Friday, August 31, 2012

September Song

My latest article for Fandor is about Uruguayan cinema, past and present, focusing particularly on three films from the South American country that have been made available by the Global Film Institute to watch on that site's streaming service: Whisky from 2004, Leo's Room from 2009, and A Useful Life, one of my favorite films seen in 2010. A film about the (fictional) closing of a cinematheque, A Useful Life has only grown more poignant in the 2 years since I first saw it, with the threat of mass closures of small cinemas and projectionist job loss looming ever larger on the horizon. The convenience of streaming services is a wonderful thing, especially for those who live in hinterlands where specialty cinema-going options simply do not exist. But I'm glad I live in a city which still cherishes diversity in its filmgoing options, and where this month I was able to once again watch A Useful Life in 35mm, this time on the Castro Theatre's giant, immersive screen.


Like many local cinephiles, I've been attending the Castro even more than usual in the past few weeks- at least considering that August has been a month with no film festivals there. I've made acquaintance with previously-unseen films like Phil Karlson's top-drawer noir Kansas City Confidential and John Huston's phenomenal boxing picture Fat City. I've revisited favorites like A Useful Life and Bruce Conner's explosive Crossroads. And those are just a few highlights I attended. The Castro kicked off its 90th 91st year of operation with its heaviest month of classic repertory in memory: dozens of golden-age Hollywood gems, with a smattering of foreign films and recent cinephile-bait. 3 of the films in the newest edition of the influential Sight & Sound Critics Top 10 announced this month have already played on this screen in August, and before the month ends the new #1 champ Vertigo screens- It plays in 70mm tonight through September 3, and there's no way I'm missing it.  In addition, a 70mm sneak-preview screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master made a sell-out crowd of alert PTA fans happy on August 21- one day after the event was announced. If you missed it (like I did), you may be relieved to learn it was NOT the final chance to see Joaquin Phoenix in 70mm, as there is at least one Frisco Bay theatre with the capability to show the ultrasized format and that has it booked for a September 21st opening: Oakland's Grand Lake. And I wouldn't be surprised to see another Castro showing sometime in the future- though perhaps not for a few months or more.

If August's selections at Frisco's most beloved picture palace paid tribute to films from all nine decades of the Castro's history, the September calendar looks more to the recent past, present, and perhaps future, as it seems concocted to reach out to younger movie lovers with cult classics from their own lifespan. With the exceptions of the Vertigo booking (a holdover from August), a posthumous Ernest Borgnine double-bill (Bad Day At Black Rock & The Wild Bunch September 13), and a fascinating-sounding post-war, pre-Neuer Deutscher Film festival selection, every film playing the Castro next month was made after 1970. But it's not a return to the "bad old days" of giving underwhelming Hollywood franchise fodder (and the occasional quality mainstream movie) long runs  that edge interesting selections off the screen. No, the Castro is still programming creatively, like showing five square-offs between the films of Quentin Tarantino and the aforementioned Paul Thomas Anderson, in chronological order (reminiscent of a similar PTA vs. Wes Anderson series five years ago. Speaking of Wes, his latest Moonrise Kingdom plays in 35mm on Sep. 17-18).  There's also back-to-school Wednesdays, a brilliant pairing of new dance documentaries Sep. 25-26, and stints for a couple of festivals: Berlin & Beyond and the 3rd i South Asian Film Festival.

Yes, September brings festival season upon us, and if you check my updated sidebar to the right of this page, you'll see that I've linked to programs for no fewer than twelve Frisco Bay film festivals occurring in this one month. If you wanted to attend a festival every day in September, you'd only be stymied on the 10th, 11th and 12th of the month (and who knows what my detection systems might pick up on before then?) There's no way I can do justice to all of these festivals, but I have seen a few of the features they're bringing already. I saw the 3rd i opening night film The Island President, a worthy primer on the tiny Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, and its intertwined political and environmental challenges, at Cinequest in San Jose. Also at Cinequest, I saw The Battle of the Queens, a slick Swiss documentary record of cow-on-cow face-offs that's more interesting than it sounds. This unusual Alpine rodeo showcase is part of Berlin & Beyond along with Alexander Sokurov's unpleasant but eye-popping Goethe adaptation Faust, the latest romantic fable entitled Baikonur by quirky German helmer Veit Helmer (who has failed to recapture much of the magic of his feature debut Tuvalu in 3 subsequent fiction-feature tries, in my book), and the Rainer Werner Fassbinder masterpiece Lola, Lola screened the Castro in a 35mm print at Berlin & Beyond 2 years ago, as a last-minute addendum. This time it plays digitally at the Goethe-Institute as part of a 4-film tribute to actor Mario Adorf, who will be on hand for premiere screenings of a "director's cut" version of The Tin Drum and of his newest film The Rhino and the Dragonfly. Perhaps the Berlin & Beyond film I'm most curious about is 4th in this Adorf tribute, which I referred to in the prior paragraph: Georg Tressler's 1959 Ship of the Dead. I know virtually nothing about West Germany's cinema prior to the earliest Herzog & Wenders films, so a chance to see this on 35mm is very appealing. Also of note: opening-night film Barbara by Christian Petzold was just chosen as Germany's selection for the next Foreign Language Film Oscar contest. 

