Thursday, October 4, 2018

MVFF41 2018

For most of its life, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) was best recognized for showcasing domestic Awards Season contenders, documentaries, shorts and world cinema "discoveries." Now with its 41st edition (October 4 – 14), the fest continues along a trajectory that began a half dozen years ago, with greater emphasis on prize winners and buzzed-about titles from the world's major festivals. When it comes to turning Bay Area audiences on to new works by significant international narrative filmmakers, MVFF is currently where it's at.

Although I recently moved from the Bay Area and won't experience 2018's event in person, I couldn't help but share my excitement with the line-up. What follows is a subjective festival-by-festival stroll through MVFF41's terrific roster, with thoughts on a few titles I was able to preview.


By the time autumn rolls around, most Sundance films have already played the Bay Area, with the lion's share debuting locally at the SFFILM Festival. Each year, however, there is one Sundance film that is so critically acclaimed, its release is postponed for maximum Awards Season exposure. Last year that film was Call Me By Your Name. This year it's actor Paul Dano's directorial debut, Wild Life, a familial drama set in 1960's Montana starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film receives a Spotlight presentation at MVFF41, with Dano and Mulligan in attendance, and will open in local Landmark Theatres on October 26. Another Sundance holdout getting the Mill Valley Spotlight treatment is The Kindergarten Teacher, accompanied by its star Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie is a remake of Nadav Lapid's acclaimed 2014 Israeli drama about a teacher's obsession with a boy who composes alarmingly sophisticated poetry. Director Sara Colangelo won a Sundance Directing Award for her reinterpretation. The Kindergarten Teacher is scheduled to open at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on October 12, the very day it also becomes available to stream on Netflix.

Premiering in Sundance's World Cinema dramatic competition this year was Babis Makridis' Pity, which I had the chance to preview. This bone-dry, absurdist film fits squarely within the Greek Weird Wave movement, unsurprising given its script was co-written by frequent Yorgos "Dogtooth" Lanthimos co-conspirator Efthymis Filippou. Yannis Drakopoulos (Chevalier) plays a middle-aged Greek lawyer who festishistically wallows in the pity afforded him by merit of having a comatose wife. When she miraculously recovers, we witness the extremes to which the lawyer goes in order to keep his pity party going, such as setting off a tear gas canister to forcibly kick-start a crying jag. Although rigidly formalist – with minimal camera movement or non-ambient music, deadpan dialogue delivery, lethargic pacing and intertitles expressing the protagonist's inner thoughts – there are several moments of gut-busting hilarity. This is a movie that requires much patience, for which the viewer is ultimately rewarded.


While MVFF chose not to program Touch Me Not, the divisive recipient of this year's Golden Bear, it nabbed a number of other Berlin prizewinners. The festival's Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize (aka 2nd place) went to Mug, director Malgorzata Szumowska's fable-esque satire of life in rural Poland. Her film concerns the prejudices faced by a young man who undergoes a facial transplant, following a work-related accident constructing a hillside, Rio-sized Jesus statue. The best screenplay prize at Berlin was awarded to Museo, Alonso Ruizpalacios' impressive follow-up to 2014's Gueros, which I had the good fortune to preview. Based on true events, this rollicking and enormously entertaining heist/road movie combo stars Gael García Bernal as one-half of a duo who rob Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve in 1985. The film's manic second half follows its anti-heroes as they face the impossibility of fencing hot antiquities. Director Ruizpalacios is expected to attend the festival, and his film will open at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre on November 2.

A second Ibero-American film that won a Berlin prize is The Silence of Others, which was executive produced by brothers Augustín and Pedro Almodóvar. This documentary about the victims of General Franco's 40-year fascist dictatorship in Spain garnered the audience award in the festival's Panorama sidebar. Its co-director Robert Bahar will attend the film's MVFF screenings.

Three additional Berlin premieres I had the opportunity to preview were all women-directed films centered on rebellious female characters. I would ordinarily have zero interest in a movie about the early life of the Swedish writer who created Pippi Longstocking, but a rave review in Variety convinced me otherwise. Pernille Fischer Christensen's Becoming Astrid is indeed notches above your standard biopic – a low-key, heartfelt, gorgeously filmed wide-screen portrait tracing writer Astrid Lindgren's journey from restive farm girl with journalistic aspirations to a single mother tempered by hard knocks on the cusp of literary fame. In When the Trees Fall, Marysia Nikitiuk's alternately gritty and fanciful story of amour fou, the life of a rural Ukrainian beauty spills into tumult over her passion for a handsome, smalltime thug. I was particularly struck by the film's contrasts – sensual agrarian landscapes vs. ugly Soviet-era apartment blocks, semi-explicit sex and violence vs. flights of magical realist fantasy. The latter element plays into what could be the most memorable end of a film I've experienced this year. Director Nikitiuk is expected to accompany both MVFF showings of When the Trees Fall.

Laura Bispuri's Daughter of Mine was probably my favorite of all the MVFF films I previewed, a surprise considering my tepid feelings for her previous work, Sworn Virgin. In this emotionally complex, empathetic story of motherhood and forgiveness, a young Sardinian girl gradually learns that her real mother is not the benevolent woman who raised her, but the mercurial town slut whom is she is beginning to physically resemble. Bispuri employs handheld camera and succinct editing to convey the urgency of the two mothers' power struggle, and is aided by a trio of unforgettable performances (including Sworn Virgin star Alba Rohrwacher). The great cult actor Udo Kier is largely wasted in a nondescript supporting role.

