Friday, October 29, 2010


Continuing its commitment to contemporary Japanese fare, VIZ Cinema has been busy throughout the month of October with the San Francisco premiere of John H. Lee's Sayonara Itsuka: Goodbye, Someday (2010); encore screenings of Junichi Suzuki's documentary 442—Live with Honor, Die with Dignity (2010); the U.S. premiere of Takeshi Koike's anime Redline; while likewise hosting the San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days.

But VIZ Cinema has granted equal time to honor classic Japanese cinema, most recently with four Yasujirō Ozu films profiling the performances of Setsuko Hara—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1954), Late Autumn (1960) and Tokyo Twilight (1957)—and currently with four films by Kenji Mizoguchi: Women of the Night (1948), Miss Oyu (1951), Life of Oharu (1952), and Sansho the Bailiff (1952) (running through early November).

As profiled at Wikipedia, "Setsuko Hara (原 節子, June 17, 1920) is a retired Japanese actress who appeared in many of Yasujirō Ozu's films, most notably as Noriko in the Noriko Trilogy (Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story). She was born 会田 昌江 Masae Aida in Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture. She also starred in films by Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse and other prominent directors. She is called "the Eternal Virgin" in Japan and is a symbol of the golden era of Japanese cinema of the 1950s, although she is mostly unknown in the US. She suddenly quit acting in 1963 (the same year as Ozu's death), and has since led a secluded life in Kamakura, refusing all interviews and photographs. Her last major role was Riku, wife of Ōishi Yoshio, in the 1962 film, Chushingura. She was the inspiration for the protagonist of the 2001 movie Millennium Actress." has attractively compiled her collaborations with Ozu, including the essay "Something About Setsuko" (taken from her fan page), an article by Donald Richie, and Peter Bradshaw's profile for The Guardian.

I caught two of the Ozu films: Late Spring and Tokyo Twilight. Both have been released on Criterion with insightful essays by Michael Atkinson and Michael Koresky, respectively. Of equal interest is Dan Harper's profile on Setsuko Hara for Senses of Cinema and Jerome Delamater's for Film Reference (updated by Corey K. Creekmur).

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When I was a child trick or treating in my neighborhood on Halloween, word would travel fast between us kids of which house had the best treats—gooey popcorn balls, handfuls of candy corn, or homemade cookies—and we would all converge on that doorbell in greedy anticipation like a flock of Hitchcock birds. Years later, my insatiable sweet tooth has turned into an equally insatiable cinematic tooth and—during this heightened season of ghouls and ghosts, muertos and the Bay Area's orange and black baseball team poised to win the World Series—I touch base with Hell on Frisco Bay's listing of festival treats awaiting the Bay Area cinephile, gleefully aware that I will not go home empty-handed. As Brian Darr has mentioned in his thorough survey of our local "in-fest-ation", The Roxie celebrates Halloween with three events: tonight's double bill of 1950s horror/sci-fi (The Creature With the Atom Brain and The Man From Planet X), tomorrow's double-bill featuring archive prints of David Cronenberg's The Brood and the Hammer studio's Corruption, and a third on Halloween night consisting of two films by director Alex Cox (Straight to Hell Returns and Searchers 2.0)—who will be present at the screenings! (and at the Rafael Film Center the following night).

In the face of so much arthouse festival fare and the daunting task of having to report on same, the mindless fun promised by Elliot Lavine's two evenings of "Halloween maudit" at the Roxie provide a welcome respite from exhaustive overchoice. I'm restored to the avid spirit of my childhood years curled up in the red and grey armchair in front of the Philco television watching late night creature features. It never ceases to amaze me how much comfort I still derive from black and white sci-fi films from the '50s, whose threat of nuclear proliferation feels nearly innocent in the face of festival proliferation (which seems strikingly more hazardous to my health).

The Creature With the Atom Brain (dir. Edward L. Cahn, U.S.A., 1955, 70 mins) will be presented in a 35mm Studio Archive Print for its single 8:00PM screening this evening. As Lavine advised me by email, this "hybrid masterpiece" features gangsters, a renegade former nazi scientist and lots of terrifying living dead. A major influence on both Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead, The Creature With the Atom Brain is one of the most bizarrely shocking horror hybrids of the 1950s, in which renegade Nazi scientist Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gaye) unleashes an army of zombies in order to help an exiled American gangster Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger) in his demented quest to get revenge on his enemies and regain his criminal empire! "This one has it all," Elliot promises, "and it truly needs to be seen on the big Roxie screen! More terrifying than you might imagine given its meager budget." According to Wikipedia, The Creature With the Atom Brain was distributed by Columbia Pictures and was the bottom half of a double bill with another SF favorite: It Came from Beneath the Sea. Co-starring Richard Denning (check out his beefcake portfolio at Brian's Drive-in Theater) and Three Stooges alumni Angela Stevens. Written by Curt Siodmak.

