Saturday, April 30, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 10: World On A Wire

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is in its final week. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

World On A Wire (WEST GERMANY: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

playing: at 2:00 PM this afternoon at the Pacific Film Archive, with no further screenings during the festival.
distribution: Janus Films is touring a revival of this film in advance of an eventual (as yet unannounced) Criterion DVD release. The Roxie Cinema has booked the 35mm print to screen during the week of July 29-August 4th.

One of the hot discussion topics amongst certain cinephiles at this year's SFIFF is, why did the festival decide to show Fassbinder's World On A Wire at the Kabuki last Saturday in a digital projection, when the Pacific Film Archive screening of it this afternoon is coming from a new 35mm print? It's true that the Kabuki is not equipped to do changeover 35mm projection (its platter system is considered acceptable for most festival prints of new films, but not for archival or certain other flim prints.) But I understand that the New People/VIZ Cinema house could have been another San Francisco venue option, as it's equipped for changeover, and has approximately as many seats as the Kabuki's House 3, where World on a Wire screened. When introducing the screening there, SFIFF director of Programming Rachel Rosen touted the clarity of the digital "print", and reminded that though Fassbinder shot on film, this particular work was originally seen most frequently on television anyway. The image did look fine, for a digital projection, but I still missed the certain warmth of light that only a projected film image can provide, at least according to my video viewing experience up to now.

Regardless, the PFA is expected to show a 35mm print this afternoon; it's in fact the only festival title touted as such in the Berkeley venue's printed calendar. Though the PFA typically tries to show films in as close as possible to the format they were originally made (flim on film, video on video) during SFIFF it's at the mercy of the ever-shifting vagaries of print traffic, which is why last Monday a Useful Life was screened there on a video format, much to the articulately-expressed chagrin of Carl Martin. I've been assured by the festival's hard-working print traffic manager Jesse Dubus that A Useful Life will screen at the Kabuki today in 35mm, unlike its two screenings earlier in the festival. For a real education in the quality of film vs. video image, a viewer of a Useful Life or World On A Wire on video last weekend could take a second look, on film, today.

World On A Wire is a good enough film to deserve a second look, regardless of format. A science-fiction take on the computer revolution that, made in 1973, prefigured the Matrix and Inception by decades, it's a typically imagistic Fassbinder work and truly a forgotten (if not by everyone, thankfully) classic in the prolific auteur's oeuvre. Dennis Harvey has recently written an insightful review, but let me chime in with a couple observations. The music is superb; Gottfried Hüngsberg's original compositions make industrial noise artists of the late seventies like Throbbing Gristle seem just a bit less ahead of the curve (I say this as a big fan of TG), and the employment of a Strauss waltz in a futuristic film made only 5 years after the release of Kubrick's 2001 takes a certain kind of daring- and it fits here equally well, if differently. Without spoiling anything, I'd also point out that the final scene of the film, though interpreted many ways in the places I've looked or listened, seems to me to hold a clue to understanding the rest of the film in the way its look and even the performance styles contained within it, contrast so sharply against the other 3+ hours. Needless to say, this is a work that grows more and more fascinating with every successive reel.

SFIFF54 Day 10
Another option: Dog Day Afternoon (USA: Sidney Lumet, 1975) Easily my favorite of Sidney Lumet's films, Dog Day Afternoon was what I first thought of when regretting the passing of the director earlier this month. But today's screening is not a memorial tribute, but a celebration of the life and work of its screenwriter Frank Pierson, who also wrote the scripts for Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke and many other successful Hollywood pictures. Though Dog Day Afternoon will be shown on a video format rather than its native 35mm, it's a strong enough picture to survive the conversion, and with the writer on hand this promises to be an insightful afternoon.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS comes to the Red Vic as a benefit to keep it open. At 7:30 PM Head MANiAC Jesse Hawthorne Ficks unspools a full program of 35mm trailers, then at 9:00 he auctions off rare film memorabilia items from his personal collection, and at 9:45 he screens a secret title from the 1970s, never before released on any home video format I can think of. And in the afternoon, the theatre hosts a poster sale. All for the extremely good cause of saving the only co-operatively owned and run repertory cinema on the West Coast.

