Tuesday, November 5, 2013
The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) brings us the sixth edition of its French Cinema Now (FCN) series, beginning this Thursday, November 7 at Landmark's Clay Theatre. While it's tough seeing 2013's event scaled back from seven days to four, the good news is that the quantity of films has remained the same (albeit with fewer screenings). Two things crossed my mind while perusing the program. The first was an absence of anything lightweight or overtly commercial on the roster. The second was an impressive dedication to a loose coterie of directors by the SFFS programming team, with eight of 10 FCN films this year coming from filmmakers whose works have been previously exhibited by the SF Film Society.
The SFFS alumni party gets going on opening night with Sébastien Betbeder's drôle and affecting 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, which is also the only FCN entry I've previewed in advance. Betbeder was the surprise FIPRESCI winner at this year's SF International Film Festival. His 67-minute, made-for-TV movie Nights with Théodore, set an enigmatic, paranormal-shaded romance almost entirely within Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Betbeder's follow-up retains the Paris setting, this time concerning itself with the ups and downs of two ex-art student bros in their early thirties. It's been labeled the first French mumblecore film, which is a stretch. While the film does feature floundering young adults and lengthy monologues, it's more stylized than its American counterpart, with an episodic structure, a lot of fourth wall-breaking and a diverse look obtained from shooting both 16mm and digital. Comic, bittersweet and smart, 2 Autumns should work perfectly as an opening night film.
2 Autumns, 3 Winters is just one of six FCN selections that had world premieres at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The FCN film I'm most anticipating is Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, which competed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It was perhaps the best-reviewed film of the entire festival, leaving some critics wondering why it wasn't in the main competition. It ultimately won the sidebar's Best Director award as well as the fest's Queer Palm. Set entirely around a placid lake that doubles as a notorious cruising spot, the film has been described as a (very) sexually-explicit thriller that takes on the complexities of gay male desire. One much-discussed scene has had critics making comparisons to Hitchcock and Chabrol at their most unbearably suspenseful. A lot of fuss has also been made of the film's lush wide-screen photography and layered sound design. Unsurprisingly, the good folks at Strand Releasing have picked this up for U.S. distribution. Director Guiraudie is no stranger to FCN, having personally accompanied The King of Escape, his yarn about a gay, middle-aged tractor salesman on the lam with a teenage girl, to the Bay Area in 2009.
Also showing up in Cannes' Un Certain Regard was Claire Denis' Bastards, a downbeat and menacing familial tale of money, sex and power set in contemporary Paris. Although the film drew mixed reviews – critics complained about its obtuseness and confusingly fragmented narrative – it fared much better at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Critic Robert Koehler proclaimed it Denis' best film since L'intrus and Manola Dargis found Bastards "grimly beautiful and somewhat unhinged." (And then there's Ryan Lattanzio's ominous warning at Indiewire that after Bastards "you may never eat corn-on-the-cob again.") Once more Denis enlists the immense talents of cinematographer Agnès Godard (her first digital shoot for Denis) and musician Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks. The promising cast includes Denis regulars Grégoire Colin and Michel Subor, as well as Denis newbies Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni and Lola Créton. I wasn't crazy about Denis' last film, 2009's White Material, but these L'intrus comparisons have me hopeful that I'll be loving me some Bastards.
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's autobiographical A Castle in Italy initially drew attention at Cannes because it was the only female-directed film in the main competition. Then came the almost unanimously horrible reviews, with The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw leading the pile-on ("smug, precious, carelessly constructed, emotionally negligible, tiresome, insufferably self-regarding and above all, fantastically annoying.") Tedeschi plays a retired actress with a ticking biological clock whose family is divided over whether to sell the titular family castle – in other words, she's got an acute case of RWPP (Rich White People Problems.) As in real life, her character has a younger actor boyfriend (played by her actual ex, actor Louis Garrel) and a brother who's dying of AIDS (Tedeschi's brother died of the disease in 2006 and is played here by Filippo Timi, the Italian actor best known for portraying Mussolini in Vincere). This is Tedeschi's third outing as director/writer/actress, and all three films were co-written by actress/director Noémie Lvovsky (who attended last year's FCN with the opening night film, Camille Rewinds). I remember enjoying Tedeschi's Actresses when it played the inaugural FCN in 2008, so I'm willing to take a chance on this – in no small part thanks to the presence of Euro-hunks Garrel and Timi. Omar Sharif of all people is said to have a movie-stealing cameo near the end.
