Monday, October 2, 2017

Berlin & Cannes @ MVFF40 2017

The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) turns 40 this year and will celebrate that milestone with a program that could be its biggest and best yet. Running from October 5 to 15, MVFF40 boasts yet another spectacular docket of filmmakers (Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, Dee Rees, Sean Baker, Greta Gerwig) and actors (Holly Hunter, Andrew Garfield, Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas) ready to make a Northern California pilgrimage to promote their autumn Awards Season projects. In total, the line-up encompasses nearly 120 features and 90 shorts from 52 countries – an impressive 43 percent of which were helmed by women filmmakers.

This year's festival is so chock-full of tributes, spotlights, sections, sidebars, panels, workshops and music programs – there's even a Cannabis Culture focus in anticipation of 2018's legalization of recreational weed – that it would be a fool's errand to try and survey it all in one preview. For me, the most exciting thing about MVFF is finally catching the wealth of new films that premiered earlier in the year at major international festivals like Berlin, Cannes and to a lesser extent, Sundance. What follows is a festival-by-festival glance at which movies I'm most hotly anticipating at MVFF40.


By the time MVFF rolls around, most of Sundance's prestige titles have already played the Bay Area or, as is often the case these days, gone directly to Netflix streaming. The exceptions tend to be films with massive critical acclaim, which prompts their distributors to squirrel them away for awards season roll-out. One such movie is Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, an Italian-set, coming-of-age drama starring Armie Hammer as a 24-year-old doctoral student who sets off on a love affair with his employer's 17-year-old son. It's one of the best-reviewed flicks of 2017, with James Ivory's screenplay being singled out for special praise. Unfortunately, the film recently became the target of a hypocritical homophobic tweet by actor James Woods. Call Me By Your Name opens in Bay Area theatres on November 24.

Another title lauded at Sundance was Dee Rees' Mudbound, a gritty familial drama about racism in post-WWII Mississippi. Rees' previous works include 2011's lesbian coming-out tale Pariah and HBO's Bessie Smith biopic. Both Rees and Mudbound will be the subjecy of a special MVFF Spotlight program on October 7 and the movie begins streaming on Netflix beginning November 17. It remains unclear if it will also receive a local theatrical release, meaning MVFF could be our only opportunity to experience Mudbound on the big screen. A third Sundance title I'm excited about is the Georgian film My Happy Family, from the same directors as 2013's magnificent In Bloom.

While the 2017 Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul remains curiously M.I.A., nearly every other Berlin prizewinner earned a slot at MVFF40. A Fantastic Woman is Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's follow-up to his international hit Gloria, for which Paulina Garcia won Berlin's 2013 best actress prize. Leilo's tale of a transgender woman dealing with the family of her recently deceased partner won awards for best screenplay, as well as the Teddy Award for best narrative feature – arguably the world's most prestigious prize for LGBT cinema. Berlin's 2017 best actress prize went to Kim Min-hee for her performance in Hong Sang-soo's On the Beach at Night Alone. The film was inspired by Kim's real-life relationship with the married director Hong, which caused a huge public scandal in their home country South Korea. Hong is currently Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker, with On the Beach being just one of three movies he's released this year.

Alain Gomis' Félicité was chosen for Berlin's second highest award, the Grand Jury Prize. This music-filled drama centers around a Senegalese bar singer who's attempting to raise money after her son is injured in a car accident. The festival's singular Alfred Bauer Prize, awarded each year to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art," was given to Agnieszka Holland's Spoor. Three of the Polish director's previous films have been nominated for Oscars and this Fargo-like murder mystery set in a wintry mountain village could possibly become her fourth.

I had the chance to preview, and heartily recommend two Berlin titles dealing with the Syrian crisis in radically different ways. Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki won the festival's best director prize for The Other Side of Hope, in which an asylum-seeking Syrian mechanic finds refuge working in an oddball restaurant. The director's immediately recognizable style is in full effect, with its acute humanism, deadpan humor, candy-colored cinematography and retro art direction and music. I was somewhat perplexed by its aloof ending. In sharp contrast, Philippe Van Leeuw's intense and at times unbearably brutal In Syria gives viewers a front row seat to that country's civil war horrors. Incomparable Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (The Lemon Tree, The Visitor) stars as the matriarch of the last family to remain in a Damascus apartment building under blockade. The film is set during a 24-hour period and the action never leaves the building's confines. Best known as a cinematographer (he shot Bruno Dumont's The Life of Jesus), this is only Van Leeuw's second outing as writer/director. In Syria won the Audience Award in Berlin's Panorama sidebar and was easily my favorite of the MVFF40 films I previewed. If you miss it at MVFF, the film screens twice at this month's Arab Film Festival.

Another Berlin entry I can recommend is Élise Girard's Strange Birds, which builds on a recent mini-trend in French cinema for self-contained, enigmatic films that are barely feature length (e.g. Nights With Theodore, A World Without Women, Vincent). Lolita Chammah stars as Mavie, a reticent young woman from the provinces who tumbles into a job at a Parisian bookstore. The owner is Georges, a mysterious misanthrope (veteran Jean Sorel, Belle de Jour), who seems to have plenty of money despite a complete absence of customers. When his shady past comes home to roost, Georges goes on the lam, leaving Mavie to strike up a friendship with Roman (Pascal Cervo, 4 Days in France), a possible anti-nuclear terrorist she meets at a screening of Satyajit Ray's Charulata. All of this so-called "action" is rendered in a wistful, tongue-in-cheek fashion. Directorial flourishes run the gamut from voiceover conversations that may or may not be imaginary, to iris shots employed for scene transitions and a running gag of dead sea gulls falling out of the sky. Paris itself is lovingly rendered by cinematographer Renato Berta. Franco-cinephiles probably know that Lolita Chammah is the daughter is Isabelle Huppert and producer/director Ronald Chammah. The latter makes a rare on-screen appearance in Strange Birds as a dead body being dragged out of George's bookstore.

Despite receiving mixed reviews at Berlin, I'm very much looking forward to catching The Party, Sally Potter's first new film in five years. Shot in B&W and in "real/reel" time, this acidic black comedy set during a chic London dinner party boasts a ridiculously beguiling cast that includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Bruno Ganz, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Patricia Clarkson and Cherry Jones. It was announced at the festival press conference that Ms. Thomas, who'll be in town for the October 6 Opening Night screening of Darkest Hour (where she plays Mrs. Winston Churchill), plus her own MVFF tribute on October 7, will stick around one extra day so that she can attend the October 8 showing of The Party. Rounding out MVFF40's line-up from Berlin are a pair of promising films from its Panorama sidebar, Song Chuan's Ciao Ciao from China, and Brazilian entry Vazante from director Daniela Thomas.

