Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 Early Announcements

While the full line-up for the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) won't be made public until next Tuesday, the press releases announcing this year's awards, special events and competition films have been filling my inbox since the first of the month. Judging from these anticipatory peeks, I think it's safe to say they've assembled yet another winning event – one befitting SFIFF's stature as the longest-running film festival in the Americas.

Of course, SF Film Society Members get a gander at the entire line-up five days early. Look for an email on Thursday with a link to a PDF file of the mini-guide and remember that we're sworn to secrecy until Tuesday morning's press conference. Until then, here's an overview of what we know thus far. Most of the hyperlinks below lead to press releases for each event.

● The festival opens at the Castro Theater on Thursday, April 21with a film I'm very keen on seeing. Beginners is director Mike Mills' highly anticipated follow-up to Thumbsucker, which was one of my ten favorite films of 2005. Ewan McGregor stars as an emotionally floundering man whose 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) has come out of the closet. Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic co-star as McGregor's and Plummer's respective love interests. Mills and McGregor are expected to attend the screening and participate in a Q&A, which will be followed by an Opening Night party at the Terra Gallery on Rincon Hill. I wonder if The Future, the new film by Mills' wife Miranda July, will also be part of this year's line-up?

● SFIFF54 closes two weeks later with On Tour, for which actor Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) won the Best Director prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival (the film also took the FIPRESCI prize in the main competition). Amalric directs his own performance as a worn-out manager who takes a bevy of American neo-burlesque dancers on a tour of provincial France. As best I can tell, the film doesn't have U.S. distribution so this could be the Bay Area's only chance to catch it on a big screen. It's expected that several of the film's burlesque performers will be at the Castro Theater that evening, and afterward the party will move to The Factory nightclub at 525 Harrison Street on Rincon Hill. I'd like to personally thank the festival for putting both Opening and Closing Night parties just two blocks from my home!

● For a number of years, the SFIFF has presented a classic silent film at the Castro Theater, with a contemporary music artist performing a newly composed score. With Tindersticks: Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009, this formula gets a slight twist. British band The Tindersticks will accompany a 70-minute montage of scenes from six Claire Denis films for which lead singer Stuart Staples and his band wrote and performed the original music. With their sound augmented by live strings and brass, the group will play alongside clips from Nénette et Boni, Trouble Every Day, Friday Night, The Intruder, 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, all of which have been stripped of their score. San Francisco is one of only six lucky cities to host this sure-to-be magnificent audiovisual experience. (The others are London, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Paris (in Église St. Eustache, no less) and Umea, Sweden.

● Eleven films will compete for this year's $15,000 New Directors Prize, "given to a narrative first feature that exhibits a unique artistic sensibility." In looking over the titles, I was surprised and a bit discomfited that only one film rang any bells. That would be Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy, which walked away from last year's Cannes with the distinction of being the most disturbing and transgressive film in the main competition (as well as the only one by a first-time feature director). Needless to say, I'm dying to see it. On the same day that the New Directors line-up was announced, the festival also revealed the 12 official selections for the $20,000 prize Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature Competition. Here I found two films previously on my radar. Eva Mulvad's The Good Life profiles a formerly wealthy Danish mother and daughter now living on the skids in Lisbon, Portugal, and it's been favorably compared to Grey Gardens. In the other film, one man's dubious transition from bloodthirsty Liberian warlord to Pentecostal preacher becomes the subject of Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss' The Redemption of General Butt Naked.

● Since 1988, the festival has been presenting its Mel Novikoff Award to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." This year's honoree is none other than collector, preservationist, exhibitor, programmer and consummate showman Serge Bromberg, who is no stranger to Bay Area audiences. I believe his most recent appearance was at the 2007 SF Silent Film Festival and his last visit to the SFIFF was in 2001 with his delightful Treasures from a Chest presentation. (He also co-directed my favorite documentary of 2010, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, which the fest screened last year.) After receiving his award, Bromberg will once again thrill a Castro Theater crowd – this time with his collection of stereoscopic films in a timely program titled, "Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D." Among the highlights will be the Lumière Brothers' Arrival of a Train (not the 1896 original, but a 1936 remake in 3-D!) and Chuck Jones' Lumber Jack-Rabbit (the only one of Warner Bros. Looney Tunes made in 3-D).

● This year's State of Cinema Address will be delivered by producer Christine Vachon, who will speak on "the current state of independent film and the role of producers of provocative cinema going forward." Vachon has produced 60-some films her 25-year career, including works by John Waters, Todd Solondz, John Cameron Mitchell, Larry Clark, Kimberly Peirce and perhaps most notably, Todd Haynes' entire oeuvre, from 1991's Poison right up to his current HBO mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce. As SF Film Society's Director of Programming Rachel Rosen states, "She is someone who is in an ideal position to tell us how the business has changed and where she sees it going in the future."

