Wednesday, May 15, 2013

SFIFF56 2013 Wrap-Up Week Two

A most memorable 56th San Francisco International Film Festival ended last week after having presented 158 films from 51 countries spread out over 15 days and 263 screenings – 144 of them sell outs. Here are some thoughts on what I saw the second week of the festival, in the order I saw them. (Week one can be found here).

Everyday Objects
In Nicolas Wackerbarth's prickly and detached second feature, a German woman arrives at a French Mediterranean resort to meet up with her lover. She soon learns he had to leave town unexpectedly, forcing her to share a roof with his petulant children while waiting. She puts up with the town's hostile dogs and condescending shopkeepers as well. I was fully engaged in this wry vision of alienation until it felt like the director was artificially stacking the deck against his protagonist. I completely lost interest somewhere around the pube-trimming scene. The film's blah ending seemed to scream, "so what, who cares?"

La Sirga
This was one of two Latin American films I saw with a strong female character in an aquatic locale, in this case a mountain lake high in the Colombian Andes. In William Vega's austere and transfixing debut film, a young woman flees from a village massacre to her uncle's ramshackle homestead, a lakefront guesthouse being fixed up for tourists who are unlikely to come given the region's political instability. Vega inserts sexual tension and the possibility of romance into his vision, along with ethnographic details such as talk of mountain elves, a drunken jam session and scorpion-marinated water which the uncle rubs on his body at bedtime. What I'll probably remember most about La Sirga, however, is its infuriatingly vague ending in which an important character appears to have been killed, but without a clue as to why or by whom.

I had fairly low expectations for this semi-autobiographical film about a girl's transformation during the fatal illness of her famous film director father. But first-time director Justine Malle, daughter of Louis, has produced a memorably bittersweet film that could promise great things ahead. Esther Garrel, daughter of director Philippe and sibling of actor Louis (with whom she shares hangdog eyes and prominent nose), is almost too good as the self-absorbed and overly sensitive college-age teen navigating her way into adulthood.

Computer Chess
Despite walking into this movie totally unnerved – the screening next door was the controversial late-term abortion doc After Tiller and every ticketholder has to pass through airport-like security – I still managed to sleep through much of this new film from mumblecore progenitor Andrew Bujalski. Was it the film's grainy B&W, low-fi look, achieved from a 60's era Portapak videocam, or perhaps the deadpan humor that fell flat as often as not? Should I want to give Computer Chess another chance, and another chance I think it deserves, I can revisit this 1980-set comedy about nerds attending a computer chess convention when Landmark Theatres opens the film locally on July 26.

Inequality for All
SFIFF56's Centerpiece Film was this cogent documentary about our nation's widening economic disparity. The film "stars" and is narrated by charismatic ex-U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, whose UC Berkeley lectures, accompanied by some of the most inventive and effective graphics I've ever seen in a documentary, are used as a framing device. Both Reich and director Josh Kornbluth were on hand for a Q&A. I enjoyed Kornbluth's response to a question about the film not showing "both sides" of the issue. He replied that sometimes – as with science vs. creationism – facts are facts and there isn't a second side worthy of discussion.

Mai Morire
Enrique Rivero's second feature was one of my top films of the festival and the second Latin American film to feature a strong female protagonist in an aquatic setting, this time the canals of Mexico City's suburb of Xochimilco. Stunning widescreen visuals, ethereal landscapes, disturbing dream sequences, gentle humor, ethnographic details and leisurely pacing are all employed to tell this story of an independent woman who returns home to care for her dying 99-year-old grandmother.

No More Road Trips?
Film archivist Rick Prelinger presented a work-in-progress screening of his newest creation, an assemblage of home movies taken of Americans on the open road. The titular question mark derives from Prelinger's supposition that the high cost of gas has put an end to the notion of cross-country road travel. While the film contained much that was memorable – Yellowstone bears, a retracing of JFK's Dallas assassination route, atomic clouds back-dropping a 1958 drive through Las Vegas – there was overall too much generic road footage and not enough moments of human interest. This film was screened silently, but audience members were encouraged to provide a "soundtrack." The result was a lot of onomatopoeia and people indentifying makes of cars.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The occasion for screening this 1978 sci-fi classic was the festival's handing of 2013's Founder's Directing Award to Bay Area filmmaker Philip Kaufman. Following a clips real, the director was interviewed by film writer Annette Insdorf (author of a 2012 Contemporary Film Directors edition on Kaufman), who claimed him as her favorite American director because of his non-auteurist approach to movie-making ("He's more interested in telling a good story"). This was my first time seeing a Castro Theatre on-stage interview projected on the big screen and it was a little disconcerting. I admire Kaufman well enough, but I was really there for a Body Snatchers nostalgia trip. The film was shot in San Francisco just two years after I'd moved here and it was a thrill to catch things like Woolworths on the corner of Powell and Market. I hadn't seen the film since its initial release and forgot how incredibly suspenseful it is. I only regret that the fest was unable to rustle up a 35mm print and resorted to a less than optimal Blu-ray projection. Finally, to my great astonishment, I watched as a Castro staff member scolded a director with a film in this year's festival – he was sitting across the aisle from me – for recording Invasion of the Body Snatchers with his cell phone camera. I kid you not.

