Saturday, May 17, 2014

SFIFF57: CHINESE PUZZLE (2013)—An Evening Class Question for Cédric Klapisch

The 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival provided a refreshing touch of international glamour with the on-stage appearance of beloved French actor Romain Duris, accompanied by director Cédric Klapisch, for the one-off screening of Chinese Puzzle (2013), the third installment in a trilogy that rivals Richard Linklater's "Before" Trilogy in its sophisticated purview of the maturation of cinematic characters over time. Ten years past, Klapisch delighted audiences with L'Auberge Espagnole (2002), introducing the charismatically frenetic Xavier (Duris) whose expectations of life are endlessly complicated by unfolding circumstance. Complication, however, veers into a kind of beauty, as Klapisch shifts his characters to New York City and sets their changing lives against a constantly shifting backdrop of urban pandemonium. As someone deeply enamored with street art, I admired Klapisch's eschewal of ready architectural branding to explore the pedestrian and oft-overlooked street-level beauty of modern Manhattan. My question was about such.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I have to compliment you on the kinetic beauty of this film, the way you've captured the city, and the way you've captured your characters moving throughout the city. In all three films—L'Auberge Espagnole, Russian Dolls, and now Chinese Puzzle—you've exhibited a texture that's partly the inherent mobility of a location combined with the narrative mobility of your characters. Can you speak to how you chose your locations in New York to create the look you wanted for the city? I love how the city looks in this film!

Cédric Klapisch: The thing is, I went to film school when I was 23 years old and during those two years I learned how to make movies in New York. That taught me a lot about how to shoot in the city today. I stayed about seven months in New York before I started shooting Chinese Puzzle, to write the script, and to take a lot of pictures so that I could look at the new New York, which is very different from the New York I knew in the '80s. I felt a need to capture what was different and new.

I was living near Chinatown so I figured it was more important to shoot in that neighborhood because nobody really shoots there. I wanted to shoot real street life, and not something from a postcard. Also, because I'm French, I wanted to make sure my film didn't look "touristy." I wanted to see things from the inside; but, I kept in mind that I have a different eye than most people in America, probably because I'm French, I'm European, I see things differently. The thing I say about the ground of New York meaning more when you ride a bike? If you ride a bike in Paris and then ride a bike in New York, it's completely different.

During those seven months that I stayed in New York working on the story, I learned to trust my powers of observation. I realized that Xavier had to be like Manhattan and Manhattan had to look like Xavier, so—where he wants to have a life that's organized—New York wants to look organized but it's really a crazy city; it's not organized at all. Once I wrote the script and decided how I wanted to shoot it, it was things I observed during those seven months in New York that influenced what you saw. Another thing is that—since I shot in Paris and New York—when I did my photography in Paris, everything was grey, beige and white. In New York everything was colorful. You can see a red building, or a blue building, which is impossible in Paris. I conceived the look of the film on that. The first part in Paris was kind of depressing for the character and so I used the grey aspect of Paris in that way. Then when he moves to New York, something enthusiastic and colorful happens.


Chinese Puzzle opens Friday, May 23, 2014 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, and Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. The film's running time is 117 minutes and is rated R. In French and English; non-English portions are subtitled in English.

SFIFF57: BOYHOOD (2014)—An Evening Class Question for Richard Linklater

One of the most enjoyable evenings I've spent at the cinema in years was "An Evening With Richard Linklater" at the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival where Linklater was awarded the San Francisco Film Society's Founder's Directing Award. This presentation was followed by a sweet, if somewhat rambling, conversation between Linklater and Parker Posey (that felt in itself like I was watching a Robert Altman film), followed by a screening of Boyhood (2014). Linklater, his actress / daughter Lorelei (who nicknamed the film Twelve Years A Slave), and producer Cathleen Sutherland fielded questions from the audience. I had the opportunity to ask Linklater the following.

* * *

Michael Guillén: What strikes me as brilliant about your work, your craft, is your conception of the elasticity of time. You've experimented with that theme in ways I've not seen from other filmmakers. I'm curious how that thematic preoccupation developed in you? It's been evident since your earliest work. From where did this precoccupation with using cinema to represent the passage of time come?

Richard Linklater: I don't know. It wasn't thought out consciously like that. Pretty early on I just noticed that's what I was manipulating. That's how my brain worked. It's all storytelling; but, cinema is unique among the art forms in the way we do manipulate time. I always felt there was a lot of potential there to tell a story from a different way. I guess I spent my adult life thinking about that subject. An idea would pop into my head and I'd think, "Oh, I wonder if that could work? Why shouldn't that work?" I allowed myself to think that way.

The specific idea for the story of Boyhood came in response to problems I was trying to solve. I was trying to make a film about childhood but over the first couple of years I couldn't find the right spot. The idea I hadn't solved was how to express a lot of things from different stages of development.

Time is a fascinating subject. Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in Time is probably one of the most beautiful things you will ever read on that subject. He talks about that so much.

Friday, May 16, 2014

SFIFF57—Michael Hawley Wraps It Up

The 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF57) concluded last Thursday and I've spent the past seven days reflecting back on what certainly felt like one of the best festivals of recent years. Below are some impressions of 20 films I caught during the 15-day run of the fest, in the order in which I saw them.

