Sunday, May 3, 2015

Monte-Cristo (1929)

A scene from Henri Fescourt's MONTE-CRISTO, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Besides Alexandre Dumas, père, who wrote (or actually co-wrote with Auguste Maquet) the famous novel from which this screen adaptation was based, the best-remembered creative involved in this film's creation is probably Lil Dagover, who performed in this French film a decade after her roles in Fritz Lang's the Spiders and Harakiri,and in Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

WHAT: I haven't seen this yet, so let me quote from a recent article by David Cairns:
If the style is modernist (also: extreme close-ups; zip-pans; swooning drifts in and out of focus; a shot of a sparkling sea when the hero, long imprisoned in the dark, is blinded by daylight), the settings are gloriously traditional, with lavish sets, augmented by special effects, elegant costumes and varied exotic locations.
WHERE/WHEN: 1:00 today only at the Kabuki, courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Monte-Cristo is one of the last serials produced during the silent era in the country that made such an early and critical mark on the form with multi-episode films like Les Vampyres and Judex. Seriality of course now dominates popular cinema, at least at this time of year, even if we don't always admit it to ourselves. For those who enjoyed attending UC Berkeley's conference and screenings on seriality in silent cinema and beyond this past February, attending today's screening is a no-brainer.

Monte-Cristo was not long ago restored from disparate sources in various archive, and is presented as the carte-blanche selection of Mel Novikoff Award winner Lenny Borger, who will be interviewed by Scott Foundas on stage prior to the showing. Recent recipients of this award have included critics (David Thomson, J. Hoberman, the late Manny Farber & Roger Ebert), archivists (Serge Bromberg, Kevin Brownlow, Paolo Cherchi Usai) and programmers/exhibitors (Anita Monga, Bruce Goldstein, Pierre Rissient, the late Peter Von Bagh.) This is, I believe, the first time the award is going to someone who is best known for his work as a subtitler. It's high time, as this key role in the transmission of international cinema is often taken for granted, especially in a near-insatiable market for foreign films like that of the Bay Area, where a recent trend of exhibiting films with utterly (and often obviously, even to a linguistic ignoramus) amateur subtitle translations has gotten a foothold in at least one prominent independent theatre.

Is it ironic that a subtitler has chosen a silent film as his presentation selection? It makes me wonder if he is able to enjoy watching a film with subtitled dialogue without giving the translations his own professional critique.

Of course Frisco Bay loves its silent films and usually embraces another opportunity to see an obscure one on the big screen. We're coming up on a season of many such opportunities, as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is just around the corner at the end of this month (aforementioned Bromberg, Brownlow, Goldstein and of course festival director Monga all expected to attend) and the Niles Silent Film Museum has just issued its newest calendar pdf, including the line-up for its Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival in late June.

SFIFF also provides two more silent film screenings, both with live musical accompaniment, this week. Cibo Matto performs to a 35mm print of Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (as well as some more recent works in which they will replace an original soundtrack with their own) Tuesday, and Kronos Quartet provides the music for Bill Morrison's recent compilation of World War I footage on Wednesday.

HOW: Screens from a digital master (the only way this particular restoration exists), with Borger's preferred musical accompaniment recorded onto the digital "print".

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final screening of the excellent program of experimental shorts that I discussed Wednesday, and of the animated shorts program I touched on last weekend. It's also the first screening of local filmmaker Jennifer Phang's sci-fi feature Advantageous (full disclosure: I'm friends with Phang and her editor Sean Gillane, and contributed to this feature's crowd-funding campaign. I bought my ticket to tonight's show and can't wait!)

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Today SF Cinematheque hosts a video/performance variation of the incredible installation Kit Young had up at Artists' Television Access earlier this year, as well as performance from Any Puls and others.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

layover (2014)

A scene from Vanessa Renwick's LAYOVER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Vanessa Renwick made this.

WHAT: I've only seen a handful of items from Renwick's extensive filmography; essentially only the ones collected on this DVD (I plan to place an order for this one soon). What I've seen reveals her accomplishment in many filmmaking tools and techniques, but the film that has stuck with me most over the years is Britton, South Dakota, a found footage piece that apparently involved minimal intervention on her part. Yet those few strokes: selecting a particular nine minutes of images from two and a half hours of footage shot by one man in one town back in 1938, and finding music to go with it, turned the footage into a particularly haunting form of contemporary art.

