Wednesday, April 29, 2015

layover (2014)

A scene from Vanessa Renwick's LAYOVER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Vanessa Renwick made this.

WHAT: I've only seen a handful of items from Renwick's extensive filmography; essentially only the ones collected on this DVD (I plan to place an order for this one soon). What I've seen reveals her accomplishment in many filmmaking tools and techniques, but the film that has stuck with me most over the years is Britton, South Dakota, a found footage piece that apparently involved minimal intervention on her part. Yet those few strokes: selecting a particular nine minutes of images from two and a half hours of footage shot by one man in one town back in 1938, and finding music to go with it, turned the footage into a particularly haunting form of contemporary art.

Her latest short piece, a 6-minute work called layover, is a stunningly beautiful cine-poem documenting the swirling flight patterns of a group of Vaux's swifts (a West Coast relative to the more famous chimney swift of the Eastern U.S.) as they make their annual stop at a Portland school building (which looks like a repurposed factory smokestack) on the way down their migratory path toward Central America. In this case Renwick's interventions are not nearly as apparently minimal as those in Britton, South Dakota, although I do not know whether or not the footage, shot in HD by perennial collaborator Eric Edwards (also director of photography for many Gus van Sant films), was captured with Renwick present. I have no reason to think she wasn't on hand, directing Edwards and his assistants to shoot the material she knew she'd need for the edit, but it's possible that, like Ivan Besse's footage in Britton, South Dakota, these images were something Edwards had caught without Renwick's involvement, and that she instead instigated their formation into a work unto itself.

Either way, there is an element of the swifts' abstract patterning that foreground's the camera's role in preserving fleeting, unstaged moments. Their spirals and funnels sometimes resemble the animated motions found in a Jordan Belson film, but were not choreographed by any animator besides the instinct and social behavior of Mother Nature. This is a film that invites particular reflections on the role of humans and their inventions in relation to the fabric of organic matter we're surrounded by and indeed part of, whether we're present to that fact or not. Max Goldberg recently put it more succinctly: "each time the awed camera bucks or racks focus to keep up with the flock, it’s a reminder of our human weakness for wanting to hold what will not be held."

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 9:30 PM tonight at the Kabuki Theatre, and 6:30 PM this Sunday, May 3rd at the Pacific Film Archive, both courtesy of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Max Goldberg's article, linked above, is from his wrap-up on SF Cinematheque's Crossroads Festival, which occurred earlier this month. He doesn't mention that layover in fact kicked off the very first program of the entire weekend-long festival, its uplift making an ideal opening to a weekend full of flights into unknown spaces. If the order of films in the Nothing But a Dream: Experimental Shorts program at SFIFF this year is the order of showing, then layover will again provide the first images of the program, and for those who may have missed out on Crossroads, an ideal opening of a month of SF Cinematheque co-presentations and presentations.

The "Nothing But a Dream" program is the annual SFIFF show programmed not by festival staff but by Kathy Gertiz of the Pacific Film Archive and Vanessa O'Neill of Cinematheque; it includes works by artists frequently showcased by those institutions, like Janie Geiser and T. Marie, as well as relative newcomers like local Zachary Epcar, whose terrific short Under the Heat Lamp an Opening is the first of his pieces screened at any of these three partnering organizations (its slightly-earlier showing at Crossroads shouldn't take away from the prestige of this premiere; this time Epcar is expected to be on hand for audience questions after the showings).

SF Cinematheque has also joined as a co-presenter for Jenni Olson's latest feature The Royal Road, but also presents a couple of programs during SFIFF that have nothing to do with the festival: an Andrew Puls performance occurs (quite unfortunately) during the second screening of layover and its "Nothing But a Dream" kin this Sunday. And small-gauge film legend Saul Levine makes a rare visit from New England to Oakland next Tuesday, May 5th. Later in the month, after SFIFF is over, two more artists present work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kevin Jerome Everson on the 19th & 20th and Tommy Becker on the 29th. Further into the future, SF Cinematheque promises screenings of work by Zach Iannazzi & Margaret Rorison in August, Sandra Gibson & Luis Recoder in October, and Nathaniel Dorsky in November.

