Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MVFF42 2019

The biggest cinema celebration in the Bay Area turns 42 this year, with a spectacular line-up of movies I'm salivating to see. Running from October 3 to 13, Mill Valley Film Festival expands its traditional North Bay horizons by adding Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive as a venue. That's dynamite news for those of us dependent on public transit. Auto-less cinephiles now have a second MVFF option (in addition to the Rafael Film Center) that's easy to reach with a loaded Clipper Card. This is my 13th year blogging about MVFF and as always, I present a subjective take on what excites me among the 116 feature films on offer. Since no one can see everything at a festival, I've indicated upcoming theatrical and VOD release dates where known.

MVFF built its reputation as the first prominent autumn festival to launch "awards buzz" movies direct from the late-summer triumvirate of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. That tradition continues with the festival's 2019 "Big Night" selections. Kicking things off will be Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, the true story of a lawyer (Michael B. Jordon) attempting to free a wrongly convicted African American death row inmate (Jamie Foxx). Actors Rob Morgan, Karan Kendrick and Foxx are expected to attend opening night festivities. A second option for that evening is The King, the latest from Animal Kingdom director David Michôd. Timothée Chalamet has drawn rave notices for his Henry V portrayal, and is supported by Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the screenplay) as Falstaff. The King will have a limited theatrical release on October 11, before hitting Netflix on November 1.

Fest attendees have dual choices on closing night as well. James Mangold's Ford vs. Ferrari stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale in a true tale of Ford Motor Company and its hell-bent determination to beat Ferrari at Le Mans speedway in 1966. In the neo-Noir Motherless Brooklyn, director-actor Edward Norton stars as a Tourette syndrome-afflicted detective in the 1950's. The film has been compared to Chinatown, exchanging that movie's L.A. water wars for the racist agenda of real-life New York city planner Robert Moses. Mangold and Norton are expected to attend their respective screenings. For this year's Centerpiece presentation, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) will present Waves, an African-American familial drama that has garnered unanimously ecstatic reviews.

While festivals like Cannes have recently eschewed Netflix product, MVFF exhibits no such reticence. Receiving an elevated presentation at this year's fest will be Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, an anguished tale of marital dissolution starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Some critics are calling the film a career-high for Baumbach, who will receive a MVFF Award on behalf of the movie's ensemble cast. The director shares the stage with supporting actors Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty and Laura Dern, the latter of whom hosts a master class earlier in the day. Marriage Story gets a limited theatrical release on November 6 before surfacing on Netflix exactly one month later. 

The Two Popes and Dolemite is My Name are also Netflix titles. Popes is essentially a two-hander speculating on the machinations behind Pope Benedict's (Anthony Hopkins) resignation and Pope Francis' (Jonathan Pryce) ascension. The movie's Oscar-nominated director, Fernando Meirelles (City of God) is an expected festival guest. The Two Popes hits theaters on November 27 before popping up on Netflix December 20. Dolemite is My Name delivers the outlandish tale of how flailing African American comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) invented his Dolemite character and came to make the eponymous 1975 Blaxploitation cult classic. It was written by the team that scribed Hollywood biopics Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Big Eyes, and is directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan). Dolemite is My Name rolls into theaters and onto Netflix October 4 and 25 respectively.

Two high-profile biopics were among the crop of summer festival premieres. Seberg stars Kristen Stewart as American actress Jean Seberg (Breathless, Paint Your Wagon) and focuses on the F.B.I.'s "concern" over her Black Panther support. Stewart will accompany the film at an in-person MVFF Spotlight tribute on October 7. Seberg is being distributed by Amazon, but no release date is imminent. The near-mythical saga of American slave liberator Harriet Tubman is the subject of Harriet, which has gathered critical praise for Cynthia Erivo's lead performance but less enthusiasm for its conventional storytelling. Director Kasi Lemmons will attend the festival and the film's release date is November 1. Although not a biopic per se, The Aeronauts recounts the mostly-true story of a record-breaking 1862 hot air balloon journey, reuniting The Theory of Everything cast members Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Look for that one on December 6, with VOD availability on Amazon shortly thereafter.

One of the most anticipated premieres at Venice and Toronto was The Truth, director Hirokazu Kore-eda's follow-up to last year's Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters. Working for the first time outside Japan, his film stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as opposing sides of a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship. MVFF screens the film twice – at a "special U.S. premiere" on October 11 and a "regular screening" the following day – with a curious $45/$16 ticket price differential. MVFF also affords an early look at two surefire Toronto crowd-pleasers before they hit local multiplexes. Critics had a rapturous response to Knives Out, an old-fashioned who-dunnit in the vein of Murder on the Orient Express, with an all-star cast headed by Toni Collette. Opinions were more divided on Jojo Rabbit, which won the festival's audience award. The WWII dramedy concerns a young German boy whose imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (played by the film's director, Taika Waititi). I'm a big fan of Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), but comparisons to Holocaust-era "comedies" like Life is Beautiful give me pause. Jojo Rabbit and Knives Out arrive in theaters October 18 and November 27 respectively.

Several dozen documentaries premiere at Telluride, Venice and Toronto each year. Five that caught my attention are featured at MVFF42. British director Michael Apted receives a festival tribute accompanied by a screening of 63 Up. This marks the ninth installment of his "Up" series, wherein the same group of UK citizens were filmed at seven year intervals since 1964. It's slated for a December 13 Bay Area release and will return for February's Mostly British fest. Two docs tackle the infamous lives of Roy Cohn and Imelda Marcos. Where's My Roy Cohn? delves into the career of a self-hating gay lawyer and right-hand man to assholes Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. It's directed by Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54, Citizen Jane) and opens at Landmark's Clay Theatre on October 18. The Kingmaker profiles the Philippines ex-first lady and is the perfect subject for director Laura Greenfield. Her previous films The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth examined the nauseating excesses of the one percent. Another pair of docs take on Middle Eastern concerns. Feras Fayyad's resoundingly praised The Cave looks at life in a war-torn subterranean Syrian hospital that's mostly run by women. "Studious" has been used to describe Taghi Amirani's nine-years-in-the-making Coup 53, a deep dive into the 1953 US/UK-orchestrated coup against Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister. It no doubt benefits greatly from the skills of acclaimed Bay Area film editor Walter Murch. The directors of these five docs, save for Roy Cohn's Matt Tyrnauer, are expected to attend the festival.

