Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SFIFF52—The Late Show (Thrills & Chills From Around the World)

Now that the lineup for the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52) has been officially announced, it's time to take a look at what's being brought to the Bay Area this year. The festival—which Executive Director Graham Leggat describes as "a vibrant portrait of contemporary society as it's coming into being"—boasts 151 films from 55 countries. In recent years, one of the festival's most popular sidebars has been "The Late Show" programmed by San Francisco Film Society programmer Rod Armstrong who looks forward to chilling his constituency with a slate of four thrilling late show films that feature a mysteriously hungry infant, a set of hyper-attentive parents, stoner janitors and a darkly comic noir. As Armstrong quips in the press release: "This year's Late Shows—a quartet of adventurous films worth staying up late for—demonstrate the perils of heat-generating cookies, child bearing, cottages deep in the woods, 1960s Bulgaria and much more."

The Late Show quartet offers Yim Phil-Sung's disruptive fairytale riff
Hansel and Gretel (South Korea 2008); a noirish view into totalitarian machinations in Zift (Bulgaria 2008); the disturbing appetite of Grace (USA 2008); and a group of pregnant male stoners in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (USA 2009). Hansel and Gretel is seeing its U.S. premiere and the other three titles their West Coast premieres at this year's San Francisco International.

Hansel and Gretel is an unsettling cautionary tale about what happens when kids get everything they want. With eye-popping art direction, a trio of terrific child actors and a passel of unsettling moments, this Grimm fairytale twist offers a chilling commentary on childrens' expectations of their parents and vice versa. Twitch teammate X describes Hansel and Gretel as "insanely beautiful" and offers a compelling analysis of the hazardous shift from child actor to adult career, generally inflected through Korean cinema and specifically noted in Sim Eun-Kyung's performance in Hansel and Gretel. X writes: "There will be people who will see Hansel and Gretel as a horror film, maybe a fantasy, but obsessing over genre tropes is not going to make them understand where this boat is heading to. This, first and foremost, is a drama about kids' demons, and their relationship with adults. Sure, it's bizarre, deliriously creative, and joyously grotesque; but at the core is a certain humanity, which eventually emerges and envelopes the story. It's like an old school fairy tale, complete with all the cruel bits." X observes that—though Yim's starting point is the Grimm Brothers' classic—he added one simple detail: "what if Hansel and Gretel couldn't escape from that forest, if they were trapped by their own imagination, dreams and fears?"

At Fangoria magazine, Calum Waddell rated Hansel and Gretel with "four skulls" but expressed concern that the film's "overall subtlety" and "oddly quaint" atmosphere might not work for audiences accustomed to "spilled blood and innards." In my opinion, that's a shining endorsement. Waddell concludes: "Staying true to the tone of the Brothers Grimm, this is an invigorating, and visually ravishing, rollercoaster ride that—even at two hours—never wears out its welcome." At Variety, Rob Nelson proclaims that Hansel and Gretel "puts the grim in Grimm" with its "mix of horror, humor and surreality" and—though it doesn't bother being faithful to the titular fairy tale—"its nerve-jangling narrative of three kids left in a weird old house without proper guidance has dark magic to spare." Nelson concludes: "Flesh-ripping telekinesis, a blue-eyed Santa, an evil deacon, a freaky forest of moving trees and a Danny Elfman-esque string-and-choir score are just a few elements that make Yim's film translatable worldwide." Further, David Bordwell—the dean of film criticism—relays Yim Phil-Sung's acknowledgment that Hansel and Gretel was informed and influenced by Joe Dante's episode of the Twilight Zone film, as well as Night of the Hunter. Bordwell enthusiastically concludes: "Brisk, fast-paced, and boasting remarkable sets—dazzlingly lit, jammed with toys and sweets, and ineradicably sinister—Hansel and Gretel could earn cult following in America." Along with its two screenings at the festival proper, Hansel and Gretel will also have an encore screening at the Roxie Film Center in anticipatory celebration of the Roxie's 100-year anniversary.

