Thursday, October 6, 2016
Round about five years ago, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) began expanding its well-established mix of Awards Season contenders, docs and programmers' discoveries to include a sizable number of prize-winners and big buzz films from Cannes and Berlin. To witness, the fest's 39th edition boasts an unprecedented nine selections from Cannes' competition as well as an autograph collector's wet dream of celebrated actors and filmmakers set to stroll its red carpet. In my ten years of covering MVFF for this blog, I've never seen it so chock full of films I'm hot to see. Here's an overview of what's got me excited, with brief thoughts on some films I've previewed. (San Francisco theatrical release dates are noted where known.)
Spanning 114 features and 88 shorts from 37 countries, the Bay Area's second largest film festival takes off on Thursday, October 6 with dueling opening night presentations. Over at the CinéArts Sequoia in Mill Valley, Toronto audience winner La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a roundly raved-about modern musical. I wasn't taken with director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, so color me hopeful, yet skeptical about this early Best Picture Oscar contender. Stone and Chazelle are expected to attend. The evening's other viewing opportunity is Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which plays the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. Special festival guest Amy Adams stars as a linguistics professor called upon to communicate with newly-arrived space aliens. It'll be a bittersweet night for the Century Cinema, as Marin County's largest single-screen cinema prepares to close its doors and make way for a Scandinavian Designs store. The beloved movie house will also host a Star Wars Trilogy Event on Saturday, October 8 and then close for good after Sunday night's Nicole Kidman tribute, featuring an on-stage conversation with the actress and screening of her new film, Lion.
MVFF concludes 11 days later with Jeff Nichol's Loving, which premiered in competition at Cannes. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard Loving, the real-life couple whose interracial marriage in Virginia lead to the Supreme Court decision banning all anti-miscegenation statutes. The director and both stars will be on hand for a Q&A. The film also opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on November 11. Giving Loving some stiff competition on closing night will be a just-announced screening of Pablo Larraín's Jackie at the Century Larkspur. Critics are calling Natalie Portman's turn as Jackie O in the days following JFK's assassination as the performance to beat for this year's Best Actress Oscar. It's the Chilean filmmaker's first English-language film and it follows his string of darkly comic arthouse movies that includes Tony Manero, The Club (MVFF38) and 2012's Oscar-nominated No. Larraín will attend the Jackie screening and be presented with the Variety International Director of the Year Award.
MVFF also showcases Neruda, Pablo Larraín's other biopic-of-sorts from 2016. It premiered in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and arrives at MVFF as a part of a Spotlight on Gael Garcia Bernal. The Mexican actor (and sometime director) will take part in an on-stage conversation before Larraín's fanciful, yet politically pointed film set in Chile immediately after WWII. It's perhaps Bernal's most challenging role to date, wherein he plays an imaginary police inspector in dogged pursuit of the communist poet who's been reluctantly forced underground. The actor makes an additional festival appearance in the Mexican rom-com You're Killing Me, Susanna.
¡Viva el Cine! is the MVFF39 sidebar where we encounter Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta and Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius, both of which competed at Cannes. While Kleber's Aquarius isn't as audaciously inventive as his 2012 debut, Neighboring Sounds, it takes on the same issues of race and class in contemporary Brazil. The film contains one of the year's great cinematic character studies in Sonia Braga's Clara, a retired Recife writer battling developers who want to tear down the beachfront apartment building where she's the last remaining resident. Aquarius is perhaps overlong at 142 minutes, but a powerfully gratifying denouement makes the slow journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, the film became embroiled in a nasty political controversy, which prevented it from becoming Brazil's Oscar submission. (Chile on the other hand, has proudly submitted Neruda). Aquarius opens at Landmark Theatres Clay Theatre on October 28, with Braga appearing in person at select Bay Area screenings. Almodóvar's Julieta also hits the Clay on January 6.
Two additional ¡Viva el Cine! selections I've previewed are recommended. In the searingly intense The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, a family man must decide whether to risk his safety by warning two strangers of their imminent arrest in the days of Argentina's Dirty War. I'd love to hear what others think about the film's cryptic ending. In stark contrast, Icaros: A Vision is set in a laid-back ayahuasca retreat deep in the Peruvian Amazon. The film observes the spiritual journeys of several Western "passengers" seeking enlightenment via hallucinogens, as well as the plight of a shaman's assistant who's slowly losing his vision. It was a welcome surprise to find Italian actor Filippo Timi, best known for his portrayal of Mussolini in Vincere, among the film's cast.
In addition to Pablo Larraín and Gael Garcia Bernal, MVFF attendees can serve themselves double helpings of Jim Jarmusch and Isabelle Huppert. Jarmusch's well-received Cannes competition title Paterson stars Adam Driver as a low-key Paterson, NJ bus driver who writes poetry he shares with his wife, played by esteemed Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly). Cannes is also where the director premiered Gimme Danger, his documentary on punk progenitors Iggy Pop and The Stooges that will open at Landmark Theatre's Opera Plaza on November 4. Huppert turned in a pair of wildly acclaimed performances in 2016 and MVFF has both. Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come premiered at Berlin and stars Huppert as a slightly unmoored philosophy professor who begins discovering new life possibilities. The actress also commands the lead role in Elle, a rape-revenge psychological thriller which is the never-dull Paul Verhoeven's first feature since 2006's Black Book. Elle premiered in Cannes' competition and opens locally at Landmark Theatre's Embarcadero Cinema on November 18. It's also France's official Oscar submission.
MVFF is often the first opportunity for Bay Area cinephiles to catch Cannes' prize-winners. This year's Palme d'Or went to Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, marking the second time the socially conscious British director has won international art cinema's top prize. The jury's choice was a controversial one, however, as the award had been fully expected to go to Maren Ade's German comedy Toni Erdmann. The director's first film since 2009's Everybody Else was hands down the most critically acclaimed movie at the festival, but the jury shockingly awarded it zilch. Toni Erdmann is the film I most eagerly anticipate at the fest and it opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on January 20 should I want to revisit it. The other Cannes prize winner on offer is Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, which was awarded Best Actor and Best Screenplay. It's a startling familial drama that's every bit as compelling as the Iranian director's 2011 Oscar-winning A Separation. The story centers on the emotional fallout experienced by a married couple following a mistaken identity home invasion. While the movie's title derives from the fact that the couple are acting in a local theater production of Death of a Salesman, I couldn't make a connection with Arthur Miller's play much beyond that. The Salesman opens in the Bay Area on January 13, but I'd strongly recommend catching the October 7 MVFF screening where director Farhadi is expected to appear. Incidentally, Toni Erdmann and The Salesman are the respective 2016 Oscar submissions for Germany and Iran.
