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.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 9: Midnight Traveler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 8: Aniara

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 7: Confidence Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 14, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 5: Winter's Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 13, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 4: The Grand Bizarre

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 12, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 3: The Sisters Brothers

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

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star in the Western The Sisters Brothers, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
The Sisters Brothers (FRANCE/SPAIN/USA/ROMANIA/BELGIUM: Jacques Audiard, 2018)
playing: 7:00 tonight only at the Castro

A year and a half ago, attending a SF Opera production inspired me to wonder on twitter why there have been so many great movies made about the Klondike Gold Rush, from Chaplin's canonical classic to my personal favorite, The Far Country, to more recent entries like Dawson City: Frozen Time, but none (that I've seen) devoted to the famous California Gold Rush of 1848-1855 that played such an important role in the growth of Northern California cities and towns, including of course San Francisco. I noted that I hadn't seen Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (a former San Francisco International Film Festival closing film) but that I understand it's set later than the real height of the era, that Antonia Bird's Sierra horror movie Ravenous is set before the era, and that I'm not a particular fan of Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (being filmed with Idaho standing in for the Sierra foothills being the least of the problems I had with it on a single viewing, though I'd be open to revisiting it, especially if a 35mm prints came around sometime.) Others suggested Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is great but set in Washington State, and Thomas Carr's The Forty-Niners, which I haven't seen for myself. I'll certainly allow that there may be a forty-niner movie as good as The Gold Rush or The Far Country, but that I simply have yet to run across it.

But assuming I haven't just failed to strike the right mother lode, I'd guess the main reason for a comparative lack of great gold fever movies set in the Golden State than in The Land of the Midnight Sun is because the later can be easily visualized by filmmakers because of the contemporaneous actualities that were made during the period; the California Gold Rush of course predates the invention of the motion picture by several decades. But though 1840s & 50s California may have lacked movie cameras, there was certainly no lack of dramatic situations. So it's rather ironic that the first relevant movie I saw since composing that twitter thread was based on a book praised by some reviewers for eschewing deep historical research. I would call The Sisters Brothers a pretty good California Gold Rush movie, not a great one disproving my original position. Again, it's not really such a problem that it includes severe historical inaccuracies like including a scene at Folsom Lake, which didn't exist before Folsom Dam was erected in 1955 (just a hundred years or so too late). But its various plot threads don't ever really feel like they add up to that much.

That doesn't mean it's not a gorgeous film, or that it doesn't contain wonderful performances, including a terrific dramatic turn from John C. Reilly, an actor I first took note of in Paul Thomas Anderson's early drama Hard Eight, but who is much better known these days for his ability to carry comedies like Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story and Cyrus. In fact I saw The Sisters Brothers on one of the Castro Theatre's semi-perverse double-features, in this case with Step Brothers, also starring Reilly. And I'm not surprised to see that, of these two fraternal features, SFFILM was always more likely to pick the more (though not entirely) serious-minded one to accompany its award presentation to an underappreciated actor. I always applaud efforts to bring more Westerns to the big screen, and The Sisters Brothers is certainly at least as good as any new ones I've seen in the wake of The Lone Ranger. And how can an organization that calls its annual prizes the Golden Gate Awards pass up a chance to show a movie like this at this moment, which Rebecca Solnit identified as a modern-day San Francisco Gold Rush six years ago, and which hasn't felt any less like a boom town since?

SFFILM62 Day 3
Other festival options: For those of us dying to hear more Stuart Staples music after last night's screening of High Life, today's biggest must-see may be the first of two festival showings of Minute Bodies: The Intimate Lives of F. Percy Smith, an investigation of the early-cinema non-fiction pioneer probably best known for his 1908 film The Acrobatic Fly. Not only is Staples (a.k.a. the lead Tinderstick) the musical guide for this "Vanguard" section selection, he's credited as its director. It shows at YBCA tonight, followed by the first festival showing of A Useful Life director Federico Veiroj's latest Belmonte.

