Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

Only three movies on Sunday, but that started with a 3 hour, 40 minute silent film, so that was cool.

The lead in to that was the presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award--named after the legendary San Francisco exhibitor and bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema--to Lenny Borger. Mr. Borger is a film translator, historian, scholar, and hunter of "lost" films. He's also a funny man, who tells stories about how difficult most archivists are to work with. Or about how he learned French because he watched French movies with subtitles and wanted to know what the songs said too (now I'm paying attention to songs in foreign films and whether or not they are subtitled.) And my favorite part, where he talked about film translation bloopers, like in a war film where an American soldiers points to an advancing battalion on the horizon and yells "Tanks!" and the French subtitle reads "Merci!" Awesome.

So on to the movie, MONTE CRISTO (1929): I have to confess, I've never actually read the Dumas story, nor (now that I think about it) have I seen any of the screen adaptations. Yet somehow it's just such a part of the ether that it feels familiar. Man is wrongly imprisoned. In prison he learns of a fortune. He escapes, finds the fortune, and returns under a different identity to aid his friends and get revenge on his enemies. And this adaptation is full of grandiose splendor from the apex of the silent era. Massive sets, great acting (Jean Angelo as the hero, Gaston Modot as the villain, Lil Dagover as the love interest...at least at first) and a lavish running time split with an intermission. Director Henri Fescourt had previously made LES MISERABLES as a ~6 hour serial, and the intention was to do the same with this story, but public tastes required it be "cut down" to a two parter, 218 minutes in total. And it was awesome (although to be honest, if I were to watch it all in one sitting, it would be a bit exhausting. It's not quite the masterpiece of NAPOLEON)

As Lenny Borger is still working on the subtitles for an eventual English language release, we got to see this with French intertitles and him reading his English translations from offstage. Which for the most part worked pretty well. But he is getting up there in years, and by the end it was clear he was pretty tired. And just as his voice was fading, the score was reaching the triumphant climax and drowned out his voice. Kind of a shame, but it was still easy to follow the action and I enjoyed it nonetheless. Looking forward to owning this one with English subtitles.

Then after a beer or two, I made my way up to the Clay theater for ADVANTAGEOUS. Made with local talent and set in the near future, it's an exploration of advantage, who has it, and what they're willing to do to keep it. Jacqueline Kim plays Gwen Koh, a single mother and the face of Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company specializing in "safe" and "non-invasive" alternatives to plastic surgery. She's been a huge asset to the company and is looking for a raise, but she is getting on in years (I checked Kim's IMDb page and was shocked to learn she had just turned 50, I would've guessed she was in her 30s) and marketing is looking for a new, younger face to attract a more desirable demographic. This causes major problems in getting her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) into the best school. That's the main thrust of the film, and a risky procedure might give her the chance to get everything for her girl. And while that's a great story in and of itself, it's the smaller parts of world-building that I really enjoyed. Jules casual knowledge that due to...I forget what in the atmosphere, her eggs will die before she's 20 and she'll be infertile. No problem, she can just adopt from a less advantaged region. Or the homeless person lying in the bushes and urging her to take whatever opportunity she can--clearly the back story is she was once successful herself. Or the occasional bomb explosion in one of the corporate mega-structures. This is a dystopian future hellscape, but shown from the point of view of someone living at the top. Or rather, near enough to the top to be comfortable, but no high up enough to be secure. I.e., like the entire freakin' middle class right now.

And then I ended the night, and the weekend, with a very, very strange film (I seem to be saying that a lot this festival,) MAGICAL GIRL. It's an intricate, multi-layered story, but focuses on a little Spanish girl who is suffering from leukemia. She and her friends are into anime, and one of her great wishes is to have a Magical Girl dress from her favorite show. But it's too expensive for her father, who is desperate to get the money to give his dying girl her wish. Meanwhile, a disturbed married woman is torturing herself, cracking a mirror with her forehead, and making her husband (if I recall correctly, he's a psychiatrist) miserable. And then there's an older man who...looks after her, in his own way. Their paths cross, and dark, violent, sexual twists ensue. I've made it seem like there's a linear narrative here, and there is. But it's an incredibly complex and surprising one. This really is a movie where I can say I couldn't guess what would happen next. And even when I didn't agree with some of the twists, I could say the constant surprises were engaging and beautiful.

And that's the last of the final weekend of SFIFF. Just four days left to go.