The Cannes Film Festival's top three prizes are the Palme d'Or, the Grand Prix and the Prix du Jury. Amazingly, MVFF40 managed to score all three. This year's Palme went to Ruben Östlund's The Square. I was a huge fan of his previous film, 2014's Force Majeure, and am therefore keen to catch this provocative satire centered around a Stockholm art museum director. The Square is also scheduled to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on November 10. The festival's second highest honor was awarded to Robin Campillo's exuberant BPM (Beats Per Minute), which is set during the AIDS crisis in 1989 and deals with the rise of Paris' ACT UP chapter. The film also won the festival's FIPRESCI prize and Queer Palm. Although Campillo is best known for co-writing most of Laurent Cantet's screenplays, including 2008's Palme d'Or winner The Class, his two previous directorial efforts They Came Back and Eastern Boys are well worth seeking out. For those who miss BPM at MVFF40, it opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on October 27. Lastly we have jury prize winner Loveless from Oscar-nominated director Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014's Leviathan). Zvyagintsev is possibly Russian's greatest contemporary filmmaker (along with Sergei Loznitsa) and his new work focuses on an acrimonious divorce and the disappearance of a couple's 12-year-old son. It's worth noting that The Square, BPM and Loveless are all 2018 Oscar submissions from their respective countries of origin.

From elsewhere in Cannes' main competition, MVFF40 has programmed In the Fade from noted German-Turkish director Fatih Akin (Head On, The Edge of Heaven). Mixed reviews didn't stop the festival from awarding its Best Actress prize to Diane Kruger, who plays a woman seeking revenge against the neo-Nazis that killed her husband and son. Cannes' Palm Dog Award was initiated in 2001 for the year's best canine performance and 2017's winner was Einstein, for his role as "Bruno" in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. Baumbach's latest work unites Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson as a dysfunctional NYC family. The film opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on October 13, the same day it begins streaming on Netflix. The remaining Cannes prizewinner making its local debut is Ecumenical Jury Award recipient Radiance. The new age-y, sentimental-borderline-maudlin films of Japanese director Naomi Kawase are an acquired taste I've yet to acquire.

The only Cannes competition title offered for preview was Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, which the festival was kind enough to screen at San Francisco's magnificent new Dolby Theatre. Based on a novel by Brian Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay), Wonderstruck marvelously conflates two storylines set 50 years apart, both concerning a hearing-impaired child who runs away to NYC. While a number of critics have disparaged the film as mawkish, I for one fell completely under its sway. At the very least, Wonderstruck's technical achievements are nothing short of sublime. The production design and art direction are to die for, especially the evocation of 1977 Manhattan and the NY Museum of Natural History in 1927. Sandy Powell's costumes will no doubt earn her a 12th Oscar nomination and Carter Burwell's electric guitar-flavored score is one of his best. Haynes' ongoing collaboration with cinematographer Ed Lachman continues to be one of the most fruitful in contemporary cinema, and Affonso Gonçalves' editing adroitly juggles the two parallel storylines. Wonderstruck screens once at MVFF40, as part of an in-person tribute to Haynes on October 13. The film's U.S. theatrical roll-out begins one week later.

Perhaps the best reviewed film at Cannes, with a current 100% Rotten Tomatoes freshness rating, was one that screened outside of any sidebar or competition. Faces Places links the talents of 89-year-old French auteur Agnès Varda and 34-year-old French photo-muralist JR as they travel the countryside producing outsized, outdoor photo murals of people they encounter. The film seems a shoe-in for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination, which would be doubly sweet considering that AMPAS will be giving Varda an honorary Oscar this year. Faces Places opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on October 27.

Another Cannes documentary that drew considerable praise is Barbet Schroeder's The Venerable W, which I had the chance to preview and strongly recommend. The film is a disturbing profile of Wirathru, the Myanmar monk whose racist, anti-Muslim views have exacerbated the country's genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority. Schroeder has declared The Venerable W as the third part of a Trilogy of Evil, following 1974's General Idi Amin Dada and 2007's Terror's Advocate (the latter concerns Klaus Barbie/Carlos the Jackal/Khmer Rouge lawyer Jacques Vergès). It sadly and effectively demonstrates how Buddhism can be manipulated and used for fucked-up purposes just like any other religion on earth. In one telling birds-of-a-feather sequence, Wirathru warns that "in the U.S. if people want to maintain peace and security, they must choose Donald Trump." Given recent events in Myanmar, The Venerable W is even more urgent than when it premiered at Cannes back in May. Screenings of the film will be preceded by a 14-minute short, Where Are You At, Barbet Schroeder?, in which the director reflects on Myanmar's genocide through the filter of his own life-long dedication to Buddhism.

Moving on to Cannes' various sidebars, I'm super excited about Sean Baker's The Florida Project, which premiered in Director's Fortnight. Baker's previous film Tangerine was my second favorite movie of 2015, and his latest is said to be another empathetic valentine to America's marginalized. This time his focus is on the denizens of a run-down motel outside Orlando's Disney World wherein Willem Dafoe has garnered considerable praise for his portrayal of the motel's crustily benevolent manager. Happily, Sean Baker is expected at both MVFF40 screenings, which occur just days before its October 13 Bay Area theatrical debut at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas. Also hailing from Director Fortnight is Claire Denis' Let the Sunshine In, which was the sidebar's opening night film. Juliette Binoche stars in this wry comedy about a divorced woman seeking true love, and she's supported by an impressive cast that includes Gérard Depardieu, Nicholas Duvauchelle and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. A third film culled from the DF roster is Jonas Carpignano's A Ciambra, which Italy has selected as its 2018 Oscar submission.

MVFF40 has also gathered three intriguing titles from Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. The one with the biggest buzz and critical acclaim is Valeska Grisebach's Western, a culture clash drama that pits resistant local yokels against a group of boorish Germans brought to Bulgaria to build a water power plant. Then in Annarita Zambrano's After the War, a former Italian terrorist residing in France with his teenage daughter is forced into hiding in order to evade extradition back to Italy. The third UCR selection at MVFF40 is Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato's The Desert Bride, an Argentine film starring the terrific Paulina Garcia (Gloria, Little Men) as a cautious urbanite who discovers potential transformation in her new rural locale.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Frameline41 2017

Frameline, aka "the world's longest-running and largest showcase of queer cinema," celebrates its 41st edition from June 15 to 25. This year's 147 films from 19 countries are split almost evenly between features and shorts, with an unprecedented 40 percent coming from women filmmakers. Here are thoughts on a dozen I had the chance to preview, with additional spotlights on others I'm hoping to catch during the festival proper.

One of my favorite film genres to watch at Frameline are LGBTQ "celebrity" documentaries and biopics. Frameline41 gets off to an auspicious start when Jennifer Kroot's The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin screens on opening night. The film solidifies Kroot's reputation as one of our best cinematic LGBTQ biographers, and compares favorably with her previous bio-docs on George Takei (To Be Takei) and the Kuchar Brothers (It Came From Kuchar). Her new film traces writer Armistead Maupin's unexpected path from conservative great-great-grandson of a Confederate general, to author of the internationally beloved "Tales of the City." Stops are made along the way to frankly discuss such things as his sexual friendship with, and ultimate outing of, actor Rock Hudson.