Non-SFFILM option: On the subject of great mining movies, one of my very favorite things seen at last year's SFFILM edition is making a return appearance tonight only: Robert Greene's brilliantly re-enactment-heavy (and I normally loathe re-enactments) documentary about labor history in an Arizona mining town, Bisbee '17. This FREE outdoor showing launches the Spring series of Friday night screenings at ProxySF in Hayes Valley; other SFFILM alumni in this set include The Miseducation of Cameron Post  April 26th and Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. May 10.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 2: High Life

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

A still from Claire Denis's High Life, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
High Life (FRANCE/GERMANY/UK/POLAND/USA: Claire Denis, 2018)
playing: 8:00 tonight only at the Victoria

I was able to see an advance screening of High Life, which opens for at least a week-long engagement tonight at theatres around San Francisco, as well as screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival. But I don't think Claire Denis, responsible for amazing films such as Beau Travail, Friday Night and 35 Shots of Rum, is expected to be on hand for any of the showings at the Embarcadero, Kabuki, etc. The first tickets I bought to a festival event this year, long before my press credentials were confirmed, was to see one of my very favorite working directors appear at a SFFILM event along with a showing of her latest; at least two previous attempts to bring Denis to the festival or a festival-sponsored event (in 2011 and 2018) were fruitless but tonight should mark the long-awaited ripening of that strawberry.

Strawberries figure into High Life, which features several key scenes in a garden tended by the prisoners living aboard a spacecraft heading directly toward a black hole. Like Denis's L'Intrus (like the aforementioned trio, also a film that made its local premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival) it's the kind of enigmatic, expectation-confounding movie that defies being reviewed after having been seen only once, although Durga Chew-Bose has made an excellent first stab. (I'm assuming her article's title indicates she hadn't seen High Life more than once before writing it.) It's part of why I'm so glad to get another chance tonight. I suspect many Frisco Bay Denis fans for whom tonight's screening is their first will want to make time during the festival to attend another, non-festival, showing somewhere. I'm an advocate of balancing film festival attendance with other screenings, which is why my daily fest picks will always include a "Non-SFFILM option" paragraph at the bottom.

I've heard grumblings from Denis aficionados about the festival's choice of venue for tonight's event; the Victoria is not a year-round cinema space and it has in some past years proven less than satisfactory in its presentation quality, especially in the sound department. If last year's presentation of First Reformed there is any indication, however, such fears should be relatively unfounded. Like Paul Schrader's feature (one of my favorites of last year) also distributed by A24, High Life revels in the digital video aesthetic, never attempting to mimic celluloid filmic textures. Denis and her director of photography Yorick Le Saux create a cool, synthetic aesthetic to establish High Life's setting. It's also entirely in English (many people calling it her first English-language feature are forgetting how much of Trouble Every Day is uttered in English, but even that film had a few subtitled moments) thus making the sight-line issues from certain spots in the theatre less problematic. And unless the 2019 sound set-up isn't as good as what the Victoria had installed for First Reformed and other 2018 festival screenings, I expect we'll be able to hear Juliette Binoche's, André Benjamin's and Robert Pattinson's dialogue as well as we did Amanda Seyfried's, Cedric the Entertainer's and Ethan Hawke's last year. The same should go for Stuart Staples/Tindersticks' music compared to Brian Williams/Lustmord's.

Between the guest and the movie, you can see why I had to feature High Life as my daily pick of the festival. The only drawback is that the show has long since gone to RUSH status, meaning that advance tickets for the public have all sold and anyone who wants to get a ticket tonight will have to wait in a line in hopes of a lucky break. My experience with SFFILM RUSH lines is that it's rare that you need that much luck however; an hour or so of waiting ought to do it. But given the rarity of a Denis in-person appearance in Frisco Bay, I'm not sure the standard advice will hold this time. Luckily, my daily always include other promising festival options. Read on...

