Tuesday, April 17, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 14: Minding the Gap

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began two weeks ago and ends today. Each day during the festival I've posted about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Minding the Gap supplied by SFFILM
Minding The Gap (USA: Bing Liu, 2017)
playing: 8:45 tonight at the Roxie

With this year's daily SFFILM blog posts I've made an effort to highlight festival selections I've already seen, even if that meant highlighting a television show or an unannounced cartoon that ended up screening in a black-and-white Castle Films print (which was fine, honestly; that show could've benefited from Xenon 16mm projectors to make the image brighter, but the event was really as much a showcase for the musicians than the films; which was much better than Wednesday night's event where the band and its ego completely overwhelmed the image. I had to walk out midway through).

Today, on the festival's final day, I admit defeat. I'd made the best-laid plans to attend Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. and Tigre and Jupiter's Moon last week but couldn't make it happen after all. They all sound good and I hope to see at least one of them in a cinema today. Tigre will have to be the sacrificial lamb; it's just been revealed as one of the eleven SFFILM 61 features available for members to stream online (also including: CarcasseClaire's CameraDjon AfricaLouise Lecavalier - In MotionThe Next GuardianThe Other Side of Everything, Purge This Land, Salyut-7, Those Who Are Fine and Golden Gate Award honorable mention City of the Sun). But the most promising-sounding title screening in a cinema today, that I already have a ticket for is Minding the Gap. It's a much-praised feature from the venerable Chicago documentary production organization Kartemquin Films, best known for incubating Steve James films such as Hoop Dreams. James executive-produced Minding the Gap, and it appears to share his signature film's focus on young men inspired by athletic activity, in this case skateboarding. I'll see tonight if the similarities run deeper. I'm excited because Minding the Gap has been screening in festival after festival and picking up prizes at many of them.

In fact, today is definitely not your last chance to see Minding the Gap on a Frisco Bay screen. In May, it will make a return visit to two different festivals, the California Film Insitute's 2nd annual Doclands in Marin County, where it screens May 4th, and CAAM Fest (formerly known as the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival), where it screens May 13th. I was very pleased to see that the latter festival, which like SFFILM had used the Alamo Drafthouse in 2016 and 2017, has declined to do so in 2018.Read my "Forgetting the Alamo" blog post from a couple weeks back to see why this venue change matters to me.

I'm intrigued by the fact that CAAM Fest is moving back to their home base through 2015, the Kabuki. The ownership chain at this Japantown cinema goes back to the 1980s, when it was transformed by AMC from a live theatre to San Francisco's first 8-screen multiplex. When AMC sold the theatre to Robert Redford's Sundance Cinemas in 2006, both SFFILM (then SFIFF) and CAAM (then SFIAAFF) used the venue as their main hub. They continued to do so when Sundance replaced the old seats with more comfortable, better raked chairs and small tables suitable for heavier-duty food and drink options. But the Sundance Cinemas chain was purchased by Carmike in 2015, and I've heard many people speculate that the new owners had no interest in hosting film festivals, at least not without higher rental payments. Now, with Carmike gobbled by AMC, the Kabuki's ownership has come full circle. CAAM's return to the venue may reflect more willingness on AMC's part to host a festival than a stand taken about the Drafthouse. But I'll take it. Look for me at some of the CAAM shows; at minimum I hope to be at the Kabuki (for the first time in over three years) for the May 15th screening of the Shaw Brothers martial arts classic Golden Swallow starring the legendary Cheng Pei-Pei.

SFFILM61 Day 14
Other festival options: The last two days of the festival were originally supposed to involve only two venues but on today, the very last day, a third was added; Lauren Greenfield's follow-up to The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth, is getting a make-up showing from a previous one that had technical difficulties, and it's happening at a venue I can't recall being used during the San Francisco International Film Festival before (though my festival memory only goes back 20 years), the underrated Laurel Heights single-screener the Vogue. If you'd prefer to stick to the Mission venues as planned, your options include the aforementioned Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. or Jupiter's Moon at the Roxie, or Tigre or (the non-aforementioned) Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On at the Victoria.

Non-SFFILM option: The New Parkway's weekly Tuesday Doc Night is tonight, this time featuring a screening of The United States of Detroit, with its director Tyler Norwood and Detroit native Karinda Dobbins in person. The United States of Detroit had its Frisco bay premiere at Doclands.

