Tuesday, September 30, 2008

2008 MVFF31—Happy-Go-Lucky

There are many things I learned from Joseph Campbell as a young man, not the least of which was his understanding of compassion as "a joyful participation in the sorrows of the world." Rarely has such joyous sentience been expressed cinematically as in Sally Hawkin's remarkable performance as "Poppy" in Mike Leigh's duefully celebrated Happy-Go-Lucky. If watching films can be thought of as moments of lived experience, then watching Happy-Go-Lucky is a truly positive experience. I loved this movie's life-affirming, anti-miserabilist stance, veined throughout with heartfelt compassion. How wonderful to know great cinema can make you leave a theater smiling and feeling better off than when you went in.

Mike Leigh was a guest of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year where he was the recipient of the 2008 Directors Award. In his introduction, Graham Leggat recalled that Leigh had remarked during an interview, "It's entirely possible for a filmmaker to go around and listen to the world and sense the world and savor the world and experience the joy and pain of the world and express it in a completely pure, honest, interesting and very cinematic way." Noting that Leigh was specifically citing such works as Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) and Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950), Leggat qualified that these films—not unlike Leigh's own—were shot "not with magical realism but the magic of realism."

Evident in every shot of Mike Leigh's films, Leggat emphasized, is his conviction that the world in its unvarnished, concrete reality is endlessly fascinating. "He makes films—unlike many of the films we see in mainstream cinema—about ordinary people and he deals with real things in an unsentimental, completely non-sensational way. As a result, his films have a startling richness." Undoubtedly, this is part of what draws audiences to Leigh's films; what one critic has called "the combination of a ruthless eye working in concert with an expansive heart. A rare mixture of biting satire and humanism."

For a critical overview, check out Patrick Z. McGavin's dispatch to Stop Smiling from this year's Berlinale where the Silver Bear for Best Actress went to Sally Hawkins; also Kaleem Aftab's profile of Leigh for The Independent; Mark Brown's profile for The Guardian; Boyd van Hoeij for Europeanfilms.net; Richard Porton's review for Cinema Scope; Ray Pride's linkage at Movie City Indie; Kevin Buist's Spoutblog interview with Leigh from its Telluride screening, where Ryland Walker Knight also reviewed the film for Vinyl Is Heavy; The Greencine Daily's most recent coverage from the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival; their earlier coverage when Happy-Go-Lucky opened in the UK; and Karen Durbin's Fall preview for The New York Times.

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 MVFF31—Michael Hawley's Quick Takes

The 31st Mill Valley Film Festival ("MVFF") is set to begin this Thursday, and since posting my first program overview, we've seen two new films added to the line-up. The first is Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire—arguably the film with the biggest buzz from this year's Telluride and Toronto festivals—and the other is Rian Johnson's follow-up to Brick, the Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz-starring The Brothers Bloom.

What follows are (mostly) quick takes of nine MVFF films I've had the chance to preview in recent weeks. The first three were screened for press, and the remainder were seen on DVD screeners. Wendy and Lucy and Lemon Tree are due for U.S. release and therefore restricted to 75-word hold-reviews.

Wendy and Lucy—Michelle Williams has earned deserved accolades for her low-key performance as a marginal, Alaska-bound drifter. In a small Oregon town, a young woman's life unravels as she suffers the humiliation of a car breakdown, shoplifting arrest, and worst of all, the disappearance of her canine traveling companion. Director Kelly Reichhardt nicely expands upon the spare but affecting style of 2006's Old Joy and Wally Dalton is unforgettable as an empathetic Walgreen's security guard.

Lemon Tree—Director Eran Riklis follows his acclaimed The Syrian Bride with another absurdist tale of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Arab widow Salma (The Visitor's lovely Hiam Abbass) tends to her family's ancestral lemon orchard. When Israel's Defense Minister moves in next door and the trees are targeted as a security risk, a battle of wills leads both parties all the way to the Supreme Court. An engaging and entertaining film, marred only by some minor plot contrivances.

Katyn—It's a tragedy that 82-year-old Polish maestro Andrzej Wajda most likely ends his illustrious career with this disjointed, turgid and unremarkable film. Katyn is where the Soviet military massacred as many as 22,000 Polish army officers in the spring of 1940. The film begins assuredly enough, following one family through the events leading up to the tragedy. In the film's huge, muddled mid-section, however (which details the mistreatment of Poles through the remainder of the war and the post-war Soviet cover-up of the Katyn slaughter), things run aground. The story lurches from one event to the next, and significant characters seem to randomly drop from the sky. It's only in the film's final 20 minutes—a sobering flashback to the Katyn massacre itself—that we finally encounter some of the stunning imagery for which Wajda is famous. This is one for auteur completists and WWII buffs only.

The Wrecking Crew—The Wrecking Crew was a loose collective of recording studio musicians who played on virtually every hit record produced on the West Coast in the 1960s. This excellent documentary tells their story, and anyone with even a passing interest in American pop music will simply not want to miss it. The film is ably directed by Denny Tedesco (son of virtuoso Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco), and the list of recording artists, producers and fellow musicians who participate is staggering. A shortlist: Brian Wilson, Dick Clark, Lou Adler, Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Micky Dolenz, Roger McGuinn, plus many of the surviving musicians whose names and faces never appeared on an LP jacket. People like bass player (and lone female Wrecking Crew member) Carol Kaye, who recounts how she created that famous bass line for Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On." Or Plas Johnson, who played that slinky sax solo on "The Pink Panther Theme."

These musicians were Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound." And on vinyl at least, they were the sound of the Beach Boys, Monkees, Byrds, Mamas and Papas, 5th Dimension, Tijuana Brass and others. Tedesco's film does a fine job of explaining the origin and evolution of the West Coast sound—and how this bunch of creative and eager upstarts replaced the old studio fuddy-duddies who refused to play rock and roll. From the musicians themselves we learn how the workaholic demands of the profession resulted in huge financial rewards, but sometimes took a heavy personal toll. By blending these extraordinary interviews and singular archival materials, Tedesco has fashioned a solid work which documents a unique moment in American music history.

The Wrecking Crew receives two screenings at MVFF. The first one is on RUSH status, but as of this writing there are still tickets available for the October 8th screening at the Rafael Film Center. I'd encourage you to see it at the festival. Due to the prohibitive cost of music rights in film, I'm doubtful this will ever see a theatrical or DVD release (at least in its present form). Finally, tickets are still available for "A Salute to the Wrecking Crew", a live concert at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley on October 6th. Several members of the original Wrecking Crew will be playing, aided by vocalists Al Jardine of The Beach Boys and Peter Tork of The Monkees.

Máncora—Ater the suicide of his father, sullen 21-year-old Santiago leaves the gloomy winter of Lima, Peru and heads for the northern beach resort of Máncora. Along for the ride on this sex, drugs and rock and roll-fueled journey are his well-meaning step-sister Ximena and her smarmy Spanish husband Iñigo. The plot is vaguely reminiscent of Y tu mama también, but with little of that film's emotional and cultural breadth (and none of its humor). Although it's drag spending time with this unpleasant, self-centered trio, I admired how the characters were intricately drawn and not mere archetypes. I also enjoyed seeing a Peru we rarely see in movies that come our way—from the barren desert landscapes of a coastal highway to the hedonistic excesses of a hang-loose seaside town. The film's cop-out of a shock ending, foreshadowed in a pre-opening credits sequence, merely serves to eliminate the need for resolution between the main characters. A quasi-metaphysical coda works even less well. Michael Guillén has written a more in-depth (and more favorable) review of the film here.

