Tuesday, April 23, 2019

SFFILM Day 14: Asako I & II

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival holds its final screenings today. Each day during the festival I've posted about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's film Asako I & II, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Asako I & II (JAPAN/FRANCE: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2018)
playing: 3:00PM today at the Theater at the Victoria Theatre

Since seeing this last Wednesday I've been telling everyone who cares to listen that it's my favorite feature film of this year's festival. A common response is to ask what I thought of director Hamaguchi's prior Happy Hour, a 5-hour drama that played SFFILM (then still SFIFF) three years ago, and I have to sheepishly admit that I missed it at the festival and only got through the first hour or so of that one while trying to watch on a tablet at home (via the SFFILM app); though I was enjoying it I felt I was cheating to watch on such a small screen. So I was thrilled that not only was I able to fit a big-screen viewing of Asako I&II into my schedule, it delivered on everything I hope for in a new narrative movie: the distinct style of an "auteur" voice, a plot that kept surprising me at almost every turn (and the glaring exception of an inevitable development was handled in a way I could never have predicted), and satisfying explorations of contemporary quandaries, both specific (in this case to Japan) and universal.

I know I'm being coy about the plot and even the formal details of Asako I&II. Forgive me; it's the last day of the festival and I'm running out of steam a bit. I do want to say that, though the SFFILM blurb compares it to a certain cinephile touchstone film that I won't name here, I never once thought of that film (one of my favorite, most frequently viewed films) while watching Hamaguchi's two hours fly by. Instead what came to mind were 1930s delights like The Prisoner of Zenda or Thirty Day Princess. That gives a better picture of the kind of energy I saw on screen.

In an ideal world, I'd be able to see today's final screening of Asako I&II. Sadly I've got other commitments during its showtime. The film does have a distributor, Grasshopper Film, but it's a small enough outfit that I wouldn't count on a Frisco Bay theatrical release. So go today if you can!

SFFILM62 Day 14
Other festival options: I can also recommend The Hidden City, a completely non-verbal immersive documentary about tunnels and other spaces beneath the streets of Madrid; it plays 6:00PM at the Roxie. Also at the Roxie at 8:30PM is the latest from Our Nixon and NUTS! director Penny Lane, It's called Hail Satan? and apparently a lot of people like the idea of ending their festival with it, because it's at RUSH status meaning you'll need to wait in line for a ticket. If you don't want to wait, it'll be opening at the Roxie for a commercial run in just over a week.I mean, I guess that's a wait too, but you won't have to do it standing up the whole time.

Non-SFFILM option: Tonight the Castro Theatre hosts a Jackie Chan double-bill: new DCPs of the original Cantonese versions of Police Story and Police Story 2.

Monday, April 22, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 13: The Labyrinth

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival is almost over; last night was the official "closing night" but repeat screenings continue today and Tuesday, April 23rd. Each day during the festival I've been posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A still from Laura Millán's The Labyrinth, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
The Labyrinth (COLOMBIA/FRANCE: Laura Huertas Millán, 2018)
playing: 6:00PM today at the Roxie, as part of the Shorts 5: New Visions program.

It could be a quirk of my own personal perception, but to me it feels like in the past few years the nation of Colombia has been undergoing an uptick in motion picture production and/or international distribution, possibly tied to the Foreign Language Oscar nomination of Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent from 2015. Guerra's follow-up (for the first time sharing co-directing credit with editor & producer Cristina Gallego) Birds of Passage became the first Latin American film ever to open the Director's Fortnight at Cannes last year, and showed at the Mill Valley Film Festival before a Frisco Bay commercial release earlier this year.

This year's SFFILM program boasts three Colombian productions or co-productions, as many as from any other majority-Spanish speaking country besides Mexico. Though the three screenings of the Vanguard selection Lapü have all passed, there's still one more festival screening of Monos, from the Dark Wave festival section, and The Labyrinth, one of the longest and most fascinating of the shorts in the New Visions program. It's an experimental documentary from a filmmaker associated with the Sensory Ethnography Lab that gave brought previous San Francisco International Film Festival audiences gems like Leviathan and Manakanama. The Labyrinth doesn't jump out at the viewer as akin to those highly-conceptual features, but rather uses a syncretic approach to materials that allow ideas to bury themselves into the viewer's mind, to be awakened at an unexpected future moment.