Monday, April 16, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 13: .TV

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival is nearly done, running through April 17th. Each day during the festival I've been posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from .TV supplied by SFFILM
.TV (USA/TUVALU/NEW ZEALAND/FRANCE: G. Anthony Svatek, 2017)
playing: 4:30 today at the Roxie as part of the Shorts 4: New Visions program

Yesterday SFFILM Festival announced its annual Golden Gate Awards winners as well as Audience Awards winners. The latter are Sam Green's live documentary on the Kronos Quartet, A Thousand Thoughts and Youtuber Bo Bunham's directorial debut Eighth Grade; I've seen neither but Eight Grade screens one last time again today, 2PM at the Roxie.

The Golden Gate Award winners are all listed in David Hudson's SFFILM round-up, if you scroll down to yesterday's date. Again I haven't seen any of the features but I've seen most of the shorts (all but the narrative winner Shadow Animals & runner-up Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month). I don't have any major quibbles with their other selections but my sensibilities matched the jury's most precisely in its selection of .TV for the New Visions Golden Gate Award for experimental film and video works. Named for the internet domain extension that, if current climate change trends continue could become the last remaining trace of the Polynesian nation Tuvalu, .TV draws on (according to its end credits) video footage of Tuvalu's islands from Youtube and the hors-frontieres website, along with a voiceover by Tuvaluan-in-exile Tiueli Papau, to create an experimental documentary with traces of apocalyptic "fiction". Add in the element of video footage streaming directly from websites paying to use the .tv extension (to the point that, according to a title card, it's become Tuvalu's steadiest source of income) in mundane domestic and office spaces, and we have a film that perfectly intersects our transforming world in the age of internet pervasiveness and environmental catastrophe. Not only can we watch images of beauty before their destruction on our multiplying screens, we can make movies about countries we may never have visited and even win prizes for them (if we're as talented as Svatek).

Second prize in the new Visions category went to Ameer Kazmi's meandering but eye-popping Fair Grounds; I personally prefer Akosua Adoma Owusu's small-gague sequel to an Academy Award-winning classic, Mahogany Too, or Kevin Jerome Everson's mesemerizing Rams 23 Blue Bears 21, or Hope Tucker's eerie exploration of a never-activated nuclear power plant Atomkraftwerk Zwentendorf, but it's a matter of small differences in taste, as the entire New Visions 4 program is solid work. Check it out today if you can slot it into your schedule, and check out SF Cinematheque, Other Cinema, BAMPFA and the Silent Film Festival for upcoming screenings of experimental film and video from the present and past.

SFFILM61 Day 13
Other festival options: In addition to Eighth Grade, today's the last SFFILM opportunity to see Amy Adrion's documentary about the hurdles facing women directors in Hollywood, Half the Picture, which I just learned includes an on-screen interview with local filmmaker Jennifer Phang in addition to the women (Miranda July, Ava DuVernay, Penelope Spheeris) listed in the festival program guide (one might think this year's program notes weren't written by locals). It shows at the Victoria. as does the French-Canadian zombie film Ravenous.

Non-SFFILM option: With the passing of Miloš Forman this weekend, I'm thinking fondly of his appearance at the 2004 edition of the festival, my first as press. In fact I named my wrap-up piece in Senses of Cinema after his great film shown that year, Taking Off- though I hesitate to link to the article because I'm embarrassed how I misgender the subject of one of the films I talk about (Beautiful Boxer). I'm trying to grow and learn. Anyway, tonight the San Francisco Symphony is presenting a screening of Forman's Amadeus at Davies Symphony Hall with live music replacing that of the film (though dialogue and sound effects will remain) and if I weren't working past the start time I'd be pretty tempted.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 12: Drop By Drop

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival is almost over; it runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Drop By Drop provided by SFFILM
Drop By Drop (PORTUGAL: Alexandra "Xá" Ramires & Laura Gonçalves, 2017)
playing: 3:00 today at the Roxie, as part of Shorts 3: Animation.

Drop By Drop is in my opinion the most visually impressive of the animated short films found in either the Shorts 5: Family Films program (in which Louise Bagnall's Late Afternoon and Erick Oh's “Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems” Chapter 4 are the standouts) or the Shorts 3: Animation program intended for mature audiences (not that they're particularly racy this year; in fact they're far less juvenile than the typical "Sick & Twisted" fare you might find on some animation programs).