Friday, April 29, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 9: Toby Dammit

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival has crossed its halfway mark. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Toby Dammit (ITALY: Frederico Fellini, 1968)

playing: Following the 7:30 PM Evening With Terence Stamp at the Castro Theatre, with no further screenings during the festival.
distribution: American International Pictures distributed Toby Dammit in this country in 1969, as part of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead. Home Vision Entertainment released a DVD of the omnibus nearly ten years ago, and it's out of print. What's more, the print they transferred to disc was a French-dubbed one, lacking Stamp's voice on the soundtrack. Last year British company Arrow Films finally released Spirits of the Dead with the option to hear Stamp speaking his original dialogue in English. However this is a Blu-Ray only release. The opportunity to see a 35mm print of Toby Dammit, with the soundtrack Stamp prefers you hear, at a venue like the Castro, comes around approximately every 1.2 lifetimes.

An unspeakably arrogant actor named Toby Dammit travels from England to Rome to star in a pretentious-sounding Spaghetti Western based on the life of Jesus Christ. His producers drop names like Godard, Pasolini and Barthes as they pick him up from the airport and take him to vapid publicity events culminating in a garish Oscar-esque ceremony where he is to recieve an award and give a speech. Dammit, played by Terence Stamp, spends this entire film in an alcoholic stupor, barking about a Ferrari he's been promised as payment for his involvement in the picture, and beset by visions of a creepy little girl with a white ball, who signifies the Satan he's surely sold his soul to. It's a tremendous performance by a legendary actor, who will appear on stage before the screening for an extended conversation about this film and some of the many others of a career working with directors like Ken Loach, William Wyler, Steven Soderbergh, Peter Ustinov, Joseph Losey, Michael Cimino, Pier Paolo Pasolini (there's that name again!) and of course Frederico Fellini.

Loosely based on the story Never Bet the Devil Your Head by Edgar Allen Poe, Toby Dammit is Fellini at his most chillingly hostile towards his industry and perhaps towards humanity as a whole. Many of his films contain sequences that raise the goose-pimples, but this is the closest the iconic auteur ever came to filming a bona fide horror movie. Never before have Fellini-esque and Dante-esque seemed so synonymous; I'm reminded that the film that made the deepest imprint on the director as a child was Maciste In Hell when I contemplate the fire & brimstone colors he uses in the airport or the chthonian darknesses found later in the film. Yet Nino Rota's score is at its usual carnivalesque pitch, keeping the film from feeling too grim even if some of the images we're seeing are.

Vincent Canby read Toby Dammit as in fact a post-script to Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which will also be playing the festival this weekend, making up for its last-minute pulling from the festival 51 years after it was scheduled to open the fourth edition of SFIFF in 1960. Stamp's award and this Toby Dammit screening are something of a last-minute occurrence as well, having been announced only on opening day of this year's festival. Let's show that our city can pack the Castro for him on little over a week's notice; it's the least we can do after appreciating him in so many wonderful films over the years.

SFIFF54 Day 9
Another option: The City Below (GERMANY: Christoph Hochhäusler, 2010) When my good friend Ryland Walker Knight drops phrases of praise like "Resnais-like openness" and "tower of depravity" I listen.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Royal Wedding at the Stanford Theatre. The Palo Alto venue opens a spectacular season of musicals today with this Stanley Donen film, paired with Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante. Yes, I'm sure the pairing was picked to comment on the unavoidable hoopla of this past week. I can't say I've been intentionally following it, but I'm sure nothing that occurred was as elegant to see as Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling was in 1951, or is today, for that matter.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 8: Nostalgia For The Light

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is at its halfway mark, as it runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Nostalgia For The Light (CHILE/FRANCE/GERMANY: Patricio Guzmán, 2010)

playing: 6:15 this evening at the Pacific Film Archive, with no further screenings during the festival.
distribution: Thanks to Icarus Films, it's set to open May 13th at the Landmark Shattuck and Lumiere, and have a special screening May 25th at the Rafael Film Center with author Isabel Allende in attendance.

