Monday, May 7, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Festival Wrap-Up

The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF55) drew to a close Thursday night and during its 15 days I caught 38 screenings and programs. I wrote about the festival's first week in a series of three diary entries. Now here's a look at some highlights of week two.

When I first learned that the Closing Night film would be a documentary about the band Journey and their new lead singer, I thought, here's something I can skip because I've never been a fan. But the festival programmers kept hyping the event and boasting how all the members of Journey would be at the Castro Theatre. I sensed this was something I shouldn't miss and boy, am I happy I didn't. First, I really liked the film (Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey), a true rock n' roll fairy tale about how a Filipino cover band singer – one who slept in Manila parks as a teen – was discovered on YouTube by Journey guitarist Neal Schon and not only became the band's lead singer, but reinvigorated their career as well. The sold-out Castro was stuffed with diehard Journey fans and Bay Area Filipinos out to support their homeboy, Arnel Pineda. I got caught up in the enthusiasm from my third row seat, especially when director Ramona S. Diaz and Journey took to the stage for a rollicking Q&A and the diminutive Pineda accommodated a request to sing a capella with that gorgeously gargantuan voice of his. Truly one of the most memorable nights I've experienced in 36 years of attending the festival.

While the bulk of SFIFF takes place in San Francisco's Japantown, I'll look for any good excuse to spend time in the Castro Theatre. I regrettably missed the Judy Davis and Kenneth Branagh tributes, but I did work in a Castro triple-bill on Saturday, April 28, which started with France's "Man of Cinema," Pierre Rissient, receiving the festival's Mel Novikoff Award. Due to Rissient's accent and the Castro's acoustics, I had difficulty understanding much of the on-stage conversation. I did take away that he's responsible for introducing Philippines director Lino Brocka to the international cinema stage and for that alone I'm filled with awe and respect. During the Q&A someone asked Rissient if there were any films that are undeserving of inclusion in "the canon." He replied, "I will probably make some people scream with this answer, but Vertigo and the works of Michelangelo Antonioni." Sure enough, a blood-curdling scream arose from the back of the theater. I then napped through much of Fritz Lang's 1950 film noir House by the River, the film chosen by Rissient, which was shown in a disappointing digital projection. Interestingly, Rissient more or less stated during the program that he has no problem with cinema's march towards digital exhibition.

After a short break I was back inside the Castro for a packed screening of Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt. Val Kilmer, in town earlier in the festival for The Fourth Dimension, stars as a "bargain basement Stephen King" who becomes embroiled in a small town murder mystery, along with a demented sheriff played by Bruce Dern. I was completely wowed by the first half hour, which is delicious and pulpy fun abetted by wonderful art direction and gorgeously atmospheric cinematography. While the visual delights never let up, the story itself sinks into convoluted mumbo jumbo involving Edgar Allen Poe and gang of Goths. The film has a pair of 3-D sequences which are pretty negligible, the first of which arrives an hour in. What's really clever is how the film alerts the audience to don their 3-D glasses. Kilmer's character is haunted by his teenage daughter's death in a speedboat accident, and it's not until the film is over that I remember Coppola's own 1986 tragedy involving son Gian-Carlo. As the end credits rolled, it became apparent that many people who worked on the film were in the house. Scattered bursts of applause rang out until the very last name disappeared off the screen. Three of the film's supporting actors were brought on-stage for a Q&A, including Don "Father Guido Sarducci" Novello, and they all agreed that the movie we just watched was funnier and bloodier than an earlier version Coppola screened for them.

I was back outside waiting in line for SFIFF's late night screening of Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia, when two dozen motor-scooters came roaring up and parked side by side in front of the Castro Theatre. Some riders were dressed in period costume. It was a drunk and rowdy crowd that turned out for this revival of The Who's second filmed rock opera, set during the Brighton riots of the early sixties. Rockers in the audience booed and hissed the Mods when they were on screen and vice versa, while others sang along with The Who's rock anthems. I hadn't seen Quadrophenia since it first came out in 1979 and was thrilled to be watching a new 35mm print that had only been projected three times before. And the thing that impressed me most 33 years ago is what grabbed me this time as well – Sting, in a near wordless performance as the king of the Mods, would never again be anywhere near this cool. Thanks to the nap I took during The House by the River, I managed to stay awake until the bitter end at 12:30 a.m.

