Wednesday, April 22, 2015


After three weeks of anticipation, the San Francisco International Film Festival's 58th edition is set to take off tomorrow night. Thus far, The Evening Class has checked out the awards and special presentations announced before and after the opening press conference and surveyed SFIFF58's impressive line-up of new works from France and Asia. In this last pre-fest entry, I'll spotlight some U.S. films of personal interest followed by a look beyond our northern and southern borders.

My favorite documentaries usually center on politics or the arts and there's no shortage of either at SFIFF58. Topping my must-sees is Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Nelson, the consummate documentarian whose Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple won the festival's Golden Gate Award in 2006, will appear at the April 25 screening along with Black Panther Party members. From roughly the same era of American history there's also Best of Enemies, which analyzes the legacy of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.'s famously caustic 1968 TV debates. Best of Enemies is co-directed by Morgan Neville, whose Twenty Feet from Stardom enlivened the festival two years ago on its way to an Oscar® win, and Robert Gordon, who'll accompany the film's April 24 screening. A Landmark Theatres theatrical release is slated for August. For a red-hot socio-political doc with local import there's Alex Winter's Deep Web, which profiles purported Silk Road owner and founder Ross Ulbricht. Director Winter will be on hand for the film's May 4 showing, along with a panel of special guests discussing the "current states of surveillance, privacy, journalism and where they intersect on-line."

For American arts-related docs, the big event this year is the Castro Theatre showing of What Happened, Miss Simone? on the festival's second night. As an obsessed, life-long Nina fan, I've watched her perform live on several occasions and possess nearly her entire discography on vinyl. That's why I was so disheartened by the mixed reviews the film received at Sundance and Berlin. Still, I wouldn't dream of not taking a look for myself. Following the film, director Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Bobby Fischer Against the World) will be interviewed on-stage by radio talk show host Tavis Smiley. Netflix, who bankrolled the film, will host its VOD premiere on June 26. For a music doc with a Bay Area angle there's Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents. Don Hardy's film will hopefully unravel some the mystery behind the Bay Area's prolific (over 60 albums!) avant-garde musicians and multimedia artists, perhaps best known for their tuxedo, top hat and eyeball helmet stage costumes. Hardy will attend all three SFIFF screenings.

Other biographical documentaries on the SFIFF58 roster include Douglas Tirola's self-explanatory Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon and Iris, a glowing portrait of fashion maven Iris Apfel. Sadly, the latter will also go down as the farewell film from revered director Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), who passed away last month. In Stevan Riley's Listen To Me Marlon we'll get to experience Brando as never before, via 300 hours of secret audio tapes the actor recorded throughout his life. The film's April 25 screening will feature a special introduction by esteemed movie writer David Thomson. If you miss them at the festival, Landmark's Opera Plaza will host the theatrical release of Iris on May 8 and Listen to Me Marlon on August 7. Finally, none other than Isabella Rossellini is expected to attend the festival's world premiere of Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno Live!, director Jody Shapiro's accounting of the iconic actress' eccentrically educational, how-animals-have-sex stage show.

Looking over the roster of U.S. narrative features, I've heard really terrific things about Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad's biopic about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Paul Dano and John Cusack play the young and older Wilson respectively, with Paul Giamatti taking on Eugene Landy, the Svengali-like therapist who nearly ruined Wilson's life. What especially excites me about this film is that it's co-written by Oren Moverman, the guy who concocted Todd Haynes' radically offbeat Dylan biopic, I'm Not There. Moverman is a director as well as a screenwriter, and his new film Time Out of Mind will play at the festival's Richard Gere tribute. Love & Mercy director Pohlad will be on hand for the film's May 1 screening.

Five additional domestic features that have my interest piqued were all Sundance breakouts. Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was a late addition to the SFIFF line-up. It receives one screening on April 29 and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon will be there. Also garnering lots of Sundance raves was Sean Baker's Tangerine, the shot-on-iPhone 5S odyssey about a L.A. trans-hooker ferreting out her errant pimp / boyfriend on Xmas Day. Director Baker and screenwriter Chris Bergoch are expected to attend both SFIFF58 showings. Two years ago I slept through most of Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, but I'm still game for Results, his new Guy Pearce-starring comedy set in a Texas gym. The main attraction for me is co-star Cobie Smulders, whom I know and adore from the only network TV sit-com I've watched in 40 years (How I Met Your Mother). Results opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 5, followed by Tangerine on July 17.

