Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"November Spawned (Another) Monster"—Michael Hawley Heroically Faces His Fears

October and its dizzying number of film festivals has come and gone, leaving some Bay Area cinephiles bleary-eyed and others begging for more. Well for better or worse, more is exactly what we get in November—much, much more. With seven significant festivals tripping over each other in mid-month and some truly great rep and art house programs on the way, there'll be no choice but to take a deep breath and soldier on.

Fresh off the success of its inaugural French Cinema Now series, the San Francisco Film Society presents two back-to-back festivals in November—the 3rd San Franciscso International Animation Festival (Nov. 13–16) and New Italian Cinema (Nov. 16–23). Both take place at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema. Animation isn't really my thing, so it's fortunate that Michael Guillén loves the stuff and has written an excellent preview piece here. Irregardless, I wouldn't dream of missing Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, which is Israel's 2008 Oscar submission and one of the most acclaimed films from this year's Cannes Film Festival. Critics universally praised Folman's creative use of animation to explore clouded memories of Israel's 1982 war with Lebanon. Afterwards, I'll want to stick around for Idiots and Angels, the latest from indie animation king Bill Plympton. The film screened at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), and comes highly recommended by folks who saw it there. Play It By Eye, a collection of the latest in animated music videos, also sounds tempting to me.

Literally one hour after the animation festival concludes, 2008's New Italian Cinema kicks off with two screenings of Paolo Virzi's Napoleon and Me. The film stars Daniel Auteuil, an actor whose increasingly hammy performances in recent years have made me wary of anything he stars in. He does seem perfectly cast, however, as the French emperor living out his years of exile on the island of Elba. That fact, combined with the expected personal appearance by director Virzi makes this an opening night I won't miss.

Speaking of Paolo Virzi, each year New Italian Cinema honors an established director with a tribute, and this year it's Virzi's turn. Although best known in the U.S. for his mid-sized 2003 arthouse hit, Caterina in the Big City, he first appeared on my radar when the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) screened Hardboiled Egg in 1998. This stirring, working-class coming-of-age tale was one of my 10 favorite films of that year, and I'm thrilled the Film Society is bringing it back as one-half of a Virzi mini-retrospective (the other half being the director's 1994 debut, Living It Up). Both will screen on the second night of the festival.

While I'm pleased that New Italian Cinema is spotlighting Paolo Virzi, I had hoped this might be the year we'd be brought up to date with Paolo Sorrentino. In 2002 the festival presented the director's debut feature One Man Up, and since then he's has had three films in competition at Cannes: 2004's The Consequences of Love, 2006's Friend of the Family and this year's Il Divo, which walked away with the festival's Prix du Jury. To the best of my knowledge, none of these have screened in the Bay Area. But it's hard to complain about not getting to see the jury prize when the festival has gone one better by programming Cannes' 2008 Grand Prix champion, Matteo Garrone's Neapolitan mafia epic Gomorrah. It's one of New Italian Cinema's two closing night films (the other is Paolo Benvenuti's Puccini and the Girl) and is also Italy's 2008 Oscar submission. You can watch the film's startling trailer here.

In between opening and closing nights, New Italian Cinema will feature the works of seven "emerging" Italian directors, all of whom are competing for the audience-awarded City of Florence Award. Three have grabbed my attention. Andrea Molaioli's The Girl by the Lake is an atmospheric murder mystery which won a staggering 10 Donatello Awards (Italy's Oscar). In Francesco Munzi's The Rest of the Night, a wrongfully fired Romanian maid (Laura Vasiliu, the pregnant girl in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) strikes back at her wealthy Italian employers. This topical tale of immigration and xenophobia premiered in Director's Fortnight at Cannes, and earned a rave review from Jay Weissberg in Variety. Weissberg is less enthusiastic about Carmine Amoroso's Cover Boy: The Last Revolution, but I'm planning to see it anyway. In this cinematic swipe at fame and consumerism, a handsome Romanian immigrant goes from being coveted by a closeted train station janitor to being coveted on the catwalks of Milan. Check out the film's website and see if you can resist clicking your browser's refresh button. (It's interesting to note that three of the seven competing films deal with the issue of Romanian immigrants in Italy—the third film being Federico Bondi's Black Sea).

