Thursday, March 29, 2018

SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018—Michael Hawley Reviews the Big Nights, Awards & Tributes, Live & Onstage, Special Events

Nearly two weeks have passed since the press conference wherein SFFILM revealed the exciting line-up for its 61st festival. In my first post for this year's event I talked about the programs that had been preannounced. That was a simple task given that only three things were revealed in advance: a tribute to Charlize Theron, a Centerpiece screening of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, and the films competing for the Golden Gate Awards. In this entry, I'll take a look at the considerable roster of programs and events taking place outside the main line-up of films. But first here's an update on the 2018 SFFILM Festival's participating venues.

Two years have passed since the festival left the Sundance (now AMC) Kabuki Cinemas, which had been its home base for nearly three decades (with assistance from Landmark's nearby Clay Theatre and Japantown's New People Cinema). In 2016, the fest relocated its headquarters to the then-new Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre, with the Mission district's Roxie and Victoria Theatres serving as supplemental venues. Last year saw a significantly reduced use of the Alamo, as well as the addition of four downtown venues: the spectacular Dolby Cinema on Market Street, the newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, plus both the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Theater and Screening Room. Two constants amidst all this change have been the Berkeley Art Museum's Pacific Film Archive and of course, San Francisco's beloved jewel, the Castro Theatre.

So what's new for 2018? Well, the Alamo Drafthouse is completely out of the picture, along with the YBCA Theatre. Use of the Dolby Cinema remains roughly the same. There's hardly a better place in SF to see a movie, but the Dolby can be problematic for all-day festival-goers with its strict no-food-or-beverage policy (that includes water bottles; expect bags and backpacks to be searched). Other venue holdovers from recent years include the Roxie, Victoria and PFA. Over in the East Bay, the festival will make good use of Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre for the first time, with programming scheduled for two nights. The only new San Francisco venue added for 2018 is the Creativity Theater at the Children's Creativity Museum, which supplants the YBCA Theater as a third venue operating in the festival hub near Mission and 4th Streets. The 183-seat theater with stadium seating looks pretty nifty in this picture, and I expect to be spending lots of time there. Finally, the happiest venue news for SFFILM Festival 2018 is that once again the Castro will host the fest for 12 consecutive days—from opening night on April 4 to closing night on April 15.


For its opening night slot on April 4, SFFILM Festival has selected Silas Howard's A Kid Like Jake, adapted by Daniel Pearle from his own off-Broadway play. In this very much of-the-moment dramedy, Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play Brooklyn parents of a possibly trans young son, who are encouraged by the boy's preschool teacher (Octavia Spencer) to play up his trans identity as a "diversity" ticket into a competitive private school. A Kid Like Jake premiered at Sundance in January and I believe this will be its first public showing since then. Director Howard, who is trans himself (and has directed episodes of the award-winning Amazon series Transparent) will be on hand at Castro Theatre. This year's opening night party happens at the SF Design Center Galleria.

For a second year running, SFFILM Fest has scheduled its closing night festivities two days before the festival actually ends. I couldn't be more thrilled with the selection of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot, which plays the Castro Theatre on Sunday, April 15. The movie premiered to positive reviews at Sundance, providing a crucial boost to Van Sant's career following 2015's universally derided Sea of Trees. DWHWGFOF is a partial adaptation of quadriplegic, Portland cartoonist John Callahan's same-titled memoir, focusing on his years in recovery for alcoholism. While Joaquin Phoenix has drawn unanimous praise for his portrayal of Callahan (a role Robin Williams originally hoped to play), the strongest plaudits have been for Jonah Hill, allegedly unrecognizable as a gay, trust-fund kid who becomes Callahan's AA sponsor. The rest of the tantalizing cast includes Jack Black, Rooney Mara, alt-rocking women Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, and last but not least, Udo Kier. Gus Vant Sant, as well as the film's composer Danny Elfman, are expected to attend. SFFILM Festival's 2018 closing night party will follow at Public Works.