The Man From Planet X (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, U.S.A., 1951, 70 mins) comes from the amazing director of the cult noir Detour (1945). This beautifully spooky science fiction tale about the arrival of an alien from a distant planet whose presence on Earth triggers a chain reaction that could threaten our planet's very existence is brilliantly atmospheric, thought provoking and an understated little gem that—according to Lavine—is "one of Ulmer's most beautiful and baffling maudit Bs, that will slither its way into your dreams for many nights to come." Starring Robert Clarke, Margaret Field, Raymond Bond, and William Schallert. Presented in a 35mm Studio Archive Print this evening at 6:35PM and 9:30PM.

The Brood (dir. David Cronenberg, Canada, 1979, 92 mins), Elliot advises, is probably Cronenberg's "most profane film. What psychological secrets compelled him to make this film?" A shattering, brilliant early shocker from the director of such horror classics as They Came From Within, Scanners, and The Dead Zone as well as recent hits like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. A sickening brood of mutant children begin a terrifying, inexplicable reign of terror with completely unpredictable results! Terrifying and gruesome, this is one that is tailor-made for Halloween! Prepare yourselves for a seriously insane movie! Starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, and Art Hindle. In Color. 35mm Studio Archive Print! Saturday, October 30 at 4:15PM and 8:00PM.

Corruption aka Carnage (dir. Robert Hartford-Davis, UK, 1968, 91 mins) is a rarely seen Hammer horror opus and a veritable slaughter-fest of gore as a crazed surgeon conducts severely disgusting acts of carnage in order to restore his hideously disfigured wife to the beautiful woman she once was. A not-to-be-missed mindbender, Corruption is—as the film's poster attests—"not a woman's picture", though I doubt the Roxie will insist on women being accompanied to this "super-shock" film. Starring the iconic Peter Cushing, Sue Lloyd, Noel Trevarthen, and David Lodge. In Color. 35mm Studio Archive Print. Saturday, October 30 at 2:30PM, 6:15PM, and 9:45PM.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

FCN 2010—Michael Hawley Previews the Lineup

For as long as I've lived here (35 years come December), the Bay Area has been a swell place to be a French film fanatic. Nearly all French titles with U.S. theatrical distribution get released here. We've got our big, French-heavy SF International Film Festival in the spring, and other fests like Frameline, Mill Valley, the Jewish and Arab Film Festivals fill in gaps during the rest of the year. And yet, with a national cinema as prodigious as France, plenty of good stuff goes unseen.

To that end,
French Cinema Now (FCN) was born two years ago. Presented by the San Francisco Film Society as part of its ambitious Fall Season, this mini-fest has become a vital supplement for local Francophiles. FCN 2010 plays for one week at Landmark Theaters' Embarcadero Center Cinema from Thursday, October 28 to Wednesday, November 3. It's a smaller line-up than last year—10 films instead of 12—but with the same 19 screening slots. The tantalizing roster consists of eight new narrative features and two documentaries. While seven of the films were already on my radar, I have especially high hopes for three that were not. That's because my two favorite FCN films from last year, The Wolberg Family and Stella, were complete unknowns. Here's a closer look at what's in store.

Copacabana (dir. Marc Fitousi)—Heading into FCN, I had a wish list of two dozen as-yet-unseen French films from 2009 and 2010. So it was very cool when my top choice not only appeared in the line-up, but was selected for opening night. This dramedy from director Marc Fitousi—his second feature—had its world premiere as a Cannes 2010 Special Screening. It earned solid reviews, but even if they'd been scathing I could never resist seeing Isabelle Huppert as a Brazil-obsessed bohemian Mom who starts selling vacation time-shares to impress her conservative daughter. Huppert's real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah, co-stars as the young woman too embarrassed to invite wild maman to her wedding. (Chammah made her 1988 screen debut as one of Huppert's children in Chabrol's Story of Women). Also in the cast is Jurgen Delnaet, who made an impression as the trucker boyfriend in 2008's Moscow, Belgium. Copacabana is set in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend. Bonus points are given because I totally dig films that take place in off-season beach resorts. Director Fitousi will be in town to attend both screenings. (Trailer)

Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (dir. Abass Kiarostami)—FCN's closing night will feature back-to-back screenings of the festival's highest profile film. It's the latest work from an Iranian master, for which Juliette Binoche won the best actress prize at this year's Cannes. After a decade of quasi-experimental works (of which I've only seen 2002's Ten), this is alleged to be the cerebral Kiarostami's most accessible film yet and also his first made in "the West." Still, I somehow doubt that will translate as a mindless night at the movies. Binoche stars as "She," a French antique store owner who connects with a British author (played by opera singer and first time actor William Shimell). His latest work is a treatise on the nature of copies and originals. He and She hit the road, philosophizing along the way, until they reach a tavern where they're mistaken as a married couple. They play along, inhabiting the roles so well that the viewer wonders if it's all really pretend. Sounds like classic Kiarostami, yanking our chain and operating on a dizzying number of levels. This is a director I've both loved (Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us) and loathed (the Palm d'or winning Taste of Cherry) and I can't wait to find out which this will be. For what it's worth, Certified Copy has U.S. distribution through IFC Films, but it doesn't appear anywhere on Landmark Theaters' 2010 release schedule. (Trailer)

