Thursday, April 18, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 9: Midnight Traveler

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival is over half done; it runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Hassan Fazili's Midnight Traveler, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Midnight Traveler (USA: Hassan Fazili, 2019)
playing: 3:00PM today at the Theater at Children's Creativity Museum and 5:30PM tomorrow at BAMPFA.

This is, like yesterday's pick Aniara, another "Hold Review" title, for which I can only write 75 words until a commercial release occurs (it's distributed by Oscilloscope). Here's my stab:

What'll you see in this wrenching autobiographical documentary about filmmakers fleeing Afghanistan to the EU through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia? Daughters of a landlocked nation enjoying their first tides. A mother summoning the resources to fulfill her family’s needs under extremely harsh conditions. A father questioning his overcommittment to his profession. Ugly anti-immigrant sentiment up close. A broken international refugee system & its harrowing consequences for millions. What'll you do? That's up to you.

So that's the movie, which was funded in part through SFFILM's Documentary Film Fund grant. I believe last night's showing, the local premiere, was somehow the first time I'd attended the first SFFILM showing of a feature-length film funded through the organization's robust granting programs. There was a good deal of deserved pomp and circumstance for this moment, and in fact it was the first screening this year I've attended with now-outgoing SFFILM Executive Director Noah Cowan present. He doesn't appear to be phoning in his final few weeks as a lame duck ED; he seemed very much in his element interviewing Midnight Traveler's co-producer/editors Emelie Coleman Mahdavian & Kristina Motwani, and hosting a post-screening panel with them as well as with Sarah Leah Whitson of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Today and tomorrow's screenings are expected to have Mahdavian & Motwani on hand as well, though not Whitson.

SFFILM62 Day 9
Other festival options: Today's the final showing of another documentary with a similar title: Midnight Family, about Mexico City ambulance drivers; it plays 6:00PM at the Children's Creativity Museum theatre shortly after Midnight Traveler ends. Just to keep things extra-confusing. (At least they're saving Midnight Cowboy for tomorrow). Tonight's also the final SFFILM show of another Documentary Film Fund recipient about refugees and asylum seekers, this time set much more close to home, as it follows four newcomers to San Francisco. Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America screens 8:00PM at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland.

Non-SFFILM option: At 7:30PM tonight at Artists' Television Access, moving image artist Roger Beebe will be on hand to present a program of work made in the past five years, some of it brand new, including a performance piece for four simultaneously running 16mm projectors called Lineage (for Norman McLaren). Who says SFFILM has the monopoly on world premieres this week? Beebe is in town thanks to Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, where he is currently participating in a residency. The screening is a co-presentation between that organization and SF Cinematheque, as is a screening of work by fellow Headlands resident Peter Burr next Thursday at the same venue. The rest of the SF Cinematheques' Spring calendar includes two co=presentations with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (namely, a DCP of Alexander Dovzhenko's rural masterpiece Earth and a 35mm print the earliest so-called "feature length" film ever shown by SFSFF, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan & Giuseppe de Liguoro's 1911 version of Dante's L'Inferno. Both films will be accompanied by music by the Matti Bye Ensemble, members of whom were themselves Headlands Center for the Arts residents several years ago. And if that's too much interconnection for you to handle, try this one: the final currently listed upcoming SF Cinematheque show is another co-presentation, this time with Oakland's The Black Aesthetic, of work by Akosua Adoma Owusu, including last year's SFFILM selection Mahogany Too. No indication if her 2019 SFFILM selection Pelourinho, They Don’t Really Care About Us will be included in the program as well.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 8: Aniara

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began a week ago and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja's film Aniara, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Aniara (SWEDEN/DENMARK: Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, 2018)
playing: 8:45PM tonight at the Roxie.