No No: A Dockumentary (USA, dir. Jeffrey Radice)—While I wasn't able to attend SFIFF57's opening night festivities, this portrait of Dock "No No" Ellis, the fiercely proud, high living African American major league baseball player who pitched a 1970 no-hitter while tripping on LSD, proved a most excellent way to begin my 2014 festival. Even better was the accompanying 10-minute short, Mike Jacobs' The High Five, which went on to win the festival's Golden Gate Award for best doc short. This joyful look into the celebratory sports gesture revealed that it was created at a 1977 Dodgers game by two future Bay Area sports legends, Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke. I became an accidental sports fan for all of two hours.

Tip Top (France, dir. Serge Bozon)—I'm willing to bet no other film in the festival was as universally loathed as this "screwball" policier about two perverse female cops investigating the death of an informant. While I was ambivalent about the director's 2007 drag-king WWI musical La France, his latest had an anarchic spirit I found admirable. For better or worse, my indelible image of SFIFF57 will probably be Isabelle Huppert's tongue lapping up blood droplets that slipped from the tip of her nose.

Queen Margot: The Director's Cut (France, 1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau)—At the last minute I made the decision to forego a 225-minute marathon screening of the French TV series Agnès Varda: From Here to There and catch this 159-minute orgy of 16th century French court intrigue instead. Restored for its 20th anniversary, Chéreau re-cut his acclaimed epic before his death last autumn, choosing the best materials from the film's French, International and U.S. versions. It was both bloodier and sexier than I remembered. And while the film is currently enjoying a week's run at NYC's Film Forum, I'm not aware of any plans to bring it back to the Bay Area. As for the Varda TV series, I caught it at home on DVD screener and it was of course, brilliant and enormously fun. I mean, centenarian Manuel do Oliveira doing Chaplin impersonations?

Chinese Puzzle (France, dir. Cédric Klapisch)—I probably would have skipped this film—it opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on May 23—were it not for the added value of seeing its director and lead actor in the flesh. If I'd skipped it, however, I might have missed one of the most entertaining evenings I've had in 38 years of attending the festival. This new film finds several characters from director Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls alive and well and living in NYC. In all aspects, Chinese Puzzle is better and much funnier than any three-quel has a right to be. Unfortunately actor Romain Duris, who's a longtime personal favorite and in almost every frame, had little to say during the Q&A save for a few jaunty rejoinders to questions directed at Klapisch. To any Audrey Tautou-haters out there, prepare to be astonished by a scene in which the Amélie actress speaks flawless Mandarin (don't ask), a task Klapisch says she spent three months preparing for. Chinese Puzzle ultimately polled second place for the festival's narrative feature audience award.

Our Sunhi (South Korea, dir. Hong Sang-soo)—I've see all but one of Hong's 15 features and his latest, for which he won a Best Director prize at Locarno, falls somewhere in the middle of my love-hate continuum for the director and his works. This one, while certainly clever enough, seemed mostly distinguished by its lack of a fractured narrative structure, and by having its female protagonist be as obnoxious as her male counterparts.

Ten Thousand Waves (UK, 2010, dir. Isaac Julien)—For some reason I was oddly unmoved by Issac Julien's MoMA-commissioned installation work, which impressionistically riffs on the tragic 2004 drowning of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in the UK (a tale more straightforwardly told in Nick Broomfield's 2006 narrative feature, Ghosts). Perhaps it was the medium? Instead of being projected onto nine gigantic screens, as it is in a museum setting, all nine differing images simultaneously occupied the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas' large screen in House One. Julien, who was at the festival to receive this year's Persistence of Vision Award, admitted we were possibly the only audience who would ever see it presented that way. I was considerably more taken with the career-spanning conversation between the director and film writer B. Ruby Rich, which preceded the screening.

Norte, the End of History (Philippines, dir. Lav Diaz)—I've long wanted to see a film by this acclaimed Filipino director, but have been intimidated by running times that can stretch as long as 12 hours. This was my final film of the festival's opening weekend and despite wanting nothing more than to go home to bed, I found myself riveted by all 250 minutes of Diaz' boldly original reimagining of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. If you missed it at the festival, San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will screen it four more times in the latter half of June. I'm seriously contemplating a re-visit.

Tracks (UK/Australia, dir. John Curran)—Mia Wasikowska portrays Robyn Davis, the young Australian adventuress who trekked across 2000 miles of desert outback in 1977, in this better-than-I–expected tale of personal discovery with loads of spectacular landscape photography. My true reason for seeing the movie was actor Adam Driver, adorable as always in the role of a National Geographic photographer who helps Davis secure financing and becomes her contact with the outside world. I left Tracks knowing more than I'll ever need about the behavior and training of feral camels.

Stray Dogs (Taiwan/France, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)—Tsai Ming-liang is one of my favorite directors and it was a thrill getting to see his latest work on the big screen. One re-enters a familiar world possessed of Tsai's recurring themes and signifiers—pathos, alienation, endless rain, food abuse, transcendent compositions and of course, his legendary long takes. But seriously folks, those final two shots—a 14-minute static close-up of actors Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi staring at "something," followed by a 7-minute long-shot of them and that "something"—was cruel and unusual punishment for even this longtime fan.