A great example of documentary/animation hybridization, Drop By Drop takes audio interviews of Portuguese villagers reacting to the social and environmental impacts of climate change and desertification on the Iberian peninsula and imagines a fantastic visual landscape based on the metaphors in its interviewees' descriptions. Not only is the imagery striking and strong, the animation itself is a wonderful example of the under-utilized concept of "camera movement" in animation. Where so many independent animations have a very closed-off, shoebox feel (which can be beneficial to certain, but not all, subjects), Drop By Drop moves in all directions, creating a sense of vastness that befits its theme of long-rooted traditions becoming upended as families scatter to the four winds.

Other noteworthy selections in the Shorts 3 program include Oscar-nominated Negative Space by Max Porter & Ru Kuwahata, which is probably the best example of character animation in the set (I sorely wish it had won the Oscar over the self-important celebrity promo Dear Basketball), Leah Nichols' sweet, locally-focused rotoscope doc 73 Questions, and the humorous Icebergs by Elrini Vianelli.

The one that got to me emotionally was Oh Hi Anne, from local artist Anne McGuire, perhaps best known for her reverse-ungineered 1970s blockbusters like Snatchers Body The Of Invasion and Strain Andromeda The, or her performances as half of The Freddy McGuire Show. Here she also takes documentary audio, in this case voicemail messages left by underground film & video legends & longstanding Mission District residents George Kuchar (1942-2011) and his brother Mike, and applies a simple set of drawn images to them to create a little narrative about her friendships with her former teacher George, and later Mike. Combined with audio of a lovely song written and performed by McGuire, that I've gladly had running in my head for over a week now, and my own memories of meeting George, and showing him an article I'd written about one of his films Wild Night in El Reno, shortly before he died, I was in tears by the end of the short.

However, judging by the dismissive reaction of audience members around me during and after last weekend's Roxie screening, Oh Hi Anne was done a disservice by being placed into a program that, while perhaps pushing the boundaries of narrative and documentary animation, never really pushed past those boundaries. There used to consistently be a few examples of experimental animation in this program in the festival. With no selections like 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival picks All Rot by Max Hattler or Kazue Monno & Takeshi Nagata's Track to warm the audience up to expanding their ideas of what animation can do and be, it was easy for some viewers to pick on Oh Hi Anne as overly earnest or seemingly crude (I don't suppose any of the grumblers I heard are aware of McGuire's exquisite watercolor "Dark Universe", currently on display (along with Mike Kuchar's 1980 drawing "Faery Tale" and a slew of other great work by local artists from throughout history), at BAMPFA's must-see Way Bay exhibit). Admittedly, by most definitions of animation I'm aware of, Oh Hi Anne doesn't really qualify. But to me it feels like an essential piece of this year's SFFILM, challenging aesthetic boundaries and linking back to a gentle giant of Frisco Bay filmmaking who is still sorely missed by many members of the local community. I suspect if the experimental animation ハネムーンHanemun Honeymoon had been plucked out of the Shorts 4: New Visions program and put into the Shorts 3 set, perhaps in place of the slick, cute, but ultimately go-nowhere selection Hybrids, McGuire's film wouldn't have been the first in the show to totally upend audience expectations, and had a better chance of hitting with some of the cynics in the crowd.

SFFILM61 Day 12
Other festival options: Today's menu options include the presentation of the George Gund Craft of Cinema Award to collaborative filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman before a screening of their short doc End Game and the so-called "Closing Night" showing of Gus Van Sant's Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot with Van Sant and composer Danny Elfman expected in person (I can't help but wonder if, with Elfman's former girlfriend Kim Gordon in the film, and speaking at the Nourse tomorrow night, she might make a surprise appearance as well. Pure speculation on my part), both at the Castro Theatre. BAMPFA's last day as a festival venue looks strong, with Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, Wajib, a set of 16mm Nathaniel Dorsky shorts including Avraham, and Michael Hazanavicius introducing his Godard, Mon Amour. Meanwhile YBCA closes out its time as a 2018 SFFILM venue with Angels Wear White, Shirkers and Carcasse, and The Children's Creativity Theater says goodbye to its first festival year with Bisbee '17 and A Prayer Before Dawn. None of the titles mentioned in this paragraph will play during the final two days of the festival when it contracts to fill only the Roxie and the Victoria.