Her latest short piece, a 6-minute work called layover, is a stunningly beautiful cine-poem documenting the swirling flight patterns of a group of Vaux's swifts (a West Coast relative to the more famous chimney swift of the Eastern U.S.) as they make their annual stop at a Portland school building (which looks like a repurposed factory smokestack) on the way down their migratory path toward Central America. In this case Renwick's interventions are not nearly as apparently minimal as those in Britton, South Dakota, although I do not know whether or not the footage, shot in HD by perennial collaborator Eric Edwards (also director of photography for many Gus van Sant films), was captured with Renwick present. I have no reason to think she wasn't on hand, directing Edwards and his assistants to shoot the material she knew she'd need for the edit, but it's possible that, like Ivan Besse's footage in Britton, South Dakota, these images were something Edwards had caught without Renwick's involvement, and that she instead instigated their formation into a work unto itself.

Either way, there is an element of the swifts' abstract patterning that foreground's the camera's role in preserving fleeting, unstaged moments. Their spirals and funnels sometimes resemble the animated motions found in a Jordan Belson film, but were not choreographed by any animator besides the instinct and social behavior of Mother Nature. This is a film that invites particular reflections on the role of humans and their inventions in relation to the fabric of organic matter we're surrounded by and indeed part of, whether we're present to that fact or not. Max Goldberg recently put it more succinctly: "each time the awed camera bucks or racks focus to keep up with the flock, it’s a reminder of our human weakness for wanting to hold what will not be held."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 9:30 PM tonight at the Kabuki Theatre, and 6:30 PM this Sunday, May 3rd at the Pacific Film Archive, both courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Max Goldberg's article, linked above, is from his wrap-up on SF Cinematheque's Crossroads Festival, which occurred earlier this month. He doesn't mention that layover in fact kicked off the very first program of the entire weekend-long festival, its uplift making an ideal opening to a weekend full of flights into unknown spaces. If the order of films in the Nothing But a Dream: Experimental Shorts program at SFIFF this year is the order of showing, then layover will again provide the first images of the program, and for those who may have missed out on Crossroads, an ideal opening of a month of SF Cinematheque co-presentations and presentations.

The "Nothing But a Dream" program is the annual SFIFF show programmed not by festival staff but by Kathy Gertiz of the Pacific Film Archive and Vanessa O'Neill of Cinematheque; it includes works by artists frequently showcased by those institutions, like Janie Geiser and T. Marie, as well as relative newcomers like local Zachary Epcar, whose terrific short Under the Heat Lamp an Opening is the first of his pieces screened at any of these three partnering organizations (its slightly-earlier showing at Crossroads shouldn't take away from the prestige of this premiere; this time Epcar is expected to be on hand for audience questions after the showings).

SF Cinematheque has also joined as a co-presenter for Jenni Olson's latest feature The Royal Road, but also presents a couple of programs during SFIFF that have nothing to do with the festival: an Andrew Puls performance occurs (quite unfortunately) during the second screening of layover and its "Nothing But a Dream" kin this Sunday. And small-gauge film legend Saul Levine makes a rare visit from New England to Oakland next Tuesday, May 5th. Later in the month, after SFIFF is over, two more artists present work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kevin Jerome Everson on the 19th & 20th and Tommy Becker on the 29th. Further into the future, SF Cinematheque promises screenings of work by Zach Iannazzi & Margaret Rorison in August, Sandra Gibson & Luis Recoder in October, and Nathaniel Dorsky in November.

HOW: According to the PFA listing, all but three of the pieces in the "Nothing But A Dream" program screen digitally. Those three are 16mm prints: Ryan Marino's Old Growth, Jennifer Reeves's Color Neutral and Mike Gibisser's Blue Loop, July. Of course layover will be shown digitally, its native format.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final festival screenings of Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights, Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, Sergei Loznitza's Maidan, and the Chinese noir I wrote about on Monday, Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre (which incidentally has just revealed its May calendar) is screening a 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with a digital version of the Wachowskis' Bound.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jauja (2014)

Viggo Mortensen in a scene from Lisandro Alonso's JAUJA, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Lisandro Alonso co-wrote and directed this, his first new feature film since Liverpool back in 2008.