I'd like to highlight two Venice premieres from Chile making their way to MVFF42. While both debuted to mixed reviews, the talent involved, combined with the unlikelihood of their ever getting another Bay Area big screen showcase, make them personal must-sees. Ema is the latest from Pablo Larraín, whose three previous films – Jackie, Neruda and The Club – all played Mill Valley. Set in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, Ema has been tagged as a borderline-experimental, psycho-sexual melodrama. Gael García Bernal stars as a choreographer whose marriage to his lead dancer really goes off the rails. The Prince marks the feature debut of filmmaker Sebastián Muñoz. This homo-erotic, Cocteau-flavored fantasy is set in a Chilean prison circa 1970. It won Venice's Queer Lion prize and stars the incomparable Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, From Afar), whose presence is sufficient reason to see any film. Both movies are U.S. premieres.

Now for a gander at what MVFF programmed from 2019's pre-summer festivals. By the time Mill Valley rolls around, the important Sundance films have already come and gone from the Bay Area. There are three notable exceptions this year. Alfre Woodard will receive a MVFF42 tribute, accompanied by a screening of Clemency. The beloved actress plays a maximum-security prison warden in charge of executions. The film won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition for director Chinonye Chukwu, who will also attend Woodard's tribute. Clemency will be released around Christmastime. Another Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner – this one for "vision and craft" – is Alma Har'el's Honey Boy. Written by Shia Labeouf, the film is a meta-cinema-as-therapy narrative about the actor's hardscrabble childhood and abusive relationship with his father. Labeouf portrays his own dad, with Lucas Hedges inhabiting the adult Labeouf. Amazon releases this one in theaters on November 8. The third Sundance title is Scott Z. Burns' The Report. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, the Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) staffer who uncovered shocking secrets about the C.I.A.'s post-9/11 torture program. Both director Burns and Daniel Jones are expected in person. The Report will have a limited release November 15, followed by Amazon Prime availability two weeks later.

Berlin is the next important festival to follow Sundance. MVFF has programmed a half dozen Berlinale titles I'm hot to see, including some top prize winners. This year's Golden Bear was awarded to Synonyms by Israeli director Nadav Lapid (The Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher). In his frantic new socio-dramedy, an ex-soldier moves to Paris in a desperate attempt to expunge his Israeli identity. Berlin's Silver Bear (aka the Grand Jury Prize) went to By the Grace of God, François Ozon's heartbreaking and methodical recounting of how three real-life adult Frenchmen sought justice against the Lyon priest who molested them as children. I had a chance to preview this one on screener and it's outstanding, especially the lead performances by Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet and Swann Arlaud. It's a very different type of film for Ozon and he succeeds magnificently. By the Grace of God and Synonyms arrive in Bay Area cinemas on November 1 and 8 respectively.

Hans Petter Moland's Out Stealing Horses nabbed a Berlin prize for Outstanding Artistic Achievement, awarded to cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk. Moland is best known for 2014's Norwegian revenge thriller In Order of Disappearance. (He also directed that film's 2019 Liam Neeson-starring remake, Cold Pursuit.) Moland is expected to attend Horse's North American premiere at MVFF42, along with star Stellan Skarsgård. Another Berlin selection making its N.A. premiere at Mill Valley is Mongolian filmmaker Quan'an Wang's Öndög (Egg). Wang made a splash on the international arthouse circuit in 2006 with Tuya's Marriage, a Golden Bear winner from that year's Berlinale.

The most anticipated Berlin selection at Mill Valley could be Varda by Agnès. It's the final film from venerated filmmaker Agnès Varda, the French New Wave icon and 2018 Honorary Oscar recipient who passed in March at age 90. You should try and catch this at Mill Valley – Janus Films is distributing the film domestically, but there doesn’t appear to be a theatrical release plan. The final Berlin film I'm excited about is Marighella, a sprawling biopic about the writer-politician-revolutionary who was murdered by Brazil's military dictatorship in 1969. Carlos Marighella is played by musician Seu Jorge, best known to movie audiences as the Portuguese interpreter of David Bowie songs in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Marighella marks the directorial debut of popular Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elite Squad, Narcos) and it's anticipated he'll attend the movie's MVFF screenings.

Five months after this year's Cannes Film Festival, only Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die have surfaced in the Bay Area. MVFF42 had a plentitude of Cannes films from various competitions and sidebars to choose from and their 17 selections don't disappoint. The festival brings us a whopping 11 titles from the main competition alone, including Bong Joon-ho's Palme d'Or-winning Parasite. Described by Variety's Jessica Kiang as a "tick fat with the blood of class rage," the latest from genre filmmaker Bong (The Host, Memories of Murder) reps the first Korean win for art cinema's highest accolade. Parasite arrives in Bay Area theaters October 18.

Although MVFF either could not, or chose not, to procure Cannes' Grand Prix winner Atlantics (available on Netflix November 29), they did secure the two films which tied for the Prix du Jury (or 3rd place). Bacurau is the latest from Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius), who has emerged as Brazil's most important new cinematic voice. His new work (co-directed by Juliano Dornelles) is described as a dystopian genre exercise in which rural villagers find themselves the target of American game hunters (lead by the inimitable Udo Kier!). Prix du Jury co-winner Les Misérables is not yet another adaptation of Hugo's novel, but a contemporary "street thriller" pitting Parisian cops against the city's suburban underclass. France has chosen Malian-born director Ladj Ly's feature debut as its 2020 Oscar submission, which Ly adapted from his same-titled 2017 short. 