The final Cannes winner snagged for MVFF39 inclusion is The Red Turtle, which won a special prize in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar. This wordless, animated feature about a man shipwrecked on a deserted island marks the first time that venerated Japanese animation house, Studio Ghibli, has participated in an international co-production. Director Michael Dudok de Wit previously won an Oscar for his 2001 animated short, Father and Daughter, and The Red Turtle's screenplay was written by Pascale Ferran, director of the noted French features Lady Chatterley and Bird People. While I'm not much of an animation enthusiast, I did make sure to secure a ticket for this one.
MVFF39 has also gone out of its way to secure top prize winners from this year's Berlin Film Festival. The 2016 Golden Bear was awarded to Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi's documentary portrait of Lampedusa, the Sicilian island which serves as ground zero for immigration from Africa to Europe. Rosi, who also won Venice's Golden Lion three years ago with the doc Sacro GRA, will attend both MVFF showings of Fire at Sea. The film is tentatively scheduled to open at the Roxie Theater on November 11. As an avid fan of Balkan director Danis Tanovic (Cirkus Columbia, the Oscar-winning No Man's Land), I was thrilled the fest booked his Silver Bear-awarded Death in Sarajevo. Tanovic's latest is a multi-character political satire set in a troubled grand hotel, where E.U. representatives are arriving to celebrate the centenary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination. Berlin awarded its Silver Bear for Best Director to the aforementioned Mia Hansen-Løve for Things to Come. Two other Berlin selections worth considering are Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, and Doris Dörrie's Fukushima, Mon Amour, an alleged German "comedy" set within Japan's radioactive Exclusion Zone.
An enticing assortment of Asian films also awaits MVFF-goers, starting with Park Chan-wook's Cannes competition entry The Handmaiden. Based on a "sapphic Victorian potboiler" transposed to 1930's Japanese-occupied South Korea, Park's latest sees the director returning to the revenge genre of earlier films like 2003's Oldboy. Should you miss it at the fest, The Handmaiden opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28. I had the good fortune to preview and heartily recommend Hirokazu Kore-eda's After the Storm, which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. The humanist filmmaker's latest family drama is about a gambling-addicted novelist-turned-private detective who rides out a typhoon in his mother's apartment, accompanied by his adoring young son and bitter ex-wife. The film bears strong similarities to Kore-eda's 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, and not just because mother and adult son are once again played by Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe.
I also suggest not missing Lee Je-yong's The Bacchus Lady, which spotlights the issue of elderly South Korean women who survive by prostitution. (The film takes on a second social issue as well, but it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal here – just don't seek out the movie's original Korean title). The Bacchus Lady stars Yoon Yeo-jeong, well known for her films by Im Sang-soo and Hong Sang-soo, appearing here as a caustic streetwalker who takes in an abandoned boy. Director Lee is best recognized for 2003's Untold Scandal. Finally, The Eagle Huntress tells the tale of a plucky 13-year-old Mongolian girl who becomes, yes, a champion eagle huntress. While uplifting and gorgeous to look at, it stretches the term docu-drama to extreme limits. Every frame feels like a re-enactment. The movie opens at Landmark's Clay Theatre on November 4.
There are 30 non-fiction features at MVFF39 and as usual there's a strong emphasis on social issue and music documentaries. Fitting squarely in the first category are Company Town and Do Not Resist, both of which I've previewed and recommend. Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow's Company Town bears witness to the recent heated supervisorial race for San Francisco's District 2, which encompasses Chinatown and North Beach. The campaign pitted moderate Julie Christensen, backed by Mayor Ed Lee and fat-cat tech money (especially Air B&B) against returning progressive firebrand Aaron Peskin, a match-up that perfectly encapsulates the class struggles of today's San Francisco. The movie's guiding soul is Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a city native and current SF Examiner staff-writer whose own grandfather was evicted from his longtime Mission district home. Co-directors Kaufman and Snitow are scheduled to attend both MFVV screenings. Craig Atkinson's Do Not Resist effectively documents the grotesque and absurd militarization of America's local police departments and is expectedly alarming, heart-sickening and thoroughly essential viewing. Both docs show up again later this month at the Roxie Theatre, Do Not Resist on the 21st and Company Town on the 28th. I've also had a look at Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, a rich and all-encompassing survey of America's beloved poet, writer, dancer, performer and civil rights activist. While the film will ultimately show up on PBS (it was made for ITVS' American Masters series), it should be well worth seeing on a big screen with an audience. Following the MVFF screenings, it will see a local theatrical release at the AMC Van Ness 14 (of all places) on October 14.
Back in 2008 MVFF screened a terrific documentary called The Wrecking Crew, which chronicled the unsung L.A. studio musicians who played on zillions of 1960's pop hits. Due to the cost of securing music rights, the movie didn't see a theatrical release until 2015. This is my way of telling you, DO NOT MISS Bang: The Bert Burns Story when it plays this year's festival. For anyone with even a passing interest in 60's Pop and R&B music, this film is compulsory stuff. Born in the Bronx in 1929 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Bertrand Russell Berns would enter the music business at age 31 and almost single-handedly introduce Afro-Caribbean rhythms to American pop and R&B music. By the time he died in the final days of 1967 at age 38 (from lingering effects of adolescent rheumatic fever), he would write and/or produce 51 iconic chart singles. Indulge me while a list a few: "Twist and Shout," "A Little Bit of Soap," "Under the Boardwalk," "Tell Him," "Cry Baby," " Baby I'm Yours," "I Want Candy," "Hang On Sloopy," "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Piece of My Heart." When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller left Atlantic Records in 1963, Berns signed on as house producer and parlayed his success into the creation of his own label, Atlantic subsidiary Bang Records. How Berns used his mob connections to wrest control of Bang from the extortionate demands of Atlantic VP Jerry Wexler is one of many memorable yarns spun in the film.
