Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SFIFF58—MICHAEL HAWLEY'S WRAPS UP WEEK TWO

Here are some thoughts on five on my favorite programs from the second week of the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. (My round-up of week one can be found here.)

Eden (France, dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)—SFIFF58's second week got off to an invigorating start with this vibrant and touching evocation of a once hot and happening scene. Based on the experiences of Sven Hansen-Løve, who's also the director's brother and co-screenwriter, Eden follows the two-decade trajectory of fictionalized House-music DJ and producer Paul Vallée (baby-faced Félix de Givry) as he scales the heights of Paris clublife before sliding into a morass caused by drug abuse and changing musical tastes. In addition to the breathtaking club sequences, I was impressed by Eden's parade of familiar actresses depicting the women of Paul's life, starting with Arsinée Khanjian (Atom Egoyan's wife and frequent star) as his enabling and long-suffering mother. Greta Gerwig opens the film with a nice turn as the American girlfriend who breaks her French boy toy's heart and she's followed by pixie-ish Pauline Etienne as the steadfast, fellow DJ who shares in Paul's ascendancy. Bad news arrives in the person of beguiling Laura Smet, playing the voracious party girl who expedites Paul's ruin. Then Iranian superstar Golshifteh Farahani turns up, nearly unrecognizable as the admiring, punkish club kid who rescues and redeems him. Amongst the actors playing DJs and fellow scene-sters, it was a comfort seeing stringy-haired schlub Vincent Macaigne, who seems to be in half the French films I see these days.

Photo: Pamela Gentile
SFIFF58's screening of Eden was enhanced by the personal appearance of Sven Hansen-Løve and actor Félix de Givry. During the Q&A they revealed that several large club scenes, such as the one at MoMA PS1, were filmed guerilla-style at established venues. Eden's budget couldn't possibly accommodate the necessary 4,000 extras. They also had laudatory things to say about Daft Punk. The insanely famous electronic music duo, who were part of this scene and receive a droll portrayal in the movie, convinced all of the artists represented on Eden's soundtrack to accept nominal fees for music rights that would have otherwise cost the filmmaker an unaffordable €1 million. Asked about the participation of Golshifteh Farahani, we were told she came on board because she happened to be dating actor Louis Garrel, a close friend of the director. After the screening, I lacked the stamina to check out the Eden after party, where Hansen-Løve performed a live DJ set. The next morning I had my own after party upon discovering Eden's soundtrack—42 tracks lasting 4½ hours—available as a digital download on Amazon for a measly 11 bucks. Eden opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on June 26.

The Tribe (Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)—Winner of the Grand Prize at Cannes' Critics Week sidebar, The Tribe is like no other film you're likely to have seen before. The setting is a Ukrainian school for the hearing impaired where the entire cast "speaks" exclusively in sign language that's never translated via subtitles. This requires the viewer to pay strict attention to the actors and on-screen action, an easy task given the film's riveting storyline and meticulously choreographed, widescreen cinematography. The Tribe's plot shadows the arc of a newly arrived pupil, a male teen who's immediately shaken down by his bullying, tyrannical classmates. He soon becomes a participant in their nihilistic schemes, which includes the nocturnal transport of female students to a local truck stop for purposes of prostitution. The film's only shred of humanity occurs when he falls for one of these girls, a near-fatal error that serves as a catalyst to the film's explosive finale. Audience members who walked out during The Tribe's unbearably frank abortion scene should be grateful they didn't stick around. I've heard a number of negative comments calling the film exploitative and soulless, which could be true. But undeniably, The Tribe is also filmmaking at its most dynamic and original.

The End of the Tour (USA, dir. James Ponsoldt)—One of my most anticipated programs at SFIFF58 was this Centerpiece screening of director Ponsoldt's follow-up to The Spectacular Now. Based on Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky's memoir of a days-long, snowy Midwest encounter with writer David Foster Wallace during the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, the movie is a smart, tender and often comical relationship story about tenuous affection between two talented writers. The film is a particular triumph for actor Jason Segel as Wallace, in this his first non-comedic lead role in a narrative feature. I've made no secret of my crush on the big lug, so when the credits got rolling I bee-lined it for the front row. At the Q&A Segel revealed himself to be the gracious and self-effacing everyman I suspected he'd be. Speaking about his admiration for Wallace, Segel confided that he first read Infinite Jest with an all-male book group he formed:

Photo: Pamela Gentile
"When I bought the book at a small bookstore there was a very Ghost World kind of girl sitting behind the counter. I set Infinite Jest down and she rolled her eyes at me and said, "Infinite Jest … every guy I ever dated has an unread copy on his bookshelf."