It's an oblique portrait of Medellín Cartel drug trafficker Evaristo Porras Ardila, who built a replica of the Carrington Family mansion from "Dynasty" in the Tres Fronteras region of the Amazon where Colombia's Southernmost point touches Peru and Brazil, as told by one of his Porras's former workers named Cristóbal Gómez. Huertas Millán combines a voiceover from Gómez with intercut images of the ruin of the real, recreated mansion and the original, patchworked mansion as filmed by Emmy-nominated cinematographer Michel Hugo (and/or his fellow "Dynasty" DPs). The ruin images feel straight out of a visit to Angkor Wat or another truly ancient fallen city, and when contrasted against televised icons of Reagan-era wealth feel like the rotting interior of an entire economic system. The latter half of The Labyrinth makes more mystical turns into the connections between the jungle and states of altered consciousness. It's a powerful work that was justly praised on its tour of major experimental film festival showcases such as Locarno, Toronto's Wavelengths, the New York Film Festival's Projections, etc.

The Labyrinth is joined by a selection of moving image works by underground artists from around the world in the New Visions program. More than one also contrast mediated televisual images with more personal footage to provocative effect: Akosua Adoma Owusu's Pelourinho, They Don’t Really Care About Us is a Ghanaian maker's look at another South American country, bringing into her 16mm film world both a 1926 letter from W.E.B. DuBois to the Brazilian president and shots from Spike Lee's music video for a Michael Jackson song (the same one also featured prominently in a scene in another SFFILM selection, now a Golden Gate Award winner, Midnight Traveler) shot in the favelas of Rio. The critic Neil Young has written extensively and passionately about this piece. Another similar hybrid is local filmmaker Sandra Davis's That Woman, which intercuts the 1999 ABC broadcast of Barbara Walters interviewing Monica Lewinsky (complete with late-breaking interjections of news about the death of Stanley Kubrick) with scenes of a re-enactment shot in the San Francisco Art Institute's Studio 8, with George Kuchar as Walters interviewing a Lewinsky look-alike. Given that Kuchar died over seven and a half years ago, I understand why Jonathan Marlow followed an impulse to list it in my blog's repertory round-up; he notes that it was "recently completed" by Davis (its local premiere was last summer at 16 Sherman Street) but the presence in the cast of a man who died (too young) over seven and a half years ago makes it feel older than its completion date suggests. Yet now seems like the perfect moment to release a short that would have taken on very different resonances two or three or ten or fifteen years ago. (I don't know if it was shot that long ago; it could've been anywhere from 1999 to 2011 by my initial reckoning).

Add in strong work like Zachary Epcar's Life After Love, Courtney Stephens' Mixed Signals, Sun Kim's Now and Here, Here and Then and Ariana Gerstein's Traces with Elikem, and this is the strongest New Visions program I've seen at SFFILM in several years. Perhaps that's only sensible in the first year in the past quarter-century that the festival has cut its presentation of new experimental shorts from two programs down to one, as I discussed last week, but I wouldn't want to read too much into it. Perhaps it's just a program more aligned with my own personal taste. Which is why I was surprised to see that the Golden Gate Awards shorts jury decided to go outside of the New Visions category to award the festival's $2,000 cash prize for a New Visions work to a short that had been placed in the Animated Short category: Urszula Palusińska's Cold Pudding Settles Love. Definitely one of the stranger entrants in the Animated Shorts competition, it is hard to compare against a crowd-pleasing laugh machine like Claudius Gentinetta's Selfies, which won the Animated Short GGA. While I don't know if the jury's category-confounding selection is unprecedented for the Golden Gate Awards, it's certainly unusual. It makes me glad that The Labyrinth as well as Epcar's Life After Love and Stephens' Mixed Signals will at least get another chance to screen for Frisco Bay audiences during the June 7-9 Crossroads Festival held by SF Cinematheque at SFMOMA and just announced this morning. I'm not sure if that festival still has an audience award prize, and if so I'm certain it's not going to come with $2000, but at the very minimum these films can extend their reach to more viewers.