Known as the "white soul brother," Berns seems to have been truly beloved by the R&B artists he produced, as evidenced by those who appear on camera testifying in his memory. A shortlist includes Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Ronald Isley, Wilson Picket and Cissy Houston of The Sweet Inspirations. The Exciters' lead singer Brenda Reid gives a glorious recounting of the recording session that produced the Berns-penned smash hit "Tell Him." Fellow songwriters Leiber and Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Jerry Ragovoy arrive with their own tales to tell, as do Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Van Morrison. The most poignant memories, however, come from Berns' wife Ilene, a former go-go dancer who found herself a widow and mother of three at age 24. She maintained Bang Records for another 12 years and spent her life carrying on Bert Berns' legacy. The doc's narration by Steven Van Zandt was written by Bay Area music scribe Joel Selvin, based on his 2014 book, "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of R&B." Berns' son Brett co-directed the film with established music doc maker Bob Sarles, both of whom will attend the festival. Following the October 11 screening, there will be a Bert Berns Tribute Concert at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley featuring the Flamin' Groovies and the great Betty Harris. (One of the film's most breathtaking sequences is actual footage of Harris' 1963 recording session of "It's Dark Outside," with Berns showing her exactly how he wants the acapella intro to be sung.)
MVFF's selection of new American films, representing both indie and indie-ish cinema, is where we find the bulk of the festival's eye-popping line-up of red carpet stars and filmmakers. Annette Bening, along with director Mike Mills and co-star Lucas Jade Zumann, appear at the Centerpiece screening of 20th Century Women, which arrives days after its NY Film Festival world premiere. Aaron Eckhart gets the MVFF Spotlight treatment for his latest Bleed for This, a boxing pic co-starring Miles Teller (Whiplash). Ewan McGregor comes to town with American Pastoral, an adaptation of Philip Roth's Pulitzer-winning novel that also marks the actor's directorial debut. (The film received truly awful reviews at Toronto and opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28). In Dubious Battle reps another outing for James Franco as both actor and director, this time adapting John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel about a California fruit pickers strike. The Bay Area native is expected to appear at the film's October 9 screening.
Some of the most critically praised U.S. films of 2016 arrive at MVFF with their directors in tow. Kelly Reichardt will be present for the October 8 screening of Certain Women, her contemporary portrait of four intrepid Montana women. Starring Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone, the film also opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins has received ecstatic reviews for his haunting, semi-autobiographical Moonlight, a Miami-set meditation on black masculinity set in three different time periods of a young man's life. Jenkins will be on hand for the October 10 screening. Moonlight arrives at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28. On October 14 MVFF pays tribute to director Julie Dash, whose seminal Daughters of the Dust was a key touchstone for Beyoncé's recent Lemonade project. The film has been completely restored for its 25th anniversary, and the festival's tribute will feature an on-stage conversation with Dash as well as a career-spanning clips reel. The restored Daughters of the Dust plays Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema starting on December 2.
Although director Kenneth Lonergan won't be in attendance, MVFF39 also offers an early opportunity to see the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck as a troubled man who reluctantly takes on guardianship of his teenage nephew. Affleck is being roundly touted as having the lead on this year's Best Actor Oscar. There also won't be any talent present for MVFF screenings of Antonio Campos' Christine, but that shouldn't stop you from partaking in the best American film I've seen thus far in 2016. "Mind-blowing" is a cliché that aptly applies to Rebecca Hall's portrayal of Christine Chubbuck, the insecure and abrasive Florida TV news reporter who shot herself to death on live TV in 1974. With his assured direction, Campos leads us through the harrowing chain of events that caused her unhinging, and makes it all bearable with a welcome infusion of arch humor. He's aided by an amazing ensemble cast (particularly Michael C. Hall as the station's lead anchor upon whom Christine has a crush), a thoughtfully selected cheesy 70's pop soundtrack, and in-your-face art direction and costume design. Christine also works as a prescient look back at the dawn of TV news' devolvement into info-tainment, a notion Chubbuck was giving the finger to with her desperate final act.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Autumn can be a crazy busy time of year for Bay Area cinephiles. While it's been that way for nearly a decade, 2016 could see the phenomenon reach dizzying new heights. As always, Mill Valley Film Festival is the pond's biggest fish, celebrating its 39th edition from October 6 to 16. I'll post a preview shortly before it opens. The San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season of mini-festivals has long been autumn's other major player, but it essentially no longer exists – or at least not under that aegis. I'll especially miss French Cinema Now, which had an impressive eight-year run bringing an awesome mix of new French-language movies to the Bay Area. In happier news, the Film Society has announced an exciting new year-round collaboration with the recently re-opened SFMOMA, details of which I'll share later in this overview.
In 40 years of living in San Francisco, I can't remember a weekend quite as full of quandary-filled film choices as this upcoming one. There are no less than six festivals and retrospectives to choose from. My top pick is SF Film Society's Hong Kong Cinema (Sept. 23 to 25), which returns as a welcome holdover from their Fall Season. This year's line-up features a tribute to renowned director Stanley Kwan, as well as seven popular new HK releases. Kwan will be in town for opening night's 25th anniversary screening of Center Stage (1991), starring the incomparable Maggie Cheung as tragic Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu. I'm excited to revisit this film after experiencing several Ruan performances at recent SF Silent Film Festival editions. The filmmaker returns the following evening to present Rouge (1987), his classic, sensual ghost story starring Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Among the festival's new HK films, I'm betting on Johnnie To's Three. Set within the confines of a modern hospital, To's latest pits a female neurosurgeon and police captain against a criminal patient. Reviews say it contains a climactic hospital shoot-out that's on par with John Woo's Hardboiled. I also wouldn't mind having a look at Fruit Chan's Kill Time, a thriller that sounds even nuttier than Chan's excellent The Midnight After, which played the fest two years ago.
Certain to be clamoring for local filmgoers' attention this Saturday is Anna Magnani – A Film Series. Co-presented by Luce Cinecittà, the Italian Cultural Institute and Cinema Italian San Francisco, this all-day event builds on the success of those organizations' recent Vittorio De Sica and Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospectives. Three iconic Magnani films – Rome Open City (1945), Bellissima (1952) and The Rose Tattoo (1955) plus the relatively obscure The Passionate Thief (1960) – all play the Castro Theatre in 35mm prints. And if that's not enough Magnani for you, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive begins presenting Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema this Sunday, continuing through October 29. The PFA series includes nine films that are not part of the one-day Castro event.