HOW: According to the PFA listing, all but three of the pieces in the "Nothing But A Dream" program screen digitally. Those three are 16mm prints: Ryan Marino's Old Growth, Jennifer Reeves's Color Neutral and Mike Gibisser's Blue Loop, July. Of course layover will be shown digitally, its native format.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the final festival screenings of Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights, Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, Sergei Loznitza's Maidan, and the Chinese noir I wrote about on Monday, Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Castro Theatre (which incidentally has just revealed its May calendar) is screening a 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with a digital version of the Wachowskis' Bound.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Jauja (2014)

Viggo Mortensen in a scene from Lisandro Alonso's JAUJA, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Lisandro Alonso co-wrote and directed this, his first new feature film since Liverpool back in 2008.

WHAT: Oops! Somehow I got the "hold review" rules a bit wrong the other day. I actually have 100 words in which to write a capsule review of a title receiving an upcoming commercial release. I'll start counting after this sentence.

If Alonso's masterpiece Los Muertos was the shadowy underbelly to Blissfully Yours, Jauja takes him into mystical realms akin to Uncle Boonmee, by way of Sjöström's elemental landscape dramas. Scandinavia looms; Viggo Mortensen's a Danish cavalryman seeking his teenaged daughter in remote Patagonia. He simultaneously exudes power and frailty, dwarfed as he often is by expanses separating him from the square frame, rounded at the corners as if to suggest Carleton Watkins' mammoth plates. When these curves disappear into blackness, its one of the film's sublime moments, at least as many as there were co-producing nations (according to imdb, eight!)

WHERE/WHEN: Screens one final time at the Kabuki (3PM today) as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), and will also screen daily at the Roxie during the week of May 22-28.

WHY: Jauja is at "RUSH status" at SFIFF but that doesn't mean you can't see it; by arriving early for the screening you may just have a good shot at nabbing a seat in the theatre, although it might be in the first few rows of the theatre. In which case you'll have to wait until its Roxie run a month or less from now. All the "RUSH status" screenings can be followed day-to-day on this handy web page.

HOW: DCP at the Kabuki, but most likely Blu-Ray projection at the Roxie.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Yesterday Paul Schrader received the Maurice Kanbar Award from the festival as part of its gala awards presentation night. Tonight he holds court at the Kabuki's screen 1, to speak about his career and present a screening of his brilliant Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters from the digital master from which the Criterion DVD was made (the last 35mm print I saw of this film was extremely beat-up, although still quite effective.) Today's also the last screening of Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which is like Jauja at RUSH status.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Man From Reno, a Bay Area-shot feature from the director of Surrogate Valentine screens this week at various Frisco Bay cinemas; today it's at the Roxie, the 4-Star and the New Parkway.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

A scene from Diao Yinan's BLACK COAL THIN ICE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
WHO: Liao Fan (last seen in Jackie Chan's dreadful CZ12) won the Best Actor prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival for his role in this. (He's the one lighting up in the above photo.)

WHAT: It's interesting to contrast this somber procedural, the third feature by Beijing-based filmmaker Diao Yinan, against an earlier wave of Chinese-language crime movies that came up in the post-film presentation with Film Workshop's Nansun Shi after her and her husband Tsui Hark's Taking of Tiger Mountain at the festival yesterday. In the late-eighties Hong Kong thrillers directed by the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam, Hollywood stylistic influences are worn loudly and brightly (and taken to sometimes absurd levels), while cops exude a kind of glamorous cool even as they commit objectively despicable acts. It's elements like this that I feel may give some credence to James Naremore's suggestion that the North American vogue for Hong Kong action in the 1990s was "indulging in fin de siècle Orientalism," although I personally feel there was a lot more to it than that- a topic for another discussion at another time.

It may be overly-obvious to state that a film like Black Coal, Thin Ice feels far more attuned to international arthouse than pop cinema, both formally and thematically (although these inseparable realms in fact reinforce each other). There's far more ambiguity in this moral universe, and Liao's role as Zhang is that of a real neo-noir protagonist; one that appears more pathetic than glamorous. When we first meet him, he's at a train station seeing off his former wife, and can't help but try to force himself on her one last time before she leaves his life for good. It's like the opposite of a "save the cat" gesture intended to make audiences like an on-screen character better. For the rest of the film, we hang on the open question of whether we're going to find anything redeeming about this authority figure, as much or more than we wonder what the solution to the gruesome mystery at the center of the plot: who is chopping up human bodies and disposing of their pieces in a coal plant.