● At the 1976 Academy Awards ceremony, Frank Pierson wasn't on hand to pick up his Best Original Screenplay Oscar® for Dog Day Afternoon (Gore Vidal accepted it on his behalf). Just where he was on that momentous evening might be a good question to ask when Pierson accepts this year's SFIFF Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. Following an on-stage interview about his 50 years in the business – years that included two other Oscar®-nominated screenplays for Cat Ballou and Cool Hand Luke, plus writing and directing (gulp) the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star is Born – the festival will screen Sidney Lumet's gripping tale of a bank robbery gone wrong starring Al Pacino and John Cazale. Pierson will also conduct a master class on the craft of screenwriting.

● Thanks to Gucci and Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, the SFIFF will screen the recent 4K digital restoration of Federico Fellini's 1960 wide-screen classic, La Dolce Vita at the Castro. I haven't seen it in well over 20 years, missing three recent opportunities at the Pacific Film Archive in 2008-2009. Due to the high volume of must-see new films at the fest, I tend to stay away from its revival/repertory offerings. But an exception probably needs to be made here.

● The festival's Persistence of Vision Award for 2011 goes to multimedia artist Mathew Barney, best known for his five-part Cremaster film cycle. At the award ceremony, Barney will be interviewed by Bay Area writer, curator and critic Glen Helfand, which will be followed by the North American premiere of Drawing Restraint 17. The film is the latest installment of Barney's Drawing Restraint series, "which merges sculpture, athleticism, and cryptic symbolism into a stunning meditation of artmaking and physical exertion."

● Finally, while it hasn't been "officially" announced, anyone who's scrutinized the Pacific Film Archive calendar for March/April knows that venerated Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán (Chile, Obstinate Memory, Salvador Allende) will be in town during the festival with his new film, Nostalgia for the Light. Since its Cannes premiere, the film has received unanimous acclaim on the festival circuit and also won the European Film Award for Best Documentary. Guzmán's new work is set in Chile's Atacama Desert, where astronomers search the sky and grieving families search the earth for the remains of loved ones murdered during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. A PFA retrospective from April 2 to 28 will feature five other Guzmán films, including the three-part The Battle of Chile. Amazingly – at least for a documentary from Chile – Nostalgia for the Light will have a local theatrical release beginning May 13.

* * * * * * *

For whatever reason, the optimist and masochist in me feels compelled to draw up a festival wish list each year. The 20 films below were culled from a larger, 100-film list, from which I've eliminated anything with impending theatrical release or LGBT content (Frameline will reliably program most of those). I've also left out stuff from 2011's Sundance/Rotterdam/Berlin triumvirate, although I'd sure be impressed to see something like Berlin Golden Bear winner
Nader and Simin, a Seperation or Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse turn up.

This year's SF International Asian American Film Festival uncharacteristically ignored 2010's crop of Asian auteur films, so I'm counting on the SFIFF to fill in that gap. I'm also hoping they've programmed films from last year's second coming of the Romanian New Wave – films that were oddly absent from Toronto (which I didn't attend) and Palm Springs (which I did). Speaking of Palm Springs, here are a dozen terrific movies I saw at that festival which I hope the Bay Area gets to experience as well:
The Albanian, Cirkus Columbia, Essential Killing, The Four Times, Honey, Life Above All, Nothing's All Bad, October, A Screaming Man, Silent Souls and Sound of Noise. Now without further ado – my wish list for SFIFF54:

13 Assassins (Japan dir. Takashi Miike)
Attenberg (Greece dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Aurora (Romania dir. Cristi Puiu)
The Autobiography of Nicolas Ceausescu (Romania dir. Andrei Ujica)
Black Venus (France dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Brother and Sister (Argentina dir. Daniel Burman)
Caterpillar (Japan dir. Kôji Wakamatsu)
The Clink of Ice (France dir. Bertrand Blier)
Leap Year (Mexico dir. Michael Rowe)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Portugal dir. Raoul Ruiz)
The Names of Love (France dir. Michel Leclerc)
Neds (UK dir. Peter Mullan)
Old Cats (Chile dirs. Pedro Peirano, Sebastián Silva)
On the Path (Bosnia/Herzegovina dir. Jasmila Zbanic)
Pál Adrienn (Hungary dir. Ágnes Kocsis)
Post Mortem (Chile dir. Pablo Larraín)
The Sleeping Beauty (France dir. Catherine Breillat)
The Tree (France dir. Julie Bertucelli)
Tuesday, After Christmas (Romania dir. Radu Muntean)
Viva Riva! (Congo dir. Djo Munga)

Cross published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

SFIAAFF 2011 - Preview Capsules

The 29th edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) begins this Thursday, March 10 and runs through March 20 at various Bay Area venues. In a previous post I gave an overview of this year's extensive line-up. The following are capsule reviews of six narrative features and four documentaries I've had the opportunity to preview on DVD screener.

Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words (USA/South Korea dir. Yunah Hong)
Those who attended SFIAAFF's 2004 Anna May Wong retrospective won't want to miss this seamlessly constructed documentary that covers all aspects of the star's career and personal life. Deftly blending quotes from letters and interviews, along with choice photos, clips and interviews with those who knew her (including renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff), director Hong renders a clear sense of just who this legendary Chinese-American actress was – beyond the exotic stereotype she seldom escaped on-screen. Among its many revelations is that lyricist Eric Maschwitz wrote "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" especially for his lover, Anna May. What doesn't quite work are the film's reenactments with actress Doan Ly, especially the attempted recreation of Wong's cabaret act.

Bi, Don't Be Afraid! (Viet Nam/France/Germany dir. Phan Dang Di)
In this sumptuously photographed family drama, a boy maneuvers his way around a world of troubled adult relatives. Five-year-old Bi's grandfather has returned to Hanoi to die, while his absent alcoholic father cavorts with a masseuse. Putting up with it all is his empathetic mother. Bi's young schoolteacher aunt is pursued by a hunky construction worker, but she's developed the hots for one of her students. The film is leisurely paced to a fault, with peculiar editing choices that fail to unite disparate plot threads. There's also an overheated eroticism that verges on creepy. And I never thought I'd ever say this about any film, but the ample male nudity here is fairly gratuitous. Still,
Bi is worth a look for its urban mise-en-scène (particularly that of an ice factory where Bi spends much of his time), uniformly fine performances and the stunning, aforementioned Red One cinematography.

Dance Town (South Korea dir. Jeon Kyu-hwan)
A female escapee from North Korea adjusts to life in the South in director Jeon's third and final installment of his "urban loneliness" trilogy. The film is strongest in its first half, as Jung-rim tentatively stakes out a new existence, prodded by a well-meaning caseworker and some overbearing churchgoers. It all gets a bit overreaching and
Crash-y, however, with storylines focused on characters in equally desperate straits. By the end, Dance Town seems to enjoy wallowing in its own miserablism, almost to the point – I hate to say it – of being laughable.

Dog Sweat (Iran/USA dir. Hossein Keshavarz)
Most of Iran's population is under 30-years-old and living amidst an authoritative, fundamentalist society. How they reconcile youthful desire for personal freedom in the face of such strictures is the theme of this modest, clandestinely-shot indie. The film juggles a number of potentially interesting, inter-connected storylines, but tends to lurch gracelessly between them. There's also a lack of depth in the characterizations, which holds particularly true in the depiction of a gay man and aspiring female pop singer who are joined in an arranged marriage. First we see their initial meeting amongst family members, followed by a scene of their wedding, and then a shot of them at home watching TV – all without a single word of dialogue in which they discuss their mutual predicament. Still,
Dog Sweat has value in that it depicts a side of Iran we rarely see. Just don't go in expecting the level of artistry seen in youth-oriented films like Bahman Ghobadi's No One Knows About Persian Cats, Jafar Panahi's Offside or even last year's SFIAAFF shot-on-a-cellphone documentary, Sepideh Farsi's Tehran Without Permission.

The Imperialists Are Still Alive! (USA dir. Zeina Durra)
In this impressive directorial debut, we witness post-9/11 New York City through the eyes of its young "émigré intelligentsia." Theirs is an enviable life of limos, swag bags, galleries and underground clubs – but if you're young and Arab, it's also a life of disquiet and paranoia. French actress Élodie Bouchez (
Wild Reeds, The Dreamlife of Angels) portrays a politically provocative artist of Bosnian-Lebanese-Jordanian descent, who in the opening scene is being photographed with nothing but keffiyeh wrapped around her head. One eventful night she learns that a friend has probably been abducted by the C.I.A., and she meets a handsome Mexican PhD student. The film follows the course of their burgeoning relationship amidst this life of privilege. Director Durra obviously knows this life well and her film is full of delicious rib-poking that avoids full-on lampooning of her bourgeois characters. These are real people with valid concerns – Bouchez's character spends much of the film fretting about a brother who's trying to escape the Israeli bombing of Beirut. Durra's screenplay has also devised interesting ways for her characters to interact with NYC's immigrant economic substrata of manicurists, maids and taxi drivers. Poignant, charming, politically aware – and shot in gorgeous 16mm depicting a wintry Manhattan – this is one of my favorite films of the year thus far.