Ever since an interest in mythology begat a fascination with identifying constellations from the roof of my childhood home in Frisco's Richmond District, I've had a long-standing desire to travel to the Southern Hemisphere, so I can see for myself an unfamiliar set of night skies. Years ago while spending one of several summers as a camp counselor and astronomy instructor, I even considered an opportunity to go to Chile in particular, knowing its Atacama Desert's status as the driest spot in the world made it a particularly perfect place for celestial observation.

So of course I was drawn to watch the astronomy-themed Nostalgia For the Light, the newest documentary by Patricio Guzmán, one of a trio of Chile-born filmmakers (Alejandro Jodorowsky and Raúl Ruiz being the other two) who have become famous internationally; all three are best known for their films completed outside their home country (and in fact Jodorowsky has never made a film there). Nostalgia For the Light may change this for Guzmán, however. It was filmed almost entirely in and around the Atacama, where Guzmán shoots gorgeous footage of landscapes, skyscapes, and observatory interiors, and interviews some of the people working in the region. Primarily, these fall into two categories: astronomers, and individuals involved in uncovering the horrible human histories literally buried in the desert, particularly survivors of victims of the repressive, CIA-supported dictator Augusto Pinochet.

This may seem like an odd juxtaposition on paper, but Guzmán's editing and narration over the course of the picture truly unveils the poetic links between science and justice, between history and gravity, and between memory and the cosmos. Though Nostalgia For the Light comes across as more a richly imagistic philosophical contemplation than an activist doc, it ultimately indicts the present with almost an equal fervor as the past. With luck, the success of this film will help the people of Chile, and the rest of the world, better reckon with the tragedies hidden among the silent stones of this patch of brown on the globe. Guzmán will be in attendance at tonight's screening.

SFIFF54 Day 8
Another option: The Dish and the Spoon (USA: Alison Bagnall, 2011) Right after Nostalgia For the Light, the PFA is screening an American indie still fresh from its world premiere at SXSW in Austin. Sara Vizcarrondo interviewed director Bagnall on an episode of Look Of The Week, and definitely piqued my interest in this title.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: American Graffiti at the Rafael Film Center, as a benefit for Marin Charitable. It took me long enough, but when I finally saw the George Lucas film that least appealed to me as a youngster, I became a reborn George Lucas fan. If you've never seen it on the big screen, you've gotta do it sometime.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 7: The Sleeping Beauty

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival has nearly completed its first week. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

The Sleeping Beauty (FRANCE: Catherine Breillat, 2010)

playing: 6:30 PM this evening, with no more festival screenings scheduled.
distribution: Strand Releasing is reportedly putting out a DVD later this year, but a theatrical release seems up in the air, given that Breillat's last fairy-tale feature was restricted to non-commercial screenings here on Frisco Bay.

I was fortunate to be able to see a number of this year's SFIFF selections at the last Toronto International Film Festival; this was one of them. If you've seen director Catherine Breillat's prior Bluebeard you have something of an idea of what to expect from this, also a beautiful, video-made, 21st Century take on a classic fairy tale. Don't hold on too tightly to these expectations however, as Bluebeard is a much more straightforward retelling of Charles Perrault than the Sleeping Beauty of Grimm, as the latter works in elements from Hans Christen Andersen and Lewis Carrol, plays with its natural time-travel theme in fascinating ways (you'll never guess the graffito that appears in one scene), and even refers back to one of Breillat's early films explicitly.

Breillat is not expected to be at today's screening, but she did answer questions in person at The Sleeping Beauty's Toronto screening I attended. Among other things, she revealed that the casting of the all-previously-unknown actors was the most time-consuming aspect of the production, that the water in the bathing scene pictured above was in fact ice-cold, and that the last shot of the film was taken in her own home. If you attend tonight's screening, and you relate these tidbits to the person in the seat next to you, why not tell you where you learned them? I can always use another reader.

