Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up at the Castro

On Friday, the Castro Theatre began showing the latest Pixar film, Up, directed by Pete Docter (who previously made Monsters, Inc.) I saw it there, and here are eight reasons why I think it's the ideal Frisco Bay venue in which to watch:

1. The Wurlitzer organ which plays before the evening screenings. When I attended the organist performed well-known Disney themes by the likes of the Sherman Bros. and other songwriters. Though Disney and Pixar are now joined at the hip (or at least the knee) Up thankfully contains no tacked-on pop songs intended to add to an Oscar nomination haul. Yet its music score composed by Michael Giacchino is nonetheless essential. Hearing the organ beforehand may also evoke the silent movie era for modern audiences- quite appropriate given that Up, even more than bleepity-blooping Wall-E, has an early sequence that deserves to be compared to the most accomplished visual storytelling of the silent era.

2. The Castro is playing the film in 3-D, which, yes means paying extra for the new-fangled glasses, but it certainly adds to the experience, even if it's not essential to appreciating the film. If you don't care at all about stereoscopic gimmickry, or prefer viewing a 35mm print, the Presidio provides an opportunity for viewing without the 3-D surcharge. At any rate, the Castro ticket price makes it Frisco's second-cheapest option for viewing in 3-D, outside of certain matinee screenings at the Sundance Kabuki.

3. I really don't want to do more than hint about the content of Up, but I think it's not spoiling a key surprise to say that the film begins with a clever "Movietown" newsreel showing the exploits of an intrepid explorer, hero to our protagonist Carl, who sits in a darkened theatre looking up at the screen with his thick-rimmed glasses and aviator goggles on. It's an ingenious device to create cinema audience identification with the character; we are placed in his position from the outset, and as we're adjusting our 3-D glasses he's adjusting his goggles. As we're delighting to the images on screen, so is he. The sequence also works as a time bridge, placing us in the distant past- perhaps the late 1920's or early 1930's. Needless to say, the scene in Up is not set in a multiplex but in a single-screen theatre, and the technique is certain to work better the the latter than the former. Though the Century Theatre in Corte Madera, a fine venue in its own right, is also a single-screener on Frisco Bay in which to fully experience this dreamworld transference, it was built in the 1960s. Dating from 1922, the Castro is by far the best simulator of Carl's experience around.

4. The respectful audiences. Even when playing mainstream fare, the Castro draws a more informed, enthusiastic crowd than you're likely to find at the shopping malls. Part of this may be a function of attending opening weekend in a Frisco Bay venue, not so far from Pixar's Emeryville headquarters. Were all those people staying to sit and clap the credits just fans, or were they supporting their friends and co-workers who'd had a hand in Up's creation?

5. Perhaps the interest in seeing a new 3-D film in Frisco's grandest remaining cinema will get folks excited about seeing revival films in 3-D. The last time the Castro brought out the silver screen, the dual projectors, and prints of terrific fare such as Dial 'M' For Murder and Robot Monster was a few years ago. Might a successful Up run inspire another such series?

6. Not enough quality animation graces the Castro screen, period. Sure, we had the live-action/stop motion hybrid the Lost World (which Up clearly references) earlier this month thanks to the SF Film Society, and a somewhat recent $5 Tuesday night offering was a bill of out-of-copyright Fleischer Brothers films. But there are whole worlds of animation that would be wonderful to view on that screen. My own first visit inside the Castro's hallowed halls was during Spike & Mike's animation festival, but now both that event and the folks who tour The Animation Show use other Frisco Bay venues. Why not a Hayao Miyazaki fest in conjunction with his upcoming visit to Frisco Bay in July? Or a Tex Avery night at the Castro? Animation-heads need opportunities to be reminded how great a venue it is for our beloved medium. The next two and a half weeks provide many; here's hoping there's more to come.

7. The Castro is the venue where Frisco Bay Herzog fans were able to see the White Diamond, one of the best films the Bavarian auteur has made in the past couple of decades. I wrote a bit about that screening in a piece for Senses of Cinema back in 2005. Don't try to tell me that Up and the White Diamond are not brethren, if in a slightly oblique way. Credit Robert Davis for noticing it.

8. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Up seems particularly poignant in light of last week's news event which rocked California, and the Castro district perhaps especially hard. Though he is responding to an advance screening that took place last Tuesday, and goes further into plot detail than I personally feel comfortable sharing with readers who have not seen the film yet (he doesn't reveal anything from beyond the first twenty-five or so minutes, but as these were my favorite minutes of Up I'm still feeling conservative at this point), Arya Ponto has eloquently made a connection that I feel is worth highlighting. Somehow, it seems unexpectedly appropriate that the day after Up's Castro run ends on June 17th, the theatre is given over to the 33rd Frameline festival, which has been nicely previewed by Michael Hawley. Perhaps Frameline fans coming in from out of town might want to arrive a day early to catch Up in a unique venue.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adam Hartzell: Night And Day