Both Cannes acting awards are on display at MVFF42. Antonio Banderas took Best Actor for Pedro Almodóvar's meta-autobiographical Pain and Glory. Here the star of many early Almodóvar joints (Law of Desire, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) portrays a creatively blocked filmmaker visiting his past via Fellini-esque vignettes. It's worth noting Pain and Glory opens in Bay Area theaters while the festival is still in session. Cannes' Best Actress prize was awarded to Emily Beecham for her role in Little Joe, the English-language debut of Austrian director Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou, Lourdes). Beecham plays a scientific plant breeder in a film Variety's Owen Gleiberman calls "an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the age of antidepressants." Little Joe won't show up in local theaters until late 2019. Two additional competition prizes were handed to Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The director won Best Screenplay for her story about an 18th century countess' daughter (the beguiling Adéle Haenel) who falls for the female artist hired to paint her portrait. The film, which comes to U.S. theaters in early December, also won Cannes' Queer Palm.

From among the non-prize winners, I'm most looking forward to Ira Sach's Frankie. Isabelle Huppert heads an all-star cast in this dramedy about a dying movie star vacationing with family in Portugal. Despite some mixed reviews, the combo of Huppert and Sachs (Love is Strange, Little Men) renders this unmissable. Sachs will be on hand for the October 6 screening and the film opens in the Bay Area November 1. I also find myself, somewhat surprisingly, looking forward to Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, starring August Diehl (The Young Karl Marx) as a WWII German conscientious objector. Ever since 2011's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life, I've found Malick's copious output either disappointing or insufferable. But I'm optimistic about A Hidden Life and look forward to its mid-December release.

Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective) is another director whose early works thrilled me, but whose recent films literally put me to sleep. His latest is The Whistlers, a cops-vs-mafia comedic Noir that sounds nutty enough – a secret whistling language from the Canary Islands is a major plot component – that I can't help but be intrigued. The movie isn't slated for U.S. release until February 2020. Then there's The Traitor, a welcome new film from veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere). The Traitor explores the real-life story of Tommaso Buscetta, the highest-ranking Mafia don to ever cooperate with authorities. November 27 is its targeted U.S. release date. The Whistlers and The Traitor are both 2020 Oscar submissions from their respective countries.

The only film from Cannes made available for press preview was Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You. This new movie from the populist UK filmmaker – and two-time Palme d'Or winner – rightfully racked up euphoric reviews, but inexplicably left the festival prize-less. Here the director aims squarely at the horrors of the so-called 'gig economy', as we watch a formally middle-class family implode when the father becomes a 'self-employed' parcel deliveryman. Despite moments of fleeting optimism, the movie is often unbearably stressful to watch. Rack that up as a testament to Loach's imperative as a chronicler of working class struggles. If you miss Sorry to Miss You at Mill Valley, it reappears at February's Mostly British festival before an early March 2020 U.S. release.

Shifting gears to Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, MVFF42 features three lauded works from the line-up. I'm really excited about seeing Karim Aïnouz's The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which claimed the sidebar's top prize. I've admired the Brazilian filmmaker since his 2002 feature debut, Madame Satã. Described as a "tropical melodrama," Invisible Life unravels the fatalistic tale of two beloved Rio sisters who become separated by familial strictures. The Un Certain Regard prize for best director was handed to Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov for Beanpole. Balagov stirred controversy at Cannes two years ago, when his Un Certain Regard entry Closeness triggered walkouts (for including footage deemed an anti-Semitic snuff film). Beanpole, which depicts the struggles of two female hospital workers in post-siege Leningrad, was much better received and even secured U.S. distribution through Kino Lorber. (Closeness, meanwhile, was recently made available on streaming platform MUBI). Invisible Life and Beanpole have both been submitted for 2020 Oscar consideration. The third Un Certain Regard title gracing MVFF42 is The Swallows of Kabul, a tragic animated love story set during Taliban-era Afghanistan.

The biggest buzz emerging from Cannes' Directors' Fortnight sidebar was The Lighthouse, a hallucinatory Gothic yarn about a 19th century lighthouse keeper's (Wilem Dafoe) contentious relationship with his new assistant (Robert Pattinson). Director Robert Eggers (The Witch) shot the film in B&W, employing a 1:19:1 aspect ratio. MVFF screens the film just once, with Pattinson in person. Tickets, were they still available (they're not), would set you back a wallet-busting $95. I'll wait for the film's general release on October 18. Another Directors' Fortnight selection featuring monochrome cinematography and boxy aspect ratio is Melina León's Song Without a Name. In 1988 Peru, an indigenous woman enlists a gay journalist to investigate the disappearance of babies stolen from bogus birth clinics. A third title lifted from the DF sidebar is Levan Akin's And Then We Danced. Herein an aspiring male dancer with the National Georgian Ballet develops a same-sex attraction with a competitive new arrival. Oddly enough, the movie will be Sweden's 2020 Oscar submission. (Director Akin is Swedish and the film is a Swedish-Georgian-French co-production). Fortunately, both Song Without a Name and And Then We Danced commanded sufficient critical praise to acquire U.S. distribution, so chances are MVFF won't be our lone opportunity to experience them. The directors of both films are expected at the festival.

