Thursday, April 26, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—Michael Hawley's Preview

What follows are some alphabetically-arranged thoughts on the films Michael Hawley had the chance to preview for this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. With the exception of Flanders and La Vie en Rose, all were seen on screener DVDs. Links to the film titles provide program capsules with pertinent screening and venue information.

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Agua—Goyo leaves the desert trailer where he's been hiding for years. The desert dirt road becomes a highway lane which becomes a swimming pool lane. And it's here that we meet Chino, a young man with a very pregnant girlfriend and dreams of making the Argentine national swim team. Goyo has returned to enter the 57 kilometer Santa Fe-Cordoba river race, a open-water swimming marathon he won eight years ago, but for which he was unfairly disqualified due to doping. When Chino fails to make the national team, Goyo enlists him to pilot his guide boat in the river marathon. Director Verónica Chen certainly delivers a more visually arresting film than her 2002 debut Vagón fumador (Smokers Only). I don't think I've ever seen competitive swimming photographed more exquisitely, and the contrasts between the pool scenes (filmed underwater) and the river scenes (filmed overhead and from the swimmer's POV) are striking. It was no surprise to learn that Chen swam competitively as a child. She also has an admiring eye for the male form (the film is a veritable Speedos on Parade) and perhaps a fetish for body shaving (even Chino's girlfriend works in a body waxing studio). In the film's press notes, Chen alludes to a multitude of thematic and symbolic intentions lying within her film. After a single viewing, however, I can only say that these intentions must be buried somewhere deep beneath the film's shiny surface.

Nacio y Criado (Born and Bred)—Argentine director Pablo Trapero's tale of tragedy and redemption starts out benignly enough, with scenes of Santiago, a successful Buenos Aires interior designer, living a happy professional and domestic life. In short order, however, a family car crash brings life as he knows it to a halt. The film makes an abrupt shift, and we're tossed into the furthest reaches of Patagonian wilderness where a demon-plagued Santiago now ekes out a miserable existence hunting and working at a remote airfield. The remaining screen time is spent waiting for him to reach a point of catharsis and return to society. It's a very long wait indeed, made bearable to this viewer by gorgeously photographed Patagonian landscapes and a gallery of finely realized supporting characters. In an interesting twist, it's hinted that his family may not have died in the crash, bringing into question the necessity and purpose of this self-imposed exile. With Born and Bred, Trapero continues to build upon a solid body of work that includes past SFIFF selections Crane World and Rolling Family.

Congorama—This is one I almost ejected from the DVD player at the one-third mark, and am I ever glad I didn't. Because once I understood where this Belgian film by Philippe Falardeau was coming from and where it might be headed, it became increasingly rich and surprising. Award-winning French actor Olivier Gourmet plays Michel, an unsuccessful inventor (solar-powered lawnmowers, anyone?) who lives in Belgium with his Congolese wife and child, and his ailing novelist father. One night he learns that he's adopted and was probably born in a barn in Quebec province. Next thing you know, he's heading off to Canada and accepting a fateful car ride from a stranger who holds the key to both his past and his future. The film may come off a bit contrived for some tastes, but I ultimately found it delightful with interesting things to say about the traits we do and don't inherit from our families.

Flanders—Boy, I really wanted to love this, especially after the disaster that was Twentynine Palms. It's really not bad, but with the exception of one amazing scene and Bruno Dumont's continued genius for landscape, nothing in it struck me with the originality and force of his first two features. A vaguely drawn young farmer goes off to fight in an unnamed desert war, leaving behind his vaguely drawn, mentally unstable female fuck buddy. They both learn that war is hell. As atrocious as it was, for me, Twentynine Palms was a hundred times more interesting than this.

Sei dai tinwong (The Heavenly Kings)—This film directed by Bay Area native turned Hong Kong superstar Daniel Wu is probably my least favorite of the festival films I previewed. It's a mockumentary of sorts in which Wu ropes fellow Hong Kong actors Conroy Chan, Andrew Lin and Terrence Yin into putting together a boy band. This premise might have seemed clever in 1997, but 10 years later, its flat observations about the pop music industry are, unfortunately, last millennium's news. All four actors are very easy on the eye and likable (except when oversized egos become the catalyst for stale, manufactured drama), but this isn't enough to push the film beyond the scope of vanity piece. Local fans of the four actors may find something to appreciate, and I suspect that's who the festival is catering to by programming it in a prime Friday-night-at-the-Castro-Theater time slot at which actor/director Wu is expected to attend. For an opposing point of view, Russell Edwards raves in Variety.