Club Sandwich (Mexico, dir. Fernando Eimbcke)—I knew this would be one of my favorite films of the festival and I was not proved wrong. Director Eimbcke follows up Duck Season and Lake Tahoe with another heartfelt and hilarious deadpan comedy, this one about a pubescent boy encountering first love while on holiday with his single mother at an off-season beach resort. I can't wait to see it again. The screening was enhanced by the personal appearance of the charming Mr. Eimbcke, whose first two films played SFIFF without him in attendance.

Happiness (France/Finland, dir. Thomas Balmès)—This ethnographic docu-drama begins with Bhutan's king telling a cheering crowd of his decision to bring them electricity and the internet. It ends with a shot of bewildered villagers watching WrestleMania. What's the Bhutanese phrase for "be careful what you wish for?" In between there's an affecting tale of a young boy entrusted to a monastery, who eventually accompanies an uncle to the city for the purpose of buying a TV set. As would be expected, the scenery en route is stunning.

The Blue Wave (Turkey, dir. Zeynep Dadak, Merve Kayan)—This was the only film in the festival which failed to engage me in any way. I would suggest re-titling it, Mundane Mini-Dramas of a Bourgeois Turkish Teenager. For the remainder of the festival I lived in mortal fear it might win the SFIFF57 New Director's Prize. (It didn't).

Abuse of Weakness (France, dir. Catherine Breillat)—Isabelle Huppert gives yet another startling performance as Maud Schoenberg, a filmmaker who suffers a series of strokes and is subsequently fleeced out of nearly €1 million by a professional conman she wants to star in her next movie. The story is based on real events from the life of director Breillat, and is the ultimate filmic rendering of what it must be like to be totally dispossessed of oneself. Huppert is at her most harrowingly memorable in the physical and speech therapy scenes, as well as the finale where she struggles to explain her victimization to family and associates. "It was me, but it was not me."

The Trip to Italy (UK/Italy, dir. Michael Winterbottom)—Comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue the often hilarious shtick they began in Winterbottom's 2010 The Trip with this Italian-set sequel featuring heartier food, lovelier scenery and still more celebrity impersonations (Gore Vidal, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hardy and yes, a Michael Caine redux). It also feels less fresh this go-round and I wouldn't hold my breath for a third installment. Their deconstruction of the word "kumquat" is in itself worth the admission price.

Boyhood (USA, dir. Richard Linklater)—If there was an unqualified masterpiece at SFIFF57, it was surely this incomparable paean to one boy's childhood and adolescence which was 12 years in the making. The screening was the highlight of a program honoring Linklater with 2014's SFIFF Founder's Directing Award at the Castro Theatre. A reel of career highlights kicked off the evening, followed by an on-stage interview conducted by none other than actress Parker Posey, who—along with Ben Affleck and Mathew McConaughey—made her feature film debut in Linklater's 1993 film Dazed and Confused. While perhaps the rambling Posey wasn't the best choice for a cogent inquiry into the director's esteemed filmography, she and Linklater had a genial rapport which easily won over the audience. After the screening, the filmmaker returned to the stage for a Q&A with his daughter Lorelei, who plays the main character's slightly older sister. The now college-age actress who was eight when filming began, described the dozen-years ordeal of making Boyhood as her personal 12 Years a Slave, and admitted begging her father to kill off her character sometime around the fourth year of production. Boyhood, which to the best of my knowledge has no precedent in the history of narrative cinema, opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on July 18.

Freedom Summer (USA, dir. Stanley Nelson)—This exemplary documentary takes an in-depth look at 1964's Mississippi Summer Project, which saw over a thousand volunteers descend upon the Magnolia State to register African American voters (at a time when only 6.7% of Mississippi blacks were registered due to intimidation and archaic literacy tests). While I was familiar with much of this material, of total news to me was the movement's effort to unseat the state's official delegation to that summer's Democratic convention in Atlantic City. This occupies a large chunk of the film and is certain to alter any opinion you might have about L.B.J. Freedom Summer was produced for the PBS series "American Experience" and will air this summer starting on June 24. It polled second place for the festival's documentary audience award.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (USA, dir. David Zellner)—While I'm inclined to avoid films described as "quirky American indies," a slew of rave reviews from Sundance had me checking this one out and boy, am I glad I did. Japanese superstar Rinko Kikuchi (Oscar-nominated for her role in Babel) stars as a malcontented, delusional "office lady" obsessed with finding the money buried by Steve Buscemi in the Coen Brothers' movie Fargo. The film's Japan-set first half is a painfully funny prelude—complete with noodle-slurping pet rabbit—for Kumiko's eventual arrival in a wintry Minnesota. Improperly attired and penniless save for a stolen credit card, she's guided toward her goal by a gallery of benevolently off-key Minnesotans. Writer / director David Zellner and his brother, writer Nathan Zellner were on-hand for a Q&A in which they revealed the story comes from a message-boards-era online urban legend, and that they wanted to create a story about someone in an "extreme state of isolation" using "multiple versions of reality."

