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.