SFIFF54 Day 7
Another option: Le Quattro Volte (ITALY/GERMANY/SWITZERLAND: Michaelangelo Frammartino, 2010) I don't know much about this second-time filmmaker or his film, other than that it's been nicknamed "the goat movie" and drawing passionate raves on its festival tour. It's one of several SFIFF54 films on the just-released Landmark Film Calendar (pdf) but why wait until June 10th when you can see it tonight?

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Splice at the Pacific Film Archive. I've been attending many (about half) of the Film 50 lectures to UC Berkeley students and community members over the past semester; this is the last in the series. They're always packed with information and insight. Professor Russell Merritt is an engaging lecturer who encourages questions and comments, and the 35mm prints are screened flawlessly and often rare. In this week's case, it's a rare in-cinema opportunity to go back in time and see a Canadian horror film that played last year's SFIFF.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 6: HaHaHa

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is still going strong. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and review of a film in the festival.

HaHaHa (SOUTH KOREA: Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

playing: 3:30 this afternoon at the Kabuki, with no more scheduled festival screenings.
distribution: None that I'm aware of. This may be your last chance to see this film on the big screen.

"Stop dwelling on adolescent things." It's a scolding given by one of the men in HaHaHa to the woman he's infatuated with, but it could as easily be applied to just about any male character in any Hong Sang-soo film. Invariably Hong populates his movies with creative, would-be "sensitive" guys trapped in states of arrested development. Unable to live up to their own high ideals, these protagonists verbally inflict on the women around them countless cutting comments, subtextual rejections, insincere flatteries and transparent lies. When the women stand for such treatment it's only because they're no less insecure than their male counterparts, even if they may express it differently.

HaHaHa provides more opportunities for its Peter Pans to be put in their pre-adolescent place than any other Hong film I can remember (and I'm lucky to have seen all twelve of his thus-far finished works). The mother of laid-off Seoul prof. Moon-kyoeng (played by Kim Sang-kyeung, who also played the male lead in Turning Gate) infantilizes him in conversation with her friends: "He's gotten so big; I wonder if he's really mine." Later in the film she gives him a spanking with a coat hanger, and makes him cry (these are separate instances).

Another male character, an angsty poet, gets a piggyback ride from his girlfriend as if to demonstrate his immaturity after she catches him with another woman. The girlfriend is Seung-ok, played by Moon So-ri, who SFIFF regulars will remember from her terrific turns in Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Sa-Kwa. This is her first time working with Hong Sang-soo and she commands attention in every scene, not least her outburst while on-duty as a historical park guide who defensively shouts down a tourist who dares to question the accuracy of the heroic histories she's there to impart.

Hong is always motivated to explore the elusiveness of absolute truth, and as usual he does this by dividing HaHaHa into two complimentary (or perhaps competing) stories: a recounting by Moon-kyoeng of the highlights of his seaside hometown visit, and a parallel recounting by his friend Joong-sik, who coincidentally was visiting the same town with his mistress at the same time. Only the audience gets to see just how close the two men came to bumping into each other, as they frequented the same locations, often with some of the same locals alongside them. Along with the dialogue, these close calls provide much of the humor that helps earn the film its title.

What makes HaHaHa different from any other Hong feature is the typical bifurcation is not a temporal cleave between the first and second halves of the film. Rather, Moon-kyoeng's and Joong-sik's stories are alternated and interwoven throughout the running time. This "normalizes" the film somewhat, which may be why it's the first of Hong's films to have energized a few former detractors I'm spoken to. As a devotee, I find this new approach refreshing and intriguing as well.

When writing about Hong's other 2010 release Oki's Movie (which comes to YBCA June 23 & 26, incidentally), Marc Raymond suggested that "perhaps no other director is less repetitive than Hong," which on the face sounds like an even more perverse provocation than Hasumi Shigehiko's (via Max Tessier) that Yasujiro Ozu is the "least Japanese of all directors." But there's truth in both claims. Perhaps HaHaHa and Oki's Movie (also an obvious structural departure from Hong's usual template) will help observers (including fans such as myself) better see how to distinguish all of Hong's films from each other, despite their surface similarities.