I was also greatly taken with Transit, from eminent German filmmaker Christian Petzold. His latest is a knotty, formalist melodrama set in Marseilles during the early advance of German troops through WWII France. Actor Franz Rogowski plays a concentration camp survivor awaiting the transit visas that will allow him safe passage to Mexico. The fact that he has assumed the identity of a dead writer whose estranged wife drifts in and out of the story adds layer upon layer to the film's intrigue. Petzold's extremely bold conceit with Transit is that no effort was made to give the film a period look. The art direction and costumes are all contemporary, with modern day cars traversing Marseille's graffiti-lined streets (cell phones and other technology, however, remain unseen). There's even a spoken reference to a "film in which zombies besiege a shopping mall." The director's clear and quite brilliant intent in all this is to show us how close we are to repeating history.


One could arguably have a sublime MVFF41 experience just by catching the 14 titles culled from this year's Cannes Film Festival, including seven that screened in the main competition. Starting at the top, there's Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters, which won the fest's 2018 Palme d'Or. The supremely humanist director's latest centers on a family living on the economic fringes of modern day Japan. Cannes' third-place Prix du Jury was awarded to Nadine Labaki's Capernaum, a Lebanon-set contemporary fable about a young boy who files a lawsuit against his parents. One of the most anticipated films of the year is Cold War, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's follow-up to his 2013 Oscar winner, Ida. The filmmaker won Cannes' Best Director prize for this elliptical, trans-European B&W saga of star-crossed love between a singer and a jazz musician, loosely based on Pawlikowski's parents. Cold War will screen just once at the festival, accompanied by an on-stage conversation with the director and presentation of this year's MVFF Award.

If there was a scandal in the distribution of main competition prizes at Cannes this year, it was that Lee Chang-dong's unanimously rave-reviewed Burning left empty handed. In a redress of sorts, the festival's FIPRESCI jury awarded Lee's first film since 2010's Poetry its top prize. Burning is scheduled to open at local Landmark Theatres on November 16. The remaining Cannes' competition titles scheduled for MVFF include Ash is Purest White, the latest from "Sixth Generation" Chinese auteur Jia Zhengke, 3 Faces, the fourth clandestine film to be directed by Iranian master Jafar Panahi since his 2010 arrest and subsequent ban from movie-making, and Yomeddine, a road movie and first feature from Egyptian director A.B. Shawsky in which a leper and an orphan search for their respective families. Yomeddine will also screen locally at this month's Arab Film Festival. Although it didn't play in competition, this is as good a place as any to mention Cannes' 2018 opening night film, Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows. The Iranian director's follow-up to 2016's Oscar-winning The Salesman is a Spain-set kidnapping drama starring Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Ricardo Darin. Although it received extremely mixed reviews, it's admirable of MVFF to afford local audiences the opportunity to judge for themselves.

In addition to the seven competition titles, MVFF has programmed some of the most talked about films from Cannes' various sidebars. Opening up the Directors' Fortnight line-up this year was Ciro Guerra's Birds of Passage. The Columbian director's follow-up to his phenomenal 2015 Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent is a familial drug-war drama set amongst that country's indigenous Wayúu tribe. Also hailing from Directors' Fortnight is Benedikt Erlingsson's rave-reviewed Woman at War, an Icelandic social drama about an environmental activist which is also tinged with comedy and music. Anyone who saw Erlingsson's singular 2013 film Of Horses and Men will know to expect the unexpected.

MVFF also presents four films from Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, including two prize winners. The section's top award was given to Ali Abbasi's Border. A Nordic Noir with supernatural elements, Border's main character is a facially disfigured Danish customs agent possessed of the ability to (literally) sniff out transgressors. Un Certain Regard's screenplay award was given to Sofia, whose writer/director Meryem Benm'Berek will attend MVFF. Her film details the plight of a young Moroccan woman who clandestinely gives birth, and is then given 24 hours to name a father or face prison time. Luis Ortega's El Angel is a fictionalized portrait of Argentina's infamous baby-faced serial killer "Carlitos" Puch, who committed over 40 thefts and 11 homicides before his 1972 capture at age 20. (Still in custody today, he is the longest serving prisoner in that country's history). El Angel arrives in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on November 16.

Rounding out MVFF's wide variety of movies from Un Certain Regard is Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki, the lone Cannes selection I was able to preview. In this rare example of African LGBT-themed cinema, a middle-class Kenyan tomboy with aspirations of becoming a nurse becomes involved with a sensual town beauty. The catch is that both their fathers are running for the same political office. While Rafiki (which means "friend" in Swahili) isn't particularly compelling in terms of cinematic achievement, it is nonetheless chock full of cultural interest, with solid performances and a gallery of interesting secondary characters. It's also mostly in English, which is might be a good selling point for those who are subtitle-averse.


I'm lumping the triumvirate of Venice, Toronto and Telluride into one category because most of the movies up for Awards Seasons consideration hail from one or more of these late summer festivals. Exhibiting awards contenders, more often than not accompanied by their respective actors and directors, has been MVFF's longtime forte. That tradition continues into the fest's 41st edition, starting with the opening night presentation of Green Book. The title refers to "The Negro Motorist Green Book," a guide for African American travelers wishing to avoid racial discrimination along America's highways and bi-ways, which was in print from 1936 to 1966. The film Green Book recounts a 1962 concert tour taken by composer/pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), accompanied by his racist, Italian-American chauffeur and bodyguard Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen carrying 30 extra pounds). This Driving Miss Daisy in reverse was directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, one-half of the Farrelly Brothers who gave us Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, etc.) Fresh from its Audience Award win at Toronto, MVFF's opening night will feature director Farrelly and star Mahershala Ali in person. Speaking of Ali, the festival's closing night film will be If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. The filmmaker's follow-up to his 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner is an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel. Jenkins will attend the screening, accompanied by its star, actress Kiki Layne.