This weekend's other important retrospective is the Roxie Theater's Samuel Fuller: A Fuller Life, which kicks off Friday night with a documentary directed by the iconoclast filmmaker's daughter, Samantha. I caught A Fuller Life at the Castro two years ago and recommend it to Fuller aficionados and newbies alike. The Roxie will screen nine of his movies over the weekend, including stone classics Shock Corridor, Pick Up on South Street, The Naked Kiss, The Crimson Kimono and White Dog, plus rarities Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Forty Guns, The Steel Helmet and Underworld USA (the latter being my favorite discovery at the 2012 Noir City festival). As an added bonus, Samantha Fuller and Fuller's "widow, muse and collaborator" Christa Lang-Fuller will appear at five screenings in conversation with film programmer and archivist Peter Conheim. (For North Bay residents, the San Rafael Film Center holds a slightly altered Fuller retrospective this weekend as well). It's worth mentioning here that the Roxie follows up the Fuller fest with Banned Movie Week (Sept. 25 to 28), featuring I Am Curious Yellow, The Tin Drum, In the Realm of the Senses and a Dusan Makavejev double bill of Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organism. I must say the Roxie has really stepped up its game in 2016. Their adventurous programming choices continuously surprise me and I'm particularly grateful they've installed DCP in the Little Roxie.
If Anna Magnani, Hong Kong and Sam Fuller aren't your thing, there are three festivals of national-regional cinema this weekend as well. The 13th SF Irish Film Festival runs from September 22 to 24 at the Delancey Street Screening Room while across town, the SF Art Institute hosts the 9th Iranian Film Festival. The latter features a rare screening of Tickets, which serves as a remembrance to director Abbas Kiarostami who unexpectedly passed away in July. The 2005 film was co-directed by Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach, and interweaves three narrative threads set on a train trip from Innsbruck to Rome. The fest is where you'll also find Finding Altamira, a historical drama from Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson starring Antonio Banderas as the man who discovered Spain's Altamira Paleolithic cave paintings. Its inclusion in the festival is due to the presence of celebrated Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, Eden) who plays Banderas' wife "Conchita."
Finally, the 8th SF Latino Film Festival continues its 16-day run this weekend at venues throughout the Bay Area. The film I'm most anticipating is César Augusto Acevedo's Land and Shade, which screens one time only at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts next Saturday, October 1. Acevedo's film won the 2015 Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or prize (given to a first-time feature filmmaker) and centers on the struggles of Colombian sugar cane harvesters. I've seen and also heartily recommend Salvador del Solar's Magallanes, which has two more screenings during the fest. This intense Peruvian political drama stars favorite Mexican actor Damián Alcázar (Herod's Law, El Infierno) and unforgettable, indigenous Peruvian actress, Magaly Solier (the Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow, Madeinusa).
Now let's peer into to October where the big news is Modern Cinema, the aforementioned collaboration between the SF Film Society and SFMOMA. Over the course of three weekends, viewers can experience 26 essentials of film history (11 of them in 35mm) all united around the seasonally apropos theme of "haunting." Eighteen programs are post-WWII titles (e.g. "Modern") from the vaults of Criterion Collection/Janus Films, the rightfully exulted company that received the Mel Novikoff Award at last spring's SF International Film Festival. The selections run the gamut from Kurosawa's Rashomon (to be introduced by Philip Kaufman) to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, and from Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to Akerman's Jeanne Dielman (to be introduced by Wayne Wang). The remaining eight programs encapsulate a near-complete retrospective of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (with 2002's Blissfully Yours being oddly M.I.A.). The director, whose oeuvre fits snugly within the series' "haunting" motif, will appear in person at one of two scheduled shorts programs. His video installation piece, Phantoms of Nabua is already on exhibit in the museum.
I'm super excited to have SFMOMA back as a film venue following a two-year closure for expansion and renovation. While their film programming has always been intermittent, I fondly remember catching major Chantal Akerman and Derek Jarman retrospectives there. At the press conference for Modern Cinema, it was announced SFMOMA and SF Film Society are cooking up two additional three-weekend film events for February and July, 2017. As for the museum's Phyllis Wattis Theater, it was essentially gutted and rebuilt within the existing shell during renovation. The new auditorium looks snazzy, with a 12' X 24' screen, 270 boxy but comfortable new seats with cup holders (!) and a deepened stage with adjacent green room. On the tech side, they've installed a new 4K NEC digital projector, Kinoton 16mm and 35mm projectors and Meyer Sound Cinema Surround System. The new cinema even boasts its own dedicated entrance off of Minna Street.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts lies directly across the street from SFMOMA, which makes it easy to go catch some of Andy Warhol's Silver Screen: Rarities and Restorations. From October 13 to 30, YBCA has scheduled seven Warhol films spread across five programs, all exhibited in 16mm prints. The series' spotlight piece is 1968's ultra rare San Diego Surf, which Warhol was unable to complete following Valerie Solanas' assassination attempt on him. It has recently been edited together by associate/collaborator Paul Morrissey, as a commission for the Andy Warhol foundation. The irrepressible Taylor Mead and Viva star as a middle-class couple who live with their pregnant daughter (Ingrid Superstar) in La Jolla, where they rent out an extra beach house to a group of sexy surfers (including Joe Dallesandro). Legend has it that cast and crew were furiously harassed by police during the three-week shoot.
The second Warhol program is a double bill of Outer and Inner Space (1965) and Tiger Morse (1967), both featuring Edie Sedgewick talking an amphetamine-fueled blue streak. That's followed by a double bill of My Hustler (1965) and the infamous Blow Job (1964), the latter a 35-minute static shot on a man's face as he receives the titular sex act. The Velvet Underground Tarot Card (1966) comes next, featuring all V.U. band members having their cards read at a raucous party. The film was initially shown as background projection during Warhol's "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" events. The series concludes with The Life of Juanita Castro (1965), in which a group of actors improvise "a ridiculous yet politically meaningful meditation on Fidel Castro and his family." October's final weekend also finds YBCA hosting Silver Bullets: All-Day Werewolf Marathon, with back-to-back screenings of Teen Wolf (1985), the original The Wolf Man (1941), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Wolfcop (2015).