For those of us stuck in Frisco Bay, eyeing online coverage of the current Cannes Film Festival, a sense of frustration can quickly set in. Often it takes a year or more for even the highly-critically-regarded titles of the world's most prestigious film festivals to make it to local theatres. Some titles never make it here at all. The best way to console ourselves is to...see other films that are new to local screens or rarely shown. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room is a great place to do just that. Can't wait for Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds to come to Frisco? At least you can watch the 1978 exploitation film that inspired it's title (though perhaps not the misspelling), next week. And this week, the next-to-newest film from another filmmaker with a film playing the French Riviera. Who better than Adam Hartzell to whet the appetite a little? Adam:

Hong Sangsoo’s latest film, Like You Know It All was released this past weekend in South Korea in concert with a screening at Cannes. Although cinephiles in San Francisco will have to wait to know all about that film, we can take pleasure in Hong’s oeuvre of displeasure this weekend with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening of Night and Day, beginning its short run this Thursday.

Those familiar with Hong’s work will see the recurring themes as clear as night and day in Night and Day. Once again we have come hither, go thither gestures between ambivalent lovers, lovers whom we are definitely not intended to find admirable. Carrying onward with Woman on the Beach, Hong brings equal treatment to his male and female portrayals in Night and Day, highlighting the bad in both. In this 8th return to those Hongian themes, we have a painter named Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) who has left South Korea for Paris in order to avoid arrest for the victimless crime of smoking marijuana. Away from his wife, Sung-nam happens upon an old flame. (Hong's films are full of re-encounters.) But rather than the bed-and-retreat, rinse-repeat pattern we’ve come to expect of all main male characters in Hong’s films, Sung-nam strays in ironic ways from this past lover. When he meets a young painter perpetrating talents at Beaux Arts, Hyun-joo (Seo Min-jung), however, that old Hong character pathology rears its pathetic head again.

Tension of the sexual and socially awkward variety is what makes Hong's cinematic worlds go round. Characters behave with borderline nihilistic intensions, which may rile some viewers as Hong’s drunken men rile strangers when drinking. But with every 'repeat' Hongian moment, such as Sung-nam getting something caught in his eye just like Sang-kwon in The Power of Kangwon Province or the obligatory day trippin', Hong has ventured slightly off his well-trodden paths in Night and Day. Sung-nam's aforementioned momentary chastity is one divergence. The drinking scenes are decidedly different as well, blinks of the bug-invaded eye in Night and Day when compared to earlier fixated stares in works such as Turning Gate.

So if you found yourself growing as tired of Hong as Hong's women sometimes do with his men, Night and Day might have you returning to Hong like, well, Hong's women sometimes do with Hong's men. If you have yet to see a Hong film, Night and Day might be the perfect introduction. And for those of you like me who continue to find much to mine in Hong's musings on the pathetic in all of us, Night and Day won't fail to show you how we fail others and ourselves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sean McCourt: The Boys

Last year, Sean McCourt interviewed for Hell On Frisco Bay the director of the English Surgeon, a documentary currently playing at the Red Vic. And on Friday, another doc that Sean caught but I missed will open on Frisco Bay (at the Metreon). Here's Sean:

Although Robert and Richard Sherman might not be household names today, chances are it would only take a fraction of a second for someone listening to one of their songs to instantly recognize it and immediately be transported back to their youth, all while singing along to every word.

For 50 years now, the Sherman Brothers have been writing some of the most well-known and beloved music ever produced for film, television, stage and even amusement parks. Ranging from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Winnie The Pooh and "It’s A Small World," the output of the two musically gifted siblings has been absolutely astonishing—and because of the fact that they have produced so much work together over the years, and the tunes are almost universally upbeat and inspiring for children, the true story behind their tumultuous personal relationship with one another is doubly fascinating.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story is a new documentary looking at the lives of these two award-winning men, produced and directed by their two sons, cousins Jeffrey and Gregory Sherman, who didn’t know each other growing up even though they only lived a few blocks away from one another.

The world premiere screening of the deeply moving film took place in San Francisco on April 25th at the theater in the Letterman Digital Arts Complex, George Lucas’ new high-tech headquarters in the Presidio, the former army base that will also be home to the new Disney Family Museum later this year.

The packed event, part of the 52nd annual San Francisco International Film Festival, brought out all sorts of film-goers, ranging from small children to grandparents, including a sizable group from Disney that filled the middle section of the seating area.

Composed of several different types of cleverly woven together footage, including current interviews, clips from films, vintage behind the scenes home movies, personal family photos and more, The Boys starts out by giving some background on Robert and Richard Sherman’s family, particularly their father, the famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman.

Providing a backdrop for some of the brothers’ early influences, the documentary makes it clear that the two always had different personalities and interests, which were only widened when the elder Robert went off to fight in World War II and was wounded in combat. His physical injuries and the emotional scars from his time in the European portion of the conflict are slowly brought up over the course of the film, shedding light on his outlook on life, particularly when it is revealed that he was among the first Americans to liberate the Dachau concentration camp near the end of the war. He is clearly still haunted by what he saw, and he talks about how creating joyful art helped "make the horror go away."