I can't say that much about Aniara because it's on the list of "Hold Review" titles at this year's SFFILM Festival, in light of its commercial release by Magnolia Pictures to theatres and streaming platforms precisely one month from today. (Though I'm not sure which Frisco Bay venues it might show up in; it's nowhere to be found on the coming soon page of the local Landmark Theatres, the traditional stomping grounds of most Magnolia theatrical releases) Anyway, here's the brief capsule review that I'm allowed for a "Hold Review" title:

The first feature-film version of a 62-year-old poetic saga by a Swedish Nobel laureate, Aniara depicts a spacecraft full of émigrés headed to Mars until a collision spins it into the galactic void. Eschewing a falsely "timeless" aesthetic, the action occurs in a relatable near-future culturally similar to today's Europe (questionable music taste included). Hard sci-fi concepts like beanstalks and artificial gravity are prioritized over character development but the cinematic trajectory’s haunted me for days.

SFFILM62 Day 8
Other festival options: Your last festival chances to see a couple of features I've been hearing good things about are today. In this case the culprits are The Death of Dick Long, playing at 3:00 at the Children's Creativity Museum Theatre, and A Faithful Man, showing at 6:00PM at YBCA. The latter showing is, at this writing, at RUSH status, meaning you'll need to wait in line for a ticket. No such line necessary however for Hong Kong action movie Project Gutenberg, having its single festival showing 7:30PM tonight at the Castro.

Non-SFFILM option: BAMPFA isn't 100% given over to SFFILM showings this week; today it also hosts the penultimate installment of its lecture/screening series devoted Japan's most decorated active auteur, Hirokazu Kore-eda. Kore-eda's latest feature Shoplifters won last year's top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and screens today after a sure-to-be substantial introductory lecture by Marilyn Fabe, starting at 3:00PM. A 35mm print of his first narrative feature Maborosi screens next Wednesday, April 24th at the same time, and both movies will be part of a package of lower-priced, lecture-less Kore-eda reprise screenings happening next month (Maborosi during the Silent Film Festival, so you might not want to put off a viewing of that one if you can possibly make it to an afternoon matinee.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 7: Confidence Game

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began a week ago and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Kathleen Quillian's Confidence Game, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM
Confidence Game (USA: Kathleen Quillian, 2018)
playing: 8:30PM today at the Roxie as part of the Shorts 4: Animation program

Some of my favorite things seen so far at SFFILM this year have been shorts. Madeline Anderson's I Am Somebody, for instance, screened as part of her Persistence of Vision Award presentation Saturday, was a rousing, formally inventive half-hour documentary about a 1969 hospital workers' strike in Charleston, South Carolina, that included footage of Coretta Scott King orating in support of the strikers just a year after her husband's assassination. On a completely different tack, the latest nine-minute mindfuck from Guy Maddin and his recent co-directors Galen and Evan Johnson is called Accidence, and it's probably my favorite new Maddin work in dozen years, starting as a planimetric riff on Rear Window and turning quickly into something much more diabolical. It was the warm-up for each screening of The Grand Bizarre over the past few days.

But tonight I'll finally begin to start watching some of the Golden Gate Awards-eligible shorts at the festival. The Shorts 4: Animation program includes ten separate pieces representing seven North American and (mostly Eastern) European countries. Six are by women animators, including the only one by a filmmaker whose work I'm already familiar with: Kathleen Quillian. Her piece Confidence Game made its local debut on a program that I was able to attend a year ago at Craig Baldwin's notorious Other Cinema (where, incidentally, she'll be premiering another new work this coming Saturday) and I liked it enough to place it on my list of top 20 shorts as part of Senses of Cinema's latest World Poll. I've written a bit about Quillian's work before, for instance on the occasion of her 2011 piece Fin de Siècle screening at a 30th Anniversary marathon presentation at Artists' Television Access. But Confidence Game feels like another leap forward for her. Her tendency to center objects in the frame, when repeated against various collage backdrops, gives the piece a hypnotic effect that I'm certain is completely intentional, given the thematic interest in cults of personality that the work is clearly expressing. She ends Confidence Game with an almost psychedelic finale that includes stroboscopic flashing backgrounds, so be forewarned if that sort of thing gives your senses too much of a workout.