WHAT: Oops! Somehow I got the "hold review" rules a bit wrong the other day. I actually have 100 words in which to write a capsule review of a title receiving an upcoming commercial release. I'll start counting after this sentence.

If Alonso's masterpiece Los Muertos was the shadowy underbelly to Blissfully Yours, Jauja takes him into mystical realms akin to Uncle Boonmee, by way of Sjöström's elemental landscape dramas. Scandinavia looms; Viggo Mortensen's a Danish cavalryman seeking his teenaged daughter in remote Patagonia. He simultaneously exudes power and frailty, dwarfed as he often is by expanses separating him from the square frame, rounded at the corners as if to suggest Carleton Watkins' mammoth plates. When these curves disappear into blackness, its one of the film's sublime moments, at least as many as there were co-producing nations (according to imdb, eight!)

WHERE/WHEN: Screens one final time at the Kabuki (3PM today) as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), and will also screen daily at the Roxie during the week of May 22-28.

WHY: Jauja is at "RUSH status" at SFIFF but that doesn't mean you can't see it; by arriving early for the screening you may just have a good shot at nabbing a seat in the theatre, although it might be in the first few rows of the theatre. In which case you'll have to wait until its Roxie run a month or less from now. All the "RUSH status" screenings can be followed day-to-day on this handy web page.

HOW: DCP at the Kabuki, but most likely Blu-Ray projection at the Roxie.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Yesterday Paul Schrader received the Maurice Kanbar Award from the festival as part of its gala awards presentation night. Tonight he holds court at the Kabuki's screen 1, to speak about his career and present a screening of his brilliant Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters from the digital master from which the Criterion DVD was made (the last 35mm print I saw of this film was extremely beat-up, although still quite effective.) Today's also the last screening of Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which is like Jauja at RUSH status but 

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Man From Reno, a Bay Area-shot feature from the director of Surrogate Valentine screens this week at various Frisco Bay cinemas; today it's at the Roxie, the 4-Star and the New Parkway.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

A scene from Diao Yinan's BLACK COAL THIN ICE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
WHO: Liao Fan (last seen in Jackie Chan's dreadful CZ12) won the Best Actor prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival for his role in this. (He's the one lighting up in the above photo.)

WHAT: It's interesting to contrast this somber procedural, the third feature by Beijing-based filmmaker Diao Yinan, against an earlier wave of Chinese-language crime movies that came up in the post-film presentation with Film Workshop's Nansun Shi after her and her husband Tsui Hark's Taking of Tiger Mountain at the festival yesterday. In the late-eighties Hong Kong thrillers directed by the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam, Hollywood stylistic influences are worn loudly and brightly (and taken to sometimes absurd levels), while cops exude a kind of glamorous cool even as they commit objectively despicable acts. It's elements like this that I feel may give some credence to James Naremore's suggestion that the North American vogue for Hong Kong action in the 1990s was "indulging in fin de siècle Orientalism," although I personally feel there was a lot more to it than that- a topic for another discussion at another time.

It may be overly-obvious to state that a film like Black Coal, Thin Ice feels far more attuned to international arthouse than pop cinema, both formally and thematically (although these inseparable realms in fact reinforce each other). There's far more ambiguity in this moral universe, and Liao's role as Zhang is that of a real neo-noir protagonist; one that appears more pathetic than glamorous. When we first meet him, he's at a train station seeing off his former wife, and can't help but try to force himself on her one last time before she leaves his life for good. It's like the opposite of a "save the cat" gesture intended to make audiences like an on-screen character better. For the rest of the film, we hang on the open question of whether we're going to find anything redeeming about this authority figure, as much or more than we wonder what the solution to the gruesome mystery at the center of the plot: who is chopping up human bodies and disposing of their pieces in a coal plant.

