Friday, April 30, 2010

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2010: IMITATION OF LIFE (1959)—On-Stage Conversation With Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner

Ben Mankiewicz, TCM's weekend daytime host, introduced the screening of a new print of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) in Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre. He emphasized that the film dealt with race in a way that few other films did in that era or—to be honest—even 51 years later, examining points of view about race not only from the inside—how African Americans perceived themselves—but how White Americans viewed that self-perception. Douglas Sirk's final film remains challenging to watch even aside from the fact that—despite its weighty issues—Sirk will make you cry.

Reciting from
TCM's notes on the film, Mankiewicz noted that—according to an article in Daily Variety at the time—Universal-International encountered some resistance to the promotion of the film and tailored its advertising campaign for the South, where, as one studio representative explained, "White southerners avoid films that are advertised as dealing with the race problem." Hardly a surprise, to some extent those concerns cut both ways. On February 2, 1959, Hollywood Reporter reprinted the following wire sent by LA Tribune editor Almena Lomac to numerous white publications: "Imitation of Life ... is a libel on the Negro race. It libels our children and the Negro mother [and] should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect." Lomac's opposition underscores that Imitation of Life was a bold and controversial film for its time and remains totally relevant for us to see and think about today.

Earlier in the day, Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane told Mankiewicz that she felt Sandra Dee—who plays Lana's daughter in Imitation of Life—looked more like Lana's daughter than she did and admitted she was even a little jealous of Dee's relationship with her mother. Mankiewicz offered that anyone could acknowledge that it would be difficult to have Lana Turner as a mother, even though she was a great mother. About six months before her death in 2005, Sandra Dee phoned Crane to tell her how much Lana meant to her. "That probably bothered you," Dee conceded, "and I'm sorry that bothered you. But your mother wasn't just an inspiration to me from a career point of view, she was like a mother to me and she made me feel good and cared for and loved." Dee wanted Crane to know that and Crane said it meant an enormous amount to her to hear this from Dee. It eased some of her concerns that she had back when she was a kid. Though Sandra Dee planned to visit Cheryl Crane, she unfortunately passed away before that could happen.

As TCM synopsizes Imitation of Life at the festival's website: "Critics dismissed this film, a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert vehicle, on its original release—derisively labeling it a 'soap opera' and reserving praise primarily for the performances of Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner as a black housekeeper and her daughter who is trying to pass for white. Audiences ignored the critics however, making it Universal-International's top-grossing film to that time. Part of that success was the result of astute marketing. Realizing that African Americans accounted for 30 percent of the film-going public, Universal released the film simultaneously to white and black theatres in the segregated South, an unheard of distribution pattern at the time. In 1968, critic Andrew Sarris's influential The American Cinema listed Douglas Sirk among the second rank of film directors, launching a reappraisal of his work that has elevated Imitation of Life and his filmography. As in most of his romantic melodramas, Sirk undermines genre expectations. Although the plot stays true to the women's picture, rags-to-riches formula by making Turner pay for her success on the stage, her career is ultimately unbelievable as anything but an excuse for an increasingly sumptuous wardrobe. Instead, Moore and Kohner become the film's emotional center, with Sirk going for the jugular in powerful mother-daughter confrontations and a truly horrifying scene in which a white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) beats up Kohner after learning she's black. The result is a fascinating commentary on racial attitudes in the pre-Civil Rights era and a persuasive example of film as a director's medium."

I have watched Imitation of Life countless times and have wept my way through several boxes of tissues. It was one of my mother's favorite mid-afternoon melodramas and paved the way for my heightened appreciation of my generation's inflection of the story: Diana Ross and the Supremes' Motown hit "I'm Living In Shame." To this day, I view Imitation of Life with equal amounts of discomfort and fascination, still wincing each time at the scene where Annie (Juanita Moore) relays her plans for her own funeral, how she wants all her friends to come, and Lana as Lora Meredith responds incredulously, "Annie, I didn't know you had any friends!" The entitlement of her race and her class glitters in the jewels coiled around her throat and wrists and in her Jean Louis gowns (let alone her insouciant resistance to John Gavin's considerable charms).

Following the film, TCM host Robert Osborne took to the stage, calling out to Cheryl Crane in the audience; but—as hearsay later indicated—watching the movie upset Crane and she had already left the theater (which mercifully proved for the best). Osborne recommended Crane's 2008 book Lana Turner: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies, co-authored by Cindy De La Hoz before inviting Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner to join him for an onstage conversation.

Osborne began the conversation by wrly recommending to Susan Kohner that she tell Juanita Moore she loved her: "She can hear you now." [Referencing, of course, Imitation of Life's final scene where Sarah Jane (Kohner) interrupts her mother's funeral cortege to throw herself sobbing onto her mother's coffin.] Moore mentioned that she and Kohner have remained friends all these years since making the film.

Osborne asked if either of them had any idea when they made Imitation of Life that people would be admiring the film in 2010? Moore responded by joking, "Everyone is dead who saw the film 50 years ago!"

Asked if producer
Ross Hunter advised either of them to see the original 1934 version of Imitation of Life (directed by John Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers), Moore answered, "I didn't see it. He didn't want me to see it."

Osborne asked Kohner to relate how she came to the part of Sarah Jane? Kohner remembered exactly how it happened: she had been doing a play in New York called Love Me Little, which—she joked—summed up the critical response. Luckily, Ross Hunter happened to be in the audience and came backstage to ask her to test for the role in Los Angeles. She tested with Moore. Quite a few other young women were up for the role—including some strange choices, like Margaret O'Brien—but, as far as she knew, no girls of color were tested.

When Moore tested with Kohner, she didn't already have the part. In fact, Moore was convinced the studio execs didn't really want her. Originally, they wanted Ethel Waters for the role and the project was being conceived as a musical; but, Hunter chose Moore. He felt she had the talent and he won out.

Noting that the film's subject of "passing" was quite daring, particularly back in 1934 and even so in 1959, Osborne mentioned that previous films had dealt somewhat with the same subject—such as
Lost Boundaries and Pinky, both from 1949—and though both left their mark, neither of those films had the influence of Imitation of Life. He wondered if either of them had felt going into the project that the film would be breaking ground?

"I didn't realize it," Kohner admitted, "I wasn't even aware of segregation as such at the time, not until we went on the road to publicize the film. I just saw Pinky the other day, as a matter of fact."

Moore knew the film was breaking ground at the time. "You see, my husband's mother was Caucasian and so I was living that kind of thing with my husband prior to Imitation of Life: one family Black, one family White. C'mon!"

As to whether their performances in Imitation of Life strengthened their careers and secured them better parts, Moore decried, "No, they were no better. I can't say that. I think I made less money after that, to tell you the truth, because I thought I was going to make more money with better parts and things like that but found myself right back making minimum. Eventually it paid off because I got other things from it. I got to go to London and Paris. So it paid off, it really did."

Osborne asked Moore if it had been tough for her working in the movie industry at that time? Had she felt any segregation as an actress? "You mean worse than it is now?" Moore volleyed. "Yes," Osborne answered. Moore leaned back and eyed Osborne incredulously. "Yes, of course. I wasn't Black enough. At the time you had to be black in color and all that sort of jive. So I was limited and that's why I moved to the stage. I got some great things to do on the stage. That educated me more and I traveled more and that was wonderful."

Kohner commented that her performance didn't really have much effect on her career. "I never got another role that was quite as good as this one. I know I didn't. I kept on playing, y'know, ethnic roles. I played an Italian, an American Indian. I did a few films where I played an American girl but this role was quite special. I was never offered another role like this again." After 10 films, Kohner pretty much gave up her career and married German novelist and fashion designer John Weitz, raising her two sons
Chris and Paul Weitz. Enhancing Imitation's theme of motherly pride, Osborne asked Kohner to talk about the directorial careers of her two sons.