Total Running Time: 442 minutes
My Total Minutes: 395,880

Monday, May 4, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

Saturday was a big day, starting with the Members surprise screening at 10:00 am. That movie was I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, starring Blythe Danner in an absolutely terrific role. In the opening scenes, her old dog is ailing and has to be put down (and he looks way too much like a male version of Amber, our dog we had to put down a year and a half ago. So that was kind of a freaky start.) Blythe plays Carol, an older woman who lives her independent life with not much going on except for playing cards with her friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place.) They're trying to convince her to move into the retirement home where they all live, but she likes having her own place. She does strike up a friendship with the pool boy, over an attempt to catch a rat that's taken up residence in her home. That and wine...this movie was made on a shoestring budget, but it had to have a healthy wine budget. Then when a gentleman Bill (Sam Elliott) takes a shine to her she gets back into a romantic life. There is a point near the end where it's obvious how a Hollywood happy ending would play out, but thankfully that's not this movie. There's still a happy ending of a sort, but one that is more realistic and ultimately more rewarding. Perfect for a smart, charming, funny film that pulls on your emotions without resorting to sappy sentimentality. Compared to the last couple of members screenings, which did get into unbelievably sappy territory, this was a refreshing improvement. I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS will be coming out later this month, so keep an eye out for it.

The next program was a double-bill of short-ish documentaries about local Bay Area film legends. ED AND PAULINE celebrates the partnership (romantic and otherwise) of Cinema Guild founder Ed Landberg and iconic film critic (and daughter of Jewish Petaluma chicken farmers) Pauline Kael. Featuring reminiscences from current Bay Area film exhibition icons, it's a cinematic ode to a couple of people that created the local film culture, by the people who are working to keep it alive and vibrant.

Then it was HOW TO SMELL A ROSE: A VISIT WITH RICKY LEACOCK IN NORMANDY. Recently deceased Les Blank, another Bay Area icon, had left this love letter to his friend Ricky Leacock unfinished, and it was up to Gina Leibrecht, his his associate and partner, to finish it. In Blank's beautifully human style, talking about cooking is as important as talking about food (and only slightly less important than the twin acts of preparing and enjoying delicious food.) Leacock was a filmmaker with a career that spanned working with the father of documentary film Robert J. Flaherty to working with handheld digital video. From his parents Canary Island banana plantation to documenting the 1960 Presidential primaries to interviewing Louise Brooks to...well, his resume is on IMDb. He was a giant, and his career connected generations of filmmakers, and he was a master of them all. But again, since it's a Les Blank film, enjoying a good meal is more important than any of that.

And then the bleakest film in the festival, THE TRIBE. There has been a lot of talk at the festival about how utterly remarkable this film is. It takes place in a boarding school for deaf Ukrainian youth. There's no spoken dialogue--only sign language. And it's Ukrainian sign language, so knowing ASL won't help. So it's a triumph of visual storytelling that you can understand what's going on at all. And that's without the film resorting to broad pantomime. And all the talk of how technically innovative it is and how it broadens the visual storytelling language of cinema...not a lot of people are talking about how fucking brutal it is. At best they'll talk about social Darwinism and the violent system and then get back to talking about how brilliant the filmmaking is. In a way, it reminds me of reviews of Nabokov's "Lolita" that talk about the beauty of the prose and how he pushes the boundaries of literature while skirting around the fact that it's a book about fucking a child! Well, THE TRIBE is a movie about violent gangs, prostitution, death, abortion, and murder. And because it's told all visually there can't be any off-screen suggestion of what's happening or explanations through expository dialogue. It is all shown. It's like this film creates something that has to be watched, then punishes the audience for watching. And it's fucking brilliant.

So then I decided to catch something a little closer to mainstream entertainment, with THE END OF THE TOUR. Jason Segal stars (and impresses) as acclaimed author David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg plays journalist David Lipsky, who convinces his bosses at Rolling Stone to let him follow Wallace on the final leg of his book tour and write a profile on him. Wallace seems affable enough at first, inviting Lipsky to stay in his guest room rather than in a cheap motel. They subsist on junk food, watch awful TV (something Wallace claims is his only real addiction) and talk. In some ways it's the most awkward road movie ever, as Lipsky has a job to do and Wallace...well he's Wallace. Now I have to confess...I've never read and David Foster Wallace. I'm tempted to try to tackle his 1,000+ page novel (for which he was touring in the film) "Infinite Jest." Maybe, someday. As for the movie, the acting is the best part. Jason Segal becomes a friendly but gruff and vaguely wounded everyman (it's no secret that Wallace killed himself in 2008.) The narrative really belongs to Eisenberg as Lipsky, who approaches Wallace with a mix of admiration and professional jealousy. And in their friendly moments it seems like he's living the dream of becoming pals with his idol. But he never quite makes it. His attempts to get some juicy dirt on Wallace sours their friendship (or maybe it was never there to begin with.) And his failure to get anything juicy on him leaves him with no story that Rolling Stone would actually publish. 

