Friday, April 09, 2021

MICHAEL HAWLEY PREVIEWS SFFILM 64

It's been a year since SFFILM's 63rd edition was Covid-cancelled, a hapless victim of its position on the festival calendar year. Unlike Sundance, Berlin and Palm Springs, the fest was unable to squeak through before the world shut down. Unlike festivals soon to follow, SFFILM couldn't just instantly transition to the streaming and drive-in model that soon became our pandemic norm. We learned what a stellar event they had planned after SFFILM, rightfully proud, posted the entire line-up on its website. The whole thing was made doubly sad as SFFILM63 was to be the last assembled by treasured and respected Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. 

Well, that was then and this is now. SFFILM's 64th iteration will most assuredly take place from April 9 to 18, with a promising roster of live events and online screenings. The festival is roughly half its normal size, at least in terms of feature films (43), with an impressive 57 percent of all films being directed by women filmmakers and an identical percentage by BIPOC. With few exceptions, SFFILM64 will be available to stream from anywhere in the USA and at any time during its 10-day run. I've previewed 13 selections, and will touch on others I hope to catch during the festival proper.

Where else to begin but with Big Nights? This year's Opening Night boasts the world premiere of Chase Palmer's Naked Singularity, a heist thriller starring John Boyega (Star Wars, Small Axe). The Closing Night attraction will be Marilyn Agrelo's Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, an origin-story documentary about public television's long-running, esteemed children's show. For Centerpiece Film the fest has selected Bo McGuire's Socks on Fire, an autobiographical docu-drama about an inheritance battle between the Southern director's homophobic aunt and cross-dressing uncle. The film won the Best Documentary prize at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. Naked Singularity and Street Gang will have live showings at Fort Mason drive-in and be available for all to stream. Socks on Fire can only be streamed by festival passholders and its drive-in option will be supersized with a live drag show. A late addition to Big Nights is a drive-in only appearance by Bay Area Grammy-winning musician Fantastic Negrito, who'll perform a live score to the collage film Lost Landscapes of Oakland.

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's retro-dystopian fantasy Strawberry Mansion emerged the clear favorite of the films I previewed. Audley, a longtime fixture of sub-indie U.S. cinema, directs himself in the role of a humorless tax auditor who monetizes individual elements of people's dreams (as in, if you dream about a buffalo, you'll get taxed 50 cents.) His ordered world is capsized upon entering the secluded home of aging eccentric Arabella, whose nightscape he traverses by watching her dreams on VHS while wearing some kind of electric welding helmet. What follows is an astonishingly inventive psycho-adventure fraught with danger, romance and plain weirdness. The directors also wrote the screenplay, wherein they've miraculously juggled Maddin, Lynch, Sendak, Gondry, Gilliam and Pee Wee's Playhouse, not to mention their own waggish sensibility, all without resorting to pastiche.

I was also taken by two upcoming releases from distributor Magnolia Pictures. Cryptozoo is the latest boundary-pushing animated escapade from director Dash Shaw, who expands on the promise shown in his 2016 debut, the underseen My Entire High School, Sinking into the Sea. Employing an eye-popping mix of crude and sophisticated animation styles, Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski weave a wild tale about the world's endangered cryptids (think unicorn, Kracken, Gorgon, et al.) and one woman's efforts to protect them from nefarious U.S. military schemes. Voicework is provided by an eclectic mix of actors ranging from Michael Cera to Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriski. Dash Shaw will be the recipient of the festival's 2021 Persistence of Vision Award, given each year to a director whose "main body of work falls outside the realm of traditional narrative filmmaking." He'll also participate in a live Cryptozoo "Making Of" talk on Friday, April 16.

Magnolia is also distributing the superb UK genre flick Censor. Director Prano Bailey-Bond's debut feature is set in a Thatcher-era England where gruesome exploitation movies are being blamed for real-life crimes. That becomes a problem for mousy censor board member Enid, who's recently approved a movie where a man eats his wife's face. Her subsequent dive into the depths of a shady director's filmography reveals a possible connection between an actress and Enid's long lost sister, who disappeared as a child while under Enid's care. The resulting denouement will have viewers either howling in delight or disgust. I was among the former. Although intensely unnerving at times, Censor also has just the right amount of sardonic shadings to take some of the edge off. I was reminded somewhat of fellow UK director Peter Strickland's work (Berberian Sound System, In Fabric). Appropriately, Censor and Cryptozoo will have drive-in screenings in addition to online presentations. 

