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.


Debbie Ann said...

this is great for figuring out what I want to see at the Melbourne Intl Film Festival. thanks!

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks, Debbie! Hope you get to see some great stuff at the fest in Melbourne.