Kroot's main competition in the LGBTQ bio-doc biz is Jeffrey Schwarz, whose acclaimed films Vito, I Am Divine and Tab Hunter Confidential all played Frameline. He's back this year with The Fabulous Allan Carr, a look at the outsized, hedonistic life of the man who produced Grease, the Broadway musical of La Cage aux Folles and everyone's fave campy disco romp, Can't Stop the Music. Speaking of fabulous, was anyone ever more deserving of that identifier than cartoonishly big-buxomed Jayne Mansfield, an actress perhaps best known for her grisly death as for her starring roles in 50's cult classics like The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? I've been a rabid fan since childhood, which is why Mansfield 66/67 is the film I'm most anticipating at Frameline41. Directors David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' work promises to survey Mansfield's life and oeuvre, with heavy emphasis on her relationship with Anton LaVey, founder of San Francisco's Church of Satan. John Waters, Peaches Christ and Kenneth Anger, whose essential scandal tome "Hollywood Babylon" is graced with Mansfield's cover portrait, are among the film's talking heads.

Another noteworthy film biographer with a new movie at Frameline41 is gadfly British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer). His Whitney: Can I Be Me was one of the big hits at this spring's Tribeca Film Festival, garnering great reviews for its provocative examination of Whitney Houston's troubled life and career. Why is this film at Frameline? Apparently, Houston was a closeted bi-sexual who was in a decades-long relationship with friend and personal assistant Robyn Crawford, even during her marriage to Bobby Brown. Frameline41's Centerpiece Documentary focuses on another singer, Mexican ranchera interpreter Chavela Vargas. Harry Vaughn's tantalizing program notes describe Vargas as a "pistol-packing, cigar-smoking, tequila-downing, women-loving" performer who had affairs with Ava Gardner and Frida Kahlo. Moviegoers may know her voice and image from films by Pedro Almodóvar (Flower of My Secret), Alejandro González Iñarrítu (Babel) and Julie Taymor (Frida). Chavela is co-directed by Catherine Gund, whose portrait of choreographer Elizabeth Streb, Born to Fly, was a highlight of Frameline38. Elsewhere in the line-up of biographical films on famous (or in these cases, infamous) LGBTQ folks, I'm looking forward to the narrative features Tom of Finland and My Friend Dahmer, the latter an imagining of the serial killer's high school years based on a best-selling graphic novel (co-starring Anne Heche as his mother!)

In addition to Untold Tales, I had the chance to watch five other Frameline41 docs and all are recommended. The most memorable is Quest, Jonathan Olshefhski's empathetic, serenely powerful study of an African-American family and their Philadelphia neighborhood during the Obama years. The reason for the film's Frameline inclusion doesn't become apparent until roughly two-thirds through, when it's revealed that the Rainey family's teenage daughter PJ is lesbian. PJ's loss of an eye following a neighborhood shooting is one of Quest's major story arcs. The film is scheduled to appear on PBS' P.O.V. series later this year in an edited form, but trust me, you'll want to experience every possible minute of this remarkable family's eight-year journey.

Two other Frameline41 docs centered on family are Abu (Father) and Small Talk. The former is director Arshad Khan's fascinating account of growing up gay in a once-liberal Pakistani family, where the parents gradually transition to fundamentalism after emigrating to Canada. Khan incorporates a wealth of home video footage with animation and Bollywood clips that reflect back on his own story with poignancy and humor. Then in Small Talk, Taiwanese filmmaker Hui-Chen Huang seeks answers about her painful relationship with Anu, her butch lesbian mother who was emotionally and physically absent during childhood. The film comes alive at its mid-point, when Huang interviews several of her mother's ex-girlfriends. Their descriptions of Anu as a drinking, gambling, generous-to-a-fault bon vivant contrast sharply with the dour, reticent woman we observe in the movie. Small Talk won the prestigious Teddy Award for best documentary at 2017's Berlin Film Festival.

Documentaries about LGBTQ cultural and political history are always of special interest to me. Andrea Weiss' Bones of Contention is a tragic and compelling memorial to queer folk who were persecuted, imprisoned and oftentimes buried in unmarked mass graves during Francisco Franco's fascist reign in Spain. Revered poet Federico Garcia Lorca is thought to be buried in one such grave, and quotations from his work are used as a framing device throughout the film. In a rare moment of levity, Bones of Contention reveals that "booksellers" was the coded euphemism used for lesbians, who were afforded the dubious "luxury" of slipping under the fascists' radar simply because they weren't thought to exist. During the festival, I'm hoping to catch two films documenting LGBTQ repression and emerging activism in the 1950's. Josh Howard's The Lavender Scare takes on gay witch-hunts that arose following President Eisenhower's 1953 signing of an executive order banning homosexuals from federal employment. Fergus O'Brien's docu-drama Against the Law covers roughly the same era in the UK, honing in on the story of pioneering activist Peter Wildeblood.

Those with an affinity for LGBTQ culture's edgier edges won't want to miss Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution. Yony Leyser's fast-paced and informative doc about queer punk-dom begins at ground zero with the scene's invention by Toronto musician-artist G.B. Jones and filmmaker Bruce La Bruce. Through a series of zines and especially La Bruce's groundbreaking 1991 debut feature No Skin Off My Ass, the duo dreamt up a non-existent phenomenon that became a self-perpetuating reality. Aided by nifty graphics and animation, Leyser's film highlights such seminal touchstones as Queer Nation, the anti-assimilation movement and Riot Grrrl. The parade of talking heads is nothing short of astounding, with La Bruce, Justin Vivian Bond, Lynn Breedlove (Tribe 8), Jon Ginoli (Pansy Division), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Penny Arcade, Peaches, Patty Schemel (Hole) and especially Canadian artist-filmmaker Scott Treleaven (1996 doc Queercore: A Punk-u-mentary), all offering their singular takes upon the movement. And just when you start to think, "where the hell is John Waters," there he is bringing up the rear. On a side note, one wonders why La Bruce's latest film The Misandrists, is M.I.A. at Frameline41.

Amongst the roster of international narrative features, I was especially taken by three from Latin America. This year's Centerpiece: World Cinema presentation is Ernesto Contreras' lush and lyrical I Dream in Another Language, in which a linguist travels to a remote Mexican jungle village to document a barely extant dialect. The problem is the language's two remaining practitioners no longer speak to each other due to a decades old conflict involving sexual attraction. A moment or two of ill-fitting melodrama and an excess of sea-frolic-ing detract little from the overall intelligence of this lovely film tinged with magic realism. I Dream in Another Language won an audience award at this year's Sundance.

I also heartily recommend Carlos Lechuga's Santa & Andres. Set in Cuba in the early 80's, the film keenly observes the evolving relationship between a gay writer – one who spent eight years in prison for being "counter-revolutionary" and is now banished to a remote countryside shack – and a seemingly hardened young female Communist party member assigned to keep tabs on him. In addition to its gripping, humanist storyline, the film boasts extraordinary performances from Eduardo Martinez and Lola Amores in the title roles. In Julia Solomonoff's Nobody's Watching, we're offered a remarkably different kind of story about immigration to the U.S. Guillermo Pfening, who won the Tribeca Film Festival's best actor prize, plays an Argentine telenovela star trying to relaunch his career in NYC without much success. With his tourist visa about to expire, he tenuously couch-surfs and takes on odd jobs, including a stint as nanny for a close friend's baby. Meanwhile, he receives frequent phone calls, and an in-person visit, from his married and closeted ex who wants him back in Buenos Aires. As Tim Sika summarizes in his Frameline capsule, Nobody's Watching "observes with an outsider's eye the subtle boundaries that define class, race and opportunity in contemporary America." Director Solomonoff returns to Frameline for the first time since 2009's memorable The Last Summer of La Boyita.