SFIFF54 Day 6
Another option: Chantrapas (GEORGIA/FRANCE: Otar Iosseliani, 2010) In contrast to Hong, I've only seen one of Septuagenarian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani's films, the delightfully Tati-esque Monday Morning, but it's not the fault of the SFIFF that I haven't seen more. They've shown ten of his films over the past thirty years, and this year's US Premiere screening of Chantrapas serves as a tribute to SF Film Society board chair George Gund III, who is a particular fan of the Georgian director, who is expected to be in attendance for tonight's 6PM screening.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Valley Girl at the Red Vic in a 35mm print. I've never seen this flashback from 1983, which was a breakthrough for both director Martha Coolidge and star Nicolas Cage, and begins a two-night stand at a theatre that got its start in the 1980s.

Monday, April 25, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 5: The Troll Hunter

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is going strong; it runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

The Troll Hunter (NORWAY: André Øvredal, 2010)

playing: 6:15 PM this evening at VIZ/New People, with no more screenings during the festival.
distribution: Set for a June 17th release at the Lumiere and the Shattuck, through Magnolia Pictures.

Norseman André Øvredal's debut feature presents itself as a found-footage object: a documentary recovered from the hands of a trio of student filmmakers traveling around the Norwegian back-country on the trail of the country's remaining specimens of these dangerous creatures. What fundamentally sets it apart from its most obvious precursor, the Blair Witch Project, is the presence of an intermediary expert, the titular character played by Otto Jespersen. Like the students, we can remain skeptical of the film's fantastic conceits, yet engaged, as long as we're interested in this grizzled oddball. Clever formal note: the film's cinematography style changes subtly but perceptibly when different members of the team are behind the camera.

SFIFF54 Day 5
Another option: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (GERMANY/FRANCE/UK/USA/CANADA: Werner Herzog, 2010) One of the hottest tickets of the festival is the beloved Werner Herzog's latest documentary about the 30,000-year old Chauvet Pont d'Arc cave paintings in Southern France, filmed in 3-D no less. Not one of the Bavaria-born filmmaker's masterpieces, but probably my favorite of his films since 2004's The White Diamond.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Baraka at the Red Vic. For many years this Haight Street cinema showed Ron Fricke's spiritual travelogue around Christmastime, but in 2010 they didn't. Perhaps they were saving it for Easter Sunday and Easter Monday 2011. Either slot seems an appropriate calendaring for the many Frisco Bay seekers of alternatives to traditional religious practices.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 4: A Useful Life

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is going strong; it runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

A Useful Life (URUGUAY: Federico Veiroj, 2010)

playing: 12:00 Noon at VIZ/New People, with two more SFIFF screenings later in the week.
distribution: The Global Film Institute has picked this up for distribution in the United States, but historically very few of the films in its roster have been gotten a true (week-long) commercial theatrical release in San Francisco. So while a DVD may eventually be forthcoming, these three SFIFF screenings could be the most significant in-cinema exposure this film will have for Frisco Bay audiences.

In The Woman Chaser Richard Hudson (played by Patrick Warburton in the 1999 film version of Charles Willeford's novel) can't believe the studio that hired him won't allow him to release his newly-minted action-thriller about the human condition, The Man Who Got Away, simply because of its length: 63 minutes, too short for to sell to drive-in owners and too long to sell to television. Both Hudson and everyone he shows the workprint to agree it's a kind of masterpiece in its current form, and can't imagine what cutting or padding could be done without destroying its potential impact.

Whatever has this to do with A Useful Life, a film very different from the Woman Chaser (although both are monochromatic films made in a multicolored age) or the fictional film within it? A Useful Life is sixty-seven minutes long, and I wouldn't have wanted it to be a minute longer or shorter. Though its story of a Montevideo cinematheque facing a funding crisis that might force it to close, and of the stalwart projectionist/programmer/archivist who must suddenly contemplate an existence outside of the cinema, may seem small, it's a start-to-finish parade of moments of veracity. As well as humor, depth, and even a tingle of romance. The subject of a threatened movie screen should attract cinephiliac viewers, and if they're like me they won't be in the least disappointed.