Jodhaa Akbar—This is the only MVFF film which has already played the Bay Area, having screened earlier this year at the Naz 8 Cinema in Fremont. MVFF brings it back for good reason—it's mega-spectacular Bollywood at its overblown best—and they're showing it at the Century Cinema in Corte Madera, "the largest screen north of the Golden Gate." A pumped-up Hrithik Roshan stars as a 16th century Mughal emperor who learns about love and religious tolerance from his Rajput Hindu princess bride Jodhaa, played by the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The story plays out in a number of stunning Hindustani palaces, and it's obvious that little expense was spared on the opulent costumes and art direction. I did get antsy waiting for the first musical number, which doesn't arrive until nearly an hour in (the film clocks in at 213 minutes). I was underwhelmed by the music in general, but any disappointment on that count vanished during the song which celebrates the emperor's popular repeal of the pilgrimage tax. It's ten full minutes of cast-of thousands, eye-popping Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopic insanity. I'm not sure which was more thrilling—that or watching people get squished by elephants in the big battle scene.

Teddy Bear—The serious issues of family, fertility and fidelity are given a light, comic touch in the latest film from Czech director/screenwriting team of Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovský. The meandering story centers around the lives and secrets of three 30-something chums and their wives. Fussy Jirka runs a failing art gallery and his messy wife runs a failing pastry shop. Rome-based Czech diplomat Ivan and his wife have children whose paternity is called into question. And gynecologist Roman has a second "family" he's been able to conceal from his wife until now. These flawed but likable characters are well played by some of the Czech Republic's most famous actors, and the film is consistently entertaining. But anyone who expects the fine, dark edges that elevated the team's two previous films (Up and Down and Beauty in Trouble) will likely be disappointed.

Burned Hearts—An Arab-French architect is forced to confront childhood demons in this remarkable feature by Moroccan director Ahmed el Maanouni. Called back to the ancient city of Fez by the impending death of the abusive uncle who raised him, Amin struggles to reconcile the past. In flashback we see young Amin selling his drawings to tourists, and fleeing the taunts of other children who call him "bastard." He toils in a small ironworks foundry, which is owned by the uncle who's determined to crush the boy's artistic spirit and desire for schooling. In the present he waits for this guardian to die, killing time by roaming the alleyways of Fez and romancing a young woman who longs to emigrate. The story's heavy psychological tone is lightened by occasional folkloric musical commentary, as well as by a gallery of interesting side characters. These include a best friend who's in love with a rich older woman, and a hip-hop obsessed layabout who inadvertently swipes a suitcase filled with live scorpions. Pierre Boffety's black and white cinematography is exquisite, with camerawork that blends both formalist and vérité styles. If you happen to miss this fine film at Mill Valley, you'll have another chance at the 12th Arab Film Festival later this month.

Hafez—This work from Iran is one of those culturally inscrutable and obtuse films that MVFF almost seems to specialize in. Hafez is a title bestowed upon one who has memorized the Quran, and the film's young protagonist has recently attained that status. He's assigned to teach the daughter of the Great Mufti, and makes the mistake of discussing poetry and sneaking a peak at her. Fifty whiplashes later, he finds himself banished from the land. At this point, I maybe sort of thought I knew what was going on in the film, but maybe sort of not. In an attempt to forget love, the poor guy goes on something called the "Quest of the Mirror," whereby virgins clean his mirror and then make some outrageous request that he's obliged to fulfill. Or something. He goes to work making mud bricks and selling plastic bags filled with well water. Thugs on motorcycles raid houses and burn books. He brings a young girl to an optician and buys her eyeglasses, which is another no-no. Fifty more lashes. In the end I figured out that it all has something to do with the tenets of Sufism, a subject about which I know less than nothing. Despite this, the film is quite watchable, filled with interesting landscapes, architecture, costumes, music and dancing.

Cross-published on Twitch.


I remember once my Mother expressing fearfulness over her own mortality when one of her favorite movie stars passed away. At the time I thought she was being a bit melodramatic—after all, movie stars are only human beings, right?—and yet with the recent news of the death of Paul Newman, and my 55th birthday right around the corner, I suddenly felt my breath clutch in my chest. Losing one of the true stars in the firmament, the remaining few decades of my own existence now seem irrevocably less illuminated. Sure, there are new actors glittering up the horizon with each new issue of Entertainment Weekly; but, few of them shine consistently like the true stars of yesteryear, let alone guide the way for the rest of us—like torches held aloft to ward off encroaching darkness—icons to emulate.

I have four specific images of Paul Newman which wing to mind. The first, him lying flat on his back with the impression of dozens of eggs pushing out from his stomach, projected larger-than-life on a drive-in screen in Twin Falls, Idaho. Such madness! That sequence impressed me so much as a young man. I got as far as six boiled eggs one time; but, never as many as Cool Hand Luke! Could one ever be as cool as Cool Hand Luke? No. But one could try to be.

Then I think of him as Brick Pollitt resisting the advances of "Maggie the Cat"; Elizabeth Taylor at her most voluptuous. Only a star of Paul Newman's stature could resist the likes of Liz Taylor in a white slip lingering seductively on the edge of a bed full of rocks. She talked about him making love to her with confident aloofness and—as an impressionable young male—that set a standard for masculine behavior. Even later, when I learned that the role had been adapted from Tennessee Williams' original intent to guise Brick's insinuated homosexuality, it didn't matter. Gay or straight, Newman set the bar for provocatively aloof masculinity.

He expressed the flip side of that as well with his portrayal of Hud. Confident, assertive, and hazardously attractive; the epitome of every crash-and-burn type I sought out during my wild years. I completely understood how it took every bit of moral turpitude for Patricia Neal to resist that naturally sleek body and those baby blues. He proved beyond a doubt that beautiful butch men were sheer hell.

And yet the final image I have of Paul Newman is a description I read in an interview with Joanne Woodward. Woodward was asked what it was like to be married to such a simmering beauty? She was quick to stress that it wasn't his looks that made her devoted to him; but, the fact that he could make her laugh. And with that one statement masculinity was reconfigured all over again for me and the way was lit for me to follow.

I've no doubt that I'm going to stumble now and then in the next 20-30 years I have left. It shall have to be the memory of radiance that wards off darkness now. The memory of blue eyes lit up with mirth, sensuality, intelligence, defiance, humanity.

At The Greencine Daily, Dave Hudson has gathered the obits. And Turner Classic Movies has just announced a 24-hour commemorative marathon on Sunday, October 12, 2008. Here's the line-up ET (PT).

6:00 (3:00) AM, The Rack (1956)—Paul Newman plays a Korean War veteran who has been brainwashed and is now on trial for treason in this taut drama based on a Rod Serling teleplay. Walter Pidgeon and Wendell Corey co-star.

8:00 (5:00) AM, Until They Sail (1957)—This drama directed by Robert Wise tells the story of four sisters each struggling to find love and happiness in New Zealand during World War II. Newman plays a Marine captain who falls for one of the sisters, a widow played by Jean Simmons. This film marks Newman's emergence as a matinee idol.