Managing to overlap both the animation and Italian fests is 3rd i: San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, which runs from November 13 to 16 at the Brava Theater Center and the Castro Theater. Now in its sixth year, 3rd i once again features the latest cinema from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and the Maldives) and its global Diaspora. Permit me to cherry-pick a few possible highlights:

* In the Saturday morning Castro timeslot usually reserved for a vintage Bollywood film, 3rd i reaches back to 1929 for the silent A Throw of Dice, recently restored by the British Film Institute.

* The Saturday night contemporary Bollywood timeslot features a buffed-up Shah Rukh Khan in the romance, revenge and reincarnation fable, Om Shanti Om. The film is a curious choice, given that the SF International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) also showed it at the Castro back in March. But I have to say, that evening was the most fun I've had at the movies all year—and it if weren't for a conflict with Waltz With Bashir at the animation fest, I'd happily entertain the idea of sitting through it again.

* Two years ago, 3rd i screened Omkara, Vishal Bharadwaj's fascinating Bollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello. In 2003, the same director adapted Macbeth, and that film, Maqbool will be shown at this year's 3rd i. By the way, curiously M.I.A. from this year's line-up is The Last Lear, by Indian arthouse director (and 3rd i regular) Rituparno Ghosh. The film features Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan as an aging actor who takes on the role of King Lear.

* In K.M. Madhusudanan's Bioscope, a man in 1920s Kerala buys a bioscope projector and consequently arouses the superstitious fears of his fellow villagers.

* For those interested in something completely different I'd recommend Omar Ali Khan's Hell's Ground, which has the distinction of being Pakistan's first slasher flick. Five attractive pot-smoking teens defy their Islamic culture and sneak off to see a rock concert. They take a shortcut through the jungle and soon find themselves fleeing a blood-stained, burka-clad, flail-wielding maniac (along with some flesh-eating zombies to boot). Decently acted, atmospherically filmed and plain old grisly fun.

* If you missed it at the SFIFF or during its recent brief theatrical run, 3rd i is providing another opportunity to see Irene Salina's documentary Flow: For Love of Water. The film investigates how the world's most precious natural resource is being hijacked by corporate greed.

* 3rd i closes with Slumdog Millionaire. This Toronto Film Festival audience award winner is the story of a poor Mumbai teen and how he comes to win the top prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The film is scheduled to open at the Embarcadero Cinema several days prior to its festival screening, but I imagine it would be great fun to see at the Castro with an enthusiastic 3rd i audience.

As I've followed the international festival circuit throughout 2008, I've been salivating over what's come out of Latin America. Nearly all of my favorite directors have released new films and the rookies have followed promising debuts with career-validating second films. Humor me while I name-check a bunch of them. From Mexico: Fernando Eimbcke's Lake Tahoe, Rodrigo Plá's Desert Within, Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Going to Explode, Ernesto Contreras' Blue Eyelids and Amat Escalante's The Bastards. From Argentina: Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Daniel Burman's Empty Nest, Pablo Trapero's The Lion's Den, Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, Carlos Sorin's The Window, Eliseo Subiela's Don't Look Down and Pablo Aguero's Salamandra. From Brazil: Bruno Barreto's Last Stop 174, Walter Salles' Linha de Passe, Marcos Jorge's Estômago and José Padilha's Elite Troop. From Uruguay: Federico Veiroj's Acné and César Charlone and Enrique Fernández' The Pope's Toilet. From Chile: Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero.

