Monday, October 22, 2012

French Cinema Now 2012

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) reaches the mid-point of its 2012 Fall Season Wednesday night with their fifth annual French Cinema Now (FCN) series. The line-up for this year's seven day, 10-film celebration could be summarized thusly: three crowd-pleasers, five feature directorial debuts and two new works from a pair of arthouse notables. Here's a closer look at what's in store at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema from October 24 to 30.

FCN 2012 keeps it light on opening night with Noémie Lvovsky's Camille Rewinds, a comedy that puts a time-traveling French spin on Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married. While Lvovsky has directed six features going back to 1994's Oublie-moi, Camille Rewinds represents her first effort as both director and star. Lvovsky the actress is best known stateside for her remarkable supporting roles, of which we've seen plenty in recent months. She appeared in three films at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) (Guilty, 17 Girls and Farewell, My Queen) and played the bordello madam in House of Tolerance, which SFFS screened this summer. Camille Rewinds premiered in Director's Fortnight at Cannes and won that sidebar's SACD Prize for best screenplay, which was co-written by Lvovsky. Reviews have been generally kind, with warm praise for the film's winning performances and 1980's art direction. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Mathieu Amalric appear in cameos and Yolande Moreau (Séraphine) plays Camille's mother. Noémie Lvovsky is expected to attend FCN opening night.

Last year's FCN opened with the delightful Copacabana, starring Isabelle Huppert as a middle-aged hippie-chick getting serious about life. She's in comic mode again with My Worst Nightmare, a new film by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), this time playing a snooty art gallery owner who gets turned around by a randy handyman. While I'd willingly watch Huppert recite the proverbial phone directory, reviews for this outing give pause. From Robert Koehler's dismissive, two-paragraph Variety review: "Trucking in the standard situation of an uptight, bourgeois woman letting go around a lusty, clownish working-class man, pic is dated, clunky, indifferently staged and markedly unfunny. It's not all that commercial, either, though it tries so hard to be." Ouch. My Worst Nightmare began its US theatrical run in NYC this past weekend – Bay area audiences must wait until Xmas – and the NY Times' Stephen Holden joined the pile-on, adding that the film's "one joke…yields steadily diminishing returns." Only Lisa Nesselson at Screen Daily offers encouragement: "Huppert, of course, can do control freak narcissism and insensitive bitchery in her sleep and (Benoît) Poelvoorde can personify boorish bonhomie with his eyes closed. But both actors find new riches in stock characters, making them more like real people and less like the caricatures they arguably are." I refuse to believe this won't be some kind of fun.

FCN's third unabashed crowd-pleaser, Stéphane Robelin's All Together, also began its U.S. theatrical run in NYC this weekend and received kinder notices. This dramedy closed the 2011 Locarno Film Festival and concerns five aging, 70-something friends who decide to live out their sunset years under the same roof. Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin make up two-fifths of the quintet, and anthropology student Daniel Bruehl becomes a sixth roommate when he chooses senior communal living as his thesis subject. Variety's Leslie Felperin praises the film's "unfussy, ribald briskness that's characteristic of middlebrow-in-a-good-way Gallic films" and the NY Times' Stephen Holden liked how this "agreeably chipper comedy steers a careful middle ground between sentimentality and farce." This is Fonda's first French-speaking role since Godard's 1972 Tout va bien and I for one am looking forward to hearing her yammer away in American-accented French for 96 minutes.

As I've already mentioned, an unprecedented 50 percent of this year's FCN offerings come from debut feature directors, which would be of concern if it weren't for the festival's track record on spotlighting terrific new talent. (Last year's hilarious Bachelor Days are Over, for example, turned out to be one of my top films of 2011). Sharing opening night honors with Camille Rewinds this year is Djinn Carrénard's Donoma, which won the prestigious Louis Delluc Prize for a first film and was purportedly made on a budget of 150 euros. The Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer describes the film as lying "somewhere between mumblecore, Cassavettes and Abdellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)" as it "follows the amorous entanglements of various young Parisians – many of non-French origin – as they cope with issues of class, religion and identity in the less-traveled byways of the City of Light." The semi-improvised, 136-minute film is said to be full of long takes, tight close-ups and dialogue so infused with slang it was released in French cinemas with subtitles. So even if you parler français couramment, expect to do a bit of reading.

Director Guillaume Brac still hasn't made his narrative feature debut because his A World Without Women is only 54-minutes long, and is therefore technically a short. Set in a seaside resort town in Northern France, the film follows the exploits of a 30-something schlub named Sylvain as he and his best friend flirt with a vacationing mother and daughter (the latter played by Constance Rousseau, who made her memorable debut in Mia Hansen-Løve's All is Forgiven). The only English-language write-up I could find for the movie was a capsule description for Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which called it "a comedy of gallant seduction" with "magnificent acting" and "a freshness and urgency that calls to mind the films of Jacques Rozier." As someone who fondly recalls the Rozier retrospective that graced 2001's SFIFF, I'm sold right there. When A World Without Women was released in French cinemas, it was double-billed with Brac's previous 24-minute short, Stranded, which also features the character of Sylvain (again played by actor Vincent Macaigne). That's how it will be exhibited at FCN as well.

