Wednesday, May 13, 2015

SFIFF58 2015 Wrap Up – 10 Highlights from Week One

As all good things must come to an end, so it goes with the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF58). This year's event was one of the most extraordinary I've experienced in four decades of attending the festival. Between the many awesome films accompanied by special guests and the unforgettable one-of-a-kind live performances, I'll be reflecting back upon my grand SFIFF58 experience for months to come.

For lucky members of the San Francisco Film Society, the fest continues through May 31 via the SFIFF Online Screening Room. Here members can stream 13 features and 11 shorts they may have missed during the festival proper. I've already taken a look at Western, winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature, and Bota, an Albanian narrative feature that escaped my attention but was raved about by friends and colleagues. I'll be checking out others in the coming days. Meanwhile, here's a look back at ten of my favorite programs from SFIFF58's first week.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (USA, dir. Alex Gibney)
SFIFF58 got off to a fine start with this complex portrait of Apple Computers' troubling main man, effectively answering the question, "How much of an asshole does a person have to be in order to achieve success?" I was particularly struck by how the prolific Gibney – fresh from ripping new ones for James Brown and Scientology – inserted his own subjective voice into the narration (it was the mass public lamentation following Jobs' death which inspired him to take on the project). I didn't stick around for the Q&A because I was antsy to reach the opening night celebration at Madame Tussaud's on Fisherman's Wharf. Kudos to whoever came up with the idea of a wax museum party! At one point I asked myself, "Is that a statue or is that really Ryan Philippe?" T'was the latter. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine opens at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on September 4.

54: The Director's Cut (USA, dir. Mark Christopher)
I returned to the Castro the next night for Mark Christopher's reconstruction of his maligned 1998 flick 54. Starring Ryan Philippe, Salma Hayek and Breckin Meyer as three romantically linked employees of NYC's famed discotheque, this new cut with 44 previously unseen minutes comes shy of being the "minor masterpiece" some critics would have us believe. But as experienced in the company of a whooping, exuberant Castro audience savoring nostalgia for an era never lived firsthand, it made for an enormously fun evening. In addition to Christopher, actors Philippe and Breckin were in the house to reminisce post-screening, expressing joy at finally getting to see the film they remembered shooting. Compelled by the "overwhelming positive response" at the film's SFIFF U.S. premiere, Miramax and Lionsgate issued a statement four days later announcing they'd release 54: The Director's Cut on VOD starting June 2.

Call Me Lucky (USA, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
A Saturday afternoon fire alarm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas interrupted my screening of Mr. Holmes (reuniting a masterful Ian McKellen with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon), which in turn delayed the start of Stanley Nelson's compelling new doc The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Forced to revamp my early evening plans, I decided to cold-walk into a film I knew nothing about, which proved fortuitous. The subject of Bobcat Goldthwait's excellent new doc is Barry Krimmins, the gruff, brilliant political/social satirist – someone in the film likens him to a combo of Noam Chomsky and Bluto – who singlehandedly created Boston's stand-up comedy scene. At the film's midway point we learn of unspeakably horrific acts perpetuated against Krimmins as a young boy, and watch as he turns crusader in the halls of U.S. Congress against early internet behemoth AOL. The film's co-producer Charlie Fonville was on hand for a Q&A, revealing that Robin Williams contributed the seed money that got this worthy project rolling.

The Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson)
Saturday reached a mind-blowing apex with Guy Maddin's fevered paean to the lost films of cinema's early sound era – thereby erasing whatever misgivings I had about forgoing Guillermo del Toro's SFIFF58 tribute across town. Maddin's first full-color, hyper-saturated film begins with a demonstration on How To Take a Bath (inspired by an actual 1937 lost film by exploitation producer Dwain Esper) before submerging into a cockeyed lost submarine adventure. By the end of The Forbidden Room's 131 minutes, we'd been lurched along a plotline stuffed with bladder-slapping contests, lifesaving flapjacks, virgin volcano sacrifice, squid thievery and poisoned leotards. It was a thrill to experience all this on the Kabuki Cinemas' giant House One screen, and the typically generous Q&A from Maddin continued past midnight. Distributor Kino-Lorber is planning to release the film this autumn.