There's great stuff to catch at MVFF42 besides importations from other festivals. I'm especially thrilled to have a ticket for Martin Scorsese's hotly anticipated The Irishman, which arrives in theaters November 1 before its Netflix debut on November 27. I'll also be in the house for the fest's tribute to ubiquitous character actor and former San Quentin inmate Danny Trejo (Machete), featuring the U.S. premiere of the bio-doc Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo. Other notable in-person appearances include a spotlight on director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) and a tribute to actress Barbara Rush. The 92-year-old Rush held down one of the most eclectic careers in film and television history. Credits range from 1953's It Came from Outer Space (for which she won a Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer – Female") to 60's primetime soap Peyton Place to 1980 disco extravaganza Can't Stop the Music. Screenings of recent film restorations will also be accompanied by impressive in-person talent. Director Philip Kaufman and actress Lena Olin will be on hand for 1988's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ditto filmmaker Nancy Kelly and actress Rosalind Chao with 1990's Thousand Pieces of Gold. Last but not least, rapper Snoop Dogg will DJ at the Sweetwater Music Hall on October 11, with proceeds benefitting the restoration of Mill Valley's Sequoia Theatre.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Frameline43 2019 – Preview

The 43rd edition of SF Bay Area's Frameline festival, self-described as "the world's longest-running and largest showcase of queer cinema," runs from June 20 to 30 this year. From among the 174 films from 38 countries in the line-up, I've prescreened 16 that reflect a personal passion for foreign language films and documentaries.

As is often the case, Frameline's line-up of Ibero-Latin American cinema is where a lot of the fest's best movies can be found. My top pick from the region is Santiago Loza's Brief Story from the Green Planet, a weird yet endearing Argentine road movie that won the Teddy Award – arguably queer cinema's highest accolade – at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Bathed in a sheen of sensual other-worldliness, Brief Story's story is centered on middle-aged drag performer Tania. After her grandmother dies and she's bequeathed a barely alive space alien, Tania is tasked with returning the creature to the exact location where her granny found it. Hitting the road with two childhood friends, the trio traverse towns, fields and forests to reach their destination, encountering good and bad humanity – and some hilarious 50's-style space robots – along the way. The ending is especially glorious. 

Another Argentine film worth a good look is Mateo Bendesky's Family Members, an offbeat character study of alienated siblings. Neurotic New-Ager Gilda and her prickly teen brother Lucas travel to a remote seaside town to dispose of their mother's remains (the "remains" consist of a lone prosthetic hand). When a bus strike impedes their return to Buenos Aires, their testy relationship is given time to thaw. Lucas also cautiously considers the attentions of Guido, an older townie and fitness enthusiast. I was particularly touched by a scene in which Lucas and Guido visit an internet café and finally manage an intimate conversation – but only as spoken through video game avatars. Family Members also impresses with its strong visual sense, wry humor and handsome widescreen cinematography.

Mexico is represented by three films at Frameline43 and Bani Khoshnoudi's melancholic Fireflies was my favorite. Arash Marandi (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Under the Shadow) stars as Ramin, a gay Iranian refugee stranded in the port city of Veracruz. When he's not working at menial jobs like pineapple-picking (where co-workers call him Aladdin and Kalimán), Ramin hangs out at the harbor trying to arrange transport to Greece or Turkey. He has contentious Skype sessions with his ex-boyfriend in Tehran and develops a guarded friendship with Guillermo, a volatile co-worker and former Honduran gang member (effectively played by Luis Alberti, the guide who taught Sergei Eisenstein about gay sex in Peter Greenaway's Eisenstein in Guanajuato). The film's emotional center, however, lies in Ramin's relationship with Leti, the live-in receptionist at his hotel who has her own set of problems. Exchanging English classes for Danzón lessons, they become friends and bond over their shared Middle-Eastern ancestry – Leti's Lebanese great-grandfather married a Mexican woman and subsequently opened their Veracruz hotel. Ultimately, Fireflies is an empathetic statement about living in a state of abeyance.

From Mexico, I'd also recommend Marcelino Islas Hernández's History Lessons and Hari Sama's This is Not Berlin. The former presents us with an ultra-unlikely friendship between Véronica, a sad-sack 30-year teaching veteran dying of cancer, and Eva, a bratty, sultry student (complete with Bettie Page bangs) who latches onto Véronica and drags the older woman way out of her comfort zone. At times the film strains a bit too hard for edginess, such as when Eva suckers her teacher into paying for an abortion, or when married Véronica has sex with her student's sketchy friend Tupo (Mexican indie stalwart Gambino Rodriguez). A road trip taken by the mismatched women concludes with a memorably tender, lesbian-lite denouement. Compared with History Lessons' relative low-key demeanor, This is Not Berlin explodes with chaotic energy. Set in Mexico City roughly a decade after last year's Roma, but in the same upper middle-class milieu, Hari Sama's film is a sprawling valentine to the capital city's mid-80's art-punk underground scene as experienced by two high-school buddies getting their first tastes of freedom and debauchery.

Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante grabbed international attention four years ago with his award-winning feature debut Ixcanul. He's followed that up with Temblores (Tremors), presented by Frameline as its 2019 World Cinema Centerpiece. As a filmmaker, Bustamante has made an impressive transition from Ixcanul's universe – one steeped in rural folklore – to the terrain of privileged urbanites inhabited by Temblores. After his deeply religious family discovers he's gay, the consequences become dire for married business consultant Pablo. He's fired for violating his company's "flawless moral code" and barred from contacting his young children. The pain is somewhat assuaged by boyfriend Francisco, a level-headed and gregarious massage therapist who tries working behind the scenes – often in cahoots with the indigenous domestic workers of Pablo's family – to maintain a line of communication. Guilt and the pull of family obligation get the better of Pablo, and he subjects himself to brutal, evangelical-run gay conversion 'therapy.' Unfortunately, Pablo's harsh trajectory as experienced in this affecting quasi-melodrama, risks being perceived as archaic from the bubble of 2019 San Francisco. Those seeking an even bleaker portrait of Latin American LGBTQ life will be sated by Alexandre Moratto's Socrates, an earnest but fairly artless litany of awful things that befall a poor 15-year-old São Paulo teen following his mother's death. The film is notable for the Independent Spirit Award best actor nomination afforded lead Christian Malheiros for his committed screen debut (he lost to Ethan Hawke in First Reformed).