What would a French film festival be without a heartbreaking portrait of a poor soul struggling on the margins of society? (…he asks without condescension or derision). Louise Wimmer reps the narrative feature debut of documentary filmmaker Cyril Mennegun, heretofore known as the director of 2005's Tahar, the doc which profiled a then-penniless student and future star of A Prohpet, actor Tahar Rahim. In Louise Wimmer, TV actress Corrine Masiero gives a critically acclaimed performance as a proud woman who lives in her car, works at menial jobs and battles to secure herself an apartment in public housing. The film, which premiered in the Critics Week sidebar at Venice last year, is described in most reviews as being "Dardenne-esqe," which I'll take as a good sign. I'm particularly intrigued to hear that the music soundtrack largely consists of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman," which plays from a cassette that is permanently jammed in Louise's car stereo.

The two remaining FCN entries from tyro helmers – pardon my Variety-ese – are Elie Wajeman's Aliyah and François Pirot's Mobile Home. The former earned glowing reviews when it premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight, and is the story of a Jewish Parisian drug dealer who contemplates a move to Israel as a means to escape his troubled life. The lead role of Alex is played by Pio Marmaï, who impressed as the criminally seductive lothario in Living on Love Alone (SFIFF 2011). He's supported by director Cédric Kahn (Red Lights), making his second-ever on-screen appearance as Alex's mooch of an older brother. Critics appeared less enthusiastic about Pirot's gently comic Mobile Home, in which two immature best friends hit the road in rural Belgium. Reviews run the gamut from "whisper thin" to "pleasantly respectable" to "moderately watchable," although all praise the genial lead performances. Pirot, who is scheduled to attend FCN, is known for the scripts he co-wrote for a pair of Joachim Lafosse-directed pervy psycho-dramas (Private Property and Private Lessons). Personally, I wish the festival was bringing us Lafosse's Our Children¸ a prolicide-themed drama starring Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta) and Tahar Rahim, which received unanimous rave reviews at Cannes and is now Belgium's Oscar® submission.

"Maddening, pretentious, hypnotic and transcendent in roughly equal measure."

"At once utterly direct and infuriatingly opaque."

"Slow cinema at its rawest and most austerely uncommunicative."

Such pronouncements could only have been lifted from the reviews of one filmmaker, Bruno Dumont, arguably the only auteur represented in this year's FCN line-up. One and a half years after its Cannes premiere in Un Certain Regard, his sixth and latest feature Hors Satan is finally coming to the Bay Area, as did its two predecessors, courtesy of the SFFS. To be honest, I haven't really cared for a Dumont film since 1999's Humanité (although Twentynine Palms was great for a laugh), but his vision remains so compellingly singular that I wouldn't dream of not seeing where he's taken it next, given the opportunity. It's interesting to note that in 2012, a year signified by the death of 35mm film exhibition, Hors Satan will be the only FCN film screened in that beloved format (at least according to the Film On Film Foundation's Bay Area calendar). Compare that to last year's festival, where only three out of eleven movies were digitally projected.

Alas, time marches on and so-called "progress" prevails. Even Agnés Godard, whom many consider Europe's greatest living cinematographer, has done the digital deed with FCN's closing night film, Ursula Meier's Sister. The results are pretty damn impressive, or at least they were at a press screening I caught at San Francisco's Variety Screening Room. (Godard talks about the experience of shooting digital in a recent NY Times profile). Sister is Meier's awaited follow-up to Home, a delightfully weird fable about a family living spitting distance away from a super-highway. While that film's final act disappointingly descended into aimless absurdist melodrama, her latest is rock solid and reality grounded. Kacey Mottet Klein, who played the rambunctious kid in Home, is now a cagey 12-year-old thief named Simon who steals and re-sells expensive ski equipment from a luxurious mountain resort. He does it to support his aimless and slighter trashy older sister, played by Léa Seydoux (last seen here as Marie Antoinette's reader in Farewell, My Queen). In the many ski gondola trips Simon takes to and from "work" each day, Meier and Godard make magnificent metaphorical use of the physical space separating the high altitude haves of the ski resort and the have-nots living in the dingy town below. X-Filers take note – Gillian Anderson has a significant supporting role as a foreign tourist. Meier is expected to attend FCN's closing night and anyone who experienced her generous, forthcoming Q&A for Home at the 2009 SFIFF knows this isn't to be missed. Sister is also scheduled to open at the Sundance Kabuki on November 9.

Cross published on The Evening Class.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

35th Mill Valley Film Festival 2012

The 35th Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF35) opens this Thursday night and for my money, it's the best line-up they've had since I began paying attention in 2004. That's the year auto-less me anxiously boarded my first Golden Gate Transit bus and headed north for a do-or-die MVFF screening of Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé. What excites me about 2012's lineup is the presence of fewer unknown "discoveries" and post-Toronto "prestige" movies and a lot more of the noisemakers from top 2012 festivals like Cannes and Berlin. Meanwhile, MVFF's  eye-popping list of expected festival guests continues to have no equal in Northern California, with this year's red carpet getting stepped on by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, Ken Burns, Billy Bob Thornton, Ang Lee, Walter Salles, Mira Nair, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper, Martin McDonagh, Sam Rockwell and Allison Anders.

So let's begin this line-up overview with Cannes. Whereas past MVFF editions have featured one or two films from Cannes' main competition, this year boasts a whopping seven, including many of the prize winners. Taking it from the top, you've got Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning Amour (a late entry you won't find in the fest catalog) and Reality, Matteo Garrone's second consecutive film to earn Cannes' Grand Prix (following 2008's Gomorrah). Then there's Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which copped prizes for its screenplay and lead actresses. MVFF35's co-opening night film will be Walter Salles' screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, said to have been considerably re-edited since its Cannes world premiere. Master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is represented by his latest, the Japan-set Like Someone in Love, and Holy Motors is the first feature film in 13 years from outré French director Leos Carax. The latter is said to be wonderfully weird and a possible career-high for Carax.