Photo: Getty / Paul Archuleta
SFFILM Festival's 2018 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award could hardly go to anyone more deserving than Oscar®-winning Bay Area filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt). The award's presentation, which up until last year had always taken place at the private Film Society Awards Night Gala, will occur at the Castro Theatre on April 15. The event will include a screening of End Game, Epstein and Friedman's new 40-minute Netflix documentary short about hospice care.

Photo: Unknown.
The Mel Novikoff Award is given each year to "an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." For 2018, SFFILM has selected none other than internationally renowned professor, author, film scholar and all-around cinephilic ambassador Annette Insdorf. I first became aware of Insdorf years ago when she co-hosted (along with Roger Ebert) IFC's live red carpet coverage of Cannes' opening and closing ceremonies, and was impressed by her articulate and genial on-screen demeanor. She'll receive her Novikoff Award at SFMOMA on Saturday, April 14, in a program that will include a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.

Photo: Jerome Hiler




Experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky is the recipient of this year's Persistence of Vision Award, which honors a filmmaker "whose main body of work falls outside of the realm of narrative feature filmmaking."  I confess to being a near-philistine when it comes to experimental cinema.  I recognize, however, from the revered tones with which my more esoterically inclined cineaste friends speak of Dorsky, that this award comes richly deserved.  The director's works are described as "silent short films in which light, nature and everyday surrounds are carefully captured and combined to prismatic, alchemical effect."  In an unusual move for the festival, this year's POV program will be presented twiceat SFMOMA on April 6 and at BAMPFA on April 15.  Both programs will include screenings of four recent Dorksy works, as well as an on-stage conversation (BAMPFA's will be hosted by Steve Anker, dean of CalArts' School of Film/Video).  Presentation of the POV Award itself will only take place at the SFMOMA program.
Photo: Nancy Wong
In addition to actress Charlize Theron, the other film personality receiving a SFFILM Tribute this year is director Wayne Wang. The moviemaker's radically eclectic filmography ranges from early, Bay Area-based indies focused on the Asian American experience (Chan is Missing, Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club) to crowd-pleasing Hollywood rom-coms (Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez, Last Holiday with Queen Latifah), to edgier experimental works (Center of the World, Life is Cheap…But Toilet Paper is Expensive). Accompanying the tribute at the Dolby Cinema on April 7 will be a screening of 1995's Smoke with Harvey Keitel—arguably Wang's most popular and critically acclaimed work—in a new restoration overseen by the director. Personal fun fact: I had a tiny, non-speaking part in Wang's Dim Sum, which ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.


Photo: Courtesy of the Artist.
High atop my list of must-sees for this year's festival is Guy Maddin's State of Cinema address at the Victoria Theatre on April 8. From his 1989 feature debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital to 2015's The Forbidden Room, I can't think of another filmmaker who has had more works exhibited at our festival than Maddin. The iconoclast Canadian director also received the fest's Persistence of Vision of Award in 2006. Regrettably, Maddin had to cancel two in-person gigs at last year's 60th anniversary event—the tribute to Canyon Cinema, for which he had selected the films, and the closing night presentation of his Vertigo mash-up, The Green Fog—making his appearance at this year's SFFILM Festival doubly sweet. Maddin has selected "Cinema as Dream State" as the subject for 2018's State of Cinema address, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to ruminate on that particular topic. Be prepared for 60 minutes of thought provoking hilarity.

Photo: Jeanne Hansen.
Speaking of iconoclasts, the Bay Area lost one of its most beloved last year with the passing of Stephen Parr, so it's entirely fitting the festival offer up A Celebration of Oddball Films at its 2018 edition. Oddball was Parr's baby, a 50,000-plus reel collection of industrial, educational and otherwise uncategorizable films housed floor-to-ceiling in a Mission District warehouse. Watch the end credits of almost any documentary that includes archival footage and you're bound to see the name Oddball Films scroll by. Parr also hosted incredibly fun weekend screenings at the warehouse. The first time I climbed Oddball's steep alleyway staircase and walked through the mysterious door covered by shag carpet was for a 16mm Halloween screening of a doc on actress Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), which I watched from a beat-up sofa (or was it a beanbag chair?). The SFFILM Oddball/Parr celebration at the Castro on April 9 will include a selection of films from the archive, accompanied with live music by Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra.