Another important October film event is the Arab Film Festival, whose 20th edition begins on Friday, October 7 at the Castro Theatre and continues for 10 days at various Bay Area venues. The complete line-up was supposed be announced a week ago, but there's still no word. The festival has revealed its opening night film, however, and it's one I definitely want to see. Clash is the second feature by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab that follows up his well received 2010 debut, the feminist-leaning Cairo 678. Premiering in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to solid reviews, Clash is set within the confines of a police paddy wagon full of both pro-military dictatorship and pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in 2013. The audience only sees what the detainees see through the vehicle's windows. Variety's Jay Weissberg calls it "bravura filmmaking with a kick-in-the-gut message about chaos and cruelty." Somewhat surprisingly, Egypt has named Clash its 2016 Oscar submission. The Arab Film Festival screening in San Francisco will be the U.S. premiere, which is appropriate considering Diab developed the script during a SF Film Society residency program back in 2014.
Looking ahead to November and December, here are some important dates to keep in mind. The French Had a Name for It returns for a third edition on November 3 to 7 at the Roxie Theatre, with a 15-film foray into the world of French film noir. That same weekend will also see the return of the SF Film Society's Doc Stories, another welcome mini-fest that was formerly part of the SFFS Fall Season. The following week brings us the 14th annual 3rd i SF International South Asian Film Festival from November 10 to 13. New Italian Film Festival (aka N.I.C.E.) pops up at the Vogue Theatre from November 16 to 20, albeit without programming or other involvement from the SF Film Society. Finally, the SF Silent Film Festival recently announced the stellar line-up for its one-day, six-program A Day of Silents at the Castro Theatre on December 3. I'm already drooling over the prospect of hearing the Alloy Orchestra accompany Sergei Eisenstein's Strike!
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Hot on the heels of last year's 20th anniversary blow-out, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is back with another stunning roster for 2016. The Western Hemisphere's most prestigious silent movie showcase returns to the Castro Theatre from June 2 to 5 and features 19 programs and 11 new restorations, all screened with live music. Only four films have shown at previous SFSFF editions. Marquee-worthy stars such as Pola Negri, Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Emil Jannings appear in films by top directors like Fritz Lang, Yasujiro Ozu, Victor Fleming and Ernst Lubitsch. Special highlights include a pair of René Clément restorations and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates accompanied by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The terrific news for celluloid lovers is that ten movies will screen in 35mm, according to the indispensible Film on Film Foundation.
The festival opens Thursday night with William A. Wellman's 1928 Beggars of Life starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. It's considered Brooks' best Hollywood film, wherein she plays a young woman fleeing police after killing her abusive stepfather. Hopping a freight train disguised as a boy, she hooks up with a fellow traveler (Arlen) and together they spend time in a hobo encampment run by Oklahoma Red (Beery). Brooks did her own stunts and apparently despised Wellman for making her jump on and off moving trains. The actress' penchant for subtlety and underplaying is in full evidence here, rendering her performance completely contemporary. Her next film would be the iconic Pandora's Box. Based on an autobiography by scrappy writer/boxer/ex-hobo Jim Tully, Beggars of Life originally contained several talking sequences and is credited as Paramount's first movie with spoken words. It will be shown in 35mm accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who were also on hand when the festival first screened the film in 2007.
SFSFF21 concludes four days later with the 1919 comedy When the Clouds Roll By, which last played the fest in 2004. It was Victor Fleming's debut feature and the last "Coat and Tie" role for star Douglas Fairbanks before he shifted to swashbucklers. In this enchanting and surreal spoof on psychology, the actor plays a superstitious man who falls under the influence of a mad doctor's nefarious hypnosis experiments. The film is noted for two particular sequences, one of which has Fairbanks running up a wall and across the ceiling, a full 30 years before Fred Astaire's similar accomplishment in Royal Wedding. The other is a surrealistic dream sequence in which an onion, mincemeat pie, Welsh rarebit and lobster all do battle inside the actor's stomach. When the Clouds Roll By will be introduced by Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel and accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.
Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North is one of the silent era's most famous films, which is why I was shocked to discover SFSFF hadn't screened it previously. I'm pretty sure I haven't watched it since a university documentary film class in the early 1970's. This captivating year-in-the-life look at an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic – how they hunt, fish, trade and migrate – is considered the granddaddy of non-fiction filmmaking, although today it would probably be deemed a "docudrama." A number of scenes were apparently staged. The director forced his subjects to hunt with spears instead of their customary rifles, and Nanook's "wife" was actually a common-law spouse of director Flaherty. None of this detracts from its greatness, however, which is why it was one of the first 25 films chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress.
While not even remotely considered a "classic," the Norwegian Arctic setting of The Strongest makes it a appropriate companion piece to Nanook. This 1929 Swedish narrative feature was co-directed by Axel Lindblom, who got his start making Arctic newsreels earlier in the decade. Those experiences inspired him to write a melodramatic screenplay about rival hunting ships and rival suitors, and he enlisted the aid of Alf Sjöberg to co-direct. While Lindblom never made another film, Sjöberg would become Sweden's foremost 20th century theatre director, as well as a filmmaker who had five movies compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (including two that won). The Strongest is said to contain some of the most striking images in silent Swedish cinema. Nanook of the North and The Strongest will both be shown in 35mm and appropriately accompanied by the ethereal sounds of the Matti Bye Ensemble.
The year's most highly anticipated silent film restoration is surely Laurel and Hardy's 1927 The Battle of the Century. The missing second reel, which contains the most insanely epic pie fight in the history of cinema (3,000 pies!) was discovered complete in 2015 by collector John Mirsalis. Now that it's been restored by Lobster Films, one of Hollywood's most deeply mourned lost treasures headlines the SFSFF21 program The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations! On the same bill we'll see The Dancing Pig, a 1907 French short from Pathé Studios, plus the Buster Keaton shorts, The Balloonatic (1923) and Cops (1922). The latter is regarded as one of Keaton's most entertaining two-reelers and features "The Great Stone Face" being chased through the streets of Pasadena. Both Mirsalis and Leonard Maltin will be on hand to introduce the screenings. Meanwhile, check out Matthew Dessem's article at Slate Magazine for a deeper appreciation of this wondrous discovery.