Segel also had plenty of things to say about preparing for the role of Wallace, for which he had Lipsky's original cassette tapes as a guidepost:

"The thing I really didn't want it to seem like was 'watch Jason Segel try to do "acting".' I tried to focus more on the parts of me that were the same as Wallace, as opposed to striving to be something that was outside of myself. There was a real particular music to the way Wallace spoke. I've never seen anybody be able to speak in fully coherent arguments with a thesis and supporting points and a conclusion, and still have it sound conversational."

Best of all was Segel's response to a question from film writer Michael Guillén about the beat-up looking shoes he wore onstage that night at the Kabuki (watch a YouTube clip of that here). The program ended and I made my way to my next screening. While waiting in the narrow corridor adjoining the Kabuki Cinemas' houses two and three, I looked up to see Jason Segel himself standing there, fully within bear-hugging range (the corridor also leads to the House One backstage entrance). I managed to croak out a feeble "thank you," to which he looked into my eyes and replied, "No, thank YOU." A minute later I barely noticed when Jason Schwartzman brushed against me en route to his House One screening of 7 Chinese Brothers.

Love & Mercy (USA, dir. Bill Pohlad)—My favorite film of the fest by far was this transcendent biopic of the Beach Boys' troubled genius, Brian Wilson. Starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilson, the film alternates emotionally interlocking vignettes set during the mid-60's creation of his masterpiece LPs, Pet Sounds and Smile, with those of Wilson in the early 90's, a broken man subjected to the dictatorial control of his evil psychiatrist Eugene Landy (an effective Paul Giamatti). A shortlist of Love & Mercy's highlights would include the opening montage of early Beach Boys iconography, the lovingly recreated recording sessions (especially of "Good Vibrations") and the phenomenal sound design that conveys the explosion of musical ideas coursing through Wilson's overheated brain. The movie's revelation, however, is the achingly heartfelt performance by Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue. To my surprise, a review of her extensive IMDb credits tells me I've only seen one other Banks performance—as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W. You heard it here first; she's the supporting actress to beat comes 2015's year-end awards season. Love & Mercy will open in Bay Area theatres next month.

Cibo Matto: New SceneMy 2015 SFIFF experience ended on the highest possible note with an electrifying evening at the Castro Theatre. SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara outdid himself this year, engaging one of my favorite bands of the past 20 years to accompany a septet of iconic avant-garde / experimental films. It was the festival's best music and film combo since 2009's pairing of L.A. / Cambodian rock band Dengue Fever with the silent dinosaur flick, The Lost World. Cibo Matto's four members took the stage and launched into a synth-heavy, percussive bass grove that mingled nicely with Miwa Matreyek's Lumerence and its imagery of fluttering eyeball mountainscapes and space-traveling eggs. Next came Grace Nayoon Rhee's two-minute Unicorn, featuring creepy stop-motion rabbits and a priceless punch line. The longest piece of the evening was Cibo Matto's new score for the 1970 film adaptation of Oskar Schlemmer's geometry-obsessed Bauhaus-era Das Triadische Ballet. Hilarious jibber-jabber vocals from band member Miho Hatori morphed into a swirly, pulsating tempo before surrendering to a thundering jazz-funk vibe that rocked the Castro.

As expected, the personal highlight of Cibo Matto: New Scene was Yoko Ono's 1970 Fly, which I've always longed to see in its entirety. For 25 minutes, the camera follows a fly in extreme close-up as it circumnavigates the nude body of actress Virginia Lust. And yes, it takes about all of 60 seconds for the critter to wend its way "down there." Cibo Matto saved its hardest rocking-out for this piece, with synth player Yuka Honda supplying some spot-on Yoko-style yowling. In the film's final minutes the camera pulls back to reveal Lust's full elongated body splayed along an attic cot, dotted with perhaps a half-dozen flies. We're then taken to the window for a leisurely gaze at the surrounding buildings before the end credits roll, capped by this priceless divulgement, "Flies supplied by NYC." The evening reached a soothing denouement with mellow accompaniment to Marcel Duchamp's 1928 Anemic Cinema, featuring the gyroscopic spinning of alliterative French puns.

Cross-published at film-415.

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