The Search for Emak Bakia
This was at great year for documentaries at SFIFF and Oskar Alegria's whimsical, free-form search for the reason artist Man Ray named his 1926 experimental film Emak Bakia, was a favorite. A Basque phrase meaning "leave me alone," Emak Bakia goes down some delightfully screwy paths before arriving at the truth – it was the name of a Biarritz seaside mansion where Ray stayed during filming. That discovery, however, only leads down more byways – one of which involves an old Romanian princess – before reaching the end of this poetic and endlessly fascinating work of non-fiction filmmaking.

Crystal Fairy
My 2013 SFIFF ended on a high note with this screamingly funny and ultimately touching new work from favorite Latin American filmmaker, Sebastián Silva (The Maid, Old Cats). Michael Cera, of all people, stars as an obnoxious American putz who drags three hapless Chilean brothers (played by the director's own siblings) plus an intense American neo-hippie named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), on a quest for a hallucinatory cactus plant in the desert region of Northern Chile. Both Silva and Cera were onstage for a rollicking Q&A afterwards, in which it was revealed that: the film is an "85 percent true story" based on Silva's experiences with an actual San Francisco woman named Crystal Fairy, it was conceived in one week of pre-production and shot in 12 days, and yes, they did all ingest the psychedelic cactus pureé we see being cooked in the movie. Best of all, it was announced that Silva will be returning to San Francisco in December for an Artist in Residency program with the SF Film Society.

In addition to the 24 programs I saw during SFIFF56, I squeezed in another three films via DVD screener. Dan Krauss' tragic The Kill Team, tells the story of young military whistleblower Adam Winfield, whose failure to immediately report "scenarios" in which American soldiers got away with killing innocent Afghans, resulted in three years of prison and a bad conduct discharge. The film won the festival's Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Feature Documentary. Next, after hearing many terrific reports about Kenji Uchida's Key of Life, I felt compelled to check it out. This meticulously constructed social comedy about a suicidal slacker and Yakuza hitman who inadvertently switch lives is indeed a near-flawless work, although I might argue with the festival's categorization of it as a "screwball comedy." Finally, in Present Tense, Belmin Söylemez' deadly dull drama about living life in state of abeyance, a young Turkish woman works as a café fortune teller while futilely planning a move to the U.S. It's the kind of film that makes me wish the festival didn't devote an entire third of its line-up each year to the works of novice directors. But what the hell do I know? Present Tense ended up winning SFIFF56's New Directors Prize and the $15,000 cash prize that goes with it.

SFIFF56 2013 Wrap-Up Week One

A most memorable 56th San Francisco International Film Festival ended last week after having presented 158 films from 51 countries spread out over 15 days and 263 screenings – 144 of them sell outs. Here are some thoughts on what I saw the first week of the festival, in the order I saw them. (Week two can be found here).

The Artist and the Model
The first regular screening of SFIFF56 was a preview of what would bedevil the festival throughout its first weekend – movies not screening properly because the coded "key" used to "unlock" DCP files for a specific time and theater refused to cooperate, especially when it came to the display of subtitles. Fortunately, my French and Spanish comprehension were adequate enough to enjoy Fernando Trueba's B&W tale of an aging artist (Jean Rochefort) and his young model, which is set against a political backdrop of Nazis and Spanish partisans. Claudia Cardinale plays the artist's wife and original muse, never looking more radiant than she does now at 78. It was also fun to see Spanish character actress Chus Lampreave (the old lady in Almodóvar's movies with the thick glasses) as the meddlesome maid.

In this radically experimental, narration-less documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, the viewer spends one trippy, churning night aboard a North Atlantic fishing trawler. The visuals are grainy and candy-colored, and the hand-held camera work so disorienting there are times you can only guess at what you might be watching. Leviathan inspired more audience walkouts than any other film I saw at the festival. I would be alternately bored and then blasted awake by images of starfish showers, hovering birds illuminated against a black night sky and live skates being hacked in two by machete-wielding boatsmen. Visceral, fantastic, unforgettable.

State of Cinema Address
Steven Soderbergh's delivery of the 10th annual State of Cinema Address was the first SFIFF56 program to sell out. I arrived early and grabbed a front row seat in front of the podium, where I sat captivated for the next 40-minutes. Despite Executive Director Ted Hope's advisory that the address not be recorded, a sound file was leaked to Indiewire, thereby prompting the SF Film Society to post a video of the entire speech originally meant for archival purposes only.

The Pirogue
For some years now, SFIFF has come up short when it comes to programming sub-Saharan African stories that are directed by the region's own filmmakers. I therefore jumped at the chance to catch Senegalese director Moussa Torré's harrowing saga of 30 disparate West Africans journeying to Spain in a wooden boat. The film was effective and engaging, if occasionally stilted, with a storm-at-sea sequence every bit as intense and terrifying as something Hollywood could produce.

