Tuesday, June 28, 2016


The Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia) will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary in Montreal this summer from July 14 to August 2, 2016, once again returning to Concordia Hall Cinema as its main base. The full lineup of over 130 feature films will be announced July 6th. The Frontiéres international co-production market and Industry Rendez-Vous weekend will be held July 21-24. The following capsules have been drafted by the Fantasia team and supplemented with personal commentary and critical overview (where available).

Fantasia's 20th edition will present leading genre filmmaker Guillermo del Toro with its prestigious Cheval Noir Award, which del Toro will accept in person in his first-ever Montreal appearance. Del Toro, best known for such fantasy and horror classics as Cronos (1993), The Devil's Backbone (2001), Pan's Labyrinth (2006), the Hellboy movies (2004, 2008), and Crimson Peak (2015), will also deliver a Master Class at Fantasia. In addition, del Toro will host the Canadian premiere of Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex (2015), a fascinating documentary on the history of movie monster makers, in which he is featured prominently.

Fantasia is equally proud to present Director Takashi Miike, one of the most groundbreaking filmmakers of his generation, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. No other filmmaker has left a mark on Fantasia's first 20 years as he has. Since Fantasia's screening of Fudoh: The New Generation in 1997—which was the first time Miike's unique vision was shown in North America—no fewer than 29 of his films have been showcased at the festival, including such modern classics as Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), and Visitor Q (2001). Miike's work also opened Fantasia three times with Yatterman (2009) and North American premieres of the Cannes selections For Love's Sake (2012) and Shield of Straw (2013). In addition to receiving his award, Takashi Miike will be hosting the North American Premiere of Terra Formars (2016), a sci-fi extravaganza where a team of misfits must fight humanoid cockroaches to colonize Mars, and As the Gods Will (2014), a surreal deathgame where Japanese traditional objects turn playground amusement into modern video-game blood baths.

Additional First Wave Highlights

Abattoir (2016, USA, Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman)—The murder of her family leads a real-estate reporter into a nightmarish mystery in this ghoulishly original film that haunts the netherworld between blood-soaked supernatural horror and hardboiled neo-Noir. Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind Repo: The Genetic Opera(2006), Saw II-IV (2005-2007) and The Devil's Carnival (2012), has returned. Abbatoir had its World Premiere as an Official Selection at the 2016 Los Angeles International Film Festival, where Drea Clark synopsized: "Julia, an investigative reporter with the style and confidence of a young Bacall, happens upon a series of gruesome murders tied to real estate mysteries, where entire rooms have been dismantled and pulled from their foundations. The fact that those rooms were the exact settings for heinous tragedies sets Julia and hardboiled cop Grady on a search for the unimaginable. The stakes go up when it suddenly becomes very personal in this stylized and increasingly horrifying modern-noir." Bousman talks up Abattoir for Deadline / Hollywood, The Daily Dead and Shockya. IMDb. Wikipedia. International Premiere.


The Alchemist Cookbook (2016, USA, Dir: Joel Potrykus)—Sean has dropped out of life, set up shop in a small trailer in the woods, and decided to pursue the forbidden art of alchemy. An irreverent, abrasive, and horror-infused take on modern-day alienation that plays like a punk-rock EC Comics tale, from the acclaimed director of Coyote (2010), Ape (2012), and Buzzard (2014). Official Selection: SXSW 2016. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Dennis Harvey writes: "Fans of absurdist indie comedies who find themselves watching a quasi-horror pic are likely to be happier than horror fans who find themselves watching an absurdist indie comedy with a demon in it. But while The Alchemist Cookbook certainly won't be for everyone, it will surely delight and surprise those who can grok its idiosyncratic content." Critics Roundup offers four more takes, including Richard Brody at The New Yorker who adds: "Potrykus, wandering with [his protagonist] into disturbing psychological territory and absurd humor, displays a bold dramatic virtuosity." At The House Next Door, Carson Lund notes: "While austerity has typically been Potrykus's go-to directorial strategy in spotlighting the eccentric speaking patterns and physical tics of his performers, The Alchemist Cookbook does introduce some canny aesthetic digressions as the film wades into psychological horror." Lund qualifies: "In its dogged rejection of easy audience identification points and its gradual untethering from logic, The Alchemist Cookbook only offers a platform for Potrykus to push his authorial quirks further."

Americana (2016, USA, Dir: Zachary Shedd)—A film editor must battle his own demons when an on-set eruption of violence leads to a deeper, darker conspiracy. A beautifully brooding neo-Noir, more calculated and compelling with every twist and turn. Official selection: Seattle International Film Festival 2016. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook. International Premiere.

At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore's bottom line is that Americana is a "quietly effective debut drama" and notes that Shedd's decision to set his "quiet psychodrama against Bay Area backdrops [does] more than add easy production value." He explains: "Handsome photography by Justin Foster nails down the picture's sense of place, with hilly vistas in the city and nearby Marin County emphasizing how alone [his protagonist] is with his pain, even when surrounded by people." Shedd talks with Victoria Stevens for Anthem.

Antigang aka The Squad (2015, France, Dir: Benjamin Rocher)—A police squad's rough and unconventional methods are challenged just as a rash of robberies put Paris on edge. Jean Reno stars in this explosive, captivating and highly entertaining action film. IMDb. Wikipedia. North American Premiere.

