Monday, April 22, 2013

SFIFF56—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) gets underway in just a few days and Bay Area cinephiles are busy gearing up for two weeks of movies, movies and more movies. The entire line-up has been announced, save for who will receive this year's Peter J. Owens Award for acting. To those who might be concerned I would say, please remember two years ago when the festival pulled Terence Stamp out of its hat at the eleventh hour—surely one of the most inspired award choices SFIFF has served up in recent years. Here are a dozen capsule reviews of films I've had the opportunity to preview. All were seen via DVD screener or on-line streaming, except where noted.

Museum Hours—When I read that SFIFF56's Persistence of Vision Award winner was to be one Jem Cohen, I drew a complete blank. An IMDb search revealed he co-directed the acclaimed 2000 documentary Benjamin Smoke and a slew of familiar R.E.M. videos. Now I've seen his fascinating and unclassifiable new film and declare it my favorite of all the works I previewed for this year's festival. On the surface, Museum Hours follows a developing friendship between Johan, a distinguished-looking ex-punk band manger turned museum guard and Anne, a broke and bewildered Canadian woman in Vienna visiting her hospitalized distant cousin. At its heart, Museum Hours is also a tribute to the riches of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, most famous for the Pieter Brueghel collection of which we're given an on-screen docent tour. In both conversation with Anne and in voiceover, Kunsthistorisches guard Johan ruminates on the purpose, origin and future of museums, and what it's like for him to be an observer of other people observing art. Museum Hours' most whimsical moment follows a discussion of frank nudity in an Adam and Eve painting with a cut to several museum visitors who are also, quite frankly, nude. Cohen's film frequently flees the museum's confines and becomes an ode to Vienna in wintertime, albeit a shabbier Vienna than one sees in travel brochures. While the movie operates on many other levels, the festival's "Hold Review" restrictions prohibit me from saying a whole lot more. Museum Hours screens just once, at the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award program which will also feature an on-stage conversation with Jem Cohen. My advice is not to miss it.

The Strange Little Cat—The little cat is the only thing that isn't strange in this mini-masterpiece of choreographed chaos from Ramon Zürcher, a film student whose little movie made big noise at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Save for a few flashbacks, the film is staged entirely within a cramped apartment as an extended German family spends the day hanging out and preparing meals. The kitchen is ground zero for all manner of hustle-bustle, petty arguments and wounding both physical and psychological. A toy helicopter flies through the air, sausages squirt grease, a popping cork extinguishes the ceiling light and a little girl screams every time an appliance is in use—all while grandma naps in the next room. Zürcher's camera spends most of its time hovering at belly button level, when it isn't foot-fetishizing or obsessing over a hair floating in a glass of milk. Meanwhile, a hyperactive sound design refuses to be ignored. What's nice is that amidst all this craziness, Zürcher's characters are never reduced to human cartoons, but emerge as real people with relatable quirks and foibles.

Good Ol' Freda—In 1961, a Liverpool typing pool secretary named Freda Kelly got taken to the Cavern Club for lunch. The 16-year-old dropout ingratiated herself with the band she saw perform that afternoon and was soon hired by manager Brian Epstein to run The Beatles fan club. She held that pleasurable but arduous position for 11 years. Until now the charmingly self-effacing Kelly, who remains a secretary at age 67, has remained quiet about her front-row seat to Beatlemania. She was fiercely loyal to the band then and remains so now, meaning no real dirt gets dished here. But she is full of lovely anecdotes, such as when she convinced Ringo to sleep on a pillowcase sent in by an adoring fan, or when she made John get on his knees and beg her to stay after getting sacked for spending too much time in the Moody Blues dressing room (she was dating a band member). Other subjects include Epstein's legendary tantrums and Kelly's close relationships with the band's family members. Apparently, there was no problem securing rights to use original Beatles recordings in the soundtrack. While director Ryan White's documentary never strays from a talking heads and archival materials template, it should be considered essential for fans—and really, who isn't one? Be sure and stay for a video message from Ringo that plays over the closing credits.

Sofia's Last Ambulance—The workaday routine of a paramedic emergency response team in Bulgaria's capital is the subject of this verité documentary from director Ilian Metev. Over the course of its 75 minutes, we ride along with Krassi the doctor, Mila the nurse and Plamen the driver as they bounce along pothole-ridden streets in a race against time and a wrecked system. A dashboard-mounted camera alternately observes the road ahead and stares at our protagonists parked in the front seat. The camera then goes into hand-held mode as it films the trio in action, sticking tightly on the crew and keeping those they're helping out of frame as much as possible. In the case of a woman whose head has been eaten by worms, that's a very good thing. Spurts of intensity are contrasted with periods of downtime, in which these colleagues who are clearly fond of each other chain smoke, banter and kvetch about things like being put on hold for 30 minutes when phoning dispatch for a new assignment. "This country is broken," sighs Plamen, the young driver whose changing hairstyles indicate that filming took place over an extended period.