SFIFF54 Day 4
Another option: Tokyo - Ebisu (JAPAN: Tominari Nishikawa, 2010) Some may remember Nishikawa from the film he made while studying here at the S.F. Art Institute, Market Street. Interestingly, Callum Cooper's Victoria, George, Edward and Thatcher shares a few cursory similarities to Market Street. Both of these works play on the experimental shorts program The Deep End co-presented by SF Cinematheque, which has just announced its own film festival for mid-May.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Hairspray and Serial Mom make up the final double-bill of the Castro Theatre's John Waters Birthday weekend. Neither screens very frequently in 35mm prints.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 3: Coming Attractions

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival began the other night and runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Coming Attractions (AUSTRIA: Peter Tscherkassky, 2010)
playing: 4:45 PM this afternoon at the Kabuki, as part of the Mind The Gap shorts program, which also plays Sunday, May 1 at 9:45.
distribution: none that I'm aware of; as an experimental short, extremely unlikely to receive any sort of commercial release in this country

As usual, Carl Martin of the Film On Film Foundation is playing watchdog for those cinephiles who are concerned with whether SFIFF films are screening on film or on video; in addition to an overall preview of the festival from this angle, he's created a very handy calendar listing all the festival screenings expected to be presented on film rather than digitally. Not only does he list the features, but even certain individual short films to be shown on film amidst a program of otherwise-video work.

Coming Attractions is one such example, the lone 35mm entry in the Mind The Gap shorts program. It's the latest by Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, whose Outer Space won a Golden Gate Award from SFIFF eleven years ago, and whose excellent follow-ups Dream Work and Instructions For a Light and Sound Machine have played subsequent festivals.

Like these prior collage films, Coming Attractions is an optical printing tour-de-force constructed out of footage repurposed from other sources, in this case largely images from the first few decades of cinema history, from Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul's 1895 Rough Sea at Dover to Jean Cocteau's 1930 Blood of a Poet. These are re-edited, repeated, solarized or otherwise reprocessed, and organized into chapters along with more recent images from the world of advertising or art cinema- the film even ends with a humorous tip of the hat to Pier Paolo Pasolini. Whether or not the cumulative effect of these eleven segments succeeds in illuminating parallels between avant-garde film traditions and Tom Gunning's "cinema of attractions" is up for debate. What isn't is the epic, near-numbing effect of all the stroboscopic and multiple-exposed images set to a soundtrack of assaultive sound effects and playful samba beats. It's hard to image another 25 minutes of film in the festival providing as much pleasurable sensory overload as this film does.

SFIFF54 Day 3
Another option: Mysteries of Lisbon (PORTUGAL/FRANCE: Raúl Ruiz, 2010) Imagine an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, but directed by one of the world's great auteurs, free to buck all conventions of the "great books on television" genre. Instead of watching it couchside in installments, you see all 4 1/2 hours in a digital projection. Now imagine it being one of the top 2 or 3 highlights of the entire festival. I'd be skeptical myself, but that's just what happened to me and this work in Toronto last fall. Maybe it'll happen to you too at SFIFF? If so, it'll have to be today- it's only festival screening.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: Desperate Living/Polyester double-bill at the Castro as part of a John Waters birthday weekend tribute (his 65th was actually yesterday). These are almost certainly my two favorite of his films I've seen. Eric Henderson has called Desperate Living his "most divalicious work ever" despite the absence of Divine, who is at her own career-best in Polyester. Both films play multiple times during the day, so it may be possible to attend both the birthday celebration and a particularly anticipated SFIFF title or two.

Friday, April 22, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 2: Meek's Cutoff

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival began last night and runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Meek's Cutoff (USA: Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
playing: 9:00 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with another screening at 4:30 on Monday.
distribution: Oscilloscope opens it theatrically at the Embarcadero May 6th, just after the festival ends.