Rapt (dir. Lucas Belvaux)—After Copacabana, this is the film I'm anticipating most. Actor/director Belvaux made a big noise in 2002 with The Trilogy, three films with the same cast and an interconnecting story line, but made in different genres. While his 2006 Cannes competition film The Right of the Weakest got a lukewarm reception (and consequently never made it to the Bay Area), it's nearly impossible to find a discouraging word about this latest work. Rapt is a social thriller about the kidnapping of a corporate CEO. When the abductors demand a €50 million ransom, his family and employer dig up lots of scandalous info about him, resulting in a decision not to pay up. Belvaux' story is based on the true 1978 kidnapping of playboy Edouard-Jean Empain. It's been given a contemporary setting with fictionalized characters, but is said to be very faithful to original events. Word is that fellow actor/director Yvan Attal is riveting in the lead role and it's always a pleasure to see Anne Consigny, who plays the wife. Best of all, Belvaux himself will be here for the festival. (Trailer)

The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier) (dir. Bertrand Tavernier)—Wildly eclectic director Bertrand Tavernier (Let Joy Reign Supreme) is no stranger to historic costume dramas, a genre to which he's returned after last year's maligned, Tommy Lee Jones-starring detective drama In the Electric Mist. Set during the religious wars of 16th century France, the film stars the gorgeous Mélanie Thierry as a marquis' daughter who's married off to the son of a duke, despite feelings she has for a roguish cousin. When her husband is called to war, she's put in the care of her husband's tutor, who proceeds to fall in love with her. Princess screened in competition at this year's Cannes and reviews were all over the place. Some complained that Tavernier added nothing new or interesting to the genre, and Thierry's performance came in for particular drubbing. Variety's Leslie Felperin, however, felt "this visitation to 16th century France has both beauty and brains and offers a portrait of renaissance life leagues more accurate than the most historical epics." She also found Tavernier's direction "as elegantly fluid as his best work." For me, the presence of three favorite actors—Grégoire Leprince Ringuet (the husband), Gaspard Ulliel (the cousin) and Lambert Wilson (the tutor)—elevates it to a must-see. Like Certified Copy, the film has distribution through IFC but isn't on Landmark's 2010 schedule. (Trailer)

Sisters (Gamines) (dir. Éléonore Faucher)—Three young siblings obsess over their mysteriously absent father in this adaptation of actress Sylvie Testud's semi-autobiographical novel. Testud's alter-ego in the story is mischievous middle child Sibylle, the only one in this family of Italian immigrants who's blonde like her father (Testud appears in the film as the adult Sibylle). Amira Casar, perhaps best known for her lead role in Catherine Breillat's provocative Anatomy of Hell, plays the ambitious single mother who's determined to shield her daughters from their missing father. Writing in Variety, Jordan Mintzer called Sisters "a touching and tender portrait" and "bittersweet, dreamlike vision that never panders to cuteness or sentimentality as it reveals the hardships, both past and present, of being raised in a single-parent household." Director Faucher, whose very fine film Sequins screened at the 2005 SF International Film Festival, will make a personal appearance at FCN 2010. (Trailer)

A Real Life (Au voleur) (dir. Sarah Leonor)—Actor Guillaume Dépardieu, the ruggedly handsome son of Gérard, died in 2008 after contracting viral pneumonia on a Romanian film set. Last year the SF Film Society brought us Versailles and Stella, two works he'd completed before his death at age 37, and now they've programmed his final film into FCN 2010. In A Real Life, the actor plays a small town petty thief who encounters a mousy schoolteacher after she's been hit by a car. The pair later reconnects, and a scrape with the law sends them fleeing into the forest together. It's classic tale of love on the run that's a stylized mix of road movie and romantic drama. The film also features actor/director Jacques Nolot (Porn Theater, Before I Forget) in a supporting role as a fellow lowlife. Director Leonor is expected to be in town for the screenings. (Trailer)

Hidden Diary (Mères et filles) (dir. Julie Lopes-Curval)—A trio of powerhouse actresses portray three generations of women in this familial drama about how "past secrets irrevocably impact present relationships." A pregnant, successful industrial designer (Marina Hands) who lives in Canada returns to France for a family visit. After a nasty fallout with her emotionally distant, physician mother (Catherine Deneuve), she seeks refuge in the house of her recently deceased grandfather. There she discovers a recipe-filled diary belonging to her grandmother (Marie-Josée Croze in extended flashbacks), a woman who fled family life rather than tolerate the constricting circumstances of 1950s housewife-dom. Variety's Ronnie Scheib praised the film's "dynamite cast, assured direction and intriguingly far-fetched premise." This is the third feature from director Lopes-Curval, who won Cannes' Camera d'or in 2002 with her debut film Seaside. (Trailer)