At Variety, Peter Debruge has some reservations about the film. He writes: "Director Benjamin Rocher clearly saw the project as a chance to pay tribute to such 1980s American action movies as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. To his credit, the helmer ... delivers playful, high-octane action on a fraction of the budget those star-driven Hollywood pics had to work with, and yet, he seems to have overlooked the elements that made those pics so memorable: namely, unpredictable characters in dangerous underdog situations." The Squad, Debruge argues, is redeemed by a "terrific" and "sleek" outdoor action sequence midway through. At The Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer concurs that the midway action sequence is impressive "when the cops chase the crooks in broad daylight around the massive wood, steel and glass towers of the Bibliotheque Nationale Francaise. Never have so many bullets come so close to so many books, as if Michael Mann and Michel Foucault joined forces to kick ass, and have a great time while doing so." Otherwise, Mintzer's bottom line is that The Squad "delivers much more violence than intelligence."

Atmo HorroX (Quebec, Dir: Pat Tremblay)—All is well in the land of the mad, in the latest surrealist opus from Pat Tremblay (Hellacious Acres), twisted titan of the Quebec underground. One thing is certain—rational thought has left the building and hasn't left a number where it can be reached. Official Selection at the 2016 Revelation Perth International Film Festival: "With its combination of occasional violence, deconstructed camp, and full on wild insanity the film rightly positions its surrealism and dream-logic front-and-center of its genre-bending narrative, creating a movie that embraces its zero-budget and takes the audience on a one of a kind journey unique to each person." Official Site. Facebook. North American Premiere.

The Bacchus Lady (South Korea, Dir: E J-yong)—Senior citizen So-Young takes in a mixed-race kid while tending to her many clients. A thoroughly compassionate and revealing look at the lives of aging prostitutes in South Korea—with a murderous twist! Official Selection: Berlinale 2016 (Panorama). IMDb. Wikipedia. Canadian Premiere.

At Variety, Maggie Lee enthusiastically observes: "Taking on a potentially sordid subject, E brings attention to the harsh realities of growing old without a safety net, but also infuses his characters with warmth and racy humor.... The film expands beyond senior prostitution to explore a range of social issues, championing diversity in a subtle, unpatronizing way." Praising lead actress Yeo-jeong Yoon's "reflective and thoughtful" performance, Lee proposes that it "may still count as one of her lifetime achievements." At The Hollywood Reporter, Clarence Tsui's bottom line is equally laudatory: "A tour de force from the grand dame of Korean cinema." He adds: "Given the obsession with beauty and youth in South Korean screen entertainment, The Bacchus Lady is certainly audacious, and a powerful reminder of how lives could or would be lived once the youthful vigor is gone."

Bad Blood: The Movie (USA, Dir: Tim Reis)—What's the deal with all those frogs in the gas station's makeshift basement laboratory? This old-fashioned creature feature is a goopy new lab sample of the growing Atlanta, GA horror scene featuring hand-crafted make-up effects designed and created by James Sizemore. WINNER: Audience Award, Best Feature, Chattanooga Film Festival 2016. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook. International Premiere.

Screen Anarchy's Andrew Mack first reported on Bad Blood when it participated in last Summer's Works-In-Progress series at Frontières and later dispatched: "A love letter to the Stuart Gordon / Frank Henenlotter mad science opuses of the '80's, Bad Blood: The Movie is an amphibious twist on classic werewolf mythology, equal parts X-files and Tales from The Crypt, with a familiar blend of humor, horror and practical creature effects (handled by James Sizemore). I love it, it is so gleefully lo fi."

Bad Cat (Turkey, Dirs: Mehmet Kurtuluş, Ayşe Ünal)—Forget Fritz the Cat, this is Garfield-goes-Bad Lieutenant! Guaranteed fun for cat lovers, fans of international animation, and hopeless degenerates. Which one are you? Official Selection: Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival 2016. Official Site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Turkish]. North American Premiere.

Dispatching from Annecy to Screen Daily, Wendy Ide offers a qualified appreciation of Bad Cat, praising the film's polished production, but specifying that "the 3D computer animation is considerably more sophisticated than the story, which is trying so hard to shock that it ends up chasing its tail." Further: "Bad Cat embraces the filth of Seth MacFarlane's Ted, but not the fun." Notwithstanding her reservations, Ide writes: "The madcap energy and unapologetically crass humor could, however, endear it to a young festival audience which is willing to accept this singularly unattractive cat at face value."

The Bodyguard (China, Dir: Yue Song)—The new master of the Iron Kick clan sets out in search of a lost friend, earns a job protecting a rich man's daughter, and clashes with a criminal gang in one of the most exciting and auspicious martial arts films in years! IMDb. Wikipedia. Canadian Premiere.

Chihayafuri Part 1 & Part 2 (Japan, Dir: Nori Koizumi)—Chihaya is driven like few shojo heroines are: she wants to become the world champion of karuta, the traditional, competitive card-playing game mixing ancient poetry, extreme hand speed and almost violent card tossing. Adapted from the acclaimed manga, this perfect blend of coming of age tale and exhilarating sports drama will make you laugh, cheer and probably shed a tear. IMDb (Part 1 & Part 2). North American Premiere.

Creepy (Japan, Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)—After forays into auteur cinema like the magnificent Tokyo Sonata (Un certain regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2008), J-horror pioneer Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose classics Cure and Séance were adored at Fantasia in their day, makes a triumphant return to the horror thriller genre with the Berlin Film Festival selected Hitchcockian horror thriller Creepy. Kurosawa brings terror to a quiet neighborhood where an ex detective and his wife have to deal with their deranged new neighbor spectacularly brought to the screen by the excellent Teruyuki Kagawa. Official Site [Japanese]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Canadian Premiere.