When Meek's Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt presented all of her previous films at the PFA last October, it suddenly struck me why it makes so much sense that her latest film is a period piece set among settlers on the formative Oregon Trail. As beautiful and heartbreaking as Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are, Reichardt in moments seems to be straining to portray how modern Americans communicate (and how we don't) when unplugged from computers and cellphones. Telecommunications "advances" move so swiftly, and penetrate society so deeply, that Old Joy already plays like a period piece and Michelle Williams' phone-less character in Wendy and Lucy seems an improbable anachronism.

All of Reichardt's films explore how individual Americans negotiate with each other, moment-to-moment, face-to-face, without the overbearing baggage of a "social network" as codified by our digitized address books. Meek's Cutoff, which has frequently been read as a commentary on 21st century politics, certainly provides insight into the historical underpinnings of American values and communication styles. There's no soft-pedaling on our forebears' unquestioned racism and sexism, but neither is this beautiful film a simplistic harangue. The proportions assigned to action and words for Meek's band of travelers might make the film's most powerful statements- both regarding the perspiration that came before our current largely sedentary lifestyle, and regarding the nature of images of the West that we've grown up with and used to. I don't know if Reichardt plans to continue to avoid portraying the most superficially-"connected" aspects of contemporary culture, but if so I'd be happy to see her continue plumbing the 1800's for a long time.

SFIFF54 Day 2
Another option: The Good Life (DENMARK: Eva Mulvad, 2010) is a documentary by the same woman who made the excellent Enemies Of Happiness. Kelly Vance calls this new one "good, clean, morbid fun."

Non-SFIFF-option for today: His Girl Friday at the Paramount. Though Oakland's (and Frisco Bay's) most opulent movie palace is not the best place to see a Howard Hawks film unless you've got the dialogue memorized (the sound system being the venue's weak link in its presentations of talking pictures), His Girl Friday doesn't come around so often, and the price ($5) and ambiance make an afternoon cram session with Charles Lederer's script seem like a worthwhile idea.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


The 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival opens tonight at the Castro and ends there (and at other venues) May 5th. MUBI's David Hudson has collected a good deal of the advance preview pieces published by local film writers on the festival. Let me just add Kelly Vance's epic East Bay Express preview, which covers a ton of titles, as well as getting into some of the organizational difficulties the festival has had to overcome to secure exciting award recipients. In addition to Oliver Stone, Frank Pierson, Matthew Barney and Serge Bromberg, the festival today finally announced its final major award recipient, actor Terence Stamp. Unknown at this time is the name of the film that will screen at Stamp's April 29th Castro tribute. I've been speculating on twitter. In case you hadn't heard, the film accompanying Oliver Stone's April 27th evening will be Salvador, to be screened in a 35mm print.

My own SFIFF coverage begins in earnest tomorrow. In the meantime, let me run down the Frisco Bay film events now known to be happening after the festival. Most local film organizations rely to some degree on the SFIFF hubbub to get cinemagoers excited about continuing their frequent filmgoing after the festival has gotten them into the habit, and make sure to distribute to festival venues their new calendars advertising their own "products" for the months ahead.

The Yerba Buena Center For the Arts makes perhaps the smoothest segue from the SFIFF, presenting a new film of the sort that might well have been selected for the festival itself had it not already screened at the Roxie earlier this year: Manoel de Oliveira's the Strange Case of Angelica. However, apparently the Roxie run was a digital presentation, and the YBCA will be showing it in 35mm. It was among my favorites seen at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and I may well take advantage of this second chance when it happens May 5, 7 & 8. The YBCA is also presenting 35mm prints of a 1987 Spanish art-horror film and of three vintage sex films in May.

The Roxie is re-establishing its commitment to film projection during May as well. After a May 7-9 run of a restored print of Taxi Driver in time for both the 35th anniversary of Martin Scorsese's film, and the Roxie's own conversion from a porno house to a repertory venue, it will spotlight 35mm and 16mm prints of film noir titles in its I Wake Up Dreaming 2011 series. Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear, Anthony Mann's the Great Flamarion, and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly are only a few of the more high-profile titles in this series of important and forgotten films from the golden age of the fedora and the femme fatale.