June is LGBTQ Pride month and Girls Will Be Boys fits right into the festivities. Inspired by Laura Horak's new book of the same title, the program spotlights two comedies with cross-dressing protagonists. First up is Ernst Lubitsch's 1918 I Don't Want to be a Man, made five years before the acclaimed director's arrival in Hollywood. The three-reeler stars Ossi Oswalda, aka "The German Mary Pickford," as a poker-playing tomboy who hits the town for a night of tuxedo-clad carousing, only to discover the grass isn't always greener. That will be followed by Richard Wallace's 1926 What's the World Coming To? in a new 35mm co-restoration by SFSFF, Carleton University and New York University. The opening intertitle of this Hal Roach-produced comedy announces its milieu, "one hundred years from now – when men have become more like women and women more like men." And indeed it is a world where men read "Husbands Home Journal," go to bed with curlers and receive expensive gifts from women on the prowl. Stan Laurel is listed as one of the writers and makes a brief on-screen appearance. Author Horak will be present to do the intro honors.
My first exposure to Pola Negri came four years ago when the fest played The Spanish Dancer. She utterly beguiled me and not just because of her spooky resemblance to 1920's photographs of my Polish grandmother. Negri returns to SFSFF in a new Paramount Archives 4K restoration of Malcolm St. Clair's A Woman of the World. In this 1925 "fish out of water" comedy of manners she plays a newly broken-hearted Italian countess who visits family in Maple Valley, Iowa. Naturally her wicked ways – which include but aren't limited to smoking, drinking and sporting a skull tattoo – provoke outrage amongst the puritanical townsfolk. When the district attorney tries to run her out of town, she responds by bloodily flogging him with a horsewhip. It's said that Negri was lampooning her vamp image in this picture, which had grown stale with the movie-going public. The cast includes the instantly recognizable, walrus-mustachioed Chester Conklin as her cousin.
For ardent admirers of director René Clair (À nous la liberté, Le million, I Married a Witch) this year's festival is all about the restorations of his final two silent features. By virtue of their accorded importance, The Italian Straw Hat (1928) and Les deux timides (1928) screen in the fest's choice weekend primetime slots. Both films are recent co-restorations by SFSFF and Cinémathèque Française and both will be shown in 35mm. Perhaps not coincidentally, each is also an adaptation of 19th century French playwright Eugène Labiche. Straw Hat is described as a fast moving poke at bourgeois manners that uses techniques common to early silent cinema (fixed camera, few close-ups or intertitles, stock characters). The plot concerns the complications that ensue when a horse eats a married woman's hat while she's off dallying with a lover. None other than Pauline Kael called it "one of the funniest films ever made and one of the most elegant as well." In the visually ambitious, "cheerful satire" Les deux timides, a shy lawyer's screw-up results in his wife-beating client going to prison. The tables turn when the ex-jailbird later sabotages the lawyer's relationship with a young woman. In his program notes from Pordenone, Lenny Borger writes that the film "owes much of its freshness and charm to Pierre Batcheff's hilariously Keatonesque performance" as one of the titular timides.
A program of tremendous local interest is Willis Robards' Mothers of Men or Every Woman's Problem, a pro-women's suffrage picture shot entirely in the Bay Area. First released in 1917, it was given a different title upon re-release in 1921. The majority of filming took place in Santa Cruz and over 500 extras were used. Additional footage from Berkeley includes scenes at the downtown train station and a suffrage march on Shattuck Avenue. Mothers of Men is based on a play by Hal Reid, whose actor son Wallace Reid died of morphine addition in 1923 and was married to the film's star, Dorothy Davenport. The story concerns a woman suffragist, turned judge, turned governor, who must prove her husband's innocence when he's falsely accused of murdering a newspaper editor. This restoration is a BFI National Institute and SFSFF collaboration. I recommend visiting the film's website, which has a nifty "then and now" slide show of Bay Area locations used in the shoot.
The festival's late shows are traditionally reserved for the offbeat and/or macabre. Friday night's selection is Irvin Willat's 1919 Behind the Door, in which a German-American naval officer seeks revenge against the German submarine commander whose crew raped and brutalized his wife. Hobart Bosworth, whose nearly 300 imdb credits include filmdom's first Wizard of Oz in 1910, stars as the hero. The ubiquitous Wallace Beery, appearing at his sleaziest here, chews up the villain's role. This new co-restoration from SFSFF, the Library of Congress and Russia's Gosfilmofond will screen in 35mm, with the festival's in-house restoration expert Rob Byrne introducing. Saturday's late show is 1929's The Last Warning. It would be the final film from director Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs), who died of blood poisoning that same year. Set in a haunted Broadway theatre, it's the story of a producer who reunites the cast of a play that saw one of its actors murdered on stage. The Last Warning is a new restoration from Universal Pictures and the film is considered a prescient progenitor to the classic horror movies the studio would crank out just a few years later. At the festival's FREE Amazing Tales from the Archives program, Universal's Peter Schade and Emily Wensel will discuss this particular restoration in depth. Also appearing at Amazing Tales will be Georges Mourier, who is currently overseeing a six and 1/2 hour restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon, and festival regular Bryony Dixon from the British Film Institute's National Archive.
One of my favorite SFSFF discoveries has been the work of British filmmaker Anthony Asquith. A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground screened in 2007 and 2014 respectively and now the festival presents a restoration of his 1928 debut feature, Shooting Stars. This tragicomic morality tale about the illusions of filmmaking contains the same Hitchcockian plot twists and expressionist visuals that would come to signify Asquith's style. The plot centers on a husband and wife acting team that's torn asunder when she becomes involved with another actor. Brian Aherne, who would secure an Oscar nomination playing Mexico's Maximillian I to Bette Davis' Carlotta in Juarez, is thought to be particularly good as the film's lunkish, cuckolded husband. I'm thrilled that musician Stephen Horne, who did such a breathtaking job accompanying Dartmoor and Underground, will perform with Shooting Stars as well. Writer and historian David Robinson, who recently retired as director of the Giornate del Cinema in Pordenone, will receive this year's SFSFF Award prior to the screening.
