Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On The Air

Yesterday I went to San Jose, where I taped a segment for a new film discussion series hosted by Sara Vizcarrondo of Box Office Magazine and Rotten Tomatoes. Honored to follow in the footsteps of the terrific Slant Magazine critic Fernando F. Croce, who discussed the Hollywood films of Fritz Lang on the first episode of the series, I was recruited to speak about Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, presumably because I can pronounce his name without butchering it (having taught English in Chiang Mai for a year and a half has resume applications after all!) I watched his new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives twice at the Kabuki last Friday in preparation, and hope to see it again at least once more before it departs from the San Francisco Film Society Screen this Thursday. It will open for a week at the Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley on Friday. I don't want to give away anything I might have mentioned on the program, but I will say this: if you haven't already, you should see Uncle Boonmee too! Watching this on a computer or even a large television screen is simply not going to do justice to Apichatpong's visual strategies, which I feel are so important to the film as a whole.

Another guest interviewd by Vizcarrondo on this episode was local filmmaker Jarrod Whaley, whose new picture The Glass Slipper is part of San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival line-up this year; it plays March 9th and again on March 12th. I have not yet seen The Glass Slipper, but I was impressed by Whaley's feature-length debut Hell Is Other People, as I wrote last year. The episode with Whaley and I in it should be edited and posted by the end of the week; keep an eye on my Twitter feed for a link as soon as it's ready for viewing.

I'm actually not too familiar with much of this year's Cinequest program, in fact, but there are a couple of noteworthy films I've seen that will be playing the last few days of fest. F. W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu, of course, is always a treat on the big screen, and sure to be particularly so at the California Theatre March 11 with Dennis James performing at the organ to a color tinted 35mm print. I know I'm not the only one to feel that Nosferatu is particularly necessary in today's vampire movie landscape; people need to be reminded to feel frightened when they encounter the undead, not lustful.

Another Cinequest film I've had a chance to preview is Raavanan starring India's most famous actres Aishwara Ray Bachchan. She plays Ragini, the wife of a law enforcement official named Dev (played by Prithviraj) who falls into the clutches of his arch-nemesis Veera (played by Vikram), who takes her as a hostage while he mounts a popular insurrection against the government authorities. Of course Ragnini develops a Stockholm-Syndrome-like attachment to her rugged and powerful captor, which raises the stakes on the inevitable confrontation between law-maker and law-breaker. Bound by conventions of Indian popular cinema (plenty of action, musical numbers that stand in for love scenes, an anything-goes approach to filming technique, etc.), Raavanan nonetheless surprised me on more than one occasion, thanks to its toying with audience sympathies for its various characters. It helped that, if I had learned its classical source material prior to viewing, I had forgotten it (i.e., don't look it up unless you're completely unfamiliar with ancient Indian literature or else don't mind missing out on the surprises I was pleased to experience.)

After playing Cinequest, Raavanan will also play at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which opens this Thursday with a screening of West Is West. After 29 years of operations, more than a decade of it under the sure stewardship of former festival director Chi-hui Yang, the programming team for the SFIAAFF now has new faces of leadership in Masashi Niwano and Christine Kwon, who have brought together a set of 108 films and videos, most of them from young Asian and Asian American filmmakers. Though the lineup may include fewer "known-quantity" directors than I've come to espect from this festival, there are a number of new films by relatively established artists that I've admired, leading off with China's critically-acclaimed master Jia Zhang-Ke, whose controversial I Wish I Knew plays twice at the festival, on March 12th at the Kabuki and on the 15th at the Pacific Film Archive. Other filmmakers I'm personally excited for the opportunity to follow are Zhang Lu, whose Grain In Ear impressed me at the 2006 SFIAAFF, and Chang Tso-Chi, whose The Best Of Times was a favorite at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival. Their new films are Dooman River and When Love Comes, respectively. Add in new documentaries on Anna May Wong and Mongolian film history, and archival screenings of Charlie Chan At The Olympics (with author Yunte Huang on hand to contextualize that film's complex racial issues) and Nonzee Nimibutr's 1999 hit Nang Nak (the first Thai film I ever saw, and part of a three-film focus on South-East Asian horror), and there's plenty of attractions to fill a film lover's viewing schedule.