In four decades of attending Frameline I can't remember there ever being a film from Armenia, let alone a compassionate and thoughtful one centered on FTM transitioning. Pouira Heidary Oureh's Apricot Groves begins and ends with an identical POV shot of someone being wheeled into surgery by a chador-covered woman speaking words of comfort in Farsi. The unseen patient in this flash-forward is Aram, an Iranian-Armenian "man" who has come to Armenia's capital of Yerevan from Los Angeles to ask for his fiancé's hand in marriage. He's accompanied by his gregarious older brother and after a strained meeting with the bride's family, the siblings drive to the Iranian border for an unexplained purpose (albeit one that's foreshadowed in the film's opening – it helps if you know Iran is a world leader in sexual reassignment surgery). Apricot Groves features handsome widescreen cinematography, an effective regional-flavored score and a hypnotic performance by actor Narbe Vartan as Aram. The final international feature I'm recommending is Francis Lee's God Own Country, which I caught at the recent SFFILM Festival. Lee aptly won Sundance's World Cinema directing prize for this Brokeback Mountain-influenced tale about a closeted, hard-drinking Yorkshire sheep farmer's volatile relationship with a Romanian itinerant worker. The film's steamy sex scenes should look particularly glorious up on the Castro Theatre's gigantic screen.

The biggest surprise about Frameline41's World Cinema line-up is that there's only one entry from France. Luckily, it's a film I've read terrific things about and am delighted to have the chance to see. Jérôme Reybaud's 4 Days in France is described as a sexy road movie in which a 36-year-old Parisian leaves his boyfriend and hits the backroads of rural France, using his Grindr app to find anonymous sex. Unbeknownst to him, his boyfriend is also using Grindr to stalk and keep track of his movements. Although it's not from France, I'm also hoping to check out the French-language Canadian feature Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, which not only has the longest title at Frameline41, but also the longest running time at 183 minutes. Finally, I'm hoping not to miss the Showcase presentation of John Trengove's The Wound, a rare example of LGBTQ narrative filmmaking from sub-Saharan Africa. The film is a gay love story set against the backdrop of Ulwaluko, a ritualistic circumcision ceremony practiced by South Africa's Xhosa community. Director Trengove created controversy recently when he withdrew The Wound from the opening night slot of Tel Aviv's TLVFEST, at the request of BDS South Africa. (Frameline has dealt with its own issues over Israeli governmental support over the years). The film has also proven to be controversial in its homeland.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017

A pair of films by trailblazing women directors, a quartet of movies spotlighting the year 1925, plus Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul starring Paul Robeson (with live accompaniment by DJ Spooky!) are among the anticipated highlights of the 22nd San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF). This year's edition takes in 18 programs, and according to the indispensable Film on Film Foundation Bay Area Calendar, fully half contain some element of 35mm presentation. What's especially remarkable about the festival, however, is that all 15 feature films are SFSFF debuts. That includes warhorses like Harold Lloyd's The Freshman, which opens the event on Thursday, June 1, straight through Sunday evening's closer, The Three Musketeers with Douglas Fairbanks.

If I could only choose one film to see at SFSFF22, it would be the reconstruction of Harry Hoyt's 1925 dinosaur epic The Lost World. Based Arthur Conan Doyle's oft-filmed novel, this adventure yarn about an Amazonian land-that-time-forgot co-stars Wallace Beery, Bessie Love and Lewis Stone. But the movie's true stars are the crudely magnificent stop-motion animated dinosaur sequences by Willis O'Brien, the man who would give the world King Kong eight years later. I last saw The Lost World at the SF International Film Festival in 2009, with an explosive live score by Cambodian-flavored rock band Dengue Fever. (For my money, the most successful of that festival's many alt-rock and silent cinema pairings thus far). Accompanying the film this Sunday afternoon will be the peerless Alloy Orchestra, who I'm certain are up to the task. Lobster Films' Serge Bromberg will introduce the program and hopefully speak about the film's reconstruction from 11 different source materials.

As a prelude to The Lost World, the festival presents the short, Fifty Million Years Ago prior to the screening of Victor Sjöstrom's A Man There Was earlier Sunday afternoon. This seven-minute, 1925 film was created to exploit the country's interest in the subject of evolution – this being the year of America's infamous Scopes "Monkey" Trial – as well as to pique interest in the release of The Lost World.

In addition to The Lost World, The Freshman and Body and Soul, the fourth element of the festival's spotlight on 1925 is none other than Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. It's almost impossible to believe SFSFF carried on for more than two decades without having screened this revolutionary masterpiece, but there you have it. My first Potemkin exposure was in a university film theory class where the professor ran the Odessa Steps sequence forward and backward through the projector until the film broke. More recently, I caught it at the Castro Theatre in 2011 in a definitive version that placed all 1,374 shots in correct order, re-instated the original inter-titles and re-worked Edmund Meisel's original score. That's the version we'll presumably be seeing on Saturday evening, but with live accompaniment performed by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Bye's ethereal-sounding music seems an odd choice to accompany Potemkin's propulsive dynamism, so it'll be interesting to hear how they pull this off. Those with an interest in Soviet silent cinema might also want to check out Heorhii Stabovyi's Two Days, which is set during the Ukraine's 1917-21 civil war and screens Sunday night.

The festival is giving its two women-directed films back-to-back showings on Friday afternoon. First up will be Dorothy Arzner's Get Your Man from 1927. The bewitching Clara Bow stars as a woman who gets trapped in a Paris wax museum overnight with an aristocrat, played by Charles "Buddy" Rogers (of all people). This new Library of Congress reconstruction fills out missing sections with production stills and expository intertitles. As an added bonus to the program, the festival is premiering a 23-minute fragment from Now We're in the Air! Footage from this long-lost 1927 comedy starring Louise Brooks and Wallace Beery was recently discovered in the Czech Republic's National Film Archive and subsequently restored by the festival's president, Rob Byrne.

The afternoon's celebration of pioneering female filmmakers continues with another important restoration, Lois Weber's The Dumb Girl of Portici. The 1916 film stars legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and it's believed to be her only screen appearance. Pavlova produced and choreographed this tale of a mute fisher-girl who sparks a revolution in 17th century Spanish-occupied Naples. It was Universal Pictures most expensive production to date and was only one of ten feature films that the ultra-prolific Weber directed in 1916 alone.

As a major fan of both Tod Browning and Ernst Lubitsch, I was delighted to find relatively little known selections from their early filmographies in the line-up. Browning is represented by Outside the Law, a 1920 crime thriller set in San Francisco's Chinatown. Frequent Browning collaborator Lon Chaney appears in dual roles as a sleazy criminal mastermind and a Chinese Confucian philosophy student. Anna May Wong also pops up in a bit part, marking her third screen performance (albeit uncredited). The Lubitsch film is 1919's The Doll, a comic fantasy said to be one of the director's personal favorites from his pre-Hollywood career. The main draw for me is actress Ossi Oswalda, who was such a hoot in Lubitsch's cross-dressing comedy Girls Will Be Boys, which the fest screened last year.