The Cleaner—There's an epidemic of lethal lung infections in Lima, Peru and it's middle-aged sad sack Eusebio's job to clean up the mess. On one particular assignment he discovers newly orphaned Joaquin hiding in a closet. He brings the skittish child home to his rudimentary apartment and the two gradually bond. Eusebio spends the rest of the film tracking down Joaquin's relatives—no easy task thanks to overwhelmed social services and uninterested bureaucrats. Director Adrian Saba's tenderly somber feature debut employs tropes common to contemporary Latin American art cinema—a stationary camera, impressive compositions, minimalist electronic scoring and barely perceptible humor. In one scene, Joaquin asks to be read a bedtime story and all Eusebio has available is the manual for his TV set. Unlike a lot of Latin American art cinema, however, The Cleaner moves along at a relatively brisk pace. While I can't be sure how, or even if, Saba's film is commenting upon contemporary Peruvian society, it's clear that his distinct voice is one we should be hearing more of in the future.

What Maisie Knew—Six-year-old Maisie is a poor little rich girl caught in a custody battle between her unmarried rock star Mom (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Dad (Steve Coogan). When Dad marries the nanny (Joanna Verderham) out of the blue, Mom ties the knot with a hot young bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) out of revenge. How Maisie survives thanks to the love and care of her newly-acquired step-parents is the focus of this new film from former S.F filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture, Bee Season). They fully succeed in conveying the conflict from a child's POV, in no small part aided by a heartbreaking titular performance by Onata Aprile. It strains credulity, however, that in light of the insecure harpie and boorish slimeball she has for parents, angelic Maisie never once "acts out." Other elements of plot and characterization are wobbly, but that doesn't stop What Maisie Knew from being an engaging and frequently powerful entertainment that should serve well as SFIFF56's Opening Night film. Seen at a SFIFF56 press screening.

The Patience Stone—In an unnamed war-torn country clearly meant to be Afghanistan, an abandoned woman spends her days verbally unburdening herself of heretofore unspeakable thoughts over the body of her comatose husband, a mujahedeen who's been wounded in a brawl. As battles rage around her home, she seeks help from a long lost aunt, now a prostitute, to care for her two little girls. Additional solace appears in the form of a shy, stuttering soldier, himself an abused former bacha bazi, with whom she'll share a guarded intimacy. Director Atiq Rahimi has adapted his best-selling novel for the screen with the help of legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, although their decision to fashion the film as basically one long monologue can feel unnecessarily stodgy. The cinematography, production design and Golshifteh Farahani's lead performance are flawless. The title derives from Persian lore in which a person pours all their tribulations into a stone until it shatters, thereby bringing deliverance. Seen at a SFIFF56 press screening.

Habi, the Foreigner—In this low-key feature debut from Argentine director María Florencia Álvarez, a young woman arrives in a new city, checks into a seamy pension and begins insinuating herself upon the local Muslim community. Director Álvarez parcels out information very slowly. Eventually we learn we're in Buenos Aires and the woman is of Lebanese descent, but the question of where she came from and why she left largely goes unanswered. Most of the film is spent watching her try on this new personage—wearing a hijab, learning to pray, sampling Arab foods—and dealing with conflicts of the secular world as they arise. A romance with a handsome Argentine Arab leads to what could be an enormous revelation about her past, but the film weirdly takes it nowhere. Habi, the Foreigner works as a portrait of someone testing a new identity, though it ultimately proves more frustrating than enigmatic and mysterious.

After Lucia—Following the death of their spouse / mother, an upper class father and daughter move to Mexico City and begin a new life. The father, a chef, has come to open a new restaurant but is having an extremely hard time coming to terms with grief. His high-school aged daughter, however, has been accepted by the cool kids at school and appears to be doing well. That changes when a moment of poor judgment launches a wildly over-the-top onslaught of peer bullying made all the more aggravating by the girl's astonishing passivity and surrender to fate. As with Michel Franco's previous film Daniel and Ana, in which a wealthy brother and sister are kidnapped and forced to have sex with each other on film, I suspect this director is less interested in exploring so-called social issues than he is in dragging our faces through muck. At Cannes last year, the Un Certain Regard jury awarded After Lucia its top prize, and it is certain to be one of the most talked about films at SFIFF56. Seen at the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Short Takes—Three other Palm Springs crossover films appear in the SFIFF56 line-up and all are highly recommended. Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void is a stirring and nuanced tale set within Tel Aviv's Orthodox Hasidic community, whereby a young woman is asked to put aside her own romantic aspirations and marry her sister's husband after she dies during childbirth. The film opens in the Bay Area on June 7, but director Burshtein and the amazing Hadas Yaron, who won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, are expected at the SFIFF56 screenings. Next, those who were blown away by Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy when it screened at this festival two years ago, won't want to miss his latest, In the Fog. While stylistically less audacious, this saga about the ambiguity of wartime morality set in 1942 Byelorussia is no less haunting, complex and visually arresting. Finally, Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf returns to the festival for the first time since 2005's memorable Dealer, with his latest film Just the Wind. This Berlin Silver Bear winner is based on real events and uses the plight of one Romany family to expose ethnic prejudice in modern day Hungary. Employing methods similar to early Dardenne brothers' work—grainy, close-up hand-held camera work and non-pro actors—Fliegauf follows his characters through a day of mounting tensions en route to an inevitably tragic and unforgettable climax.

Cross-published on film-415.

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