Oh, and in the opening scene Lipsky also has a dog that looks just like Amber. It was a weird day.

And finally I headed over to the Roxie for more free beer (I forgot to mention, much free beer in the lounge every day at 5:00, plus at all of the Dark Wave shows at the Roxie) and THE WORLD OF KANAKO. Uh...that mention of free beer is a way of apologizing for not remembering everything in the film...it was a long fucking day. Akikazu Fujishima is a drunk and a former police detective (hey, that sounds like BLACK COAL, THIN ICE) whose estranged wife has called him telling him their daughter is missing. So he thinks if he can just find her he can get his life back in order. And so a bloody, twisted, confusing journey commences. And I can't get into the details, because I can't remember well enough. What I do remember was the style, which was wild and jumped insanely between comedy, tragedy, and...anime? It's a weird ass movie, quite a thing to experience while only half aware. It's probably even better if I watch it when I'm well rested and know what's going on.

And that was Saturday.

Total Running Time: 530 minutes
My Total Minutes: 395,438

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 9

Three movies last Friday as the big second weekend kicked off.

First up was UNEXPECTED, by Kris Swanberg, wife of acclaimed indie director Joe Swanberg (although refreshingly, this was never brought up in either the introduction or the Q and A. She has quite an accomplished career herself and while they're always collaborating, she shouldn't be known as just "Joe Swanberg's wife." I don't even know why I brought it up...)

Anyway, Kris played on her own experiences with this film--as a Chicago school teacher who got laid off at the same time she got pregnant with her and Joe's first kid. In the movie, Cobie Smulders plays the teacher Samantha Abbot, who learns she's pregnant shortly after learning the school will close over the summer and not reopen in the fall. But she does have a wonderful boyfriend John who marries her and promises to take care of her. Although the pregnancy does kind of mess with her chance at her dream job. While that's going on she learns her best student Jasmine (Gail Bean) is also pregnant. So they bond over that (pregnant yoga? Kris did say in the Q&A she never actually did anything like that.) But the emotional heart is Samantha trying to convince Jasmine that she still can (and should) go to a good college. Which ends up being a pretty interesting dynamic about different ideas of what's best for the baby, how to get ahead in life, etc. As a college-educated middle class white guy, I certainly think that college education is a good thing. But this movie shows--as Samantha learns a little bit--about a different kind of support structure people can have.

Then I caught the Japanese youth culture film, WONDERFUL WORLD END. Shiori is a popular vlogger (video-blogger) who showcases Gothic Lolita fashion. Ayumi is her biggest fan. Fandom turns into something like friendship when they meet and Shiori is flattered by the attention. And it turns into something way more complicated when Ayumi runs away from home and moves in with Shiori and her boyfriend. Jealousy and rivalry ensue. But really it's less about the story and more about exploring the style of teen life in Japan--full of emojis, consumerism, and cute fashions.

And then I headed over to the Roxie for the late show, THE EDITOR. In the introduction, I was horrified to learn that it was made by Astron 6, the folks behind MANBORG (Indiefest 2011.) I gave them as charitable a review as I could back then (and yes, contemplating the "hell that would be watching MANBORG at home, on DVD, alone,...and sober." is charitable if you've seen the movie.) So I was ready for an awful parody of the giallo genre with maybe a few good jokes. But sometime in the last few years these guys actually learned to make a good film. They have the look and feel of the giallo down--saturated colors, bad dubbing, black-leather gloved killers hands, erotic fetishism and sleaze. Yeah, they got that. They're never making fun of the giallo genre, they're paying homage to it and then letting the humor come in by doing silly things inside of it. Rey Ciso is a film editor. He used to be a great one, until a freak accident took his fingers, leaving him with clumsy wooden prosthetic ones. Now he toils away on sleazy 1970s Italian films (oh yeah, the film takes place at the time when giallo films were at their peak.) When the cast and crew of his latest film starts dying one by one, he's a prime suspect, and wacky hijinx ensue. Good fun, and I'm still in a bit of shock that Astron 6 actually made a good film.

Total Running Time: 268 minutes
My Total Minutes: 394,908

Friday, May 1, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

Two more shows on Thursday, starting with the mix of live on stage action and movies, BOOMTOWN: REMAKING SAN FRANCISCO. Several artists created different pieces to explore the changing San Francisco, ranging from a PowerPoint presentation on housing issues to a documentary on the last lesbian bar in San Francisco (The Lexington, which closed that very night.) And a movie on Sutro Tower, the giant antenna on a hill that was a controversial eyesore when it was put up, and now is an iconic part of the skyline...or still a fucking eyesore, depending on who you ask. There was a demonstration of queer artists of color. A trailer for THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (which you can back on Kickstarter right now.) And there was a section of ROYAL ROAD, which is also playing in the festival in it's entirety. The whole program was sort of a meditation on the issues of gentrification and the changing nature of San Francisco. There was no Q and A after, as the point was kind of to raise the questions but not give you any answers. And at that, it was a successful, fascinating, and entertaining presentation.