Robert and Richard Sherman, now 83 and 80, respectively, are interviewed separately throughout the film, with Robert now living in London, while Richard still resides in Southern California. Many of the sequences segue from current interview footage to nicely rendered, almost three-dimensional restored photos from the past, while the interviews continue as voice-overs. 

In addition to interviews with the Sherman Brothers and their sons, the film features words and thoughts from other family members and several people who have worked with them or admired their songs over the years, including Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, John Landis, Angela Lansbury and Ben Stiller, who served as an Executive Producer on the project.
Tracing the story of their music career back to when they were getting ready for college, the film details how Robert had already made up his mind to major in writing, while Richard wasn’t sure what he wanted to do until one day while walking down the street he found himself with a tune running through his mind that he didn’t know where it had come from. Running home to the family piano to figure out how to play the melody he heard in his head, his father walked in on him, asked what he was doing, and when he was told, he immediately suggested to his son that he should become a music major.  
After the two graduated and moved back to southern California, they shared an apartment, living together out of economic necessity, with both concentrating on their own muses—Robert on writing a novel and poems, while Dick wrote and played music. One day their father suggested they work together on something, which they did; their first published song was "Gold Can Buy You Anything But Love," recorded by the legendary Gene Autry.

The documentary shows how this was the impetus for their continued teamwork, and then details The Sherman Brothers’ first big break with Disney, when they wrote "Tall Paul" for Annette Funicello in 1959.
Both brothers obviously still love Walt Disney and appreciate the opportunity that he gave them; as they talk about their first meeting with him, and how they got their job, they start to choke back tears a bit, and later on in the film they do the same when recalling the last time they saw Disney before he passed away in 1966. They relate the story of going to a movie premiere with him, and that at the end of the night, he came up to them and said, "Keep up the good work, boys"—something that he had never done before.

In a further touching tribute to Disney, the documentary then shows a still photo of him, with the camera panning towards the sky where a drawing of Mickey Mouse is crying. The scene then shifts to home movies of Disney throwing seeds to a flock of birds, all while the song "Feed The Birds" from Mary Poppins is played. Richard Sherman explains that Disney always asked them to play that particular song if they were in his office at the end of the week, that it was one of his favorites.

Among the interesting background stories and insider’s looks into how the some of the songs they wrote were originally created is one about how Jeff Sherman came home one day from school to find his father struggling to work on a new song for Mary Poppins. Robert Sherman looked up from his work, and asked how his son’s day had been, who related that he and the other students had to have a vaccination. Robert then asked if it was given through a shot, to which Jeff replied that they had "just taken a spoon and poured the medicine over a sugar cube" for them to eat. A current shot of Jeff imitating his father is then shown, nodding his head in thought, and then saying, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…"

Many, many other clips from movies and songs are used throughout the lively 100 minute film, including Charlotte’s Web, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Snoopy Come Home, The Jungle Book, and "The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room."

Interwoven into these wonderful snippets of their work is a gradual attempt at explaining the story behind the Sherman Brothers’ eventual personal estrangement—the case for one reason in particular is not made, but rather it seems that years and years of little things building up led to their current situation, among the factors being marital problems, financial considerations, and the general outward personalities of the two—who continue to work together across a long distance, thanks to advances in technology—but they just can’t seem to reconnect on a personal level for themselves, or for their families.

At the end of the documentary, the two filmmaker cousins show their trip to the recent premiere of Mary Poppins The Musical, and in voice-overs discuss how they had hoped that through the making of the Boys, they could convince their fathers to reconcile and re-form their personal relationship. A sequence of the two brothers greeting each other cordially on the red carpet is shown, but then one of the sons comes back on to finish the narration, saying "unlike a Sherman Brothers song, not all stories have a happy ending."
After the screening, Richard, Jeff and Greg Sherman appeared in person for a question and answer session, walking to the front of the theater to a standing ovation.

One of the questions posed for Richard Sherman asked about how he felt when he was riding "It’s A Small World," or was in a place where one of their songs was being played, and people were enjoying it, but didn’t know that he was one of the people who had created it. He said he a good answer for that, that he would share a story from his childhood—when he went to a big football game with his father, during halftime the marching bands came out and played "You Gotta Be A Football Hero," a song that his father had co-written. The crowd was all cheering along and clapping to the song, and as a kid he asked his dad how he felt, to which his father replied "It feels good, kiddo."

Richard Sherman then looked around at the audience at the Letterman Theater, smiled, and said, "That's how I feel, it's feels good!"

Another question asked of the two filmmakers was what they had learned while making the documentary. Jeff Sherman, Robert’s son, began talking about how he really started to get to know his father, but he started getting a little overwhelmed, and had to choke back tears. Richard chimed in, saying, "See, we Sherman’s are an emotional bunch!" which drew supportive applause.