I haven't made a terribly close comparison, but it seems like there are more shorts programs in this year's SFFILM than I've ever seen in 20 years of attending. In addition to Shorts 4: Animation there the usual Golden Gate Award contender programs devoted to shorts by and for youngsters. The usual two programs of GGA-nominated documentary and narrative shorts have been expanded to three, and the New Visions program of experimental and form-expanding works appears to be quite strong this year, with new work by Akosua Adoma Owusu, Zachary Epcar, Laura Huertas Millán, Sandra Davis, etc. The New Visions section of the Golden Gate Awards was on the chopping block twenty-five years ago, and saved only due to an outcry from the local experimental film community. You can read a bit about that in this excellent interview between Russell Merritt and SFFILM artistic director Rachel Rosen.

One program that's gone missing this year, after nearly as long, is the annual co-presentation between SF Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). This was another set of experimental short films, differing from the New Visions program in various ways over the years. Perhaps because it was an out-of-competition program it tended to involve more 16mm and sometimes even 35mm prints, more work by established artists (though not exclusively so), and more flexibility in terms of the recency of completion; sometimes a program would include a new restoration of a short film made decades prior among a program of new works, and sometimes even the new works weren't always so new, having traveled on the generally slower experimental film festival circuit for a few years before making their way to their first San Francisco and Berkeley screenings. One might argue the need for two programs of experimental work at the festival has been made unnecessary by the sprouting of new festivals devoted entirely or almost entirely to such work: Crossroads, Camera Obscura and Light Field come quickly to mind. But I'm not as certain of the stability of all these younger organizations when compared to the venerable San Francisco International Film Festival, and more importantly I think there's a lot of value in SFFILM's long-standing "big tent" approach to bringing together different, sometimes fractuous communities together to see each other's work and have discussions about it. The loss of one program, even one that's run for 24 years straight, doesn't destroy that but it puts a damper on it.

I'm curious to know the reason for the loss of this program. I wasn't satisfied by the answer I got when I asked about it at SFFILM's program announcement press conference in March. I was told the reason for the change is because the festival wanted all the shorts programs to feature works in competition. That doesn't seem to hold water though, because of the existence of the Shorts 8 program, bringing together two of three Netflix-owned shorts. Both are out-of competition even though the third Netflix short, Life Overtakes Me,appears in the Shorts 1 program and is Golden Gate Award eligible. There must be some other reason.

Anyway, the festival has more than made up for absence of the SF Cinematheque/BAMPFA program in quantity at any rate, by highlighting shorts in their Persistence of Vision Award presentation, to the shorts presented in last night's Evening With Kahlil Joseph and in the Friday night live music presentation that I talk a bit about in the last paragraph of this post. Read on...

SFFILM62 Day 7
Other festival options: Today's the final screening of the Vanguard section of SFFILM, Lapü, about the Wayuú people, who also feature in the recent crime saga Birds of Passage. It screens 4:00PM at YBCA, followed by the final festival showings of the Uruguayan feature Belmonte at 6:15PM, and finally Mariam Ghani's documentary on the re-opening of Afghanistan's national film archive, What We Left Unfinished at 8:30PM. I've heard good buzz on all three so it might be a good place to camp out for the afternoon and evening.

Non-SFFILM option: A terrific set of 16mm shorts comes to the Coppola Theatre at San Francisco State University at 6:30 tonight. There's animation (Sally Cruikshank's Quasi at the Quckadero), documentary (the Miles Brothers' Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway), found footage classics (Arthur Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice and Bruce Conner's Valse Triste) and live-action based experimental films (Bruce Baillie's Mass for the Dakota Sioux and Maya Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera, which is not among the Deren shorts screening digitally with a new, live soundtrack replacing Teiji Ito's scores at the Castro Friday), showcasing some of the diversity of treasures in the J. Paul Leonard Library collection at SFSU. This collection was the source for one of my favorite film screenings so far this year; it holds one of two known prints of SFMOMA Art In Cinema curator Frank Stauffacher's own filmed mini-masterpiece Sausalito, which showed in late January at BAMPFA with Stauffacher's widow Barbara Stauffacher Solomon on hand to discuss its filming and reception among other topics. Though Sausalito is not among tonight's showings, it will hardly be missed in such a strong line-up (I vouch for five of the six films and perhaps if there's a large enough turnout future screenings from the J. Paul Leonard Library collection might be organized. Best of all, this program is FREE to all!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 5: Winter's Night

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday night and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Jang Woo-jin's Winter's Night, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Winter's Night (SOUTH KOREA: Jang Woo-jin, 2018)
playing: 5:30PM today at BAMPFA in Berkeley, and Monday, Apr 15 at 8:30PM at the Children's Creativity Museum Theatre.