The only one of the seven I've previewed (on DVD screener, as with all MVFF35 films sampled) is Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country. For years I found Hong's films obnoxious, but the relative mellow-ness of recent works like Hahaha and The Day He Arrives has brought me around. In Another Country has the added bonus of starring my favorite game-for-anything actress, Isabelle Huppert, playing three different French women in three interlocked stories, all set in the same South Korean beach town. Seeing Huppert operate within Hong's insular world is charmingly incongruous, as she's three times pursued by a hunky young lifeguard and three times drunk on soju – this being a Hong Sang-soo film. Now the question is, which brave Bay Area programmer will bring us 2012's other Huppert-starring Asian film, Brilliante Mendoza's Captive, which bowed at Berlin?

While Captive may elude us for the moment, a number of films from the Berlin Film Festival have made it to MVFF35, including a boatload of prize winners. Veteran Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars, Padre Padrone) won the fest's top award, the Golden Bear, for Caesar Must Die, a stylized documentary in which maximum security prisoners stage a production of "Julius Caesar." The film I'm anticipating more than any other in the festival is Miguel Gomes' Tabu, which took Berlin's FIPRESCI Prize and the prestigious Alfred Bauer Award (given to a movie which "opens new perspectives in film art.") I was wowed the Portuguese director's previous effort, Our Beloved Month of August, and by all accounts Tabu is said to be even more amazing.

Berlin's Best Actress prize went to newcomer Rachel Mwanza for her riveting performance as an African child soldier in Kim Nguyen's War Witch. Mwanza is in virtually every frame of this haunting and brutal (but not unbearably so) road movie, which begins with an act of forced parricide and ends with a poignant return home. War Witch also won prizes at Tribeca for Best Narrative Feature and Best Actress, and was just announced as Canada's Foreign Language Film submission for the Oscars®. A second worthy Africa-set film I previewed from Berlin's competition is Tey, a poetic and disquieting allegory about mortality from French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis.

Perhaps it was just lowered expectations, but I was quite charmed by Billy Bob Thornton's Jayne Mansfield's Car, which garnered very mixed reviews at Berlin. Thornton, who plays a soul-damaged WWII vet, will be at MVFF35 for an on-stage interview and screening of this movie he directed and co-wrote. Set in 1969 Alabama, it co-stars Robert Duvall as an irascible Southern patriarch whose recently deceased ex-wife is returning home for burial, with her "new" British family in tow. The film's highlight is a delightfully kinky relationship that evolves between Thornton and a British relative (a lovely performance by Frances O'Connor). I promise you'll never think of Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in the same way again. The rest of the cast is a treat, from Kevin Bacon's aging hippie and Katherine LaNasa's Southern sexpot housewife, to John Hurt as Duvall's Brit counterpart. Regrettably, things take a nosedive in the final act – or should I say drive under a tractor-trailer – with a chain of mawkish and clunky resolutions. When Duvall drinks the LSD-spiked iced tea, you may consider it your cue to leave.

Perhaps my biggest beef about Bay Area film programming is the lack of attention paid Latin American cinema, or at least the Latin American films deemed significant by international critics and festival juries. Could it really be that no local programmer considered it important to bring us Post Mortem, Pablo Larraín's acclaimed follow-up to Tony Manero (thankfully now available to stream on Netflix)? Or Pablo Giorgelli's intimate and heartbreaking Las Acacias, which won Cannes' 2011 Camera d'or for best first feature? Or in genre-crazy San Francisco, Alejandro Brugués' much-discussed Cuban political zombie flick, Juan of the Dead? I could go on and on, but for now I'll simply extend deserved kudos to MVFF35 for its fine selection of Latin American films, four of which I've previewed.

The must-see from the region is unquestionably Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here and There, which earned the top prize in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar. Set in a Mexican mountain village, this is a lyrical and melancholic document of a musician's time spent with family in between stints of working in El Norte. I was also taken by Dominga Sotomayor's quietly observed Thursday Till Sunday, in which a couple on the verge of breakup take a road trip with their kids to Chile's barren north. The film was co-winner of this year's Tiger Award at Rotterdam and its memorable cinematography is by one of South America's most accomplished DPs, Bárbara Álvarez (Whiskey, The Headless Woman). From Chile there's also Andrés Wood's Violeta Went to Heaven, a freewheeling biopic about Violeta Parra, the volatile and contradictory singer/composer/artist and national treasure who lived a fabulously messy life up until her 1967 suicide at age 50. Outside of Chile she's best known as the composer of "Gracias a la Vida," which curiously isn't heard until the end credits. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance this year and was also Chile's 2011 Oscar® submission. Another MVFF35 biopic is Cao Hamburger's Xingu, a straightforward drama about Brazil's Villas-Boas brothers and their decades-long struggle to establish a permanent homeland for indigenous peoples. While the film lacks artistic vision, it has heart and ably compensates with extremely high production values. During the festival proper, I'm hoping to catch the latest from favorite Argentine director Daniel Burman (All In) and a provocative-sounding Mexican entry, Kai Parlange's Richness of Internal Space.