Shortly thereafter, the three were talking about all of the people that helped them with the film, and Richard mentioned that two of the people in the picture had recently passed away after filming their interviews—he then started choking up himself, and he said, "See?"

Jeff Sherman then looked at his cousin, and said, “You’re next!” Greg looked over at him, back at the audience, and then grinned a little, pointing at his head, quietly staying, “Sports scores…sports scores,” giving away the fact that he was trying to think of other things to stop the flow of tears coming.
Overall, The Boys is a very well made documentary, and is a must see for anyone who grew up listening to the Sherman Brothers’ unforgettable songs, though it may not be entirely suitable for young children due to some of it’s highly emotional scenes.

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story opens May 22nd at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.

Friday, May 15, 2009

You Don't Know Him From Atom

After barely a week to recover from the San Francisco International Film Festival, the parade of rare screenings has started up again, with a two-week series of obscure film noir titles screened in 16mm at the Roxie starting last night, and a six-days of gems by Nick Ray, Andrzej Zulawski, Abel Ferrara and more, collected under the title Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, at the Castro. The Yerba Buena Center For the Arts continues a terrific early-summer calendar with new films by Phillipe Garrel and Hong Sang-soo and older films starring Laurel & Hardy, Fred Williamson and more. The Pacific Film Archive is closed for now, but will reopen May 29th with the first salvo in this much-anticipated stop on the Nagisa Oshima touring program.

But there's also a surfeit of promising titles to catch up playing commercial runs at the local arthouses. One of these,
Adoration, opens today at the Embarcadero here in Frisco and at the Elmwood near the Berkeley/Oakland border. Adam Hartzell caught the film and has written a piece on it, beginning with a personal reflection on its director's first name:

My appreciation for Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan comes from a unique place. Like many a high school kid anxious about their identity, I decided that doing something funky with my name would help me make my mark. So I began spelling my name with a backwards capitol 'D' (which I don’t know how to actually do here, so you’ll have to flip the 'D' in your head). Adam Ant was my favorite artist at the time and he did the same thing. However, this had to stop when one day my sophomore English teacher took me aside after class and asked me if I was dyslexic.

I didn’t want to have that happen again. But I still wanted to make a mark through my name. I was a lucky kid in that I could jump around from clique to clique. I had a fairly natural athletic ability, so I started on the Ohio-obligatory gridiron football team. I was also fairly smart in the sense that I knew what the teachers wanted me to know, the key to surviving industrial scholastics unscathed. Yet in spite of this cynicism to how knowledge was commoditized in high school, I still aspired for knowledge. I saw how 'nerds' were treated in pre-Geek-Chic pop culture and wanted to jam what I saw as the ill-minded promotion to dumb down the commons.

One way I wanted to do this was through my letter jacket. The point of the letter jacket was to advertise your success on the playing field, be it football, track, or even golf. I wanted to put chemistry and math on mine. I wanted to subvert the dominate paradigm. Sadly, my parents wanted to divert their son from being a freak, so that never happened. They were the ones paying the bill so they nixed that one. In compensation, I decided to start spelling my name A-T-O-M, rather than my given spelling.

Everyone in my high school knew everyone else’s business. So everyone knew I spelled my name that way. When I got to university I found myself surrounded by quite a few Adams, so I began spelling my name out. 'Hi, my name’s ATOM, that’s A-T-O-M, not A-D-A-M' was how I introduced myself. It sounds dorky, but, thankfully, I had a personality that could make it work, at least for the people who mattered to me, those people who became my friends. Since dorm-living was required for all first year students, people began to hear about this guy who spelled his name 'A-T-O-M'. I’d meet a new person who’d say upon meeting me, 'Oh, you’re A-T-O-M Adam'. And that’s how people began just calling me, 'A-T-O-M'. Later on, it was shortened to 'A.T.', which melded nicely with the fact that my middle initial is 'T'.

And then one day I was walking along the Delmar Loop in St. Louis and came upon a poster advertising an upcoming flick at the Tivoli Theatre. It was called The Adjuster and was directed by someone who also spelled his name 'Atom'. I was shocked, shocked, SHOCKED!!! This Egoyan character stole my name! Distraught, I was worried.. 'If this guy’s successful, people might think I’m copying him?!' My youthful hubris, a nice way of saying my bullshit, was busted. I protested by not going to see the film.

I still haven’t seen it. However, I have seen Ararat, The Sweet Hereafter, and Family Viewing, thoroughly enjoying each. So I think I’ll get around to seeing The Adjuster one day. The peculiar psychological space that places Egoyan in my mental matrix is fitting since his films are such a psychological and metaphysical treat.