Alas, not a single one of these films is to be found in the line-up for the 12th International Latino Film Festival, which takes place throughout the Bay Area from November 7 to 23. What IS in the festival? Well, for starters, a lot of movies we've already seen, including the opening night film. Dikayl Rimmasch's Cachao: uno mas had a Spotlight Screening at this year's SFIFF, complete with an in-person appearance from producer Andy Garcia. Other SFIFF reruns include Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán's Cochochi and Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer, both of which I'd recommend. Ann Kaneko's Against the Grain: An Artist's Survival Guide to Peru was one of my favorite docs from this year's SFIAAFF, and Esteban Sapir's wildly creative, B&W silent film La Antena screened at this year's Cinequest in San Jose. Michael Guillén and I both saw Francisco Franco's Burn the Bridges at Palm Springs and enjoyed it to varying degrees. Finally, director Gregory Nava will appear at this year's festival for a 25th anniversary tribute to his groundbreaking film El Norte.

As for the rest of the line-up, I look at the program and it stares back at me like so much mystery meat. I see that Alice Braga stars in Lina Chamie's The Milky Way, which is probably a good sign. Esteban Schroeder's Kill Them All won Best Actress and Screenplay prizes at the 2007 Havana Film Festival, while Simon Brand's Paraiso Travel (featuring John Leguizamo) took both the jury and audience awards at the recent L.A. Latino Film Festival. Does anyone have other suggestions? Regarding all those titles not in the festival, we can only hope the SFIFF programming staff in its infinite wisdom, chooses to include many of these in their festival next spring.

Believe it or not, there are three more festivals elbowing for the limelight during the exact same 17-day period from November 7 to 23. Frank Lee of San Francisco's Lee Neighborhood Theaters (the 4-Star, Presidio and Marina) offers up his Chinese American Film Festival from November 11 to 20 (with a special opening night on November 8). Of the 12 feature films in the line-up, anticipated highlights include the latest from Johnnie To (Sparrow) and a return of Peter Chan's The Warlords, which was at the SFIFF. Also at the 4-Star from November 21 to 23 is the Korean American Film Festival, with seven films that play one-time each. If you missed last January's SF Film Society screening of Lee Chang-dong's devastating Secret Sunshine, consider yourself lucky to have another chance. I'm perversely intrigued by the festival's opening night film, Lee Hye-young and Lee Hye-Joon's Like a Virgin. The film is about a tubby, Madonna-obsessed teenage boy who plans to pay for a sex-change operation by winning a wrestling championship. Director Lee Hye-joon co-wrote the hilarious 1980s juvenile delinquent comedy Conduct Zero, which was one of my favorite films of 2004; so I'm confident this might be worth a look. Finally, the 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival takes place from November 7 to 15 at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema and the Palace of Fine Arts.

It's not just these seven festivals which are screaming for our movie-going attention this month. Landmark Theaters will be opening three of my five favorite movies of 2008, and I'm anxious to take a second look at all of three: Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Gonzalo Arijon's Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains open this Friday, November 7, followed by Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale on the 21st. (Stranded won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year's SFIFF, and A Christmas Tale opened French Cinema Now.)

When it's not hosting a film festival, the Castro Theater will be busy prepping audiences for an in-person Tony Curtis Tribute on the 18th (co-presented by the MVFF and Marc Huestis). They're screening six of his films between November 8 to 12, and I'm personally hoping to catch Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success and The Boston Strangler. On Monday the 17th the theater hosts a very special event—Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1929 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, accompanied by 200 singers and musicians performing Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light soundtrack. Unfortunately, this is the same evening as the Paolo Virzi double-bill at New Italian Cinema, making this My Most Tortuous Movie Decision of the Month. From the 19th to the 25th, the theater hosts the "definitive" new 35mm restoration of Max Ophuls' 1955 Lola Montès, direct from its acclaimed screenings at this year's Cannes, Telluride and New York Film Festivals. I saw a press screening and can attest that Ophuls' Cinemascope and Eastman-colored tale of a 19th century mistress of scandal looks truly ravishing on the Castro's big screen. Then on the 26th of November, the theater begins a month-long run of Gus Van Sant's long-awaited Milk, and I can't imagine wanting to see it anywhere else.