As mentioned earlier, MVFF35 is a bit lighter in post-Toronto, Awards Season bait this year, but not by much. Along with On the Road, the festival opens Thursday with David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, which won Toronto's People's Choice Award. Conversely, Toronto's opening night film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, will screen as part of a MVFF Tribute to its director, Mira Nair. From actor/director Ben Affleck comes Argo, his well-reviewed thriller set during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Director Martin McDonagh follows 2008's massively popular In Bruges with an all-star cast of Seven Psychopaths. Sitting atop MVFF35's totem pole of celebrity guests is Dustin Hoffman, who'll receive the festival's 35th Anniversary Award in a tribute that will include career clips, a conversation with Variety's Steven Gaydos and a screening of Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet, starring Maggie Smith. Which is not to be confused with A Late Quartet, an 11th hour MVFF addition about the inner feuding of a long-established string quartet (with a fun-sounding cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener). Also screening direct from Toronto, albeit without an appearance from its director or stars is Juan Antonio Bayona's tsunami drama, The Impossible, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.

Two other major MVFF35 events warrant special mention. Actor John Hawkes will be on hand for a MVFF Spotlight tribute, accompanied by a screening of The Sesssions. Titled The Surrogate when it premiered at Sundance, the film won that festival's Audience Award for best U.S. drama and a special jury prize for ensemble acting. Hawkes stars as Berkeley writer Mark O'Brien, a man confined to an iron lung who seeks the help of a sex surrogate. (O'Brien was also the subject of Jessica Yu's 1996 Oscar®-winning documentary short, Breathing Lessons). The surrogate is played by Helen Hunt, who will be at the screening along with director/screenwriter Ben Lewin. On October 14, MVFF35 comes to a close with Ang Lee's much anticipated Life of Pi, fresh from its world premiere as the New York Film Festival's opening night selection.

Documentaries remain an important part of MVFF, as the two dozen selections in this year's Valley of the Docs sidebar attest. The one I'm most anticipating is Ken Burns' The Central Park Five, which concerns the five youths of color wrongly convicted of the 1989 "wilding" assault on a white female jogger. While most of the festival's docs seem focused on political and environmental issues, a number are aimed squarely at music fans. The most popular is certain to be In Your Dreams – Stevie Nicks, for which the ex-Fleetwood Mac singer is expected to make a personal appearance. Others include looks at guitarist John Fahey (In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey), singer Tony Bennett (The Zen of Bennett) and a valentine to Mill Valley's own beloved and legendary record store, Village Music (Village Music: The Last of the Great Record Stores).

While it would be impossible to mention all of the nearly 100 feature films in this year's festival, here are a final half dozen that caught my eye. Three appear on the recently compiled list of 2012 Foreign Language Academy Award submissions. Iceland has nominated The Deep, from that country's most celebrated director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, Jar City). Kormákur is expected to attend the festival and I'm disappointed that I can't make it to either screening. Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair, a piece of 18th century political intrigue starring Mads Mikkelsen, will be the Oscar® submission from Denmark, and Australia has nominated Cate Shortland's Lore, a drama set in post-WWII Germany. Another promising Australian film is Wayne Blair's The Sapphires, based on a true story about a 1960's Aboriginal girl group who performed for U.S. troops in Viet Nam. In Gilles Bourdos' Renoir, veteran actor Michel Bouquet plays painter Pierre-Auguste, and one of my favorite young French actors, Vincent Rottiers portrays his filmmaker-to-be son Jean. The story is set on the French Riviera during WWI and cinematography is by the incomparable Mark Lee Ping-bing. Lastly, I'm completely unfamiliar with the works of French actor/writer/director/comic Pierre Étaix and am grateful that MVFF35 is presenting a revival of his 1965 film, Yoyo, in a newly restored 35mm print from Janus Films.

Cross published on The Evening Class.

Friday, July 20, 2012

SF Jewish Film Festival 2012

The 32nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF32) opened at the Castro Theatre last night with the world premiere of Roberta Grossman's fun-sounding documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie). It was a tough personal choice between that and seeing Todd Solondz in person with his new film, Dark Horse, at the SF Film Society Cinema. I opted for the latter, given that Hava Nagila will have three more screenings during the festival, which runs through August 6. The fest resumes tomorrow morning at the Castro Theatre for a six-day residency before branching out into the East, North and South Bay Area. This year's roster boasts 44 narrative and documentary features and here's a glance at the ones I'm most looking forward to.

A sidebar of SFJFF32 is Jews & Tunes: Spotlight on Music. Besides Hava Nagila, I'm most anticipating bio-doc A.K.A. Doc Pomus, which will be the San Francisco closing night film on Thursday, July 26. Doc Pomus was the stage name for Jerome Felder, a polio-stricken Brooklyn-born Jew who would write the lyrics for some of the best known songs of the early rock era, including "Save the Last Dance For Me" and "Viva Las Vegas." I've also heard great things about Under African Skies, which looks back at Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and its troubled history during the height of international anti-apartheid sentiment. The film won the audience award at this year's SXSW and is directed by esteemed veteran documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost trilogy, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). I have friends who are rabid fans of Australian-born singer-songwriter Ben Lee and they're insisting I not miss Ben Lee: Catch My Disease, especially since Lee himself is expected to attend the July 25 screening at the Castro Theatre. Other films in the Jews in Tunes sidebar include documentary portraits of a flamenco guitarist (Gypsy Davy), a violin virtuoso (God's Fiddler) and a gay, African American, Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artist (Y-Love).