One of the most intriguing-sounding titles at SFIFF22 is surely Mario Roncoroni's Filibius. This 1915 Italian movie stars Cristina Ruspoli as a crime-committing baroness who stages her capers from the safety of a technologically-advanced zeppelin manned by subservient male acolytes. I'm especially looking forward to hearing what the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra has concocted in the way of a score for this. Filibus was recently restored by the Netherlands' EYE Filmmuseum, whose chief silent film curator Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi will be on hand to receive this year's (long-overdue!) San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at the screening.

Amongst the remaining programs, I'm probably most looking forward to A Page of Madness, Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 Japanese avant-garde masterpiece that's entirely set in an insane asylum. Appropriately enough, the Alloy Orchestra will be accompanying that one. I also don't want to miss Magic and Mirth: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906-1924. Curated by Lobster Films' Serge Bromberg, the program will include works by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and George Méliès. The free-admission Amazing Tales from the Archives program is always a fun and informative look at the latest in silent cinema preservation. Rounding out SFSFF22's roster are a trio of dramas: Irish revolutionary tale The Informer, a Cecil B. DeMille adaptation of the Broadway stage play Silence, and the Polish thriller A Strong Man. The latter apparently contains elements of film noir, given that it's to be introduced by Eddie Muller.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 Wrap-Up

The 60th SFFILM Festival recently came to a close after a 15-day orgy of movie-going magic. Personal highlights included getting to share the same air as Ethan Hawke, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, as well as seeing new works from favorite directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky and João Pedro Rodrigues. Here are some thoughts on 20 of the programs I caught at this year's memorable anniversary edition.

Casting JonBenet (USA/Australia dir. Kitty Green)
All I knew about this lurid Boulder, CO child murder case was what I gleaned from standing in supermarket check-out lines in 1997. This singular documentary recounts the whole story with zero archival footage, exclusively relying upon tapes of Boulder residents "auditioning" for a filmic study about the case. The result is an affecting portrait of how media sideshows affect those on its sidelines. This was my first time seeing a film in the astounding new Dolby Cinema on Market Street. Casting JonBenet is currently available to stream on Netflix.

A Tribute to Ethan Hawke
This conversation with one of my favorite actors – conducted by his 2000 Hamlet director Michael Almereyda – was an expected highlight of the festival. There were anecdotes aplenty about Hawke's longtime directorial collaborator Richard Linklater, all of which gave me even greater respect for the versatile Austin filmmaker. And I was especially tickled to hear that Hawke's first acting gig (as a one-line extra in Shaw's "Saint Joan") was at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, where I saw my first Shakespeare play on a school outing back in the 60's. I didn't stay to watch Hawkes' new film Maudie (it opens locally on June 23), because I didn't realize he'd be returning for a post-screening Q&A.

Leaning Into the Wind – Andy Goldsworthy (UK dir. Thomas Riedelsheimer)
While lacking some of the "wow" factor that made Rivers and Tides a surprise arthouse hit 15 years ago, this sequel will still be appreciated by admirers of that first cinematic profile of environmental artist Goldsworthy. The new film finds the artist facing issues of aging and legacy, and keeps tabs on his latest projects (some of which, such as his newfound propensity for crawling through giant hedges, seem rather silly). Local audiences will appreciate the detailed section on the creation of Tree Fall, one of four Goldsworthy pieces to be found in San Francisco's Presidio. This SFFILM Festival screening was the movie's world premiere and unsurprisingly, it immediately got snapped up for U.S. distribution (by Magnolia Pictures).

78/52 (USA dir. Alexandre O. Philippe)
This was my favorite documentary of the festival – a sort-of everything you ever wanted to know about Psycho's shower scene, but didn't know what to ask. Positing the film as Hitchcock's fuck-you to Hollywood after a decade of glossy, star-studded thrillers, this enormously fun and informative doc digs deeps into the minutiae of those world-changing three minutes of celluloid. I was particularly delighted to hear from Janet Leigh's body double, Marli Renfro, and I now know that the stabbing sound effects were achieved by plunging knives into casaba melons.

Score: A Film Music Documentary (USA dir. Matt Schrader)
Although limited by its near exclusive focus on Hollywood tent-pole composers, i.e. John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith, et al., there was still much to appreciate in this close-up look at the marriage of orchestral music and film. (A relationship, as the film points out, that began with 1933's King Kong). Among its film's highlights are a fly-on-the-wall look at an Abbey Road recording session and an appreciation for how different composers work with studio musicians. My favorite anecdote had composer Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3, The Fate of the Furious) describing his method for determining a score's effectiveness: he hides in toilet stalls to hear if anyone comes into the theater restroom humming his tunes. The screening was followed by a lively Q&A with director Schrader and composer John Debney (The Jungle Book).

Yourself and Yours (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
I'd have to go back 10 years to find a Hong film I enjoyed less than this one, a surprise given the one-two knock-out punches of 2015's hilarious Hill of Freedom and 2016's deeply moving Right Now, Wrong Then. I'll admit that I fell asleep twice, which could be a problem in a film with possible twins and/or doppelgangers. Anyway, I plan to revisit it ASAP. Fortunately, I'm a SFFILM member and Yourself and Yours is one of 15 films from this year's festival available to stream for free in the organization's Screening Room.

The Lost City of Z (USA dir. James Gray)
I decided to pass up Beach Rats, a film I was dying to see, in order to catch director James Gray in person presenting his latest work. While this engaging-enough mini-epic about an early 20th century Amazonian explorer proved Gray's least interesting film to date, the director himself decidedly did not disappointment. He held the festival audience captive, regaling us with one production "war story" after the next (including how the indigenous peoples who appear in the film asked for two things in return for their participation – help constructing an irrigation system and a shipment of Lands' End cargo shorts). Out Woody-ing Woody Allen in his halting Brooklyn-ese accent, Gray also proved a master impressionist, taking on Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo as well as Benedict Cumberbatch (in a recreation of his phone call to Gray wherein he withdrew from Lost City of Z two weeks before production started).

VR Days 
The highlight of this year's virtual reality showcase was Dreams of O, a tripped-out, slightly creepy in-your-face adaptation of Cirque du Soleil's aqua-spectacular. It came as no surprise to learn that its creators, Felix & Paul Studios, were also behind Nomad: Sea Gypsies, my favorite piece from last year's VR Days (see my review here). I was also taken by Connor Hair and Alex Meader's My Brother's Keeper, in which the viewer intimately experiences the tragedy of siblings fighting on opposite sides of America's Civil War. The wistfulness of Patrick Osborne's Oscar-nominated Pearl, wherein the participant sits in a car's passenger seat and witnesses the years-long evolution of a father-daughter relationship, also made an impression.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (USA dir. David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg)
One of the big thrills of this year's fest was sitting across the aisle from bow-tied Mr. Nye as we both watched this tribute to his life and work. Shot over the course of two years, the doc pays tribute to Nye's adulation by America's schoolchildren and follows his involvement as CEO of Carl Sagan's The Planetary Society as it successfully launches a solar sail project into space. A big chunk is also devoted to his role as the public face of opposition to evolution and climate change deniers, specifically his battles with creationist theme park huckster Ken Ham and bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi. More personally, the film looks at Nye's reason for never having children – the Ataxia disease which profoundly affected his brother and sister. It pained me to skip out on the post-screening panel discussion in order to catch my next movie.