A May 12 double bill of the great kung fu film Deaf-Mute Heroine and Chow-Yun Fat in the extremely rare Pembunahan Pursuit kicks of a new series at the 4-Star in the Richmond District, justifying the theatre's presence on my sidebar after years of programming mostly just the usual Hollywood and Indiewood titles. Entitled "Asian Movie Madness", this series brings double bills of Hong Kong, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese action films, and Nikkatsu Roman Porno to Clement Street every Thursday, mostly in 35mm prints. I know I'll be attending this series as often as I can, as some of these films (Chocolate comes immediately to mind, and I bet there are others) are making their debuts in Frisco Bay cinemas.

The Castro Theatre has, for the past few years, turned its screen over to Hollywood would-be blockbuster releases for much of May. The theatre has made no announcements that it's going to be repeating this maneuver in 2011, and its calendar is already filling up with alternative goodies. One of the great underseen films of the 1970s, Puzzle of a Downfall Child plays (with the Eyes of Laura Mars) May 11, a date which seems timed with the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, which will also be reviving the 1970 film with star Faye Dunawaye and director Jerry Schatzberg in attendance. We won't get that glamour but at least we'll be able to see the film without having to wear tuxedoes to the theatre. No tuxedoes required either for the May 13 Castro screening of the perfect-on-its-terms Rock 'N' Roll High School (which is also part of a San Jose midnight movie series) with co-screenwriter (and film historian) Joseph McBride in attendance, part of a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS triple-bill also including the Blues Brothers and Dennis Hopper's rarely-shown Out Of The Blue. May also brings an Elizabeth Taylor remembrance series that includes the Mike Nichols and Joseph Losey films a recent similar series at the Stanford lacked. In early June the theatre holds its first 70mm film series since 2008.

When you click a picture of the late, great, San Francisco filmmaker Will Hindle in one the SF Cinematheque website, you get directed to a page for the 2011 Crossroads Film Festival of "new avant-garde works from emerging and established filmmakers along with special presentations, performances and events." happening at the Victoria and SFMOMA. Is this some kind of clue to the as-yet-unannounced Crossroads program? Might a Hindle film (or more than one) be part of this year's festival, perhaps as part of the "culminating screening of Cinematheque's Radical Light series" happening at SFMOMA May 12? I honestly have no idea; though I wrote a program note for last year's festival, I'm completely in the dark as to what Cinematheque is cooking up this time around, and these are no more than guesses. If Hindle's work is involved, however, I'll probably squeal with delight, however. I hope my guessing pays off. SFMOMA also holds a Gertrude Stein-related film series in June, including prints of films by Henry King, Alan Rudoph and Monika Treut.

Finally, the Pacific Film Archive closes for a semester break shortly after its usage as a SFIFF venue. It comes back with a vengeance in June. Nine films by recently-deceased director Arthur Penn and a far-from-comprehensive (though extremely generous, both with films and in-person appearances) focus on twin filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar would be exciting enough, but an investigation of the careers of classic Japanese actresses hits right into my section of the field, and is clearly meant to be the showstopper of the summer, as it lasts into August. An adapted version of the Film Forum series wrapping up right now, this PFA series includes 15 of the 23 titles that have played in New York City over the past few weeks, as well as eight additional titles including four titles (Kon Ichakawa's Odd Obsession with Machiko Kyo, Keisuke Kinoshita's Immortal Love with Hideo Takemine, and Yasuzo Masumura's A Wife Confesses and Seisaku's Wife with Ayako Wakao) from the PFA's own collection. These four and four Yasujiro Ozu films (Woman of Tokyo, A Hen In the Wind and Equinox Flower starring Kinuyo Tanaka, and Late Autumn starring Setsuko Hara) are showing here in lieu of eight of the Film Forum titles, and given the relative rarity of the affected titles, I'd say Berkeley comes off better in the bargain, although I'm still yearning for more chances to see Mikio Naruse films on the big screen, which makes the four titles from that director missing from this leg of the tour sting a little personally. At least I'll have another shot at seeing the one Naruse/Takemine film in the series, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs in its widescreen glory; this film was one of those that sold out the PFA when the 2006 Naruse retrospective stopped through, and I was among those shut out.