For its annual pairing of a classic silent film with live music accompaniment, the festival has chosen Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 familial comedy I Was Born, But… with a score by alternative rock band Blonde Redhead. This is a group I haven't thought about since the late nineties, but apparently they've kept active and at least have a tangential relationship to the world of cinema. Their second album, "La Mia Vita Violenta" was dedicated to Pasolini, and 2016's boxed-set compilation "Masculin Féminin" of course references Godard. It will be interesting to compare their score to that of Stephen Horne, who accompanied I Was Born, But… at the 2011 SF Silent Film Festival.

Two additional programs round out SFFILM Fest's 2018 Live & Onstage sidebar. In A Thousand Thoughts, director Sam Green (The Weather Underground) stages a "live documentary" about the Kronos Quartet at the Castro Theatre on April 10. The formidable string ensemble will play a live musical score while Green provides live narration during the movie, which itself takes place on multiple screens. A Thousand Thoughts is co-directed by Joe Bini, a Bay Area native who has edited over a dozen films for Werner Herzog, as well as works by Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Nick Broomfield. Then on April 15 at the Victoria Theatre, SFFILM presents Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, described as an "evening of music, animation and interstellar investigations" by director Cory McAbee (The American Astronaut).


Photo courtesy of PBS/BBC
For a second year in a row, SFFILM Festival hosts a trio of free public screenings. On April 5 at SFMOMA the fest presents an episode of the new PBS/BBC series Civilizations: How Do We Look, an updating of Kenneth Clark's landmark 1969 series Civilization. The episode to be shown spotlights China's terra cotta warriors and SF Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu will be on hand to lead a post-screening conversation. A free screening at the Victoria Theatre on April 10 will find acclaimed documentarian Katie Galloway (2011's Golden Gate Award winner Better This World) presenting her new work. The Pushouts takes on the issue of high school dropouts through the story of former Oakland gang member Victor Rios, now a professor at UC Santa Cruz. Jun Stinson's Futbolistas 4 Life will screen at the same program, and it concerns Oakland students raising money for a new soccer field.

The third free screening is of Don Hardy and Dana Nachman's Pick of the Litter, which follows five Labrador Retriever puppies as they train to be guide dogs for the visually impaired. Dogs (as well as masters) are invited to attend the April 7 screening at the Victoria Theatre, with the balcony being set aside as an "animal-free zone." Following last week's dog-friendly screening of Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs at the Roxie (which prompted a write-up in the NY Times), this could signal yet another Bay Area-originated trend. Finally, while these screenings are free, registration is required (and The Pushouts is already at RUSH).

Also operating under the umbrella of Special Events are a pair of Creativity Summits, both of which take place at the Creativity Museum on April 7 and are free to the public (registration required). Both panels are focused on discussions of "presence," or "how technology broadly (and VR & AR in particular) are impacting artistic and cultural practice." The first features multi-hyphenate novelist (The Beach), screenwriter (28 Days Later) and director (Ex-Machina, Annihilation) Alex Garland in conversation with USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Tara McPherson. That will be followed by a panel comprised of VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and WIRED magazine's Peter Rubin.

Photo courtesy of HBO
Fans of actor/comedian Bill Hader (SNL, The Skelton Twins) will surely not want to miss the festival's special presentation of his new HBO series, Barry. Hader plays the title character, an ex-Marine turned hitman who travels to L.A. for work and stumbles into an acting class run by a charismatic teacher (Henry Winkler). The series debuted on HBO this past Sunday and SFFILM Festival will show the first three episodes, all of which were helmed by Hader in his directorial debut. Bill Hader, Henry Winkler and writer/producer Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley) are all expected to attend the presentation.

Cross-published at film-415.
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