The festival's closing night selection should appeal not only to cinephiles but to Frisco Bay's many indie music enthusiasts. It's called Surrogate Valentine, and it's a comedy about a musician performing in coffee houses and other small West Coast venues, and though I must admit I had low expectations going into the press screening (perhaps leftover from the bland taste I had in my mouth from the last SFIAAFF gala presentation I saw, last year's opening night film Today's Special), these were very pleasantly upended. I will publish a full review of Surrogate Valentine after a press embargo lifts this Saturday, when it makes its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, but for now I'll just recommend it. It plays the last SFIAAFF night in San Francisco on March 17th, and the festival's last day in San Jose on March 20.

Fans of Surrogate Valentine's star Goh Nakamura who are intrigued by his prominence in one of the highlighted features might find themselves checking out other SFIAAFF programs as well. Music and film are often seen as competing forms of entertainment, but Frisco Bay's festivals have become saavy about finding ways to involve passionate seekers of out-of-the-ordinary music in their events. In a particularly brilliant move, the San Francisco International Film Festival has announced (among a few other early SFIFF program indications) that the Castro Theatre stage will play host to the Tindersticks on May 2nd, where the group will perform live under a screen showing excerpts from six of the Claire Denis films they've provided the musical score to. This makes attendance at the Pacific Film Archive's current Denis retrospective all the more imperative as preparation for this one-of-a-kind film/music event. Of the six films to be excerpted for this performance, only White Material has already had its PFA screening. Nénette et Boni plays March 25, Trouble Every Day on April 2nd, L'Intrus on April 8th & 9th, Friday Night on April 15, and 35 Shots of Rum on April 16th.

It wasn't so long ago that I considered myself much more of a music aficionado than a cinephile myself. The first film I tried to buy a ticket for at the SFIFF was Iara Lee's electronic music documentary, Modulations. It was sold out, and I ended up seeing it during its theatrical run, and waiting another year before actually attending SFIFF. I've recently been reminded that my first excursions to truly independent movie theatres the Red Vic and the Roxie were facilitated by frequent ticket giveaways from my favorite radio station I've ever regularly listened to, 90.3 KUSF-FM. Without my interest in keeping on top of exciting independent music curated by the KUSF DJs, I might never have gotten into the habit of attending these alternative screening venues. Even after my attention to music became eclipsed by my attention to movies, I became a loyal listener to the Movie Magazine International radio program produced by Monica Sullivan out of the station. It was a great way to keep on top of festivals, revivals, new releases, etc. And yes, they had ticket giveaways on that weekly program as well.

In case you haven't heard about the University of San Francisco's decision to sell off the 90.3 frequency earlier this year, here's a good primer. At the end of last month, I was one of many who sent a letter to the Federal Communcations Commission in Washington, D.C., asking that they deny the premature transfer of the frequency the public had entrusted the University to operate in the interest of the local community (which KUSF had, with great panache, as it hosted over a dozen foreign-language broadcasts and partnered with countless local businesses and non-profit organizations to get the word out on important activities.) While KUSF supporters wait to hear what will happen next on the legal front, they continue to rally support for their cause by organizing events to benefit the cost of fighting the transfer. Tomorrow night, a special screening of the punk rock documentary A History Lesson, part 1 will be held at the 9th Street Independent Film Center, and this Saturday at midnight, a screening of a surprise film (perhaps you can figure it out from this blurb) will be presented at the Red Vic (whose March and April calendars are as strong as any two months at that venue as I can remember). Proceeds from both screenings will go to the Save KUSF campaign. Of course, if you can't make it to either screening, the fight to keep San Francisco airwaves locally-controlled in the face of media consolidation can also be aided with a direct donation.

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