Although technically an Argentine film, I situate Lucio Castro's End of the Century within Spanish cinema's realm, given its Barcelona setting and national identity of a main character. In this laconic two-hander we're first introduced to Ocho, a handsome marketing executive and aspiring poet who's recently ended a 20-year relationship. After checking into an Air B&B he heads to the beach and spies Javi, a kid's TV show director who's married to a German man. The 13-minutes between the movie's opening frames and the pair's inevitable hook-up are entirely free of dialogue, which is the first indication Lucio Castro is in possession of strong directorial chops. Naturalistic post-coital dialogue reminiscent of Andrew Haigh's Weekend leads to Ocho and Javi's realization they were briefly an item 20 years ago. In an eye's blink we're off on an extended flashback, before doubling back to the present for the film's enigmatic third act. End of the Century is an intricate and affable riff on life's "what-if" moments.

The other Spanish film I previewed was Arantaxa Echevarría's Carmen & Lola, which is set within Madrid's tight-knit Roma community. Teenage graffiti artist Lola wants to be a teacher, a lofty aspiration in a culture where hairdressing is the only respectable 'profession' afforded women. She's also attracted to her own sex, signaled in a hilarious scene of her stumbling upon lesbian porn in an internet café. Lola's big IRL crush is her cousin's gorgeous fiancée Carmen. Their see-sawing affections occupy the movie's bulk until the relationship is discovered by Lola's family, at which point shit inevitably meets fan. I'd recommend Carmen & Lola for its fascinating, eyeball-deep immersion into Spain's Roma culture, and the searing chemistry between lead actresses Zaira Romero and Rosy Rodríguez.

Of all the works previewed for this year's festival, I was most impressed by Ali Jaberansari's Tehran: City of Love. The un-ironic title for this exquisitely crafted, deadpan social satire would be "Tehran: Triptych of Thwarted Desire." When we first meet Hessam, a man-bun sporting, ex-bodybuilding champ turned trainer, he's posing for beefcake pix in hopes of landing a film role with "France's most famous actor," Louis Garrel. Hessam's story arc follows his excruciatingly awkward and unrequited crush on a younger bodybuilder put in his charge. The film's other two (straight) protagonists are equally unlucky in love. Manipulative Mina works as a skincare clinic receptionist who arranges fake 'dates' with her workplace's hunkiest male clients. Meanwhile Vahid, a depressed funeral vocalist whose fiancé recently split, struggles to transform himself into an ebullient wedding singer. With a surfeit of delicious visual jokes and captivating supporting characters, director Jaberansari masterfully weaves these three stories into a pathos-filled, near perfect movie.

It's almost unheard of for Frameline to program just one French film, but there you have it. Luckily School's Out, Sébastien Marnier's delectably disturbing thriller with metaphysical overtones, is a clear standout. Hunky Laurent Lafitte (Isabelle Huppert's rapist neighbor in Verhoven's Elle) stars as Pierre Hoffman, a new teacher whose immediate predecessor attempted suicide by jumping out a classroom window. The kids who witnessed it, a Children of the Damned pack of arrogant and secretive "intellectually advanced" 9th graders, immediately challenge Pierre's authority and begin stalking him. That's OK because he's stalking them, too, observing their hyper-aggressive gameplay at a local quarry where a mysterious DVD cache is buried. As humans and animals act increasingly skittish and the town's nuclear plant looms on screen, can apocalypse be far behind? It's all a bit overstuffed and not everything adds up, but otherwise this is tremendously skillful entertainment. Zombie Zombie's score is worth singling out, particularly two unnerving, dirge-like arrangements of Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River" and "Free Money" which we see performed by the school's choir. I also dug how Pierre's homosexuality, apart from helping to brand him as an outsider, is coolly sublimated (and limited to an attraction towards the school's athletic math teacher, played by French rapper Gringe). Lastly, French film fans will welcome the sight of Emmanuelle Bercot, Pascal Greggory and Grégory Montel (Netflix's Call My Agent!) in the supporting cast of teachers and administrators.

Two remaining narrative features I previewed hail from Romania and Indonesia. Marius Olteanu's Monsters is a puzzle-like domestic drama divided into three acts, the first of which accompanies an irritated woman on an all-night taxi ride around Bucharest. The second watches as a man endures an amusing-for-us, hellish-for-him Grindr date, and the Act Three reveals the woman and man as two halves of a crumbling marriage. Monsters' strict formalism – encompassing shifting aspect ratios, extended tracking shots and long talky scenes played out in real time – may be an acquired taste. Stephen Dalton's Hollywood Reporter review tags the film's target audience as "masochistic misery junkies who attend film festivals and art house theaters." You all know who you are. 'Acquired taste' is an equally apt heads-up for Garin Nugroho's opaque Memories of My Body. I'm a huge fan of the filmmaker's eye-popping Opera Jawa from 2006. With its cultural density and enormous plot ellipses, however, I floundered my way through Memories, even with the aid of a press kit. Ostensibly it's 'about' the boy-to-man journey of Juno and his transformation within the world of traditional Javanese lengger dancing. On the plus side, the movie is visually arresting and rarely dull.

There were two documentaries I'd fervently hoped to find in this year's festival. Frameline programmed both, and both are superb. Robert Anderson Clift and Hilary Demmon's Making Montgomery Clift eschews a traditional bio-doc route in favor of something more specific. Namely, it sets to proving the acclaimed actor was not an unstable, self-hating homosexual tortured by his sexuality, but was in fact very full of life and in complete control of his craft. The film's co-director happens to be Clift's youngest nephew, and the biggest weapon in his arsenal is a fount of recordings made by his father, Monty's brother Brooks Clift. Among the controversies into which the film takes a deep dive is Clift's Oscar-nominated performance in Judgement at Nuremberg, which popular belief holds was simply Monty having a real-life, on-screen mental breakdown. Using recorded conversations and Clift's actual annotated shooting script, they irrefutably demonstrate that every spoken word and nuance was intentional. Equally compelling is the film's scrutiny of homophobic director John Huston's lawsuit against Clift over the biopic Freud, which irreparably damaged the actor's career.

