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.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

SF DocFest 2010

In addition to being a hotbed for documentary filmmaking, the Bay Area is also a paradise for avid doc watching. Most non-fiction films with U.S. distribution show up in our cinemas, while our dozens of film festivals lean towards being doc-heavy. But the real meal comes each autumn when the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, better known as SF DocFest, pulls into the Roxie Theater for two full weeks. This is the DocFest's ninth year, and 2010's program boasts 28 features and four shorts programs from 12 countries. It starts Thursday, October 14 and runs up until October 28.

The festival kicks off with Chris Meltzer and Lev Anderson's Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, which looks at the influential (Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt) L.A. punk/ska band and is narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne – no relation, but a friend of the band who first heard them while working as a Hollywood club bouncer. Following the screening, Fishbone themselves will play a full set at DocFest's Opening Night Bash at the DNA Lounge. Closing out the festival will be Alexandre O. Philippe's The People vs. George Lucas, described as a "no-holds-barred, no stone unturned, completely uncensored, yet balanced cultural examination of the conflicted dynamic between the great George Lucas and his fans." The fest's Star Wars themed closing night party happens at Cell Space, complete with Tatooine cocktails and a costume contest with cash prizes.

In between Fishbone and George Lucas, DocFest goers will take in non-fiction films with wildly varied subject matter. My Beautiful Dacia is the portrait of a ubiquitous Romanian automobile, while Dreamland profiles a rising shift toward corruption and greed in Iceland. Visit a small Mexican family circus (The Tightrope) and the Mexico City slum made famous in Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Tree). Closer to home there's an inquiry into grotesquely huge pumpkins (Giants), a rapping cowboy yarn (Roll Out, Cowboy) and an examination of the most potent psychedelic on earth, DMT (The Spirit Molecule). Also for the taking at DocFest is a chess champion bio-doc (Requiem for Bobby Fisher), a revival of the best punk/new wave concert movie of the early 80's (Urgh! A Music War) and a trip to an unusual Cambodian beauty pageant (Miss Landmine) – and so, so much more. Plus, don't forget the festival's celebrated annual Roller Disco Costume Party!

For this year's DocFest I only managed to preview three films on screener DVD, but they're all recommended. Maryam Henein and George Langowrthy's The Vanishing of the Bees is the third documentary on honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) I've seen in the past six months. It's at least as good as Queen of the Sun, which just screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival (my capsule review), though it's less artsy and more thorough and sobering in its presentation of information – which is not to say it's dry. Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman's Sex Magic is a sometimes embarrassingly intimate gaze at 50-year-old "Sacred Sexual Healer" Baba Dez and his "sexual shamen training center" in Sedona, Arizona. You might roll your eyes as these uniformly hot-looking healers carry on about their dakas and dakinis, yonis and lingams and tantric mantras, but there's no doubting their intense sincerity. And yes, the film has nudity and nookie galore, but it's rarely presented in a leering manner. Finally, Dutch filmmaker Willem Alkema turns an obsession with Sly and the Family Stone into an exhaustive search for one elusive Mr. Sylvester Stewart in Coming Back For More. His reward – and ours – is the first filmed interview with Sly in more than 20 years. Alkema intercuts the story of his quest with terrific archival materials and interviews, tracking the band's rise to fame right up through Sly's career implosion and descent into reclusivity. The interview takes up the film's final 15 minutes, with a surprisingly lucid Sly holding forth on many subjects, including his acquaintanceship with Doris Day.

Monday, October 11, 2010

14th Arab Film Festival 2010

North America's oldest and largest celebration of cinema from the Arab world embarks upon its 14th edition this week, with a typically eclectic mix of 45 documentaries, shorts and narrative features. Following the opening night festivities at the Castro Theater on Thursday, October 14, the 14th Arab Film Festival (AFF) shifts to Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema (a new venue for the fest) for three days (Oct. 15 to 17). That same weekend, AFF appears at San Jose's Camera 12 Cinemas (Oct. 16 and 17), before returning to Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas the following weekend (Oct. 22 to 24). For those who live in southern California, AFF presents three days worth of films at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills (Oct. 22 to 24).

There were two particular films I'd hoped to find in this year's AFF line-up. One made the cut and one did not. The missing one is Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains, which premiered to glowing reviews at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Suleiman is considered Palestine's most accomplished filmmaker and I remember when his breakthrough film, Chronicle of a Disappearance screened at the very first AFF in 1998. Eighteen months after its Cannes premiere, The Time That Remains slips in to that netherworld of internationally acclaimed films that for whatever reason, have been bypassed by Bay Area programmers.

