Tuesday, February 03, 2009

SFFS SCREEN—Michael Hawley Previews the Winter 2009 Lineup

My heartfelt thanks to Michael Hawley for sharing his preview of the current SFFS Screen lineup with The Evening Class.

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2008 was a wildly ambitious year for the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS). In addition to presenting a stellar 51st SF International Film Festival and launching two successful new mini-festivals—French Cinema Now and Québec Film Week—they also assumed stewardship of the 32-year-old Film Arts Foundation and its broad range of services for Bay Area filmmakers. And as if that wasn't a plateful, they also jumped into the film exhibition business with the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

Inaugurated last June as a venue for week-long runs of films with limited distribution, the SFFS Screen played host for three of my favorite films of 2008: Yang Li's Blind Mountain, Andrea Staka's Fraulein and Khuat Akhmetov's Wind Man. I would have attended with greater frequency, but often found the screen programmed with films I'd already seen elsewhere in the Bay Area. The SFFS Screen has been on hiatus for the past 11 weeks, but returns this week with an impressive six-film roster that will take us up to March 12. At that point it goes dark again in preparation for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (April 23 to May 7). Here's the line-up:

The Pope's Toilet (Jan. 30 to Feb. 5)
Heart of Fire (Feb. 6 to Feb. 12)
Owl and the Sparrow (Feb. 13 to Feb. 19)
Just Another Love Story (Feb. 20 to 26)
Silent Light (Feb. 27 to Mar. 5)
Examined Life (Mar. 6 to Mar. 12)

The indisputable must-see here is Silent Light, the shockingly plainspoken third feature from Mexican cinema's infante terrible, Carlos Reygadas. There are no explicit blowjobs or extreme geriatric sex this time out—just a luminous and ultimately heart wrenching tale of marital infidelity within a rural Mennonite community in northern Mexico. Silent Light premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and had a handful of screenings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts later that year (which is where I caught it). Despite its appearance on many 2007/2008 Top 10 lists, the film has seemingly divided critics. Half see it as a welcome maturation for Reygadas, and half see it as a step backward from the bold (if occasionally half-baked) provocations of Japón and Battle in Heaven. I'm probably leaning toward the latter assessment. That said, there are two scenes in Silent Light that are as unforgettable as anything I've seen in recent years: the real-time sunrise that opens the film, and the scene that convinced me it's entirely possible for a human being to die of a broken heart. David Hudson (formerly) of the Greencine Daily compiled the reviews from Cannes and Michael Guillén wrote it up from Toronto.

Another worthwhile Latin American film in the series is Enrique Fernández and César Charlone's The Pope's Toilet. This was Uruguay's submission for Oscar consideration last year and it's the film the SFFS picked to open this series. Riffing on an actual 1988 visit to Uruguay by Pope John Paul, this bitter but affable social comedy imagines the impact of a papal visit upon one small village. The film's protagonist is Beto, an all too human (and occasionally despicable) father and husband who supports his family by smuggling sundries across the Brazilian border on his broken down bicycle. While his neighbors hatch plans to sell gastric sustenance to the anticipated holy hoards, Beto hopes to profit by building an outhouse for the ages. Will they be rewarded for pinning their economic hopes upon God's representative on earth? The answer becomes the piquant point of the story. This is a first film for co-director Charlone, who is best known for his work as cinematographer on such films as City of God and Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains. SFFS Creative Director Miguel Pendás has a terrific piece on Charlone and The Pope's Toilet at SF360.

Of the films I've yet to see, I'm most looking forward to Ole Bornedal's nasty, nihilistic romantic thriller, Just Another Love Story. It opened in NYC a few weeks ago to mostly rave reviews, which David Hudson has compiled for the IFC Daily. Here are a few of my favorite quotes. From Stephen Holden in the NY Times, "a stinging slap in the face to the popular notion of Denmark as one of the happiest places on earth." For Andrew O'Hehir at Salon, "Bornedal has made a bloody, show-offy, self-mocking noir … beneath all the dazzling cinematography, propulsive score and overcommitted acting, I found this movie an affecting, mordant comedy about male mid-life crisis in its most extreme form." And according to Anna King in Time Out New York, "Bornedal injects plenty of gallows humor to keep things light, and a fair amount of bloody, full-frontal nudity to maintain just the right quotient of queasiness." Other reviews reference amnesia, mistaken identity, flashbacks and flashforwards, painterly compositions, wheelchair-bound stalkers, Thai gangsters, voluptuous color-saturated wide-screen cinematography and elliptical editing. This may turn out to be a classic case of style over substance, but I seriously doubt it'll be boring.

Speaking of queasiness, one of my least favorite film genres is children-in-peril movies and there are two in the SFFS Screen line-up. In all fairness, both have received decent to good reviews and should hit the spot for those filmgoers so inclined. Luigi Falomi's Heart of Fire recounts the travails of a 10-year-old girl forced to fight as a child soldier in the Eritrean war for independence. The good news is that Falomi co-directed The Story of the Weeping Camel, a film I liked very much. The other film is Stephane Gauger's Owl and the Sparrow, which screened at the 2007 SF International Asian American Film Festival. This one's also about a young girl—an orphaned flower vendor living on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City who bonds with a flight attendant and a zookeeper. Reyhan Harmanci has written an interesting article in the SF Chronicle on the making of Owl and the Sparrow.

The series finishes out with Astra Taylor's Examined Life, a documentary in which nine contemporary philosophers / intellectuals ruminate about man's place in the modern world. The unique appeal of the film is supposed to be that in place of static, talking head shots, the subjects are seen out in the world—strolling down Fifth Avenue and through San Francisco's Mission District, in rowboats and alongside garbage dumps. Out of the eight names, I only recognize two: Cornel West (of course) and Slavoj Zizek (The Pervert's Guide to Cinema). The others are K. Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer and Sunaura Taylor. Here in the egghead-y Bay Area, the SFFS Screen could have a hit on their hands with this one.

Lastly, I wanted to say something about the Sundance Kabuki and the unpopular $1 to $3 "amenities fee" that gets tacked onto each ticket. I know there are people who refuse to patronize the theater (and therefore the SFFS Society screen) because of that surcharge. Well, if your time is flexible there's a way to get around it. For the first show of the day, Monday through Thursday, there is no extra fee. And with the dollar discount you'll get for being a SFFS member, the full ticket price is $7.50—about as good a movie deal as you're likely to find these days.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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