10:00 (7:00) AM, Torn Curtain (1966)—An American scientist pretends to be a defector in order to get some vital information in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller co-starring Julie Andrews. Newman's fight scene in a small farmhouse is a brilliant but disturbing Hitchcock set piece.

12:15 PM (9:15 AM), Exodus (1960)—Otto Preminger directed this epic adaptation of Leon Uris' history of the Palestinian war. Newman plays an Israeli resistance leader, while Eva Marie Saint co-stars as an army nurse. Ernest Gold won an Oscar for his memorable score.

3:45 (1:45) PM, Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)—Newman and co-star Geraldine Page reprised their Broadway roles for this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams drama. In it, Newman returns to his hometown with an aging movie queen in tow. Ed Begley won an Oscar for his performance as the town boss.

6:00 (3:00) PM, Hud (1963)—This modern western, based on a book by Larry McMurtry, features impeccable performances by Newman and Oscar winners Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas. Newman plays a restless youth who destroys nearly everything he touches. Also earning an Oscar for this drama was cinematographer James Wong Howe.

8:00 (5:00) PM, Somebody up There Likes Me (1956)—This Robert Wise-directed biography of boxer Rocky Graziano traces his rise from the streets of New York to packed arena. Pier Angeli co-stars.

10:00 (7:00) PM, Cool Hand Luke (1967)—Newman gives a powerful and endearing performance as a member of a prison chain gang in this drama laced with ample doses of anti-establishment humor. Co-star George Kennedy took home an Oscar for his performance, while Strother Martin nearly steals the film as the warden.

12:15 AM (9:15 PM), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)—Tennessee Williams' classic drama comes to the screen with an outstanding cast headed by Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. The story involves a rich Southern family of greedy vultures hovering around while their patriarch, played by Burl Ives, prepares to die.

2:15 AM (11:15 PM), Rachel, Rachel (1968)—Newman co-stars with his wife, Joanne Woodward, in this sensitive drama about a spinster trying to come out of her shell. This film marked Newman's directorial debut.

4:00 (1:00) AM, The Outrage (1964)—Newman stars as a Mexican bandit accused of rape in this adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Edward G. Robinson, Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey and William Shatner co-star.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Global Film Initiative Announces Global Lens 2009 Film Lineup—North American and U.S. premieres headline series

The Global Film Initiative announced today ten award-winning narrative, feature films from Argentina, Brazil, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Morocco and Mozambique that will headline the Global Lens 2009 film series.

"This year's lineup of films, from Central Asia to Latin America, is artistically strong and well balanced—it's one of our best yet," says Susan Weeks Coulter, Board Chair of The Global Film Initiative.

Global Lens 2009 features three North American premieres, The Photograph, Sleepwalking Land and Songs From the Southern Seas, and one U.S. premiere, I Am From Titov Veles. Also included are critical favorites Getting Home (Ecumenical Jury Prize, Berlin International Film Festival), Mutum (Directors' Fortnight) and Possible Lives (Pavilion les Cinémas du Sud, Cannes Film Festival).

I Am From Titov Veles and Possible Lives were produced with support from The Global Film Initiative's granting program. I Am From Titov Veles is also Macedonia's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2008 Academy Awards.

Global Lens, now in its sixth year, will premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on January 14, 2009 before embarking on a yearlong tour of over forty cities across the United States. For screening-dates and locations, please visit the Global Lens calendar.

Global Lens 2009 films

Getting Home (Luo Ye Gui Gen), dir. Yang Zhang, China, 2007—In a show of loyalty, an aging construction worker carries the body of his fallen friend hundreds of miles to a burial site in China's Three Gorges region.

I Am From Titov Veles (Jas Sum Od Titov Veles), dir. Teona Strugar Mitevska, Macedonia, 2007—Set in the quaint but scarred town of Veles, three sisters put self-interest above family as they take desperate steps to escape their dying community.

Mutum, dir. Sandra Kogut, Brazil, 2007—Burdened by his parents' unhappy marriage and father's abuse, a young boy in rural Brazil grapples with his disintegrating family and uncertainties of the adult world.

The Photograph, dir. Nan Triveni Achnas, Indonesia, 2007—A prostitute struggling to support her family forms a bond with the reclusive portrait photographer from whom she rents a room.

Possible Lives (Las Vidas Posibles), dir. Sandra Gugliotta, Argentina, 2006—A woman searching for her missing husband in remote Patagonia encounters a man who appears to be her spouse, but has another name, another wife and another life.

Sleepwalking Land (Terra Sonâmbula), dir. Teresa Prata, Mozambique, 2007—In war-torn Mozambique, a young boy searches the desolate countryside for his family with the aid of an affectionate yet hard-hearted elderly guide.

Songs From the Southern Seas, dir. Marat Sarulu, Kazakhstan, 2008—A darkly comic feud is ignited when a Russian man suspects that his son is the result of an affair between his wife and a Kazakh neighbor.

Those Three (An Seh), dir. Naghi Nemati, Iran, 2007—A day from completing their military training, three conscripts abandon a dismal army life and head off for freedom through the frozen wilderness of Northern Iran.

WWW: What A Wonderful World, dir. Faouzi Bensaïdi, Morocco, 2006. On the streets of Casablanca, a prostitute's best friend—a tough traffic cop—falls in love with her best customer, a contract killer.

When My Time Comes (Cuando Me Toque A Mi), dir. Victor Arregui, Ecuador, 2008. In Ecuador's capital city, a coroner's fragile emotional life is threatened when he develops a personal interest in his cases.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

YOU BELONG TO METhe Evening Class Interview With Composer John Turner

Back in late June 2007 at Frameline31, one of my favorite films was Sam Zalutsky's first feature You Belong To Me, a suspenseful Polanski-style thriller with dark Hitchcockian overtones. As Pam Grady wrote for the Frameline program, this tale of gay obsession morphed into something quite unexpected as the protagonist Jeffrey (Daniel Sauli)—smitten with a one-night stand—stalks the fellow to his apartment building and rents a vacant unit in the building in hopes of getting closer to him. That's creepy enough in itself; but, it soon becomes apparent that "the rot eating at his hardwood floors is symbolic of an evil infecting the entire address." With classic indirection, the film starts off with one story and skillfully warps into another.

At Variety, Dennis Harvey noted that this "nifty little suspenser bordering on horror" put "a gay spin on creepy-apartment-building-entrapment scenarios a la Polanski's The Tenant and Rosemary's Baby, sans supernatural elements." Harvey praised how this "small-scale urban gothic" avoided "excess genre deja vu via crisp execution, quirky character writing and a credible sense of real-world peril."

Dispatching from the film's screening at Outfest to Los Angeles CityBeat, Paul Birchall found You Belong To Me "engaging for dealing with gay themes in a secondary way", including a gay character without making the film specifically gay. All reviews credited Zalutsky's admirable directorial reserve, especially in his handling of Patti D'Arbanville's performance as the apartment building's offbeat landlady. "Perfs are solid," Harvey wrote in his Variety review, "with vet D'Arbanville nicely underplaying a figure who could have easily become a camp monstress from the Baby Jane era." At FilmCritic.com, Don Willmott commented: "What's appealing about You Belong to Me is that it never goes over the top. D'Arbanville could go crazy with her role but she pulls it way back, making her all the more threatening." At Movies Online, Robert Bell concurred: "Patti D'Arbanville keeps her off-kilter character in check, giving some believability to unexpected outcomes." And Jay Blodgett at Life With Movies and Maxxxxx commended both Sauli and D'Arbanville for not allowing their performances "to go into grand guignol" and keeping them "creepily and subtly real."