Endless Poetry (Chile/France dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Latin America's master surrealist once again employs exquisite artifice and outsized emotions in the service of presenting his life story, making this my hands-down favorite film of the festival. The movie picks up where 2013's The Dance of Reality left off, with the director's family leaving tiny Tocopilla for Santiago, where he'll evolve into a celebrated young poet. Endless Poetry concludes with Jodorowsky's departure for Paris, and we can only hope that the 88-year-old filmmaker lives long enough to see this intended five-part project to its conclusion. In addition to being the film's U.S. premiere, the screening was augmented by special guest Bob Taicher, a longtime friend of Jodorowsky's who executive-produced 1973's The Holy Mountain. For those who missed it, Endless Poetry opens in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on July 21.

Asian Dub Foundation: Live Score of George Lucas' THX 1138 (USA 1971)
As a cinephile and four-decade San Francisco resident, I've always been embarrassed to admit I've never seen THX1138. I've resisted because the clips always made it look, well, kind of boring. I still can't say I've seen the film as Lucas intended, but boy did I ever have a blast watching it to the live throbbing beats of the UK's Asian Dub Foundation. I detected little of Lalo Schifrin's original score (was it even audible?) and appreciated that the film's dialogue was necessarily close-captioned. It was a kick watching the Broadway tunnel chase scene, and of course, the futuristic humanoids trudging through the same BART stations I do. Question: can anyone tell me why all the POC in the film are holograms?

The Death of Louis XIV (France dir. Albert Serra)
This intimate and atmospheric portrait of the Sun King's final days just continues to grow in my estimation. It's composed of dozens of lovely moments that revel in the royal decorum of the era. We observe as a succession of servants, family members, doctors, advisors and courtly hangers-on all come to fuss over their beloved Sire, whose gangrenous leg is slowly transporting him to the grave. At the center of it all is Jean-Pierre Léaud's exquisitely haunting performance as Louis, a venerated yet vulnerable man in a big wig, at repose in a little bed.

Brimstone & Glory (USA dir. Viktor Jakovleski)
The Castro Theatre's enormous screen was the perfect place to witness this spectacular documentary about Mexico's National Pyrotechnic Festival. Shot over the course of three years in the town of Tultepec, where virtually every inhabitant is involved in the manufacturing of fireworks (and virtually every building displays a "PELIGRO" sign), the film invites the audience to participate in the festival's incendiary insanity from the safety of a cinema seat. I was not disappointed Brimstone & Glory won the top prize in the Golden Gate Documentary Feature Competition.

Patti Cake$ (USA dir. Geremy Jasper)
This year's Centerpiece Film was a full-on crowd pleaser about the fable-esque rise of a plus-sized, put-upon, white female rapper in New Jersey. The film's boundless energy and propulsive music scenes more than made up for any script misgivings, such as an out-of-nowhere sex scene between Patti and her socially maladjusted music producer. Australian actress Danielle Macdonald gives an unforgettable performance and was on hand for a Q&A in which she talked about the difficulties of learning a NJ accent, learning to rap and learning to rap in a NJ accent.

Everything Else (Mexico dir. Natalia Almada)
It seemed like everyone but me admired this portrait of a lonely, middle-aged female government bureaucrat in Mexico City. The film even won the festival's New Directors Prize. Now I'm as much as fan of "humanism, consistency of vision and formal rigor" as the next cinephile, but sitting through this movie was a ponderously opaque chore. I thought I'd go insane if I had to watch one more scene of her pulling up or pulling down her pantyhose, one more scene of her moping around a public pool, one more scene of her riding the subway, one more scene of her writing in that mysterious ledger she kept at home, one more scene of her, well, doing almost anything.

A Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan
The personal appearance of the world's biggest movie star was, as I mightily expected, the most spectacular thing I experienced at SFFILM Festival 60. I was lucky to have a close-up view of the proceedings, first as I watched SRK's security guards spend 10 minutes hustling him from his limo to the Castro Theatre's front door while surrounded by a Day of the Locusts-sized mob. From my seat near the stage, I got to watch Khan graciously play to his shrieking fan-base and later eloquently navigate the on-stage interview. Regrettably, the conductor of that interview was Rush Hour franchise director Brett Ratner, whose rambling questions were inane and borderline self-serving. The corker was when he implied that Khan's career could be best served by starring in a movie disguised as a Caucasian. The blowback from the audience was brutal and Ratner hadn't a clue as to why. To the festival's credit, he was apparently Khan's choice, so go figure. Because Ratner initially blew off the house manager's instruction to begin the audience Q&A, there was only time for two queries from the crowd. I decided not to stick around for the screening of My Name is Khan and soon found myself on the sidewalk watching the actor wave to a swarm of fans on Castro Street from his limousine perch. For a detailed account of the evening, I recommend reading Reena Rathore' excellent piece at Indiawest.

The Stopover (France/Greece dir. Delphine & Muriel Coulin)
The titular stopover refers to a "decompression" holiday at a ritzy Cyprus beach resort taken by French soldiers traveling home from Afghanistan. For three days they endure VR-enhanced recreations of their shared war experiences, for the purpose of determining who among them is damaged enough to warrant private shrink sessions. For the female soldiers, however, this "burkas to thongs" transition only serves to remind them of the double jeopardy placed upon them by all societies. Those female soldiers are effectively played by Ariane Labed, the French-Greek actress who has become reason enough to see any movie she stars in, and French rock singer/actress Soko. This was one of my top five films of the fest, and a huge leap forward for the filmmaking Coulin sisters, whose previous film was a ludicrous story about 17 high school girlfriends all deciding to get pregnant together (17 Girls).

Canyon Cinema 50: Guy Maddin Presents The Great Blondino
I considered skipping this tribute to San Francisco's beloved experimental/avant garde distribution company when it was announced that Guy Maddin would not be on hand to personally present his curated selections. The festival nicely rebounded from his absence, however, by having an on-stage Q&A with a stand-in (National Film Preservation Foundation's executive director Jeff Lambert) reading Maddin's pithy emailed responses aloud. As for the four Canyon catalogue films screened (all in 16mm!), I was both amused and disturbed by Gary Goldberg's Mesmer, and particularly appreciated the vintage Bay Area looniness of 1967's The Great Blondino. Perhaps most impressive of all was the roster of tribute attendees. Seated in the audience was a veritable who's who of Bay Area filmmakers, programmers, exhibitors, publicists and cinema scenesters.

The Ornithologist (Portugal dir. João Pedro Rodrigues)
"There are certain things we shouldn't try to understand" is a salient line that arrives near the end of this phantasmagoric odyssey that's both a loopy St. Anthony biopic and an introspective profile of its director's psyche. Those "certain things" not to be understood include topless Amazonian huntresses who speak Latin, a forest of gigantic stuffed animals, riverside gay sex with a wilderness spirit and a pair of lost Chinese lesbian pilgrims who rescue our hero after his kayak capsizes. Even with that said, The Ornithologist is possibly Rodrigues' most accessible and fully realized vision to date and I can't wait to see it again when it opens at Landmark Theatres on July 7.