And then I caught what was described as the sexiest film in the festival, FIDELIO: ALICE'S JOURNEY. And it's certainly true that Arianne Labed as the titular Alice is fearless in portraying her sexuality. She has a happy and very healthy love life with her artist boyfriend Felix. But her job is as an engineer on the merchant marine ship Fidelio. There she's tough enough to hold her own with the crew of crass men. But complications arise when the captain of this cruise turns out to be an older lover from her cadet days. She tries to remain faithful--at first simply by avoiding him. But he has other ideas. And perhaps she does, too. Normally I don't really care much for these types of movies--the main character choosing between two lovers. I usually just want her to make a damn choice and stick to it (worse yet is when she's too tempted by an obviously wrong choice.) But this time, perhaps because of Labed's fine performance, I was interested the whole way through. It also doesn't hurt that she is pretty beautiful and often naked.

And that was last Thursday at SFIFF. Just one week left, starting with the big final weekend.

Total Running Time: 170 minutes
My Total Minutes: 394,640

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

Two movies last Wednesday night. Let's get right to it.

First up was the documentary 3 AND 1/2 MINUTES, 10 BULLETS (the "10 BULLETS was just added to the title. Probably because jackasses like myself kept making jokes about the running time.) In 2012, Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonvill, FL. While his fiance went in to buy a bottle of wine, he had an altercation with the four young black men in the SUV next to him. A fight over their loud music quickly escalated and Dunn fired 10 shots into the car, killing Jordan Davis. He then claimed self-defense under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. This was, of course, with the Trayvon Martin murder still fresh in people's memories. The filmmakers got amazing access to the court (their camera provided the main news shared footage for the trial) and take a very observational, "fly-on-the-wall" approach to filming. Interviews with Jordan's friends and family are cut with court scenes and the defense lawyer's...let's say "dedicated" approach to raising reasonable doubt. The results of the trial are public record, so I don't have to get into them. What's remarkable is how the film processes the events with an even hand that strives for the humanity in everyone, even Dunn. Easily the most chilling scenes of the movie are recordings of Dunn's calls from prison, where he maintains how ludicrous it is that he's even on trial when he clearly felt threatened by them. And that's what makes this more powerful than just a "scared racist (even subconsciously racist) guy opens fire" story. It's also a story where "Stand Your Ground" has become such a hallowed principle in our society that it's almost blasphemous to point out that retreating is a usually a damn good option (and BTW, nothing in Stand Your Ground laws says that you have to stand your ground.)

Afterwards there was a very moving, powerful discussion led by Noah Cowan and featuring Jordan's mother and a representative from Human Rights Watch, along with the filmmakers.

And then for a change of pace, I caught a Hong Kong police action film, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE. It opens with a particularly gruesome case of body parts cut apart, dispersed, and found in coal stacks all over a 100 mile region. Zhang (Liao Fan) is the lead investigator, and already not doing well as his wife divorces him in the opening scenes. Rather than catching the bad guy he catches a bullet (and two colleague die in the shootout) and we suddenly switch to 5 years later when he's a hopeless drunk and miserable failure as a cop. And then a new case crops up, with echoes of the coal case that destroyed him. And so he investigates, in his clumsy, drunken way. The plot is full of non-sequiturs (like his motorcycle gets randomly stolen...I don't think that was every resolved) including an insane scene of fireworks at the end. Or...I think they were non-sequiturs. I was tired and a bit drunk myself so maybe it didn't make sense because I missed a lot. or maybe it's just a weird, weird movie. In any case...it happened.

Total Running Time: 204 minutes
My Total minutes: 394,470

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 6

Just one movie last night, but it was a great one. The Kanbar Storytelling award (previously the screenwriting award) was awarded this year to Paul Schrader, and it was pretty cool. Unfortunately, the award was announced after the schedule was released and the program guide printed, so I think a lot of people had made plans to see other shows at that time. At least, that's the excuse I'm using, because the house wasn't nearly full enough for such a great artist.