Eastern Boys (France, dir. Robin Campillo)—A gay, middle-aged Parisian professional gets more than he bargained for after hooking up with a Ukrainian hustler in this, one of the very best films I saw at SFIFF57. What begins as another film equating danger with gay male erotic desire—à la Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake—slowly morphs into a tender love story of parental-like concern and then transforms again into the most intense, nerve-wracking thriller I've seen in years. Director Campillo is best known for co-writing the films of Laurent Cantet (The Class) and his only previous feature as director is the 2004 zombie flick, They Came Back, which is now sitting atop my Netflix queue.

Manakamana (USA/Nepal, dir. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)—This hypnotic, contemplative documentary of sorts consists of only 12 shots, all 10-minute unbroken long-takes of passengers riding a suspended cable car up to (or down from) a mountaintop Nepalese temple. I was particularly struck by how the directors create a sense of suspense and anticipation each time the cable cars finish their run and enter the darkened building where passengers exit and board. For roughly 30 seconds the screen goes nearly black and we watch vague silhouettes leave the car. Seconds later, other shadowy figures get on board and remain mysterious until the car jolts into the sunlight. Three long-haired, Nepalese heavy-metal dudes transmogrify into two old ladies eating rapidly melting popsicles who in turn metamorphose into two young American tourists who then re-emerge as goats.

Night Moves (USA, dir. Kelly Reichardt)—Low-key indie director Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) surprises us once again by following up 2010's lost-pioneers-in-the-desert drama Meek's Cutoff with this quasi-thriller about a trio of Oregon eco-terrorists intent on blowing up a dam. The first hour introduces the film's protagonists—a confident rich girl (Dakota Fanning), a taciturn co-op farmer (Jesse Eisenberg) and a backwoodsman (Peter Sarsgaard)—and meticulously follows every move of their final preparations leading up to and including the big event. The film's moodier second half delves into psychological aftermath, as an unforeseen consequence causes one of the three to consider surrendering to authorities.

Cross-published at film-415.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SFIFF57—Week Two

The 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) kicked into its second week with "An Evening With Richard Linklater." Head programmer Rachel Rosen awarded Linklater the San Francisco Film Society's Founder's Directing Award, followed by a sweet, if somewhat rambling, conversation between Linklater and Parker Posey (that felt in itself like I was watching a Robert Altman film), then a celebratory screening of Boyhood (2014), finished off by a Q&A with Linklater, his actress / daughter Lorelei (who nicknamed the film Twelve Years A Slave), and producer Cathleen Sutherland.

Richard Linklater has long exhibited an incredible grasp of the elasticity of time through his narrative trilogy and character study Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), let alone his rotoscoped ruminations on same in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), but his grasp of the theme of how lives are shaped by the passage of time—his sheer genius, I have to say—has reached a pitch of brilliance in his latest film Boyhood, which screened at the Castro Theatre to a capacity crowd that offered an effusive standing ovation begging for more (even after the film's life-spanning 162 minutes). This has been my favorite movie experience in recent memory and I can't wait to watch the film again as soon as possible.

I am outright stunned that Linklater had the creative foresight to imagine a film that would take 12 years to make (with all its attendant creative problems and solutions), chronicling the titular boyhood of Mason (in a career-defining performance by Ellar Coltrane), ranging from Mason's childhood inquiries into the existence of elves to a lovely mind-altered dalliance on his first day of college. Boyhood exudes the majesty of becoming oneself.

It's all questions and no answers in Alex van Warmerdam's befuddling yet enthralling Borgman (2013), representing the Netherlands at SFIFF. An adult fairy tale of sorts true to the dark underpinnings of pre-Disney fairy tales, Borgman entertains the most ancient of conceits: that of evil having to be invited over the threshhold. Once it's invited into the home of a well-heeled couple, preying upon their Christian charity, darkness unfolds in a series of chaotic master strokes involving lawn destruction, scalpels, and nightmares of spousal abuse. A headscratcher that festers in the mind.

Three years later, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon continue the culinary adventure of The Trip with The Trip to Italy (2014), Michael Winterbottom's toast to fine wine, regional cuisine, stunning landscape and overbaked impersonations. At turns hilarious (particularly in the Pompeii sequence where Brydon is downright brilliant) and repetitive (how many DeNiro, Pacino and Brando impersonations can one stomach at one sitting?), A Trip to Italy achieves its goal: you'll want to rush out and enjoy a fine meal with a funny friend over a glass of wine.

Earlier at SFIFF, I suffered through the S&M posturings of the near-intolerable Tip Top where one of my favorite actresses—the incandescent Isabelle Huppert—threw away her talent to humiliate herself on camera to meager ends. Under the guidance of Catherine Breillat, however, the power dynamics of a sadomasochistic relationship is explored in its full, fascinating, and much more credible complexity in Breillat's Abuse of Weakness (2013). With autobiographical flourish, Huppert stands in for Breillat who was stricken by a stroke and fleeced by a virile con-man while at her weakest. I was reminded of a passage in the diaries of Anaïs Nin where she observed a thuggish, near animalistic man, with unbridled desire. Questioning herself, Nin realized that what attracted her was the man's natural savagery in contrast to her own mannered civility. Extortion is rarely so erotic.