"They started with a film called American Pie. That was their first directing job. They had never directed anything before. Then things got a little more serious and upscale with About A Boy [2002, which earned them an Oscar® nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay]. Then they started doing their own material; Chris with The Golden Compass [2007] and Twilight: New Moon [2009], and he's now about to start a small-budget feature about a Mexican gardener called The Gardener. Paul is editing a film that he made with Robert DeNiro and Barbra Streisand, part of the Meet the Fockers franchise. He's got a play that's going to be done on Broadway starting in July."

Osborne pursued whether receiving Oscar® nominations for both their performances impacted their careers in any way? Again, Kohner replied no. "It didn't prove anything one way or the other," Moore added. Kohner continued, "We canceled each other out, being nominated for the same film." Shelley Winters won the honor that year for her performance in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Another interesting aspect about Imitation of Life for Osborne was that filming began four months after Lana Turner had become involved with the big tragedy and scandal in her life: the 1958 murder of her gangster lover Johnny Stompanato by her daughter Cheryl Crane. Osborne wondered what was it like to make a movie with Lana Turner at that time? No one knew what was going to happen with her daughter. Did they feel any tension regarding the scandal on the set? Did they feel any tension from Lana Turner?

"There was a lot of tension because she was so very upset," Kohner answered. "She was very emotional. Her crying in those scenes was real crying. She was very fragile and I think Juanita would know more about that because she actually saw her through a lot."

"Oh yes, she cried," Moore added. "We cried together. She had nobody to turn to. Her daughter was out there and she loved her daughter; but, her daughter was kind of on the wild side. Lana was so upset with her. She had no one to talk to except me, I guess, and she would talk to me about her daughter who was into some wild things at that time. So many young kids were doing that kind of thing, y'know, they were on the heavy stuff. They started out with marijuana and before they knew it they were on the heavy stuff. That's what happened."

Osborne commented that Lana and her daughter became very close as the years went on. "Not that close," Moore countered dismissively.

Osborne: Her daughter would probably disagree with that.

Moore: Her daughter was tall….

Osborne: Still is….

Moore: …and Lana was the opposite, y'know? She was so petite. I know that her daughter was very displeased with the way she looked, because we talked about it. She said she looked like a man and I said, "C'mon, you don't look like any man I know."

Osborne: She's a beautiful girl today.

Moore: She is?!

Osborne: Yes, she is. She was supposed to be with us today. She was with us this morning for the screening of The Bad and the Beautiful. She's beautiful, Cheryl Crane.

Moore: Oh! I'd like to see her. She's big and beautiful?

Osborne: No, she's just beautiful.

Moore: Not fat?

Osborne: No, she's tall and quite beautiful.

Moore: I wish Lana could have lived to see that.

Osborne: She did.

Moore: No, she didn't!

Osborne: I would never argue with you about anything.

Moore: I saw Lana three days before she died so I know she didn't live to see her daughter beautiful like that. I'm still living and I haven't seen her beautiful like that, though I hope to God she is.

At this amusingly uncomfortable juncture, I was grateful that Cheryl Crane had already left the theater. Osborne, likewise, opted to shift the subject to Kohner's current activities. Kohner advised that she lives in New York City where she loves the cultural life and the city's many challenges. Osborne found this of interest recalling that Kohner had grown up in Hollywood before moving to New York. "Your father was the famous agent/manager Paul Kohner and your mother is Lupita Tovar, who's still with us." Kohner boasted her mother is going on 100. She related that she moved to New York to study under Sandy Meisner, did some theater, met her husband, married and settled down. She's lived in New York for over 40 years now, though she often returns to Los Angeles to visit her sons and her three grandchildren.

Juanita Moore's grandson—actor/producer Kirk Kelley-Kahn, the CEO/President of Cambridge Players: Next Generation—was present in the audience so Osborne invited him to the stage to introduce himself and to talk about the documentary he is making on his grandmother due out in December. "It's an educational documentary that is mostly going to be introducing people who don't know Juanita Moore and her legacy, and the way she's paved the way for others."

"Tell us something about your grandmother that she wouldn't say about herself," Osborne encouraged Kelley-Kahn, "Something that you admire about her."

He answered: "She always wanted me to work hard and earn everything on merit. That I appreciate. She's also helped me to remain positive because—when you're in show business—it's not so easy. The one thing I admire about her is that she's always kept on me to stay focused; but, it's not always easy listening to her. What can I say?"

"You might want to finish that documentary first," Osborne quipped.

"Some of the things she says might hurt you but you come back the next day and smile."

With that, Osborne thanked Kohner and Moore for taking the time to attend TCM's first Classic Film Festival.

Moore: I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to be anywhere.

Osborne: We're happy to have you.

Moore: Look at me, I'm old. Everybody knows that.

Osborne: Will you tell us your age?

Moore: [After a pause.] 94!

Cross-published on

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2010: The Hollywood Walk of Fame

Emerging from L.A.'s Redline station at Hollywood/Highland, I was reminded of Joseph Campbell's introductory comment to his classic study of the monomyth Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949:4): "In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream. The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change."

Granted, Campbell was speaking of an intraspychic articulation of that archetypal (i.e., mythic) impulse—which, it could be argued, in contemporary psyches finds its flickering expression in cinematic dreams—whereas emerging onto the
Hollywood Walk of Fame is an almost painful reminder of how Hollywood's Dream Factory has commodified not only our dreams but their mythic antecedents as well: externalizing and commercializing these mythic desires into a crass, if not hypnotic, cult of celebrity.

That's an observation more than a criticism as I—no less than any other tourist—couldn't resist glossing the stars embedded in the pavement though—slightly more privileged than most for the opportunity to meet talent—I felt no need to squat by the stars of my favorite cinema icons to have my photo taken, as if to simulate having my arm around their shoulder in feigned camaraderie. That, however, seemed the presiding recreation of the throngs on Hollywood Boulevard, along with passing coin to have their photograph taken with the costumed impersonations of Mary Poppins, Tinkerbell, Batman, Catwoman, the Predator, Spongebob Squarepants, the Mario Brothers, Wolverine, Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and the oldest, most haggard Marilyn Monroe I've ever seen in my life. We all want to rub up against the stars and walk away with a bit of their shine. We all crave our moment of luminescence.

As Leron Gubler has written in his essay on the Walk of Fame for the TCM Classic Film Festival souvenir catalog, no one is really certain where the original idea for the Walk of Fame came from; possibly from the historic Hollywood Hotel where stars painted on the ceiling of the dining room contained the names of celebrities. Demoted from the celestial to underfoot, these stars nonetheless radiate glamour, even as one considers all the practical complications of who gets selected to have their names on the Walk of Fame (Charlie Chaplin's estate sued for not being included in the inaugural set) and when (during the TCM festival Mel Brooks finally received his long overdue tribute), let alone who determines where the star is situated (wouldn't you rather be in front of Grauman's or the Roosevelt Hotel than Fredericks of Hollywood?). And like a starstruck teenager, who doesn't fantasize upon the empty stars waiting for a name?

Perhaps the closest I will ever come to such stature was the experience afforded by the
TCM Classic Film Festival of walking the red carpet into the opening night premiere of the restored version of George Cukor's A Star Is Born (1954). TCM graciously comped me two tickets to the opening night premiere (otherwise off limits to press) so that I was able to phone my host Miljenko Skoknik to invite him to accompany me. He arrived looking like a movie star: ravishingly handsome in cobalt blue pants, a camel hair jacket, grey sweater and stylish shades. I was put to shame. As we walked into Grauman's Chinese Theater, it amused me that autograph hounds were pressing against the barricades. One woman I spoke to later in the festival stated emphatically that there was something "not right" about "nobodies" walking the red carpet; but, I appreciated the experience of this hierarchy of nobodies: nobodies walking the carpet and nobodies clamoring for their autographs. Irregardless, at least I can say it once in my lifetime: I walked the red carpet into a Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere!