It's a grim film, but a highly compelling one, set in eye-opening industrial urban landscapes and punctuated by impactful moments contrasting with the rest of the methodical, clinical tone, such as sudden burst of violent action in the midst of a wrong turn in the investigation, or an almost tender close up on Zhang and a female character, chillingly coming right after the most overt visual reference to Carol Reed's The Third Man in the film, of the several noted by John Berra. Though Black Coal, Thin Ice isn't quite up to the standards of that landmark of British and indeed international cinema, it's a worthwhile genre piece that will be giving scholars much to pick over as it's discussed in the context of a rapidly-transforming nation in the coming years.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 6PM today at the Clay, and 9:15 PM Wednesday at the Kabuki as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: If you've been seeing just one SFIFF film per day following my daily picks, you haven't seen anything made outside of the United States of America yet. And this is supposed to be an international film festival? I haven't crunched numbers yet, but I do get the sense that U.S. (mostly independent and underground, not Hollywood, of course) films are taking a more generous share of the attention at the festival this year, and I'm sorry to perpetuate that. My excuse: wanting to write about films I've seen rather than those I haven't each day; I'll be able to weigh in on more foreign titles as the festival rolls on. Anyway, I'm glad to finally get the ball rolling with a film from China, which has five titles listed in the SFIFF's "country index" in the back of its catalog. Others include The Taking of Tiger Mountain (mentioned above and playing again on Thursday), Peter Ho-sun Chan's Dearest (also screening Thursday), an American-made no-budget documentary on the Chinese rail system called The Iron Ministry (screening again May 4). There are two more chances to see Red Amnesia, another thriller that seems a productive pairing with Black Coal, Thin Ice as it was made by a director (Wang Xiaoshuai) just three years older than Diao; their two films even share the same editor, Yang Hongyu!

HOW: DCP presentation.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today is the final festival screening of the German film Stations of the Cross and of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live! with director Jody Shapiro, not to mention its titular cinema-royalty star, in attendance.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Roxie Cinema is screening a week-long engagement of the (human) injury-plagued 1981 cult classic Roar. Tonight it screens at the "Big Roxie" (as opposed to the smaller-screened "Little Roxie" two doors down) at 9:15.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Iris (2014)

A scene from Albert Maysles' IRIS, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: The late Albert Maysles directed this.

WHAT: I'm allowed to write no more than a seventy-five word review of this film during the festival; because of its "Hold Review" status I'm supposed to wait until its upcoming commercial release to say more. So here goes:

Manhattan's fearlessly original, supremely quoteable, style maven-about-town Iris Apfel and centenarian husband Carl prove ideal subjects for Maysles' perhaps most poptacular documentary, the last released before his March passing. I doubt it's merely the theme of exuberance in the face of mortality that makes it seem like he's filming a mirror; the fly even comes off the wall for a few warmly unguarded moments. Wear your craziest outfit to this one.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 1PM today only in House 1 of the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). It also opens commercially on May 8th for a (minimum) week-long engagement at the Opera Plaza, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

WHY: With this going into general release so soon, you may be tempted to schedule another screening in its timeslot and see it in a couple weeks. The main reason why this is not a perfectly good idea is that the day Iris is released commercially, the day after SFIFF ends, is the first day of a seven-day festival of Maysles documentaries at the Vogue Theatre, coinciding precisely with the seven days it's booked at the above venues. I mentioned this Maysles series in a post last month, but now the entire schedule of sixteen features and shorts has been posted online and tickets are already on sale. Although the series is all-digital, it includes many guest appearances by Maysles associates. I don't think any true admirer of Maysles life and work will want to go into this week-long event without having seen Iris first.

HOW: Digital presentations at each venue.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today is the only festival screening of Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, with director and star Gaspard Uillel both expected to attend the Castro showing. It's also the final showing of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, at the Pacific Film Archive, and the first showing of Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain at the Kabuki.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The last double-bill in Yerba Buena Center For the Arts' Noir Westerns series may or not be noir, but it's a powerhouse: John Ford's masterful (yet somehow today undervalued) The Searchers and the first of Anthony Mann's cycle of gritty treatises on American civilization starring Jimmy Stewart, Winchester '73, both in 35mm prints.