The New Girlfriend (France, dir. François Ozon)
The latest from France's most entertainingly subversive director is an intricate and witty transgender dramedy that slapped a grin on my face and wouldn't let go. Actor Romain Duris, whose personal appearance accompanying Chinese Puzzle was a highlight of last year's fest, stars as a widower who dresses in his dead wife's clothes as a way to comfort their infant daughter. Or so he says. After his wife's BFF (Anaïs Demoustier) catches him in the act, the pair embarks on a surprise-filled adventure encompassing gender fluidity, confused sexual desire and plenty of red-herring dream sequences. This is surely one of Duris' finest performances and the film has secured an assured early slot on my 2015 Top Ten list.

Saint Laurent (France, dir. Bertrand Bonello)
Following The New Girlfriend, I dashed to the Castro Theatre to catch the second half of Bonello's fabulously outré YSL biopic. (I had seen the film previously and wrote about it here. And I now realize nearly all of my favorite scenes are in the film's first half). My Castro sojourn was primarily motivated by the desire to catch an eyeful of Saint Laurent's handsome lead actor, Gaspard Ulliel, who took the stage with his director for a post-screening Q&A. Ulliel was the more gregarious and forthcoming of the two. He talked about the difficulty of dubbing the older YSL (played by veteran Austrian actor Helmut Berger) and discussed the benefits of wearing on-screen costumes that actually came from the fashion designer's personal wardrobe. Of course, someone in the audience couldn't resist asking who was the better kisser, Jérémie Renier or Louis Garrel (the actors who play YSL's two great loves). The reply was Garrel by default. Ulliel never actually kisses Renier in the film (but they appear to do a whole lot else). Saint Laurent opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 16.

Red Amnesia (China, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai)
Hill of Freedom (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Sunday evening found me at the Clay Theatre for a pair of superb new Asian films, starting with Wang's enigmatic tale of an old woman haunted by a transgression committed during the Cultural Revolution. Red Amnesia boasts an unforgettable performance by stage actress Lu Zhong, and a shock ending that would have stuck with me long into the night were it not immediately followed by the funniest film I'd see at the festival. Hong Sang-soo's 16th feature received very mixed reviews when it premiered at Venice – thank goodness I didn't let that deter me from catching it at SFIFF58. Told in a compact 66 minutes, Hill of Freedom centers on a Japanese man's mundane escapades in a chummy Seoul neighborhood, where he hopes to reunite and propose marriage to a Korean ex-coworker. The film's humor is largely derived from the fractured English spoken by its characters, making me wonder if Hill of Freedom is nearly as funny to non-English speakers. The film's sole Caucasian character, of course, speaks fluent Korean. Hong's customary device of shuffling his narrative's chronology – in this case initiated by a dropped stack of letters – seemed an unnecessary affectation this time around.

Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live! (USA, dir. Jody Shapiro)
SFIFF58 star-gazing continued on Monday with the appearance of Ms. Rossellini. The former Cover Girl and actress was in town promoting a doc about the stage adaptation of her marvelously oddball Sundance Channel series of low-fi shorts explaining how animals have sex. Director Jody Shapiro, who co-produced and directed the original Green Porno films, captures how Rossellini transformed her cartoon-like mini-movies for the stage via monologue and props. He then tags along as she performs the 75-minute show in three languages and 33 countries, in the process revealing which animal has the longest penis (barnacles!!!) and which are the most incongruously sized (gorillas have two inches while ducks have eight). Following the screening, the affable actress explained how she became interested in animals at a young age and hinted what her next area of pursuit might be (animal intelligence and communication).

Maidan (Ukraine, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)
Arriving soon after his two acclaimed narrative features, My Joy (SFIFF 2011) and In the Fog (SFIFF 2013), director Loznitsa's latest work is that rarest of animals – a documentary with definitive style. From November 2013 until February 2014, he shot the popular Ukrainian uprising that took place in Kiev's main square. The film is composed solely of stationary long takes (the camera only moves twice in 134 minutes) that are always kept in deep focus, bringing a crisp clarity to thousands of anonymous faces in the crowds. There are no interviews or narration. A half-dozen succinct inter-titles give background info on the events taking place, as peaceful assembly and protest is ultimately met with violent repression. The result is an immersive experience bordering on virtual reality. Maidan is like nothing I've ever seen before and it's the most memorable documentary I saw at SFIFF58.

Cross published at The Evening Class.

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