Two of the most prominent films of this Awards Season, as these things sometimes happen, both contain "boy" in their two-word titles. Beautiful Boy is an adaptation of David and Nic Sheff's best-selling father/son memoirs detailing their family's years-long struggle with addiction, relapse and recovery. The film is directed by Felix Van Groeningun (Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown) and stars Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell and Amy Ryan. The filmmaker and all three actors will be on hand for the screening. The other "boy" film is Boy Erased, in which a gay teen (Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges) is forced into a gay conversion therapy program by his Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman). Boy Erased reps actor/filmmaker Joel Edgerton's directorial follow-up to 2016's Loving (he also plays the conversion program's head therapist) and the movie's intriguing supporting cast includes French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan and Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea. The film is part of a MVFF Spotlight on Joel Edgerton, with the actor/director in attendance. Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased are scheduled to arrive at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on October 19 and November 2 respectively.

One much-anticipated film that played all three festivals is Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, which went on to win the top prize (Golden Lion) at Venice. Cuaron's first film since 2015's Gravity is a semi-autobiographical B&W meditation on the director's early 1970's Mexico City childhood, with particular focus bestowed upon the family maid, Cleo. Mexico has chosen Roma as its 2018 Oscar submission, and it's not inconceivable the film could end up being nominated in both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories. Cuaron will be at MVFF to introduce the film personally, where it screens as the festival's Centerpiece.

Other MVFF selections by high-profile auteurs I can't wait to see include Paul Greengrass' 22 July (an English-language recreation of Norway's bloody 2011 domestic terrorist attack, which opens in local Landmark Theatres and Netflix streaming on October 10), Yorgos Lanthimos' first period piece The Favourite (which won a Best Actress prize at Venice for lead Olivia Colman), Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction (working once again with Juliet Binoche), Mike Leigh's historical epic Peterloo, and Widows, Steve McQueen's long awaited follow-up to 12 Years a Slave (starring Viola Davis as a crime widow making good on her deceased husband's heist plans).

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Frameline42 2018 – World Cinema

Recognized as the oldest and largest LGBTQ film event in the world, the Bay Area's Frameline festival will celebrate its 42nd edition from June 14 to 24. I've attended the fest since its early beginnings and in my experience, the foreign language narrative features are consistently the most interesting and accomplished works on view. To that end, I'll be spotlighting 10 movies largely culled from Frameline42's World Cinema sidebar, eight of which I've had the opportunity to preview.

The two World Cinema selections not available to preview also happen to be the ones with the most cachet, at least in terms of recognizable stars and festival prizes. Topping the list of films I anticipate catching during the festival proper is Anne Fontaine's Reinventing Marvin, winner of the Queer Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. Told through a series of flashbacks, it's the story of a bullied queer boy in the French provinces who leaves his brutish family to study theater in Paris. There he falls under the sway of a sugar daddy who introduces him to Oscar-nominated actress Isabelle Huppert (playing herself!), who in turn helps Marvin produce a cathartic one-man performance piece. The young adult Marvin is played by rising British-French actor Finnegan Oldfield, who has given memorable supporting performances in movies screened locally by SFFILM in recent years (Nocturama, Les Cowboys, Heal the Living). In addition to grande dame Huppert, Reinventing Marvin boasts a cast of familiar French actors that includes Charles Berling, Grégory Gadebois and Vincent Macaigne. Quite shockingly, the movie does not have a U.S. distributor. (It seems the kind of thing Strand Releasing would have snapped up in a heartbeat). Therefore, Frameline's lone screening at the Castro Theatre on June 22, which is also the film's U.S. premiere, could wind up being the only opportunity we'll ever have to view it.

The other film I'm tremendously excited about seeing during the fest is The Heiresses. This feature film debut by Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi won three of the top prizes at this year's Berlin Film Festival, including the FIPRESCI critics' prize and the prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize, the latter awarded to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." Berlin's best actress award went to Ana Brun, making her screen acting debut in the role of Chela, a middle-aged lesbian of evaporating privilege who has begun selling off her family's fineries. After her lover of 30 years goes to prison for fraud, Chela falls into the role of de facto chauffeur for all her remaining rich friends. Martinessi's character study cum social critique garnered unanimous rave reviews. The Heiresses did acquire a minor U.S. distributor (Distrib Films) but I'd say chances of it showing up in cinemas outside L.A./N.Y. are pretty iffy.

The Berlin Film Festival's Teddy Award is considered the world's most esteemed prize for LGBTQ cinema. The 2018 Teddy for best narrative feature went to Brazilian directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon's Hard Paint, a Frameline42 Showcase presentation that's the first of eight films I was able to screen in advance. Set in the coastal city of Porto Alegre, the film concerns itself with the fate of Pedro, a dour young man who's awaiting trial on assault charges for blinding someone who bullied him. His supportive older sister is about to move cross country, and he's barely supporting himself by staging webcam sex shows wherein his body is smeared with florescent paints. Things begin to look up when he romantically and professionally aligns himself with Leo, a dancer who shares his penchant for Day-Glo. When Leo moves to Berlin, however, Pedro's life continues its downward trajectory. While I admired Hard Paint as a moody, empathetic character study, I ultimately found it rambling, anemic and overlong. The soundtrack of Brazilian EDM is extremely good and put to effective use. Directors Matzembacher and Reolon are expected to attend the film's screening at the Castro on June 19.