The film I'm dying to see which is in the festival is Yousry Nasrallah's Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story, which had its international premiere one year ago at the Venice Film Festival. Known essentially as an art-film director, Nasrallah served as assistant to Egyptian master Youssef Chahine and has inherited the mantle of being that country's most recognized director abroad. For Scheherazade, he's teamed up with popular screenwriter Wahid Hamid (The Yacoubian Building) and the result is that rare animal – a critical success on the festival circuit and a rousing box office success in Egypt due largely to its controversial subject matter. Mona Zaki stars as a TV talk show host who is encouraged by her politically ambitious husband to forego hot-button topics like government corruption. After switching her show's focus to women's issues, she becomes the Oprah of Egypt, with her guests spinning tales, à la Scheherazade, of women's oppression in Egypt. In his rave review in Variety, Jay Weissberg calls the film "bold and brave," presenting "women's sexuality as an expression of self-determination, making clear the parallels with an ever-degenerating political system." Here in the Bay Area we've been fortunate to follow the complete arc of Nasrallah's career – all five of his previous narrative features have screened locally (Summersaults (1988), Mercedes (1993) and The Aquarium (2009) at the SF International Film Festival, and The City (1999) and Gate of the Sun (2004) at AFF). It's reassuring to have that tradition continue. The following are two radically different trailers for Scheherazade, one created for the Arab market and one for the foreign arthouse market. They barely look like the same film.

Within the AFF line-up are some films that have screened at other Bay Area festivals. Mehdi Ben Attia's The String won the audience award at this year's Frameline and stars Italian screen legend Claudia Cardinale as a Tunisian matriarch whose gay son is having an affair with her handyman. (My capsule review is here). Another film set in Tunisia, Karin Albou's The Wedding Song, was the closing night film of the 2009 SF Jewish Film Festival. Set in 1942 Nazi-occupied Tunis, an Arab girl and Jewish girl of marriageable age must navigate their increasingly desperate circumstances. (My
capsule review is here). One of the best films at the SF Film Society's 2009 French Cinema Now was Philippe Lioret's Welcome. Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon) portrays a swimming instructor who wrestles with helping a 17-year-old Kurdish Iraqi refugee – one determined to swim across the English Channel from Calais to Great Britain. Here are trailers for The String, The Wedding Song and Welcome.

At this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival, I caught two more films in the AFF line-up. The more appealing was Ahmed Abdallah's low-budget indie Heliopolis, a melancholy ode to personal frustration set in Cairo's once glorious titular suburb. Its cast of characters includes a university student making a
documentary about the neighborhood, a hotel receptionist who envies the foreign guests and longingly watches TV5 Monde, a hashish dealer, an upwardly mobile couple battling traffic jams on the their way to see an apartment, and the seller of that apartment who wants nothing more than to emigrate to Canada. Each is searching for an alternate life and the film's delicate narrative has them brushing against each other – but not in an obnoxious, Crash-y kind of way. The other film I saw was Hatem Ali's The Long Night from Syria, an allegory about the release of three political prisoners and its effect on family members who've grown accustomed to their absence. It's a bit leaden and culturally inscrutable, but nonetheless deals with some important issues. Here's a trailer for Heliopolis.

This year's opening night AFF film is Lyès Salem's Mascarades, a comedy that was Algeria's 2009 submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. A box office success at home and in France, the film stars director Salem as a ridiculed villager who invents a drunken story about his narcoleptic sister's engagement to a wealthy European. The impending faux-marriage gains him the respect of the village, but the enmity of his sister who's secretly in love with his best friend. These two trailers make it look like great fun. Director/star Lyès Salem is scheduled to attend the screening, which will be preceded by the presentation of AFF's annual Noor Awards for Outstanding Feature, Short and Documentary. In last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle, there was an interesting interview with Lyès conducted by writer Jonathan Curiel.