At Variety, Maggie Lee states: "While some critics have hailed the pic as a return to Kurosawa's earlier 'straight' horror films, like Pulse or Cure, it in fact represents a conscious move away from past phantasmagoric stylizations to evoke the horrors of modern existence in plain sight and form." Lee praises the film's tech credits as "seamlessly low-key, reflecting Kurosawa's clear aesthetic decision to discard the formalist architecture of Loft and the stylized color play of Cure and Retribution. Akiko Ashizawa, who has lensed Kurosawa's works since Loft ... composes clean, compact shots that deliberately downplay the danger and trauma at hand. Production designer Norifumi Ataka (Norwegian Wood, Kurosawa's The Seventh Code) captures Tokyo suburban life with impressive verisimilitude, and with dirt and ugliness unceremoniously accumulating around the corners. Music and sound are never used to ramp up the horror factor, while deft touches, like a sudden dimming of lights, register with chilling impact." Though less enamored with the film for The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young still finds much to admire, concurring with Lee: "Ambience also plays a major role, and Akiko Ashizawa's lighting keeps a cloud of gloom hanging over every shot. The cluttered, claustrophobic houses with their narrow entranceways and low ceilings suggest the characters' repressed desires, in much the same way their junky backyards pockmarked with abandoned appliances and overgrown chain fences remind us of some unresolved issues in the attic." At Screen, Jonathan Romney says Creepy is "a film that not only amply merits its name, but would make Norman Bates scratch his head at the sheer weirdness of what goes on here behind closed doors."

The Dark Side of the Moon (Germany, Dir: Stephan Rick)—A psychedelic mushroom trip turns a successful lawyer into a wanted man in this tense and violent thriller starring Moritz Bleibtreu and Jürgen Prochnow. Official Selection: Zurich Film Festival 2015, Hamburg Film Festival 2015. IMDb. North American Premiere.

Embers (USA / Poland, Dir: Claire Carré)—Since the apocalypse, humanity has been deprived of its memory. Two strangers wake up together. Are they somehow connected? A thoughtful science fiction tale from a promising new voice in independent cinema. Official Selection: Oldenburg Film Festival 2015, Slamdance 2016. Winner: Narrative Feature Jury Award, New Orleans Film Festival 2015. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook. Canadian Premiere.

At Variety, Scott Tobias acknowledges that Carré's "clear intelligence, resourcefulness and vision combine to make this calling card tough to forget." At The Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck likewise describes Embers as "a stylish debut effort" and notes: "Obviously reminiscent of Memento with more than a little touch of Andrei Tarkovsky thrown in, Embers strains for a philosophical profundity that eludes it. And despite its brief running time, so little actually happens in the plot that it feels much longer than it is. But the film has many resonant moments, especially in its charming depiction of the relationship between the couple who decide that they should kiss to see if they're indeed romantically involved. It's metaphorical aspects like that, and the striking visuals that delineate the stark contrast between the worlds above and below ground, that make Embers memorable."


Monday, June 27, 2016

IFF PANAMÁ: HEART OF A DOG—A Conversation With Laurie Anderson By María Zacco & Michael Guillén

With evident Buddhist mirth registering in her twinkling eyes and her dimpled smile, Laurie Anderson gamely accepted the challenge of engaging a whirlwind series of 10-minute interviews, one after the other, when she attended the 2016 edition of the Panamá International Film Festival (IFF Panamá) to accompany the screening of her lauded essay documentary Heart Of A Dog. My thanks to colleague María Zacco for agreeing to combine our 10-minute allotments to have something near a decent conversation with Anderson, whose film is now available on HBO.

The Evening Class: Your film speaks to the limitations and possibilities of language. It's not the first time you've talked about these things but in this case, with Heart of the Dog, how did these themes lead you?

Laurie Anderson: When Arte asked me to do the film and asked what I cared about as an artist, I said I cared about words and how you can shape the world with words. So I thought I would try to do a film about stories, why we tell stories, and what happens to them. And also who's talking? Who's looking? For example, you see part of it from the dog's point of view and then cut to the next shot which is from a surveillance camera's point of view. You're always being asked to look through different eyes at stories. You have to decide, "Which is the view I look through?" There are so many!

The Evening Class: You also talk about manipulation.

Anderson: Yes, because everything is manipulation. This interview is manipulation. You frame it as a question and then I have to have an answer. Maybe I don't have one? Maybe I've no answer? It's sometimes a game of ping-pong we should stop playing.

The Evening Class: One of the most beautiful aspects of Heart of A Dog is how it profiles the almost archetypal emotional connection between dogs and people. I'm not sure if you know this or not but some consider the very first "art" in the Americas to be an incised dog skull found in a cave in the Valley of Mexico, which says a lot about the creative devotion humans have to that animal connection.

Anderson: I aspire to learn from dogs, particularly their skills at being a puppy. They're so good at that, as if they would really like to see what makes people run. They watch. Okay, we're their food supply, but we're much more.

The Evening Class: I love that moment when your terrier is looking at you as if saying, "Is this going to be fun?"

Anderson: Dogs understand who has chi and who doesn't. They're infallible chi detectors.

The Evening Class: You've woven multiple themes into your film, including the human abstraction of creating identity through persona making. Is persona the identity or is persona-making the identity?

Anderson: It's the persona-making. You can't create your identity particularly. You already are something. Creating persona is putting what you are into some framework of words or images. It's a big theme and really is one of the things the film is about. How do you express yourself? How do you identify yourself? In the current blogosphere, it's a kind of branding exercise and that's really alienating for most people to represent themselves as "out there" as one who does something. It's your avatar, in a way, that walks around. Sometimes people mistake this persona as their actual self, which is dangerous.

The Evening Class: Another heady subject in your film is death, which you treat so lighthandedly, as you do with memory. You're whimsical with both throughout the film and then suddenly the floor drops out and the viewer is plunged into grave depths, like these Panamanian pelicans out in the bay diving straight down for fish. I'm intrigued by this balance you've stuck between insouciance and the grounded recognition that death and memory compose the spine of our being.