I was considerably more taken with two other Latin American selections from Frameline42's World Cinema sidebar. Steeped in the Quechuan culture of Peru's high Andes mountains, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio's heartbreaking Retablo confronts acute homophobia in an indigenous culture. Teenager Segundo is apprenticed to his father Noé, a maestro artisan who constructs retablos, elaborately painted wooden boxes with doors that reveal potato-dough figurines representing members of a family or clan. All that changes when he catches the father he adores and respects in a furtive act of gay sexual activity, which is ultimately the catalyst for larger scale tragedy. Aparacio makes a remarkable debut as feature filmmaker, as does actor Junior Behar in his first on-screen appearance in the role of Segundo. Acclaimed Peruvian actress Magaly Solier (Madeinusa, Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow) adds another impressive take on Latin American indigenous womanhood to her filmography, inhabiting the part of the family's desperate matriarch.

Another unmissable debut feature from Latin America is Martín Deus' tempered, low-key Argentine familial drama My Best Friend. A coming-of-age/coming-out tale of sorts, the film centers on Lorenzo, a sensitive and emotionally mature teen living a comfortable life with his supportive family in rural Patagonia. The family's tranquility becomes upended with the arrival of Caito, a rough-edged, somewhat older son of a Buenos Aires family friend who arrives under murky circumstances for an extended stay. Caito wastes no time testing the imposed rules of his new living situation, inspiring Lorenzo to take it upon himself to set Caito, with whom he is both smitten and annoyed, on the right path. I particularly admired My Best Friend for its gallery of complex, fully-fleshed characters and the uniformly excellent actors called upon to portray them.

The five remaining foreign LGBTQ movies I previewed all hail from Europe, with two German language selections distinguishing themselves as standouts. Katharina Mückstein's L'Animale introduces us to five lonely, quietly desperate Austrians whose lives are on the cusp of change, discovery and possible crisis. At the center is Mati, a conflicted high school senior motocross enthusiast who hangs out with the guys and has an expressed distaste for anything girlish. When she's not discouraging the romantic advances of her male best friend, Mati is off exploring her sexuality with an older shopgirl. She also works as a veterinary assistant to her mother, a woman who just recently discovered that her husband is acting on his same-sex desires. L'Animale's title is taken from a 1985 song by Italian composer/performer Franco Battiato. In the film's most affecting sequence, all five main characters, in separate settings, take turns singing the song whose Italian-translated chorus reads, "The animal which is inside of me won't let me live in happiness again." Director Mückstein is expected to attend the film's lone Frameline42 screening on June 17.

In Marcel Gisler's thoughtful and compelling Swiss sports movie Mario, we're shown in considerable detail what can happen when two soccer players with professional aspirations fall in love. Closeted and serious-minded Mario is on a determined career path when Leon, a handsome and gregarious star player from Germany, is transferred to his team and the two are assigned an apartment together. A burgeoning romantic relationship develops and despite their best attempts at discretion, a vindictive teammate unleashes homophobic harassments that draw the attention of the team's owners, the players' agents and Mario's family. Mario reacts by retreating deeper into the closet, enlisting the reluctant help of his female best friend in providing a straight cover. Leon doesn't have the wherewithal for such bullshit. How the lovers sadly fail to reconcile ambition with desire consumes the final chapters of this emotionally honest look at same-sex love in the world of contemporary sports. Aaron Altaras, the actor who plays Leon, is expected to appear at the festival.

The theme of clandestine attraction also comes into play with two other European Frameline42 flicks. Mikko Makela's A Moment in the Reeds is a romantic two-hander about a Finnish grad student who returns from Paris to help his taciturn father renovate the family summer cottage. When he's left to spend several days alone with the handsome Syrian war refugee who's been hired to help out, a passionate affair blossoms in the idyllic lakeside setting. What the film lacks in dramatic momentum, it makes up for with intimately engaging conversations (all in English, for those who are subtitle averse) and the hottest sex scenes of all the films I previewed. The specter of war also permeates the background of Blerta Zeqiri's The Marriage. Set 10 years after the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99, it's the would-be story of two male lovers reuniting, were it not for the fact that one of them is about to be married to a woman. This messy tale of buried secrets and resentments often feels scattershot and over-plotted, but it's well worth watching for the strength of its performances and immersion into local culture. One particularly lovely moment finds the two ex-lovers, one now a musician in Paris and the other a local bar owner, singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me," with spot-on imitations of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. It is anticipated that the directors of both A Moment in the Reeds and The Marriage will attend the festival.

Finally, we have Ellen Smit's Just Friends, a broad, slightly tacky romantic dramedy from the Netherlands whose central romance is between two aimless young men. Yad, a failing Dutch-Syrian med student has returned home and resumed his old job of teaching windsurfing. Much to his conservative family's consternation, he's taken a second job as homecare aide for the elderly, with one of his dottier clients setting him up with her grandson. Joris is a skinhead gym-bunny who flies drones and lives with his crass, plastic-surgery addicted mother while still mourning his father's recent death. Will Yad and Joris overcome their familys' objections to the relationship and find true love? I'm going to be a spoiler and reveal that of all the Frameline42 films I previewed, Just Friends is the only one that concludes with anything remotely representing a happy ending. And that should count for a lot in these god-awful times we're trapped in. It's also worth noting that while Just Friends is almost the antithesis of an "art" film, it had the strongest visual style of all the Frameline42 selections I looked at.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