My favorite film of 2010 was Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, a richly-conceived, mythical fantasia about the life of singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. It marked the directing debut of French graphic novelist Sfar and now his creative process can be observed in Sam Ball's documentary, Joann Sfar Draws from Memory. A fascinating seven-minute excerpt is available to preview at Vimeo. Relatedly, the most curious SFJFF32 omission is surely the animated feature The Rabbi's Cat, which Sfar adapted and directed from his own graphic novel. Now I really regret having missed it at the East Bay Jewish Film Festival earlier in the year.

Two years ago, the SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award was given to Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, writer-creator of the groundbreaking and poignant Israeli TV sit-com Arab Labor. I so enjoyed the three episodes which screened during that festival, I eventually watched all of Seasons 1 & 2 via Netflix. I plan to be there again when SFJFF32 presents several episodes from Arab Labor: Season 3.

This year's SFJFF Freedom of Expression Award goes to none other than actor Elliott Gould, who will appear for an on-stage interview at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, July 22, followed by a screening of his latest film, Dorfman. Gould must really enjoy spending time in the Bay Area, having accompanied screenings of M*A*S*H back in February at the Castro Theatre and at the Rafael Film Center last November.

Despite receiving extremely mixed reviews when it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I have no intention of missing Laurent Bouzereau's Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir. This documentary portrait was filmed during the director's time under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland and consists of an extended conversation between Polanski and Bouzereau that's peppered with film clips. Bouzereau is a personal friend of Polanski and critics have said the film goes beyond fawning (Variety's Rob Nelson called it "supremely subservient.")

Earlier this year I saw the 2011 narrative feature Free Men, which was about Arab participation in the French Resistance movement of WWII. I was particularly struck by the performance of actor Mahmoud Shalaby as Salim Halali, a real-life, celebrated Algerian singer who was clandestinely both gay and Jewish. I later realized I'd also seen Shalaby's impressive 2009 screen debut in Jaffa (SFJFF30). Shalaby has made two more movies since Free Men and they're both in this year's festival. In A Bottle in the Gaza Sea he stars as a young Gaza Palestinian who takes up e-mail correspondence with an Israeli girl. The formidable Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (Free Zone, Lemon Tree) portrays his mother. Shalaby also has a supporting role in the festival's Centerpiece Film, Lorraine Lévy's The Other Son, a babies-switched-at-birth drama that stars one of my favorite French actresses, Emmanuelle Devos (La Moustache, A Christmas Tale).

Familiar acting talent is what draws me to three more SFJFF32 films. In Alain Tasma's 2010 TV movie Broken, Anaïs Demoustier (Living on Love Alone, The Snows of Kilimanjaro) stars as a idealistic young teacher in a rough banlieue school. The script was written by Emmanuel Carrère (La Moustache, I'm Glad My Mother is Alive) and it features revered French actress, Ariane Ascaride (wife and muse to director Robert Guédiguian). Another French film, The Day I Saw Your Heart, stars Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Beginners) and Michel Blanc (Monsieur Hire, The Witnesses) as a daughter and father in a contentious relationship. While reviews praise their performances, opinions of the film itself are considerably less enthusiastic. Then the great Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz (The Band'sVisit, Late Marriage) stars in Invisible, about the present-day ramifications of a 1970's serial rapist upon the lives of two women.

In addition to the documentaries in the Jews & Tunes sidebar, I've got my eye on a few others in this year's festival. The most intriguing to me is Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat, in which the filmmaker discovers evidence of familial connections to high-ranking Nazis in his recently deceased grandmother's Tel Aviv apartment. The film won Best Documentary at the Jerusalem Film Festival, an editing prize at Tribeca, and its SFJFF screenings are sponsored by my good friend Michael Ehrenzweig, a longtime supporter of this festival. I'm also hoping to check out Ameer Got His Gun, which profiles a young Arab volunteer who joins the Israeli military, Besa: The Promise, about Albania's role in sheltering Jews during WWII, and The Kingdom of Survival, a discussion of "radical alternative perspectives on the 21st century and the state of democracy in America," featuring interviews with Noam Chomsky and Sasha Lilley.

Finally, there are three films in the SFJFF32 line-up which I've caught at other festivals and all are recommended. Israeli director Eran Kolirin's The Exchange follows up 2007's arthouse charmer The Band's Visit with something considerably more enigmatic. This was one of the more popular films from this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (my capsule review is here). At that same festival I saw Ra'anan Alexandrowicz' Sundance-winning, Errol Morris-influenced documentary The Law in These Parts, which considers every aspect of the separate and unequal laws governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Then from last year's Mill Valley Film Festival there's Restoration, a compelling Israeli drama about efforts to rescue one family's ailing antique furniture restoration business

Friday, July 6, 2012

17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Just four months after blowing everyone away with the awesome spectacle that was Abel Gance's Napoleon, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) returns for its 17th annual event at the Castro Theatre from July 12 to 15. When the line-up was first announced I heard a few people grouse about it having a "greatest hits" vibe. But the reality is only two of this year's 17 programs are repeats – Wings from back in 1999 and Pandora's Box, shown in 2003. Personally, I've never seen any of them on a big screen and am therefore completely psyched. Big Names from the silent era are much in evidence, both in front of the camera (Clara Bow, Emil Jannings, Felix the Cat, Pola Negri, Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks, Roland Colman, Buster Keaton) and behind it (Ernst Lubitsch, Victor Fleming, Georg Wihelm Pabst, Joseph von Sternberg, William A. Wellman). There are several tempting, unfamiliar rarities as well. I searched for films I might skip out on – if only to get a breath of air and a decent meal – but came up empty handed.