Making Montgomery Clift contains enough general interest material regarding the actor's life and career to please casual fans and acolytes alike. I'm not sure the same can be said for Jeffrey McHale's You Don't Nomi, which takes Paul Verhoven's $40 million "masterpiece of shit" Showgirls and risks analyzing it to death. But if you're like me, and Showgirls is your absolute favorite movie of the 1990's, you'll eat up the detailed dissertations on topics like the inherent puns contained within the name Nomi (the first name of Elizabeth Berkley's main character) or whether the film qualifies as camp (as one observer puts it, is camp even possible in the age of Sharknado?). I also devoured the doc's queer reading of Showgirls and its resonance with gay men, as well as a fabulous discourse on the infamous Spago scene (written like "brain-dead Harold Pinter.") Archival interviews with key participants like Verhoven, Berkley, Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan, are augmented by fresh exchanges with Adam Nayman (author of pro-Showgirls bible, "It Doesn't Suck") and our own Peaches Christ, whose legendary Midnight Mass screenings (complete with horrifying "free" lap dances with every large popcorn) almost single-handedly gave birth to the film's oversized Bay Area cult status. If I had one quibble, it might be You Don't Nomi's overuse of clips from other Verhoven works. 

Frameline43 closes on Sunday, June 30 with David Charles Rodrigues' Gay Chorus Deep South, which documents SF Gay Men's Chorus recent concert tour of the American South. It's a topic I have zero personal interest in, but ecstatic reviews from the Tribeca Film Festival premiere convinced me to have a look. I'm confident you'll be as touched as I was. In a move that practically defines bravery bordering on foolhardiness, SF's gay chorus chose to tour (along with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir) five southern states with the country's most discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws – namely AL, MS, TN, NC and SC. What emerges from the resulting documentary is a balanced portrait of red-state America that isn't blind to the region's major shortcomings. The film's soul lies with the chorus' ex-Southerners, who'll be anxiously returning to a place that symbolizes hate and rejection. Some will use the tour to reunite with estranged family members. We also spend time with current LGBTQ Southerners, whose resilience has resulted in the creation of strong local communities. Rodriguez's film benefits greatly from the presence of Tim Seelig, the chorus' formidably articulate artistic director who was banished from a Texas mega-church's employ for being gay in 1986, resulting in the loss of home, family and friends.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

SFFILM Festival 2019

The SFFILM Festival, better known until just recently as the San Francisco International, celebrates its 62nd edition next week. What's different about this fest is that for the first time since 1976, I won't be in attendance due to a recent relocation out of state. That minor detail, however, won't stop me from talking about what excites me in this year's line-up, nor from sharing brief commentary on a handful of films I was able to preview.

The 2019 festival takes off on Wednesday, April 10 with the world premiere of Netflix's Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, featuring on-stage appearances by beloved series' star Laura Linney and writer/creator Maupin. Closing out the fest on April 21 will be Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley as UK whistleblower Katherine Gun. Expected guests for the evening include the film's Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood (2005's Tsotsi) as well as Ms. Gun, the movie's subject. Rounding out 2019's trio of Big Nights will be the Centerpiece Film presentation of Sundance hit The Farewell, featuring Crazy Rich Asians breakout star Awkwafina.

As always, SFFILM Festival offers up an enticing array of Awards & Tributes. Most noteworthy to me is the April 12 shindig for John C. Reilly – not just because he's an outstanding actor but because his tribute includes a Castro Theatre screening of Jacques Audiard's revisionist western The Sisters Brothers, perhaps the most criminally underseen film of 2018. Laura Linney, in addition to appearing on opening night, will hang around SF for another day to partake in her own April 11 tribute, featuring her Oscar-nominated performance in Tamara Jenkins' 2007 familial dramedy The Savages. Across town that same evening, iconoclastic French director Claire Denis will finally, after several thwarted attempts, receive an SFFILM Fest tribute. That program includes a sneak peek at High Life, her English-language sci-fi thriller starring Robert Pattinson and Juliet Binoche, which opens the following day at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Other acting tributes include Laura Dern on April 14, accompanied by her latest, Trial By Fire, as well as esteemed child actor and longtime festival supporter Claude Jarman, Jr. on April 20. The now 88-year-old Jarman will receive the fest's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, followed by a showing of Clarence Brown's 1949 adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust… in 35mm! Celluloid lovers also won't want to miss the Mel Novikoff Award presentation to BBC series Arena, wherein James Marsh's mesmerizing experimental docu-drama Wisconsin Death Trip from 1999 will also be projected in 35mm. Rounding out the awards roster is pioneering African American documentarian Madeline Anderson. She'll receive the festival's 2019 Persistence of Vision Award, accompanied by two of her early doc shorts.

Amongst this year's Live & Onstage presentations, I'd give top priority to hearing Boots Riley deliver the State of Cinema Address. The lefty rapper and musician recently took indie film by storm with his directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, which scored the Centerpiece slot at last year's festival. Other L&O offerings include all-women L.A. band Warpaint's live accompaniment to works by iconic experimental filmmaker Maya Deren (including 1944's seminal Meshes of the Afternoon) and a screening of Andrew Slater's new documentary Echo in the Canyon, about the early years (1965-67) of the Laurel Canyon music scene. Musician Jakob Dylan, who conducts the doc's on-screen interviews, will perform selections from the era live at the Castro Theatre following the screening. Fest-goers can also spend An Evening with Kahlil Joseph, who's perhaps best known for co-directing Beyoncé's Lemonade project.