SFFILM62 Day 13
Other festival options: With just two more days in the festival, everything is now down to it's final screening, so today's your last festival chance to see anything that happens to be playing. I can recommend The Load, which I wrote about yesterday, most highly (it plays the Victoria at 3:30PM), and Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale with some major reservations, not so much regarding its brutal violence (although if you don't want to watch that I certainly don't blame you), but the moments near the end of the film that strain credulity after the believably bleak outlook adopted from the early scenes. That one screens at the Roxie at 8:30PM.

Non-SFFILM option: The Castro Theatre (which incidentally has a good portion of its May offerings on its website, including a day-long screening of a new DCP of Sergei Bondarchuk's 7-hour War & Peace May 25) tonight launches a pretty cinephile-friendly final week and change before the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens May 1st. Tonight's World War I-themed double-bill pairs a 35mm print of Peter Weir's rarely-revived 1981 classic Gallipoli with a 3D presentation of Peter Jackson's recent documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Other 35mm prints playing there this week include Joseph Losey's Boom!, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., and a day stuffed with films starring Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi, including films by auteurs Elio Petri, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dino Risi and Marco Ferreri, all presented in prints brought in by the Italian Cultural Institute.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 12: The Load

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival is almost over; tonight's the official "closing night" but repeat screenings continue through Tuesday, April 23rd. Each day during the festival I've been posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A still from Ognjen Glavonic's The Load, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
The Load (SERBIA/FRANCE/CROATIA/IRAN/QATAR: Ognjen Glavonic, 2018)
playing: 6:00PM today at BAMPFA & 3:30PM tomorrow at the Victoria.

I went into The Load knowing almost nothing other than the information above and the fact that it's part of the SFFILM New Directors Golden Gate Awards competition, which other than undergoing a re-branding a several years back (it used to be sponsored by a vodka brand and called the SKYY Prize) has probably been the most consistent corner of San Francisco International Film Festival programming since I started attending twenty years ago. That year Jia Zhang-ke's feature-length debut Xiao Wu a.k.a. Pickpocket took home the prize, and since then other winning films have included Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar and Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade. Only directors on their first or second "narrative" feature are eligible for this award, so it's inevitable that all but the most deeply knowledgeable viewers won't have heard of any of them before the competition slate is announced. It turns out that 34-year-old Glanovic was not a completely unknown quantity to close festival observers, as he's made documentaries before including at least one that has played at the Berlinale.

I'm glad I went into The Load with so little foreknowledge. Part of this motion picture's effectiveness is derived from the position of unknowing that its lead character played by Croatian actor Leon Lučev, a truck driver tasked with bringing an undisclosed cargo across the border of Southern Serbia into Belgrade. Knowing little more than he does is a highly effective strategy for keeping a viewer's attention gripped, wondering what might be revealed. If that's not your style of movie-watching feel free to read the excellent review of The Load in Slant, or the interview with Glanovic in Film Comment before watching. In the meantime I'll make a few comments about an interesting aesthetic strategy employed in the movie that I'll try to avoid bringing anything at all spoiler-ish into.

Several times throughout The Load, our naturally-solitary driver encounters someone along his travels who makes some impact on his progress, and rather than simply confining these "external" characters' screen time to their interaction with the protagonist, Glanovic chooses to linger on their activities after their encounter before cutting back to Lučev. At first these moments are disorienting, appearing to launch into a "network narrative" structure for the movie. But after repetition of the structural technique makes it clear that Glanovic has something else in mind for these momentary fragments, they become clearly vital to his method of isolating his main character from the world he inhabits, a thematic underlining that gives ever more power to The Load's reflection on Serbia's past and its at-best-incomplete reconciliation. Of all the features I've seen at SFFILM this year, this is the one I feel will be most likely to reward a second viewing. Luckily there are two more showings scheduled during the festival.

SFFILM62 Day 12
Other festival options: I can recommend the final SFFILM showing of The Edge of Democracy to anyone who (like myself, before I saw it Friday) has felt confused by Brazil's political history over the past couple decades. Though a Netflix doc, it justifies its presence on the big screen with some very dynamic drone photography and more visceral protest footage. It screens at BAMPFA today at 12:30PM with the director in person. Today's also the last day to see Irene Taylor Brodsky, whose debut Hear and Now was among my favorite documentaries seen at Sundance way back in 2007, introduce her latest Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Acts. She and her doc will screen at SFMOMA at 6:00PM.

