Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SFIFF59 2016 Wrap-Up Report Part 1

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) concluded its 59th edition last Thursday following 15 satisfying days of movies and special events. While I have some reservations about the festival's move from Japantown/Fillmore to the Mission district, the transition itself seems to have gone extremely well considering its ambitious scope. I also have to say that House One at Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with its enormous screen and Sony SRX-R515D dual 4K projection system, is now my favorite place to see new movies in the Bay Area – especially while consuming one of Alamo's signature Brussels sprout salads with apple slices, toasted hazelnuts and pecorino cheese.

I had the pleasure of participating in 28 programs at SFIFF59. Here's a look at the special events and documentary features I attended. 

Special Events
The highlight of my festival was getting to see and hear Ellen Burstyn in conversation with SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan on SFIFF59's first Saturday afternoon. The energetic 83-year-old Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner was in town to accept the fest's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. I was shocked that fewer than a hundred people showed up, which was possibly attributable to the event being announced just five days prior. The audience on hand, however, was wildly enthusiastic and the Victoria Theatre's intimacy rendered the encounter all the more special. Following a clips reel of career highlights, Cowan conducted a revelatory and frequently hilarious chat with Burstyn that touched on everything from how she came to hire Martin Scorsese for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to her new-found fame with House of Cards to her feelings about being robbed of a second Academy Award by Julia Roberts. Fortunately Michael Guillén at The Evening Class was also there and has transcribed the talk for all to enjoy.

Ellen Burstyn and SF Film Society Exec Director Noah Cowan share a mirthful moment on stage at the Victoria Theatre. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Exactly one week later, the promise of seeing both Coen Brothers in person packed the 1400-seat Castro Theatre to capacity. The occasion was the festival's presentation of its annual Mel Novikoff Award to Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. After an on-stage interview with Variety critic Scott Foundas, Joel and Ethan Coen joined the conversation and introduced a screening of Criterion's most recent restoration, the brothers' 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an early advocate of the Coen's neo-noir, and they returned the honor by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis character after him. The siblings spent a good half-hour reminiscing about Blood Simple's production. Amongst the rollicking revelations was that Frances McDormand, in her first screen role, was never permitted to see the film's storyboards because the artist compulsively drew her character in the nude.

Filmmakers Joel (far left) and Ethan (far right) Coen flank Mel Novikoff Award Winners Jonathan Turell and Peter Becker of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection in the Castro Theatre mezzanine. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Earlier that same morning I was first in line to participate in the festival's VR Day. As a virtual reality newbie I found the technology cruder than I'd imagined, but was nonetheless impressed by two of the VR experiences I had in my allotted one-hour timeslot. Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart offered stunning 360-degree surface vistas of various terrains on the ex-planet, all based on data recently collected by NASA. The mind-blower of VR Day was Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael's Nomad: Sea Gypsies, which begins by plopping you in the middle of a Borneo lagoon inhabited by Sama-Bajau tribespeople. By turning in your swivel chair you get a full 360-degree survey of the lagoon, complete with thatched huts on stilts and people paddling you by in canoes. After a brief fade to black, you find yourself sitting on the porch of one of those very huts, watching as a family prepares food. Turning around reveals their drying laundry flapping in the wind just inches from your head. Another fade to black lands you in a canoe being propelled across the lagoon by tribesmen standing both in front of and behind you. By looking down at the canoe bottom, you see the still-living fish they've just caught. The possibilities for this technology are obviously staggering.

From my VR experience I was off to hear NY Times Critic-at-Large Wesley Morris deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. The former SF Chronicle and Examiner film critic's topic was "The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies." Morris began by riffing on various contemporary race-related topics, such as the upcoming appearance of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. ("Do you really want to be caught stuffing Tubmans into a stripper's g-string or paying your weed dealer with Tubmans?") Morris ultimately made his way through Poitier's filmography, making extended stops for Lilies of the Field ("In 1964, America was finally ready to see him left alone with white women, even if they were nuns who barely spoke English") and his career "pinnacle" In the Heat of the Night, whose infamous slapping scene Morris analyzed extensively. He barely got started on the actor's post-1967 work – "when the studio system collapsed and Poitier starting working exclusively with black people" – before time ran out and he had to bring the talk to an abrupt conclusion.