An issue that's sure to be a subject of discussion this year – and it's one the festival isn't shying away from – is that of digital exhibition. SFSFF dipped its toe in the digital waters two years ago with the restoration of Metropolis, saying it was the only option available. This year they're wading ankle deep with two DCP presentations, Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharaoh and Wellman's Wings. The latter is SFSFF17's opening night film, which is clearly making a statement. The great digital vs. 35mm divide is also the focus of this year's Amazing Tales from the Archives presentation (see below for details). So no matter which side you're on – if a side needs to be taken at all – there should be plenty here to chew on.

Plain and simple, if you've never attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, you owe yourself the experience of seeing a silent film the way it was meant to be seen, in a landmark 1922 movie palace with accomplished live musical accompaniment. What follows is a stroll through SFSFF17's line-up with some hopefully interesting facts, figures, gossip and trivia – a bit more than what's available on the festival's website and brochure, but considerably less than what we'll find in the scholarly essays that appear in the complementary program guide during the festival.

Thursday, July 12

7:00 P.M. Wings (1927, USA, dir. William A. Wellman)
Until The Artist, this drama about two WWI pilots in love with the same girl was technically the only silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar®, or rather, Most Outstanding Production. While I've never seen Wings, I am familiar with the famously heartbreaking kiss between Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen (both of whom served as pallbearers at the 1965 funeral of Wings co-star Clara Bow). Gary Cooper, who turns up in a supporting role as a doomed pilot, began a much-publicized affair with Bow during the shoot. The film seems best remembered for its aerial stunt photography – with director William Wellman having been hired specifically for his WWI aviator experience. None other than William Wellman Jr., author of "The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture," will introduce this screening. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany, with Ben Burtt providing live Foley effects. Burtt is a nine-time Oscar® nominee for Best Sound/Sound Editing, with wins for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Following the screening, a festive opening night party will be happening at the top-floor loft of The McRoskey Mattress Company.

One of the hottest topics amongst cinephiles this spring was the "This is DCP" series at NYC's Film Forum, where several digitally restored classics, including Five Easy Pieces, The Red Shoes and Rear Window, were screened in DCP, or "digital cinema package" format. The highlight was a comparative 35mm vs. DCP, side-by-side showing of Dr. Strangelove. This series was the undertaking of Grover Crisp, Sony Pictures executive vice president in charge of asset management, film restoration and digital mastering. I'm excited Crisp will be at the Castro performing another side-by-side demonstration for SFSFF audiences. (For an in-depth report on the Film Forum series, check out Miranda Popkey's piece at Capital New York). Also on the program will be Andrea Kalas, vice president of archives at Paramount Pictures, who will discuss the restoration of Wings, which will have opened the festival the previous evening in DCP. Admission is free.

1:00 P.M. Little Toys (1933, China, dir. Sun Yu)
Director Sun Yu is known for a string of socially conscious dramas made in the silent era's twilight years. In 2009 the festival brought us Sun's 1932 Wild Rose and now follows up with this decade-spanning epic about the calamities which befall a rural toymaker during a time of political upheaval. Sun made the movie to rouse nationalism following Japan's invasion of Manchuria. It stars two of China's most popular actresses of the 1930's playing mother/daughter protagonists; Lingyu Ruan (who we saw at two years ago in A Spray of Plum Blossoms) and Li Lili (Wild Rose).

4:00 P.M. The Loves of Pharaoh (1922, Germany, dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
This historical melodrama was Lubitsch's last German production, a Hollywood calling card to prove he could indeed helm large-scale epics boasting 6,000 extras, lavish costumes and gargantuan sets. The great Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel) stars as an Egyptian ruler who spurns an offer of marriage to the Ethiopian king's daughter and thereby ignites a war by choosing the king's beloved slave girl instead. Long considered a lost film, this new digital restoration – assembled from fragments found in far-flung places – was executed by the same company (Alpha Omega GmbH) that resurrected Fritz Lang's complete Metropolis. Ten additional minutes are still thought to be missing. And who best to accompany this grandiose presentation than the incomparable Dennis James on the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer. The photograph below is one of only 17 stunning, high resolution stills from The Loves of Pharaoh to be found on the festival's Press Room page.

7:00 P.M. Mantrap (1926, USA, dir. Victor Fleming)
Clara Bow makes her second appearance at 2012's festival in the film she claimed her personal favorite. Released shortly before It – the movie that gave her a moniker – Bow got rave reviews as the man-eating Minneapolis manicurist who strays from her backwoodsman husband and aims straight for a famous divorce lawyer. The story is adapted from a Sinclair Lewis novel, with Bow's character considerably softened, and the titular Mantrap is actually a Canadian boondocks town where the action is set. Cinematography is by the great DP James Wong Howe and the film's intertitles are said to be quite witty. Mantrap also witnessed the beginning of a hot and heavy affair between Bow and the film's director Victor Fleming, who would of course go on to direct The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Noted film critic Michael Sragow, who wrote "Victor Fleming, an American Movie Master," will introduce the screening. Stephen Horne accompanies on grand piano.