Egoyan’s latest film comes to the Bay Area this weekend, Adoration. Egoyan again features his wife, Arsinee Khanjian in a major role. This time she plays a high school French and Drama teacher with an agenda for 'The Method' which provides a method for revealing her agenda. Her student Simon (Devon Bostick) is the ruse for her muse. Simon had lived with his Uncle Tom (Scott Speedman) since the 'accidental' death of his parents. Uncle Tom's character development is wonderful. We get to know Uncle Tom through his daily work tasks, the monotony, the slights, the subtle humiliation. We can see why he would be willing to become an unwitting player in this drama of layered truths and lies.

Egoyan’s films are the perfect festival films. Adoration was selected for Cannes last year and for the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. They are slow-paced, yet never lethargic. They softly reveal layers of plot and character, aspects for which many of us flock to festivals. Egoyan’s artifice works rather than grinds against our enjoyment because in displaying artifice, Egoyan is investigating how we perform ourselves, an often visited topic of Egoyan’s oeuvre. He has been interested in how we mediate ourselves for some time, from the video works in Family Viewing to the The-Brady-Bunching of live video chatrooms on Simon’s computer in this film. The way internet video is incorporated into the story is particularly engrossing as we watch Simon immerse himself in stories that are frightening to behold, stories he has become a part of in his youthful willingness to ‘lie’ (or is he?) to play with the truth. Here Egoyan touches on the frightening paths we might find ourselves drawn towards and how the web makes those paths, hypothetical before the internet, so much easier to take.. Rather than shock us graphically, it is the dialogue that traumatizes Simon and the viewer of this viewer.

The film is powerful, but not perfect. As is often the case with films, I can’t make my case for a major flaw in the film without ruining one of the reveals. So, as cryptically as possible, let me say this - whereas the performances around truth throughout the film allow for ambiguity, one point of the film is presented as real when no one could have possibly been there to testify to its truth, nor was there any medium through which the truth could have been extended.

This doesn’t ruin the film for me. It just tempers my appreciation so as not to engage in my own adoration of Egoyan. It’s still a lovely film in spite of this flaw. And it’s clear Egoyan will be the most famous person to ever spell his Adam A-T-O-M. I’ve grown to accept that reality.

Thanks, A.T.! -Brian

Thursday, May 7, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 15: Unmade Beds

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival ends tonight. Each day during the festival I've been posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Unmade Beds (UK: Alexis Dos Santos, 2009)

playing: 7:00 PM tonight at the Castro, followed by a closing night party at Mezzanine.
festival premiere: Sundance 2009
distributor: IFC theatrical release expected later in 2009.

Well. It's been a good festival, but it must come to a close. Thus, the closing night film. Usually I skip out on these, opting instead in recent years for a sprawling Egyptian melodrama or a noirish Béla Tarr conundrum to close out my festival. This time I hope to go back to sample the gala selection at the Castro, which I'd been curious about since reading Robert Davis rhapsodize in Utah. I was able to catch it at a press screening, but it only made me eager to see it again, on a larger screen with a festive crowd.

The film is called Unmade Beds, and it's Argentinian director Alexis Dos Santos's follow-up feature to his 2007 Frameline success Glue. Set amidst non-concentric circles of young hipsters of East London, the film focuses particularly on a pair of transplants trying to navigate relationships. Michael Hawley has briefly encapsulated the premise, so let me add a few words about the film's tone. Santos's integration of an indie rock sensibility and soundtrack with real-as-a-dream handheld camerawork threatens to seem twee, but never in fact crosses into that territory. Instead it builds to a quietly exhilarating conclusion that seems perfect for a lead-in into a closing night party. If I had a different song in my head than Hawley did as I left the screening room, that's because there's a plethora of terrific ones for your hippocampus to choose from.

SFIFF52 Day 15
Another option: Claustrophobia (HONG KONG: Ivy Ho, 2008), which Brian Hu makes sound very intriguing.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Pull My Daisy (USA: Robert Frank, 1959) at SFMOMA with two other of Frank's films, on a program kicking off a large retrospective of the director at the museum.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 14: Photograph of Jesus

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival ends tomorrow, May 7th. Each day during the festival I've been posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Photograph of Jesus (UK: Laurie Hill, 2008)

playing: 2:00 PM this afternoon at the Kabuki, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: seems to have been Tampere Film Festival 2009
distributor: available online at Getty Images and elsewhere, but a chance to see it on the big screen again? Unlikely.

This evening is the Golden Gate Awards ceremony, in which the SFIFF's competition winners are announced in the many categories offered, from documentaries, to made-for-television films, to short works. Earlier in the afternoon will be the public's final chance to see a category of in-competition shorts screen together, with some of the filmmakers expected to be in attendance. A program entitled A Thousand Pictures presents the seven films up for the Animated Short GGA. Jay has written up the program in its entirety; as you can see it's a collection diverse in both technique and tone, with near-abstract pieces competing against surreal narratives and animated documentaries.

