set in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend. Bonus points are given because I totally dig films that take place in off-season beach resorts. Director Fitousi will be in town to attend both screenings. (Trailer)

Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (dir. Abass Kiarostami)
FCN's closing night will feature back-to-back screenings of the festival's highest profile film. It's the latest work from an Iranian master, for which Juliette Binoche won the best actress prize at this year's Cannes. After a decade of quasi-experimental works (of which I've only seen 2002's Ten), this is alleged to be the cerebral Kiarostami's most accessible film yet and also his first made in "the West." Still, I somehow doubt that will translate as a mindless night at the movies. Binoche stars as "She," a French antique store owner who connects with a British author (played by opera singer and first time actor William Shimell). His latest work is a treatise on the nature of copies and originals. He and She hit the road, philosophizing along the way, until they reach a tavern where they're mistaken as a married couple. They play along, inhabiting the roles so well that the viewer wonders if it's all really pretend. Sounds like classic Kiarostami, yanking our chain and operating on a dizzying number of levels. This is a director I've both loved (Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us) and loathed (the Palm d'or winning Taste of Cherry) and I can't wait to find out which this will be. For what it's worth, Certified Copy has U.S. distribution through IFC Films, but it doesn't appear anywhere on Landmark Theaters' 2010 release schedule. (Trailer)

Rapt (dir. Lucas Belvaux)
After Copacabana, this is the film I'm anticipating most. Actor/director Belvaux made a big noise in 2002 with The Trilogy, three films with the same cast and an interconnecting story line, but made in different genres. While his 2006 Cannes competition film The Right of the Weakest got a lukewarm reception (and consequently never made it to the Bay Area), it's nearly impossible to find a discouraging word about this latest work. Rapt is a social thriller about the kidnapping of a corporate CEO. When the abductors demand a €50 million ransom, his family and employer dig up lots of scandalous info about him, resulting in a decision not to pay up. Belvaux' story is based on the true 1978 kidnapping of playboy Edouard-Jean Empain. It's been given a contemporary setting with fictionalized characters, but is said to be very faithful to original events. Word is that fellow actor/director Yvan Attal is riveting in the lead role and it's always a pleasure to see Anne Consigny, who plays the wife. Best of all, Belvaux himself will be here for the festival. (Trailer)

The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier) (dir. Bertrand Tavernier)
Wildly eclectic director Bertrand Tavernier (Let Joy Reign Supreme) is no stranger to historic costume dramas, a genre to which he's returned after last year's maligned, Tommy Lee Jones-starring detective drama In the Electric Mist. Set during the religious wars of 16th century France, the film stars the gorgeous Mélanie Thierry as a marquis' daughter who's married off to the son of a duke, despite feelings she has for a roguish cousin. When her husband is called to war, she's put in the care of her husband's tutor, who proceeds to fall in love with her. Princess screened in competition at this year's Cannes and reviews were all over the place. Some complained that Tavernier added nothing new or interesting to the genre, and Thierry's performance came in for particular drubbing. Variety's Leslie Felperin, however, felt "this visitation to 16th century France has both beauty and brains and offers a portrait of renaissance life leagues more accurate than the most historical epics." She also found Tavernier's direction "as elegantly fluid as his best work." For me, the presence of three favorite actors – Grégoire Leprince Ringuet (the husband), Gaspard Ulliel (the cousin) and Lambert Wilson (the tutor) – elevates it to a must-see. Like Certified Copy, the film has distribution through IFC but isn't on Landmark's 2010 schedule. (Trailer)

Sisters (Gamines) (dir. Éléonore Faucher)
Three young siblings obsess over their mysteriously absent father in this adaptation of actress Sylvie Testud's semi-autobiographical novel. Testud's alter-ego in the story is mischievous middle child Sibylle, the only one in this family of Italian immigrants who's blonde like her father (Testud appears in the film as the adult Sibylle). Amira Casar, perhaps best known for her lead role in Catherine Breillat's provocative Anatomy of Hell, plays the ambitious single mother who's determined to shield her daughters from their missing father. Writing in Variety, Jordan Mintzer called Sisters "a touching and tender portrait" and "bittersweet, dreamlike vision that never panders to cuteness or sentimentality as it reveals the hardships, both past and present, of being raised in a single-parent household." Director Faucher, whose very fine film Sequins screened at the 2005 SF International Film Festival, will make a personal appearance at FCN2010. (Trailer)

A Real Life (Au voleur) (dir. Sarah Leonor)
Actor Guillaume Dépardieu, the ruggedly handsome son of Gérard, died in 2008 after contracting viral pneumonia on a Romanian film set. Last year the SF Film Society brought us Versailles and Stella, two works he'd completed before his death at age 37, and now they've programmed his final film into FCN2010. In A Real Life, the actor plays a small town petty thief who encounters a mousy schoolteacher after she's been hit by a car. The pair later reconnects, and a scrape with the law sends them fleeing into the forest together. It's classic tale of love on the run that's a stylized mix of road movie and romantic drama. The film also features actor/director Jacques Nolot (Porn Theater, Before I Forget) in a supporting role as a fellow lowlife. Director Leonor is expected to be in town for the screenings. (Trailer)