Three favorites from the Narratives: International section depict lives of not-so-quiet desperation as experienced from disparate points on the planet. In her follow-up to 2012's Oscar-nominated Wadjda, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour's The Perfect Candidate concerns a female doctor's frustrations with getting a paved road to her clinic. She finds herself running for municipal council almost by accident, which the film uses to unveil the small and large humiliations experienced by Saudi women. Nigerian directors Arie and Chuko Esiri's masterful This is My Desire uses a bifurcated structure to render the lives of two Lagos residents dreaming of emigration: a solemn middle-aged printing plant engineer fed up with crumbling infrastructure and his needy family, and a bright female bartender whose life is weighted down by mercantile relationships with men. This is My Desire represents intimate, social issue filmmaking at its best, and stands in sharp contrast to the Nigeria portrayed in noisy Nollywood melodramas. Colombian director Nicolás Rincón Gille employs an episodic approach in Valley of Souls, tracing the aquatic odyssey of a fisherman as he searches a river for two sons murdered by paramilitaries. Elegiac, heartbreaking and enhanced by gorgeous widescreen cinematography, Valley of Soul's languorous 137 minutes are never less than captivating. Side note: it helps to know that Colombian cyclist Egon Bernal won the Tour de France in July, 2019. 

Fans of Latin American cinema should be pleased by SFFILM64's Cine Mexicano spotlight. From among its six offerings I previewed Alexis Gambis's Son of Monarchs, winner of Sundance's Alfred P. Sloan Prize for depiction of science or technology in a narrative feature. The film's main character Mendel (Tenoch Huerta, Gueros, Sin Nombre) is a Mexican biologist whose youth was spent amongst the monarch butterflies in Michoacán's forests. Son of Monarchs alternates between scenes of childhood and Mendel's adulthood in NYC, where he works mapping out butterfly DNA structure while navigating personal existential crises. Not least of the movie's appeal is the refreshing experience of watching a Mexican immigration narrative that doesn't concern the undocumented. Son of Monarchs features a nice supporting role for Gabino Rodríguez, the smoky-eyed, pointy-jawed actor who's the most recognizable face in Mexican independent cinema. Rodríguez also turns up in SFFILM64's Fauna, the actor's tenth collaboration with Mexican indie filmmaker Nicolás Pereda. Fauna nears the top of my list of films to catch during the festival, along with Dance of the 41, a historical LGBT period piece about an early 20th century scandal in Mexican high society. I also hope to see The Spokeswoman, a documentary about the first indigenous woman to run for Mexico's presidency. 

I previewed two additional works from the Narratives: US section. Home is a tough and touching redemption story about an ex-con returning home after a 17-year prison stint for murder. For the most part, the movie effectively conveys a certain type of American underclass without resorting to reductive white-trash miserablism (although some of the sets are art-directed to distraction). Jake McLaughlin delivers an edgy, sympathetic lead performance. He's joined by Kathy Bates as his ornery cancer-afflicted mother, as well as Lil Red Howry (the best friend in Get Out) as Bates' wise homecare giver. Home isn't the type of film I'd ordinarily seek out, but I was fascinated that it's both written and directed by German actress Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, a pair of Bourne movies). I'd love to know what drew her to this project, apart from its providing a juicy supporting role for her husband, actor Derek Richardson, as the protagonist's junkie best friend.

Supercool is another kind of American movie I wouldn't ordinarily watch, but I was curious why SFFILM might program a "teens gone wild comedy." The first thing that struck me was the Finnish subtitles on the festival-provided screener. It turns out that filmmaker Teppo Airaksinen's main body of work lies in Finnish TV (180-plus episodes worth), so how he came to this project is no doubt a story worth hearing. At age 67, I'm clearly not the intended audience for a film like this. I'll therefore reserve judgment except to say it seemed very well made, left me exhausted, didn't make me laugh, had an almost creepy surfeit of queer content and an incongruous retro soundtrack (Huey Lewis & the News!?). Oh, and Damon Wayans Jr. is in it. Supercool is having its world premiere at SFFILM64.

Documentaries traditionally make up a large chunk of SFFILM's line-up and this year is no exception. The one I'm most anticipating is Peter Nicks' Homeroom, which hones in on the triumphs and travails of Oakland High School's 2020 graduating class. The film marks the final installment of Nicks' "Oakland Trilogy," which began with 2012's sublime The Waiting Room about Oakland's Highland Hospital, and continued with his 2017 study of the city's police department, The Force. SFFILM is also honoring Nicks with the festival's George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, given for "distinguished service to cinema as an art form." Another much-awaited Bay Area-related doc is Mariem Pérez Riera's Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, which honors the soon-to-be 90-year-old Berkeley resident and EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner. The film drew raves at Sundance and following its spring festival rounds, will open theatrically in June. It's worth noting this is one of the few SFFILM64 selections with a limited viewing window (April 9 to 12), and one of only two that are geo-blocked for California residents only (the other being Street Gang). 