The final two SFSFF21 restorations are from Germany. I'm very excited about Destiny (Der müde Tod) from 1921, which is regarded as Fritz Lang's first masterwork. Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel have both claimed the film as enormously influential, with its proto-surrealism, lavish spectacle and special effects. In this story about one woman's efforts to defy death and save her lover, the character of "Death" itself gets a surprisingly sympathetic, world-weary portrayal by actor Bernhard Goetzke. The film's highlight is said to be three fanciful vignettes set in Persia, Venice and China. Destiny will be introduced by actress Illeana Douglas, who recently hosted the TCM series Trailblazing Women. Douglas is expected to speak on the contributions of Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote many Lang screenplays including Metropolis, M and Destiny.
The other German restoration is Ewald André Dupont's 1925 Varieté, which arrives courtesy of the F.W. Murnau Foundation. Alternately known as Jealousy, the film is a morality play about sexual envy amongst three trapeze artists in Berlin – an older acrobat, his young wife and the hunky star who comes between them. The great Emil Jannings, who starred in the classic The Last Laugh just the year before, was ludicrously overweight for the role and often replaced by stunt doubles. The film is regarded for the kinetic camerawork by master DP Karl Freund (Metropolis, I Love Lucy) as well as its fascinating depiction of 1920's Berlin nightlife. Four years later A.E. Dupont would direct Anna May Wong in her acclaimed silent film Piccadilly. Composer Sheldon Mirowitz, whose Berklee Silent Film Orchestra will accompany the film, introduces the screening.
This and That
In terms of shear spectacle, the event to catch at this year's festival would seem to be Oscar Micheaux's 1920 Within Our Gates. The oldest surviving film made by an African-American director will be accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, performing a new score for strings and voice by composer Adolphus Hailstork. The film's title is lifted directly from an intertitle in D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation, which sought to glorify the KKK and oppression of African Americans. Micheaux's film served as a direct rebuttal to Griffith, with its story of a young woman who travels North to solicit funds for a rural Southern school. It depicts the early years of Jim Crow, the rebirth of the KKK and the Northern urban migration of African Americans. It also unflinchingly dramatizes lynching and rape. A novelist and former homesteader, Micheaux would direct roughly 30 films over three decades. Within Our Gates was a lost film until the early 70's when a print turned up in Madrid's Filmoteca. Restored by the Library of Congress in 1993, the movie's intertitles are an approximation of Spanish translated back into English. This SFSFF presentation will be in 35mm and introduced by Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland Symphony.
SFSFF is progressively making its way through the silent filmography of Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Thus far we've had the pleasure of seeing I Was Born, But..., Tokyo Chorus and most recently in 2014, Dragnet Girl. This year's fest brings us That Night's Wife, a 1930 noir-ish family crime drama that takes place over a single evening. Tokihiko Okada plays a father who commits robbery to buy medicine for his sick daughter, thereby presently a moral dilemma for the cop who tracks him down. The film is notable for Ozu's trademark empathy for everyday characters as well as an expressionistic 20-minute opening sequence in which the father is pursued through dark abandoned streets. Pay close attention to the family's apartment walls, upon which Ozu advertises his filmmaking influences via American movie posters. That Night's Wife will screen in 35mm.
Thanks to the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, this year's SFSFF audience gets to experience a Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema. The program's 15 films represent various techniques for creating colorized celluloid in the days before Technicolor's invention. All but three hail from France and they span an era from 1897 to 1915. Hand-painting, dyeing and stenciling were all used to embellish images ranging from Dutch windmills to Versailles fountains to Algerian folkdancing. On the EYE Filmmuseum's website, a promotional film for the Fantasia of Color collector's book gives an idea of what to expect.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) concluded its 59th edition last Thursday following 15 satisfying days of movies and special events. While I have some reservations about the festival's move from Japantown/Fillmore to the Mission district, the transition itself seems to have gone extremely well considering its ambitious scope. I also have to say that House One at Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with its enormous screen and Sony SRX-R515D dual 4K projection system, is now my favorite place to see new movies in the Bay Area – especially while consuming one of Alamo's signature Brussels sprout salads with apple slices, toasted hazelnuts and pecorino cheese.
I had the pleasure of participating in 28 programs at SFIFF59. Here's a look at the special events and documentary features I attended.
The highlight of my festival was getting to see and hear Ellen Burstyn in conversation with SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan on SFIFF59's first Saturday afternoon. The energetic 83-year-old Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner was in town to accept the fest's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. I was shocked that fewer than a hundred people showed up, which was possibly attributable to the event being announced just five days prior. The audience on hand, however, was wildly enthusiastic and the Victoria Theatre's intimacy rendered the encounter all the more special. Following a clips reel of career highlights, Cowan conducted a revelatory and frequently hilarious chat with Burstyn that touched on everything from how she came to hire Martin Scorsese for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to her new-found fame with House of Cards to her feelings about being robbed of a second Academy Award by Julia Roberts. Fortunately Michael Guillén at The Evening Class was also there and has transcribed the talk for all to enjoy.
|Ellen Burstyn and SF Film Society Exec Director Noah Cowan share a mirthful moment on stage at the Victoria Theatre. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)|
Exactly one week later, the promise of seeing both Coen Brothers in person packed the 1400-seat Castro Theatre to capacity. The occasion was the festival's presentation of its annual Mel Novikoff Award to Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. After an on-stage interview with Variety critic Scott Foundas, Joel and Ethan Coen joined the conversation and introduced a screening of Criterion's most recent restoration, the brothers' 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an early advocate of the Coen's neo-noir, and they returned the honor by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis character after him. The siblings spent a good half-hour reminiscing about Blood Simple's production. Amongst the rollicking revelations was that Frances McDormand, in her first screen role, was never permitted to see the film's storyboards because the artist compulsively drew her character in the nude.
|Filmmakers Joel (far left) and Ethan (far right) Coen flank Mel Novikoff Award Winners Jonathan Turell and Peter Becker of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection in the Castro Theatre mezzanine. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)|
Earlier that same morning I was first in line to participate in the festival's VR Day. As a virtual reality newbie I found the technology cruder than I'd imagined, but was nonetheless impressed by two of the VR experiences I had in my allotted one-hour timeslot. Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart offered stunning 360-degree surface vistas of various terrains on the ex-planet, all based on data recently collected by NASA. The mind-blower of VR Day was Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael's Nomad: Sea Gypsies, which begins by plopping you in the middle of a Borneo lagoon inhabited by Sama-Bajau tribespeople. By turning in your swivel chair you get a full 360-degree survey of the lagoon, complete with thatched huts on stilts and people paddling you by in canoes. After a brief fade to black, you find yourself sitting on the porch of one of those very huts, watching as a family prepares food. Turning around reveals their drying laundry flapping in the wind just inches from your head. Another fade to black lands you in a canoe being propelled across the lagoon by tribesmen standing both in front of and behind you. By looking down at the canoe bottom, you see the still-living fish they've just caught. The possibilities for this technology are obviously staggering.