Maliglutit (Searchers) (Canada dir. Zacharias Kunuk)
My 2017 festival ended with this Inuit bride-knapping tale. While it boasts strong ethnographic interest, I found it neither as dramatically compelling or as filled with richly drawn characters as the director's masterful Atanajurant: The Fast Runner from 2001.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

SFFILM Festival 60 – The Films

Now that we've had a look at the SFFILM Festival 60 programs announced prior to the opening press conference as well as the Big Nights, Awards & Tributes and Special Events, it's time to zero in on the movies themselves. By my count, there are 100 feature films in this year's fest, which breaks down to 66 narrative and 34 documentary features. Ten of those are revival/repertory screenings. Here's my subjective round-the-world overview of the highlights, accompanied by a few words on those I've had the opportunity to preview.


We'll begin our tour with the French language selections. I had hoped the departure of SFFILM's French Cinema Now mini-fest would inspire an expanded French line-up, but the roster measures with years past. Within that roster, however, lies a sizable chunk of 2016's preeminent French flicks. Leading the pack is The Unknown Girl from Belgian master auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It premiered in Cannes' competition to some of the most lackluster reviews of their career, which is perhaps why the film has taken 11 months to reach the Bay Area. Those reviews hardly diminish my desire to see it – after all, it IS the Dardenne Brothers. The fact that The Unknown Girl also stars Adèle Haenel, who made such a resounding impression in 2014's Love at First Fight, and includes supporting roles for Dardenne-land habitués Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, seals the deal for me.

One of the most revered names in French cinema is Jean-Pierre Léaud, who debuted as a child actor in 1958's New Wave classic The 400 Blows. At age 72 he caps a hallowed career as the lead in The Death of Louis XIV, for which the actor reportedly stayed in character for the entire 15-day shoot. The movie is by experimental Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra, who dipped a little toe into mainstream-ish movie-making with 2013's Casanova-meets-Dracula fantasy Story of My Death. Louis XIV has triggered Serra's warmest critical reception to date. A second mid-career director who generated rave reviews last year was Katell Quillévéré, whom Bay Area cinephiles might remember from French Cinema Now selections Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013). Her latest, Heal the Living, is a poetic drama set in the world of organ transplants (of all things) and stars Tahir Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner and the great Anne Dorval (best known for her maternal turns in the films of Xavier Dolan).

A third important mid-career French director is Bertrand Bonello, who personally attended 2015's festival with his delightfully raunchy and oversized Saint Laurent biopic. His equally controversial and well received Nocturama, which I was able to view at a press screening, hits the festival with a lone presentation at the Castro on April 7. The new movie centers on a group of multi-culti young French radicals who execute an intricately planned quartet of terrorist acts in Paris. Afterwards, they re-group and hide out in an upscale urban shopping mall. Unfortunately, Nocturama's intense, highly calibrated first half comes undone in the second, when these young masterminds inexplicably transform into millennial knuckleheads who fully deserve the ensemble Darwin Award that befalls them.

Elsewhere in the Francophile-sphere we have a glossy-looking Marie Curie biopic from German director Marie Noëlle, and a behind-the-scenes documentary about The Paris Opera (in the event that Frederick Wiseman's 159-minute doc La Danse left you hungry). I especially look forward to catching The Stopover, a pointed social drama starring French-Greek actress Ariane Labed (Attenberg, The Lobster) as an Afghanistan war vet decompressing at a Cyprus seaside resort. The film is by sibling directors Delphine and Muriel Collin, whom fest-goers might remember from their 2011 debut 17 Girls. Finally, in what could be the most inspired repertory/revival screening of the entire festival, we have a 50th anniversary presentation of Story of a 3-Day Pass. This romantic drama about a black American G.I. on leave in France was novelist-filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles' (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) feature debut. It's worth noting that SFFILM members can access the organization's screening room, where many festival films will eventually stream for free. Story of a 3-Day Pass is the first title they've announced.

Of the remaining Western European films playing SFFILM Fest, I'm most excited about João Pedro Rodrigues' The Ornithologist. The Portuguese maverick's latest, for which he won Best Director at 2016's Locarno Film Fest, has been intriguingly described as everything from a "happily blasphemous" St. Anthony biopic to a cross between Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake. Another European LGBT prize-winner playing the fest is Francis Lee's God's Own Country. Lee took Sundance's Directing Award in World Cinema for this Brokeback Mountain-ish tale set amidst the Yorkshire moors.

Two other Western European films piquing my interest are the UK's Lady Macbeth, which transports the Russian novella "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" (source of the Shostakovich opera) to Victorian England, and Park, wherein disaffected Greek youth live out a nihilistic existence among the ruins of Athens' 2004 Olympics. I'm also likely to take a look at Spain's Next Skin, if for no other reason than it stars Sergi López and Bruno Todeschini. Director Isaki Lacuesta's previous feature, The Double Steps, played the festival in 2012. I previewed and heartily recommend Mister Universo, an Austria/Italy co-production by documentarians Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. I was a huge fan of La Pivellina, which screened in 2010 and landed in my Ten Best list. Their new work rejoins one of Pivellina's protagonists, a young down-on-his-luck Italian lion tamer, as he tracks down a circus strongman who once gave him a treasured talisman.

There are three Eastern European films in the festival, all of which I've watched and recommend to varying degrees. The one not to miss is Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada, a 3-hour familial dramedy set almost entirely within a cramped Bucharest apartment as an extended family gathers to honor their recently deceased patriarch. Puiu is one of the greats of Romanian New Wave and his latest equals previous masterworks like The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005) and Aurora (2010). The festival's only new Russian film is Kiril Serebrennikov's The Student, a somewhat overwrought satire on post-Communist Russia's newfound hyper-religiosity. Its protagonist Venya wages a one-man war against "depravity" at his high school, which includes getting bikinis banned in swim class and terrorizing a Darwinism lecture dressed in a gorilla suit. I was particularly taken by the film's wide-screen compositions, candy-glossed interiors and agitated camera movements.

God's role in a post-Communist world also informs Ralitza Petrova's bleak and austere Godless, in which a morphine-addicted Bulgarian homecare nurse steals her clients' ID cards so her boyfriend can sell them on the black market. The film's milieu of hopelessness gets fed by a murky plot, boxy aspect ratio, sludge pacing and wintry mise-en-scène of soulless public housing blocks. It also has a WTF ending I'd appreciate having someone explain. Godless won prizes for Best Film (Golden Leopard) and Best Actress at last year's Locarno Film Festival.


Hong Sang-soo's Yourself and Yours is the Asian film I'm most anticipating at SFFILM Festival 60. It's the South Korean master's 18th feature in 21 years and I'm grateful this festival religiously keeps us abreast of his work (his Right Now, Wrong Then was my second favorite film of last year). Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker Magazine described Yourself and Yours as "intermittently very funny but also an emotional horror movie" that's the director's "most structurally radical film yet," which for Hong is saying something. During the festival I'm also keen to see Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time It Gets Dark, which finds the Thai filmmaker riffing on a 1976 student protest that was brutally suppressed by government forces. I was very impressed by the director's earlier work, Mundane History, when it screened at CAAMFest back in 2010. I'm also scheduled to catch The Cinema Travellers, a promising-sounding doc about India's mobile movie caravans.