Inside was another matter altogether as that prestige crowd was peppered with the likes of Cher, Eve Marie Saint, Hugh Hefner, Alec Baldwin, Tab Hunter, Ernest Borgnine, Anjelica Huston, Peter Bogdonovich, among many others, including all those boys and girls from TV movies. For a moment I shared that sense of belonging. And I'm sure I overheard Cher whispering to her companion, "Who is that man in the cobalt blue pants and who is he with?"

Cross-published on

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

FILM & FOOD: Sundance Kabuki Cinema—Who Wants a Knuckle Samwick?

The 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival started last week; one of its main venues being the Sundance Kabuki Cinema located near the intersection of Fillmore and Geary. In that neighborhood, there are plenty of options for food and guest columnist Andy Samwick suggests a few.

Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street (at Fillmore), San Francisco
(415) 346-3243
Bus lines: 22 Fillmore, 38 Geary, 38L Geary Limited, 2 Clement, 3 Jackson, 4 Sutter
Parking: parking garage below the cinema.

* * *

I always love eating at SPQR, for example. They are open for brunch on weekends and dinner most nights. They have an excellent wine selection and great Italian fare prepared by Executive Chef, Matthew Accarrino. One of the highlights for me are the spiced ricotta fritters with smoked maple syrup. Truly a dish not to be missed. I can say the same for the grilled wild salmon belly with golden raisin saor and pepper jam. It is remarkably unique. Another innovative dish I like is the crispy pig's ear, pickled jalapeno, tomatillo & radish. I recently had that with a friend at dinner and we were pretty much blown away. At different times I have had the quail and the sole as a main course and have never been disappointed by either. And make sure you save room for dessert! The milk chocolate gelato and buttermilk crumble with candied almonds are outstanding. I love the passion fruit panna cotta too with the coconut spuma and coconut macaroons. Yum.

1911 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 771-7779

If you don't want to spend a lot on your meal, may I suggest venturing for comfort food at The Grove? I love the macaroni and cheese made with jack, cheddar, fontina and point reyes blue cheeses. Sometimes, I go for the healthy classic caesar with roasted chicken or a "Berkeley Bowl" with sweet 100 tomatoes, English cucumbers, red onions, ripe avocado, roasted peppers, alfalfa sprouts and garbonzo beans piled on Scarborough Farms spring mix dressed with homemade ranch dressing.

The Grove also proudly serves Jeremiah's Pick espresso and coffee. I have been known to get a macchiato with a giant homemade chocolate chip cookie or Rice Crispy treat. It is a cozy atmosphere and one of the nicest spots in the neighborhood.

The Grove
2016 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 474-1419

One of my favorite new places near the Sundance Kabuki has to be the
Pizzeria Delfina on California Street, which I recently featured at my site You Want a Knuckle Samwick! Their pizzas are some the best San Francisco has to offer. The antipasti is very good, especially their fresh stretched mozzarella. I have to do a lot of stretching after I eat there! Even the insalata tricolore with lemon vinaigrette and grana padano is delicious, if you decide to eat on the lighter side. My favorite pizza has to be prosciutto di parma, caciocavallo, mozzarella, panna, arugula. Oh, and the 4 formaggi, of course.

Pizzeria Delfina
2406 California Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 440-1189

If you like Mediterranean cuisine, you should definitely try La Méditerraneé. I usually get the Middle Eastern Plate because you have the choice of chicken pomegranate, chicken Cilicia, Grecian spinach & feta, cheese Karni, falafel, Levantine meat tart, dolma, Levant sandwich, and lamb lule. You are limited to three selections but if you bring friends, that always helps. I love their hummos and baba ghanoush too and I frequently order the lentil salad. Brunch is a treat and a great value. You get so much food!

La Méditerraneé
2210 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 921-2956

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SFIFF53: Frako Loden's Review Capsules

And since variance of opinion by its very nature defines a film festival audience, The Evening Class is proud to offer 24 review capsules from Frako Loden to compare, contrast and conflate with Michael Hawley's previous 14. [Frako warns that a few of these capsules allude to what may be plot spoilers!!]

* * *

Father of My Children (France/Germany: Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009)
This film is a realistic rendering of a French art-film producer with a loving wife and three adorable daughters, who is millions of euros in debt with several film projects hanging in the balance. Gregoire's family is resigned to his being in the room with them but always distracted by his cell phone and deal-making at their country home on weekends. Clearly he's a loving, if distracted, father and husband. But things are closing in on him, much as he'd like to deny it and stay hopeful. A Swedish director (based on Lars von Trier) is being difficult, but he's a "genius" that Gregoire must humor. A Korean filmmaker brings her larger-than-expected entourage to France and complains about an incompetent French crew. Gregoire grows more and more withdrawn, until one day he shoots himself on the street. (The story alludes to the real-life suicide of Humbert Balsan, who produced films by Claire Denis, Lars von Trier, Béla Tarr.)

The rest of the film shows everyone looking to his inexperienced widow to pick up the pieces, doing Gregoire's job and trying to save their production firm in the face of financial disaster. She even goes to Sweden to talk with the genius director and be set straight on how much Gregoire's vision meant to him—and that his successor Serge (played by the actor who will appear as Serge Gainsbourg in another filmfest film, Gainsbourg [Vie Héroïque]) has no such vision, in fact dislikes the director and "hates cinema." Meanwhile, their eldest daughter befriends a young filmmaker whom we saw Gregoire court at the beginning of the film and who is left out in the cold when Gregoire dies. Nothing is made of this coincidence really—there's no shattering realization when the daughter finds the filmmaker's script in Gregoire's office. The most powerful part of this last half is watching the eldest daughter mourn. At the very end, their visit to Gregoire's grave is cancelled because they've run out of time in their preparations for departing Paris. She suppresses her tears as they drive away in the car.

I was completely absorbed in this film—maybe to an unhealthy degree, since knowing Gregoire was eventually going to commit suicide created enough suspense. I just wasn't sure how soon he would do it. I believe it happened at the halfway point, at least it felt that way. The film gave us a long time to appreciate how much love and patience there was in the marriage and family so that we would equally appreciate the loss. All acting performances were understated and effective. There is something terrified and terrifying in the eldest daughter's eyes as she absorbs the enormity of her father's death. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The Man Who Will Come (Italy: Giorgio Diritti, 2009)
Another film with extremely effective and moving acting performances by young females is The Man Who Will Come, about a 1944 massacre of nearly 800 Italians by the SS near Bologna. Unlike City of Life and Death (about the Nanjing Massacre), this film doesn't feel a need to follow a sympathetic Wehrmacht soldier. Instead it focuses on a small village, the partisans who try to protect it, and the Nazis who target it for termination. It has similarities to Pan's Labyrinth in its main protagonist's being a canny little girl who's trying to protect her infant brother from Fascists—minus the rich imagination, of course. I guess one interpretation of the title The Man Who Will Come refers to the child who is born in the middle of the massacre—a review reminds me that the story time of the film begins at conception and ends at the first month after birth. But I think it could also refer to the second coming of Christ. Like in City of Life and Death, we have a long time to be with the villagers until they are almost totally wiped out by gunfire. At the end we're left with a tiny bit of hope, with the little girl cradling her baby brother sitting on a bench. She's escaped from another church whose parishioners she knows are doomed, since she survived a massacre of her own. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