Have you ever had one of those weird nights? The ones where you can't sleep and you end up doing things you never would under ordinary circumstances? If not, perhaps you've been caught up in someone else's weird night, which can end up making your own night pretty weird anyway.

The third film from 34-year-old director Jang Woo-jin (and the first I've had the chance to see) Winter's Night takes this premise and gives it a uniquely Korean spin. It turns out Hong Sangsoo doesn't have a monopoly on comedies about soju-infused middle-aged men unable to control their feelings for unavailable women. I was a little disappointed that SFFILM this year declined to program either of Hong's most recent efforts, Grass or Hotel By the River, making Frisco Bay four feature films behind the prolific auteur's output (unless I've somehow overlooked a showing of The Day After or Nobody's Daughter Haewon in a local venue.) But putting that disappointment aside, Winter's Night provides a fresh perspective on some of the same material Hong works with, and quite a bit of other material as well. In fact, there's enough different that I wouldn't even bring up Hong at all, if the comparison didn't feel invited by Jang's chosen setting, the tourist-centric Kangwon Province that provided the backdrop and the title for Hong's second feature film, and by the casting of Seo Young-hwa, a veteran of at least six Hong films including prior SFFILM selections Hill of Freedom and Right Now, Wrong Then.

Seo plays Eun-ju, wife to the aforementioned middle-aged man Heung-ju (played by Yang Heung-ju), spending time together on a vacation to the region important to their mutual history more than thirty years ago, when he was fulfilling military service and she was traveling from Seoul to visit him. After visiting a thousand-year-old mountain temple she realizes in a taxicab that she'd left her phone behind. They return to look for it but are still unsuccessful by the time the temple's closed for the night and, after Eun-ju's aborted attempt to sneak onto the grounds, the couple resigns to staying overnight at the handiest guesthouse. There seems to be an eerie aura at this place, and it's not just the LED lights flooding the nearby frozen waterfall. The couple keep getting separated, and running into other unexpected denizens of the dark, including a seeming set of younger doppelgangers, and one of Heung-ju's old flames, whom he drunkenly makes passes at after an excruciating karaoke session.

Ultimately Winter's Light is a very accomplished example of the established "slow cinema" movement that seems to be waning from local festival screens when compared to its relative dominance 10-15 years ago. Jang has an intriguing concept, a middle-aged couple being tested by unusual, if not quite extraordinary, circumstances, and he keeps it fun and fresh by highlighting the comedy of situations more akin to the ironic stance of a Tsai Ming-Liang than to a ponderous Tarkovsky. In one scene, Heung-ju frantically searches for his wife, inquiring with a local innkeeper, when suddenly she steps into the frame as if she's been watching him all along. "Don't lose her again, you clumsy man!" is the inkeeper's droll response. Jang often transitions between scenes by inserting frames of a series of traditional Korean paintings that, upon accumulation over the film started reminding me of the famous ox-herding pictures associated with a strand of Zen Buddhism. I'd be curious to view Winter's Light again with these ancient prompts for contemplation in mind.

SFFILM62 Day 5
Other festival options: The festival has been really pushing the Castro's noontime showing of Photograph with its star Nawazuddin Siddiqui in attendance; I guess word hasn't gotten out to the Bollywood-loving community as pervasively as happened when Shah Rukh Khan appeared there a couple years ago and I got to see firsthand the closest thing to Beatlemania I suspect I'm ever likely to experience. Either that or Siddiqui's not quite the draw that SRK is; I know him mostly from Ashim Ahluwalia's 2012 "Hindie" film Miss Lovely, but I guess he's probably made more fans in movies like Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox, the latter of which was, like Photograph, directed by Ritesh Batra. After that show, the Castro will make way for an award presentation to Laura Dern and a screening of Trial By Fire, with its director Edward Zwick also expected to attend. Finally, I've been hearing good buzz on the Argentinian feature Rojo, including from my friend Michael Hawley, whose festival preview is the best I've found, as usual, even though he's no longer even living in Frisco Bay! It screens at BAMPFA at 8PM, after Winter's Night wraps up.