You Belong To Me went on to travel the LGBT festival circuit. The North American rights were picked up by Wolfe Video for DVD distribution and will soon be available in the UK, France, Germany, and Australia.

What really made the movie work for me, however—along with Zalutsky's writing and direction, and Sauli and D'Arbanville's restrained performances—was composer John Turner's tense score, which held me in a Hermannesque grip. Though Turner graciously consented to an interview shortly after Frameline, I never got around to transcribing our conversation. Recently, however, he forwarded me the film's soundtrack on CD and I was reminded all over again of how commendable his contribution was to the project so—albeit belatedly—here's the transcript of our talk.

John Turner has composed for performance, theater, and numerous films, including Sam Zalutsky's Superstore (which screened on PBS Reel New York and in the Barcelona Film Festival) and the award-winning short Passengers (Special Jury Prize, Deauville Film Festival, France; 2002 Sundance Film Festival). He has been a featured composer on Radio France Internationale (RFI) and at the Dimitri Dinev Cultural Center in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2004 John won the Chorus & Orchestra Composition Award from the American Composer's Forum/Jerome Foundation. The recipient of fellowships and grants from Boston University, New York University, and The Art Bridge Foundation, John is a member of ASCAP, the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center.

John's film and theater scores include You Belong To Me (2007), the 2002 independent feature Alma Mater (2002 Hamptons Film Festival, Austin Film Festival, Audience Award), and the short film Slo-Mo (2002 Sundance, Telluride, HBO). John has played keyboard on Broadway for the hit show Jekyll & Hyde and composed and performed new music for the play Berlin, produced by Kerry Barden at the Tribeca Playhouse, New York City in 2001. John's work for television includes projects for The History Channel, Discovery Kids, and NBC. Samples of his score for You Belong To Me can be found at his MySpace page. The CD is available at either CDbaby or Screen Archives. Community Musician, who replicated the CDs, is in the process of setting up the digital distribution for eventual download on Itunes and other sites.

* * *

Michael Guillén: John, thank you for taking the time today and, again, congratulations on the world premiere of You Belong to Me at San Francisco's Frameline31.

John Turner: Thanks.

Guillén: How do you feel about your world premiere screening?

Turner: It was great. I can't imagine a world premiere could have been any better. The Castro Theatre is such an amazing theater and that was my first time there. The audience reacted the way they were supposed to. [Laughs.] They laughed when they were supposed to laugh and they jumped when they were supposed to jump so it was good.

Guillén: Dennis Harvey followed through with a favorable review in Variety.

Turner: Yeah, I read that. It was really great.

Guillén: You're my first composer to talk to, John, so please pardon me if I sound too simplistic; but, that was exactly the main reason I wanted to talk to you. I'm always trying to gain a sense of how films are put together from various angles and I have to say that the score for You Belong To Me was one of the key components that made the film successful.

Turner: I like to think so too. [Laughs.] That particular genre depends on music quite a bit.

Guillén: This was your second time to work with Sam Zalutsky, is that correct?

Turner: Right. I worked on his third short film Superstore (2004).

Guillén: How does this work between the two of you? Has he already shot his film before you score it?

Turner: That's pretty much how it worked. I read the script a while back and then it's just a process of him shooting, his sending me snippets here and there, and my starting to work on ideas. It's a lot of back and forth. I would come up with an idea and he would say yay or nay and then I would go from there. So there's a lot of collaboration with the director and the producers too.

Guillén: Did Sam have an initiating idea that got you going? Or did he just toss you initial footage and let you run with it?

Turner: Usually filmmakers I've worked with will have laid some kind of temp track from another movie, music that they like or that they think will work, which is kind of a starting point. What Sam used, for example, was the music from Rosemary's Baby, which is an interesting score in the same genre.

Guillén: Did you use computers at all for your score of You Belong to Me?

Turner: I did, yeah. Sam wanted the score to be ethereal and ambient, but with classic thriller/horror elements too. I programmed a lot of the score electronically but also recorded the strings with the string quartet Ethel.

Guillén: I think you mentioned they're out of New York City?

Turner: Yup.

Guillén: Are you re-situated to Los Angeles now?

Turner: I … am. [Turner says this hesitantly and then laughs.]

Guillén: I ask because—when I was reviewing your website—all the references were to being in New York.

Turner: Yeah, I've only been here a couple of months now. I'm fresh to the West Coast.

Guillén: Have you relocated to Los Angeles in the hopes of doing more film scoring?

Turner: Yeah. I went to New York for a composers seminar at NYU. That's what took me to New York initially. I started doing a few films. I did a few shorts and I liked the process. I did quite a few out in New York but it seems the work is here in Los Angeles. I thought I'd come out here and give it a shot. Film scoring isn't the only thing I want to do; but, I do want to score more films.

Guillén: Your website reveals that you have your finger in a lot of pies, which is pretty impressive actually. I know you're from Arkansas and I meant to ask you from whereabouts?

Turner: [Laughs.] I hesitate to give my home town. People automatically find it amusing. I'm from Arkadelphia.

Guillén: [Laughs.] That's funny! Arkadelphia, Arkansas, eh?

Turner: It's about an hour outside of Little Rock and it's where I grew up.

Guillén: Why I ask is I actually went to school in Batesville, Arkansas for about a year. It was just a strange time in my life. I don't know exactly how I ended up there; but, I did. But I have fond memories of Arkansas actually.

Turner: There are some really nice things about Arkansas. What school is in Batesville?

Guillén: Arkansas College, if I remember correctly. It was a small Methodist or Presbyterian school of about 200 students. Hailing from Idaho, I was completely exotic.

Turner: [Laughs.] It was a great place to grow up. Looking back, I think I was quite sheltered; but, we all have to grow up somewhere.

Guillén: And better sheltered than not. So coming from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, you then went to New York and trained under some great mentors.

Turner: My primary teachers were in Arkansas and then I did some work at NYU. They had a couple of master classes with John Corigliano and Richard Danielpour. NYU was a good experience and I learned a lot there.

Guillén: Are there any particular influences on your current work, especially for the films?

Turner: Film is funny in terms of composition because you're a little more limited in terms of you're listening to what a director or a producer is telling you; but, for You Belong To Me I definitely drew inspiration from Bernard Herrmann, with a little bit of Stravinsky in there too. When I'm composing just for the sake of composing, it's a different animal if that makes sense?

Guillén: Absolutely! I was hoping to hear more of your music but had a bit of trouble downloading the MP3s from your site. I was able to watch the video clips and, thus, heard pieces you scored for Passengers, which I equally enjoyed.

Turner: Passengers was a fun little piece to do.

Guillén: Do you have recordings? Can a person go and purchase the essential John Turner?

Turner: [Laughs.] I'm not quite at that stage yet. I don't have any recordings; but, I'm hoping that this project with Ethel will lead to a first recording with Ethel doing some of this music from You Belong To Me. They're interested in doing a suite of the pieces live.

Guillén: Did you contact Ethel for this project? Did you solicit their collaboration? How did that work out?