My Dog Tulip (USA: Pau & Sandra Fierlinger, 2008)
I was expecting to make heavy use of my handkerchief for this one, but it never left my purse. I thought it was going to be another Umberto D. Instead, this is a lighthearted, naughty-minded animated story of the love between an old man (based on ex-BBC correspondent J.R. Acklerley) and his rambunctious Alsatian dog Tulip. It's hard to say if the film's focus on Tulip's scatological and sexual tendencies is due to J.R.'s personal obsession or just an integral part of living with a dog that doesn't get full coverage in more prudish stories. Still, all the energy expended in breeding Tulip seems so unnecessary, maybe even a bad idea. I found that the animation illustrating these sequences, in which Tulip wears a dress, was overliteralizing and not as funny as it thought it was. I'm sure dog-training ideologues will find plenty here to complain about the proper way to handle a dog, but in the end it's clear this is a grand love story. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The White Meadows (Iran: Mohammad Rasoulof, 2009)
This hypnotically beautiful film absorbed me from the beginning, as a man rows his boat toward a white-salt island to perform rites over, and take away the corpse of, a young woman. It's said she was bound to die because her beauty humiliated all the men around her—like one man says, "She led men to the well and left them thirsty." This boatman also collects sufferers' tears in a bottle and pours them into the very salty waters of Lake Urmia. In his voyages from island to island, the man gathers and helps reconnect unfinished stories through his healing, if sometimes cruel, rituals.

Director Mohammad Rasoulof, who was recently released after having been arrested at a party thrown by fellow filmmaker, arrestee, and this film's editor Jafar Panahi, follows his excellent film Iron Island (2005) with this saga set in spectacular vistas of white-salt beaches and islands in remote Western Iran. His themes from that earlier work of the exoticism of Iranian minorities, the rule of ancient laws and behavioral codes over human collectivities, and our relationship with the sea are in rich evidence here. It's definitely one of the most beautiful and suggestive films at this year's festival. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

Simonal: No One Knows How Tough It Was (Brazil: Cláudio Manoel/Micael Langer/Calvito Leal, 2009)
On first viewing, this felt like a not-totally-successful documentary about a person who's no longer around to speak for himself. In other words, I didn't feel there was enough definitive information about his aborted career to commit to an interpretation about what disaster befell him. It's about Wilson Simonal, who was a huge Brazilian pop star in the 1960s until rumors of dictatorship collusion and spying, and ultimately racism, got him blacklisted from the entertainment world. He died in 2000.

Simonal admired Sammy Davis Jr.'s persona as the total entertainer, a showman. He adopted Davis's attitude of multiple musicianship and total control over the audience, telling jokes, getting them to sing in parts and even walking off the stage and taking a break while they sang. I'm sure the filmmakers used the best available footage they could find of Wilson Simonal's performances, but I wish there was more. I like that he sired two sons, Wilson Simoninha and Max de Castro, who became successful entertainers themselves and speak in support of him even if he might have been an imperfect father. They talk about the racism Simonal encountered trying to "pass for white" as a big-time entertainer. They even show a musical skit he did on TV bemoaning his minstrel-like status. But he was no civil-rights activist.

I didn't know anything about pilantragem until I saw this. Apparently this "rascal" or street style, or vernacular attitude toward music, involves dropping final syllables of words—"faking it," deliberate cheesiness. (The talking heads disagree about pilantragem's authenticity or whether it helped or hurt Simonal. One says it was the only style that could compete with rock 'n' roll in dance clubs—it made everyone dance.) I loved some of the montage sequences and colorful '60s-style collages. There's a great clip of him silkily singing "The Shadow of Your Smile" with Sarah Vaughn. He was a huge star in Central and South America, the first international Brazilian star. He did commercials for Shell—in one ad he's flying a helicopter over motorists, flirting with them, calling himself "Super Shell, the best for your engine." He was identified with the Mug, a stubby little black doll with a carrot top.

Simonal's success at the International Song Festival in the years 1967 through 1972 apparently caused envy that turned into resentment and the beginning of his career slide. He opened for Sergio Mendes (which I learned you pronounce "Ments") at a return-to-Brazil concert after Mendes' Grammy win. That's when he wore his signature headscarf wrapped around his forehead—some say it was just for show because he didn't need to hold back nappy hair, but his son says it was to fix in place a potato or onion that would relieve a terrible nervous headache. The stage people called him and he left the scarf on. He had the huge audience (and this was before the era of stadium concerts) in the palm of his hand, so much so that Mendes didn't want to go on after him. Maybe Mendes thought he was being cocky—that he should show more deference for an artist who had just won a Grammy, or who was "white."

The reaction to his living large, with big cars and big blondes, seems to have been his downfall, like boxer Jack Johnson. He dedicated songs to other men's wives. He was friends with Pele and got tricked into thinking he might join the national soccer team. The film's explanation of his supposed kidnapping of an accountant that started all the trouble is a bit confusing, or maybe the events are just confusing. But watching this a second time is making me like it more than I did the first. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Presumed Guilty (Mexico: Roberto Hernández, 2008)
An effectively told story of an innocent man's struggle to clear himself in the corrupt Mexican court system. The filmmakers have an appealing subject, a monolithic bad guy, and a cause to fight. Their crisp, uncomplicated storytelling style and amazing footage of the trials conducted in what looks like a busy, indifferent office make for riveting filmmaking. Winner of SFIFF's Golden Gate Award in documentary. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Micmacs (France: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009)
I never got into Micmacs at all. All the whimsy and humor seemed terribly forced or just too mild. It made me wonder if I really liked Jeunet's previous films or just put up with their tics to favor their overall conception. The filtering resulted in a dingy yellowish cast to everything that made me slightly sick to my stomach. And I couldn't help wondering how much more interesting Jamel Debbouze (Days of Glory, Angel-A), for whom the script was originally written, might have been in the lead role. I had a feeling for Micmacs similar to how I felt about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus—scattered moments of elation between long stretches of boredom and even slight embarrassment. However I loved Yolande Moreau—she was just wonderful in her scenes. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (Denmark: Kaspar Astrup Schröder, 2009)
A documentary about an eccentric Japanese inventor that simultaneously shows how special and perhaps how bogus he is. Most famous for inventing the floppy disk and a pump that sucks soy sauce out of a large can into a small dispenser, Nakamatsu Yoshiro continues to patent thousands of his products, from sproinging running shoes to the libido-enhancing Love Jet. Meanwhile he's well on his way to achieving his target age of 144, eating only one meal a day, needing only four hours' sleep a night, and getting ideas for new inventions as he takes notes underwater. Apparently the filmmakers never met their subject, getting all their material via Skype and the Internet. I see no ill effects from this kind of long-distance collaboration. (Seen on DVD screener.)