61st SFFILM Fest 2018 –Spotlight on Space, Dark Wave, French Cinema

Spotlight on Space

Every year the festival gathers a few films with a common theme and places them under a "Spotlight" umbrella. This year's designated leitmotif is "Into the Great Beyond" and I was able to preview two of the three films. Klim Shipenko's Salyut-7 is a thoroughly satisfying outer space thriller that won Best Picture at last year's Golden Eagle Awards (Russia's Oscar equivalent). Based on actual events, the Salyut-7 episode is sometimes referred to as Russia's Apollo 13. In 1985, two U.S.S.R. cosmonauts were sent to rescue a damaged, unmanned space station before it was captured by Americans. Shipenko's retelling of their close call with oblivion is nerve-wracking, humanist, frequently comic and of course, just a little nationalistic. It also boasts special effects that rival Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. My only complaint is the ending seems a bit unsettled for those not familiar with the actual events. Salyut-7 is already available to stream on Amazon Prime, but you'll want to see it on the biggest screen possible. Which I'm sure is why SFFILM chose the Castro Theatre for its single festival screening on April 8. Sometimes it's great fun to experience another country's big-budget blockbuster. This is such an occasion.

Austrian director Johann Lurf's ⭑ (star symbol) screens in the festival's experimental Vanguard section. It is essentially a 99-minute representational compilation film in which movie scenes of star-spangled nighttime skies are viewed in succession, with their original music scores, aspect ratio and unsubtitled dialogue left intact. Clips from 550 films are experienced in chronological order, beginning with 1905's Rêve de la lune running all the way up to 2017's Girls Trip. A few are easily recognizable – Night of the Hunter, 2001, various stars of Bethlehem, Star Wars and Star Trek. But the hundreds of others? I had no clue I'd just watched the likes of Wayne's World, Antichrist, Stromboli, The Big Lebowski, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Howard the Duck and I Walked With a Zombie. Numerous Japanese clips (Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi) get screen time, as well as experimental works from Man Ray and Maya Deren. The credits end with a year-by-year listing of all 550 films, which would be more beneficial to viewers if presented at the beginning. All the more reason to watch the film again, I suppose. One caveat – given the subject matter, you might be imagining ⭑ as a relaxing and dreamy viewing experience. It isn't. Many clips run just a second or two, and the constantly shifting aspect ratios and audio render it more akin to watching a schizoid astronomer channel-surf.

Dark Wave

I'm not much of a genre film fan, but that hasn’t stopped me from being very excited about the films in this year's Dark Wave section. All four, incidentally, hail from outside the U.S. Robin Aubert's French-Canadian zombie flick Ravenous is already streaming on Netflix, but I've resisted having a look in favor of screaming bloody murder with a live festival audience. The movie scores big bonus points for starring Monia Chokri, the actress who played Xavier Dolan's droll competitor for the attentions of a blond Adonis in 2010's highly underrated Heartbeats. France's Dark Wave entry is Revenge, a female-directed (Coralie Fargeat) rape revenge thriller that's promising to crank the gruesome sub-genres' tropes up to 11, while remaining distinctive and smart. Fargeat's film garnered near-unanimous raves on the festival circuit, with the Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney proclaiming it a "pop art carnage opera" that is "nothing if not relentless." SFFILM Fest's own description boasts that "one could paint a mansion with the amount of blood that gushes" from Revenge. Color me eager to be nauseated.

The other two Dark Wave entries are from the UK and both have secured considerable critical praise. Michael Pearce's Beast is a piece of intense arthouse horror that premiered at Toronto. Set on the remote isle of Jersey, Beast concerns a young woman whose struggle against her controlling family intensifies after meeting a sexy stranger – one who may or may not be a serial killer. The film's trailer is downright unnerving. Jean-Stepháne Sauvaire's A Prayer Before Dawn is a UK/France co-production that premiered as a Cannes midnight screening. Based on true events, the film stars Joe Cole as Billy Moore, a fighter and heroin addict who's arrested and thrown in Thai prison. While there he trains in the art of Muay Thai boxing, eventually becoming a champion who's permitted to earn his release. (The film was shot in an actual Thai prison). Boxing movies are decidedly not my thing, but I'm giving this one a shot.

French Cinema

Bay Area exhibition of French-language films suffered a real blow when SFFILM discontinued its French Cinema Now series two years ago. Couple that with fewer French films than ever achieving local theatrical release (even ones with U.S. distribution), and we're left with general interest festivals like SFFILM and Mill Valley to pick up the slack. The good news is that this year's SFFILM Festival has programmed three films that were a significant part of the conversation surrounding French cinema in 2017. The not so good news is that a dozen or two other noteworthy works will remain elusive to us, at least for the time being.

I strongly recommend catching Laurent Cantet's The Workshop at the festival. It was one of the best things I saw at this year's Palm Springs International Film Fest and it appears distributor Strand Releasing might no longer be planning a local release. The Workshop premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar and was immediately hailed as the director's best work since 2008's Palme d'or winner The Class. Writer/director Robin Campillo (last year's French Oscar submission BPM) is back on board as co-screenwriter, a position he's assumed on all Cantet's best films. Actress Marina Foïs (never better) plays a renowned author conducting a student summer writing workshop in a depressed coastal town near Marseilles. The goal is to collectively write a locally-set murder mystery. Things take a dark turn when a taciturn student (a brilliant debut by Matthieu Lucci) who's swayed by right-wing Nationalist politics becomes a threat to both his multi-culti classmates and especially the author herself. Not to be missed.