Non-SFFILM option: Another festival opened yesterday at a former SFFILM venue I have a lot of fondness for, Japantown's New People Cinema; they're hosting the 2nd Annual Cherry Blossom Film Festival, highlighting features made in Japan. Yesterday they had a 3-title tribute to a filmmaker I first encountered via the San Francisco International Film Festival, Shunji Iwai, but the rest of the festival is devoted to animation, such as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by the great Studio Ghibli master Isao Takahata, who passed away this week. Today's offerings include a Japanese-dubbed, English-lauguage version of Takahata's partner Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (which originally was released in Japan on a head-scratching double-bill with Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies), and the more recent Miss Hokusai.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 11: To Be Or Not To Be

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival is down to the home stretch; it runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


Image from To Be Or Not To Be provided by SFFILM
To Be Or Not To Be (USA: Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
playing: 1:00 tonight at SFMOMA as part of the Mel Novikoff Award presentation to film scholar Annette Insdorff.

I often try to make it out to SFFILM's annual Mel Novikoff Award presentation to an individual or organization that has deepened the general public's understanding of world cinema, and last year's presentation to local hero Tom Luddy (which I wrote up in some detail) was one of last year's festival highlights. I must confess not being directly familiar with Insdorff's importance, but I trust the award committee to select someone worthy, and I'm excited to learn more about her at the event. She already gets points for making To Be Or Not To Be her carte blanche screening pick. If she has anything to do with it screening in 35mm she gets double points; I've been wanting to see it this way for years, as I wrote in a previous brief blog post, almost five years ago during a (vehemently) different Presidential administration.

Hollywood movies of the so-called "Golden Age" of the 1930s and 1940s are known for their glamour, for their stars, and for their maintenance of a consistent baseline standard of production quality. They're not often known for their boldness in speaking truth to power, To Be Or Not To Be might be one of the most noteworthy exceptions (not that it skimps in the glamour, star and production quality departments).

Filmed in the fall of 1941 and released just a couple months after the United States declared war on Hitler's Germany, To Be Or Not To Be combines a wartime spy-thriller plot with breakneck comedy, underlining the buffoonish aspects of Adolf Hitler and his beyond-brutal regime while drawing parallels between high-stakes politics and the little vanities and betrayals common in the show business world.

This improbably clever film follows a band of Warsaw actors who unexpectedly get caught up in a scheme aiding the underground resistance movement after Hitler's invasion of Poland. Radio star Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her final completed role before her plane crashed in early 1942) play the central pair of Shakespeareans; each turns in what is probably the greatest screen performance of their career. Though directed by a Berlin Jew who'd fled Germany not long before Hitler rose to power, the film's subject matter was seen as too raw at the time of its release for some critics and audiences. Others instantly praised it as the timeless comedy classic it has become.

SFFILM61 Day 11
Other festival options: Today marks the sole SFFILM screenings of the kid-friendly Shorts 5: Family Films program or the probably more adult-minded documentaries on Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RBG) and Joan Jett (Bad Reputation), all at the Castro; the last of these is expected to feature an in-person appearance by its subject as well as its maker; the others will have to settle for the latter. It's also your final chance to see SFFILM screenings of the excellent I Am Not A Witch at BAMPFA, of the Georgian film Scary Mother and an intriguing Swiss film by a director mentored by Lav Diaz and James Benning: Cyril Schäublin's Those Who Are Fine, both at the Creativity Theater, and of the festival's first selection from Kyrgyzstan in 20 years, Suleiman Mountain, at the Roxie.

Non-SFFILM option: I'm actually hosting this one myself. At 7PM tonight, I'm screening a new documentary called Parque Central, which premiered locally at the San Francisco Latino Film Festival last September, at a non-profit in the Tenderloin called the Faithful Fools (address: 234 Hyde between Turk and Eddy), and the filmmaker Ricardo Gaona, up from his home in Los Angeles for the weekend, will be in attendance. There will also be a short doc called Temporal Cities made right in the Tenderloin; its co-director Lizzy Brooks will also be in attendance projecting 35mm slides as part of the presentation. There will be a discussion following. Oh, and it's all FREE to the public.