I missed the secret 10 a.m. SFFS members only screening the following morning (it was Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts), but felt refreshed enough to take on Sunday's back-to-back Dreileben Trilogy from Germany. These made-for-TV films were done by different directors working in different styles, all loosely riffing on a story about an escaped psycho-killer in former East Germany. First up was Christian Petzold's moody and ominous Beats Being Dead, about the blossoming relationship between a young hospital attendant and a Bosnian hotel maid. Most of my festival friends thought this was the strongest film in the trilogy, but I found it too full of implausibles and the tempestuousness of young romance. That said, it contained perhaps my favorite scene of the entire festival, in which the young lovers slow dance to Julie London's "Cry Me a River" while the boy softly whispers translated German lyrics into the girl's ear. Next came Dominik Graf's Don't Follow Me Around. A visiting police psychologist stays in a dilapidated country mansion with a college girlfriend and her novelist husband. They talk, talk, talk while consuming much wine and smoking many cigarettes. It has its moments, for sure, but in the end my vote went to the intense manhunt and psychological thrills of Christoph Hochhäusler's One Minute of Darkness, in which we finally become acquainted with the killer (a riveting performance by Stefan Kurt) as he's pursued by the police.

Each year SFIFF screens a number of films that will soon open in local cinemas. This year's line-up contained at least two dozen titles that will a have Bay Area release between now and the end of summer. It's a programming practice for which I have mixed feelings, as I'd rather spend my festival time watching films I might never see otherwise. Where the practice is completely justified is when the festival lures a film's director, actors or other talent to provide added value. SFIFF55 appeared to bring in more special guests than usual for those soon-to-be-released films, as evidenced by the screenings I attended during the festival's second half. Live-wire Marjane Satrapi provided one of the most wildly entertaining Q&As I've ever witnessed for her new film, Chicken with Plums, even pulling off a hilarious pro-smoking rant in rabidly anti-smoking San Francisco. As for the film itself, I was thoroughly charmed by the use of artifice (pre-revolution Iran created in a German film studio) to tell a time-shifting tale of one man's heartbreak.

Other filmmakers of note with movies to promote included Jay Duplass, sans brother Mark, in town for a woefully under-attended screening of sibling rivalry in extremis comedy The Do-Deca Pentathlon. At the screening, which was also graced by the presence of lead actors Steve Zissis and Jennifer Lafleur, Duplass intro'd the movie by calling it, "the most ridiculous and preposterous of our movies, but also the most truthful." On another night, I was pleased to see directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano present for a sold-out screening of French mega-box office sensation The Intouchables. Unfortunately, a digital projection snafu (one of several during the fest) prevented the movie from being seen with English subtitles. After a 45-minute wait for the problem to be rectified, audience members were given the option to stay or obtain a refund. Surprisingly, the majority chose to stay. I knew enough French to follow along and the film was exactly what I expected – an amicably middling culture clash comedy. It went on to win SFIFF55's Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, cementing my belief that such awards sometimes serve best as a red flags.

Later that same evening I was surprised to see director Julia Loktev at my screening of The Loneliest Planet, given that she wasn't anywhere on the festival's official "Guests Expected" list. Her film follows a soon-to-be-married couple as they hike with a local guide through the Caucuses Mountains. After an hour's worth of hiking and more hiking, a dramatic "incident" occurs and we spend the film's remainder witnessing the resultant emotional and physical distance this causes – as well as watching a lot more hiking. I liked the film well enough, even though it occasionally felt belabored and tedious given the limited scope of its ideas. I was also disappointed in the digital projection – the least attractive I saw during the festival – which rendered the staggering beauty of the mountain scenery in flat, washed-out images. Loktev spent much of the Q&A justifying her decision not to use subtitles during the crucial "incident" scene. Finally, I also caught a screening of Cannes Jury Prize winner Polisse, attended by its director/co-star Maïwenn, which follows a group of Parisian Child Protection Unit cops as they go about their professional and personal business. It's a film I found so completely false, exploitative and all-around loathsome, I'll deal with it in a separate blog post, if at all. Apologies are extended to friends who've already suffered my vituperative rantings on this one.

I generally forego documentaries during this festival, especially those tackling social-issues, in favor of narrative features. This isn't easy to do considering docs now occupy one-third of SFIFF's line-up. But one day I surprised myself by scheduling three such non-fiction films in a row. Ra'anan Alexandrowicz' Sundance-winning The Law in These Parts, which considers every aspect of the separate and unequal laws governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, reminded me of Errol Morris' work. We watch as a succession of military judges are seated at an elevated desk and then interviewed, while archival footage is projected on a green screen in the background. In his Q&A the filmmaker revealed that he originally wanted to make the film exclusively from archival materials and realized it wouldn't work, and that more than half the judges in the film are now unhappy they participated.