It's a grim film, but a highly compelling one, set in eye-opening industrial urban landscapes and punctuated by impactful moments contrasting with the rest of the methodical, clinical tone, such as sudden burst of violent action in the midst of a wrong turn in the investigation, or an almost tender close up on Zhang and a female character, chillingly coming right after the most overt visual reference to Carol Reed's The Third Man in the film, of the several noted by John Berra. Though Black Coal, Thin Ice isn't quite up to the standards of that landmark of British and indeed international cinema, it's a worthwhile genre piece that will be giving scholars much to pick over as it's discussed in the context of a rapidly-transforming nation in the coming years.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 6PM today at the Clay, and 9:15 PM Wednesday at the Kabuki as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: If you've been seeing just one SFIFF film per day following my daily picks, you haven't seen anything made outside of the United States of America yet. And this is supposed to be an international film festival? I haven't crunched numbers yet, but I do get the sense that U.S. (mostly independent and underground, not Hollywood, of course) films are taking a more generous share of the attention at the festival this year, and I'm sorry to perpetuate that. My excuse: wanting to write about films I've seen rather than those I haven't each day; I'll be able to weigh in on more foreign titles as the festival rolls on. Anyway, I'm glad to finally get the ball rolling with a film from China, which has five titles listed in the SFIFF's "country index" in the back of its catalog. Others include The Taking of Tiger Mountain (mentioned above and playing again on Thursday), Peter Ho-sun Chan's Dearest (also screening Thursday), an American-made no-budget documentary on the Chinese rail system called The Iron Ministry (screening again May 4). There are two more chances to see Red Amnesia, another thriller that seems a productive pairing with Black Coal, Thin Ice as it was made by a director (Wang Xiaoshuai) just three years older than Diao; their two films even share the same editor, Yang Hongyu!

HOW: DCP presentation.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today is the final festival screening of the German film Stations of the Cross and of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live! with director Jody Shapiro, not to mention its titular cinema-royalty star, in attendance.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The Roxie Cinema is screening a week-long engagement of the (human) injury-plagued 1981 cult classic Roar. Tonight it screens at the "Big Roxie" (as opposed to the smaller-screened "Little Roxie" two doors down) at 9:15.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Iris (2014)

A scene from Albert Maysles' IRIS, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: The late Albert Maysles directed this.

WHAT: I'm allowed to write no more than a seventy-five word review of this film during the festival; because of its "Hold Review" status I'm supposed to wait until its upcoming commercial release to say more. So here goes:

Manhattan's fearlessly original, supremely quoteable, style maven-about-town Iris Apfel and centenarian husband Carl prove ideal subjects for Maysles' perhaps most poptacular documentary, the last released before his March passing. I doubt it's merely the theme of exuberance in the face of mortality that makes it seem like he's filming a mirror; the fly even comes off the wall for a few warmly unguarded moments. Wear your craziest outfit to this one.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 1PM today only in House 1 of the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). It also opens commercially on May 8th for a (minimum) week-long engagement at the Opera Plaza, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

WHY: With this going into general release so soon, you may be tempted to schedule another screening in its timeslot and see it in a couple weeks. The main reason why this is not a perfectly good idea is that the day Iris is released commercially, the day after SFIFF ends, is the first day of a seven-day festival of Maysles documentaries at the Vogue Theatre, coinciding precisely with the seven days it's booked at the above venues. I mentioned this Maysles series in a post last month, but now the entire schedule of sixteen features and shorts has been posted online and tickets are already on sale. Although the series is all-digital, it includes many guest appearances by Maysles associates. I don't think any true admirer of Maysles life and work will want to go into this week-long event without having seen Iris first.

HOW: Digital presentations at each venue.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today is the only festival screening of Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, with director and star Gaspard Uillel both expected to attend the Castro showing. It's also the final showing of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, at the Pacific Film Archive, and the first showing of Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain at the Kabuki.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: The last double-bill in Yerba Buena Center For the Arts' Noir Westerns series may or not be noir, but it's a powerhouse: John Ford's masterful (yet somehow today undervalued) The Searchers and the first of Anthony Mann's cycle of gritty treatises on American civilization starring Jimmy Stewart, Winchester '73, both in 35mm prints.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Pattern For Survival (2015)

A scene from Kelly Sears' A PATTERN FOR SURVIVAL, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Kelly Sears made this.

WHAT: Sears is an animator who admits she's "not actually interested in learning how to draw" and therefore has embraced the cut-out animation tradition as a method of creating moving image work. I think I've seen nine of her completed short video works in about that many years; she's made double that in this time, so I know I'm operating half-blind when I make generalizations about her oeuvre. But from what I've seen, Sears is an excellent summoner of moods, plucking seemingly-ephemeral images out from still and motion-picture wastepiles and placing them in haunted dreamscapes invoking feelings like dread or dismay. But when I think back to the movies she's presented over the years, I tend to recall their image compositions first, their sonic environments second, and their actual motion component a distant third. Her most memorable animated moments have often been very subtle, as with Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise, or slow, as with The Drift.