Love Like Poison (Un poison violent) (dir. Katell Quillévéré)—This debut feature about the eternal conflict of flesh vs. spirit garnered strong reviews when it screened in Director's Fortnight at Cannes this year. The film also netted its director the Prix Jean Vigo, a prize given annually to a promising young director. In a small Breton town, 14-year-old Anna prepares for her confirmation in the Catholic Church, while experiencing the stirrings of first love with a neighbor boy. Her religious and newly single mother seeks solace with the local priest, who is himself suffering a crisis of faith. Meanwhile, Anna helps care for an infirm grandfather who's not ready to let go of this world's sensual pleasures. Writing in Variety, Alissa Simon declares Love Like Poison to be "beautifully written, extremely well played and sensually lensed." The French title comes from a 1967 Serge Gainsbourg song, "Un poison violent, ç'est ça l'amour" (a violent poison, that's how love is). (Trailer)

Irène (dir. Alain Cavalier)—The first of two documentaries in FCN 2010 is by veteran director Cavalier, best known for 1986's Thérèse, a formalist vision of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Shot with a small digital camera, Irène is an intimate meditation on the director's relationship with Irène Tunc, his troubled actress wife who died in a 1972 car accident. The film debuted at Cannes 2009 in Un Certain Regard and reviews were not kind. In Variety, Rob Nelson admitted that while "personal documentaries are self-indulgent by definition," Cavalier's "bid to turn decades of grief into watchable cinema" results in an "arrogant endurance test." But at least one person on the SF Film Society programming team thought highly of it, so I suspect we should give it a chance. (Trailer)

Two in the Wave (Deux dans la vague) (dir. Emmanuel Laurent)—This is FCN's first year without a single revival screening on the roster. The next best thing, however, should be this documentary about the initial friendship and ultimate enmity between film critics turned directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The film almost exclusively consists of vintage film clips, archival interviews and newsreel footage, with the only new material being actress Islid le Besco thumbing through old magazines and visiting Parisian locales apropos to the doc's subject matter. Reviews from Rotterdam and Berlin were mixed, with detractors calling the film "gossipy" and lacking analysis. Others felt it would have been better served with present-day interviews of Godard's and Truffaut's still-living contemporaries. I'm encouraged that Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor who worked extensively with both directors, is said to be a major presence and that the film contains his original screen test for The 400 Blows (a film FCN screened last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave). If nothing else, the bounty of clips will remind me of nouvelle vague films I really should see again. Strangely enough for a film about film, Two in the Wave will be the only FCN 2010 entry to be shown digitally. (Trailer)

* * *

While FCN presents the opportunity to catch the very latest in le cinéma français, it's also a last-chance saloon of sorts for the previous year's stragglers. If a French film did the international fest circuit in 2009 and didn't pop up in this year's French Cinema Now, the time has probably come to bid it adieu. It now seems likely the Bay Area will not see Isabelle Adjani's Cesar-winning performance in Skirt Day. Or Xavier Giannoli's Cannes competition film In the Beginning with Gérard Depardieu, Emmanuelle Devos and François Cluzet. Or the Yolande Moreau/Bouli Lanners anarchical comedy Louise-Michel. Interestingly, all three played this year's just-within-reach Sacramento French Film Festival. Too bad the damn thing takes place at the exact same time as Frameline.

Other notable Bay Area M.I.A.s include Costa Gavras' acclaimed immigration fable Eden is West, Tony Gatlif's Korkoro (a film about Nazi persecution of gypsies which won the top prize at the Montreal World Film Festival) and Tsai Ming-liang's Face, a French-Taiwanese co-production that could have fit handily into FCN or the Film Society's Taiwan Film Days. And last but not least, there's Soeur Sourire, a biopic about The Singing Nun ("Dominique") starring Cécile De France.

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

OIAF: SMALL DESTRUCTIONS—Adam Hartzell's Evening Class Interview With Lark Pien

Lark Pien is an award-winning cartoonist and illustrator. And she is also my friend. She is my sole connection to the world of comics, graphic novels, and animation. (I did have a comic book phase my first year of high school, but I noticed I wasn't hanging out with my friends nearly as much so I packed up the Power Packs, canceled my Alpha Flights and ceased the Secret Wars in favor of external rather than internal conversations.) Whenever Lark and I meet up, our conversations are rapid and breathless, having so many epiphanies and thoughts to catch up on. I have learned a great deal from Lark and she always fuels me to further explore my own ideas and interests.