With its selection of narrative features, AFF always strikes a nice balance between art films and more commercial fare. Fitting squarely in the former category is The Man Who Sold the World, the second film from fraternal Moroccan directing team Imad and Swel Noury (their first film Heaven's Doors screened at the 2007 SF International Film Festival). While the title may come from a David Bowie song, the story is a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky's "A Weak Heart." Set in a totalitarian dystopia, a young man named X falls in love with a beautiful cabaret singer, then descends into madness over his inability to accept happiness. In her positive review for Variety, Alissa Simon claims "the general public may find it pretentious and baffling, but cinephiles will swoon," and goes on to say that "although the plot may not yield many satisfactions, the stunning production and sound design offer numerous pleasures." Here's the trailer. Another art film in the line-up is Dima El Horr's Every Day is a Holiday, a Lebanese film in which three women travel through the desert by bus, en route to a men's prison where their men are incarcerated. Variety's Dennis Harvey hated it, writing that "As ponderous as its heavy-handedly ironic title, this tedious road trip belabors its metaphorical significance as thoroughly as it buries human interest, resulting in an arid journey." Yikes! The trailer, however, looks intriguing. And I'll go unquestioningly to see any film that stars Hiam Abbass.

Elsewhere amongst the AFF narrative features is Ali Mostafa's City of Life, which claims to be "the first multi-lingual feature film to be written, produced and directed by an Emirati with United Arab Emirates funding." Set in Dubai, the film's structure intercuts between three stories – a young, privileged Emirati lout, an Indian taxi driver with Bollywood dreams and a Romanian flight attendant in love with a British playboy. Again writing in Variety, Alissa Simon labels the film a "lurid melodrama" that's "shamelessly packed with product placement" and "feels as soulless as the city in which it unfolds." Since I never expect to visit the UAE, the armchair traveler in me might still take a chance on it. Here's the trailer. In addition to The String and The Wedding Song, there's a third Tunisia-set film in the festival. Ibrahim Letaief's Cinecitta (official site) concerns a young director who robs a bank in order to finance his new film. Rounding out the 2010 AFF narrative feature selection are three more titles from Syria (Gate of Heaven, Half MG Nicotine, Once Again), for which I was unable to obtain information apart from the brief descriptions on the AFF website.

AFF consistently spotlights some worthwhile feature documentaries. There are eight in this year's festival and heading up the list is Julia Bacha's critically acclaimed
Budrus (official site). The film screened at this year's SF International and Jewish Film Festivals, but I'm probably not the only person to have missed those earlier opportunities. Budrus is the story of Palestinians and Israelis uniting in non-violent confrontations to stop construction of Israel's Separation Barrier in a West Bank village. There are five other feature-length docs in the fest dealing with Palestinian issues: Fragments of a
Lost Palestine, GazaStrophe, the Day After, Little Town of Bethlehem, SAZ and Shooting Muhammad. Those who saw last year's remarkable doc Garbage Dreams, which concerned the Cairo community of Coptic Christians responsible for recycling 80% of that city's waste, may want to check out this year's Marina of the Zabbaleen. Finally, 12 Angry Lebanese looks at a production of "Twelve Angry Men" staged in a Lebanese prison.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mill Valley Film Festival 2010 Preview

The 33rd edition of the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival (MFFF) gets going this Thursday, October 7 and continues through Sunday, October 17. Since posting my overview of the line-up last week, the festival has filled one its TBA slots with Rabbit Hole, the latest project from John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus). The film was well received at its Toronto world premiere last month, and stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents grappling with the recent death of a young son.

I've attended MVFF every year since 2004, which is when vehicle-less me discovered the ease of reaching the San Rafael Film Center by Golden Gate Transit bus. (The festival's Mill Valley venues, however, remain all but impossible to reach by public transit, except during weekday commute hours). But it looks like I'll be giving the fest a pass this year. Between the vagaries of my own work schedule and the festival schedule, I just couldn't find two films playing San Rafael on the same day that warranted the trip north. I even missed all the press screenings in San Francisco. So for this year's MVFF preview, I'm offering only eight capsules of films I watched on DVD screener. Happily, they were all very much worth a look.

Black Field (Greece, dir. Vardis Marinakis)
In 17th century Greece, a severely wounded Turkish janissary is found outside an imposing stone convent. He's put in chains and nursed back to health by two nuns, one of whom has a secret between her legs. As a young boy, "she" was disguised as a girl by the mother superior in order to keep "him" from being kidnapped and turned into a janissary. Once the opportunity presents itself, the janissary and nun escape into the surrounding forest, where their initial enmity transforms into a begrudging tolerance for each other. Following a capture and second escape, their relationship goes even deeper. This transfixing and visually arresting film marks a strong feature debut by director Marinakis. It plays out almost like a fairy tale and is one of the most intriguing stories about gender identity I've ever seen.