La Vie en RoseOlivier Dahan's lurching, wildly impressionistic don't-call-it-a-biopic biopic of Edith Piaf largely succeeds due to a powerhouse performance by Marion Cotillard. Playing the beloved chanteuse from late teens to her death at 47 (when she looked 77), the actress bunkers down in Piaf's fevered artistic soul and lip-synchs her way through some songs for the ages. Director Dahan does an especially good job of bringing to life Piaf's childhood, which was spent in whore houses, traveling circuses and for a brief period, being completely blind. He also concocts a bravura sequence detailing the morning when Piaf learns that boxer and love-of-her-life Marcel Cerdan has died in a plane crash en route to be with her in New York. Fans will find whole life episodes missing; her discovery and mentorship of Yves Montand for starters, but alas this is cinema, not A&E Biography. As a bonus, in one of the most sublime movie moments of the year so far, we get to witness the night When Edith Met Marlene.

O Céu de Suely (Love For Sale: Suely in the Sky)—After working the past few years as a screenwriter for hire (Lower City, Cinema, Aspirin and Vulutres) Brazilian director Karim Ainouz switches gears from the frenetic pacing of 2002's period piece Madame Sata to bring us this leisurely contemporary story. Beautiful Hermila returns to the backwater town of Iguatu with baby in tow to await her boyfriend's arrival and the start of a new life. Realizing she's been abandoned, restless living with family and unwilling to take a chance with an old flame, she devises an escape plan. She'll raise money to leave town by selling raffle tickets to "a night in paradise". Sumptuously photographed by master cinematographer Walter Carvalho and featuring a wonderfully understated performance by Hermila Guedes, Love For Sale also boasts one of the most winning finales of any film in recent memory.

The Old Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music—My fear was that this documentary might simply be a concert movie of various musicians performing selections from Harry Smith's famous anthology. I should have had more faith in director Rani Singh, however, whom I subsequently learned is also the founder and director of the Harry Smith Archives. As it turns out, the film is an excellent mix of concert and archival footage, photos, interviews and analysis, spanning the breadth of Smith's talents as artist, filmmaker, and especially, musical archivist. It would serve as a wonderful companion piece to Paola Igliori's 2001 Smith documentary American Magus, whose prime focus was the films. Speaking of the films, anyone who attended SFIFF49's Harry Smith event with live music by Deerhoof will get a kick out of seeing Philip Glass and DJ Spooky accompany some of the same material here. Among the film's many concert performances, personal favorites include David Johansson, Sonic Youth and David Thomas. Music writer Greil Marcus provides succinct commentary on the artistic and sociological import of Smith's anthology, and Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg contribute some lovely personal memories. Be sure and watch for a still photo of an amazing mural Smith painted in 1950 at San Francisco’s Bop City nightclub in the Fillmore district. And finally, this quote from Smith: "Perfection may be perfect … but to hell with it!" Words to live by.

Otar Iosseliani, The Whistling Blackbird—This affectionate portrait of Georgian-French director Otar Iosseliani was made for the French TV series Cinéma, de notre temps. Directed by his protégé Julie Bertuccelli, it follows Iosseliani through the entire process of creating his latest feature, Gardens in Autumn (also showing in this year's festival.) From idea board (a wall covered with scraps of paper which say things like "a burglar is greeted ceremoniously") to storyboard, from production design to financing (a trip to Cannes to meet with Russian investors), from casting to shooting, we're there every step of the way. The film's best scenes are of his benevolent battles with long-time producer Martine Marignac, a tough old cookie who controls the purse strings and is invaluable in helping Iosseliani make the film he wants, within reason. "Who do you think you are," she snarls, "Jacques Rivette?", when it becomes clear that Iosseliani's vision for the film will take four hours of screen time. You have to feel sorry for her, working with an eccentric old man who responds to budgetary questions by putting his fingers in his ears, or by replying, "I don't know, that's a metaphysical question." For those who are unfamiliar with the director's work, the film is interlaced with well-chosen clips from his filmography, including the wondrous stork scene from my favorite Iosseliani, 1999's Farewell, Home Sweet Home. If Gardens in Autumn is half as good as this documentary, we're in for a treat.

La Edad de la peseta (The Silly Age)Pavel Giroud's Cuban coming-of-age comedy contains plenty of surprises, and neatly avoids the clichés which are sometimes common to the genre. Set in Havana during the final months of the Bautista regime, the film also does a nice job of recreating the late 1950's on a low budget. Recently divorced Alicia returns to her mother's home with her young son Samuel. The grandmother Violeta, expertly played by veteran Spanish actress Mercedes Sampietro, initially treats the boy like an unwelcome intruder, but soon apprentices him in the photo studio she operates out of her home. (This rapid transition from wicked witch to kind granny is a singular weak point in the film's script). The photo studio becomes a source for much of the film's humor, as does a closet full of holy statues that Violeta administers to (who knew that by binding the balls of St. Cucufato you'll be able to find something you've lost). The studio also attracts a mysterious actress who comes to have pin-up photos taken, thereby becoming the catalyst for Samuel's sexual awakening. Meanwhile, mother Alicia meets an older gentleman who gives her a job in his shoe shore, and perhaps the promise of future stability. When the revolution comes, all four must decide whether to stay in Cuba or emigrate to the States. Clever, heartfelt and original, The Silly Age should prove to be one of the festival's biggest crowd-pleasers.