Our meet-ups have become fewer because Lark's cartoonist career has been booming lately. She received the Harvey award for her coloring work on Gene Luen Yang's Printz winner American Born Chinese (the first graphic novel ever nominated for a National Book Award). And last year saw the release of her first book Long Tail Kitty (Blue Apple Books, 2009) and last weekend of her second book Mr. Elephanter (Candlewick Press, 2010). Both are characters she's been developing for years and—although classified as children's books—many an adult will find much to appreciate in Lark's quirky sense of humor and wonder along with the playful joy of her illustration style. And don't just take my word for it. Kirkus Review has this to say about Mr. Elephanter: "There isn't a page here that doesn't melt with charm." And Publisher's Weekly is sure readers will be converts begging for more after getting to the 70 frames of imaginative (and hilarious) games in Long Tail Kitty.

Along with this, Lark has found herself included in this year's Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) as part of a series entitled "Californimation" on October 22, 2010 at 5:00PM at the Arts Court at Club SAW. Lark is on the docket with her video project Small Destructions which was a piece commissioned by San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum (CAM) where Lark came into the museum and painted a daily frame on four large canvases, video-taping the entire process. This video was then sped-up in time-lapse fashion and synced-up with the music of Cherryweed with lyrics by Stian.

My thanks to Lark for taking a break from her busy schedule to indulge a brief email interview in hopes that the lucky folks attending OIAF might gain a broader context of her talented work.

* * *

Adam Hartzell: Can you tell us how the Small Destructions video project came to be?

Lark Pien: In 2007, the CAM in San Francisco received funding [from the Feishacker Foundation and the Zellerbach Foundation] to house a new series in their facility—the Bay Area Spotlight. It took up an entire wing (a large room), and cycled biannually, featuring a comprehensive body of work from a local cartoonist.

I was invited to be the first in this series, and so I met with the curator to discuss details of the show. He expressed interest in having me paint a mural, and this idea grew and evolved into an installation piece for the museum, the Small Destructions installation.

I came in after hours and painted in 1.5 hour increments (employees were not getting paid to stay later, and I did not want to put them out). I am usually a very fastidious painter, but to set up shop, get the camera positioned and rolling, paint and then clean up all in an hour and a half was no easy task. The painting/filming portion of the project took one month. The film editing (which I am obviously novice to) and music coordination took another few weeks.

Hartzell: I assume the story you ended up painting was created for the commission (correct me if I'm wrong). Do you have a name for the characters and how long have you been developing these particular characters utilized in the story you paint in Small Destructions?

Pien: The Small Destructions story is a stand alone mini-comic, and was originally part of a limited edition handmade two-comic box set—pfew! that's a mouthful!—that my husband [fellow cartoonist Thien Pham] and I made in 2004. Each of us wrote our own comic stories, then combined them together in this Monster Box set. The only rule was that the stories had to have monsters.

When deciding on a subject for the installation, the first Monster Box story came to mind. I hadn't played with it for awhile, but it was a good length, fairly straight forward in concept, and had a lot of visual texture. The monsters, like many of my characters, do not have names; but you get the idea that they're neighbors or friends and that they share readily.

Hartzell: What I've always loved about your work is the playfulness with just the right subtext of wickedness and Small Destructions conveys that perfectly. However, what themes do you see emerging in your work? I see a consistent theme, but is that intentional? Is it laid out in a detailed way or is it something you more so let emerge as you go about creating?

Pien: One thing that I have been told repeatedly about my work is that my stories are lyrical but do not have a lot of plot. Some people find the lack of plot dissatisfying, but I think these kinds of stories are fine to tell. I don't think I'm telling a story to make a point but to illustrate a kind of "way"; is that Taoist? Ha! I'm interested in illustrating the unpredictability of the world we live in. I think our reactions to chance, to luck, and to fate are often painful and funny.

The realization that my work is thematic is a recent one. In my twenties I never focused on a project longer than when I was making it. Once a painting or comic was sold/adopted and in someone else's home, I'd carry on to my next adventure. But I'm nearing my forties now, and I've been thinking a lot about doing some projects that will take a long time to do; so stepping back and thinking about themes has become relevant.

Hartzell: How did this video project end up being included in OIAF and are you familiar with the work of the other folks who will be featured in the "Californimation" series?

Pien: The OIAF contacted curator Andrew Farago at the CAM and invited him to the festival. Mr. Farago was asked to assemble a group of animation pieces for the "Californimation" segment, and the OIAF asked specifically for my little film to be included, what luck!

I have met Dalton Grant on several occasions, but have not seen his animation pieces. I've seen a little of Nina Paley's work and love her designs for
Sita Sings the Blues. I don't know how my rudimentary project will fit with the refined collection of their professional work, but I really appreciate the film being a part of OIAF this year. The festival will make for an incredible week.

Hartzell: I know you just released your second book Mr. Elephanter this weekend and Long Tail Kitty last year, could you tell us a little about those characters (and if the books will be available in Canada) and if there has been any discussion about taking those into an animated form?