A Brand New Life (South Korea: Ounie Lecomte, 2009)
Very moving drama about a little Korean girl whose father dumps her in an orphanage and never returns. Without an explanation for his actions, she digs in her heels and resists efforts to be adopted by a Western family while everyone around her aspires to it. Her pale little face still haunts me, as her joyous smile fades and one anchor in her life after another slips away. She seems almost to understand what will happen to each child sent out into the world, and it's not exactly a middle-class life of privilege in a Western suburb. So far this festival has been a showcase for excellent performances by girl actors (Father of My Children, The Man Who Will Come), and Kim Sae-ron as the non-orphan gives perhaps the best. At 10, she's older than Victoire Thivisol, who won the Best Actress award at Venice for her four-year-old turn in Ponette (1996). But the two actors resemble each other in their unself-conscious and utterly natural responses to the loss of their parents. A Brand New Life is a great fictional counterpart of the numerous transnational-adoption-themed documentaries screening at Asian American film festivals of late. Unlike so many of them with their adult-POV retrospection, the point of view here is deeply immersed in the pre-adoptee's immediate present. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Shirley Adams (South Africa: Oliver Hermanus, 2009)
This film opens in a poor Cape Town apartment, with the title character fighting to revive her teenage son from a suicide attempt. Donny lost the use of all his limbs when he was shot in the neck over a year ago. Her husband vanished without a trace three months before. Deeply wounded by his desertion and Donny's despair, Shirley soldiers on with her son's full-time care, unable to work for pay and relying on handouts from friends. The more help she's offered the more stubborn her refusals grow, and she fiercely resents the young white physical therapist who comes with groceries, offering to make life easier for Shirley and Donny. After accepting a Tupperware full of cookies from the mother of Donny's childhood pal Jeremy, Shirley learns that Jeremy is a suspect in the shooting. This litany of outrages doesn't sound like a pleasant invitation to a film, but you will be riveted by veteran South African actress Denise Newman's remarkable performance as Shirley, a woman who must hold her head up because pride is all she has left. Director Oliver Hermanus admires a 19th-century painter "who always painted women from behind, so we never truly know what they are thinking about." The camera simulates this technique by perching on Shirley's shoulder, hounding her and monitoring every move she makes. This restless camera is a visual correlative of Shirley's status as a colored (mixed-blood) woman hounded by violence and poverty in post-apartheid South Africa. Its precise, unsentimental focus seeks along with her the resolution that will free her from its bounds at last. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (USA: Ricki Stern/Annie Sundberg, 2009)
Closing Night picture. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much from this film since I feel near-indifference for the subject, but the filmmakers have made great documentaries on what feel like weightier issues: they produced/directed The Devil Came on Horseback (about the Darfur genocide) and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (about an African American man who was wrongly convicted for a rape-murder and imprisoned for almost 20 years).

The film opens with shots of heavy makeup being applied to Rivers' surgically altered features. She's in a career slump—she complains that her spotty, low-prestige appearances don't add up to a decent tour without any Vegas-style club dates—Kathy Griffin has taken all of them. Her here-now-AWOL-tomorrow manager Billy Sammeth says that Rivers jokes she needs sunglasses to look at her datebook because the blank white page is too glary. But "this queen of comedy will not abdicate ... there will be nail marks on that red carpet before she's through." One source of hope is that both she and daughter Melissa are booked on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice.

Five minutes in, I was completely captivated with Stern/Sundberg's treatment of pioneering comic Joan Rivers. We watch her get angsty and intolerable preparing for the opening of a play she's written about her life to be performed in Edinburgh and then in London. She's terrified yet hopeful about the prospect of taking the play to New York if she doesn't bomb in the UK. The memory still smarts of the way Manhattan critics savaged her performance in the play Fun City way back in 1971, and she still holds it against them. She claims, in tears, that her acting ability is dearer to her than her comic talent. As it turns out she's spared the Manhattan critics—the London critics are condescendingly cruel enough. The play dies offshore.

Despite what seems like a thick skin, she’s easily hurt and holds grudges for a long time. When Johnny Carson told her "You're going to be a star" in front of his Tonight Show audience in the 1960s, she says her life changed. She was on her way up: she became his permanent guest host in 1983 (in addition to having made comedy albums, written a bestseller, directed the Billy Crystal-starrer Rabbit Test, and hosted other talk shows). When the new Fox Network made her host of her own late-night talk show produced by her husband Edgar Rosenberg, Johnny Carson "slammed down the phone and never spoke to me again," even blacklisting her with NBC until recently. Unable to fire her own husband, Joan let herself be fired. Then Edgar killed himself.

I guess what makes this film so good is that we get a few glimpses of Joan's irritating side—the way she doesn't listen to Melissa and makes every conversation all about herself, her petulance, her inability to shut up—but then we see her essential decency and professionalism. She supports relatives; she needs a 17-foot-long dining table to seat invited "strays" for Thanksgiving; on her pre-turkey dinner charity deliveries for God's Love We Deliver, she's moved by a blind woman who used to be a Life photographer.

But best of all, we see her skill as a performer. She masterfully shuts down an off-screen heckler who's offended by her Helen Keller joke ("I have a deaf son!"). And she's unbearably funny, especially when she's making herself look bad. It's amazing how much she puts up with during her recent roast at Comedy Central. She is such a sporting pro and—and she loathes this word—an icon. As Addison DeWitt would say, "You're maudlin and full of self-pity—you're magnificent!" (Seen at a festival press screening.)

14-18: The Noise and the Fury (France: Jean-François Delassus, 2008)
This documentary for French TV uses colorized newsreel footage, dramatic and propaganda films, sound effects and voiceover narration (dubbed into English) to tell a story of a low-ranking French infantryman who witnesses the worst of World War I. During his four years of combat, the soldier sees everything but a good reason why so many of his fellow combatants must live in ghastly trenches and be bombed, gassed, killed and maimed in the "war to end all wars." Much has been made of the effect of all this post-production tampering of the silent image, that it brings the subjects' faces and emotions alive and introduces the horror of the early 20th-century war to a generation who wouldn't sit still for a plainer, black-and-white film without sound. It's wonderful if this compilation will indeed have such effects, but those of us who already love silent film may not appreciate the anachronistic tinting, sound effects and constant background chatter to match the moving lips of speaking characters. I think I would have been able to imagine "the noise and the fury" without all those simplistic audio-visual aids. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Littlerock (USA: Mike Ott, 2010)
Waiting for a replacement rental car, Japanese tourist siblings Atsuko and Rintaro are stuck in the tiny town of Littlerock in the desert north of Los Angeles. Their plans to visit Manzanar and San Francisco are stalled at the Pearblossom Motel, where they get mixed up with partying local teenagers. If you're reminded of the kooky Japanese couple in Mystery Train ("Elvis Presley." "Carl Perkins."), forget it—this couple isn't interested in paying homage to their Memphis rock gods and they're drearily passive. Still Atsuko is feeling the power her exotic beauty, and inability to communicate, have over the small-town boys, while Rintaro wants to get away from there as soon as possible. When Rintaro leaves unable to persuade his little sister to go with him, she moves in with the infatuated Cory and tries to learn how to make burritos for his father's bodega. In Littlerock she gets a lesson in American life that no trip to Disneyland or Fisherman's Wharf could teach her. This movie is worth watching only for the performance of Cory Zacharia as an ersatz Crispin Glover-like airhead who invites himself on dates, wants to be told he could be a model, and may win you over by the end. (Seen on DVD screener.)

The Loved Ones (Australia: Sean Byrne, 2009)
Imagine Brian De Palma's Carrie as a vengeful reject even before her prom disaster, and imagine Tommy, the high school's cutest boy, traumatized by a car accident in which he—to avoid a suddenly-appearing figure in the road—crashed into a tree, killing his father. Withdrawn, getting high all the time and trying out his death wish on a local cliff side, Brent at least has a nice girlfriend Holly, with whom he's going to the dance. But he's not prepared for what happens when Lola, the school dork, asks him to the dance and is rejected. What follows is an ordeal that we've seen in torture-porn movies, but this film actually has a heart and a sense of humor. Sure, the horror takes precedence over everything else and the levels of horror get pretty implausible, but within its limits it's an entertaining ride, giving a nod to moments from iconic teen films like Carrie of course, Pretty in Pink and even Donnie Darko. A subplot involving Brent's best friend and a surly Goth girl has an unexpected outcome. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Northless (Mexico: Rigoberto Perezcano, 2009)
The English title for Norteado seems wrong somehow. I'm not a Spanish speaker, but doesn't Norteado mean more like "northerned" or "turned north"? I understand it implies disorientation or dislocation, but the north is certainly still there.

It's there because our young male protagonist Andrés is trying to get there. But, leaving his wife and children behind in Oaxaca, he's apprehended at the border between Mexico and the US because his coyote has abandoned him. As he waits back in Tijuana for the next opportunity to climb the fence and cross the river, he feeds himself by helping a woman and her helper run a bodega. Each woman is still waiting, years later, for a man who went north and cut off all contact with her. Sensing that that is what Andrés will do as well, they try to get him to stay while their friend Don Asensio, to make up for one unsuccessful attempt, tries to find another way for Andrés to get across at last. In a plot turn that recalls The Graduate, Andres tries to squirm out of the older woman's grasp in order to woo the younger.