Mantrap will be preceded by Twin Peaks Tunnel, a recently restored short about the construction of one of the world's longest railway tunnels – one that just happens to begin right outside the festival's doorstep. Parts of the film are available to watch on YouTube and there's some terrific footage of Castro and Market Streets circa 1918.

9:15 P.M. The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929, Germany, dir. Hanns Schwarz)
Each year SFSFF engages a contemporary filmmaker to choose a film from the line-up and present it as a Director's Pick – with past pickers ranging from Alexander Payne to Terry Zwigoff. The Bay Area's Philip Kaufman has selected this tale of a St. Petersburg courtesan who leaves her officer lover for the affections of a lowly lieutenant. It's considered the best of Austrian director Hanns Schwarz' 24 films, with one ardent IMDb user gushing "it's more poignant and visually dazzling than Ophuls, more erotic and atmospheric than Sternberg, with a camera more sinuously alive than Murnau or Lang." The film stars Brigitte Helm as Nina Petrovna, two years after her mesmerizing screen debut in Metropolis and one year after starring in Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (SFSFF 2011 Winter Event). Accompaniment will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Saturday, July 14

10:00 A.M. The Irrepressible Felix the Cat! (1924-1928, USA, dir. Otto Messmer & Pat Sullivan)
Felix the Cat was the first cartoon character with a name famous enough to draw people into movie theaters. He was so iconic that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic with a Felix doll and Aldous Huxley wrote the cartoon proved "what the cinema can do better than literature or spoken drama is to be fantastic." These cartoons were also noted for integrating social issues and current events into their storylines. The festival will present seven Felix animated shorts, all but one from his days at the Educational Pictures distribution company. Leonard Maltin and film scholar Russell Merritt will introduce the screenings, which will be accompanied by Donald Sosin and Toychestra, an all-woman experimental music ensemble from Oakland. And remember, as with all SFSFF screenings, children under 10 are admitted free!

12:00 P.M. The Spanish Dancer (1923, USA, dir. Herbert Brenon)
Pola Negri was one of the biggest stars of the silent era and the first European actor to be lured to Hollywood (by Paramount in 1922). Her German mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had been the first European director to cross over. I haven't seen any of her movies so I'm excited to experience this, her third American film and first big spectacle. Based on a Victor Hugo novel, it's the story of a gypsy singer who becomes involved in 17th century Spanish court intrigue. Negri's co-stars include the handsome Antonio Moreno as her lover and Wallace Beery as the King of Spain!? Adolphe Menjou also has a small role. The print we'll be seeing is a new restoration done by the Dutch EYE Film Institute, which also restored last year's Lois Weber film, Shoes. Rob Byrne, who worked on the restoration, will introduce and Donald Sosin accompanies on grand piano.

2:30 P.M. The Canadian (1926, USA, dir. William Beaudine)
This is a remake of a 1917 film, The Land of Promise, which bears the name of the Somerset Maugham play on which both films are based. A destitute woman journeys to the wilds of Canada to live with her brother and then marries a rough homesteader (actor Thomas Meighan, who played the same part in both movies) to evade her sister-in-law's ire. (Yes, it does sound a lot like Lillian Gish's 1928 vehicle The Wind (SFSFF15). Director William Beaudine was known for his efficiency and prolificacy, directing nearly 30 silents. He later became known for making series films like The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys. But for me he's the guy who helmed notorious 1945 sex-ed feature Mom and Dad for exploitation pioneer Kroger Babb. Stephen Horne accompanies on grand piano.

Preceding the screening of The Canadian, the 2012 SF Silent Film Festival Award will be presented to the Telluride Film Festival "for their longtime dedication to the preservation and exhibition of silent film." Fest directors Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger will be there to receive the honor.

5:00 P.M. South (1919, UK, dir. Frank Hurley)
The festival follows last year's The Great White Silence with another Antarctic expedition documentary, South. It's an assemblage of photos and film footage taken by Australian photographer-adventurer Frank Hurley, when he accompanied Ernest Shackleton on that ill-fated trans-Antarctic trip aboard the ship Endurance. These materials exist today only because the intrepid Hurley dove into icy Antarctic waters ("stripped to the waist" as he wrote in his diary) to rescue them from the sinking ship. If you saw the 2000 documentary The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, you've already been exposed to Hurley's work, which is said to have changed expedition photography forever. The festival will screen a new restoration by the British Film Institute with original tints and toning. Actor Paul McGann ("Dr. Who," Withnail & I) will read from Shackleton's letters accompanied by pianist Stephen Horne.

7:00 P.M. Pandora's Box (1929, USA, dir. Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Of all the programs in this year's festival, this tops my list – a new frame-by-frame restoration of one of the great films of all time, starring iconic Louise Brooks as cinema's quintessential femme fatale. I'm embarrassed that I've never seen it on a big screen, but am happy I've saved the experience for this opportune moment. Diary of a Lost Girl (1928), another memorable Pabst/Brooks collaboration, played the festival two years ago. This new restoration – paid for by good old Hugh Hefner – was produced by San Francisco-based Angela Holm and David Ferguson, who will introduce the film with some on-screen 'before and after' comparisons. Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble will provide accompaniment for this, the festival's 2012 Centerpiece Presentation.