Turner: I did. Actually Ralph Farris, their viola player, collaborated on my very first short film, which was actually by the same guy who did Passengers. It was his short film for Columbia and I scored it. Ralph organized the string players for me. Ten years later he was part of this very popular quartet Ethel. I just called him up and Sam sent them the script. They really liked it and were into it. It was cool that it worked out because they did a really amazing job with the string parts.

Guillén: I'd like to put a little bug in your ear if I may. I think you should contact Stephen Salmons of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and encourage him to invite you and Ethel to attend the festival to score a silent film. I think your work would be perfect. The strings really leant a classic feel to your music.

Turner: In terms of just composition, I struggled with that when I first went to New York. My interests, my aesthetics, were not avant garde enough. I do appreciate avant garde elements but my aesthetic tends to be more classic. I guess that's where that comes from.

Guillén: Reviewing your website, you seem to be interested in musical traditions from the Mideast, is that correct?

Turner: For the last five years a lot of my creativity has branched out into a lot of poetry with music and the Mideastern influence came about when I set some music to the poet Agha Shahid Ali. Are you familiar with him?

Guillén: I'm not.

Turner: He's known for bringing the ghazal form into English. They were originally written in Urdu and Persian. He's a Pakistani-American and he brought the form into the English language. I set one of his poems to music and did a lot of background study on that world. I do definitely have an interest in—whatever you want to call it—world or ethnic musical ideas and influences.

Guillén: Do you have a spiritual influence on your music?

Turner: Do I personally?

Guillén: Yes. Is there a sacred component you wish to incorporate into your compositions?

Turner: It's funny that you ask that because, yeah, definitely, I think my inspiration is to go back to school and study composition based on the idea that music has the ability to transport us and enlighten us when the right elements come together.

Guillén: I noticed you likewise had Tibetan symbols on your website.

Turner: [Laughs.] Do you know what those are?

Guillén: They're thangka symbols, are they not?

Turner: What's that?

Guillén: They are Tibetan, right?

Turner: Yes, they are Tibetan Bhuddist symbols. It's not a very good one though. It looks like it was cut out of a book.

Guillén: Have you seen a documentary called Sound of the Soul?

Turner: No.

Guillén: I think you might be interested in it. It's by Stephen Olsson, a Bay Area documentarian who is also one of the key players behind Link Television. He made a documentary on the sacred music festival in Fez. It's fascinating because it has musicians coming from all over the world to share their inflections of sacred music.

Turner: Wow. Yeah, I would definitely be interested in that.

Guillén: Well, I really don't have any other questions at the moment; but, I did want to congratulate you once again on your contribution to You Belong To Me. As I said, your music was what pulled me into the film. I was having a little trouble with the film—I'll be honest with you—I thought the acting was great, I thought the story was interesting, but the murky cinematography was distracting. I was almost about to get up to leave but your music kept me in place.

Turner: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

2008 MVFF31 Latinbeat: Mexico—Cumbia Callera (Cumbia Connection)

"A wisp of plot, sexy leads and lots of music genially float Cumbia Connection, René U. Villareal's debut feature," writes Dennis Harvey for Variety. Filmed in Monterrey—Mexico's industrial capital and third largest metropolitan area—Villareal situates his musically-driven love story within the colony of Independence, located in the center of Monterrey, and better known as la Colombia regiomontana because of the colony's distinctive colombiano style—a lower class youthful subculture characterized by color-coded outfits, insider slang and frenetic dances—which challenge the city's conservative, corporate tone.

Located just a few kilometers south of Texas, Monterrey bears evident American influence and—despite the fact that its inhabitants are deeply Mexican—its youthful underclass passionately identifies with Colombia, especially Colombian music. These colombianos have appropriated Colombia's cumbia and vallenato dance forms into their popular culture by first imitating and then recreating them into something expressly their own. Thus, as Villareal explains it, Colombia for these young people does not have to do with the geographic Colombia, but refers instead to "some sort of 'Colombia of the heart', in the sense of it being an imaginary, symbolic homeland, that gives the 'colombians' of Monterrey a deep feeling of belonging."

They are, more accurately, "cholombianos" and Cumbia Connection is a kind of "Cholarella" fairy tale where—instead of losing a glass slipper—the sensually vibrant La Cori (Fernanda Garcia Castañeda) loses her shoplifted pink Converse sneaker, which is returned to her by her "lousy prince" in pursuit, the middle-class wedding videographer El Neto (foxy Oliver Cantú). The fairy tale is complicated by the fact that La Cori already has a boyfriend, the buffed, mohawked muralist/construction worker El Güipirí (Andul Zambrano). What ensues is a sexual and creative competition between the two young men for the favors of the irresistable La Cori who arrives at the somewhat sluttish—i.e., admirable—conclusion that maybe happiness means she doesn't have to choose between her two paramours afterall? As long as they both worship her, what's the problem? "Happily ever after" in her fairy tale means a lusty, working ménage-a-tois.

Cumbia Connection is a musical where the filmic narration is built through songs composed and played especially for the film. "The narration," Villareal explains, "rests deliberately on the image and not on the dialogues." As Harvey phrases it: "Near-incessant, easy-rolling songs by local artists figure prominently in, and sometimes comment on, the slight but ingratiating narrative." The convention especially works if you love cumbias. Here's hoping you do.

Winner of the "Tatú Tumpá" as Best First Work at the Ibero-American Film Festival in Santa Cruz, Bolivia; as well as Best Film–Perspective at the Moscow International Film Festival, Cumbia Connection will have already been out for a couple of weeks on DVD before its Mill Valley screening.

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 MVFF31 Latinbeat: Peru—Máncora

Ricardo de Montreuil's sophomore feature Máncora practices what it preaches. It's truly a film where the journey—not the destination—is important. Though this has dissatisfied several critics since its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, I have had no trouble joining this youthful attractive cast on their road trip from Lima's wintry claustrophobia to the seeming escape of Peru's infamous surfer beach Máncora, nor have I had difficulty accepting the film's narrative caution that—though you can escape a place or a season—you can't escape your own measure of original sin, which proves to be the case for each of Máncora's three main characters.

More than one critic—our own Michael Hawley included—has compared Máncora to Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien. Variety's Todd McCarthy—unfairly I think—calls it a "poor cousin" whereas Ray Bonilla at Picture Show Pundits more fairly accepts the film on its own merits and even goes so far as to claim "Máncora the superior film in nearly all facets." Mileage especially varies on road trips where erotic triangulations fuel the journey and critics in the back seat keep whining, "Are we there yet?" Let alone that it's akin to comparing manzanas y naranjas. Y Tu Mama Tambien achieved specific resonance by speaking to contemporary Mexico. It's a road trip with a distinctly unique cultural sensibility than that portrayed in Máncora. McCarthy, finding Máncora's protagonists "lackluster" and unsympathetic, does concede that the film's "most appealing aspect, at least to foreign eyes, is the scenery, providing a nice glimpse of the seldom-seen coastline from gray, wintry Lima to the more inviting climes more than 750 miles to the north." I can't disagree that exposure to said climes helps warrant the road trip. But I would have to disagree that Máncora's three protagonists are any less sympathetic or self-absorbed than those found in Cuaron's beloved Y Tu Mama Tambien and they're certainly way more easy on the eyes if not—truthfully—more complex.