NY Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris backstage at the Victoria Theatre waiting to deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

My final SFIFF59 special event was the festival's annual pairing of a silent film with contemporary live music. This year's combo, the first not to be concocted by former SF Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara, was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Dracula flick Vampyr accompanied by alt-rock band Mercury Rev and the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde. The musicians took to the stage wearing black capes and proceeded to unleash an ungodly sound cavalcade that worked fittingly with the dreamlike imagery on screen. The score ranged from quiet noodling to ear-piercing feedback, with Raymonde particularly fun to watch as he played the electric saw and emitted nonsensical castrato-like vocals. The last 15 minutes was an extended crescendo of propulsive, heart-pounding percussion reminiscent of the Alloy Orchestra. As for Vampyr itself, I was especially struck by the lithe, somnambulant lead performance by actor Julian West, who in real life was a gay Russian-Jewish aristocrat and bon vivant named Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg. The baron financed Vampyr on the condition he play the lead and later in life became an editor at Town & Country, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines.

The Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde and members of Mercury Rev strike a pose in the Castro Theatre's side alley prior to performing a live score to Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Vampyr. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Compared to similar festivals, SFIFF has been doc-heavy for some years now. For 2016 the section expanded even further, with a whopping 40 percent of the feature film roster being dedicated to non-fiction works. Unless the director is someone like Werner Herzog, Sergei Loznitsa, Patricio Guzmán or others who strive to make their films cinematic, I'm of a mind that most documentaries suffer little when watched privately on a small screen. That of course changes when you have the director and other special guests at a screening, which is nearly always the case at SFIFF. This year I caught five docs at the festival and all but one had talent available for post-screening Q&As.

The aforementioned missing filmmaker was Werner Herzog, whose Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World played to a large, receptive and overtly techie crowd at the Castro Theatre. Divided into ten chapters, Herzog's latest delves into a multitude of tech-related issues both awe-inspiring and fearsome. Topics include hacking, tech addiction, cyber terrorism, illnesses related to radioactive signals, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and a score of others. I was fascinated by the section on robots. Will they be able to fall in love? Will a robotic soccer team be able to beat FIFA's world champions by 2050? It was also a hoot to learn that when the first internet message was sent in 1969 from UCLA to Stanford, comprised only of the word "login," the system crashed immediately after transmission of the letter "o." With Herzog's trademark detached bemusement, Lo and Behold comprehensively looks at how far we've come since then and where we might be heading, but in a manner that was still perhaps a bit too wonky for this low-tech senior.

My favorite of the docs I caught was Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, a shockingly intimate, fly-on-the-wall look at Anthony Weiner's NYC mayoral run two years after a sexting scandal forced his resignation from Congress. The directors commenced filming the day he declared his candidacy and we tag along every step of the way, from chauffeured-car strategy meetings to wince-inducing confrontations in the home he shares with long-suffering wife, Hillary Clinton's ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin. We're also present when, just as it appears New Yorkers have forgiven Weiner and his campaign is catching fire, new sexting allegations result in his ultimately earning only 4.9 percent of the vote. The film's high point, if you will, is a thrillingly furtive chase through a MacDonald's back exit as Weiner attempts to reach his campaign HQ on election night and avoid an on-camera confrontation with one of his accusers, publicity whore par excellence, Ms. Sydney Leathers. Weiner opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on May 27.

Depressing and enraging issue-oriented docs are a festival staple and this year I saw two, Johan Grimonprez' Shadow World and Sonia Kennebeck's National Bird. The first is based on Andrew Feinstein's book of the same name and it goes into sickening detail about the massive corporate bribery and government corruption commonplace in international arms dealing. From Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal to Donald Rumsfeld's Iraqi chemical weapons sale to Tony Blair's cover-up of BAE's £1 billion Saudi prince payoff to Obama's Terror Tuesday meetings, it's all laid out and contrasted with a cheesy muzak soundtrack emphasizing how innocuous this horror has become in our world. It was particularly dispiriting to learn how corruption over armaments deals has essentially destroyed South Africa's democracy, a subject close to Feinstein's heart as an ex-S.A. parliament member. Perhaps the most powerful scene is an interview with Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, as he describes the unspeakable tortures perpetrated upon him. Director Grimonprez and Feinstein engaged in a spirited post-screening Q&A, and I was especially gratified when Feinstein, completely unprompted, reminded the audience that as wonderful as it would be to have a female president, Hillary Clinton has received more money from the military-industrial complex than any other candidate of either party.

The subject of Kennebeck's equally effective National Bird is U.S. drone warfare, with a special focus on the psychological trauma done to U.S. soldiers who kill civilians halfway across the globe from the (dis)comfort of control booths. The film spotlights three whistleblowers, all of whom fear prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for things they might say while being treated by therapists for PTSD. We accompany Bay Area whistleblower "Lisa" (who was present at the Q&A along with National Bird's director and producer) as she travels on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in an effort to make amends for her transgressions. There, in the film's most affecting sequence, surviving members of a 2010 drone strike that killed 23 civilians collectively speak about the atrocities experienced that day.