Anderson: I use everyday language, and always have, to talk about things. I try to do that with subjects like death and memory as well. I look at the—in a way, everyday language of the Tibetan Book of the Dead—and tried to tell that story through sensation. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a huge book and pretty complicated in terms of identity, persistence of self, abstraction, memory; but, I tried to make it work on a sensual level. What happens when things start breaking apart and looping and doing these things to your senses? Because this sense of disorientation is one of the things that the Tibetan Book of the Dead begins to describe. It takes you through the disintegration of your self.

One of the things I try to say in the film is that, as a child, I felt kind of disintegrated already. As a five-year-old I looked up at the sky and thought, "That's where I came from. That's where I'm going. Period." I feel part of that. I never was too attracted to any other system that taught me something else, something that had to do with more solidity. I was always very sure that it was somehow part of some vibrational thing. So sky is a very big thing in this film, and so is up, which is to say the sky is a symbol of hopefulness but also of fear. Hawks dive bomb the dog so you see that can also come from the sky.

The Evening Class: And the sense of dispersal.

Anderson: Dispersal, yeah. And freedom. So it's freedom and fear at once. You're right about the duality of this. It's what F. Scott Fitzgerald was saying to writers: try to imagine that you have two opposing ideas and they're both equally true and one is in each hand. Try to hold them both without going crazy.

The Evening Class: Do you think we're alone when we're dying?

Anderson: Are we alone when we're living? No, I don't think so, no. In my own personal belief system, I think we're part of an energetic system that continues; that you can feel every moment. Like now. You can feel the connection between living things. Of course, we're encouraged to think of ourselves as alone and isolated single people, but we're really not. You can do many exercises that show you that that's not the case. Many people do really interesting work in terms of how things are very contagious: how fear is contagious, how love is contagious. In various situations, you feel an emotion of others and you become part of that system. I see it as energetic systems; but, of course, Western civilization encourages you to think that we're each a heroic, single person; the only imperfect one in the world.

The Evening Class: You talk about the existence of the bardo. Do you think we are living here and now in a bardo state?

Anderson: Yes, this is the bardo now and in fact, of course, we're not really "here." It's maybe a little too late to say that, but we're not. I don't think we understand very much at all, really; but, that's okay with me. I don't really need to know that much except that I try to accept that I don't know. But, still, I would like to try to find out. It doesn't make me depressed. It makes me think, "Well, I still would like to try." Even though I can see that it's completely hopeless.

The Evening Class: You've said in your film that you "try to feel sad without being sad."

Anderson: Those are the words of my teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. It's a difficult thing to do; but, I think, it's always hard when you're experiencing something and then observing yourself at the same time. Every artist, of course, does that: you make something and then you edit it. Every writer does the same. You try to make something intuitive and then you have to step back and give it some shape. You judge it and shape it.

But I don't think that feeling and being are about that so much. It's more integrated than the artist and the internal editor. Mingyur Rinpoche is a Tibetan teacher and he's the happiest man in the world, according to the University of Wisconsin Neuroscience Department who give a series of tests through sound. They immerse people in sound and measure their ability to contain their composure. They play some horrendous sounds and it doesn't mean that you're hard-hearted if you don't begin to cry when you hear things like that; but, that you have a balance and a way to see the world.

Happiness is key. He's a teacher who says, "We're here to have a very very very very good time." That's what we're here for. We're not here to suffer. We're here to become open to all of this. That's quite difficult for a lot of people. There's a whole series of reasons: guilt and blame, and disbelief that we're in bliss. I'm a Buddhist and an artist because they're the same. All it is: you look for yourself. There's nobody in charge. Nobody's saying, "You have to think this or do this." Nobody's there. Which is intolerable for most people. They would love to have "Daddy" up there telling them what to do.

The teaching is that you're Buddha. You are. It gives you an incredible amount of responsibility, obviously, and power, and humility, all of those things, to try to understand things as well as you can for yourself. It's very much about trying to be aware in your own way. Find your own way.

The Evening Class: Your film serves as a loving tribute to Lolabelle. What can you tell me about her?

Anderson: She was, like most dogs, able to live in a natural zone, which is guilt-free. When you watch dogs, they're not burdened with this. That's why it's good for people to look at them. You can learn so much from their sense of freedom. As I said earlier, we are their food supply and it might be a different world if they were our food supply. If they were feeding us, it would be a different world. Power shifts are important in this relationship; but, the important thing is that they are able to live in the present, which is a skill that most people do not have. They're too afraid. They're always planning or thinking about the past. There is such a thing as history and we learn from it and all of that, and there is such a thing as planning for something; but, the skill of being in the present is also something that I think would be very useful for more people to have as a skill.

So when a teacher like Mingyur Rinpoche says something like, "Try to feel without being"; it means exactly that. It's a big mistake to become sad because you see something sad. You do not have to become the thing you see.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

SFSFF21 2016—Michael Hawley Previews the Line-up

Hot on the heels of last year's 20th anniversary blow-out, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is back with another stunning roster for 2016. The Western Hemisphere's most prestigious silent movie showcase returns to the Castro Theatre from June 2 to 5 and features 19 programs and 11 new restorations, all screened with live music. Only two films have shown at previous SFSFF editions. Marquee-worthy stars such as Pola Negri, Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Emil Jannings appear in films by top directors like Fritz Lang, Yasujiro Ozu, Victor Fleming and Ernst Lubitsch. Special highlights include a pair of René Clément restorations and Oscar Michaux's Within Our Gates accompanied by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The terrific news for celluloid lovers is that ten movies will screen in 35mm, according to the indispensible Film on Film Foundation.