I'm a great fan of Scandinavian thrillers so there was no way I was going to miss Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Pioneer (2013). I was not disappointed. In Pioneer, Norway stands to benefit from building the first oil pipeline into the Black Sea. They join forces with the United States to do a feasibility study on men laying the pipe at such depths. During preliminary tests, tragedy strikes and a shady and violent cover-up begins. Genre at its best: concise, tense, and suspenseful.

I had read a lot about Lois Patiño's Coast of Death before walking in to see it so I felt ready to appreciate its form and style, but I didn't realize I was going to enjoy it so much. As spectator, I became the village eavesdropper, listening in on the lilting conversations of my neighbors, wandering the Galician coastside, remembering, gossiping. Only very old men can be concerned about the line between legend and history and only very young ones can crouch under pounding waves. A beautiful film, both near and far, distant and close.

Having just lost my sister Barbara, watching Mark Cousins' A Story of Children & Film was difficult but offered the carthartic insight that sometimes a child is not really a child, but a child-parent, either watching after a younger sibling, or parenting their own mother or father. That was a soothing insight to take away from this film, along with Mark's unerring eye for cinematic themes and throughlines presented in rarely-seen clips from global filmmakers, making me hungry all over again (as after A Story of Film) to hunt out and pursue his recommendations.

Programmer Sean Uyehara quipped that homoerotic thrillers are everyone's favorite genre right now, and Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys (2013) tracks right in. At first you think it's going to be just about the danger of compulsive desire, as in Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake, but then it opens out into a much more intriguing narrative about immigration and assimilation, provocatively suggesting that having a Daddy sometimes awards certain rights of citizenry, at least in this French erotic fantasy of sorts that hits all its intense marks and fully entertains. One of my festival favorites, with its not-to-be-missed homo home invasion scene.

The true translation of Benedikt Erlingsson's Hross í oss would be Horse In Us rather than the circulating title Of Horses and Men (2013), which interests primarily for distinguishing the film's focus on the equine nature within human nature, specifically mating habits, inferring how complicated civility and protocol are when set against the far simpler honesty of stud mounting mare. Icelandic humor is peculiar to its culture and landscape, but reads amusingly well in this ensemble of beautifully-shot vignettes sourced if not seen from the eyes of horses. I was reminded of the patient and compassionate witness of Balthazar in Bresson's film and of the ancient concept that a subject, as reflected in the eye of the pupil—whether horse or man or binocular lens—is always "the other."

It's a pleasure to be the first audience to see a world premiere. It's usually an audience composed of friends, family, crew and diehard fans, and so the enthusiasm is unique and heartfelt. Such was certainly the case with the SFIFF world premiere of Heaven Adores You (2014), Nickolas Rossi's documentary portrait of beloved Oregon singer / songwriter Elliott Smith. Admittedly unfamiliar with the work of Smith, I came to the film by way of association with two of the film's producers: Haroula Rose (who I had met at the Sun Valley Film Festival, two years running), and Marc Smolowitz (who I met back during IFCON days, via Wendy Braitman, and with whom I became reacquainted during the filming of A Day In San Francisco, with footage repurposed for a public service announcement to raise awareness about AIDS Survivors Syndrome). I was glad to support both of them and to learn more about this eloquent melancholic undone by fame. Intermingling archival footage and photographs with filmed interviews and never-released Smith material, the film gains particular traction alongside its straightforward biography by creating an evocative trilogy of city symphonies. Very much a valentine to Portland, Kevin Moyer's guidance is especially keen here, not only in his B-reel footage, but in his moody score for the film, resonant with the feel of Oregon's grey rain. New York and Los Angeles are likewise made palpable through abstracted compositions of city life, providing great connective tissue.

What defines the family is deftly expressed in Claudia Sainte-Luce's debut feature The Amazing Catfish (2013) where emotionally-bereft Claudia (Ximena Ayala) meets cute with a charmingly dysfunctional Mexican family who adopt her by necessity since the mother is dying of AIDS and all her children are acting out eccentric denials. The movie suggests that sometimes our truest families are not of blood but those of chosen companionship. This is not a new insight, but tenderly treated by Sainte-Luce, earning her an honorary mention from SFIFF's New Directors jury who described The Amazing Catfish as "a warm and exhilaratingly unpredictable dramedy from Mexican filmmaker Claudia Sainte-Luce about the impact of a mysterious stranger on a family struggling with imminent tragedy."

As Executive Producer, Spike Lee has clearly mentored Josef Wladyka's debut feature Manos Sucias (2014). It's raw, realistic, action-packed—especially in the railcar chase—and all around immersive, allowing the viewer into a criminal world to witness human faces; in this case, two brothers who have no choice but to get their hands dirty.