With A Pattern For Survival, Sears has created her first (that I've seen) truly indelible movement study, putting an ingenious twist on her usual techniques of animating frozen moments from the flat and lifeless pages of periodicals, or of extracting frames from non-fiction films and reconfiguring them for her own narrative purposes. Here she takes photographs and drawings from old catalogs and how-to-manuals and overlays them into simple trembles resembling certain .gif art or even the chronophotographes of Étienne-Jules Marey. These images were always intended to be juxtaposed in space and not time, but are natural graphical matches, and thus feel as if they've been reunited by Sears like long lost sisters or brothers who never knew their siblings existed. They are joined with decontextualized quotes from what appears to be a 23-year-old edition of a U.S. Army wilderness survival manual, reflecting their thematic content (e.g. exercise, food preparation, weapon usage, and, as seen in the above image, first aid.) Without the voice-over found in many of Sears' prior works, the resulting narrative is relatively ambiguous, and I found myself imagining little narratives about each image's own original creation. Was the artist who drew each of three sportswear models tracing from the same original image? Was the photographer who shot a wound dressing documenting two close-to-consecutive points in a real-time motion, or was there a restaging involved? These images appear to be survivors from the site of some past trauma, but are they really?

WHERE/WHEN: Screens as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF)'s animated shorts program at the Kabuki tonight at 9:30 and May 3rd at 1:30.

WHY: The tradition of animated films playing the SFIFF goes back to the festival's very first iteration in 1957, when John Halas's fun History of the Cinema and Bill Justice and Wolfgang Reitherman's soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated The Truth About Mother Goose screened amidst a program better remembered for its collection of art-cinema classics: Pather Panchali, Throne of Blood, Death of a Cyclist, etc. Over the years I've attended the festival, I've been fortunate to see screenings of great animations of both the feature-length (Spirited Away) and short form (Das Rad, Tyger, Verses) variety. This year I believe the only feature film prominently featuring animation is the live-action hybrid Luna, but there are several short film programs featuring animated work, including the Youth Works program, with the South Korean Godong's Party, the Family Films program, which is 80% kid-friendly animation (the other 20% being kid-friendly live action), and the Cibo Matto New Scene program, in which unnamed "animation by Calvin Frederick, Una Lorenzen, Miwa Matreyek and Grace Nayoon Rhee" and a 35mm print of Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema are part of an eclectic set of films (also including Yoko Ono's Fly) getting new live soundtracks thanks to the Japanese-expatriate alt-pop duo.

The only 100% animated screening in the 2015 SFIFF, however, is the Shorts 3 program playing tonight and a week from Sunday. Unlike previous years this program doesn't appear to be available for advance press viewing, but I'm such an admirer of a few of the animators involved that I'm almost willing to vouch for their works unseen. Don Hertzfeldt's newest, The World of Tomorrow, for instance, is one of my most highly-anticipated local premieres in the festival. The reliable Bill Plympton (whose feature-length Cheatin' still has a few more scheduled shows at the Roxie this weekend) is represented by a new work called Footprints. I was able to get an advance look at A Pattern For Survival because it was part of last Saturday's Other Cinema program at the Mission's somehow-still-surviving Artists' Television Access. It was the highlight of a very strong pre-intermission set of new work (after the intermission we were treated to classics from animators Lillian Schwartz and Mary Ellen Bute, as well as a terrific dual-projector performance from Other Cinema honcho Craig Baldwin himself!)

HOW: A Pattern For Survival, like the rest of the Shorts 3 program, will screen digitally.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: I'm not missing the 35mm Castro screening of Barbara Loden's Wanda this afternoon for the world; it's the sole SFIFF showing of this rarely-viewed film made 45 years ago. Today is also the only SFIFF screening of Guy Maddin's latest, The Forbidden Room, at the Kabuki, which unfortunately conflicts with Guillermo Del Toro's award presentation at the Castro and (digital) screening of The Devil's Backbone, which happens to be the first foreign-language film screening alongside a SFIFF Director's Award presentation since Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us back in 2000.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Tonight Other Cinema features another animation-heavy program; one focusing on animated documentary selected by local academic Jeffrey Skoller. It includes one brilliant piece I saw at a prior SFIFF edition, Ken Jacobs' Capitalism: Child Labor. I can't resist noting that this glasses-free 3D animation is also part of a big Brooklyn retrospective of 21st Century stereoscopic cinema that also includes a Chromadepth 3D video by local filmmaker (my girlfriend) Kerry Laitala. Tell your New York friends!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ed & Pauline (2014)

Screen capture from trailer.
WHO: Famed film critic Pauline Kael and lesser-known film exhibitor Ed Landberg are the two subjects of this short documentary.