Pien: Yes, the books are available in Canada. My comic audience consists of mostly adults, but now the stories are in children's book formats as well. Obviously, I'm happy to have both. Long Tail Kitty emerged in the early 2000's, and was featured in a story for my pet rabbit, who died while I was traveling. It was a sad story and made some people cry. Over the years I've written ten or so Long Tail Kitty stories, but they are all pretty happy.

Brave Mr. Elephanter (the comic) was written for my brother, who loved all kinds of pachyderms when we were growing up. He has been considering adoption, so I decided to write a story about that. The adoption theme is much more prominent in the comic than it is in the children's book.

Mr. Elephanter and Long Tail Kitty are some of my kinder characters. They live in worlds where there is a strong sense of well-being. If there is ever any drama, it usually doesn't get any crazier than fighting with a friend, or accidentally getting roped into a babysitting session. I've been asked to option Long Tail Kitty for cartoons, but I think companies are asking for the character and not the stories. I'm interested in Long Tail Kitty's world and his stories, and less interested in branding his character.

I like interactive formats (games, choose-your-own-adventure type stories), so if it was an interactive animation project or video game, I'd be interested in looking into it. Recently someone showed me how to do some rudimentary animation using Photoshop. That was neat. And I have a brand new Final Cut application that I'd like to install and learn, so I think some in-house cartoons may be in my future.

* * *

Lark Pien's full bio can be found on her website and further samplings of her art are galleried here. All images copyright of the artist.

Cross-published on

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

BERLIN & BEYOND 2010—The Evening Class Interview With Festival Director Sophoan Sorn

Sophoan Sorn is a Cambodia-born, American multi-faceted artist and film festival programmer. A miracle child, he was born in 1985, two weeks after his mother's water broke, in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia. He arrived in the United States of America in 1991 with his family. He began classical and contemporary piano studies at age 11. An honor graduate of Lodi Seventh-day Adventist Academy Class of 2003, he has been studying at San Joaquin Delta College and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, focusing on Film.

From 2001 through 2010, he was proactive in the California Central Valley's art scene—working in documentary filmmaking and photography, performing as a contemporary and classical pianist, programming cultural arts events, and volunteering for local and international non-profit organizations. He served on various community projects, and contributed his talent diversely to arts, cultural, educational, health, humanitarian and religious institutions.

In 2007, he founded the San Joaquin International Film Festival. In 2009, the festival expanded into a year-round program as the San Joaquin Film Society—with its diverse slate of events, including: the World Cinema Series of unique mini-festivals focusing on particular nations or cultures; and the San Joaquin Children's Film Festival. Sophoan's collaborative spirit, innovative leadership and steadfast advocacy supported the growing culture of the San Joaquin region.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Your arrival to the Goethe Institut and Berlin & Beyond (B&B) has involved navigating some choppy waters: namely, the resituation of the festival into San Francisco's already-crowded October landscape and your replacement of former Festival Director Ingrid Eggars. Let's smooth those waters first. What do you feel you will be bringing to B&B that will be a signature contribution to Bay Area audiences?

Sophoan Sorn: My first concern was simply to make sure B&B would continue to happen past its first 14 years. Secondly, I come from a background of diversity and—though I program from an international perspective—my work reflects the diversity of the San Franciscan community. Cinema is an all-encompassing and embracing art and communication form and so B&B isn't just about German or German-speaking people. For me to be invited as Festival Director speaks to the Goethe Institut's commitment to diversity, and a different, fresh approach to the festival.

I've also brought new partnerships to the festival. When "Rudy" de Baey, President of Goethe Institut San Francisco, brought me into B&B, one of his hopes was that I would reconnect the festival with old friends along with building new partnerships and friendships. If you look at
the roster of supporters that we have for the festival, we've achieved just that.

Guillén: I appreciate your emphasizing the festival's commitment to diversity, with your appointment to Festival Director being a primary testimonial. I am intrigued that someone born in Cambodia is helming a festival of German, Austrian and Swiss cinema. Were you familiar with these national cinemas before you accepted the position with B&B?

Sorn: My family and I moved from Cambodia to Stockton, California in 1991 and about five years ago I began working on creating the San Joaquin International Film Festival (SJIFF). I founded, directed and programmed that festival for its first three years. I also developed programs catering to Latin America and helped create the San Joaquin Children's Film Festival. Curating these events involved collaborating with several different countries. I developed connections with German and Austrian film distributors through programming these San Joaquin festivals. For example
Doris Dörrie—whose film Cherry Blossoms opened last year's B&B—was a contact of mine because she went to school in Stockton at the University of the Pacific. Cherry Blossoms played at SJIFF and won a jury prize there. With regard to Swiss film, Marcello Marcello was the opening night film at our 2009 SJIFF and Denis Rebaglia, the director of that film, is on the board of Swiss Films. As for Austrian film, I programmed Thomas Woschitz's Universalove (2008). So, yes, there has been linkage to these national cinemas but now with this opportunity at B&B I've been allowed to focus my lens.