My day of documentaries continued with Peter Nick's The Waiting Room, an extremely compelling look at the compassionate staff and (mostly uninsured) patients of Oakland's public Highland Hospital ER. The film rightfully won the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary Feature as well as the festival's documentary Audience Award (thereby negating everything I said earlier about audience awards serving as red flags). I was fortunate enough to have chosen the festival's biggest screening of The Waiting Room, which was attended by hundreds of healthcare professionals and the film's entire crew. A spirited standing ovation greeted the on-stage arrival of Admitting Clerk Cynthia "CJ" Johnson, whose beautifully oversized personality holds both the ER and this film together.

I finished out Doc Day with Kirby Dick's The Invisible War, an outrageous and appalling exposé of the systematic rape that exists within the U.S. military. It's a rather static, talking-heads style documentary, but powerful nonetheless. I spent most of the film jotting down the shocking statistics it presents, all of which were taken from U.S. government studies: Over 20 percent of women and one percent of men in the American armed forces are sexually assaulted. In the Navy, 15 percent of male recruits had attempted or committed rape before signing up. Forty percent of homeless female veterans were raped while in the military. And perhaps most shocking of all, 25 percent of women didn't report a rape because the person of authority was the rapist himself. Unfortunately, director Dick had already left town by the time I saw this late in the festival.

Finally, a few miscellaneous notes on some remaining films I saw during SFIFF55's second half. I spent much of Cai Shangjun's brotherly revenge tale, People Mountain, People Sea, in an exasperating state of confusion, especially in the lead-up to its jaw-droppingly spectacular climax. Fortunately, the man sitting beside me at my next screening gave me his take and it sort of made sense. At that movie, Craig Zobel's Compliance, a third of the audience walked out by the mid-way point. I considered walking out, too, knowing the story had only one place to go and indeed, that's exactly where it went. If the walkouts had stayed, they would have learned that the unbelievably sheep-like behavior of movie's characters was based on over 70 real-life incidents that occurred in 34 states.

I'm not exactly sure I got the point of Delphine and Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls, about a French high school's pregnancy epidemic (based on events that actually took place in Massachusetts in 2008). I only know that when it ended I was more than ready for the testosterone of Navad Lapid's Policeman, which inventively contrasts a macho squad of counterterrorism police with a group of revolutionaries plotting a high-profile kidnapping. Director Lapid, who would go on to win the festival's New Directors Prize, explained he was trying to reveal the current state of the collective Israeli soul. That film was immediately followed by Andrea Arnold's revisionist take on Wuthering Heights, which sports a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, handheld camera work, use of natural light, no musical score and lots of close-ups of "nature" (you leave seriously doubting that animals weren't harmed in the production). Heathcliff is a former Afro-Caribbean slave who says things like, "Fuck you all, cunts!" I was quite engaged by the film's first half, at which point the two young actors were replaced by older actors and the entire proceeding becomes interminable. I then scooted off to my last regular screening of the festival, Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet's lovely and disarming documentary Only the Young. If I had to name one SFIFF55 selection as my "surprise" of the festival, it would be this story of friendship between two goofy and charismatic Southern California Christian teenage skater dudes, both of whom attended the screening.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

SFIFF55 2012 Festival Diary III


Sunday, April 22

Traffic is hellish on the streets surrounding Japantown, with Post Street blocked off for the final events of this year's Cherry Blossom Festival. I get off the bus early and walk to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, so as not to be late for my first program of the day, Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award: Barbara Kopple. As explained by SFFS Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, the award honors "the world outside of narrative features," and famed documentary filmmaker Kopple accepts the prize, declaring, "Persistence. I love that word! It's so crucial to the work we do." She dedicates her P.O.V. Award to three people we've recently lost: war correspondent Marie Colvin, former SF Film Society Executive Director Bingham Ray and Hazel Dickens, the folksinger whose songs play such a vital role in Kopple's Harlan County, USA. and who has passed away earlier in the day. In a break from tradition, Kopple's Oscar® winning 1976 breakthrough film screens before her on-stage interview, not after.