Parque Central doesn't have distribution yet, as far as I know, but it isn't the kind of film you'd want to watch on a tablet, computer monitor or even a large television set, if you had the chance to see it projected on a screen like the one at the Faithful Fools. Seeing it large, it transports you to another part of the world: the ancient city of Antigua in the highlands of Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most increasingly popular tourist destinations in Central America. Gaona shows us the beauty of the city not through the typical tourist gaze but through the daily routines of several children who live and work near the town square, called "Parque Central." Domingo, Eduardo, Hugo, Miguel and Yesenia shine shoes, sell refreshments, or braid hair for the plaza visitors and send the profits back to the cash-poor Mayan villages where their families reside. But thanks to Gaona's aesthetic choices, the documentary's tone is not one of sadness but of resilience, hope, and making the best of a difficult situation. His instincts are to observe and not comment, letting the audience come to our own conclusions about what we see. A counterpoint to his visual storytelling strategies is provided partway through with the introduction of an English-language narration voiced by a Bay Area-born tour guide, whose comments reveal the entrenched history of colonialism in the region.

Friday, April 13, 2018

SFFILM 61 Day 10: Wajib

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival began last week and runs through April 17th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

Image from Wajib provided by SFFILM
Wajib (PALESTINE/FRANCE/GERMANY/COLOMBIA/NORWAY/QATAR/UAE: Annemarie Jacir, 2017)
playing: 6:00 tonight at SFMOMA and 3:15 Sunday at BAMPFA.

Wajib is the third feature film directed by Annemarie Jacir, whose Salt of the Sea has been called the first feature film directed by a Palestinian woman. It featured a performance by Saleh Bakri, who had just made his feature film acting debut in The Band's Visit and would soon play Elia Suleiman's father in his marvelous, autobiographical The Time That Remains from 2009. It's a shame that it's been close to a decade since Suleiman's last feature film; he exhibited a rare brilliance that is missed from cinema screens. But it's great to be reminded of him through Bakri's role in this very fine feature. He and his real father, Mohammad Bakri (an acting legend in his own right, who has worked in films by Costa-Gavras, Amos Gitai, Eran Riklis, Rashid Masharawi, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani among others) play an estranged father and son, one living abroad and the other having remained in Nazereth. As father and brother of the bride they have the "duty" (the translation of the title) of delivering invitation to her upcoming wedding, and the social and political disagreements that flare up along the way constantly threaten to unravel their partnership. It's firmly in the long tradition of neorealist-inspired film festival fare, but it also reminded me of a variation on Broken Flowers or Two Days, One Night in which each door-to-door encounter is a catalyst for exploration of a father-son relationship, rather than of an individual.

SFFILM61 Day 10
Other festival options: With so much talk in the past few days about the feud between The Cannes Film Festival and a little mom and pop operation called Netflix, my position is that I've never been a Netflix subscriber but that I'm probably going to join at some point just to watch Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind when they decide to release it. Then I'll probably cancel until I find myself making a lifestyle change that precludes frequent cinema visits (heaven forbid.) I'm thankful no such feud exists between Netflix and SFFILM, and that I was able to see one of my favorite films of 2017, Nocturama, at the Castro Theatre because of it. Tonight SFFILM is showing two Netflix-owned titles that I doubt will screen in a larger local venue than they will tonight: Sandi Tan's Shirkers, playing 6:00 at BAMPFA, and John Woo's Manhunt, playing 9:00 at the Castro; in the latter case it's the sole SFFILM screening. Tonight's also the only SFFILM presentation of something called Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences, which I'm not sure qualifies as a movie or as a cinema-aided variety show from Cory McAbee, director of the wonderful American Astronaut and Stingray Sam. I don't think this one will be available on Netflix down the road.

Non-SFFILM option: Tonight, after a week of build-up Alfred Hitchcock films finally screen in the Stanford Theatre's April-June calendar entitled "Hitchcock and Other Masters of Suspense". This weekend's double bill is the often-shown Rebecca, paired with the infrequently-screened (yet all-too-available via shoddy public domain home video transfers) Sabotage. It was one of these transfers that made me sit up around twenty years ago and realize Hitchcock's British period was just as well-worth exploring as the Hollywood hits I'd grown up on such as Rear Window and North By Northwest (which both show up later in the series). I've yet to see Sabotage in 35mm and I bet most of my readers haven't seen it that way either.