The film's deadpan, often silent exchanges give it authenticity and authority, and the photography conveys a landscape that makes heat, hunger and thirst the biggest threats to life. Repeated visual clues of plot development are slyly funny: portraits of Bush and Schwarzeneggar on the wall signal deportation yet again, and Andrés commemorates his dates in a photo booth. And the final result of all the characters' concerted efforts is so surreal in its melancholy humor that it may have you laughing too much for tears. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Marwencol (USA: Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
(The screener DVD was a temp rough cut, but it was good enough for me!) Winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at South by Southwest 2010. In the tradition of Jeff Feuerzeig's 2005 The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Jessica Yu's 2004 In the Realms of the Unreal, this documentary takes us into the very private fantasy world of an outsider artist whose work flourishes as a result of mental disturbance. The preceding 38 years of bad alcoholic Mark Hogancamp's memory was wiped out in a vicious 2000 barroom attack by five teenagers. Brain damage forced him to relearn how to eat, walk, read, write and remember his previous life. Miraculously, his desire for alcohol vanished. He was making progress when his therapy was cancelled due to inability to pay, and this is when he decided to "create my own therapies."

The solution was to construct outside his trailer a dollhouse-scale model of a World War II-era Belgian town he dubbed Marwencol, into which his action-figure soldier alter ego crash-lands. The brutal SS, who have already staged one massacre in the town, keep returning and demanding to know the whereabouts of a bar called The Ruined Stocking, where owner Mark now hangs out with his warrior buddies. A coterie of beautiful battle-hardened women survivors, played by Barbies, protect Mark and his friends from the SS. On Nazi-free evenings he pays the women to stage "cat fights" for entertainment. Life is one long party at The Ruined Stocking even if soldier Mark himself drinks nothing but coffee.

Mark the artist resembles Yu's subject Henry Darger, another very introverted artist who created details-rich universes full of combat, women's clothing and more than a whiff of fetish. Darger had his Vivian Girls and Mark has his 27 Barbies, individualized into glamorous avatars of real women in his life: his mother, his boss, his ex-neighbor. In his fantasy life, soldier Mark often gets kidnapped, tied up and tortured by the SS and is rescued in the nick of time by his fiercely protective women. Mark's photographs of his tableaux, peopled by dolls loving and battling in minutely detailed landscapes, are astonishingly realistic and more evocative than the movie stills they resemble. Think Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story or the puppet animation of Kawamoto Kihachiro: Dolls come to life for us when they play out our fears and obsessions. And they tell us of our lives—they do what we're afraid to admit we want to do.

Over the course of the film we begin to learn, through the Marwencol enactments and then in the preparations for showing Mark's work at a Manhattan gallery, what was going on in Mark's life pre-assault—and what still haunts him. I feel guilty saying how funny I thought Mark's angst was over what to wear at his opening, since it was a hugely serious matter for him. But his term "fuckin' man-shoes" has entered my vocabulary for something you feel forced into wearing. I'm not sure I've seen another film that creates so much goodwill and admiration for a damaged man trying to put himself back together and then becoming an artist in the process. (Seen on DVD screener.)

To Die Like a Man (Portugal: João Pedro Rodrigues, 2009)
When I see a film that emotionally devastates me, puts me in a real state, I usually try to see it again to figure out why I had such an extreme reaction. But I've decided not to see To Die Like a Man a second time because I'm not sure it will survive it. If it withers under my gaze, if it never coheres (a common criticism by reviewers), if I'm left cold, I don't really want to know it. We'll always have Palm Springs.

I saw this there in January and was undone by it. That's good enough for me in this case. It's about a middle-aged transvestite entertainer named Tonia who realizes that her breast implant is leaking and poisoning her to death. Her young lover urges her to have her penis surgically removed, a procedure we see described by a physician with the help of origami. Should she die like a woman or like a man? That’s just one of many sources of anguish for Tonia, whose AWOL son we see killing a fellow soldier in the opening scene, whose young lover is a junkie and treats her like shit, who's losing her top billing at the nightclub. But this plot summary is insufficient to describe a movie that affected me so much, without my being able to really say how. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Air Doll (Japan: Koreeda Hirokazu, 2009)
Now this film is one that I do plan to see again after a first viewing at Palm Springs left me undecided. Throughout it I had a feeling of mild disappointment, like I knew what the film was trying to do but not succeeding completely. What a different reaction I had to Koreeda's previous film Still Walking, which I consider a near-masterpiece. But several hours after viewing Air Doll I paused, thought, "Ahhh, that's what he was saying!" and decided to give it another try. If I'm still somewhat disappointed on a second viewing, it won't be because of Bae Doo-na's brilliant performance as the inflatable sex doll who longs to walk among humans. She's a perfect choice, being Korean walking among Japanese. That layer of her real life enriches an already complex portrait of a creature who needs to learn how females look, talk, move and work in Japanese society in order to blend in and be undetectable as the unique being that she is. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Wake in Fright aka Outback (Australia: Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
I had seen this in 10-minute segments on YouTube, so I wasn't prepared for the horribleness of the kangaroo hunt scene on the big screen. Several people walked out at the beginning of that scene at the Palm Springs Filmfest screening in January. It seemed to go on forever and I had to pull out my hankie to stop the flow of tears as I watched one kangaroo after another be thrown in the air by the force of bullets and lie there twitching or staring straight into the camera as it died.

A disclaimer at the end of the movie said that the scenes were shot during a sanctioned hunt "conducted by licensed professional hunters. No kangaroos were expressly killed for this motion picture. Because the survival of the Australian kangaroo is seriously threatened these scenes were included with approval of leading animal welfare organizations in Australia and the United Kingdom."

The story is about genteel schoolteacher John Grant (played by UK actor Gary Bond) who's stuck in the tiny outback hamlet of Tiboonda, part of a bond contract in which the state pays for his education. He starts his six-week Christmas vacation hoping to head for Sydney, but during a night's stay at Bundanyabba (or "The Yabba") before catching a flight to the city, he drinks with a cop and loses all his money in a coin-tossing game called two-up. He meets some outback yahoos and a weird character named "Doc" Tydon (played by Donald Pleasence), and they carouse, hunt for kangaroos and tear up a bar—there's even a hint that Doc rapes or tries to rape a shitfaced Grant.