Non-SFFILM option: The Stanford Theatre launched its Doris Day program on Friday, and today's the final day they're showing two of her most auteur-centric films, Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and Gordon Douglas's Young At Heart, together on a 35mm double-bill. The full program, all in 35mm prints as is the Stanford's m.o., runs five days a week through May 23rd and includes My Dream is Yours with its famous Friz Freleng animation sequence, The Pajama Game, co-directed by the late great Stanley Donen, and Andrew & Virginia Stones' Julie, shot largely in Northern California, mostly near Carmel where Day lives to this day.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 11: Wisconsin Death Trip

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival is in its final weekend; it runs through Tuesday, April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from James Marsh's Wisconsin Death Trip, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Wisconsin Death Trip (UK: James Marsh, 1999)
playing: 4:00PM at BAMPFA

So far this year I've been able to post daily about SFFILM festival films I've already seen, whether at an advance press screening, a festival showing or at a different film festival or another circumstance. Today I'm focusing on a film I've never seen before but have been wanting to for nearly twenty years. When Wisconsin Death Trip first screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in the year 2000 I was out of the country, and for some reason I never caught up with it during its Frisco Bay commercial release a year later, even when it played a successful run at my then-neighborhood theatre the Balboa. So when I heard SFFILM was to show it again this year, as part of its Mel Novikoff Award tribute I was thrilled. Some were not so thrilled with this choice; my friend Lincoln Specter was skeptical of the award going to a television institution in the first place and said:
The Mel Novikoff Award is supposed to go to a person or institution that “has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema.” In the past, this meant someone who has helped others find a love of classic cinema. But this year, it’s going to BBC Arena, a British series of documentaries that may help people understand the world around them; but I doubt they’ll make them love classic cinema.
Perhaps because of my excitement about today's 35mm showing, I just had to leave a comment on Lincoln's site, which I'll reproduce here:
It’s true that quite a few (the vast majority, perhaps) of the prior Mel Novikoff Award recipients are best known for increasing “classic” cinema appreciation, as you put it. But quite a few recipients aren’t known just for that: Roger Ebert, Jim Hoberman, San Francisco Cinematheque, etc. 
At any rate, BBC Arena has produced and/or shown documentaries about Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Kenneth Anger, John Cassavetes, Hedy Lamarr, Clint Eastwood, Nicholas Roeg, Peter Sellers, Dirk Bogarde, Ingmar Bergman, and more individuals that many would consider important to “classic” cinema. 
I'd also add that the San Francisco International Film Festival has long had a tradition of screening made-for-television works from around the world, mostly of TV movies, documentaries or episodes that would have a very difficult time showing up on American television or other US screens of any sort. Sometimes they'd show television works that went on to become classics or semi-classics, like David Lynch's amazing Twin Peaks: Pilot or Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom. Other times the festival showing would one of the few ever to occur in the United States outside greymarket tape-trading networks, if that. They even used to have Golden Gate Awards categories for Best Made-For-Television works (although the nominees weren't always shown at the festival proper, as I noted last year sometimes television work can be notoriously difficult to clear the rights to screen in any kind of cinematic environment).

I'm not always totally thrilled at SFFILM's enthusiastic partnering with streaming services for its content in the past few years, as these distribution channels are generally pretty mainstream and when SFFILM programs a Netflix title it gives up a slot to something that Frisco Bay audiences will have a harder time ever seeing. But who am I to talk when my top two films on my Best of 2018 commercial release list included two Netflix titles that I caught in theatres, including one that I missed at the festival but might not have prioritized in cinemas later had I not heard good buzz on it a year ago this time.

Anyway, made-for-television or not, I'm happy Wisconsin Death Trip is part of the festival this year and that I'll be able to catch it screened in 35mm at one of my favorite theatre spaces in use by SFFILM this year: BAMPFA.

SFFILM62 Day 11
Other festival options: Early this morning SFFILM members get a crack at an upcoming release whose title will be announced just prior to the show. Two years ago I was thrilled to learn from my seat in the audience that I was about to see the latest by Cristian Mungiu, Graduation, which has seemed ever more relevant in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. No idea what this year's Member's Screening title will be, only that it'll happen 10:00AM at the Victoria. At noon, SFMOMA will host the George Gund III Award presentation to former San Francisco International Film Festival director Claude Jarman, along with a 35mm showing of the excellent Clarence Brown racism drama Intruder in the Dust; Jarman acted in the film as a child and had great stories to tell when this film screened at Noir City several years ago; I'm sure he'll have much more to say today, and seeing a Clarence Brown film today could help you get in gear for the re-premiere of his long-forgotten (by those of us who are not named Kevin Brownlow) The Signal Tower, which screens as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in twelve days.