Kawasaki's Rose (Czech Republic, dir. Jan Hrebejk)
For his 10th feature, prolific social satirist and MVFF mainstay Hrebejk makes his most overtly political work yet – the first Czech film to raise the issue of cooperation with the country's communist-era secret police. An esteemed psychology professor and former dissident is about to receive a national award for service to the nation. To mark the occasion, a TV crew that includes the professor's resentful son-in-law is making a documentary. In the process they uncover a terrible secret that might destroy a reputation and a family. It's a compelling story, with dashes of humor and sharply drawn characters. The film does lose steam once the secret has been revealed, but rallies with a heart wrenching final act at the awards ceremony. I think it's Hrebejk's – and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Petr Jarchovský's – finest work since 2004's Up and Down. It's also the Czech Republic's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Moloch Tropical (Haiti/France dir. Raoul Peck)
Filmmaker/activist/ex-Haitian Minister of Culture Peck (
Lumumba) has cooked up a fascinating, absurdist satire about the final 24 hours in the presidency of a desperate Haitian despot. President Théogène (perfectly cast Zinedine Soualem) begins the day by stepping on broken glass and spends the rest of it limping from crisis to crisis. The populace is in revolt, the journalist he's torturing in the dungeon won't talk and the maid refuses to have sex with him. Worse still, that day's meticulously planned celebration of Haiti's 200th birthday promises to implode. It's enough to render a demagogue gaga. Set almost entirely within the walls of a luxurious mountaintop stone citadel, Peck's film moves at a brisk pace with purposeful camera movements and succinct editing, which is almost enough to counterbalance its somewhat overstuffed screenplay. Best of all is a hilarious rendering of the song "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue."

Queen of the Sun (USA, dir. Taggart Siegel)
I've been fascinated by the disturbing phenomenon of honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) since reading about it two years ago. At this year's SF International Film Festival there was a feeble documentary called
Colony, which was less an investigation into CCD than a portrait of a bible-thumping, Mennonite beekeeping family. Fortunately, Queen of the Sun is everything Colony wasn't – a highly informative, passionate, visually striking look at something that should be of grave concern to everyone, considering that bees pollinate 40% of what we eat. Director Siegel (The Real Dirt of Farmer John) engages charismatic apiarists from around the world, who look at the 10,000 year-old symbiotic relationship between bees and man before considering the possible causes of CCD (the most likely culprits being monoculture, pesticides, genetically engineered crops and mechanized, migratory beekeeping). He ends on an optimistic note, focusing on urban rooftop beekeeping (especially the fight to make it legal in NYC) and the emergence of honeybee sanctuaries. Interestingly, a third documentary about CCD, titled Vanishing of the Bees, will screen at this year's SF DocFest.

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Germany, dir. Byambasuren Davaa)
From the director of
The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog comes this third Mongolia-set docu-fiction hybrid. Urna is a singer from Inner Mongolia (a part of China) who travels to Outer Mongolia. She's promised her deceased grandmother to restore a violin that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and track down the lyrics to an ancient song which is partially engraved on the violin's neck. The journey takes her from the big city (Ulan Bator) to the pastoral steppes, a sojourn which allows the film to raise issues of cultural identity-loss and the evils of modernity's encroachment. Two Horses is a more melancholy work than Weeping Camel and Yellow Dog, and lacks some of their charm and narrative drive. The climactic denouement feels particularly manipulated this time out. But it's an engaging story, with equally gorgeous scenery and singing – and it contains unforgettable advice on how to send a text message where there's no signal.

Dumas (France/Belgium dir. Safy Nebbou)
This film's distributors should have simply translated the French title,
L'autre Dumas (The Other Dumas), which correctly infers that this film is equally about Alexandre Dumas' collaborator, Auguste Maquet. Based on a 2003 stage play, Dumas is set at the dawn of the French Revolution of 1848, a time when the two writers were adapting "The Count of Monte Cristo" for the stage and writing the novel "The Viscount of Bragelonne." When a smitten Maquet finds himself impersonating Dumas in order to help a young woman whose father is languishing in prison, it sets off a plot thick with intrigue and pathos. Counter-balancing all that plot-i-ness is a nuanced tale of two writers unable to practice their craft in solitude. Gerard Dépardieu clearly has a grand time portraying the dynamic Dumas. And Benoît Poelvoorde, an actor with whom I'm unfamiliar, is equally adept at playing Dumas' opposite, the meek and sober Maquet. Also worth mentioning are Dominique Blanc as Dumas' wise administrative assistant/mistress, and gorgeous Mélanie Thierry as the object of Dumas' and Maquet's desire. The cinematography is alleged to be spectacular – something I couldn't tell from the murky screener I previewed. Dépardieu's casting was controversial in France, as Dumas was the descendent of a freed Haitian slave and Dépardieu appears in the film with darkened skin and wooly wig.