The interview was good, and Schrader talked about life, writing, directing, etc. In particular he kept moving the conversation back to the movie they were showing afterwards. Which was nice, often the interview gets kind of far-ranging and the presentation is barely mentioned. But he talked about writing with his brother (and then falling out and not talking to him for decades.) And he talked about the odd financing that left it (in his words) a movie made for nobody. Although I do have to give a shout-out to a couple of Bay Area legends--Lucas and Coppola--who got the film made.

Ah, heck, I'm not good at doing or writing about interviews. Let's just get to the film, MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS. Shot in Japan, in Japanese (which Schrader barely spoke) and about the extraordinary life of Yukio Mishima. He was arguably Japan's most celebrated 20th century author. As a child, he learned the force of words before he learned the force of his own body. He was a sickly child, and that sickness kept him out of WWII. But despairing at the post-war consumerism of Japan, he became a right-wing traditionalist leading his own paramilitary unit to fight for the emperor. The movie starts with scenes from his final day, which you can read about here. Oh, what the heck, it's enough of a well known event and foreshadowed so much that spoilers no longer count (also, the movie is 30 years old.) He eventually took over a military commander's office, addressed the gathered soldiers from the balcony, failed to win them over to his cause, and committed ritual seppuku. But that comes at the end of the film, in fact in the fourth chapter. The others--his childhood, his post-war years, his narcissistic bodybuilding obsession, etc. are told in three chapters, interspersed with adaptations of three of his his works--The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses. The adaptation scenes provide a fascinating counterpoint, riffing of some of the same ideas in his life but through brightly colored, staged versions of events--comparing and contrasting reality with fiction. An amazing, fascinating movie, and I wish I hadn't been so exhausted (it bodes poorly that I'm struggling to stay awake and it's only halfway through the festival.) So I've already got the Criterion DVD on order, because this is one worth studying a few times.

Running Time: 121 minutes
My Total Minutes: 394,266

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

Two movies last Monday.

First up was FAR FROM MEN, starring Viggo Mortenson, who as far as I know speaks perfect French and Arabic. He stars as Daru, a friendly schoolteacher in an Algerian village. As the Algerian war of independence incubates, he attempts to stay out of it. As an Algerian-born son of Spaniards who fought for the French (alongside many Algerians) in WWII, he's trying to stay out of it, as he's kind of an outsider to each side. And then Mohamed (Reda Kateb) is dumped at his doorstep. He's been accused of murder, and they want Daru to take him to the local authorities, who will undoubtedly execute him. But Daru is too kind-hearted for that. He actually gets to know the man, learns a bit about him. Like that the plan to turn him over to the authorities is to circumvent an inevitable cycle of revenge killings between his family and his cousins. So he doesn't really want to turn him over, but his hand is forced. And forced again when they're captured by Algerian rebels. And then again when those rebels are ambushed by the French. The cinematography is fantastic, shot in Morocco near the Algerian border. And Mortenson does a great job portraying a man who knows how to fight but also knows that it's more important to live.

And then THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS. Wow, what an interesting movie. And I can't really say why without spoilers. So I'll do a brief explanation and then get to the spoiler part. This is a German movie about Maria, a 14 year old in a strict Catholic family--like, 'reject Vatican II' strict. Her mother is domineering, but basically she wants to live a good, pure life, like Jesus. And she has to navigate the difficulties of that and normal teenage school life. You know, things like gym class playing pop music or a cute boy inviting her to choir practice at a less traditionalist church. True teenage temptations! Oh, and it's formally organized in the stations of the cross, making a direct and blatant parallel between her life and Jesus'.

Okay, now the spoilers part: Her little brother is seemingly healthy but hasn't spoken a word yet. She decides she wants to sacrifice her life to God in hopes that he will hear her prayer and make him speak. So she starves herself. To death. I guess that's the big spoiler. But here's the thing--at the moment of her death (choking on the Eucharist, as she insisted on taking communion on her death bed) her little brother speaks. And then in the final shot, after so much of the movie is in still frames, it ends with a rising crane shot that is an obvious point-of-view shot of the soul ascending to heaven. This is what makes it so interesting. Many of my friends have described the movie as a slow-motion train wreck you just can't look away from (that's meant as a compliment.) And they've talked about how religion (or at least religious fanaticism and asceticism) is child abuse. And that's a fair reading of the movie. But an alternate is that she aspired to sainthood and achieved it. That her death is a happy ending--she gets to go to heaven, her brother gets to speak, and her parents are starting the process of getting her declared a saint. To approach it a different way: if her story parallels Jesus', and her story is a slow-motion train wreck, what is Jesus' life? And I say this as an atheist. This movie isn't great because it condemns religion, this movie is great because it inspires deep thoughts about religion.

Total Running Time: 212 minutes
My Total Minutes: 394,145