WHAT: If you've spent much time traveling in Frisco Bay cinema circles you've probably at some point heard that Pauline Kael was, before making an indelible mark on English-language film criticism, an important force in the local moviegoing scene. Kael was born in Petaluma, educated officially at the now-defunct San Francisco Girls' High School and UC Berkeley, and cinematically at places like (according to Brian Kellow's 2011 biography) "the Fox, the Roxie, the Castro and...the Paramount over in Oakland." She fell in with the San Francisco Renaissance crowd, living with and ultimately bearing a child by experimental filmmaker James Broughton.

Ed & Pauline, co-directed by former San Francisco residents Christian Bruno and Natalija Vekic, takes up at about this point, referencing Broughton only by still photograph and their daughter Gina only by a moment in the narration when Kael is described as a "single mother". For someone who has gleaned only the barest outlines of this period in Kael's life, this 18-minute documentary appears to do a wonderful job painting a richer portrait of how her early work as a freelance film critic in magazines and at the influential radio station KPFA led to her involvement with Landberg. In 1952 he had founded the Cinema Guild near the corner of Haste and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and which he (erroneously) liked to claim as the country's first twin-screen cinema. At any rate it was Berkeley's first repertory house and an early training ground for future Frisco Bay exhibitors like Sheldon Renan, Tom Luddy, Mike Thomas, and Bill Banning, each of whom are interviewed on-camera here (joined by more widely-recognizable figures like J. Hoberman and John Waters). Kael and Landberg formed a dual partnership: she began writing program notes for the Cinema Guild screenings, and later selecting the films to screen as well, and they got married. Both partnerships were fleeting.

Though this film's generous archival footage, engaging interview clips, and understated re-enactments might make it a fine brief introduction to the history of arthouse culture for a casual moviegoer, for a cinephile it's also tremendous fun to hear choice snippets of Kael's discussions of certain landmark films such as Letter From an Unknown WomanPassion of Joan of Arc and Night of the Hunter as scans of old Cinema Guild calendars are flipped through. Keen eyes will pick out the recurring auteur names (Chaplin, Renoir, Bergman, Flaherty, McLaren...) and feel a greater sense of the primordial cinema scene from which came the eventual champion of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma.

Kael is much better known than Landberg, of course, but his part of the story is equally prominent, in part because Bruno and Vekic were able to interview him and even have him revisit the section of Telegraph where his cinema once stood (since filming, even the cafe that replaced it has been demolished). If, as Tom Luddy relates, Landberg was "the first exhibitor in this country to show Ozu in a truly crusading way" then as far as I'm concerned he's a genuine unsung hero.

One quote from Ed & Pauline particularly stood out for me. Mike Thomas, who would go on to run the Strand on San Francisco's Market Street, notes that "it's hard to imagine when these films were not all around us, but they were more legendary, than anybody actually got a chance to see them." For those of us who haven't fully embraced the ethereal future of all-digital cinephilia there's a deep sense of the loss of the screening as an unrepeatable event. Wayfinders like Kael and Landberg helped thirsty moviegoers locate water in the desert. Now we all can swim in an ocean, but are in no less need of divining rods to help us find fresh drink.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:30 tonight at the Pacific Film Archive, 1:00 on May 2nd at the Clay, and 6:15 on May 4th at the Kabuki, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

WHY: Tonight's screening is the only one happening in Berkeley, mere blocks from the Cinema Guild itself (and the scene of the crime of my first exposure to Kael's program notes, which I actually prefer to her reviews.) If you can fit it into your schedule you won't be sorry; I understand the filmmakers are expected to be present as well (I'm not sure if they'll still be in town for the later, San Francisco screenings).

But seeing this film at the SFIFF at all feels particularly vital as a stand for an institution proving it harbors no grudges- at least not after 54 years. Kellow's book on Kael devotes a paragraph to her withering opinion of the festival circa 1961: that "those who had paid $2.50, expecting to see a movie of quality, emerged from the festival 'sleepy and bored, asking, how could they have picked that movie?'" Especially harsh words about a year in which Jean Cocteau's The Testament of Orpheus, Luis Buñuel's Viridiana and Kent MacKenzie's The Exiles were all screened.