William Vincent (USA, dir. Jay Anania)
Fans of last year's quasi-experimental film
Erased James Franco will have an easier time digging this existentialist indie neo-noir than the Pineapple Express crowd. Here Franco plays William Vincent, which is a name he assumes after he misses a plane flight that crashes. WV floats like a phantom through NYC, living in a Chinatown storefront and working as an editor of nature documentaries when he isn't absentmindedly pick-pocketing strangers. That latter talent gets him noticed by a menacing gangster/dealer/pimp, sucking WV into in an increasingly violent realm. Steeped in atmosphere, with moody lighting and dialogue spoken in methodical half-whispers, William Vincent will either fascinate or try your patience. Or both.

Ed Hardy 'Tattoo the World' (USA, dir. Emiko Omori)
This serviceable doc traces the remarkable career of Donald Edward Talbot Hardy. As a kid in 1950's Corona del Mar, Hardy became obsessed with tattoos and hung out in the parlors of Long Beach's Nu-Pike Amusement Park. After obtaining a SF Art Institute printmaking degree, he operated a short-lived Vancouver shop before moving to San Diego, where he developed his craft inking umpteen sailors. Years of hard work on both coasts lead to his current stature as a master body artist and painter, one whose branding on everything from underwear to coffee cups generated $700 million in international sales by 2009. Over the course of this documentary, we learn about the evolution of Hardy's artistry and his influences, both cultural (customized car painting, Mexican poster art, Yakuza full-body tats) and personal (mentors like Sailor Jerry Collins and rock-star tattooist Lyle Tuttle). The film benefits from Hardy's genial on-screen articulacy and from the extensive examples we see of his vibrant, exquisitely photographed work. Perhaps less successful is the director's listless voiceover narration and peculiar decision to score the film with opera and classical music.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

SFFS Brings CARLOS to San Francisco

By far the most exciting news for Bay Area cinephiles this week was the announcement that the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) will bring Olivier Assayas' critically acclaimed Carlos to its Sundance Kabuki screen for a one-week run on November 5. What's more, it'll be the full 5 1/2 hour version, shown in two parts with a 15-minute intermission. There will be two shows daily at 12:15 and 6:45.

I was really starting to worry. I knew the film was being aired in three parts on The Sundance Channel from October 11 to 14, followed by IFC's VOD roll-out of a truncated 140-minute version on October 20. The U.S. theatrical release is scheduled for NYC's IFC Center (in a special Roadshow Edition) on October 15. But what about those of us in the Bay Area craving the full-on, big screen
Carlos experience? I kept waiting for it to pop up on Landmark Theater's list of autumn releases, but that wasn't happening. So what a relief to have the SFFS insert it in the middle of their busy 2010 Fall Season.

One caveat, however, is that Carlos will be projected digitally (Blu-ray) and not in 35mm. But at least we're not alone in that respect. From what I've ascertained, it appears that the 5 1/2 hour theatrical release is only available in digital format, which is a shame considering that this made-for-French-TV mini-series was actually shot on film. The movie was even shown digitally at its Cannes premiere, a fact which so annoyed NY Times critic Manohla Dargis she felt compelled to blog about it. But as the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern wrote, Carlos is "a textbook case of the total immersion that one can enjoy only in a theatrical setting." Given the choice of watching Carlos over the course of three days on The Sundance Channel, or (gasp) watching a chopped up version On Demand, or (double gasp) waiting for the lord-knows-when DVD release, there's no question that the SFFS presentation at the Kabuki is the way to go, digital be damned.

For those not in the know, Carlos is a sprawling, yet tightly wound biopic about one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, the notorious and charismatic Venezuelan who orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East throughout the '70s and '80s. It stars Édgar Ramírez, whom Variety's Todd McCarthy claims "inhabits the title role with the arrogant charisma of Brando in his prime." The film was part of the Official Selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but was controversially screened out of competition due to its TV connections (thereby rendering it ineligible for any of the festival's prizes). Writing in Film Comment, J. Hoberman called Carlos "possibly the most universally admired movie among the Cannes Film Festival’s official selections." Over at MUBI, David Hudson compiles the (mostly) rave reviews from the Cannes and New York Film Festivals. Also well worth checking out is The Sundance Channel's Carlos site, which contains reviews, profiles, synopses, photos and video. Below is the official trailer.