The piece from the set that I enjoyed most was one of the latter documentaries, the brief and comic Photograph of Jesus. In it, photo archivist Matthew Butson recounts on the soundtrack (alongside a bouncy musical track) some of the more "difficult" requests his institution (the Hulton Archive in London) has to contend with. Things like, people wanting them to find a photograph of Jesus or of a yeti or of a dozen men posing together on the moon. In a world where photography has become so ubiquitous, it's become difficult for many people to understand the historical limits of what the technology has been able to capture. Confusion is compounded by the proliferation of non-photographic images; many of us instinctively feel we know what Jesus or a yeti should look like, and director Laurie Hill employs this iconic status of images in her cut-out style animated accompaniment to Butson's interview. I found it all absolutely hilarious, partly because I once worked in a photo archive, but mostly because these researcher requests, and the archive's responses, are genuinely funny. If you can't make the final festival showing of A Thousand Pictures, Photograph of Jesus can be viewed on the Getty Images website, as the film was created in response to a contest. It won then; will it win its category tonight as well?

SFIFF52 Day 14
Another option: Can Go Through Skin (THE NETHERLANDS: Esther Rots, 2008) I was impressed by the daring ambiguity and expressionistic sound design of this feature debut, showing a woman's collapse and attempted rebuild after a brutal, random assault. On the whole I'm not sure it handles its material with the appropriate delicacy, but others I've talked to call it their favorite of the festival so far. David Hudson rounds up reactions from New York.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: My Winnipeg (CANADA: Guy Maddin, 2007) at the California Theatre in lieu of the Pacific Film Archive. It's the last of the semester for the latter venue's Film 50 series of screenings for students but with tickets available to the public. It screens with a 16mm Canyon Cinema short entitled Alpsee.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 13: The Lost World

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is in the home stretch; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I've been posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

The Lost World (USA: Harry O. Hoyt, 1925)

playing: 8 PM tonight at the Castro, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
distributor: The print comes from George Eastman House and various cuts of the film (not this more complete one, I understand) are available on DVD, but there's nothing like seeing a silent movie in 35mm with live musical accompaniment.

Yesterday I wrote a bit about festival fatigue, but I was mostly joking at the time. What a difference a day makes. Now I'm truly exhausted, but am optimistic that tonight's screening will pull me out of my funk for the duration. How can it not? It's a presentation of a not-to-be-taken-seriously silent film, combined with a performance by what is currently my favorite rock-and-roll band to experience live. The film is the Lost World, a dinosaur adventure that was a milestone of early special effects achievements that I've heretofore only seen excerpted. The version the festival is screening was discovered by archivist-historian Jan Horak in Czechoslovakia and, according to my sources, is the most complete available as it even contains original intertitles missing from home video editions.

The band is Dengue Fever, and I've seen them a half-dozen or so times since first attending an Amoeba Records in-store performance several years ago. At that time they were playing covers of Cambodian "garage rock" tunes from the pre-Khmer Rouge era. These catchy, surf-music-infused songs are still a principle part of their repertoire, but they have branched out to include Khmer-language originals, English-language covers, and instrumentals in various stripes of danceable. Now they're the main musical attraction at their largest Frisco Bay venue yet, the 1400-seat Castro. The group spokesman Zak Holtzman has granted two terrific interviews, at sf360 and the Evening Class, which give a hint of the band's approach to scoring their first silent film. If their melodic energy can't lift my mood and put me back on the festival track, I'll be shocked.

One note: I've been warned that in its complete form the Lost World is one of those silent-era films that remind us that 1925 was also an era of severe ignorance in many areas, and I'm not just talking about popular understandings of paleontology. I'm told the film includes a character meant to be Brazilian, but portrayed as if a confirmation of Jim Crow stereotypes of Blacks. I'm glad the festival is showing the film uncensored, as it's well worth reminding modern audiences that Hollywood once had no compunction against perpetuating prejudices we find completely unacceptable today. They were unacceptable then, too, but the moviemaking machine was generally unfazed by voices of protest as long as each gear was generating revenue. Perhaps one can look at tonight's screening in part as a celebration of a certain amount of progress in this arena.

SFIFF52 Day 13
Another option: Still Walking (JAPAN: Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008) I can't believe I haven't included a single East Asian film in these daily recommendations up until now. This paradoxically-titled film was one of my most-highly anticipated of the festival and I'm smarting from having to at the last minute skip the other night's screening with director in attendance. Andrew Schenker makes me all the more rueful, though I believe the film does have a US distributor.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Old Joy (USA: Kelly Reichardt, 2006) at the Red Vic; for me, Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy surpassed this previous feature as a character study with the Pacific Northwest as one of the main characters, but if you haven't seen this one it's just as essential, with a score by Yo La Tengo and a terrific performance by Will Oldham.

Monday, May 4, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 12: Home

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is in its final few days; it runs through Thursday, May 7th. Each day during the festival I'm posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.


playing: 6:00 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Cannes 2008
distributor: None that I'm aware of in this country. Do buyers think this is too hot for American arthouses and DVD subscription queues to handle?