The festival opens Thursday night with William A. Wellman's 1928 Beggars of Life starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. It's considered Brooks' best Hollywood film, wherein she plays a young woman fleeing police after killing her abusive stepfather. Hopping a freight train disguised as a boy, she hooks up with a fellow traveler (Arlen) and together they spend time in a hobo encampment run by Oklahoma Red (Beery). Brooks did her own stunts and apparently despised Wellman for making her jump on and off moving trains. The actress' penchant for subtlety and underplaying is in full evidence here, rendering her performance completely contemporary. Her next film would be the iconic Pandora's Box. Based on an autobiography by scrappy writer / boxer / ex-hobo Jim Tully, Beggars of Life originally contained several talking sequences and is credited as Paramount's first movie with spoken words. It will be shown in 35mm accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who were also on hand when the festival first screened the film in 2007.

SFSFF21 concludes four days later with the 1919 comedy When the Clouds Roll By, which last played the fest in 2004. It was Victor Fleming's debut feature and the last "Coat and Tie" role for star Douglas Fairbanks before he shifted to swashbucklers. In this enchanting and surreal spoof on psychology, the actor plays a superstitious man who falls under the influence of a mad doctor's nefarious hypnosis experiments. The film is noted for two particular sequences, one of which has Fairbanks running up a wall and across the ceiling, a full 30 years before Fred Astaire's similar accomplishment in Royal Wedding. The other is a surrealistic dream sequence in which an onion, mincemeat pie, Welsh rarebit and lobster all do battle inside the actor's stomach. When the Clouds Roll By will be introduced by Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel and accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.

Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North is one of the silent era's most famous films, which is why I was shocked to discover SFSFF hadn't screened it previously. I'm pretty sure I haven't watched it since a university documentary film class in the early 1970's. This captivating year-in-the-life look at an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic—how they hunt, fish, trade and migrate—is considered the granddaddy of non-fiction filmmaking, although today it would probably be deemed a "docudrama." A number of scenes were apparently staged. The director forced his subjects to hunt with spears instead of their customary rifles, and Nanook's "wife" was actually a common-law spouse of director Flaherty. None of this detracts from its greatness, however, which is why it was one of the first 25 films chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress.

While not even remotely considered a "classic," the Norwegian Arctic setting of The Strongest makes it an appropriate companion piece to Nanook. This 1929 Swedish narrative feature was co-directed by Axel Lindblom, who got his start making Arctic newsreels earlier in the decade. Those experiences inspired him to write a melodramatic screenplay about rival hunting ships and rival suitors. While Lindblom never made another film, his co-director Alf Sjöberg would become Sweden's foremost 20th century theatre director, as well as a filmmaker who had five movies compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (including two that won). The Strongest is said to contain some of the most striking images in silent Swedish cinema. Nanook of the North and The Strongest will both be shown in 35mm and appropriately accompanied by the ethereal sounds of the Matti Bye Ensemble.


The year's most highly anticipated silent film restoration is surely Laurel and Hardy's 1927 The Battle of the Century. The missing second reel, which contains the most insanely epic pie fight in the history of cinema (3,000 pies!) was discovered complete in 2015 by collector John Mirsalis. Now that it's been restored by Lobster Films, one of Hollywood's most deeply mourned lost treasures headlines the SFSFF21 program The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations! On the same bill we'll see The Dancing Pig, a 1907 French short from Pathé Studios, plus the Buster Keaton shorts, The Balloonatic (1923) and Cops (1922). The latter is regarded as one of Keaton's most entertaining two-reelers and features "The Great Stone Face" being chased through the streets of Pasadena. Both Mirsalis and Leonard Maltin will be on hand to introduce the screenings. Meanwhile, check out Matthew Dessem's article at Slate Magazine for a deeper appreciation of this wondrous discovery.
June is LGBTQ Pride month and Girls Will Be Boys fits right into the festivities. Inspired by Laura Horak's new book of the same title, the program spotlights two comedies with cross-dressing protagonists. First up is Ernst Lubitsch's 1918 I Don't Want to be a Man, made five years before the acclaimed director's arrival in Hollywood. The three-reeler stars Ossi Oswalda, aka "The German Mary Pickford," as a poker-playing tomboy who hits the town for a night of tuxedo-clad carousing, only to discover the grass isn't always greener. That will be followed by Richard Wallace's 1926 What's the World Coming To? in a new 35mm co-restoration by SFSFF, Carleton University and New York University. The opening intertitle of this Hal Roach-produced comedy announces its milieu, "one hundred years from now—when men have become more like women and women more like men." And indeed it is a world where men read "Husbands Home Journal," go to bed with curlers and receive expensive gifts from women on the prowl. Stan Laurel is listed as one of the writers and makes a brief on-screen appearance. Author Horak will be present to do the intro honors.

My first exposure to Pola Negri came four years ago when the fest played The Spanish Dancer. She utterly beguiled me and not just because her spooky resemblance to 1920's photographs of my Polish grandmother. Negri returns to SFSFF in a new Paramount Archives 4K restoration of Malcolm St. Clair's A Woman of the World. In this 1925 "fish out of water" comedy of manners she plays a newly broken-hearted Italian countess who visits family in Maple Valley, Iowa. Naturally her wicked ways—which include but aren't limited to smoking, drinking and sporting a skull tattoo—provoke outrage amongst the puritanical townsfolk. When the district attorney tries to run her out of town, she responds by bloodily flogging him with a horsewhip. It's said that Negri was lampooning her vamp image in this picture, which had grown stale with the movie-going public. The cast includes the instantly recognizable, walrus-mustachioed Chester Conklin as her cousin.