The other two films I referenced were Cannes premieres, as well as the first movies I made sure to work into my festival schedule. Following the disappointment of 2014's turgid The Search, Oscar-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) came back last year with Godard, Mon Amour, a combination spoof and homage to the revolutionary French New Wave director circa 1968. In this crucial year for politics around the globe, Godard was newly married and in love (with actress Anne Wiazemsky, the girl in Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar, who co-wrote the screenplay and is played by Stacy Martin). He was also breaking new ground as a political filmmaker. The impossibly handsome Louis Garrel has been appropriately uglied-up and nerdified to play the lead, and judging from the trailer, he's hilariously spot-on in his inhabitation of M. Jean-Luc. Godard, Mon Amour opens at local Landmark Theatres on April 27. But you'll certainly want to catch the film at its two festival screenings with director Michel Hazanavicius in person. The filmmaker last appeared at a SFFILM event when he attended 2009's French Cinema Now with OSS 117: Lost in Rio.

The third film isn't even really French. It's included here because its star is France's most acclaimed screen performer and Cannes is the film's setting. Hong Sang-soo's Claire's Camera was just one of three new features released by Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker last year. Isabelle Huppert returns for a second Hong collaboration, building on the artistic success of 2012's In Another Country. This time Huppert plays a teacher attending Cannes because a friend has a film screening there. While wandering the streets she strikes up a friendship with a South Korean film sales assistant who's just been fired from her job (frequent Hong star and real-life main squeeze, Kim Min-hee.) Claire believes her Polaroid camera has a mystical power to change lives, a dabble in magic realism that may be a first for the director. Running a brisk 68 minutes, Claire's Camera was appreciated by critics for its melancholic slightness. The title is a hat's tip to Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), the revered French director whose conversation-laden explorations of male/female dynamics Hong's films are frequently compared.

Following the glorious one-two punch of Hong's sublime Hill of Freedom (2014) and Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), I was left completely cold by his next two films, Yourself and Yours (2016) and On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). I fully expect Claire's Camera will bring me back into the fold. As for Huppert, Claire's Camera is only one of nine works released since her Oscar-nominated performance in Elle. In the Bay Area we've only been privy to two of them, Michael Haneke's Happy End and the made-for-TV movie False Confessions. At the very least I'm hoping we eventually see Serge Bozon's Madame Hyde, for which Huppert won Best Actress at last summer's Locarno Film Festival. SFFILM Festival has been a past champion of Bozon's work (La France, Tip Top), making Madame Hyde one of the more eye-raising omissions from this year's festival.

As someone who obsessively follows contemporary French cinema, I was surprised to draw a near-complete blank when it came to the rest of this year's SFFILM Fest French line-up. I knew that Janus Films had done a new 4K restoration of Olivier Assayas's fifth feature, Cold Water (1994), so that was nice to see. If you can't make the fest's one-time screening (like me) I'm sure Janus partner Criterion Collection will be releasing it soon enough. I was also clueless that actor Vincent Cassel had made a Gauguin biopic (Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti). I'll basically see anything this actor appears in, especially when it has a South Seas setting and is screening in our fabulous Dolby Theatre. It turns out the film was put into French cinemas last fall without the benefit of any festival exposure. The few reviews out there praise Cassel's performance, but come down hard its on toying with biographical facts. Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is slated for a local Landmark Theatres release on July 27.

Animation fans will no doubt be excited to see The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, a new cartoon feature from Oscar-nominated director Benjamin Renner (Ernest & Celestine). Based on the trailer alone, Marine Francen's The Sower comes off as a pastoral bodice-ripper, but her New Director's Prize from the San Sebastian Film Festival is a hopeful indicator of it being better than that. Out of all these unknown French entities, I'm most looking forward to My Life with James Dean, Dominque Choisy's slapstick valentine to the passion of cinema. Johnny Rasse stars as a gay experimental filmmaker who has a number of amusing encounters as he exhibits his latest film along France's Northern coast. SFFILM Festival will host the movie's North American premiere, with director Choisy expected to attend.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

61st SFFILM Fest 2018 – U.S. Cinema

As someone whose passion for cinema lies primarily with foreign language movies, it has been slightly discomforting to watch U.S. indies and documentaries carve out an increasingly larger slice of the total SFFILM Festival pie. To witness, all three of this year's Big Nights are U.S. indies that premiered at Sundance, and 38 of festival's 99 feature films hail from that same festival. When one looks closely at the U.S. films selected, however, it becomes impossible to grouse when there are more terrific-sounding films than a person could possibly watch over the course of a two-week festival. Here's a subjective survey of the U.S. narrative and documentary features I'm intrigued by at this year's SFFILM Fest.

Narrative Features

The only U.S. narrative feature I had the opportunity to preview is a film I can't imagine not being on my 2018 top ten list. Chloé Zhao's The Rider premiered at Cannes last year, winning the top prize in the Director's Fortnight sidebar. It's about as close to a documentary as a narrative film can get, with non-professional actors playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. The Rider's aching heart is the character Brady (Brady Jandreau), a young Lakota rodeo rider and horse trainer who has sustained a massive head injury. The film transports us alongside Brady's personal journey as he struggles to find another way to live while remaining true to himself. It's a transcendent tale of wounded masculinity, guided by Zhao's sure-handed direction and Jandreau's revelatory, intuitive lead performance. The Rider opens in theaters on April 20, but believe me, you won't want to miss SFFILM Festival's April 7 screening with director Zhao and Brady Jandreau in person.

Sometimes a festival's most tantalizing options are scheduled in tandem. For me, 2018's toughest film choice occurs on Friday, April 6 when Paul Schrader's First Reformed is slotted up against John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties, both with their respective directors in attendance. Touted as a "grindhouse art film," Schrader's First Reformed achieved ecstatic reviews when it toured last autumn's fest circuit (Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York), with many calling it his best work since 2002's Autofocus. The film stars 2017 SFFILM Fest tributee Ethan Hawke as a dying, guilt-ridden New England church minister who suddenly finds comfort in the idea of becoming a suicide bomber. Distributor A24 will release First Reformed in cinemas next month.