SFFILM62 Day 2
Other festival options: This year's SFFILM edition includes four films screening in 35mm prints, and two of them are tonight. One, Tamara Jenkins' under-discussed The Savages is showing as part of a Laura Linney tribute, and like High Life is currently at RUSH status. The other, Jodie Mack's inventive animated experimental documentary The Grand Bizarre is the only brand-new 35mm film screening at the festival; it shows 6PM tonight at YBCA and has two more future festival screenings.

Speaking of RUSH status, tonight's BAMPFA screening of First Night Nerves is the only one of three festival showing of this particular movie NOT currently at RUSH status. Director Stanley Kwan (perhaps best known for his Ruan Ling-yu biopic Centre Stage) is expected to be in attendance.

Non-SFFILM option: If you missed local artist and educator Jeremy Rourke's 2017 hybrid animation/documentary/performance work I'll Be Around when he staged it a year and a half ago, you simply have to go to Artists' Television Access tonight at 8PM to see him re-stage it. It's a site-specific piece so it's better to see it at ATA than anywhere else it might be performed. Here's a short review from Kristin Cato.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

I Only Have Two Eyes 2018*

Screen capture from HBO DVD of The Holy Girl
The past two or so years have been full of life changes for the proprietor of this blog. After well over a decade scraping together a living by working in part-time positions, I secured a full-time position working in an academic library in late 2016. In mid-2017 I moved in with my incredible girlfriend (filmmaker, photographer and installation artist Kerry Laitala) and our two tuxedo cats, Sherlock and Watson. Kerry I got married in her Maine hometown in July, 2018. The elation from these wonderful highlights have been somewhat tempered, of course, by far darker events, including the deaths of friends and family members, and the day-to-day dispiriting melancholy of living in a rapidly-transforming city that nonetheless still feels like some kind of oasis in the hellscape that our nation has become under our federal political regime.

Which is all to say, though I still try to take advantage of the unique screening opportunities offered in the Bay Area (here's a rundown of my favorite newer moving image works of last year), making time to blog at Hell On Frisco Bay has become a comparatively low priority; I didn't even run my annual survey of the best repertory presentations this time last year, interrupting a ten year streak of collecting and posting cinephile reactions to a year of viewing films from the past in the cinematic spaces of the present.

But I'm back with another great set of lists from perceptive viewers of time-tested classics and unearthed gems during the year 2018. And I've even invited folks to name favorites from 2017 as well, to make up for my uncompiled year. That's why I'm calling this year's iteration "I Only Have Two Eyes 2018*"- the asterisk indicating that a few of the following links (marked with an *) will lead to lists (or in one case, a single title) of films seen in 2017 as well as 2018. This will be the "hub page" for this year's project, and the list of participants below will grow every day until I publish my own list.

02/06/19:   Monica Nolan, author and contributor to festival program guides
02/07/19*: John Slattery, a filmmaker based in Berkeley
02/07/19:   Lucy Laird, a writer, editor, and co-producer of Nerd Nite San Francisco
02/08/19:   David Robson, proprietor of the House of Sparrows blog
02/08/19:   Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, educator, writer and host of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS
02/09/19:   Joel Shepard, independent film programmer; his blog archive is well-worth perusal
02/09/19:   Claire Bain, San Francisco-based artist
02/10/19:   Terri Saul, Berkeley-based artist and writer
02/10/19:   Carl Martin, who maintains the invaluable Bay Area Film Calendar
02/11/19:   Michael Fox, who writes for KQED Arts & hosts screenings at the Mechanics' Institute
02/11/19*: Ian Rice, part of the ATA@SFPL curatorial committee behind screenings like this
02/12/19:   Frako Loden, educator and writer for www.documentary.org and elsewhere
02/12/19:   Ben Armington, ticket-selling maestro for Box Cubed
02/13/19:   Lincoln Spector, who founded and continues to maintain the venerable Bayflicks site
02/14/19:   Michael Hawley, cinephile and blogger at film-415
02/21/19:   Brian Darr- that's me!