The movie seems to be saying that the "horrors of mateship" happen when white men try to live in the bush. There's no explicit statement saying that, nor is there a comparison of white with aboriginal people—few aborigines appear in the film—but it's implying that the bush is a heart of darkness where the worst instincts of man come out and women and kangaroos just have to put up with it. The white natives have been twisted—by the landscape, by the isolation, by inbreeding, who knows?—into a subhuman form, something like the hillbillies in Deliverance (which was released the year after Wake in Fright). The female bar servers work grimly and a 30ish woman Grant meets at the house of one of his drinking buddies is so starved for human companionship that she takes him outside and lies down, unbuttoning her dress and practically pulling him on top of her. He pukes, ruining the moment, and he later finds out that many men in the town have had sex with her. The YouTube segments I viewed, which I now realize were of the expurgated American release (titled Outback), didn't show Grant nude or vomiting and abridged the kangaroo hunt. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Everyone Else (Germany: Maren Ade, 2009)
This is a terrific intimate drama about a relationship that starts ripping apart at the seams when a young German couple stays at his parents' beachside house in Sardinia. As Chris awaits the results of a design competition, Gitti is anxious to go out and enjoy herself. Their stay is disturbed by the presence of another couple who remind them of their shortcomings, and awkward scenes ensue. I loved this film for its unpredictability among people I might normally consider easy to peg as types. The film won't let you get away with that. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Moscow (South Korea: Whang Cheol-mean, 2009)
My viewing companion called this a "headscratcher," and I have to agree. It's not a completely satisfying experience watching two junior-high friends reunite as young women, having taken very different paths in their working lives. One has abandoned a hunger strike at a factory, and the other works robotically as an office lady. They become roommates and their relationship intensifies in complexity and tension. There's plenty of potential for significance in their conflicts involving the South Korean working world and women's aspirations, but these themes don't knit together in an interesting way. Maybe it's because I'm not familiar enough with Chekhov's The Three Sisters, to which this film apparently makes numerous references. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Woman on Fire Looks For Water (Malaysia: Woo Ming-jin, 2009)
I loved Woo's Monday Morning Glory (2005) but I missed The Elephant and the Sea (2007), which I'm intent on seeing now that I've fallen in love with his latest. I laugh when I read Tony An describe the title as something "Hong Sang-soo would have picked"—I believe the Chinese title is simply Regret(s). The plot of this lovely and haunting film is simple: An elderly fisherman visits his married lost love more frequently now that he knows he's dying. The fisherman's son loves a young woman who works in a fish processing plant, but the cockle factory owner has him in mind for his daughter's husband. As these story strands work their leisurely way through the film, we watch these people mend nets, strip fish, harvest cockles and gently manipulate events to their gain. I suspect that this film will be even more immersive and intimate on the big screen. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Around a Small Mountain (France: Jacques Rivette, 2009)
Its French title, 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup, must be derived from Hokusai or Hiroshige's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, both works being a series of woodblock prints that show Japan's emblematic mountain in all seasons from different perspectives. So this film purports to be a series of views of the famous wolf-fang-shaped mountain in Languedoc-Roussillon near Montpellier, where an Italian businessman follows a dying circus troupe as it performs to near-empty rooms, gradually wearing down the resistance of a woman (Jane Birkin) returning to the troupe after a tragic accident caused her to leave it 15 years before. I probably shouldn't be writing about this film since I dozed off for a good half-hour of it. The parts that I did see left me cold. I know that Rivette is one of the giants of the French New Wave with a brilliant body of work, and I risk sounding like a disrespectful philistine complaining about this relatively short and accessible work. But I was bored and slightly embarrassed by it. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Nymph (Thailand: Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2009)
From the long opening traveling shot that hovers lingeringly over a jungle incident, this film tries to maintain a level of enigmatic suspense throughout that it can't sustain. A young married couple show signs of strain after the photographer husband takes his secretly unfaithful wife camping in a forest where many people have gone missing. When the husband is captivated by a mysterious tree and then vanishes, the film enters horror movie cliché-land when the wife insists on returning alone to the scene of the disappearance and comes in contact with the unseen power herself. Miraculously the husband shows up on her sofa in an altered state, but nobody—especially her illicit lover—believes that he has really reappeared. Maybe the characters are too understated, but I wasn't affected by what happens to them or how they respond. I hope I merely misjudged the tone of the film and that it wasn't a moralistic tale about adultery. (Seen on DVD screener.)

Cross-published on

SFIFF53: Michael Hawley's Review Capsules

After weeks of anticipation, the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is finally set to launch this Thursday, April 22. I'm looking to catch 30 or so films during the next two weeks and hope to file a wrap-up report when it's all over and done with. Meanwhile, here's a fistful of capsule write-ups of films I've had the chance to preview on DVD screener (except where noted). These 14 films represent only a fraction of what's on offer, so pick up a festival mini-guide, browse the entire roster of films on the festival's website, or check out my previews of the line-up here, here and here. Also, if you're interested in knowing which films are screening in 35mm and which ones will be digitally projected, be sure to have a look at the Film on Film Foundation's indispensable Bay Area Film Calendar.

Air Doll (Japan dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
A blow-up sex doll comes to life and discovers that having a heart is heartbreaking in this perhaps destined-to-disappoint follow-up to 2008's masterful Still Walking. Kore-eda laboriously overworks his premise here to deliver a gnarly parable about loneliness. Still, the film looks great and is a choice vehicle for Korean actress Bae Doo-na (Linda Linda Linda, The Host), whose gifts for pathos and physical comedy are put to sublime use in the title role. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

A Brand New Life (South Korea/France dir. Ounie Lecomte)
Based on the director's own childhood spent in a South Korean Catholic orphanage, this powerful and affecting film is a testament to the adaptability of youth. In 1975, nine-year-old Jin-hee (adorably resolute Kim Sae-ron) is brought to an orphanage by a father who can no longer care for her. Over the course of the film, we witness her disbelief and anger painfully transform into resignation, and finally acceptance. Realizing her father will never return, Jin-hee intuits that her best bet is to play the system and present herself in a way that will facilitate a foreign adoption. Remarkably unmanipulative considering its subject matter and engaging throughout, the film should be a strong contender for the festival's New Directors prize. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Cairo Time (Canada dir. Ruba Nadda)
The talents of Patricia Clarkson aren't nearly enough to save this hokey tale of a Western woman's reawakening amidst an exotic culture. Magazine editor Juliette gets waylaid in Cairo while waiting to be joined by her U.N. relief worker husband, meanwhile vaguely falling for the handsome Egyptian assigned to watch over her. Clunky dialogue, an overwrought score, and lack of chemistry are among its chief problems. The only winner is Cairo itself, which is beautifully photographed. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

Father of My Children (France/Germany dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
A beloved art-film producer commits suicide after becoming financially overextended, leaving family and business associates to deal with his legacy in this splendid Special Jury Prize winner from Cannes (Un Certain Regard). The film kicks off with a bravura sequence detailing a day in the life of producer Grégoire Canvel, as he chain smokes, juggles multiple cell phones, irons out production snafus, evades creditors and smoothes the ruffled feathers of temperamental actors and directors. He has a loving, if exasperating relationship with his wife and three daughters, which renders the suicide at the film's exact mid-point all the more tragic. The second half almost seems like an anti-climax in comparison, as Canvel's wife tries to salvage the production company and a family secret is discovered by his eldest daughter. The film was inspired by the life and death of Hubert Balsan, whose list of productions includes films by Claire Denis, Youssef Chahine and Lars von Trier. I found it a big step up from Hansen-Løve's debut film All is Forgiven, which certainly had its ardent admirers. Father of My Children will be of special appeal to those interested in the economics of contemporary art film production. (Seen at a festival press screening.)

The Invention of Dr. NakaMats (Denmark dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder)
Yoshiro Nakamatsu holds the world's record for patents–3,357 and counting–as compared to Edison's paltry 1,093. This snappy and entertaining bio-doc follows Nakamatsu in the months leading up to his 80th birthday and the debut of his latest invention, the B-Bust Bra for small breast enhancement. Brilliant and eccentric, the good doctor also comes off a sardonic self-promoter and pompous ham. He's best known for inventing the floppy disk, an idea that came to him, like many others, while swimming underwater (he takes notes on his waterproof notepad, which of course, he invented). Among his other creations are spray-on aphrodisiac Love Jet and a vehicle that runs on water. A dapper dresser who does all this "out of love" for humanity, the doctor gets by on four hours sleep and one meal per day (he won a Nobel Prize in nutrition after photographing and analyzing every single meal he ate for 34 years). "I think that nothing is impossible" is his credo and this film will convince you he sincerely believes it. With a fun music score by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo, Pee-wee's Playhouse).