In contrast, Mitchell's film (technically a USA/UK co-production) premiered to some seriously scathing reviews when it played out-of-competition at Cannes nearly a year ago. The film has its defenders, however (and the trailer does look pretty fabulous, particularly Sandy Powell's costume designs.) What's kind of shocking is that despite Mitchell's reputation (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) and the presence of Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning in the cast, no film festival north of the Rio Grande has wanted to touch it. (San Francisco will be its "North American" premiere and it appears distributor A24 has no immediate plans for theatrical release). Based on an award-winning 2006 sci-fi short story by Neil Gaiman (who will also attend the screening), How to Talk to Girls at Parties stars Tony Award winner Alex Sharp as a 70's London punk who goes to a party and hooks up with a lady space alien. In the end, my evening's film selection could be determined by venue, with Mitchell's movie getting a boost by virtue of its screening at the Castro.

For many years, new LGBT cinema was pretty much the provenance of San Francisco's Frameline festival. More recently, SFFILM Fest has upped its LGBT roster, possibly because there's so much more product available. (Frameline has also begun programming many of the same films that appear at SFFILM, realizing the two festival's audiences don't necessarily cross over). The LGBT section at this year's fest contains a record nine films, with all but two being of U.S. origin. The one I'm most looking forward to is Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals, a familial drama about three mixed-race brothers whose laconic existence in upstate New York is tempered by their parents' volatile relationship. The focus is on the youngest of the three who's realizing he's somehow "different" from his siblings, which has led some critics to proclaim We the Animals as "this year's Moonlight." A major reason I'm excited to see this film is the casting of Raúl Castillo as the father. The Mexican-American actor first caught my attention in Aaron Katz' idiosyncratic indie mystery Cold Weather, several years before he achieved minor fame playing the character Richie in HBO's Looking. I'm also intrigued by the casting of Sheila Vand as the mother (she was the Iranian vampire girl in A Girl Walks Home at Night Alone), as well as this being the narrative feature debut for documentary filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar. In a Dream, the director's excellent 2008 doc about his father, Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, won the audience award at SF DocFest and was shortlisted for the Oscar.

Another critically acclaimed LGBT film focused on POC is Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On, which stars Dominique Fishback. This is the actress's first lead role since her breakout as prostitute Darlene in the HBO series The Deuce. Here she plays an 18-year-old lesbian recently released from juvie who must resist falling back into the criminal life. Two other promising LGBT youth-focused features in the fest line-up are The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Alex Strangelove. The former stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a teen sent to a Christian "gay conversion" camp after being caught making out with the prom queen. Miseducation director Desiree Akhavan was awarded the Grand Jury Prize (dramatic competition) at this year's Sundance. Alex Strangelove is a Netflix-bound coming-of-age comedy directed by Craig Johnson (The Skelton Twins).

Three formidable entities of American indie filmmaking have new films in this year's festival. Ten years after Debra Granik's Winter's Bone scored four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay, the writer/director has finally made a follow-up feature. Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster and Dale Dickey as a father and daughter forced to move on after their idyllic years of living off the grid in an Oregon state park come to an end. Zellner brothers David and Nathan made a big splash in 2014 with Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Now they're back with a post-modern Western, Damsel, starring Robert Pattinson (following-up on his astounding performance in last year's Safdie Brothers film, Good Time) and Mia Wasikowska. The film is a late addition to the SFFILM Festival line-up and the Zellners are expected to attend its only screening on April 14. Lastly, director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess) creates further distance from his mumblecore roots with Support the Girls, a comedy starring Regina Hall as the stressed-out manager of a Hooters-like sports bar.

If indie movies about cranky geezers going on road trips is your thing, SFFILM Fest has a pair of options. In Shana Feste's Boundaries, Vera Farmiga is a put-upon single mom who's forced to transport her thorny father (Christopher Plummer) after he's kicked out of yet another nursing home for pot dealing. Bobby Canavale, Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda co-star. The curmudgeon in Mark Raso's Kodachrome is played by Ed Harris, a renowned photographer who must get to Kansas before the very last developer of Kodachrome film closes its door. Naturally, he can't drive himself, so his estranged son (Jason Sudeikis) and nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) get dragged along for the ride. Kodachrome premiered at Toronto last September and hits Netflix on April 20 without getting a theatrical release. Director Raso, writer Jonathan Tropper and actor Jason Sudeikis are expected to attend the film's single screening on April 7.

Documentary Features

Docs make up roughly 40 percent of all feature films in this year's festival. Contained within the U.S. selection are a dozen which examine some aspect of "the arts." The one I'm most excited to see is Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A., Steve Loveridge's profile of UK/Sri Lankan hip hop star M.I.A. Amongst non-fans she's best known for the infamous "bird" flipped on live TV during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl show (for which the NFL is still trying to sue for $16.6 million). Casual fans know her for "Paper Planes," the ubiquitous 2008 hit single with beats punctuated by gun shots and a cash register's ka-ching. Loveridge is a personal friend of the performer and his documentary is said to be full of warts-and-all footage shot over the course of 20-plus years. The film won the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance and was announced as the prestigious opening night film for this year's New Directors/New Films series in NYC. A second SFFILM bio-doc about a bad-ass woman musician is Kevin Kerslake's Bad Reputation, which takes on the storied career of iconic punk rocker Joan Jett. It was recently confirmed that Jett herself will attend the festival's lone screening of Bad Reputation at the Castro Theatre on April 14.