Strange Culture—I've been a fan of Bay Area filmmaker Lynn Hershman-Leeson's technology-flavored fantasies ever since Conceiving Ada, which was one of my 10 favorite films of 1998. She brought us the equally fascinating Teknolust in 2002, and this year returns to the docu-drama form of earlier video works with Strange Culture. Her new film details the plight of Steve Kurtz, an established artist who was arrested on absurb charges of bio-terrorism in 2004. It's too complex a story to explain here, but Hershman-Leeson does the job superbly, using a blend of real life interviews, news footage, comic strips and reenactments with actors Tilda Swinton, Josh Kornbluth, Peter Coyote and Thomas Jay Ryan as Kurtz. It's a scary tale of how far our paranoid government is willing to go in this "Time of War and Emergency." The film's appropriately eerie soundtrack is provided San Francisco's oldest anonymous rock band The Residents. And be sure to stay through the end credits for a hilarious encounter between subject and actor.

Beş vakit (Times and Winds)—This stunningly original look at everyday life in a small Turkish village is surely one of the highlights of this year's festival. Divided into five sections representing the five daily Islamic calls to prayer—the film's Turkish title, in fact, translates as Five Times—the film is a series of exquisitely observed moments both sweet and cruel, as lived by a quartet of older children. A boy refuses to wash the hand that has unexpectedly caressed the foot of the schoolteacher he's in love with. Another boy regularly fantasizes about different ways to kill his father, the village imam. Mystified goats on a craggy hillside watch as a shepherd boy is beaten by his guardian. A classroom of children learn about the rotation of the earth, moon and sun. Parents and barnyard animals have sex. Babies and calves are born. Night becomes day, Life continues. We come to know the physical layout of this village intimately, as the camera follows close behind the children each time they traverse its pathways. Magnificent wide-screen panoramic shots contrast with close-ups of local plant life. A soundtrack of buzzing insects and rustling leaves suddenly gives way to the haunting grandiosity of composer Arvo Pärt's orchestral score. This film is a tour-de-force in every possible way, and is the one film I've seen on screener DVD that I deeply regret being unable to see with an audience during the festival.

TuliThe Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros was one of last year's most successful and ubiquitous films on the festival circuit. Philippine director Auraeus Solito's follow-up trades that film's urban setting for a village in the jungle, but its themes of individualism versus societal conformity remain familiar. Tuli is the Tagalog word for circumcision and the world portrayed in this film is pretty obsessed by it, surprising to me since the village is almost exclusively Christian (I can only assume the tradition dates back to pre-Christian times). Containing little of the outrageous humor and transcendence that marked the director's debut, the film is nonetheless a most interesting look at a very foreign culture.

Vanaja—Fourteen-year-old Vanaja is the willful daughter of a drunken, low caste fisherman. Forced to quit school due to dire economic straits, she gets a job working in the mansion of Rama Devi, a former star performer of Kuchipudi dance. Vanaja uses her wiles to manipulate Rama Devi into teaching her this popular form of classical dance, and all goes well until one day Rama Devi's handsome young son Shekhar, returns home to enter local politics. One night he rapes Vanaja, a baby is born, and her low caste more or less ensures that she will not be the victor in the resulting power struggle with the Devi clan. This debut film from writer/director Rajnesh Domalpalli boasts naturalistic performances from its non-professional cast, beautiful cinematography and lovely, organic song and dance sequences.

Cross-published on Twitch.

04/27/07 UPDATE: Other helpful preview guidelines to SFIFF50 include Frako Loden's SF Weekly highlight of the Asian films in this year's line-up and SF Weekly capsules for some of the non-Asian fare as well. Further, she has penned the program capsules for Amour-Legende, Aria, Heaven's Doors, and Stories From The North.

The Bay Guardian's coverage is consummate, as profiled in detail by Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily, where Jay Kuehner offers up his own stunning overview.

B. Ruby Rich's SF360 column is also a fun read, along with Sean Uyehara's "high notes" of the music enfolded into SFIFF50 and Michael Fox's interview with Jon Else, whose Wonders Are Many comes highly anticipated by many.


Anonymous said...

In all fairness, Karim Ainouz didn't just work as writer for hire in both Lower City and Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures. The directors of those two films were Ainouz co-writers in Madame Satã.

Michael Guillen said...

That's a fair argument. I'm sure Michael was trying to differentiate Ainouz's independent talent when, as you suggest and I concur, these ventures are thrillingly collaborative.