To cope with his father's recent suicide, a break-up with a faithless girlfriend, the loss of a job and an educational nosedive, 21-year-old Santiago (a sullen, sultry Jason Day)—"Santi" for short—decides to escape Lima's harsh winter for Máncora, the picturesque beach town of his happy childhood memories. Just as he's about to depart, he receives an unexpected visit from his concerned stepsister, Ximena (Elsa Pataky, breathtakingly beautiful) and her handsome husband Iñigo (Enrique Murciano), who has begrudgingly left New York City to accompany her. The three take off on a party-fueled road trip. Along the way they pick up a freespirited hitchhiker Batú (Phellipe Haagensen, one of City of God's favela hoods) before arriving in Máncora. Once in the beach town, they let loose on what The Hollywood Reporter's Justin Lowe aptly describes as "a binge of ill-advised relentless partying that irrevocably strains their already frayed relations."

Yes, I'll concede none of this is new, but for me that's shorthand to question what I'm expecting to be new. Rather than begrudge the filmmaker for not satisfying immediate expectations, I look elsewhere; beneath the surface, for example. At Cinematical, Eric Snider describes the film's characters as "selfish, gorgeous people having sex and lying to one another while undergoing a bland process of self-discovery." Truly hung up on their good looks, he calls them "high-cheekboned stick figures." His glib refusal to acknowledge anything beneath the surface and his entrenched lack of generosity genuinely surprises me as I suspect that Ricardo de Montreuil has chosen his handsome cast and his scenic location in all their surface beauty to purposefully reference sad, dark indirection underneath. What further surprises me is that not a single critic I've read has referenced Máncora's literary precedent: perhaps one of the most important poems to come out of Latin America—César Vallejo's Los Heraldos Negros (The black messengers)—whose narrative inclusion insinuates the film's poetic depth. All that Santi's father leaves him after committing suicide is a volume of Vallejo's Los Heraldos Negros and the car with which he can return to Máncora; a roadtrip which belies a hoped-for return to innocence, which—I would have to argue—is a roadtrip that cannot reach its destination. I quote Vallejo's poem in the fullness it deserves.

Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no se!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos;
la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozara en el alma
¡Yo no se!
Son pocos; pero son . . . abren zanjas oscuras
en el rostro mas fiero y en el lomo mas fuerte,
Serán talvez los potros de bárbaros atilas;
o los heraldos negros que nos manda la Muerte

Son las caídas hondas de los Cristos del alma,
de alguna adorable que el Destino Blasfema,
Esos golpes sangrientos son las crepitaciones
de algún pan que en la puerta del horno se nos quema

Y el hombre ... pobre...¡pobre!
Vuelve los ojos,
como cuando por sobre el hombro
nos llama una palmada;
vuelve los ojos locos,
y todo lo vivido
se empoza, como charco de culpa,
en la mirada.

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no se!

As with any great poem, a single translation rarely suffices. So I offer two; the first by Clayton Eshelman and the second by an unidentified source. [If anyone knows this unidentified translator, I would appreciate being advised as—of the two—it's my favorite translation.]

There are in life such hard blows . . . I don't know!
Blows seemingly from God's wrath; as if before them
the undertow of all our sufferings
is embedded in our souls . . . I don't know!

There are few; but are . . . opening dark furrows
in the fiercest of faces and the strongest of loins,
They are perhaps the colts of barbaric Attilas
or the dark heralds Death sends us.

They are the deep falls of the Christ of the soul,
of some adorable one that Destiny Blasphemes.
Those bloody blows are the crepitation
of some bread getting burned on us by the oven's door

And the man . . . poor . . . poor!
He turns his eyes around, like
when patting calls us upon our shoulder;
he turns his crazed maddened eyes,
and all of life's experiences become stagnant, like a puddle of guilt, in a daze.

There are such hard blows in life. I don't know.

* * *

There are blows in life so violent—I can't answer!
Blows as if from the hatred of God; as if before them,
the deep waters of everything lived through
were backed up in the soul . . . I can't answer!

Not many; but they exist . . . They open dark ravines
in the most ferocious face and in the most bull-like back.
Perhaps they are the horses of that heathen Atilla,
or the black riders sent to us by Death.

They are the slips backward made by the Christs of the soul,
away from some holy faith that is sneered at by Events.
These blows that are bloody are the crackling sounds
from some bread that burns at the oven door.

And man . . . poor man! . . . poor man!
He swings his eyes, as
when a man behind us calls us by clapping his hands;
Swings his crazy eyes, and everything alive
is backed up, like a pool of guilt, in that glance.

There are blows in life so violent . . . I can't answer!

So what does an appreciation of Vallejo's poem add to Ricardo de Montreuil's Máncora? I would say that it reveals the capacity of human guilt to draw an individual towards death—like a moth to flame—out of blinding weariness; a weariness that—though perhaps in and of itself universal—finds specific cultural inflection in de Montreuil's Peruvian setting. Not only is it the guilt that destroys Santi's father; but, the guilt over his father's death that leads Santi to his own destiny; i.e., his destination.

Ivan Arguelles has written that "Vallejo's verse is a convoluted thorn bush of passion and suffering." Throughout his life, César Vallejo focused on human suffering and the isolation of people victimized by inexplicable forces. Contrary to what Eric Snider might want us to believe, it really doesn't matter if victimized people are goodlooking or not. What's easy on the eyes—whether through people or landscapes—does not obviate what is difficult for the soul. One of the stylistic features of the "modernista" poems in Vallejo's volume of poetry Los Heraldos Negros—considered somewhat taboo at the time—was precisely the addition of erotic lyrics to the descriptions of beautiful landscape. Not only has Ricardo de Montreuil referenced this at every turn; he has used the medium of film to show us.

Further, Vallejo was a poet who was bewildered with the harshness of city life in Trujillo and Lima, where he studied medicine, literature, and law. In Santi's disillusionment with Lima—which repeatedly fails him—I see a comparable bewilderment. Vallejo felt that the faith in which he was raised was no longer viable, and Santi certainly expresses this to Ximena while en route to Máncora. Vallejo's recurrent themes of urban alienation and the apparent senselessness of his suffering, his lament at his status as an orphan unprepared for the brutality of life in a world where God himself seemed powerless to intervene adds underscored insight to Santi's plight. Finally, I strongly recommend Sandy McKinney's sensitive analysis of Vallejo's poetry to further understand what I presume was Ricardo de Montreuil's observational position in Máncora.

McKinney writes: "Vallejo's personal investment is summed up in stanza three: he is speaking here not of specific misfortunes, but of original sin itself: that crushing uncertainty with which man questions his place in the universe, and the bitter sense of loss that accompanies that question. It is the sin of consciousness. For a population always hungry, the poet could hardly have chosen an image of loss and desolation more apt than that of seeing the day's bread burn to a cinder. It is a graphic symbol of the loss of Paradise.

"…And what emerges from this horror? The dignity of pain? The faith that springs up in a chastened soul? No. Guilt. Guilt and the unforgettable terror and bewilderment in those crazy eyes."

On the distribution front, Peter Kneght relays an announcement made at Máncora's screening at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival that de Montreuil's film has been acquired by Maya Entertainment. As part of the agreement, Maya Entertainment will roll out Máncora in Los Angeles and Miami in the spring of 2009.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Monday, September 22, 2008

2008 MVFF31 Latinbeat: Spain—Nocturna

Contrary to what you might think, it was not Twitch teammate Todd Brown's thorough synopsis of Nocturna that encouraged me to watch the film; but, the respected advice of Todd's guest audio reviewer (and young son), Willy. When it comes to kids movies, you gotta trust kids!