Festival films can be intense. Many of them in succession can border on grueling. After a week and a half of watching serious-issue documentaries, grim fairy tales, men in trouble, women in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and youth gone wild, you might be looking for a chance to breathe, to watch something light and airy. Why aren't they playing that doc on A Chorus Line again? I skipped it on day 4, not realizing I might need a dose of musical comedy to fortify me through the rest of the festival.

Truthfully, a dark film can be like a burst of light if it's made with the evident care and precision of a master. I'm up for seeing one of those at any point in my festival fatigue. For me, Home fit the bill. It's hard to believe that its director, Swiss-born Ursula Meier, had never made a feature before, so confident is its unity of content and form, so complicated its shooting must have been.

Home is a genre-defying film shot on an abandoned stretch of Bulgarian tarmac. One scene evoked an unlikely connection to another SFIFF52 title, Zift, even before the director revealed the site's true location in the q-and-a. It could really be anywhere. A family has fled urban living to establish a free-spirited life in a house mere feet off the shoulder of the highway. We're introduced to them first in a manic night hockey game shot (by cinematographer Agnes Godard) very tightly on the actors. It's the consistency of their character arcs that holds the film together throughout drastic changes in their setting and in tone; sometimes it feels like a comedy, other times drama, action thriller, or even horror.

The prepubescent son is the only one in the family who appears to have an interest in exploring their countryside surroundings. His older sisters are like day and night; one is the only member of the family to knock before entering the communal bathroom, and the other spends her days sunbathing on the front lawn, smoking and getting ogled by the garbage man while listening to The Young Gods. Dad, played by Olvier Gourmet, is more of a jazzbo, always trying to turn the moment into an opportunity for play. The family's den mother is the hardest to pin down of the pack; Isabelle Huppert plays her as a sympathetic enigma.

They experience a massive upheaval when they suddenly must co-exist with a brand-new stream of traffic due to the re-opening of the road. The near-constant presence of speeding cars presents challenges that few families would be prepared to face, but this one does, taking their lifestyle adaptations to their logical conclusion. I don't really want to give away more plot information than that, but I do want to reiterate that it's all shot and edited with impressive acuity, especially considering the logistical challenges that must have been faced with a fleet of 90-kph vehicles racing by the set and actors for much of the shooting.

Reportedly one critic said that Home was "made by someone who loves John Ford but has seen too many Bergman movies." This quote (which I haven't been able to google up; must have been on television) gets at the ways the film is packed with both psychological truth and with overarching, metaphorical meaning. How it's crafted in an almost classical style, on a large canvas, yet feels much like an intimate character study presented in three distinct acts. But I'm biased; I loved the film from beginning to end. For a well-expressed dissenting view of the direction Home takes in its final act, be sure to check Benito Vergara out.

SFIFF52 Day 12
Another option: For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism (USA: Gerald Peary, 2009) A documentary that's surely gonna be not too depressing: it's about the state of film criticism in this country. Sf360 link. Wait, did I just say "not too depressing"?
Non-SFIFF-option for today: the Wild Child (FRANCE: François Truffaut, 1970) at the Red Vic. The first Truffaut I ever saw, nearly twenty years ago, and I haven't rewatched it in the intervening decades. But I do remember it making a big impression on me back then.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 11: Once Upon A Time In The West

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is wrapping up its final weekend; it runs through Thursday, May 7. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Once Upon a Time in the West (ITALY: Sergio Leone, 1968)

playing: 12:30 PM this afternoon at the Castro, with no more showtimes later in the festival.
distributor: Yes, it's on DVD, but come on! How can screens much smaller than a railroad car do justice to this big, big film? And who knows when the next time the print prepared by the Film Foundation might come back around town?

Dennis Harvey has written a terrific piece on this film and its director at sf360, and Carl Martin has a few words on it in his restoration round-up. I doubt I have any great personal insights on Once Upon a Time in the West that others haven't already made common knowledge. I'd just like to add that it's my personal favorite of Leone's films, and among my favorite Westerns of all time.

Westerns are one of those signature American inventions, like Jazz and personal computers, whose very existence reveals a great deal about this country. Some are politically problematic, it's true, but many of the best ones (OUATITW included) are more nuanced in their explorations of American individualism, race, gender, and human relationships with the natural environment, than the average left-leaning Blue Stater is likely to recognize without a little education in the genre. I had the same prejudices myself a mere ten years ago, yet I consider myself even more of a lefty now than I was then.

Thus, Westerns screen all too rarely in the Frisco Bay area for my liking. The Castro shows some on occasion; Johnny Guitar will play May 20th as part of the theatre's "Women on the Verge" series. The Pacific Film Archive shows some, usually in director retrospectives; their new May-June calendar includes a good one, Gunman's Walk, as part of a Phil Karlson series. The Stanford shows them a bit more regularly; their current John Wayne film series includes two of my other all-time favorites on a May 8-10 double-bill: Fort Apache and the Searchers. But compare even this to the amount of classic and rare film noir that gets shown on local screens (for example, the Roxie's upcoming I Wake Up Dreaming series May 15-28) and it's rather pathetic. So I very much appreciate that the SFIFF has decided to bring a Western as part of their package of archival screenings. I hope the Castro is bustling and that popcorn sales are brisk, signaling to local repertory bookers that they ought to show more of the same!