Two of San Francisco's finest museums are also hosting some extraordinary film events this month. Over at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), I'm planning to catch three programs. Wang Bing's acclaimed three-hour Fengming: A Chinese Memoir documents one woman's recollection of the Cultural Revolution. YBCA describes it as "emotionally devastating … not only a crucial historical document, but a love story and a conceptual art piece." Alexei Balabanov's Cargo 200 is a pitch dark political allegory set in pre-Perestroika Russia. "Part crime story, part horror film … an extreme work (that) has drawn comparisons to Pasolini's Salo," which if true, means I'll be watching much of it with my hands over my eyes. [Editor's Note: Michael Hawley didn't mention this, but the YBCA screening of the controversial Cargo 200 is the U.S. premiere of the film. It's taken nearly a year's worth of negotiations on Joel Shepard's part to bring the film to the Bay Area, along with all that went into bringing Fengming: A Chinese Memoir to YBCA as well. Support Joel's programming!] Most of all, I'm looking forward to Sexy Trailer Trash, a compilation of 60's, 70's and 80's exploitation/porn trailers assembled by YBCA's film and video curator extraordinaire Joel Shepard. This is actually one-third of a YBCA program titled Holiday Heat, which includes screenings of Gerard Domiano's Devil in Miss Jones (which I last saw at a suburban Pennsylvania shopping center at the height of 1970's "porno chic") and Gerri Sedley's Teenage Hitchhikers, "one of the smash hits of the Quentin Tarantino Film Festival held in Austin, Texas … uncut version, never released on VHS or DVD."

Across the street at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we're being feted with a comprehensive Derek Jarman retrospective. Running through all of November and half of December, the series includes 35mm prints of all 11 of Jarman's feature films (16mm in the case of 1977's Jubilee), plus Issac Julien's 2008 Tilda Swinton-scripted documentary Derek. I've seen them all before, with the exception of War Requiem, The Angelic Conversation and Blue, and anticipate filling in those gaps. I may also take another look at Edward II, my favorite of the bunch.

There's always something worth seeing at UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, and the programs on the November/December calendar are no exception. First up is Cinema Japan: A Wreath for Madame Kawakita, a 24-film, eight-director survey of post-war Japanese cinema. Madame Kashiko Kawakita is acknowledged as the person most responsible for bringing Japanese cinema to international attention, as well as for exhibiting foreign art films in Japan. The tribute includes familiar favorites and lesser known works by Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Suzuki, Imamura, Oshima and others. Mahjong: New Independent Chinese Cinema highlights the works of China's 21st century directors, "working between the cracks of private-studio commerce and a state system that now exists only as a censorship tool." There are nine films in the series, several of them Bay Area premieres, including Wu Wenguang's Fuck Cinema (whose title sort of speaks for the whole series). I highly recommend Zhang Lu's Grain in Ear, which was shown at 2006's SFIAAFF, and I'd be curious to hear what people might have to say about Ying Liang's The Other Half, which was my least favorite film of the 2007 SFIFF. One film being shown purely for the sake of contrast is the 1970 ballet version of The Red Detachment of Women, one of the Cultural Revolution's Eight Model Works. This was the infamous ballet performed for Richard Nixon when he visited China in 1972. Regrettably, I won't be able to attend the PFA screening of this, but can console myself by watching it on YouTube of all places. Every new PFA calendar features something lovably obscure, and this month's winner is Discovering Teuvo Tulio, a four-film retrospective dedicated to Finland's master of 1930's/1940's erotic melodrama. Finally, beginning in late November and running through December we'll see A Dirty Dozen: The Films of Robert Aldrich and Moments of Truth: Italian Cinema Classics.


Maya said...

I'm shocked Michael Hawley didn't provide listings for the month of November of the best movies showing on TCM, IFC, and all of television's premium channels as well. I guess he got lazy.

Michael Hawley said...

I thought that television was your department, amigo.

Maya said...

Amigo schmigo, I wanted you to EXHAUST the possibilities, not pawn off a meager entry like this and call it quits. Hee hee.