Non-SFFILM option: Tonight's Other Cinema program at Artists' Television Access is an etremely timely one, both in regards to current events and to SFFILM's current run. On the former front, David Cox is presenting an illustrated lecture on images of jailed non-journalist Julian Assange in cinema. On the latter front, Other Cinema curator Craig Baldwin has selected a short called The Seen Unssen by Mariam Ghani, whose feature-length What We Left Unfinished screened earlier in the festival, and a is world-premiering a new piece called Immaculate Concussion by local collagist Kathleen Quillian, whose Confidence Game is in competition for a Golden Gate Award and which I wrote a bit about earlier this week.

Friday, April 19, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 10: Midnight Cowboy

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival is entering its final weekend; it runs through Tuesday, April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A still from John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of Park Circus.
Midnight Cowboy (USA: John Schlesinger, 1969)
playing: 8:45PM at SFMOMA

I haven't seen Midnight Cowboy since watching it on videocassette as a teenager, but my dim memory of it is that it's quite good, probably the best of the late-1960s Best Picture winners. I've put off revisiting it for years, even passing up 35mm screenings to my later regret. Now it's available on DCP format, and will be screening tonight that way tonight along with a personal appearance by director John Schlesinger's partner Michael Childers, has just given an excellent interview for the 48Hills website. Though Childers' official credit on the film was "assistant to the director" he played a big role in the film, including being key to populating a Greenwich Village party sequence with Andy Warhol's factory superstars as extras. He was also set photographer, which I assume is behind the unusual look to the above still provided to press by the film festival; if it's not a production still taken by Childers I'll be a for-real-cowboy's uncle! Tonight will surely be filled with wonderful behind-the-scenes stories from filming.

SFFILM62 Day 10
Other festival options: Today's the day YBCA will be screening a nine-hour version of BBC Arena's Night and Day for FREE to any visitors to its Lobby Gallery that wish to watch, whether for a few minutes or for as long as they desire. It's also the last day to see a festival screening of Qiu Sheng's controversial Suburban Birds, which plays the Roxie tonight at 9:00 PM (though it will also get a commercial release there in May). Tonight also is the night of the festival's annual pairing of silent films with modern-day rockers, in this case two members of Warpaint will accompany digital projections of four Maya Deren shorts at the Castro at 8:00PM. I'm torn about recommending this program after my utter exasperation at the last such SFFILM match-up; I couldn't take more than fifteen minutes of seeing a 35mm print of Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece I Was Born, But... projected in the wrong aspect ratio through a lens intended to make the image smaller on the screen, so as not to compete so much with its musical accompanists' stage antics. And don't get me started on the music itself, which had essentially nothing to do with the onscreen action (although I'm told by someone who stayed throughout the entire presentation that they finally synched up a bit for the final reel, at least). I have a hunch that tonight's presentation will be better than that; the fact that it's only a couple members of band has me guessing they won't just use it as an opportunity to play their usual tunes, but that they'll arrange something specific to Deren's image. On the other hand, Deren was, unlike Ozu in 1932 or any of the filmmakers featured in the upcoming (less than two weeks away!) San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a filmmaker unused to having her films accompanied by music other than what she chose for them. All accounts I've found indicate that she preferred to screen At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time with no music at all. She never considered The Very Eye of Night complete enough to screen until it was given a score by her future husband Teiji Ito, who also composed a score for Meshes of the Afternoon that she approved many years after its original release. Still, the thought of seeing Deren's images projected large on the Castro screen is pretty tempting.

Non-SFFILM option: Most Friday nights throughout the year the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco's Financial District hosts a (digital) screening and discussion of a movie selected by one of my favorite local film writers, Michael Fox. Tonight this series, called CinemaLit, brings in film historian Matthew Kennedy to screen and discuss one of my favorite Preston Sturges films, The Great McGinty, which I've written about fairly extensively before. Next week it's an Edward G. Robinson vehicle directed by John Ford, The Whole Town's Talking. That one I haven't seen.