My hope is not only to transform B&B into a more universal program that will attract an audience beyond B&B's core group—which we truly value!—and to expand outreach. We've tried to achieve that with our co-presentation partnerships with fellow Bay Area film festivals. Honestly, I see the Bay Area as a globalized community, much like Germany. It might seem incongruent at first to have a Cambodian Director for a festival of German, Austrian and Swiss film; but, we're in San Francisco where all things are possible. I consider it a smart, creative and innovative decision on the part of the Goethe Institut to have a director from a different cultural background. Diversity is beautiful.

Guillén: It certainly is. Regarding shifting the festival to October, I can see the immediate benefits of B&B linking in with German Currents in L.A., particularly with regard to enhancing the festival's spectacular dimension. Can you speak to the decision to go that route?

Sorn: That linkage occurred before I arrived on the scene. B&B remains the largest German-language film festival in America. Our festival has 27 feature-length films. Our partnership with German Currents in Los Angeles involves only about 9 films—which is about as many as they have in their festival—but, this allows us to share talent. When guest artists want to fly to America, they think of three major cities: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Having at least two of these territories share talent during a competitive awards season—which has just launched—is attractive to these artists. Not only do we get to share the talent, but we share the costs of shipping prints for the shared nine films. This also gives a bigger marketing advantage to our main supporters like German Films. They benefit from such coordination and it encourages them to support us even more. An American analogy to German Films would be the American Film Institute. German Films is the national institute of films in Germany. Our second major partner is Lufthansa who helps us fly this talent to America.

October is a great time of the year. Most festivals are about premieres and new films; but—when you have a festival that takes place in October—we can include programming from the whole year. We can include films from so many great festivals that have had works premiering from Germany: Sundance, Tribeca, the Munich Film Festival, Locarno, and especially the Berlinale. Obviously, the largest German film selection is at the Berlinale and for us to be able to work around that benefits us. Further, many of these German films open in Germany in the fall so having them programmed in B&B is a parallel release between Germany and America.

Guillén: Have you received much consular assistance?

Sorn: All four consulates—Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Luxemborg—are involved, not only as supporters but co-presenters. They've all been wonderful support for community outreach.

Guillén: You stated earlier that your initial concern was simply to get B&B off the ground and running in October. How much of your fingerprints are all over the programming?

Sorn: I pretty much reviewed all the films. First, I wanted a program that reflected the current state of German cinema. Second, I wanted diversity in the program. Third, I wanted a program that would celebrate and enrichen the human experience. As one sidebar, we have three English-language films this year: Animals United 3D, Pope Joan, and the Rock Hudson documentary. This year we also have a focus on women and their roles in society: Pope Joan, When We Leave (the German Academy Award® entry), The Last Giants, Silvergirls, Julia's Disappearance and the just-announced revival screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola.

Guillén: I meant to ask, why a revival screening of Lola (1981)?

Sorn: I love Fassbinder! It's unfortunate that he died young but he left a legacy. His films are unique, intentional, and vivid and we wanted to show a film from a legend of the German New Wave. Lola also fit perfectly with our focus on women this year. It's a political film set after the Nazi regime when Germany was experiencing an economic boom. People used their affluent lifestyles to try to forget what had just happened. At the same time it's a wonderful story about a woman who works as a prostitute but also craves her independence. She has her own mind and her own thoughts. Barbara Sukowa delivers a wonderful performance in the role of Lola.

Guillén: I was also heartened overviewing this year's program to see your representative inclusion of filmmakers from the so-called "Berlin School": Thomas Arslan (In the Shadows) and Benjamin Heisenberg (The Robber). Can you speak to that?

Sorn: I can't speak too deeply about the talent from the Berlin School because that wasn't the criteria by which we were selecting films for B&B. It was more that we found In the Shadows and The Robber within the German programming at this year's Berlinale. Then again, when I'm looking for films it's not always about the films that are the most-awarded or the most-celebrated. I look to give opportunity and showcase filmmakers whose talent promises in some way in the future to satisfy the public. In the Shadows is a low-key drama, no special effects, that reminds me of a popular German television series Tatort. TV is big in Germany. Getting a gig on TV can be an even greater break than cinema for many well-known filmmakers. Germany's TV audience is near 80,000,000 people.

Guillén: Can you speak to your sextet of short films this year? I was glad to see that at least a couple of them are animated shorts.

Sorn: Sure. We chose six short films to play before the feature films rather than within their own shorts program. We believe these shorts reflect innovative, creative and talented filmmakers who have promising careers. For example, A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation by Martin Wallner and Stefan Leuchtenberg is an absolutely beautifully made film. When I first started programming film festivals, I curated several short films as part of my endeavor to build connections and make friendships because short filmmakers are the filmmakers of tomorrow.

Guillén: My final question is most likely an unfair one; but, I'll ask it anyways. If you could name three events at this year's B&B that you wouldn't want your audiences to miss, which would you recommend?