10:00 P.M. The Overcoat (1926, USSR, dir. Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg)
It's become a SFSFF tradition to reserve Saturday's final screening as a Late Show slot for silent cinema's off-kilter output. Past selections have included Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, Aelita, Queen of Mars and a trio of Tod Browing/Lon Chaney collaborations (West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, The Unknown). This year's unsettling oddity is an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's most famous short story about the repercussions of a lowly office worker's obsession with obtaining a new overcoat. An acquaintance who attends the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrote me that it's "a real jaw-dropper" and said people came out of the screening "completely mind-blown." I recently watched it on YouTube in the hopes of being disappointed – an early evening might have been nice, but nothing doing. This should be excellent and I can only imagine what the Alloy Orchestra has cooked up in the way of a score.

Sunday, July 15

10:00 A.M. The Mark of Zorro (1920, USA, dir. Fred Niblo)
This is a movie I've wanted to see for ages and I'm surprised the festival has never shown it. Based on Johnston McCulley's 1919 short story "The Curse of Capistrano," the film was Hollywood's first big swashbuckler and made Douglas Fairbanks a bigger star than he already was. He had a hand in writing the script and was responsible for coming up with that unmistakable Zorro "look." It was released the same year Fairbanks married Mary Pickford and was the debut release of United Artists, the company he co-founded with Pickford, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Director Fred Niblo would later work with Ramon Navarro in Ben Hur and Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand. Be on the lookout for 12-year-old Milton Berle in the uncredited role as "Boy." Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer would seem the perfect choice for accompaniment. And once again, kids under 10 are admitted free!

12:00 P.M. The Docks of New York (1928, USA, dir. Josef von Sternberg)
No less than renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow considers this von Sternberg's finest film, which was released one year before he'd depart for Germany to make The Blue Angel. It's also his last silent film – excepting1929's The Case of Lena Smith which is lost – and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990. Betty Compson, a major silent star largely forgotten today, plays a prostitute who gets involved with the sailor (George Bancroft) who rescues her from a suicidal drowning. The film is by all accounts visually stunning, with an unsentimental and non-judgmental mindset towards its characters. I'm especially interested in seeing Olga Baclanova, best known as Cleopatra the trapeze artist in Tod Browning's Freaks, in a supporting role as the sailor's wronged wife. The intertitles are supposed to be something else. A wedding scene carries one that reads, "If any of you eggs know why these heels shouldn't get hitched, speak now or forever hold your trap." Donald Sosin will provide accompaniment on the grand piano.

2:00 P.M. Erotikon (1920, Sweden, dir. Mauritz Stiller)
Don't confuse this with Gustav Machatý's 1929 Czech film of the same title which played the festival three years ago. Stiller's Erotikon is a drawing room comedy about an entomologist studying the sex life of bugs. He has a mutual infatuation with his niece and a free-wheeling wife who's juggling the affections of a sculptor and an aviator. Detached and observational, the film is noted for its complete lack of moral judgment, unlike Hollywood films of the period. It sounds like a major highlight is the opera scene, with a half naked "Queen of the Shah" writhing lubriciously on a stage set worth of Busby Berkeley. Five years after Erotikon, Stiller would set sail for America with a little known actress he had discovered and given the name Greta Garbo. The Matti Bye Ensemble, who accompanied Stiller's The Blizzard at last year's festival, will repeat that honor for Erotikon.

4:30 P.M. Stella Dallas (1925, USA, dir. Henry King)
I knew the name Stella Dallas growing up because whenever I'd complain about how tough life was, one or both parents would respond, "Kid, you've got more problems than Stella Dallas." Oddly, I never sought out the famous 1937 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle – or the 18-years-running radio serial or Bette Midler's 1990 remake – so this will be my first exposure to the ultimate tale of maternal self sacrifice based on Olive Higgins Prouty's 1923 novel. The film was Belle Bennett's big break, as she was chosen over 73 other actresses by Samuel Goldwyn. Tragically, her 16-year-old son, whom she'd been passing off as her "brother" to hide her age from Hollywood producers, died during the production. The film co-stars Ronald Colman as Stella's wealthy husband, reuniting the actor with Henry King, who had directed his first Hollywood starring role (1923's The White Sister.) Also making an appearance is 16-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in his fourth screen appearance. Czar of Noir City Eddie Muller will provide one of his customarily entertaining introductions, and Stephen Horne will accompany the film on grand piano.

7:30 P.M. The Cameraman (1928, USA, dir. Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton)
The festival ends with what many consider Buster Keaton's final masterpiece. It was his first film for MGM (a move he'd later call "the worst mistake of my career") and never again would he possess the independence and control necessary to create films worthy of his talents. Shot on both NYC locations and Hollywood sets, the film stars Keaton as accidental news photographer who becomes embroiled in Chinatown Tong Wars. Highlights include a hilarious sequence shot at a public swimming pool and one of film history's best performances by a monkey. The Cameraman was considered lost until an entire print was discovered in Paris in 1968. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany the film, with introductions by Leonard Maltin and SFSFF board member Frank Buxton, who was an acquaintance of Keaton.

Prior to The Cameraman, the Bay Area will finally get to see the most recent restoration of George Méliès' beloved 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon, which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. In 1993, a hand-colored print of the film was discovered at the Filmoteca de Catalunya in a state of almost total decomposition. Restoration began in 1999 and took over 10 years to complete. Actor Paul McGann will be on hand to read the film's narration and Stephen Horne will accompany on grand piano.

Cross published on The Evening Class.