For ardent admirers of director René Clair (À nous la liberté, Le million, I Married a Witch) this year's festival is all about the restorations of his final two silent features. By virtue of their accorded importance, The Italian Straw Hat(1928) and Les deux timides (1928) screen in the fest's choice weekend primetime slots. Both films are recent co-restorations by SFSFF and Cinémathèque Française and both will be shown in 35mm. Perhaps not coincidentally, each is an adaptation of 19th century French playwright Eugène Labiche. Straw Hat is described as a fast moving poke at bourgeois manners that uses techniques common to early silent cinema (fixed camera, few close-ups or intertitles, stock characters). The plot concerns the complications that ensue when a horse eats a married woman's hat while she's off dallying with a lover. None other than Pauline Kael called it "one of the funniest films ever made and one of the most elegant as well." In the visually ambitious, "cheerful satire" Les deux timides, a shy lawyer's screw-up results in his wife-beating client going to prison. The tables turn when the ex-jailbird later sabotages the lawyer's relationship with a young woman. In his program notes from Pordenone, Lenny Borger writes that the film "owes much of its freshness and charm to Pierre Batcheff's hilariously Keatonesque performance" as one of the titular timides.

More Restorations

A program of tremendous local interest is Willis Robards' Mothers of Men or Every Woman's Problem, a pro-women's suffrage picture shot entirely in the Bay Area. First released in 1917, it was given a different title upon re-release in 1921. The majority of filming took place in Santa Cruz and over 500 extras were used. Additional footage from Berkeley includes scenes at the downtown train station and a suffrage march on Shattuck Avenue. Mothers of Men is based on a play by Hal Reid, whose actor son Wallace Reid died of morphine addition in 1923 and was married to the film's star, Dorothy Davenport. The story concerns a woman suffragist, turned judge, turned governor, who must prove her husband's innocence when he's falsely accused of murdering a newspaper editor. This restoration is a BFI National Institute and SFSFF collaboration. I recommend visiting the film's website, which has a nifty "then and now" slide show of Bay Area locations used in the shoot.

The festival's late shows are traditionally reserved for the offbeat and / or macabre. Friday night's selection is Irvin Willat's 1919 Behind the Door, in which a German-American naval officer seeks revenge against the German submarine commander whose crew raped and brutalized his wife. Hobart Bosworth, whose nearly 300 IMDb credits include filmdom's first Wizard of Oz in 1910, plays the hero. The ubiquitous Wallace Beery, appearing at his sleaziest here, chews up the villain's role. This new co-restoration from SFSFF, the Library of Congress and Russia's Gosfilmofond will screen in 35mm, with the festival's in-house restoration expert Rob Byrne introducing. Saturday's late show is 1929's The Last Warning. It would be the final film from director Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs), who died of blood poisoning that same year. Set in a haunted Broadway theatre, it's the story of a producer who reunites the cast of a play that saw one of its actors murdered on stage. The Last Warning is a new restoration from Universal Pictures and the film is considered a prescient progenitor to the classic horror movies the studio would crank out just a few years later. At the festival's FREE Amazing Tales from the Archives program, Universal's Peter Schade and Emily Wensel will discuss this particular restoration in depth. Also appearing at Amazing Tales will be Georges Mourier, who is currently overseeing a six and 1/2 hour restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon, and festival regular Bryony Dixon from the British Film Institute's National Archive.

One of my favorite SFSFF discoveries has been the work of British filmmaker Anthony Asquith. A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground screened in 2007 and 2014 respectively and now the festival presents a restoration of his 1928 debut feature, Shooting Stars. This tragicomic morality tale about the illusions of filmmaking contains the same Hitchcockian plot twists and expressionist visuals that would come to signify Asquith's style. The plot centers on a husband and wife acting team that's torn asunder when she becomes involved with another actor. Brian Aherne, who would secure an Oscar® nomination playing Mexico's Maximillian I to Bette Davis' Carlotta in Juarez, is thought to be particularly good as the film's lunkish, cuckolded husband. I'm thrilled that musician Stephen Horne, who did such a breathtaking job accompanying Dartmoor and Underground, will perform with Shooting Stars as well. Writer and historian David Robinson, who recently retired as director of the Giornate del Cinema in Pordenone, will receive this year's SFSFF Award prior to the screening.

The final two SFSFF21 restorations are from Germany. I'm very excited about Destiny (Der müde Tod) from 1921, which is regarded as Fritz Lang's first masterwork. Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel have both claimed the film as enormously influential, with its proto-surrealism, lavish spectacle and special effects. In this story about one woman's efforts to defy death and save her lover, the character of "Death" itself gets a surprisingly sympathetic, world-weary portrayal by actor Bernhard Goetzke. The film's highlight is said to be three fanciful vignettes set in Persia, Venice and China. Destiny will be introduced by actress Illeana Douglas, who recently hosted the TCM series Trailblazing Women. Douglas is expected to speak on the contributions of Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote many Lang screenplays including Metropolis, M and Destiny.

The other German restoration is Ewald André Dupont's 1925 Varieté, which arrives courtesy of the F.W. Murnau Foundation. Alternately known as Jealousy, the film is a morality play about sexual envy amongst three trapeze artists in Berlin—an older acrobat, his young wife and the hunky star who comes between them. The great Emil Jannings, who starred in the classic The Last Laugh just the year before, was ludicrously overweight for the role and often replaced by stunt doubles. The film is regarded for the kinetic camerawork by master DP Karl Freund (Metropolis, I Love Lucy) as well as its fascinating depiction of 1920's Berlin nightlife. Four years later A.E. Dupont would direct Anna May Wong in her acclaimed silent film Piccadilly. Composer Sheldon Mirowitz, whose Berklee Silent Film Orchestra will accompany the film, introduces the screening.