Two of the most beloved American media figures of all time are also subjects of SFFILM Fest documentaries. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is the latest from director Marina Zenowich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired). She uses obscure performance clips and never-before-seen outtakes to tell the story of the brilliant Bay Area actor and comedian. The film will have one screening only, at the Castro Theatre on April 7. Both festival screenings of Morgan Neville's Sundance hit Won't You Be My Neighbor, his portrait of TV's Mr. Rogers, are already at RUSH. The Oscar-winning filmmaker (Twenty Feet from Stardom) is expected to be in attendance. 

The cinematic arts are represented at the festival by two non-fiction features. Amy Scott's Hal is a profile of revered director Hal Ashby, the Oscar-winning film editor (In the Heat of the Night) best known for directing a string of socially conscious 1970's masterpieces that include Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, Coming Home and The Last Detail. Scott's film boasts interviews with such Ashby alumni as Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant and Jon Voight. Then in Half the Picture, director Amy Adrion takes on Hollywood's dismal record of advocating for women filmmakers, featuring interviews with Ava DuVernay (Selma), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) and others. Following the April 9 screening, the fest presents a conversation between director Adrion and Esther Pearl, Executive Director of Camp Reel Stories – A Media Camp for Girls.

Documentaries about photographers have been a popular subject for filmmakers and audiences alike in the past decade, with shutterbugs Robert Frank, Bill Cunningham, Vivian Meier, Annie Leibovitz, Sebastião Salgado and others receiving motion picture tributes. Now we can add Garry Winogrand and James Balog to the list. Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable examines the life and career of the controversial "snapshot aesthetic" street photographer who took over one million photos before his untimely 1984 death at age 56. Winogrand left behind thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, 8mm home movies and audio recordings, all of which director Sasha Waters Freyer employs to tell his story. Following the film's SFMOMA screening on April 14, Freyer will be joined in conversation by author Geoff Dyer, whose new book on the photographer was released last month. The second doc about a famed photographer is Matthew Testa's The Human Element, which profiles James Balog. The environmental photographer is best known for visually documenting the devastating effects of man-made climate change, particularly the rapid disappearance of the world's glaciers (his work was featured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice.) Balog and director Testa are expected to attend the festival.

It has been 15 years since Nathaniel Kahn received an Oscar nomination for My Architect, the filmmaker's bittersweet ode to his famous architect father, Louis Kahn. Following several made-for-TV science documentaries, Kahn finally returns with a new feature this year, The Price of Everything. Using a Sotheby's modern art auction as backdrop, Kahn examines the commodification of art and reflects on how artists lose control of their own creations in today's white-hot art market. Among the artists profiled in the film are Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons. I'd be shocked if The Price of Everything doesn't mention last year's $110.5 million sale of a 1982 Basquiat work, which set a record for an American artist at auction. The graffiti artist turned painter happens to be the subject of another SFFILM Festival documentary, Sara Driver's Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Amongst the score of non-arts related U.S. docs showing at the festival, I had the chance to preview and strongly recommend Bing Liu's Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, Minding the Gap. This empathetic and intimate look at young manhood in the economically depressed city of Rockford, IL is entirely composed of footage shot by the Asian-American director over the course of a decade. Liu's focus is on himself and two close friends, one Caucasian and one African American, who all share a passion for skateboarding as well as dark relationships with past father figures. Their collective self-awareness and articulate fervency is impressive considering the challenges of their environment. The festival's Hold Review policy limits me from saying more, but I guarantee this is a doc you won't want to miss. Liu is expected to attend the film's screenings on April 13 and 14.

Three documentaries I highly anticipate watching during the festival proper are Bisbee '17, Three Identical Strangers and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Bisbee '17 is the latest from Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine) who once again employs his meta-docu-fiction storytelling techniques to reflect on a century-old Arizona strike in which 1,200 miners, most of them Mexican immigrants, were marched into the desert at gunpoint and left to die. Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers recounts the incredibly strange tale of male triplets who were separated at birth and then reunited at age 19 in 1980, briefly becoming media celebrities who hung out at Studio 54 and appeared in the film Desperately Seeking Susan. Lastly, RaMell Ross' Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been described as a lyric tone poem in documentary guise, which lovingly captures African American life in rural Alabama. Like the bulk of non-fiction films in the festival, all three of these acclaimed works had their world premiere at Sundance, with Three Identical Strangers winning a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling and Hale County This Morning, This Evening bringing home a Special Jury Prize for Creative Vision.

The above-mentioned movies represent just an iceberg's tip of the 39 documentary features appearing in SFFILM Festival 2018, so let's glance at a few others of potential interest. Mercury 13 will have its world premiere here prior to hitting Netflix on April 20. David Singleton and Heather Walsh's film recalls the dashed dreams of a group of would-be women astronauts in the early 60's. (I can imagine the pitch meeting: "It's a white women's Hidden Figures!") Fans of Laura Greenfield's Queen of Versailles will no doubt want to catch her latest glimpse at the lives of the hideously rich, Generation Wealth. Although RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West's bio-doc on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 4, I imagine it would be great fun seeing it at the Castro Theatre with the directors present on April 14 (this screening is now at RUSH). Two docs with an eye toward the future profile a budding young chef (Chef Flynn) and aspiring scientists (Inventing Tomorrow). Last but not least, I really hope not to miss the festival's late-addition screening of This One's for the Ladies, Gene Graham's look at an African American male strip joint in Newark, NJ. (that doubles as a kids' karate school by day).

Cross-published on The Evening Class.