Over the past decade, documentaries have come to occupy an increasingly larger slice of this festival's pie, with non-fiction works now comprising 47 percent of its total feature film count. That's a daunting number, but I'll try and touch on a representative sampling. The fest's Masters section is a good place to start, with new works by two acknowledged geniuses of the art form. Werner Herzog's Meeting Gorbachev will play the fest prior to its opening at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema on May 10. I had the chance to preview Stanley Nelson's magnificent Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, which fits comfortably within a distinguished filmography that includes The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. As a Francophile I was especially intrigued with the section covering Davis' time in Paris – a searing romance with chanteuse Juliette Greco (interviewed on-screen) followed by the creation of his improvisatory score for Louis Malle's 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows. That collaborative project launched a whole new direction in Davis' music. Outside the Masters sidebar there are even more biographical documentaries, most with self-explanatory titles: Ask Dr. Ruth (opening at the Opera Plaza May 3), Halston, RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, Tony Morrison: The Pieces I Am and Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (the latter a portrait of San Francisco's notorious rock music photographer).

This year's festival is the first to take place in the era of legal recreational cannabis, and SFFILM is not letting 4/20/19 pass unnoticed. First there's the previously mentioned 60's rock-doc Echo in the Canyon at the Castro – a venue where until the mid-80s patrons could smoke weed in the right-hand section unfettered. This festival's real 4/20 pot party, however, is likely to go down at Oakland's Grand Lake, where musician, filmmaker and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy will be on hand to present his new doc about the history of reefer in America, Grass is Greener. A third stoner doc option that Sunday is Hail Satan?, director Penny Lane's comic look at The Satanic Temple.

A total of 13 prizes were awarded to documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival and amazingly, SFFILM has programmed films representing ten of them. Topping the list with three prizes is Honeyland, a female Macedonian "bee whisperer" portrait which won a World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change, and a Special Jury Award for Cinematography. The U.S. Grand Jury Prize was given to One Child Nation, which analyzes the consequences of China's infamous 35-year social experiment. The doc receiving the most publicity at Sundance was Knock Down the House, which won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Rachel Lears' film, which pops up on Netflix May 1, follows four female 2018 political candidates – most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – as they strive to topple entrenched incumbents. I'm very intrigued by Special Jury Award for Cinematography winner Midnight Family, which trails a family who run a frantic private ambulance service in Mexico City. At the SFFILM opening press conference it was revealed that travel visas for the Ochoa family to attend the festival were (of course) blocked by the assholes who decide such matters. The remaining Sundance prizewinners one can see are Always in Season (Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency), Jawline (Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker), Midnight Traveler (Special Jury Award for No Borders) and American Factory (Directing Award: U.S. Documentary). The latter film curiously landed in SFFILM's Masters section, of all places. I'm not at all familiar with its co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichart, and an imdb search also yielded nothing from them I recognized.

Amidst the surfeit of documentaries I've yet to mention, here are several of personal interest. Based on Victor Kossakovsky's ¡Vivan las Antipodas! (SFFILM Festival 2012), I'd definitely check out his latest work Aquarela, which sounds like an incredible sensory experience. Echoing that film's aquatic theme is Walking on Water, a reportage on environmental artist Christo's latest project The Floating Piers. Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei is expected to attend the festival for screenings of Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, a closer look at the prisoner letter-writing campaign that was part of his Alcatraz exhibition. The international refugee crisis is the subject of two more SFFILM docs. Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America concerns LGBTQ refugees, and Central Airport THF takes a poetic look at Berlin's defunct Tempelhof Airport, which became a refugee camp in 2015. The latter is directed by renowned Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz (Madame Satã), whose last narrative feature Futuro Beach was co-set in Brazil and Germany. Central Airport THF garnered rave reviews when it premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, and was recently available to watch on Euro streaming platform MUBI. Speaking of Brazil, the fragile political situation in Aïnouz' homeland is the subject of Petra Costa's The Edge of Democracy. Finally, Kabul, City in the Wind and What We Left Unfinished uncover aspects of life in Afghanistan, with the second examining the country's film history via a trove of long-hidden works.

Moving on to the festival's narrative features, we'll begin with a look at the slim roster of French language films. I can easily recommend the two I previewed. Nathan Ambrosioni's Paper Flags features another unforgettable performance by Guillaume Gouix, here playing a short-fused, newly released convict out to establish a normal life with the help of his wary younger sister. Gouix first came to my attention in the sublime French zombie TV series, The Returned, and more recently in distinguished supporting parts in Gaspard at the Wedding and Lucas Belvaux's This is Our Land. Hopefully, Paper Flags generates more lead roles for him in the future. I also quite enjoyed Olivier Masset-Depasse's Mothers' Instinct, a moody 1950's Belgian thriller with strong overtones of Hitchcock and Sirk. Addressing themes of jealousy and guilt through a female-centric lens, the film stars Veerie Baetens who many will remember from 2012's The Broken Circle Breakdown. For those who salivate over such things, Mother's Instinct also features to-die-for period art direction and costume design. As a Louis Garrel obsessive, it kills me to miss A Faithful Man, the impossibly handsome and charismatic actor's second feature as director. In a plot that sounds redolent of works by his father, Philippe Garrel, Louis plays a guy caught between the romantic attentions of two women, one older and one younger. Garrel co-wrote the film with legendary script maestro Jean-Claude Carrière, for which they won the screenwriting prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival. The fourth French language movie at SFFILM 2019 is David Oelhoffen's Close Enemies, which I'd recommend sight unseen for no other reason than it stars Matthias Schoenaerts.