After a good dose of docs, foreign entries, and indie arthouse darlings, there comes a point in any film festival where I will easily give it up for fantasy genre. Rather fond of Mike Cahill's Another Earth (2011), I was pleased when SFIFF announced a last minute addition of Cahill's latest I Origins (2014) to the line-up. Amused by its offhand references to Boise, Idaho (Dan's Diner is going to get so many hits in coming months), I recognized the airport but little else of everyone's favorite City of Trees. I Origins uses iris identification (no two are alike, right?) to initiate a globetrotting quest. Well, I say "globetrotting" but it's really only between Boise, Idaho and India, since the two are clearly meant to be antipodes of reincarnation. Michael Pitt dukes it out for science all the way until the loosey goosies get him.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

SFIFF57—Week One

Setting and mindset—LSD research theorist Stanislav Grof argued over the years—were essential for maximizing that drug's healing potential. The same might be said about cinema's power to ameliorate grief. My beloved sister Barbara Guillén passed away no less than three days before opening night of the 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) after a prolonged hospitalization and—though I had some reservations about attending SFIFF as a consequence—concluded it would be best to continue with my scheduled participation. It was the appropriate thing to do, if at times admittedly difficult. Friends and colleagues have offered respectful condolences and loving support, helping to shoulder my burden, and I've taken comfort in the familiarity of the festival's infrastructure, its venues—the Castro Theatre, the Sundance Kabuki, and New People Cinema—in whose auditoriums I have automatically settled into favorite seats determined over years of attendance. Left side, center aisle.

Safe and secure in my setting, my mindset—on the other hand—has been volatile, a wild card, and I throw that out there to qualify how grief can affect reception and perspective on a film. Stories of children in peril, death watch sequences, testimonials of social injustice, have always been problematic for me to handle emotionally, but even more so this go-round. Exhaustion and rogue waves of overwhelming sorrow have weakened my patience for long takes, slapstick gags, and indie narratives that seem slight, even unnecessary. That being said, I am convinced more than ever that films are never seen in a vacuum; that our subjectivities—however affected by the crises in our lives—influence how we perceive and interpret the frenzy on the wall, which is in essence the symbiotic thrill of the cinephilic experience. That's not meant to be an apology for how I have reacted to the films I've seen in my first week at the festival, but merely a statement of cinematic fact. Offered with a note of gratitude at how cinema has helped me steer—yet again—through a tumultuous period of my life. I dedicate this year's coverage to my dear sister Barbara.

Unable to negotiate opening night, my opening pitch for SFIFF was Pittsburgh Pirate Dock Ellis's infamous 1970 no-hitter on LSD, the obvious hook to Jeff Radice's No No: A Dockumentary (2014) [official site] which Radice expands upon to assemble a fascinating, rich documentary about the baseball player nicknamed "the Muhammad Ali of the ballpark." St. Augustine in all his late life contrition could have played shortstop to this tale of a man who was proudly black, loudly opinionated, addicted to drugs and alcohol, but who—in his later years—discovered the value of remorse and turned his life around to counsel other athletes battling demons with which he was all too familiar. I'm not a sports enthusiast by nature, but am certainly enthused over Radice's sports doc, which reaches past the diamond to reveal the social pressures of a time and place on a beloved American sport and its players. An added high-five to the film's funky psychedelic score by Adam Horovitz (of the Beastie Boys). Further thanks to Alex Hecht for forwarding the url to No Mas and artist James Blagden's animated rendition of Dock Ellis' legendary LSD no-hitter.

Speaking of high fives, Mike Jacobs' captivating 10-minute short The High Five (2014) preceded No No: A Dockumentary. They're perfect teammates. On October 2, 1977, Dusty Baker hit his 30th homerun of the season, making history as the 4th player on the Dodgers to hit 30 or more home runs. As Baker rounded the bases, an excited rookie named Glenn Burke met him at home plate, raised his arm high in the air and slapped Baker five. It was the first high five recorded in the history of sports. A year later, Burke was forced out of baseball amid rumors of his sexual orientation. The film takes audiences back to the spontaneous moment between the two men and tells the story of how the celebratory gesture spread throughout the sports world at the same time Burke was being forced from the game he loved. Again, though not necessarily a sports enthusiast, I am highly respectful of this reclaimed gem of gay history. It sparkles.

Originally entitled Roots & Webs, San Francisco Film Society alumni Sara Dosa—an associate producer on last year's Inequality For All (2013)—boasted the world premiere of her first documentary feature The Last Season (2014) [Facebook]. With anthropological finesse and an open heart, Dosa aligns foraging with filmmaking as she tracks the tale of matsutake mushroom hunters in Oregon state, specifically the heartfelt interaction between an elderly Vietnam vet and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who becomes his adopted son. What makes this season their last is not only the life cycle of the matsutake mushroom as threatened by undisciplined foraging and climate change, but the family's final opportunity to enjoy the mushroom hunting season together. Elegaic, and insightful as to the traumatizing effects of war on men from different backgrounds, I was quite taken by this documentary's narrative glimpse into one of America's relatively unknown subcultures. Word-of-mouth is rapidly spreading on The Last Season and Dosa is assured a robust festival experience; for starters, Melissa Silverstein's profile for IndieWire.

SFIFF provided a refreshing touch of international glamour with the on-stage appearance of beloved French actor Romain Duris, accompanied by director Cédric Klapisch, for the one-off screening of Chinese Puzzle (2013), the third installment in a trilogy that rivals Richard Linklater's "Before" Trilogy in its sophisticated purview of the maturation of cinematic characters over time. Ten years past, Klapisch delighted audiences with L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Room, 2002), introducing the charismatically frenetic Xavier (Duris) whose expectations of life are endlessly complicated by unfolding circumstance. Complication, however, veers into a kind of beauty, as Klapisch shifts his characters to New York City and sets their changing lives against a constantly shifting backdrop of urban existence. As someone deeply enamored with street art, I adored Klapisch's eschewal of ready architectural branding to explore the pedestrian and oft-overlooked street-level beauty of modern Manhattan.