The only Asian film I had a chance to preview was Brillante Mendoza's Ma' Rosa. Like his notorious 2009 Cannes shocker Kinatay, it's a portrait of Philippines police corruption. As is the case with many Mendoza films, Ma' Rosa features a strong female protagonist, in this case a shopkeeper who runs a small notions store on the ground floor of her family home. She also sells drugs to make ends meet, sparking a police raid that results in Ma' Rosa and her (addict) husband being dragged to police HQ and basically held for ransom. Ma' Rosa's dynamic first half-hour reminded me of the breathtaking police slum raid that kicked off Mendoza's 2007 Slingshot, my first unforgettable exposure to this director. Frankly, I'll be surprised if I experience a more bravura piece of filmmaking this year. The energy tapers off in the second half as it becomes concerned with the attempts of Ma' Rosa's three children to raise bail money. That doesn't render the film any less affecting. Jaclyn Jose won Cannes' Best Actress prize for her titular performance.

Latin America

There were two Latin American films on my festival wish list and I was thrilled both made the line-up. Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's autobiographical Endless Poetry picks up where 2013's Dance of Reality left off. His personage, once again played by the director's son Adan, is now in his 20's, freed from his oppressive provincial family and living a poet's life in Santiago. Endless Poetry debuted in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and its April 10 screening at the Roxie Theater will be the film's U.S. premiere. My other must-see from the region is Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante's The Untamed. Following on the heels of 2013's brutal drug cartel drama Heli, for which he won a Best Director prize at Cannes, The Untamed appears to present a new direction for Escalante. Guy Lodge at Variety tantalizingly describes the film as a "strange stew of socially conscious domestic drama and tentacular sci-fi erotica." The Untamed premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, where Escalante was once again awarded a Best Director prize.

I had the chance to preview The Human Surge, a big-buzz 2016 debut feature from Argentine director Eduardo Williams. This singular work is "about" young people in three different locales – Buenos Aires, Mozambique and the Philippines – and their relationship to technology. Someone is always seeking a functioning internet connection. Shot in quasi-documentary style, Williams' film conveys a tremendous sense of place, with elaborate tracking shots that leave the viewer wondering, how'd they do that? Most of the talk surrounding The Human Surge rightly focuses on the awe-inspiring transition sequences that link the film's three locations. One involves an anthill and I'll let the other remain a surprise.

Although none of Argentina's top directors released new films in 2016, the festival still managed to assemble the four-film World Cinema Spotlight, Argentina: A National Cinema in Movement. Apart from The Human Surge, Matías Piñeiro's Hermia & Helena has achieved the most international recognition. The director's recent films have all been oblique Shakespearean riffs, with his latest taking on A Midsummer Night's Dream in a New York City setting. Other titles in the sidebar include Nele Wohlatz' The Future Perfect, about a rebellious Chinese Buenos Aires teenage girl, and Emiliano Torres' Patagonia-set The Winter.


As always, the festival's bulk is comprised of new works by domestic narrative and documentary feature filmmakers.The top three U.S. narrative films I'm hoping to catch are Beach Rats, The Incredible Jessica James and The Transfiguration, which all appear to share a NYC setting. Beach Rats is the highly praised second feature from director Eliza Hittman. Her poetic portrait of a rough-edged Brooklyn teen who secretly pursues older gay men on-line won Hittman Sundance's Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. As a big fan of former The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, I was taken by her strong supporting performance in Jim Strouse's 2015 People Places Things. The director's new film, a rom-com with the uninspiring title of The Incredible Jessica James, was written specifically for Williams and co-stars Chris O'Dowd. Premiering in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes and screening in our festival's Dark Wave section, Michael O'Shea's elevated genre piece The Transfiguration imagines the life of a teenage African-American vampire.

A handful of well-established U.S. indie filmmakers have new movies playing SFFILM Fest. Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip, The Color Wheel) – stop the presses – has made yet another movie about brittle, unlikeable people. His Golden Exits boasts a promising cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Cholë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker and ex-Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. Festival-mainstay Michael Almereyda, whose Experimenter screened on closing night two years ago, comes to SF once again with Marjorie Prime. Mad Men's Jon Hamm stars as a hologram employed to spark memories in a dementia patient (Lois Smith, reprising the stage role she originated). Experimental composer Mica Levi (Jackie) supplies the music and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins co-star.

Also attending this year's festival will be acclaimed director James Gray (Little Odessa, Two Lovers). His adventure yarn The Lost City of Z stars Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson as early 20th century explorers seeking a mythic city in the Amazon jungle. It's also worth noting new films from Interior. Leather Bar director-provocateur Travis Mathews (Discreet) and another SFFILM Fest regular, Mike Ott (California Dreams). Finally, star-gazers need to know that Ellen Burstyn (recipient of the festival's 2016 Peter J. Owens Acting Award) will be on hand for the screening of House of Tomorrow and Kevin Bacon will pop up at the 2-episode presentation of Amazon Studios' new TV series I Love Dick.

Moving on to U.S. documentaries, I'm sure the most popular will prove to be Long Strange Trip. Amir Bar-Lev's four-hour profile of the Grateful Dead screens just once, at the Castro on April 15. I disliked the Dead even in my hippie daze, so I'll be giving this one a pass. The music doc I wouldn't dream of missing is Matt Schrader's Score: A Film Music Documentary, which profiles movie composers Ennio Morricone, Mark Mothersbaugh, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Alexandre Desplat and of course, Bernard Herrmann. Speaking of Herrmann, I'm equally excited about the Dark Wave doc 78/52, which promises to analyze Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene to within an inch of its life. The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's film refers to Psycho's 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits.

Documentaries that survey the lives of notable people are a festival staple. If I only catch one this year it'll be Bill Nye: Science Guy, a personal hero of mine who famously spends much of his time debating creationists and climate change deniers on TV. The April 10 screening will feature a Q&A and conversation between Nye, directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, and Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, former Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. Festival-goers interested in Bill Nye will also want to see Chasing Coral, Jeff Orlowski's look at how rising sea temperatures have decimated the world's coral reefs. Orlowski also directed the impressively frightening Chasing Ice, which the fest played in 2012.

Other personality profile docs in the festival include Dolores, Peter Bratt's look at the work of iconic Latina political activist Dolores Huerta, and This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous from Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple. I had never heard of the transgender YouTube sensation who currently has 2.5 million subscribers, but the fact that Kopple chose to document her story certainly makes this worthy of attention. Following the April 12 screening, Gigi Gorgeous and Kopple will be joined by Ian Roth of YouTube Originals and other guests for a discussion about social media's impact on our lives. Of the many remaining documentaries playing the festival I'll briefly mention three. Former Persistence of Vision award winner Jem Cohen returns with World Without End (No Reported Incidents), an impressionistic portrait of British resort town Southend-on-Sea. Brian Knappenberger's timely Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press uses the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media brouhaha to explore a very timely issue. Then in Casting JonBenet, director Kitty Green offers a fresh take on the infamous (and still unsolved) murder of a six-year-old beauty queen.