Thursday, May 16, 2013

SFIFF56—Michael Hawley Wraps Up Week One

A most memorable 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) ended last week after having presented 158 films from 51 countries spread out over 15 days and 263 screenings—144 of which were sell outs. Here are some thoughts on what I saw the first week of the festival, in the order I saw them. (Week two can be found here).

The Artist and the Model. The first regular screening of SFIFF56 was a preview of what would bedevil the festival throughout its first weekend—movies not screening properly because the coded "key" used to "unlock" DCP files for a specific time and theater refused to cooperate, especially when it came to the display of subtitles. Fortunately, my French and Spanish comprehension was adequate enough to enjoy Fernando Trueba's B&W tale of an aging artist (Jean Rochefort) and his young model, which is set against a political backdrop of Nazis and Spanish partisans. Claudia Cardinale plays the artist's wife and original muse, never looking more radiant than she does now at 78. It was also fun to see Spanish character actress Chus Lampreave (the old lady in Almodóvar's movies with the thick glasses) as the meddlesome maid.

Leviathan. In this radically experimental, narration-less documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, the viewer spends one trippy, churning night aboard a North Atlantic fishing trawler. The visuals are grainy and candy-colored, and the hand-held camera work so disorienting there are times you can only guess at what you might be watching. Leviathan inspired more audience walkouts than any other film I saw at the festival. I would be alternately bored and then blasted awake by images of starfish showers, hovering birds illuminated against a black night sky and live skates being hacked in two by machete-wielding boatsmen. Visceral, fantastic, unforgettable.

State of Cinema Address. Steven Soderbergh's delivery of the 10th annual State of Cinema Address was the first SFIFF56 program to sell out. I arrived early and grabbed a front row seat in front of the podium, where I sat captivated for the next 40-minutes. Despite Executive Director Ted Hope's advisory that the address not be recorded, a sound file was leaked to Indiewire, thereby prompting the SF Film Society to post a video of the entire speech originally meant for archival purposes only.

The Pirogue. For some years now, SFIFF has come up short when it comes to programming sub-Saharan African stories that are directed by the region's own filmmakers. I therefore jumped at the chance to catch Senegalese director Moussa Torré's harrowing saga of 30 disparate West Africans journeying to Spain in a wooden boat. The film was effective and engaging, if occasionally stilted, with a storm-at-sea sequence every bit as intense and terrifying as something Hollywood could produce.

Something in the Air. Acclaimed French director Olivier Assayas and I are one year apart in age, which could explain why I was so affected by this wistful, semi-autobiographical look back at radicalized European youth of the early 70's. This may have been my most "perfect" film of the festival and I'll likely see it again when it opens at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas this Friday. Extra points are given for including Captain Beefheart and The Incredible String Band on the soundtrack.

The Act of Killing. Along with Leviathan, this was one of two SFIFF56 entries that appeared on my 20-film wish list for this year's festival. In Joshua Oppenheimer's unclassifiable documentary, Indonesian paramilitary death squad leaders who were responsible for the slaughter of over a million so-called "communists" in the mid-60's, eagerly and shamelessly re-enact their crimes in the style of Hollywood genres, including, of all things, a musical. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. You won't want to miss this when it opens at a local Landmark Theatre on August 9.

Downpour. Despite my initial enthusiasm for seeing this 1971 Iranian social comedy recently restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, lack of sleep plus a warm theater plus a rambling storyline all conspired to ensure that I "watched" a good third of this movie with my eyes closed. Because I had to rush off to my next film, I missed the Q&A with director Bahram Beyzaie, but was later told he gave elusive and unforthcoming answers to the audience's questions.

Twenty Feet from Stardom. It came as little surprise when Morgan Neville's rousing and inspirational look at the world of background singers won the festival's Audience Award for Best Documentary. I admired the artful flourishes which elevated the film above your standard, talking-heads-and-archival-footage doc. One highlight is singer Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger recalling the fateful night in 1969 when a fur coat and hair curler-clad Clayton was tossed into a taxi at 4 a.m. and sent to record her legendary vocals on the Stones' track, "Gimme Shelter." Speaking of Clayton, I regrettably missed the screening two days earlier, when she and Tata Vega performed a live mini-concert in the Kabuki Cinema's House One. I did, however, track her down earlier in the evening and she autographed my vinyl copy of her 1971 self-titled solo LP. Festival memories are made of this.

Museum Hours. SFIFF56 Persistence of Vision Award winner Jeb Cohen's Museum Hours was my favorite of all of the films I previewed prior to the festival (my review is here). I attended this awards program to learn about the rest of his oeuvre, as well as revisit this marvelous film on a big screen with an audience. The 45-minute interview between the equally soft-spoken Cohen and Pacific Film Archive programmer Steve Seid revealed a career spent making films that don't require "taking meetings," meaning that alas, very few are readily available to watch, even on-line. Favorite quote of the evening: "Film festivals? We would be in seriously deep shit without them."

Populaire. This zingy French bonbon with the self-fulfilling title would go on to win SFIFF56's Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. While I found it wholly enjoyable, I disagree with critics who consider it the Second Coming of Tashlin. Set in the 1950's world of secretarial speed-typing competitions, Populaire's costume design and art direction are upfront and flawless, as is Déborah François' performance as the wannabe secretary from the sticks. Romain Duris, however, is weirdly priggish and unlikable for a period rom-com leading man. First time director Régis Roinsard was on hand for a Q&A, in which he revealed that François did indeed learn to type that fast for her role—no stunt doubles here. Populaire opens at a local Landmark Theatre on September 13, and it will be interesting to see if distributor The Weinstein Company excises a fairly racy sex scene from what is otherwise G-rated fare.

Nights with Theodore. My encounters with eventual festival award winners continued with Sébastien Betbeder's 67-minute made-for-French-TV movie, which took the SFIFF56 FIPRESCI prize. Both wondrous and charming, it combines a fictional narrative about a young couple spending clandestine nights in Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, along with documentary footage about the park's history and reputation for having mystical powers. Unfortunately, some heavy-handed owl symbolism early on is actuated in the film's clunky final act. Pio Marmaï (Living on Love Alone, SFIFF54) again proves himself one of Europe's most watchable young actors.

Night Across the Street. I sheepishly confess to the personal shortcoming of never having grooved with the complex, playful and enigmatic works of Chilean-born auteur Raúl Ruiz, including his 2010 magnum opus Mysteries of Lisbon. I also failed to embrace this, his final completed film.

Stories We Tell. The reviews for Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley's first foray into documentary filmmaking were so ecstatic, I doubted her film could live up to the hype. It's a pleasure to report that this heartbreaking and humorous inquiry into family secrets and the unreliability of memory, specifically Polley's vivacious mother Diane and the mystery of parentage she left behind, is everything it's been cracked up to be. My only regret is that I missed the SFIFF56 screening at which Polley was present. The film opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema on May 17.

Penance. I knew going into Kiyoshi Kurosawa's five-episode, five-hour TV mini-series that I only had time to see half of it, figuring I could catch the rest on DVD screener if I got sufficiently hooked. That didn't happen. But there was a sequence in episode two where a young female teacher uses her kendo skills to subjugate a knife-wielding maniac around a swimming pool of terrified children that was perhaps the most thrillingly directed scene of any film I saw in the festival.

Cross-published on film-415.

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