From my VR experience I was off to hear NY Times Critic-at-Large Wesley Morris deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. The former SF Chronicle and Examiner film critic's topic was "The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies." Morris began by riffing on various contemporary race-related topics, such as the upcoming appearance of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. ("Do you really want to be caught stuffing Tubmans into a stripper's g-string or paying your weed dealer with Tubmans?") Morris ultimately made his way through Poitier's filmography, making extended stops for Lilies of the Field ("In 1964, America was finally ready to see him left alone with white women, even if they were nuns who barely spoke English") and his career "pinnacle" In the Heat of the Night, whose infamous slapping scene Morris analyzed extensively. He barely got started on the actor's post-1967 work – "when the studio system collapsed and Poitier starting working exclusively with black people" – before time ran out and he had to bring the talk to an abrupt conclusion.
|NY Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris backstage at the Victoria Theatre waiting to deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)|
My final SFIFF59 special event was the festival's annual pairing of a silent film with contemporary live music. This year's combo, the first not to be concocted by former SF Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara, was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Dracula flick Vampyr accompanied by alt-rock band Mercury Rev and the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde. The musicians took to the stage wearing black capes and proceeded to unleash an ungodly sound cavalcade that worked fittingly with the dreamlike imagery on screen. The score ranged from quiet noodling to ear-piercing feedback, with Raymonde particularly fun to watch as he played the electric saw and emitted nonsensical castrato-like vocals. The last 15 minutes was an extended crescendo of propulsive, heart-pounding percussion reminiscent of the Alloy Orchestra. As for Vampyr itself, I was especially struck by the lithe, somnambulant lead performance by actor Julian West, who in real life was a gay Russian-Jewish aristocrat and bon vivant named Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg. The baron financed Vampyr on the condition he play the lead and later in life became an editor at Town & Country, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines.
|The Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde and members of Mercury Rev strike a pose in the Castro Theatre's side alley prior to performing a live score to Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Vampyr. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)|
Compared to similar festivals, SFIFF has been doc-heavy for some years now. For 2016 the section expanded even further, with a whopping 40 percent of the feature film roster being dedicated to non-fiction works. Unless the director is someone like Werner Herzog, Sergei Loznitsa, Patricio Guzmán or others who strive to make their films cinematic, I'm of a mind that most documentaries suffer little when watched privately on a small screen. That of course changes when you have the director and other special guests at a screening, which is nearly always the case at SFIFF. This year I caught five docs at the festival and all but one had talent available for post-screening Q&As.
The aforementioned missing filmmaker was Werner Herzog, whose Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World played to a large, receptive and overtly techie crowd at the Castro Theatre. Divided into ten chapters, Herzog's latest delves into a multitude of tech-related issues both awe-inspiring and fearsome. Topics include hacking, tech addiction, cyber terrorism, illnesses related to radioactive signals, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and a score of others. I was fascinated by the section on robots. Will they be able to fall in love? Will a robotic soccer team be able to beat FIFA's world champions by 2050? It was also a hoot to learn that when the first internet message was sent in 1969 from UCLA to Stanford, comprised only of the word "login," the system crashed immediately after transmission of the letter "o." With Herzog's trademark detached bemusement, Lo and Behold comprehensively looks at how far we've come since then and where we might be heading, but in a manner that was still perhaps a bit too wonky for this low-tech senior.
My favorite of the docs I caught was Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, a shockingly intimate, fly-on-the-wall look at Anthony Weiner's NYC mayoral run two years after a sexting scandal forced his resignation from Congress. The directors commenced filming the day he declared his candidacy and we tag along every step of the way, from chauffeured-car strategy meetings to wince-inducing confrontations in the home he shares with long-suffering wife, Hillary Clinton's ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin. We're also present when, just as it appears New Yorkers have forgiven Weiner and his campaign is catching fire, new sexting allegations result in his ultimately earning only 4.9 percent of the vote. The film's high point, if you will, is a thrillingly furtive chase through a MacDonald's back exit as Weiner attempts to reach his campaign HQ on election night and avoid an on-camera confrontation with one of his accusers, publicity whore par excellence, Ms. Sydney Leathers. Weiner opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on May 27.
Depressing and enraging issue-oriented docs are a festival staple and this year I saw two, Johan Grimonprez' Shadow World and Sonia Kennebeck's National Bird. The first is based on Andrew Feinstein's book of the same name and it goes into sickening detail about the massive corporate bribery and government corruption commonplace in international arms dealing. From Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal to Donald Rumsfeld's Iraqi chemical weapons sale to Tony Blair's cover-up of BAE's £1 billion Saudi prince payoff to Obama's Terror Tuesday meetings, it's all laid out and contrasted with a cheesy muzak soundtrack emphasizing how innocuous this horror has become in our world. It was particularly dispiriting to learn how corruption over armaments deals has essentially destroyed South Africa's democracy, a subject close to Feinstein's heart as an ex-S.A. parliament member. Perhaps the most powerful scene is an interview with Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, as he describes the unspeakable tortures perpetrated upon him. Director Grimonprez and Feinstein engaged in a spirited post-screening Q&A, and I was especially gratified when Feinstein, completely unprompted, reminded the audience that as wonderful as it would be to have a female president, Hillary Clinton has received more money from the military-industrial complex than any other candidate of either party.
The subject of Kennebeck's equally effective National Bird is U.S. drone warfare, with a special focus on the psychological trauma done to U.S. soldiers who kill civilians halfway across the globe from the (dis)comfort of control booths. The film spotlights three whistleblowers, all of whom fear prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for things they might say while being treated by therapists for PTSD. We accompany Bay Area whistleblower "Lisa" (who was present at the Q&A along with National Bird's director and producer) as she travels on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in an effort to make amends for her transgressions. There, in the film's most affecting sequence, surviving members of a 2010 drone strike that killed 23 civilians collectively speak about the atrocities experienced that day.