Hidden Diary (Mères et filles) (dir. Julie Lopes-Curval)
A trio of powerhouse actresses portray three generations of women in this familial drama about how "past secrets irrevocably impact present relationships." A pregnant, successful industrial designer (Marina Hands) who lives in Canada returns to France for a family visit. After a nasty fallout with her emotionally distant, physician mother (Catherine Deneuve), she seeks refuge in the house of her recently deceased grandfather. There she discovers a recipe-filled diary belonging to her grandmother (Marie-Josée Croze in extended flashbacks), a woman who fled family life rather than tolerate the constricting circumstances of 1950s housewife-dom. Variety's Ronnie Scheib praised the film's "dynamite cast, assured direction and intriguingly far-fetched premise." This is the third feature from director Lopes-Curval, who won Cannes' Camera d'or in 2002 with her debut film Seaside. (Trailer)

Love Like Poison (Un poison violent) (dir. Katell Quillévéré)
This debut feature about the eternal conflict of flesh vs. spirit garnered strong reviews when it screened in Director's Fortnight at Cannes this year. The film also netted its director the Prix Jean Vigo, a prize given annually to a promising young director. In a small Breton town, 14-year-old Anna prepares for her confirmation in the Catholic Church, while experiencing the stirrings of first love with a neighbor boy. Her religious and newly single mother seeks solace with the local priest, who is himself suffering a crisis of faith. Meanwhile, Anna helps care for an infirm grandfather who's not ready to let go of this world's sensual pleasures. Writing in Variety, Alissa Simon declares with film to be "beautifully written, extremely well played and sensually lensed." The French title comes from a 1967 Serge Gainsbourg song, "Un poison violent, ç'est ça l'amour" (a violent poison, that's how love is). (Trailer)

Irène (dir. Alain Cavalier)
The first of two documentaries in FCN2010 is by veteran director Cavalier, best known for 1986's Thérèse, a formalist vision of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Shot with a small digital camera, Irène is an intimate meditation on the director's relationship with Irène Tunc, his troubled actress wife who died in a 1972 car accident. The film debuted at Cannes 2009 in Un Certain Regard and reviews were not kind. In Variety, Rob Nelson admitted that while "personal documentaries are self-indulgent by definition," Cavalier's "bid to turn decades of grief into watchable cinema" results in an "arrogant endurance test." But at least one person on the SF Film Society programming team thought highly of it, so I suspect we should give it a chance. (Trailer)

Two in the Wave (Deux dans la vague) (dir. Emmanuel Laurent)
This is FCN's first year without a single revival screening on the roster. The next best thing, however, should be this documentary about the initial friendship and ultimate enmity between film critics turned directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The film almost exclusively consists of vintage film clips, archival interviews and newsreel footage, with the only new material being actress Islid le Besco thumbing through old magazines and visiting Parisian locales apropos to the doc's subject matter. Reviews from Rotterdam and Berlin were mixed, with detractors calling the film "gossipy" and lacking analysis. Others felt it would have been better served with present-day interviews of Godard's and Truffaut's still-living contemporaries. I'm encouraged that Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor who worked extensively with both directors, is said to be a major presence and that the film contains his original screen test for The 400 Blows (a film FCN screened last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave). If nothing else, the bounty of clips will remind me of nouvelle vague films I really should see again. Strangely enough for a film about film, Two in the Wave will be the only FCN2010 entry to be shown digitally. (Trailer)

* * * * *

While FCN presents the opportunity to catch the very latest in
le cinéma français, it's also a last-chance saloon of sorts for the previous year's stragglers. If a French film did the international fest circuit in 2009 and didn't pop up in this year's French Cinema Now, the time has probably come to bid it adieu. It now seems likely the Bay Area will not see Isabelle Adjani's Cesar-winning performance in Skirt Day. Or Xavier Giannoli's Cannes competition film In the Beginning with Gérard Depardieu, Emmanuelle Devos and François Cluzet. Or the Yolande Moreau/Bouli Lanners anarchical comedy Louise-Michel. Interestingly, all three played this year's just-within-reach Sacramento French Film Festival. Too bad the damn thing takes place at the exact same time as Frameline. Other notable Bay Area M.I.A.s include Costa Gavras' acclaimed immigration fable Eden is West, Tony Gatlif's Korkoro (a film about Nazi persecution of gypsies which won the top prize at the Montreal World Film Festival) and Tsai Ming-liang's Face, a French-Taiwanese co-production that could have fit handily into FCN or the Film Society's Taiwan Film Days. And last but not least, there's Soeur Sourire, a biopic about The Singing Nun ("Dominique") starring Cécile De France.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.