This year's Persistence of Vision Award was awarded by SFIFF to Isaac Julien, with B. Ruby Rich in an on-stage conversation with Julien that was smart and far-reaching, and the first-ever projection of all nine screens of Julien's original installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010) unified onto one screen. This afforded an omnipotent glimpse of the logical infrastructure of Julien's immersive film installation (recently at MOMA and San Diego), as well as the presiding emotional affects elicited by visual strategies of placement, replication, repetition, juxtaposition and inversion: negotiations of space and their attendant aesthetics. Every artistic choice triggered profound meditations, no less the green screen reveal incorporated as a dream sequence, or the intertextual citations to the film traditions of China. A satisfying, unique experience at the festival.

As mentioned by Rod Armstrong in his introduction to Philippine auteur Lav Diaz's Norte, the End of History (2013), it's possibly the longest film at SFIFF (clocking in at 250 minutes), at the same time that it's one of the shortest in Diaz's ouevre. I was swept up in this epic exploration of Dostevyskian themes regarding the nature of crime and its punishments, and ravaged by Sid Lucero's savage performance as an existential law school dropout. Several scenes in Norte felt like gliding vessels slowly filling up with grief, guilt, revelation and meaning. Elliptical interruptions in the narrative jolted the storyline into startling new trajectories. Profundity and depth earmark a familiar conceit of the free man imprisoned in his own skin and the incarcerated prisoner who has achieved freedom within. Norte will be one of the featured highlights in the third edition of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts focus on New Filipino Cinema this Summer and well worth a second, if not repeated, viewings.

As someone currently in the grip of grief, hoping that movies will somehow ameliorate the pain, some films are as difficult to watch as they are soothing. Argentinian director Juan Taratuto delivers a slow-burn low-key narrative in La reconstrucción (The Reconstruction, 2013) suggesting that the grief of others can help reconstruct a life frozen by grief. I was frequently reminded throughout this film of the fairy tale of the Ice King whose frozen kingdom finally begins to melt when he issues his first tear. That's the challenge, isn't it? Not to allow grief to halt the flow of life. This film spoke as clearly to me as a friend sitting across a table.

As a San Franciscan, I will never forget November 1978, marked by two tragic events in rapid succession that left the city reeling in disbelief and horror. First, the Jonestown Massacre, and then the assassinations of mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, all within the same week. Time has a way of turning such historic tragedies into multiplex entertainment. The Massacre, in particular, was skillfully documented for American Experience by Stanley Nelson in Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple (2006), which underscored (as Nelson told me in interview) the death of utopian idealism in the United States. Ti West resituates that cultural loss to an unspecified location in The Sacrament (2013), programmed by Rod Armstrong for SFIFF's "midnight" series.

Contemporizing Jonestown's mass suicide through the use of digital cinematography and found footage tropes, West converts the memory of Jonestown into a piece familiar to his genre fanbase, eschewing his previous forays into supernatural horror to focus on the (natural?) horror of religious fanaticism and—perhaps even more horrific—the voyeuristic witnessing of same. Effective enough, The Sacrament fails however to really bring anything new to the table except its prurience, although I'm pleased—after years of monitoring the work of Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowden and Kentucker Audley—to witness the unfolding maturation of their performances. They continue to come into their own within acting ensembles. Swanberg is a rooted actor with a gift for the comic, Bowden manifests grounded, serious virilities, and Audley exhibits a sensual befuddlement that's attractive. As "Father", Gene Jones reigns over them all channeling Jim Jones to a chilling "t", right down to the characteristic shades.

Sultry tween Josh Wiggins (reminiscent of River Phoenix and/or Leonardo DeCaprio in their tween years) launches his career with a remarkably mature and nuanced performance in Kat Candler's Hellion (2014), proudly supported at the 57th edition of SFIFF by both the San Francisco Film Society and the Kenneth Rainan Foundation as part of their flagship funding initiative (which also helped to bring Beasts of the Southern Wild and Fruitvale Station, among other American independents, to multiplex screens). All of 15, Wiggins has captured a dream, co-starring against Idaho alumni Aaron Paul, who adds yet another pigment to his palette of beleaguered masculinities. I predict it will be wonderful watching Wiggins and his talent grow up over the coming years. In retrospect, I'm grateful to have run into producer Jonathan Duffy early on in the festival who encouraged me to catch the film. I met Jonathan last year at SFIFF's A2E Initiative when I interviewed him for Yen Tan's Pit Stop.

Notable in part for being the first Costa Rican feature ever shown at SFIFF, Por las plumas (All About the Feathers, 2013) achieves both Costa Rican and international traction, doing well at the home box office while inviting inquiry into the practice of creating national cinemas for international film festival networks. Whereas the film's aural landscape is undeniably indicative of its Costa Rican setting, its comic vignettes are universal in their quirky, deadpan, if somewhat amorphously assembled, delivery. Trained in Barcelona, and intriguingly well-versed in the mechanics of financing independent film through crowd funding and festival funding initiatives, Neto Villalobos is another winning talent to watch in years to come. My thanks to Miguel Gomez for forwarding a Vimeo link to one of Villalobos' music videos.