There's a strong line-up of Latin American narrative features this year, including new works from three SFFILM alumni. Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj (A Useful Life, The Apostate) returns with Belmonte, an enigmatic character study of a still-handsome, middle-aged painter of garish male nudes. Javi Belmonte's peevishly sad-sack demeanor is of no help when dealing with personal crises. These include, but are not limited to, a pregnant ex-wife, an elderly father who may be going gay, and bored rich housewives who buy his paintings just to fuck him. This discomfiting sketch of an artist stuck in limbo is the perfect length at 75 minutes, and its sumptuous color palette has remained lodged in my memory. I was also taken with Benjamín Naishtat's Rojo, admiring it even more than his 2014 breakthrough debut History of Fear. In this deeply unsettling, formalist allegory set in the pre-days of Argentina's 1976 military coup, a small-town lawyer (screen-commanding Darío Grandinetti) gets involved in a real estate scam at the same time he's being pursued by a relentless police inspector (the great Alfredo Castro) over his involvement in a suicide/disappearance. The third filmmaker returning to the fest this year is Argentine director Ana Katz (Musical Chairs, A Stray Girlfriend) with her new film, Florianópolis Dream.

Two other Latin American features with strong critical buzz were unfortunately not available for preview. Lila Avilés' The Chambermaid won the Morelia Film Festival's top prize, as well as kudos from far-flung fests like Marrakech, Minsk and Palm Springs. Avilés debut feature is situated entirely within a Mexico City luxury hotel, wherein the titular maid imagines the lives of hotel guests based on their possessions and odd requests. Alejandro Landes' Monos won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award following its Sundance world premiere and is currently being featured in NYC's prestigious New Directors/New Films series. Set in the mountainous jungles of northern Colombia, the film has intriguingly been touted as a combo of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now. It also boasts a music score by Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie). A Colombian film I did have the opportunity to preview is Lapü, from the festival's Vanguard section. This entrancing docu-fiction hybrid languidly depicts the Wayuü indigenous tribal custom of digging up and then reburying the dead. Lapü should be of special interest to admirers of Ciro Guerra's recent film, Birds of Passage, which enacts the same Wayuü ritual.

The most notable Asian narrative feature at SFFILM Fest is undoubtedly Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's Asako I & II. The Japanese director took the festival world by storm a few years back with Happy Hour, a 317-minute paean to adult female friendship. That film's fervid reception resulted in a 2018 Cannes competition slot for his latest. Clocking in at a tidy two-hours, Asako relates one young woman's years-long obsession with two identical-looking men; a shy teen outcast who becomes a top fashion model, and a down-to-earth sake company marketing manager. Despite skillful direction, engaging script and fine performances, I found it much less profound than Happy Hour, and truth be told, a bit tedious in the final stretch. I was far more impressed with Qiu Sheng's Suburban Birds, a fascinating New Directors entry from China which alternates between two metaphysically linked narrative tracks. In the first, a team of structural engineers investigates why some buildings in the city of Wenjing are starting to tilt. The other lovingly conveys the quotidian (mis)adventures of a small group of pre-teen classmates. How these two threads relate (or not?!) should inspire spirited Q&As with director Qiu Sheng, who is expected to attend the festival. Bonus points are given for the film's use of Sonic Youth's "Little Trouble Girl" in a key scene.

Other Asian options at the festival include two films imminently scheduled to arrive in Bay Area cinemas. Singaporean director Eric Khoo's Ramen Shop hits the Opera Plaza on April 26. More often than not I find Khoo's films queasily sentimental and will probably give this one a pass. Opening at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 17 is Ritesh Batra's Photograph, which reunites the Indian director of 2013's wildly popular The Lunchbox with that film's star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Rounding out the fest's Asian selections are First Night Nerves, the latest from Hong Kong arthouse master Stanley Kwan (Rouge, Lan Yu), and Dark Wave sidebar entry Project Gutenberg. The latter is a Chinese action thriller with a superstar cast (Aaron Kwok, Chow Yun Fat) helmed by the writer of 2002's Internal Affairs (Felix Chong). It should prove extremely fun to watch on the Castro Theatre's enormous screen.

From elsewhere in the line-up I previewed two more worthwhile entries, both of which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In My Room is German director Ulrich Köhler's first film since his woozily mysterious, African-set Sleeping Sickness, which SFFILM screened in 2012. Following a half-hour set-up whereby we're introduced to Armin, a borderline schlubby TV news cameraman, we see him awaken to an existential apocalypse in which people have disappeared but everything else in the world is basically unchanged. The film remains extremely compelling as he begins life anew on an abandoned farmstead. Interest wanes, however, when the arrival of a female co-survivor slowly transforms the narrative into a more traditional relationship drama. In The Harvesters, Etienne Kallos' absorbing study of strained masculinity in a religious Afrikaner farm community, a teenage boy's world shifts dramatically when his family adopts a troubled urban teen whose past includes gay street hustling. I was wowed by the film's widescreen photography of stark South African landscapes, as well as by the empathetic performances of its two adolescent lead actors.

Out of the remaining bounty of narrative features, I'll close with three I'd be damn certain not to miss were I able to attend the festival in person. Loro promises another fevered, collaborative take on Italian politics from director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) and actor Toni Servillo. Their target this go-round is villainous, vainglorious media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Originally shown in Italy as two separate, two-hour movies, this 150-minute "international" version has its detractors. Given the talent involved, however, it remains a personal must-see. I'm certain The Nightingale will also be a must-see for anyone who had the shit scared out of them watching 2014's The Babadook. Jennifer Kent's follow-up film is a female revenge opus set in 19th Tasmania. Lastly, I wouldn't dream of missing the festival's 50th anniversary, 4K restoration screening of John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, featuring an appearance by photographer Michael Childers, the director's life partner and assistant on this ground-breaking, Best Picture Oscar winner. Anyone who attended the Castro Theatre's weekend-long Schlesinger tribute in 2006, or has heard him talk on last year's Criterion Collection release of the film, knows that Childers has some wild tales to tell.