Sorn: I would recommend the opening night feature Vincent Wants To Sea because it's a simple, meaningful film about three strangers-become-friends on an adventure. One has Tourette Syndrome, one has obsessive-compulsive disorder and one has anorexia. It's a moving, funny, and charming screenwriting debut by the film's star Florian David Fitz. Right now he's one of the hottest stars in Germany because he's on a soap opera and he'll be at B&B to introduce both Vincent Wants to Sea and Men in the City.

My second recommendation would be
Feo Aladag's When We Leave, Germany's Academy Award® entry. I first saw this film back in June when it arrived on the scene. It's the only film in the program that made me cry. It's such a moving film about the world issue of honor killings in the Turkish-Germany community. It's an intelligently-told story and the screenwriting and directorial debut of Feo Aladag.

The third film I would vouch for would be
Jan Tenhaven's documentary Autumn Gold. This is a powerful, inspiring and—for me—a victorious film about 80-year-old athletes who are racing against the clock of age and disease, battling the many obstacles that try to stop them; but, which they will not allow to stop them.

So those are the three films I would say, "Catch them! Catch them if you can!"

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Monday, October 18, 2010

BERLIN & BEYOND 2010: FESTIVAL CROSSOVERS—Frako Loden Reviews Pianomania, Julia's Disappearance and When We Leave

Pianomania (Austria/Germany: Lilian Franck / Robert Cibis, 2009) screened at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival [where it won the Golden Gate Documentary Award] and plays at Berlin & Beyond on October 26. For those who love piano and the mysteries of sound, this documentary will be a treat. It's also a 90-minute-long commercial for Steinway & Sons, being a profile of its master tuner Stefan Knüpfer and a career that matches the exacting artistry and high professional standards of the pianists he serves—big names like Lang Lang, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Alfred Brendel. Knüpfer is remarkably patient and diplomatic with the extremely minute, sometimes incomprehensible demands of the artist preparing for a big performance at a major concert hall. He tunes the piano also to accommodate the hall's acoustics, the recording of the performance and the instrument's own peculiarities. The problem always arises of how to verbalize a problem with sound, how to express in words something that one hears or even can't hear. Then of course, there's the delicacy of moving an instrument that weighs half a ton. Amid all this tense, (literally) high-strung urgency it's fortunate that Knüpfer has a sly sense of humor, seen in a sequence where he plays a prank on other soundmeisters with a precious violin. Pianomania's official website includes a BBC interview with director Robert Cibis.

Julia's Disappearance (Switzerland: Christoph Schaub, 2009) screened at Mill Valley Film Festival this past week and closes Berlin & Beyond on October 28. It's a sincere, well-meaning ensemble film about getting older and feeling lousy about it. Julia (Corinna Harfouch), riding a bus to her 50th birthday dinner party, overhears a conversation between two teenagers discussing what gift to give a friend. When an elderly woman sits beside her, Julia suddenly can't see herself in the window glass. She's become invisible—a condition that continues off the bus and in a boutique where she stalls pre-party, until she catches the eye of an enigmatic older man (Bruno Ganz, with whom Harfouch appeared in Downfall). Meanwhile Julia's friends, a couple of middle-aged couples and a single man fending off middle age with gold sneakers, wait impatiently for her at a restaurant. The elderly woman on the bus continues on to a different birthday party in a retirement home, where the elderly birthday girl embarrasses her daughter by staging a series of petulant meltdowns devolving into a food fight.

The "punchline" of this film is that everybody ends up at the same restaurant—the teenager and her feuding parents; survivors of the retirement home debacle; and Julia's partygoers. But ultimately it's weak—there's no strong reason why they should all end up there, and the whiffs of magical realism involving disappearance end up only baffling. What remain are a few good-natured chuckles about the universal human condition of growing older and the possibility of love and happiness beyond all the aches, forgetfulness, humiliation and invisibility.

When We Leave (Germany: Feo Aladag, 2010) screens the final weekend of Mill Valley and is the Centerpiece film for Berlin & Beyond (October 24). Every bit as powerful and downbeat as Germany's 2009 Oscar submission The White Ribbon, which was nominated, this year's entry When We Leave stars Sibel Kekilli (who also starred in Fatih Akin's Head-On) as a young Turkish wife raised in Germany who flees her abusive husband in Istanbul to return to her family in Berlin. At first her conservative parents and siblings welcome back Umay and her young son Cem, but they demand that she return to her marriage so they can preserve their reputation in the Muslim immigrant community. In choosing between that and the welfare of their own daughter and grandchild, she's reminded, they will always choose the former. It's a tricky balance Umay tries desperately to create, keeping her family ties along with her own independence. Up to the end we're not sure who will win this stubborn battle, but as both sides' options narrow it's clear that the results will be devastating. The depictions of kind and generous Germans and the angelic Cem versus the heartless, vindictive Turkish men threaten to turn this into a Manichaean struggle, even a horror film.

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