A majority of the festival's 18 documentaries are biographical or autobiographical in nature, including four I previewed. In keeping with a Bay Area groove, there's David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's We Are As Gods, which surveys the visionary life of Stewart Brand. Tagged as the "Intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the Counter Culture" and then later the "Da Vinci of Cyber Culture," Brand is most recognized as creator of "The Whole Earth Catalog." The documentary switches between a chronological retelling of his exploits and accomplishments, and a critical examination of his current interest in "de-extinction." Brand is a leading proponent of this highly controversial science, which seeks to genetically reintroduce extinct species such as the American chestnut tree, the North American passenger pigeon and more ominously, the woolly mammoth. We spend a lot of time with Brand at Siberia's Pleistocene Park, where an entire ecosystem is being prepped for the mammoth's return. One curious omission from We Are As Gods is Brand's creation of The WELL, regarded as the world's first significant virtual community. Brian Eno composed the film's fitting music score. 

Two women directors have made docs focused on their problematic mothers. Co-directed by Paul Sng, Celeste Bell's Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché honors one of punk music's pioneers. With her anti-fashion sense and mouthful of braces, the "half-caste" Styrene (née Marion Elliott) blasted on the scene with her band X-Ray Spex at age 19, an anomaly in a music genre dominated by white males. Musicians Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna and Neneh Cherry are among the talking heads who discuss her influence. She'd dissolve the band three years later at their height of popularity, which was followed by a decades long struggle with mental health issues. Director Bell was born in 1981 and spent much of her childhood living on a Hare Krishna commune, until social services stepped in and she was put in her grandmother's care. Bell narrates her mother's story and often appears on camera, visiting places of significance in Styrene's life. This is sometimes effective (bringing her Mom's ashes to be scattered in an Indian river) and sometimes not (Bell aimlessly wandering around a nocturnal Times Square). 

In contrast, Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani narrates but never appears (except in photos) in a documentary about her mother. Radiograph of a Family employs generic archival footage, family photos and movies, love letters, and imagined dialogue to uniquely depict the grossly mismatched marriage between her secular doctor father, and a mother who'd transform from docile bride to a machinegun-wielding religious fanatic during Iran's revolution. It's an eerie and melancholy tale. The final doc I previewed was Oskar Alegria's Zumiriki. The title means "island in the middle of a river" in Basque, and anyone who saw Alegria's The Search for Emak Bakia at the festival in 2013 knows to expect something singularly enigmatic. The river in question is the Arga in northeastern Spain, along whose banks stood Alegria's family home. Zumiriki consists entirely of Alegria building a camouflaged cabin perched on the Arga's banks, and then once built, spending months submerged in the lore and natural surroundings of his childhood stomping grounds. It's charmingly indulgent and a delightful way to spend two hours. 

Now to wrap up with a few odds and ends. On Saturday, April 17 SFFILM will host a virtual tribute to white-hot actress Vanessa Kirby, wherein she'll be presented with the festival's Impact Award. Kirby has been seen nearly everywhere in recent years, from The Crown to three Mission Impossible movies to 2019's $730M blockbuster Fast and Furious Present Hobbs and Shaw, and now of course her gritty, Oscar-nominated performance in Pieces of a Woman

For the first time ever, the festival presents a separate section of Mid-Length Films. Defined as ranging between 30 to 50 minutes in length, each of the five programs will present one such film paired with one or two shorts. I'm particularly intrigued by Tales of the Accidental City, which finds a group of Nairobi residents gathered over Zoom for a court-ordered anger management class. Speaking of shorts, SFFILM64 of course has an entire section devoted to them, 56 to be exact, spread out over seven programs. 

Finally, in addition to aforementioned Socks on Fire and Dance of the 41, there are a half dozen more films of LGBTQ interest scattered throughout the program. I'm most intent on catching Romania's Poppy Field, whose protagonist is a closeted policeman called to quell unrest at a Bucharest cinema showing a film with queer content. I'd also love to see the sneak preview of Language Lessons, but unfortunately (for me) it's only showing at the drive-in. The film recently earned raves at Berlin and SXSW and is about a friendship that develops over Zoom between an Oakland gay widower (Mark Duplass) and the Costa Rican woman (Natalie Morales, who also directs) from whom he takes Spanish lessons. I've also heard excellent things about Tove, a biopic about bisexual Finnish children's book author Tove Jansson. The documentary Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution and Islam profiles a reformist Muslim lawyer who, among other things, is a champion for LGBTQ Muslim youth. Ma Belle, My Beauty and Nudo Mixteco round out SFFILM64's queer offerings. 

 Cross-published at Film-415.

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