From the festival's Vanguard section, I'm bracing myself for the unpleasantness of Rick Alverson's Entertainment, which Variety critic Scott Foundas describes as a "dark, weird odyssey through a soulless American nowhere, with perhaps the world's most abrasively unfunny insult comic as guide." Last but not least, everyone I know is excited about the Bay Area premiere of The Royal Road, the latest personal essay film from San Francisco filmmaker Jenni Olson. Shot on gorgeous 16mm film, Olson uses California's El Camino Real highway as a jumping off point to "burrow into the endlessly mineable terrains of history and memory."

There are two Canadian films in SFIFF58's line-up, Dark Wave entry The Editor and Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room (co-written and directed by former Maddin student Evan Johnson). I believe this will be The Forbidden Room's first screening since its Sundance and Berlin premieres and I'm beyond jazzed we get to partake in it so soon. Inspired by the co-directors' dream of recreating imaginary "lost" films, The Forbidden Room appears indescribable even to those who've seen it. My favorite attempt is from Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema, who characterizes it as "a majestic culmination of Maddin's prowess in silent cinema tropes, a delirious, maddening rabbit hole of rippling nightmares that somehow, inextricably, fashion themselves into a cohesive narrative made up of cascading tangents." There's also an eye-popping cast that includes Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Mathieu Amalric.

Maddin's history with the festival goes all the way back to his debut feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital in 1989. He received SFIFF's Persistence of Vision Award in 2006 and who can forget the on-stage foley effects and live Joan Chen narration that accompanied 2007's presentation of Brand Upon the Brain? It's been announced that Maddin will indeed be here to present The Forbidden Room's sole SFIFF screening on April 25. If you've seen him before, you know he's an irresistible hoot. Maddin's expected appearance resolved my second biggest scheduling conundrum of SFIFF58—whether to see The Forbidden Room or the simultaneous Guillermo del Toro tribute at the Castro. Sorry, Guillermo. (My biggest scheduling conundrum? That would be the excruciating May 5 choice between Cibo Matto performing to Yoko's Fly at the Castro and the lone screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep. The 2014 Palme d'or winner was unceremoniously slipped into SFIFF58's line-up just a few days ago and will make its Bay Area premiere the same day as the film's DVD and Blu-ray release.)

Looking southward, 2014 was somewhat of an off year for Latin American cinema. Few films from the region received much critical attention on the fest circuit and the handful of breakouts, like The Way He Looks and Futuro Beach, have already seen their Bay Area festival and theatrical releases come and go. Happily, the one Latin American film appearing on my SFIFF58 wish list did manage to make it onto the roster. With Lisandro Alonso's Jauja, South America's most noted minimalist returns with his first film in six years. Premiering in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar to excellent reviews, this trippy, meta-Western is set in a Patagonian outpost with Viggo Mortensen as its unlikely star. The actor also produced and co-composed the score. A second Argentine film I'm hoping to see is Two Shots Fired, an existential comedy repping the first new feature in 10 years from New Argentine Cinema director Martín Rejtman. As he did in 1999 with Silvia Prieto and again in 2004 with Magic Gloves, Rejtman will be personally accompany his latest work to the SFIFF.

Other South American entries at SFIFF58 include new films from Chile (El Cordero), Peru (NN) and Brazil (The Second Mother). Mexico is represented solely by Arturo González Villaseñor's powerful-sounding documentary All of Me, which depicts the women who hand off food to rail-riding Central American immigrants en route to a new life in the U.S.A. From the Caribbean region SFIFF58 offers Murder in Pacot, a drama set in post-earthquake Haiti from the always interesting Raoul Peck (Lumumba). Sand Dollars arrives from Haiti's next-door neighbor and stars Geraldine Chaplin as one-half of an interracial, intergenerational lesbian couple. This work from the Dominican Republic was co-directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, a filmmaking team whose impressive previous features, Cochochi (2008) and Jean Gentil (2011) screened at previous SFIFF editions.

Cross-published at film-415.

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