Rod Armstrong writes that Zift is "an unforgettable narrative about fate, freedom and various societal notions of justice." Using a framework of film noir, exquisite black-and-white cinematography and rapid-fire dialogue, Javor Gardev's immensely energetic cinematic debut depicts the story of an ex-con named Moth in his first night after release from prison. Zift had its North American premiere in the Discovery Program of the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, following its Silver George for Best Director at the Moscow International Film Festival. As synopized then, The Moth is freed on parole after spending time in prison on wrongful conviction of murder. Jailed shortly before the Bulgarian communist coup of 1944, he now finds himself in a new and alien world—the totalitarian Sofia of the 60s. His first night of freedom draws the map of a diabolical city full of decaying neighborhoods, gloomy streets and a bizarre parade of characters. "Zift isn't exactly a victory," J. Robert Parks writes at Daily Plastic, "but I found it to be a lot of fun." Parks praises cinematographer Emil Christov's creation of "a fantastic mood with his sleek black-and-white widescreen photography and sharp angles. And what can you say about a movie in which a truly erotic sex scene is intercut with footage of a female praying mantis devouring her copulating mate? Misogynistic? Maybe, but I was smirking too much to notice." Twitch teammate Todd Brown noted that Zift's trailer "opens with one of the most politically incorrect tattoos ever dreamt up…." I'll let you decide for yourself.

The Late Show continues on the second weekend of SFIFF with the West Coast premiere of Paul Solet's debut feature Grace, a shocking story of maternal desperation in which a new mother wills her stillborn child to life and is resolved to attend to its every need, including its disturbing cravings for "special food." At Cinematical, Eric Snider reviewed Grace at Sundance and affirmed it's "at least as effed-up as you'd expect." Snider notes that Solet, "having mastered the art of intense silence and tight close-ups, knows how to be subtle when subtlety is called for. He also knows how (and when) to let the blood flow—and my heavens, does the blood ever flow in Grace. People bleed from terrible places, and for terrible reasons, and Solet does not shy away from it. The childbirth scene alone is horrific, the unnerving music and editing adding to the ghastliness of what's on the screen. I would be suspicious of any person who watches the entire film without cringing." Notwithstanding, Snider found Solet's screenplay to be "lean and efficient, focused entirely on this one line of thought: How far would a woman go to have a baby? Fans of population control will be glad to know that Grace is one of the most effective anti-procreation stories ever told." At Dread Central, Heather Wixson praises Solet for delivering the story of Grace "with a directorial precision and quiet restraint that demonstrates skill beyond his years and makes it hard to believe that this is just the start of his career. His ability to handle such intricate subject matter like the mother-child bond displays Solet's maturity in crafting a complex script." At Fear Net, Scott Weinberg adds Grace to the cinematic lineage of May, Teeth, and Inside, and confirms: "Grace works on a variety of disparate levels, and it's tough to find a 'weak link' in this debut feature. The pacing, the tone, the cast, the score, the confident approach to some potentially nefarious subject matter ... this is not a horror film that feels like it comes from a first-timer. But perhaps a 'new guy' is the only one who'd tackle such a risky concept, and it's the genre fans who get to reap the rewards."

David Russo's witty and imaginative
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle is a bittersweet fable about a ragtag bunch of janitors tackling key issues like corporate malfeasance, the search for religion and, of course, male pregnancy (a perfectly gendered counterpoint to Grace). Hilarious and bizarre, the film surprises with its deeply felt affirmation of the miraculous. At Paste, Michael Dunaway writes that The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle "is a pure unalloyed delight" and emphasizes that "in Russo's hands, what could be either an acid-vision experimental arthouse film or a zany pseudo-subversive gender farce transcends both and becomes a truly remarkable film. It's a moving exploration of gender, commitment, purpose, hope, and perhaps most of all, religion." At Screengrab, Andrew Osborne especially appreciates that Natasha Lyonne is "in fine form as a market testing guru pushing ominous 'self-warming' cookies (with some pretty unnerving side effects)." Though Lyonne would most likely be the first to eschew categorizations that she's on a "comeback", she is nonetheless flexing her mastery of the independent film and is enfleshing the villainess Deborah Tennis in Peaches Christ's debut feature All About Evil, currently shooting in San Francisco.

Vibrant portraits of contemporary society coming into being, indeed!!

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James McNally said...

I just saw and reviewed Hansel and Gretel last week and really enjoyed it. It's far more like Pan's Labyrinth than like typical Asian horror fare. I didn't realize it hadn't yet played in the US. We're lucky up here in that it premiered at the Toronto After Dark festival back in October.

Michael Guillen said...

James, thanks for letting me know about your Toronto Screen Shots review. I like how you say: "The film does a masterful job of creating an atmosphere of unease, combining cinematography, score and art direction to convincingly portray this strangely sinister child-centred world." Thanks for one more vote of encouragement to catch this film at SFIFF52.