Marwencol (USA dir. Jeff Malmberg)
In 1993, Mark Hogencamp was viciously attacked outside a Kingston, NY bar and consequently spent nine days in a coma. His face had to be rebuilt and all his motor skills had to be relearned. Hogencamp's mental recovery from this trauma has been precipitated by Marwencol, a miniature, doll-populated WWII-era Belgian village he's built outside his trailer home. Marwencol and its inhabitants are the subject of a captivating and poignant film that recently won the jury prize for best documentary at SXSW. Hogencamp works through emotional issues by staging and photographing elaborate dramas with dolls, many of whom represent people he knows in "real" life. One day there might be staged catfights at "The Ruined Stocking" bar, and the next day might find Hogencamp's avatar doll being stripped and tortured by sadistic SS officers. Eventually the Art World comes calling–Hogencamp's photos are compiled into a nifty volume and a NYC gallery stages a one-man show. It's then we learn of a "twist" in his story; one that explains a lot about Marwencol and the "reason" for the 1993 attack. Director Malmberg lays all this out in a compelling way, using judicious stop-motion animation and period music to bring Hogencamp's extraordinary creation to life.

My Queen Karo (Belgium dir. Dorothée Berghe)
The ups and downs of communal living are explored in this bittersweet, autobiographical flashback to 1974. Ten-year-old Karo and her Belgian parents help establish a squatters artist commune in an abandoned Amsterdam building. Trouble invades paradise when Karo's father invites another woman to move in and share his bed, sending Karo's less liberated mother into an emotional tailspin. Ideological differences involving money start to strain the couple's relationship as well. A confused and conflicted Karo, who observes the adults having sex in the commune's un-partitioned living space, does her childlike best to navigate a way through it all, with metaphorical swimming lessons providing some needed structure and discipline.

Northless (Mexico/Spain dir. Rigoberto Perezcano)
After being abandoned in the desert by his coyote, Oaxacan Andrés is captured by U.S. immigration authorities and sent back to Tijuana. He falls into work doing odd jobs at a bodega, where a sexual tension develops between himself, the store's female owner and a female helper. Despite having a wife and two kids back home, crossing the border becomes less of an imperative, at least temporarily. The two women are in no hurry to see him go either, each having lost a man to the allure of El Norte. When they finally do help him emigrate, it's in a wonderfully surprising way that, of all things, is scored to Debussy's "Claire de lune." Handsomely photographed and finely acted, this observational and melancholic (but not humorless) film about the toll of economic disparity is the antithesis of last year's heart-pounding immigration melodrama Sin Nombre.

The Peddler (Argentina dir. Lucas Marcheggiano, Adriana Yurkovich, Eduardo de la Serna)
Sixty-seven-year-old Daniel Burmeister rolls into the Argentine Pampas village of Gould driving a beat-up red sedan. For the 58th time in his filmmaking career, he'll make a complete narrative feature using local talent in exchange for lodging, food and the right to sell tickets to a premiere. This sweet documentary takes us through the gregarious and self-effacing Burmeister's entire DIY process–from casting to location scouting, from shoot to showtime–improvising as circumstance dictates. A white sheet doubles as his movie screen and a cemetery ghost costume. A tracking shot is accomplished by having Burmeister dragged across the floor atop a blanket. This is the only Argentine film in this year's festival, which is unusual. Fortunately, this charming and respectful portrait of small town life and one man's passion is worthy of standing alone.

The Portuguese Nun (France/Portugal dir. Eugène Green)
"I never see French films. They're only for intellectuals." So states a minor character in this formalist work that will strike many as overly mannered and pretentious. I was pretty darned transfixed by it, and believe me, I ain't no intellectual. Leonor Baldaque plays a malaise-afflicted French actress who's in Lisbon to make a film about a 17th century nun and her affair with a military officer. She wanders the city like a doe-eyed somnambulist and has a series of life-changing encounters with a suicidal man, a genuine Portuguese nun and a six-year-old waif–not to mention a one-night stand with her co-star. Among director Green's cinematic tactics are 360° pans, emotionally flat dialogue delivery, two-shot conversations spoken directly to the camera, focal shifts within single shots and a fascination with legs and feet. Green also portrays the director of the film within the film, one Denis Verde. All this will drive some people bonkers and I predict walk-outs. What might keep them in their seats are several live music interludes and the fact that Lisbon has never looked more ravishing on film than it does here.

Presumed Guilty (Mexico dir. Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith)
The SFIFF staff was so impressed by this look at the horrors of Mexico's criminal justice system that they pre-awarded it the festival's Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary. It's easy to see why. This powerful and moving film follows the trials of one José Antonio Zuñiga-Rodriguez, a thoughtful young man wrongly arrested and convicted for a 2005 homicide despite a myriad of judicial injustices–not the least of which is several dozen witnesses putting him miles from the crime scene. When it's discovered that his original lawyer was practicing with a forged license, "Toño" is granted a retrial that the filmmakers are miraculously permitted to record–and what an eye-opener that is. The "courtroom" is merely one section of a large, open and chaotic office space and his judge is the same guy who convicted him in the first place. Of particular interest is the trial's cara a cara, in which the accused is permitted to question and confront, literally face-to-face, his accusers. It's shocking, but not unsurprising when the retrial results in a second conviction. The case then goes to a court of appeals, where the retrial film footage is submitted as evidence. You'll have to see the film yourself to learn their ruling. During the end credits it's revealed that 95% of Mexican verdicts are convictions, and 92% of those are not based on any physical evidence.

To Die Like a Man (Portugal/France João Pedro Rodrigues)
Middle-aged transvestite performer Tonia has problems. Her infected breast implants are killing her, her junkie boyfriend is ripping her off, her AWOL solider son has committed murder and her once-adoring public is no longer interested. In this hyper-stylized melodrama, Portuguese provocateur Rodrigues (O Fantasma, Two Drifters aka Odete) precariously walks the fine line between hooty camp and deeply affecting emotionalism–and largely succeeds. Since the film premiered in Un Certain Regard at last year's Cannes, it's accumulated an equal share of haters and defenders. Chances are if you disliked his two previous films, you're not gonna like this one either–and vice versa. I can't wait to see it again. After you've seen it, be sure and check out The Evening Class' Michael Guillén's
interview with Rodrigues from the Toronto Film Festival. (Seen at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

The Wind Journeys (Colombia dir. Ciro Guerra)
Following the death of his wife, taciturn accordion maestro Ignacio sets off on a mission to return his accursed instrument to its original owner. He begrudgingly tolerates the company of aspiring teen musician Fermin, and their episodic misadventures en route shape this dazzling, roadless road movie that was Colombia's 2009 Oscar submission. The journey takes them through a variety of landscapes–desert, mountain, plains and seaside–all breathtakingly filmed in wide screen. They also come into contact with various cultures and their music. A frenetic battle-of-the-accordion-players at a village music festival is one of the most joyous and thrilling things I've seen at the movies this year. Visually, The Wind Journeys is a stunner, with meticulously framed compositions and intricate camera choreography that at times borders on show-off-y. I regret not being able to fit a big-screen experience of this into my festival schedule.

You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest (Chile dir. Ché Sandoval)
While this film isn't anything we haven't seen before in such vignette-structured youthful gab-fests like Slackers and 25 Watts, it is genuinely funny and an accomplished achievement for its 25-year-old director and largely non-pro cast. Protagonist Javier (a revelatory Martín Castillo) is a pesky, motor-mouthed overthinker whose bravado masks a pathetic vulnerability. It's not really his fault that best friend Nicolás is way cooler and hotter and keeps stealing his girlfriends without trying. In addition to romantic advances and retreats, the film tracks Javier through a series of prickly social encounters. He allows a frustrated friend to punch him in the face for nine dollars, and then pays a gay guy at a bus stop to quit bugging him. Most memorable is a tender interaction between Javier and an aging prostitute who's waiting for a taxi after a hard night's work. I was sure the film couldn't possibly live up to its fabulous title. I was wrong. This will be another solid contender for the festival's New Directors prize.

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