Premiering out of competition in the Venice Nights sidebar at the 2007 Venice International Film Festival, with an international premiere in the Sprockets Family Zone at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, Adrià Garcia and Victor Maldonado's debut animated feature "pitches the seductive idea that there exists an entire working universe dedicated to actively manufacturing the effects of the night" (Ronnie Scheib, Variety). Ray Bennett at The Hollywood Reporter described Nocturna as "handsomely drawn telling a charming tale of an orphan who learns why he shouldn't be scared of the dark." Both critics appreciated the film's hand-drawn animation to counter the numbing ubiquity of computer-generated 3D animation. In tandem with their opinion, Brendan Willis at Exclaim! adds: "Nocturna's simple, straightforward storytelling has a classic Alice In Wonderland feel, not relying on pop culture in-jokes, musical segments or flashy visual tricks to keep the audience's attention."

Though comparisons have been drawn to Tim Burton, Lane Smith, and Hayao Miyazaki, I can honestly say that Nocturna has its own unique look and is precisely charming for its originality. Animators Victor Maldonado and Adrià García have succeeded in creating a compellingly poetic new universe that pivots around the ancient belief that each individual's soul is mirrored by a star in the sky. At europeanfilms.net, Boyd van Hoeij interviews "the boys."

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 MVFF31 Latinbeat: Spain—Eskalofrío (Shiver)

"Small village, big hell."—old Basque proverb.

Frequent startle jolts in Isidro Ortiz's Eskalofrío (Shiver) are determined to make you yelp outloud, even if perhaps a little too obviously. Yet another film that I first heard about on Twitch, Shiver premiered in the Panorama section of this year's Berlinale to tepid critical response. Expectation factored heavily as audiences went into the film assuming it to be a horror flick when, in truth, it's more a competent thriller with some horror tropes deferentially approached though never fully developed. Few disagree that the film is professionally mounted, the performances solid, and that it respectfully carries on the tradition of Spanish "horror" films like The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage, borrowing—in fact—teenage actor Junio Valverde from Backbone, Labyrinth's Oscar-winning set designer Pilar Revuelta, and The Orphanage's composer Fernando Velázquez to firm up its genre pedigree. Past that, failed expectations dampened Shiver's reception.

Originally working with an idea by Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz (also from The Devil's Backbone) called Sangre (Blood) where a young man who is allergic to sunlight believes he's a vampire and ends up meeting true vampires, budget restraints kept this initial concept from being fully developed in Shiver, although the idea is referenced in Shiver's opening nightmare sequence where Santi (Valverde) is shown frantically fleeing the approaching dawn in Barcelona, a city architected with reflective surfaces. As sunlight catches up to him, his skin begins to blister, and he bursts into flames. Santi awakens in a cold sweat from a nightmare that has skillfully laid out his worst fears. Leaving this arresting nightmare behind, the film pursues a practical thread. Because Santi's photosensitivity is increasingly becoming hazardous to his health, his mother (in a fine turn by Mar Sodupe)—following the advice of Santi's physician—seeks out a shadow-laden village hidden away in Spain's mountain ravines so that Santi will be less exposed to sunlight and have more of a chance of leading an average adolescence.

In all fairness to Shiver, this is an equally engaging concept: Santi must flee the light to take refuge in darkness, what Ortiz calls a "back to front tale", and though Santi's not actually a vampire, the oddity of his infirmity makes him "monstrous" to the so-called "normal" villagers. In other words, Ortiz effectively turns the tropes upside down and offers two kinds of monsters: those who are "different" and cannot adapt to what society defines as normal, and those who—though models of social conformity—hide monstrous impulses within.

When something feral in the forest begins tearing the throats out of livestock, classmates, and eventually adults, suspicion falls on Santi because of his strange ways. Confronting his own fears, Santi must prove his innocence by uncovering what is prowling loose in the woods. As with the hillbilly horror flicks popular in the United States, Shiver exploits—as Screen Daily terms it—"the fright quotient of the closed rural community." (Thus, the proverb prefacing this entry.) Screen Daily likewise observes: "One of the more attractive things about Shiver is the way that it manages not to take itself too seriously without crossing over into outright spoof." Michael Panduro, dispatching to Bloody Disgusting from Berlin, noted: "After the screening in Berlin, director Ortiz explained how the film has been in production for a number of years employing no less than four different screenwriters for adjustment, re-writes and tweaking and—in my opinion—that's where it all went wrong! Draft after draft has pulled the story in different directions ultimately pulling it apart. What starts out as a vampire-story, turns into a tale of a haunted forest, turns into a monster-movie and winds up as typical slasher-fare."

Expectations were equally thwarted when the film screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Filmstalker's Richard Brunton likewise complained that Shiver is "trying to be too many genres in one." Quiet Earth was more disposed to accept the film on its own merits, praising that Shiver is "a film that is extremely intense, taut and outright terrifying in parts but also darkly comic with a deliberate knack for confounding expectations."

Perhaps that's the key? Watch Shiver knowing your expectations will be confounded and you might just enjoy yelping outloud now and then as its young protagonist suffers the burden of persecution and struggles to unravel a mysterious web of deceit. Shiver's MVFF screening precedes its mid-October Dark Sky Films DVD release.

Cross-published on Twitch.

2008 MVFF31 Latinbeat: Chile—Mirageman

Mine is the Latinbeat for this year's Mill Valley Film Festival. Ever since running into Kiltro director Ernesto Diaz and Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror at the 2006 November American Film Market (where he was given the opportunity to view early footage of the duo's latest vehicle Mirageman), Twitch teammate Todd Brown has been unabashedly enthused about the project. In his first dispatch, Todd wrote: "Zaror, impossibly, seems to have gotten even faster since shooting Kiltro in which he was already far too fast and agile for such a big man. There are zero wires in this, zero CGI, so the action is much more raw. According to Zaror they often didn't even pull their punches. It's a bit of an unusual beast style wise, fusing the typical South American verite style with a bit of a 70's low budget Hong Kong chopsocky feel and, yeah, the mask and premise are pretty goofy but in pretty much exactly the right way."

Offering up the first photos for the film, Twitch teammate Mack followed through with a smack more, and Todd added an impressive YouTube training reel of Zaror in action, the amped-up poster, the subtitled trailer and several demo reels. Todd then programmed Mirageman's world premiere at Canada's 2007 Fantasia Film Festival and, eschewing objectivity, gave it a rave (albeit qualified) review. Diaz's script, Todd writes, "does a remarkable job of balancing fantasy with reality, comedy with grit, raw action with sly social parody." His only minor complaint is that "Mirageman has no true fighting match on the villain's side."

Mirageman won Audience Award for Best Film at the 2007 Austin Fantastic Fest and Audience Award for Best Chilean Film at the 2007 Valdivia International Film Festival and—as further reported by Todd at Twitch—the film's March 2008 Chilean premiere was a resounding popular success, launching an anticipated shift to the small screen. Magnolia Pictures has picked up both Mirageman and its predecessor Kiltro for U.S. distribution.