Non-SFFILM option: Today's the final day of the all-35mm Stanford Theatre's annual Alfred Hitchcock series -- sort of. While Psycho and The Trouble With Harry showing today for the final times (a late afternoon and an evening show each) marks the end of the schedule published in late February, the venue has recently announced its first-ever Doris Day series, to open next weekend with prints of two of her mid-1950s films Young At Heart and The Man Who Knew Too Much. The latter of course is a Hitchcock title as well, thus extending the Master of Suspense's grip on Palo Alto's jewel of a theatre for one more week. Though I wouldn't expect the 97-year-old Day to make the trip up from her Carmel home to attend any of these showings, I do hope to see at least one of the films she made with Frank Tashlin (ideally Glass Bottom Boat) in the program somewhere, and hopefully not the same weekend as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 4: The Grand Bizarre

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday night and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Jodie Mack's The Grand Bizarre, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
The Grand Bizarre (USA: Jodie Mack, 2018)
playing: 3:30PM today at BAMPFA in Berkeley, and Monday, Apr 15 at 8:45PM at YBCA.

Although I was able last November to see a digital projection of this film (SFFILM audiences will be treated to a 35mm print at each screening) and placed it on my list of my five favorite undistributed features of 2018, I don't feel up to the task of writing much of a review. Not when a critic as perceptive and eloquent as Michael Sicinski has already written three terrific paragraphs about Mack's latest. Let me excerpt a few sentences:
Mack’s film is whimsical, features some sick beats (including a riff on the Skype theme), and is so personal that it ends with the artist’s own sneeze. But the fact that it may be the most purely pleasurable film of the year shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating its exigency. The Grand Bizarre is a film about embracing all the colors and patterns of the wide, wide world, and in that regard, it’s exactly the film we need right now.
I must confess I don't love The Grand Bizarre as much as Mack's previously-longest opus, Dusty Stacks of Mom, but that's surely in large part because I'm just inherently more fascinated by the world of rock poster distribution than that of colorful textiles. But even I can recognize that there's a bit more thematic "heft" to this project, not just because it's a bit longer, but also because it's more international in scope at a time when the need to reach out across borders seems greater than ever. For anyone with an open mind about the parameters of what an animated feature can be (The Grand Bizarre descends from the lineage of Norman McLaren's landmark Neighbors, but ends up with a far more radical approach to narrative), it's one of the real must-sees of this year's festival.

SFFILM62 Day 4
Other festival options: Expect more traditional animation techniques to be on display at the Castro Theatre's 10AM Shorts 6: Family Films program; I attended last year's set for the first time with my young nephew, and we both had a great time seeing a mixture of the latest cartoons, documentaries and short narratives with definite kid-appeal. This year's group includes the Oscar-nominated One Small Step. Another animation program is aimed more for adults: Shorts 4: Animation, having its first showing 5PM today at the Roxie. But to make that you'll have to miss the Persistence of Vision Award presentation to African-American documentary pioneer Madeline Anderson at SFMOMA. No animation expected in this set, but expect a wonderful conversation with a veteran filmmaker finally getting her due.

Non-SFFILM option: In memory of the April, 18, 1906 earthquake and fire that reshaped San Francisco, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is devoting its weekly Saturday 16mm film screening showcase to films that shed light on this tragic event. First, a pair of documentaries shot by the Miles Brothers, one shortly before and one, recently re-discovered, shortly after the destruction. After an intermission, they'll show one of the best of the surviving early features starring Lon Chaney, Sr., The Penalty, which was filmed in 1920 throughout a rebuilt San Francisco (a wonderful website devoted to its filming locations is found here).