The first entry at SFIFF to go on rush, Justin Simien's Dear White People (2014) [official site]—winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent—is a rather brilliant send-up of the campus comedy, skewering unfortunate headline events with brave, bracing critiques of racial inequities and identity stereotypes. A thoroughly entertaining and enlightening evening at the movies! I was especially impressed with Tyler James Williams's comic turn as Lionel Higgins, the wary, wide-eyed gay fish-out-of-water; perhaps one of the best-written queer characters in recent memory, resonant with credible agency.

The continuing relevance of Dear White People's comic scrutiny of race relations on contemporary American campuses seems decades distant and yet disturbingly allegiant to the efforts of college students in 1964 to secure voting rights for Black sharecroppers in racist Mississippi, as profiled in Stanley Nelson's assured Freedom Summer (2014). A competent use of archival footage combined with contemporary interviews with key participants, is further enrichened by illustrated re-creations, while the stinging haunt of the Supreme Court's recent decision to roll back key provisions of the Voting Rights Act hovers menacingly over the project. Unsung heroes are given prominent due in Freedom Summer, specifically the charismatic Mississippi organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, whose live testimony at the Democratic National Convention was kept off the networks' televised coverage by the less-than-subtle contrivances of President Johnson. Hamer's tombstone infamously reads: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." This is a tremendous historical document, necessary in the face of recent setbacks in American racial relations and increasing economic inequality.

Thomas Balmès' visually stunning documentary hybrid Happiness (2013) deserves its Sundance prize in the World Cinema competition—the mountainous regions of Bhutan are filmed in all their snowcrested skyscratching grandeur—even as its staged narrative draws attention to itself, inducing suspicion as to the veracity of its documentary impulse. Its theme is honest however, as it questions the advance of modernization on traditional ways of life. Audiences can't resist being charmed by its nine-year-old protagonist Peyangki whose wide-eyed wonder never fails to solicit amused sentiment as he negotiates his monk's robe to perform cartwheels and to pretend he's flying. His first visit with his uncle to the nearby "city" of Thimphu to sell a yak to buy a television signifies Bhutan's uneasy negotiation with modernization. The seductive allure of television and the internet earns Bhutan's constitutional monarch his first-ever applause when during a public address he announces its allowance into the country—a country rated by Business Week in 2006 as the happiest country in Asia—but reveals its unsettling and hypnotic grip in the film's final scenes, redefining the very notion of what "happiness" might mean.

Unfortunately, not every viewing experience at a festival can be a favorable one, no less for grief or a mild concussion. Within that camp I would have to include Serge Bozon's Tip Top (2013), misleadingly billed in SFIFF's program as a "screwball comedy". Along with brisk pacing, I expect screwball comedies to be characterized by warmth and wit, neither of which Tip Top possesses, even as it sordidly rushes along with its sadomasochistic obsessions. All in all, I found the film to be a mean-spirited humiliation offered up for laughs. To each their own laughter.

Neither was I impressed with the moribund pacing and flat visuals of When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism by Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu who seems intent on taking all magic out of moviemaking, making even the casting couch a plebian exercise. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for endoscopy as entertainment? I can go to my doctor for that? To each their own endoscopy?

At least Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang exhibits visual audacity and a sense of mise en scène in his indulgent long takes in Stray Dogs (2013). As Dennis Harvey culled from the protagonist of Porumboiu's Metabolism, "reality deepens with the length of a camera shot", but that has unsettling implications when regarding "digital lensing's theoretically 'infinite' span". How much reality can one bear when one casually visits the moviehouse to either get away from reality or configure reality in more palatable terms? And how much does one have to bring to such temporal exercises in order to make it worth the time?

Ming-Liang is threatening to give up filmmaking because audiences just aren't "patient" enough for his cinema. He's disgruntled with audiences that want narratives to clip along at a steady pace or, as I've suggested, narratives that filet reality to appease an appetite for catharsis. I find Tsai Ming-Liang's complaints partly disingenuous, especially since he is an arthouse darling who does everything he possibly can to test the patience of his audiences. It strikes me that—when audiences become impatient with his films—he's achieved his creative goal, so why the complaint? To crib from Laura Nyro, "I've got a lot of patience, baby, but that's a lot of patience to lose." And lost it, I'm sorry to say, I have. Ming-Liang's latest snoozefest displays his talents for composition and atmosphere, yes, but gone are the humor and whimsy of his earlier films, and an appreciation for their structural beauty is harder won. But I appear to be a loud minority here at SFIFF when it concerns Stray Dogs. Others have accepted the film on its own merits and countered that it "works" for them. Eminently more patient than I am, and probably more to be trusted in articulating these practices, Brian Darr recently synopsized at Hell on Frisco Bay: "Tsai's films have long developed recurrent themes of home and rootlessness, but with Stray Dogs he uses these to create his rawest, bitterest attack on Taiwan's inequalities thus far. His first digital feature employs surveillance-style footage of his actor fetiche Lee Kang-sheng and two youngsters tramping through and setting camp in locations 'stolen' whether by crew or characters. It culminates in a fourteen-minute take that's simultaneously unforgiving and about forgiveness."