The film's appeal lies not only in the brooding good looks of its lead star, and in its truly impressive action sequences, but in the fact that it capitalizes on the fantasy each and every one of us has to be strong and well-trained enough to kick urban delinquency in its face. Mirageman is not so much a superhero as he is a conscientious vigilante, with all the attendant pros and cons of such a stance. The film's narrative traction is more about how the protagonist adopts his avenging persona once he realizes it has a positive effect on his traumatized younger brother. This is an action film that revolves around considerable heart and entertaining dosages of goofy humor and a wry critique of television media.

Cross-published on

2008 MVFF31—Michael Hawley's Line-up Preview

Race. Religion. Politics. According to Mill Valley Film Festival's Director of Programming Zöe Elton, those are subjects to avoid when choosing "something breezy" to open and close a film festival. At a recent press conference to announce this year's line-up, however, she was obviously making ironic note of that supposition. As it turns out, this year's fest is bookended by films steeped in those three volatile topics.

Opening the festival's 31st edition on October 2nd will be Religulous and The Secret Life of Bees. The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center will host the latest from Borat director Larry Charles, a documentary in which Bill Maher ridicules the world's three major monotheistic religions. Over in Mill Valley, the Sequoia Theater will screen the west coast premiere of Gina Prince-Bythewood's tale of race relations in 1964 South Carolina, starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo. Larry Charles and Dakota Fanning are expected to attend their respective films on opening night.

The Sequoia's October 12th closing night film will be the U.S. premiere of Israeli director Eran Riklis' Lemon Tree. The film is his follow up to 2004's acclaimed The Syrian Bride, and stars Hiam Abbass (The Visitor) as a Palestinian widow struggling to save her family's ancestral lemon grove. Meanwhile at the Rafael Film Center, actress Alfre Woodard gets a closing night tribute in her honor. A clips reel and on-stage interview will be followed by a screening of her latest film, American Violet, in which she portrays a mother determined to prove the veracity of "innocent until proven guilty" (even for African Americans living in Texas).

Two other actresses being feted at this year's fest are Sally Hawkins and Harriet Andersson. Hawkins appears in connection with the U.S. Premiere of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, a film for which she took the Best Actress prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Andersson is best known for her work with Ingmar Bergman, including Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Cries and Whispers and 1961's Through a Glass Darkly, which will be screened at her tribute.

On Tuesday, November 18, the Mill Valley Film Festival will present A Tribute to Tony Curtis at San Francisco's Castro Theater. This post-festival event is being co-produced by impresario Marc Huestis, who has a long history of staging big-star tributes at the historic movie palace. The esteemed American actor, now 83, will be interviewed on-stage following a program of clips and a screening of Some Like it Hot. Afterward, he'll autograph copies of his new book, American Prince: A Memoir.

Two non-actors receiving tributes this year are screenwriter/director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Eric Roth. Schrader, best known for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, will appear at Mill Valley with his latest work as director, Adam Resurrected starring Jeff Goldblum. Schrader has directed some interesting films in his career, including Light Sleeper, Auto Focus and perhaps most celebrated of all, 1985's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. A new "enhanced and retouched" 35mm print of Mishima will screen a day after the tribute. Screenwriter Roth's most recent works include The Good Shepherd and Munich (with Tony Kushner), but he's best known (dubiously, perhaps) for his Oscar-winning Forrest Gump screenplay. Roth's Mill Valley tribute will feature clips from his latest, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

And what of the films that aren't being shown as part of some tribute or special night? After, all, there are over 200 films (roughly half of them features) from 50-plus countries in this year's event. Overall, I'd have to say the selection is a bit more obscure than in recent years. But still, I had no trouble picking out ten that are of great interest to me:

The Wrecking Crew—A lover of 60's pop music, I wouldn't miss this documentary for the world. The Wrecking Crew was a loose group of West Coast studio musicians who played on records by The Mamas and Papas, Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, The Association, The Byrds and many others. Directed by Danny Tedesco, son of famed Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco.

Wendy and Lucy—Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to Old Joy stars Michelle Williams as an Alaska-bound drifter whose life comes apart while stranded in a small Oregon town. A small film that received some of the best reviews of this year's Cannes Film Festival.

My Marlon and Brando—This docudrama about a Turkish actress' journey to rejoin her lover in Iraqi Kurdistan won a Best New Narrative Filmmaker prize at Tribeca for its director, Huseyin Karabey.

They Killed Sister Dorothy—Winner of both the Audience and Jury prizes at this year's SXSW, this documentary is about an American nun killed by wealthy Brazilian ranchers over an Amazon sustainable development project.

Katyn—This film from Polish maestro Andrzej Wajda was one of the five nominees for last year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film recounts one of the darkest events in Polish history, when the Soviet Union executed over 15,000 Polish military officers in the spring of 1940.

Teddy Bear—Jan Hrebejk's darkly comic Up and Down was one of my favorite films of 2005 (and one of the very few recent Czech films to get U.S. distribution). I also enjoyed 2006's Beauty in Trouble and am very pleased the festival is bringing us this, his latest. Eddie Cockrell's enthusiastic Variety review seals the deal.

Hafez—At the 2002 SF International Film Festival I was impressed by the Iranian film Delbaran—a spare, poetic tale of a young Afghani refugee working at a remote border truck stop. This is the most recent work by its director, Abolfazl Jalili, and it's about the repressed passions a young religious scholar feels for the western-educated girl he's hired to instruct.

Máncora—The plot of Peruvian director Ricardo de Montreuil's film is being compared to Y tu mamá también—two-guys-and-a-girl take a city-to-beach road trip. The city in this case is Lima, and the beach is the surfer's paradise of Máncora, 750 miles to the north. The last excellent Peruvian film I saw, Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa, was shown at Mill Valley in 2006.

Jodhaa Akbar—From the director of Lagaan comes this new Bollywood epic about the 16th century marriage of a Mughal emperor and a Hindu princess, (screen heartthrobs Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai). Festival programmer Elton described the musical numbers as being "like Busby Berkeley times 100 … with elephants!"

Burning the Future: Coal in America—Although I'm loath to watch yet another documentary about our impending ecological collapse, the trailer for this films has convinced me otherwise.

In addition to these 10 must-see films, here are a few others I'm eye-balling as possibilities: 57000 KM Between Us (Mathieu Amalric as a diaper-fetishist), Archelology of Memory: Villa Grimaldi (Bay Area musician returns to Chile for an accounting of his incarceration by Pinochet's regime), Burned Hearts (a rare narrative feature from Morocco), Cumbia Connection (alienated Mexican youth), Everything is Fine (disaffected French-Canadian youth), Fujian Blue (Michael Guillén recommends this bifurcated tale of gangsters, thugs and criminals living on the edge of China's economic miracle), Heart of Fire (a film about Eritrean child-soldiers from the director of The Story of the Weeping Camel), Hello Stranger (a North Korean immigrant grapples with the realities of living in the capitalist South), Mommy is at the Hairdresser's (it's French Canadian, set in the 50's and has a great title), Quiet Chaos (Nanni Moretti has gotten raves for his performance as a grieving father), RocknRolla (the U.S. premiere of what sounds like a return to form for Guy Ritchie), Stolen (doc about the fishy Mexican presidential election of 2006) and TYPECAST: The Art of Film Titles (a lecture/presentation on the importance of effective movie title sequences).

Cross-published on Twitch.