Documentary filmmaker and 2012 Persistence of Vision Award winner Barbara Kopple in (brief) conversation with Jon Else (photo by Tommy Lau)

As luck would have it, Brian Darr at Hell of Frisco Bay has recently posted a marvelous essay on the film, and I have just enough time to read it on my phone while waiting for the show to begin. It adds immeasurably to my appreciation of a work I haven't seen in 35 years, being shown here at the festival in a glorious 35mm print taken from a 2004 restoration. After the screening we're treated to a clips reel of career highlights. Then minutes into Kopple's on-stage interview with documentarian (and former P.O.V. Award winner) Jon Else, the fire alarms go off and the entire building that's packed with festival attendees has to be evacuated onto Post Street, which fortunately is still closed off to traffic. Several fire engines arrive and I never find out what the problem is. The festival staff and volunteers do an incredible job of keeping chaos to a minimum and we're back inside within 20 minutes. Regrettably, it's too late to resume Kopple's interview, so I get in line for my next movie.

Festival attendees spill out onto Post Street when the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas fire alarms go off during a busy Sunday afternoon (photo by Tommy Lau)

Despite a reticence towards films about Africa made by non-African filmmakers, I check out Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness based on the Best Director Silver Bear it won at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival. It's a fortuitous choice as I'm completely taken by this moody and menacing parable about the diminishing returns of post-colonial foreign aid (a theme Ousmane Sembene explored in a completely different way in 1993's Guelwaar). In the first half of the film's bifurcated structure, an arrogant German doctor prepares his return to Europe after years spent working in the Cameroons. Three years later, a European-born, ethnically African doctor arrives to evaluate a medical clinic that has outlived its usefulness. It's being run by the same German doctor, who never left Africa and is now exhibiting shades of Kurtz from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Köhler's climactic set-piece is a nerve-wracking, nocturnal jungle hunt, which I'm grateful to be watching in 35mm, given digital's limited capability for rendering darkness.

It's a jarring transition from deepest Africa to the bloated heart of American consumerism as displayed in Lauren Greenfield's documentary The Queen of Versailles. Ostentatious barely begins to describe the lifestyle of Time-share King David Siegel, trophy wife Jackie and their brood of eight, for whom construction has begun on a 90,000 square foot house that will contain 30 bathrooms and 18 kitchens. In a story arc not anticipated by the filmmaker, the banking crisis puts a kibosh on their dream and we watch as they cut back in living large. Whenever I begin to feel sympathy for their plight, I think back to the film's beginning where Florida resident Siegel brags how he "personally got George W. Bush elected president" in 2000 and declines to say how because "it probably wasn't legal." Director Greenfield is on hand to provide anecdotes about her time spent filming the Siegels.

Monday, April 23

I pass on an afternoon screening of Hirokazu Kore-eda's new film I Wish in order to do some writing. The director's not attending the festival as he did with his two previous films, and I know his latest will open at a Landmark Theater on June 1. Comes evening I head down to the Castro Theater for Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) with Buster Keaton Shorts, which is this year's SFIFF combination of silent cinema paired with a live rock music score. Purists consider this very concept an abomination, but I'm always game and frequently thrilled by the results. (Don't tell anyone, but I even loved Giovanni Spinelli's much-maligned solo electric guitar accompaniment to Murnau's Sunrise that was performed at last year's SF Silent Film Festival – an event that was, incidentally, co-sponsored by the SF Film Society).

Merrill Garbus, Ava Mendoza and members of tUnE-yArDs perform beneath the Castro Theatre screen, accompanying four Buster Keaton short films (photo by Pamela Gentile)

As a 58-year-old who proudly struggles to keep up with current "alternative" music, I'm actually familiar with both tUnE-yArDs and "whokill," the 2011 album that topped the Village Voice's annual Pazz + Jop Poll. Judging by the crowd, it's fans and not regular SFIFF attendees who have sold out the 1400-seat Castro. Garbus, assembled on-stage with her band and guest guitar virtuoso Ava Mendoza, faces the screen and simply states by way of introduction, "You guys get to look at our behinds." Then the screen lights up with Buster Keaton's One Week, and the joyful onslaught begins. Encompassing everything from pounding percussion to squawking jazz riffs, chugging funk, surf guitar and pygmy-like vocal loops, the music aligns brilliantly with Keaton's on-screen antics over the course of four short films (which also includes The Haunted House and Fatty Arbuckle-starring Good Night, Nurse! and The Cook). The audience, 90 percent of whom I'd wager has never experienced silent film in a theater, roar their approval when it's all over. Along with 2010's SFIFF combo of band Dengue Fever and dinosaur movie The Lost World, I'd say this is one of the most artistically successful projects in this series, which is the brainchild of SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara. Fortunately for those who weren't there, a taste is available on Vimeo, where the SFFS has posted a 2 1/2 minute sampling

(Photo by Laura Gentile)