This and That

In terms of sheer spectacle, the event to catch at this year's festival would seem to be Oscar Michaux's 1920 Within Our Gates. The oldest surviving film made by an African-American director will be accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, performing a new score for strings and voice by composer Adolphus Hailstork. The film's title is lifted directly from an intertitle in D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation, which sought to glorify the KKK and oppression of African Americans. Michaux's film served as a direct rebuttal to Griffith, with its story of a young woman who travels North to solicit funds for a rural Southern school. It depicts the early years of Jim Crow, the rebirth of the KKK and the Northern urban migration of African Americans. It also unflinchingly dramatizes lynching and rape. A novelist and former homesteader, Michaux would direct roughly 30 films over three decades. Within Our Gates was a lost film until the early 70's when a print turned up in Madrid's Filmoteca. Restored by the Library of Congress in 1993, the movie's intertitles are an approximation of Spanish translated back into English. This SFSFF presentation will be in 35mm and introduced by Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland Symphony.

SFSFF is progressively making its way through the silent filmography of Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Thus far we've had the pleasure of seeing I Was Born, But..., Tokyo Chorus and most recently in 2014, Dragnet Girl. This year's fest brings us That Night's Wife, a 1930 noir-ish family crime drama that takes place over a single evening. Tokihiko Okada plays a father who commits robbery to buy medicine for his sick daughter, thereby presently a moral dilemma for the cop who tracks him down. The film is notable for Ozu's trademark empathy for everyday characters as well as an expressionistic 20-minute opening sequence in which the father is pursued through dark abandoned streets. Pay close attention to the family's apartment walls, upon which Ozu advertises his filmmaking influences via American movie posters. That Night's Wife will screen in 35mm.

Thanks to the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, this year's SFSFF audience gets to experience a Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema. The program's 15 films represent various techniques for creating colorized celluloid in the days before Technicolor's invention. All but three hail from France and they span an era from 1897 to 1915. Hand-painting, dyeing and stenciling were all used to embellish images ranging from Dutch windmills to Versailles fountains to Algerian folkdancing. On the EYE Filmmuseum's website, a promotional film for the Fantasia of Color collector's book gives an idea of what to expect.

Cross-published on film-415.

SFIFF59—Michael Hawley Wraps Up the Special Events & Documentary Features

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) concluded its 59th edition after 15 satisfying days of movies and special events. While I have some reservations about the festival's move from Japantown / Fillmore to the Mission district, the transition itself seems to have gone extremely well considering its ambitious scope. I also have to say that House One at Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with its enormous screen and Sony SRX-R515D dual 4K projection system, is now my favorite place to see new movies in the Bay Area—especially while consuming one of Alamo's signature Brussels sprout salads with apple slices, toasted hazelnuts and pecorino cheese.

I had the pleasure of participating in 28 programs at SFIFF59. Here's a look at the special events and documentary features I attended.

Special Events

Photo: Pamela Gentile
The highlight of my festival was getting to see and hear Ellen Burstyn in conversation with SF Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan on SFIFF59's first Saturday afternoon. The energetic 83-year-old Oscar®, Tony® and Emmy® winner was in town to accept the fest's Peter J. Owens Acting Award. I was shocked that fewer than a hundred people showed up, which was possibly attributable to the event being announced just five days prior. The audience on hand, however, was wildly enthusiastic and the Victoria Theatre's intimacy rendered the encounter all the more special. Following a clips reel of career highlights, Cowan conducted a revelatory and frequently hilarious chat with Burstyn that touched on everything from how she came to hire Martin Scorsese for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to her new-found fame with House of Cards to her feelings about being robbed of a second Academy Award® by Julia Roberts. Fortunately, Michael Guillén at The Evening Class was also there and has transcribed the talk for all to enjoy.

Photo: Pamela Gentile
Exactly one week later, the promise of seeing both Coen Brothers in person packed the 1400-seat Castro Theatre to capacity. The occasion was the festival's presentation of its annual Mel Novikoff Award to Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. After an on-stage interview with Variety critic Scott Foundas, Joel and Ethan Coen joined the conversation and introduced a screening of Criterion's most recent restoration, the brothers' 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an early advocate of the Coen's neo-noir, and they returned the honor by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis character after him. The siblings spent a good half-hour reminiscing about Blood Simple's production. Amongst the rollicking revelations was that Frances McDormand, in her first screen role, was never permitted to see the film's storyboards because the artist compulsively drew her character in the nude.

Earlier that same morning I was first in line to participate in the festival's VR Day. As a virtual reality newbie I found the technology cruder than I'd imagined, but was nonetheless impressed by two of the VR experiences I had in my allotted one-hour timeslot. Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart offered stunning 360-degree surface vistas of various terrains on the ex-planet, all based on data recently collected by NASA. The mind-blower of VR Day was Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael's Nomad: Sea Gypsies, which begins by plopping you in the middle of a Borneo lagoon inhabited by Sama-Bajau tribespeople. By turning in your swivel chair you get a full 360-degree survey of the lagoon, complete with thatched huts on stilts and people paddling you by in canoes. After a brief fade to black, you find yourself sitting on the porch of one of those very huts, watching as a family prepares food. Turning around reveals their drying laundry flapping in the wind just inches from your head. Another fade to black lands you in a canoe being propelled across the lagoon by tribesmen standing both in front of and behind you. By looking down at the canoe bottom, you see the still-living fish they've just caught. The possibilities for this technology are obviously staggering.