Living in Seduced Circumstances (USA dir. Ian Gamazon)
The co-director of 2005's urgent Philippines kidnapping drama
Cavite returns with this curious two-hander tale of revenge and torture. At a remote forest cabin, a demented pregnant woman torments an older man she's duct-taped to a wheelchair. Fancying herself "Princess of the Jungle," she shoots him with arrows, smacks him with a shovel and sticks his feet in a wood-burning stove. A motive for all this aggression is given early on, but another one arises that relates to the two characters being Vietnamese. Color camera filters and animation give the film a dreamlike quality, and Quynn Ton tears into her role with a terrifying, childlike malevolence. Overlong at 76 minutes, this would have made for one awesome short.

Passion (Mongolia dir. Byamba Sakhya)
In its communist era heyday, Mongolia produced seven features and 40 documentary films per year, but today the Mongolian Studio complex lies in near ruin. Jigjid Dejid was considered the country's greatest director, and now his son Binder struggles to carry on the tradition. When he discovers that his latest film can't be screened in Ulan Bator's only cinema because of format and aspect ratio issues, he takes it on the road. Unfortunately,
Human Traffic, his cautionary tale about a rich city woman who sells her rural sister's kidney, inspires few ticket sales, even in the provinces. Joining this dispiriting 2,000 km journey is Binder's longtime cinematographer, Passion's director/narrator/DP Byamba Sakhya. Their close friendship renders this an extremely personal film, perhaps a bit too much so. But those with an interest in national cinemas, or for that matter, an overall concern for the future of film exhibition everywhere, will find much to appreciate. Highlights include Sakhya's staggeringly beautiful photography of Mongolia's towns and villages, along with a trove of fascinating clips from the country's cinematic legacy.

Piano in a Factory (China dir. Zhang Meng)
Chen Guilen plays accordion in a band and is in a fluctuating relationship with its comely lead singer. He's also in a custody battle with his soon-to-be nouveau riche ex-wife. To win the affections of his daughter, he launches a monumental scheme to build her a piano with help from his scrappy friends and bandmates. This is the framework upon which writer/director Zhang hangs this delightfully loopy film, which is quite unlike any Chinese movie I've ever seen. Zhang has a sublime visual sense, utilizing interior and exterior spaces for utmost effect in his compositions and camera movements. This is also a musical of sorts, with several production numbers and a soundtrack that encompasses everything from Russian pop songs to the theme from Super Mario Bros. One could complain that
Piano in a Factory is a bit precious and overworked, but that criticism is easily overshadowed by the film's enormous ambitions and sense of fun.

Summer Pasture (USA/Tibet dir. Lynn True, Nelson Walker)
Yama and Locho are married Tibetan yak-herders whose way of life is fading as fellow nomads choose life in the city. This extraordinary documentary observes them through the course of one summer, giving us a rich portrait of both their quotidian lives and individual personalities. Wife Yama suffers from heart disease, yet rises at 4 a.m. to gather yak dung for fuel, with the rest of her day spent making butter and caring for their baby daughter. Husband Locho, a ladies man in his younger days and still rather vain, grazes the family herd. He has an illegitimate child by another woman, which counts against the three-child maximum he's allowed by the Chinese government (and the woman in question had to be paid off in caterpillar fungus, which is the region's new cash crop). One revealing sequence cuts back and forth as Yama and Locho, filmed separately, recount the incident. This is yet another SFIAAFF 2011 documentary with eye-catching cinematography, with yak silhouettes against a dawn sky and the arrival of a hailstorm among the high points. In the end credits I noticed that Philip Maysles – son of acclaimed documentarian Albert Maysles – was one of the cameramen, and the Maysles Institute itself is listed as one of the funders.

Tales of the Waria (Indonesia dir. Kathy Huang)
This fine documentary brings us four touching, humanist portraits of transgenders living in Makassar on the southern tip of Indonesia's Sulawesi island. Waria is a combination of the words
wanita (woman) and pria (man), and their existence in this Muslim society is tolerated because in pre-Muslim times they were trusted caretakers of the king. None desire sex-change operations, believing that they were created as men and must ultimately return to God as men. (This is in contrast to Iran, where the government pays for the operation, believing that transexualism is okay because nothing in the Quran forbids it). The most compelling story is that of Mama Ria, a waria in her fifties who has been a policeman's second wife for 18 years. One memorable scene shows her strolling arm in arm with the first wife during a family outing at a water park. Over the course of the film, however, we sadly watch her marriage come to an end, despite recent plastic surgery to improve her looks. The other warias are Suharni, a hairdresser who leaves her boyfriend to earn money in Bali; Agus, a husband and father who struggles with the desire to return to the waria way of life; and Tiara, an exuberant showgirl and beauty pageant trainer.

Cross published on The Evening Class and Twitch.