Thursday, August 18, 2011

SFFS/New People Cinema Takes Off

June 2011 brought the fantastic news that come September, the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) would be transforming Japantown's New People Cinema into its very own year-round venue. Well summer's almost over and true to its promise, SFFS has revealed an auspicious line-up of September movies with which to inaugurate this new venture. This is exactly what I was hoping for – week-long runs of acclaimed films with limited distribution that were passed over by the likes of Landmark Theaters, the Roxie, YBCA and others. I'm doubly impressed by the commitment to daily matinee and evening showtimes.

While the Official Grand Opening doesn't happen until later in the month, programming unofficially gets going on Friday, September 2 with the Bay Area premiere of Jean-Luc Godard's Film socialisme. This latest polemic from France's cranky, 80-year-old master provocateur is purportedly about the decline of Western civilization, vis-à-vis a Mediterranean cruise and portrait of a provincial French gas station-owning family – with purposefully oblique/misleading subtitles to boot. While the 1985 Hail Mary riots outside the Roxie Cinema are a lovely memory, I need to think back 40 years to come up with a Godard film I unequivocally "liked." Through the decades I've dutifully slogged my way through each new work that's come to the Bay Area (and not all of them have), so I'm feeling no less compelled to see this, the director's first new feature since 2004's Notre musique. My reticence is lessened just knowing Patti Smith is in it. Here's a Film socialism trailer that appeared several months before the 2010 Cannes premiere. It appears to be the entire movie fast-forwarded in 4 1/2 minutes.

While Godard might be a hard pill for some, the following week brings a surefire crowd-pleaser to the SFFS/New People Cinema with the September 9 SF premiere of Natalia Smirnoff's Puzzle. I missed this Argentine film when it screened at last autumn's Mill Valley Film Festival, eventually catching up with it at January's Palm Springs fest. It was the most rapturously received of the three dozen movies I saw there. Puzzle is an accomplished, low-key charmer about a put-upon Buenos Aires housewife who finds personal validation and companionship in the world of competitive jigsaw puzzle tournaments (who knew?). It features a captivatingly understated performance by María Onetto, whom we last saw in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman. Furthering the Martel connection is that director Smirnoff, making an assured directorial debut with Puzzle, served as Martel's assistant director on La ciénaga and The Holy Girl. My only complaint with Puzzle is a late-film plot development which rings so completely false, it might have derailed a lesser work. See the film and let me know if you agree.

On Friday, September 16, the SFFS Cinema ping-pongs from crowd-pleaser back to hardcore art film with Cristi Puiu's Aurora. This three-hour, slow-burning Romanian character study cum crime thriller screened at this year's SF International Film Festival and is Puiu's follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. It was my favorite narrative feature of the festival and has an assured place in my year-end Top 10. While I anticipate seeing it again, Aurora's SF return will be especially welcomed by those who attended a fateful screening late in the festival. The 35mm print broke just before the crucial event at the film's mid-point, resulting in a canceled screening and a room of traumatized cinephiles.

The less informed you are going into
Aurora the better. Simply know that your patience for the mundane "events" which frontload the film will be amply rewarded later and that the film's peevish protagonist, who appears in nearly every frame, is portrayed by the director himself. There's a note on the SFFS website advising that the September 20 and 21 showings of Aurora will be on Blu-ray, which I assume means the first four days will be 35mm. On Thursday, September 22, following Aurora's six-day run, the SFFS/New People Cinema will celebrate its Official Grand Opening with an open house reception. Festivities will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony, sake ceremony and a selection of short films.

Beginning Friday, September 23 the cinema shifts gears with a week of special events, starting with SFFS' first ever three-day mini-festival of recent Hong Kong Cinema. As mentioned in the press release, "SFFS has played a pioneering role in introducing Hong Kong cinema to Bay Area audiences through the SF International Film Festival, which has shown over 70 Hong Kong films, beginning in 1959." The seven films in this series range from opening night indie Merry-Go-Round (partially set in San Francisco) to the latest from veteran Johnnie To (an atypical romantic dramedy, Don't Go Breaking My Heart). Other recognizable Hong Kong directors in the fest include Ann Hui (All About Love, in which pregnant, lesbian ex-partners re-connect) and Benny Chan (sci-fi actioner City Under Siege).

Benny Chan's most recent film, martial arts epic Shaolin, screens later that week for two days (September 28 & 29), separate from the Hong Kong mini-fest. Set in early 20th century China, this tale of a warlord's spiritual redemption boasts a cast of HK superstars (Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan) and fight sequences performed by real Shaolin monks. In between Hong Kong Cinema and Shaolin, SFFS hosts a special screening of the documentary The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan on Monday, September 26. Directed by Henry Corra (who will attend the evening shows), this doc is about the mysterious 40-year-old disappearance of an African American G.I. in the jungles of Viet Nam and Cambodia.

And that takes us up to Friday, September 30 and a one-week run of Passione, John Turturro's valentine to the music and people of Naples which opened this year's Cinequest in San Jose. The month of October also finds SFFS into the full swing of its Fall Season, so save these dates: Taiwan Film Days (Oct. 14-16), NY/SF International Children's Film Festival (Oct. 21-23) and French Cinema Now (Oct. 27-Nov.2).