Photo: Pamela Gentile
From my VR experience I was off to hear NY Times Critic-at-Large Wesley Morris deliver this year's State of Cinema Address. The former SF Chronicle and Examiner film critic's topic was "The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier and how it parallels the current climate of race in the movies." Morris began by riffing on various contemporary race-related topics, such as the upcoming appearance of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. ("Do you really want to be caught stuffing Tubmans into a stripper's g-string or paying your weed dealer with Tubmans?") Morris ultimately made his way through Poitier's filmography, making extended stops for Lilies of the Field ("In 1964, America was finally ready to see him left alone with white women, even if they were nuns who barely spoke English") and his career "pinnacle" In the Heat of the Night, whose infamous slapping scene Morris analyzed extensively. He barely got started on the actor's post-1967 work—"when the studio system collapsed and Poitier started working exclusively with black people"—before time ran out and he had to bring the talk to an abrupt conclusion.

Photo: Pamela Gentile
My final SFIFF59 special event was the festival's annual pairing of a silent film with contemporary live music. This year's combo, the first not to be concocted by former SF Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara, was Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 Dracula flick Vampyr accompanied by alt-rock band Mercury Rev and the Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde. The musicians took to the stage wearing black capes and proceeded to unleash an ungodly sound cavalcade that worked fittingly with the dreamlike imagery on screen. The score ranged from quiet noodling to ear-piercing feedback, with Raymonde particularly fun to watch as he played the electric saw and emitted nonsensical castrato-like vocals. The last 15 minutes was an extended crescendo of propulsive, heart-pounding percussion reminiscent of the Alloy Orchestra. As for Vampyr itself, I was especially struck by the lithe, somnambulant lead performance by actor Julian West, who in real life was a gay Russian-Jewish aristocrat and bon vivant named Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg. The baron financed Vampyr on the condition he play the lead and later in life became an editor at Town & Country, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines.


Compared to similar festivals, SFIFF has been doc-heavy for some years now. For 2016 the section expanded even further, with a whopping 40 percent of the feature film roster being dedicated to non-fiction works. Unless the director is someone like Werner Herzog, Sergei Loznitsa, Patricio Guzmán or others who strive to make their films cinematic, I'm of a mind that most documentaries suffer little when watched privately on a small screen. That of course changes when you have the director and other special guests at a screening, which is nearly always the case at SFIFF. This year I caught five docs at the festival and all but one had talent available for post-screening Q&As.

The aforementioned missing filmmaker was Werner Herzog, whose Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World played to a large, receptive and overtly techie crowd at the Castro Theatre. Divided into ten chapters, Herzog's latest delves into a multitude of tech-related issues both awe-inspiring and fearsome. Topics include hacking, tech addiction, cyber terrorism, illnesses related to radioactive signals, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and a score of others. I was fascinated by the section on robots. Will they be able to fall in love? Will a robotic soccer team be able to beat FIFA's world champions by 2050? It was also a hoot to learn that when the first internet message was sent in 1969 from UCLA to Stanford, comprised only of the word "login," the system crashed immediately after transmission of the letter "o." With Herzog's trademark detached bemusement, Lo and Behold comprehensively looks at how far we've come since then and where we might be heading, but in a manner that was still perhaps a bit too wonky for this low-tech senior.

My favorite of the docs I caught was Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, a shockingly intimate, fly-on-the-wall look at Anthony Weiner's NYC mayoral run two years after a sexting scandal forced his resignation from Congress. The directors commenced filming the day he declared his candidacy and we tag along every step of the way, from chauffeured-car strategy meetings to wince-inducing confrontations in the home he shares with long-suffering wife, Hillary Clinton's ex-Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin. We're also present when, just as it appears New Yorkers have forgiven Weiner and his campaign is catching fire, new sexting allegations result in his ultimately earning only 4.9 percent of the vote. The film's high point, if you will, is a thrillingly furtive chase through a MacDonald's back exit as Weiner attempts to reach his campaign HQ on election night and avoid an on-camera confrontation with one of his accusers, publicity whore par excellence, Ms. Sydney Leathers.

Depressing and enraging issue-oriented docs are a festival staple and this year I saw two, Johan Grimonprez' Shadow World and Sonia Kennebeck's National Bird. The first is based on Andrew Feinstein's book of the same name and it goes into sickening detail about the massive corporate bribery and government corruption commonplace in international arms dealing. From Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal to Donald Rumsfeld's Iraqi chemical weapons sale to Tony Blair's cover-up of BAE's £1 billion Saudi prince payoff to Obama's Terror Tuesday meetings, it's all laid out and contrasted with a cheesy muzak soundtrack emphasizing how innocuous this horror has become in our world. It was particularly dispiriting to learn how corruption over armaments deals has essentially destroyed South Africa's democracy, a subject close to Feinstein's heart as an ex-S.A. parliament member. Perhaps the most powerful scene is an interview with Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, as he describes the unspeakable tortures perpetrated upon him. Director Grimonprez and Feinstein engaged in a spirited post-screening Q&A, and I was especially gratified when Feinstein, completely unprompted, reminded the audience that as wonderful as it would be to have a female president, Hillary Clinton has received more money from the military-industrial complex than any other candidate of either party.

The subject of Kennebeck's equally effective National Bird is U.S. drone warfare, with a special focus on the psychological trauma done to U.S. soldiers who kill civilians halfway across the globe from the (dis)comfort of control booths. The film spotlights three whistleblowers, all of whom fear prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act for things they might say while being treated by therapists for PTSD. We accompany Bay Area whistleblower "Lisa" (who was present at the Q&A along with National Bird's director and producer) as she travels on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in an effort to make amends for her transgressions. There, in the film's most affecting sequence, surviving members of a 2010 drone strike that killed 23 civilians collectively speak about the atrocities experienced that day.

Cross-published on film-415.