HOW: Ed & Pauline screens in front of a documentary co-directed by Gina Leibrecht and the late Les Blank, who worked together on 2007's All In This Tea; this new film is called How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock at his Farm in Normandy, a title self-explanatory to anyone who knows about Leacock, one of the instrumental figures along with D.A. Pennebaker and David and Albert Maysles in revolutionizing non-fiction filmmaking in the post-World War II era.  Both films show digitally.

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: Today's the sole SFIFF screenings of Liz Garbus's documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? about the phenomenal singer, playing at the Castro, and of the first of the "Dark Wave" midnight-ish screenings at the Roxie, Cop Car. It's also the first festival screening of Lisandro Alonso's critically-acclaimed Jauja at the Clay.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window screens at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland tonight.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine (2015)

A scene from Alex Gibney's STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
WHO: Alex Gibney directed and co-produced this documentary in between his recent Scientology exposé Going Clear and his upcoming Sinatra: All or Nothing at All. It's all in a season's work for a man who has director credit on about two dozen non-fiction releases since busting onto the scene as a feature documentary director ten years ago with Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room.

WHAT: Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine hasn't screened publicly anywhere since its world premiere last month at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX, as far as I can tell. It was that screening that prompted Ryan Lattanzio of Indiewire to write:
This bracing film at first seduces you with the charms of the man, and then guts you with what a tricky riddle he was, an at-times sociopathic mogul who flew close to the Sun, touched it and never quite fell as he should have.
I'm curious about this documentary, although as Kelly Vance notes at the tail end of his epic East Bay Express SFIFF preview, Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine "is neither the first nor the last movie to capitalize on the late Apple godhead's popularity." I doubt it will be able to supplant this concise video as my own personal favorite moving image take on the Apple founder and his legacy.

WHERE/WHEN: 7:00 tonight at the Castro Theatre, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF)

WHY: Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine is the opening-night film of the "longest-running film festival in the Americas" as David Hudson calls SFIFF in his essential Keyframe Daily preview. Last year I attended this festival's opening-night event for the first time ever, after writing a bit on why I hadn't ever done so before. Unfortunately I picked a bit of a dud year to finally walk down the red carpet, as Two Faces of January, while showcasing its actors and locations nicely enough, was ultimately a rather dull and predictable thriller and a disappointing directorial debut by a strong screenwriter. Still, it was nice to see what kind of a crowd the festival was able to assemble at the Castro; familiar faces from just about all corners of the Frisco Bay film scene (excepting, perhaps, the 35mm purists) were gathered together to watch a film that ended up being one of the least-memorable of the year. A bit of a waste, really.

Opening the festival with a documentary by a proven director seems a much safer choice, but in some ways it's quite a bold one; since SFIFF first appeared on my radar screen in the late 1990s, the festival has always selected a narrative feature to kick off its fifteen days of screenings. I should ask Michael Hawley, whose memory as an attendee goes back much farther, how long this tradition goes back, but at least in the past twenty years there has never been a documentary screened on SFIFF's opening night. Which is perhaps a bit strange considering that local film festival audiences tend to collectively eat up documentaries like they're scoops of ice cream in danger of melting in the hot sun. This year's crop at SFIFF also includes highly-anticipated non-fiction works like The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up The Look of Silence, the late Albert Maysles' Iris, and from locals, Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers Vanguard of the Revolution and Jenni Olson's experimental doc The Royal Road (which, full-disclosure, I contributed to the crowd-funding campaign for).

It's always fun to see a movie in a packed Castro Theatre, though (in just about every way except for the line for the restroom), so I hope I can make it to quite a few festival screenings there even if I miss tonight's show. This year the festival's using the 1922-built venue for more screenings than it has in the recent past, including three six more showings over the upcoming weekend, each of which is highlighted among the festival's own opening weekend picks. I will definitely be there for the Saturday afternoon showing of Barbara Loden's sole directing effort Wanda, one of the three films expected to screen via 35mm print in the whole festival, and a film that's been high on my to-see list for years, and even more so since I was out of town during its last San Francisco screening.

HOW: Digital projection.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece Trouble in Paradise screens in 35mm at the Stanford Theatre along with Rouben Mamoulian's flawed but interesting (and containing the most sublime Russian Easter scene ever filmed, surely) Tolstoy adaptation We Live Again. It's the midway point of the Stanford Theatre's ongoing series of Lubitsch/Mamoulian pairings every Wednesday and Thursday.