Another geographically-themed festival, the Hong Kong Cinema series, looks like an excellent set of films for both newcomers and aficionados of what some believe is still the Chinese-language cinema's most vibrant production center. 1990s landmarks (Fruit Chan's Made In Hong Kong, Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost A Love Story and The Longest Nite, from producer Johnnie To's Milkyway Studio) share space with enticing new films like To's Romancing In Thin Air, which has largely been shunned by American and European festivals, and Ann Hui's highly acclaimed A Simple Life. The latter played briefly at local multiplexes earlier this year, but I know I'm not the only Hui fan who found out about it too late, so I'm very glad the San Francisco Film Society, which hosts this festival as part of its Fall Season, is bringing it back. Along with a Brent Green installation in the Mission District, Hong Kong Cinema launches a new year of Film Society programming. Major changes are afoot for the venerable institution these days, as a new executive director (Ted Hope) fills the shoes left by Bingham Ray and Graham Leggatt, at the same time that one of Leggatt's most visible legacies, a year-round screening venue at New People Cinema, has been abandoned with the non-renewal of the lease. Nonetheless, several fall events including Hong Kong Cinema will occur at the venue.
Cheryl Eddy's fall film preview article from last week's SF Bay Guardian names more upcoming festivals not yet listed on my site, as their line-ups have not been announced. Her preview also hints at some of the seriously copious goodies revealed in fall screening announcements from institutions like the Pacific Film Archive, and SF Cinematheque. But I'm particularly intrigued by what her article mentions that doesn't appear on the internet otherwise. For example, hints from Craig Baldwin's yet-to-be-announced Other Cinema program (Damon Packard? yes!) and word from Yerba Buena Center For The Arts that in addition to the masterpieces by Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, and Chantal Akerman listed (among other tantalizers) on the venue's website, they'll be hosting a retrospective of films by Czech animation demigod Jan Švankmajer in December. If it's like the retro recently concluded in Chicago it will include each of his feature films from his 1988 masterpiece Alice to his 2010 release (never before screened on Frisco Bay) Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), as well as several of his best short films. But we'll see,

Eddy mentions a venue I've still yet to attend (to my shame): the Vortex Room, which from what I can tell has no webpage other than its Twitter and Facebook presences. (Am I wrong?), and notes that the Rafael Film Center is gearing up for the Mill Valley Film Festival but is otherwise relatively quiet in terms of repertory & special events (as opposed to day-to-day arthouse). And she drops hints about the Roxie that have only appeared on that venue's website since publication. Now we know the full, jaw-dropping line-up for their Not Necessarily Noir III film series (or should I count it as a festival?) devoted to crime and horror films made between 1968 and 2005- "neo-noirs" one might say, if one thought such a term could apply to such diverse fare as John Woo's Hard-Boiled, Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, Carl Franklin's One False Move and Brian De Palma's Body Double -to list some of the better-known titles I've seen before. Rarities abound in this awesome set of films- nearly all sourced from 35mm prints.


What she must not have known before her article was put to press is that the touring series of 35mm prints of films from Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli cohort, which has been making its way around the country all year, finally visits Frisco Bay in September. Starting September 7th, the Bridge Theatre plays 12 of these films over the course of a week- actually 13 prints, as the truly perfect My Neighbor Totoro will screen in both English-subtitled and English-dubbed prints on Sep. 8. Then, the California Theatre in Berkeley screens 11 of the films, as well as two others, between September 14th and 26th.  All nine of the Miyazaki-directed films, as well as Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday and Hiroyuki Morita's The Cat Returns screen at both venues. Takahata's My Neighbors the Yamadas shows only at the Bridge, on September 13, and his Pom Poko and Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart show only at the California Theatre, on the 25th & 26th respectively. The Bridge and the California are my favorite Landmark theatres in San Francisco and the East Bay, and knowing that the Landmark chain is planning to convert its theatres to digital projection only makes me wonder if this series may be a last hurrah for 35mm projectors at these venues. I hope not, but I plan to soak in as much of the series as I can on one side of the bay or the other.

One last recommendation before September arrives: if like me you are a fan of the films of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul you must take advantage of the opportunity  to see his installation Phantoms of Nabua at the Asian Art Museum. Made during the process leading up to his completion of his Cannes top prize-winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this single-channel work is just as mysterious, beautiful, and medium-specific as any of his feature films. It has been streamed online, and may still be available to view that way, but it really demands to be seen in installation form, where the figures are life-sized and approximately level to the viewer.  Several friends and acquaintances, including at least one who had never encountered an Apichatpong work before, have told me of being so transfixed they watched the approximately 9-minute piece over and over several times before moving on to another part of the museum. It's such an important work that it inspired the Asian Art Museum name of its contemporary Asian art exhibit: Phantoms of Asia. Unfortunately the exhibit must come down after September 2nd, but fortunately the museum is free of charge on that day, as it is on the first Sunday of every month. I plan to go back myself. See you there?

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