Something in the Air
Acclaimed French director Olivier Assayas and I are one year apart in age, which could explain why I was so affected by this wistful, semi-autobiographical look back at radicalized European youth of the early 70's. This may have been my most "perfect" film of the festival and I'll likely see it again when it opens at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas this Friday. Extra points are given for including Captain Beefheart and The Incredible String Band on the soundtrack.

The Act of Killing
Along with Leviathan, this was one of two SFIFF56 entries that appeared on my 20-film wish list for this year's festival. In Joshua Oppenheimer's unclassifiable documentary, Indonesian paramilitary death squad leaders who were responsible for the slaughter of over a million so-called "communists" in the mid-60's, eagerly and shamelessly re-enact their crimes in the style of Hollywood genres, including, of all things, a musical. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. You won't want to miss this when it opens at a local Landmark Theatre on August 9.

Despite my initial enthusiasm for seeing this 1971 Iranian social comedy recently restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, lack of sleep plus a warm theater plus a rambling storyline all conspired to ensure that I "watched" a good third of this movie with my eyes closed. Because I had to rush off to my next film, I missed the Q&A with director Bahram Beyzaie, but was later told he gave elusive and unforthcoming answers to the audience's questions.

Twenty Feet from Stardom
It came as little surprise when Morgan Neville's rousing and inspirational look at the world of background singers won the festival's Audience Award for Best Documentary. I admired the artful flourishes which elevated the film above your standard, talking-heads-and-archival-footage doc. One highlight is singer Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger recalling the fateful night in 1969 when a fur coat and hair curler-clad Clayton was tossed into a taxi at 4 a.m. and sent to record her legendary vocals on the Stones' track, "Gimme Shelter." Speaking of Clayton, I regrettably missed the screening two days earlier, when she and Tata Vega performed a live mini-concert in the Kabuki Cinema's House One. I did, however, track her down earlier in the evening and she autographed my vinyl copy of her 1971 self-titled solo LP. Festival memories are made of this.

Museum Hours
SFIFF56 Persistence of Vision Award winner Jeb Cohen's Museum Hours was my favorite of all of the films I previewed prior to the festival (my review is here). I attended this awards program to learn about rest of his oeuvre, as well as revisit this marvelous film on a big screen with an audience. The 45-minute interview between the equally soft-spoken Cohen and Pacific Film Archive programmer Steve Seid revealed a career spent making films that don't require "taking meetings," meaning that alas, very few are readily available to watch, even on-line. Favorite quote of the evening: "Film festivals? We would be in seriously deep shit without them."

This zingy French bonbon with the self-fulfilling title would go on to win SFIFF56's Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. While I found it wholly enjoyable, I disagree with critics who consider it the Second Coming of Tashlin. Set in the 1950's world of secretarial speed-typing competitions, Populaire's costume design and art direction are upfront and flawless, as is Déborah François' performance as the wannabe secretary from the sticks. Romain Duris, however, is weirdly priggish and unlikable for a period rom-com leading man. First time director Régis Roinsard was on hand for a Q&A, in which he revealed that François did indeed learn to type that fast for her role – no stunt doubles here. Populaire opens at a local Landmark Theatre on September 13, and it will be interesting to see if distributor The Weinstein Company excises a fairly racy sex scene from what is otherwise G-rated fare.

Nights with Theodore
My encounters with eventual festival award winners continued with Sébastien Betbeder's 67-minute made-for-French-TV movie, which took the SFIFF56 FIPRESCI prize. Both wondrous and charming, it combines a fictional narrative about a young couple spending clandestine nights in Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, along with documentary footage about the park's history and reputation for having mystical powers. Unfortunately, some heavy-handed owl symbolism early on is actuated in the film's clunky final act. Pio Marmaï (Living on Love Alone, SFIFF54) again proves himself one of Europe's most watchable young actors.

Night Across the Street
I sheepishly confess to the personal shortcoming of never having grooved with the complex, playful and enigmatic works of Chilean-born auteur Raúl Ruiz, including his 2010 magnum opus Mysteries of Lisbon. I also failed to embrace this, his final completed film.

Stories We Tell
The reviews for Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley's first foray into documentary filmmaking were so ecstatic, I doubted her film could live up to the hype. It's a pleasure to report that this heartbreaking and humorous inquiry into family secrets and the unreliability of memory, specifically Polley's vivacious mother Diane and the mystery of parentage she left behind, is everything it's been cracked up to be. My only regret is that I missed the SFIFF56 screening at which Polley was present. The film opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 17.

I knew going into Kiyoshi Kurosawa's five-episode, five-hour TV mini-series that I only had time to see half of it, figuring I could catch the rest on DVD screener if I got sufficiently hooked. That didn't happen. But there was a sequence in episode two where a young female teacher uses her kendo skills to subjugate a knife-wielding maniac around a swimming pool of terrified children that was perhaps the most thrillingly directed scene of any film I saw in the festival.