SFIFF52 Day 11
Another option: Nights of Cabiria (ITALY: Frederico Fellini, 1957), with Rialto Pictures and Film Forum director Bruce Goldstein in discussion with Anita Monga as he follows her in receiving the Mel Novikoff award- nearly always my favorite of the SFIFF award presentations each year.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Come and See (USSR: Elem Klimov, 1985) at the Rafael Film Center, introduced by Sean Penn. This harrowing World War II picture plays something like Tarkovsky's My Name is Ivan after colliding with an ultraviolent 1970s exploitation picture. It's screening as part of the Rafael's 10th anniversary "Films of My Life" celebration. UPDATE 5/4/2009: Turns out the screening is tonight; sorry for the mix-up!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 10: A Week Alone

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is in its final weekend; it runs through Thursday, May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

A Week Alone (ARGENTINA: Celina Murga, 2008)

playing: 6:15 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with two more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Venice 2008
distributor: on the festival's "hold review" list, possibly indicating future distribution, but I haven't been able to determine the company releasing it yet.

The "hold review" thing is kinda funny in an online context, given one can read a New Yorker like R. Emmett Sweeney beautifully summarize this film with only a click or a quick google search. But I'm at least equally impressed by Maya writing for the Auteurs a 75-word review of A Week Alone among a tour-de-force of SFIFF capsules. Between the two of them, I'm not sure I have much add, other than my measured recommendation:

A Week Alone is a quiet film that brings the viewer into the restless isolation of privileged youth. Without adult supervision, children can attempt to test social standing within their clique, or else withdraw into introspective or idle activity. Director Celina Murga uses the motif of the remote control to indicate the kids' limited power, then gives way to images of gates and barriers. Alliances are made manifest during the inevitable climax.

SFIFF52 Day 10
Another option: Summer Hours (FRANCE: Oliver Assayas, 2008) David Hudson rounds up the reactions from its screenings in New York last fall.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (JAPAN: Kazuo Hara, 1987) at the Pacific Film Archive, with director Hara in attendance. The Film of the Month Club discussed the film in depth a year ago.

Friday, May 1, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 9: 35 Shots of Rum

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival is halfway over; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

35 Shots of Rum (FRANCE: Claire Denis, 2008)

playing: 7:00 PM tonight at the Clay, with two more showtimes later in the festival.
festival premiere: Venice 2008
distributor: Cinema Guild theatrical release expected in New York, and hopefully here in Frisco as well.

Just about every cinephile I've talked to about the SFIFF program has the same thing to say when I've asked what new film in the program they're most eager to see: 35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis. If you don't know her or her work yet, check out this resource for approaches to catching up. I think it must be the perfect storm of a respected auteur who has still not received her due in this country, a four-year absence of new Denis work on local screens, and a particularly well-received film that seemingly has been a highlight of just about every other film festival in the world. If I ask myself the same question, I have the same answer, and I guess for the same reasons. I don't pretend to be a leader rather than a follower here at Hell On Frisco Bay.

I already have a ticket for Wednesday's screening, but might just see 35 Shots of Rum tonight as well, at its first festival showing. I'm anticipating it more fervently than anything other than perhaps the Dengue Fever/Gordon Willis pairing next Tuesday, and the latter anticipation is at least as much for the extra-filmic experience as it is for the film itself. I hope my expectations, high as they are, are not dashed.

I must admit I've done very little reading on the film in preparation for seeing it; sometimes I like to let a trusted director take me by the hand into her cinematic world as uninformed of details as possible. When a perusal of the SFIFF program guide sparked a mental exercise in which I tried to identify the three filmmaker references in a written description that I think provide the least help for me in determining whether or not to see an unfamiliar film, I came up with Eric Rohmer (code for "talky, but good"), David Cronenberg (code for "this may be a horror film but don't dismiss it if your not a fan of that genre") and Yasujiro Ozu (code for "quiet" or maybe "transcendental", neither of which I find particularly appropriate labels for Ozu's frequently misunderstood work). It was not an intentional slight to the SFIFF notes written by Judy Bloch, as I had not even skimmed her piece to see that she'd name-dropped two of these three in it. For me, Denis is name enough to know I want to see a film.

SFIFF52 Day 9
Another option: Our Beloved Month of August (PORTUGAL: Miguel Gomes, 2008), a demanding but ultimately satisfying cine-relexive work by a young filmmaker. Jeffrey Anderson says more.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Notorious (USA: Alfred Hitchcock, 1946) at the Paramount in Oakland, where five dollars gets you entry into a true Art Deco palace, along with cartoon, newsreel, and organist. And the feature just happens to be Hitchcock's greatest black-and-white film, in my opinion.