Speaking of Euro-hunks, Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen plays the titular role in FCN's other film from Cannes 2013's main competition, Arnaud des Pallières' Michael Kohlhaas. Based on an 1811 novella that's a staple of German literature classes, the film features a French-speaking Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse merchant seeking justice after two prized steeds are seized and then abused by a ruthless nobleman. Reviews of both the film and Mikkelsen's performance were mixed, with the Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer opining, "Michael Kohlhaas provides a few quick thrills and some beautifully photographed landscapes, but never really convinces as an intellectual’s swords-and-horses period piece." The critics were unanimous in their praise of Jeanne Lapoire's cinematography (she also shot A Castle in Italy), as well as the film's exquisite period detail. Being mad-for-Mads means I wouldn't dream of missing this, especially when the Great Dane is joined by an impressive supporting cast that includes Amira Casar, Jacques Nolot, Bruno Ganz, Sergi López and Denis Lavant.
My favorite film at FCN 2010 was Katell Quillévéré's Love Like Poison, an impressive, Prix Jean Vigo-winning directorial debut about a young Bretagne teen grappling with issues of flesh vs. spirit. Three years later Quillévéré returns with Suzanne, which opened the Critics Week sidebar at this year's Cannes. The film encompasses 25 years in the life of its protagonist, a young woman who lives with her widowed father and sister, gets pregnant in high school and eventually takes up with a small-time gangster. Although reviews were generally favorable, many critics felt the huge time gaps in the narrative gave the film a choppy feel. Variety's Boyd van Hoeij likened Suzanne to an "extended trailer for an entire season of a French working-class daytime drama." Critics were unanimous, however, in their resounding praise for Sara Forestier in the title role. This is the acclaimed actress who burst on the scene in 2003, winning a Most Promising Actress César for her fiery performance in Abdellatif Kechiche's Games of Love and Chance (aka L'esquive), and then winning the Best Actress César in 2011 for Michel Leclerc's The Names of Love. Perhaps a third César is not out of the question.
Just as Quillévéré's first movie was my FCN favorite of 2010, so it was a year earlier with The Wolberg Family, the passionate and quirky 2009 debut of critic-turned-director Axelle Ropert. She's finally made a second film, Miss and the Doctors, which is about two pediatrician brothers both falling in love with a barmaid whose diabetic daughter is in their care. The brothers are played by director/actor Cédric Kahn (Red Lights) and Laurent Stocker, the latter a Comédie Françasie actor whose work I'm unfamiliar with. As with The Wolberg Family, Ropert's latest is also a Bozon family affair, with actor/director Serge Bozon (La France) once more taking on a supporting acting role and his sister Céline Bozon delivering the cinematography. Because Miss and the Doctors didn't have a festival rollout and only opened in French cinemas two months ago, there are very few reviews in English. An exception is Jordan Mintzer's favorable write-up in the Hollywood Reporter, where he calls the film a "bluesy swan song for brotherly love" and compares it to "the sort of earnestly made, cleverly scripted adult dramas of Truffaut's late period." The film's original French title (Tirez la langue, mademoiselle) translates as "Stick out your tongue, Miss," which sounds less lame than its English counterpart.
Yet another directorial second feature in the FCN 2013 line-up is Anna Novion's Rendezvous in Kiruna. Like the filmmaker's 2008 debut Grown Ups, it stars Novion's off-screen partner, renowned character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (who's mostly known to me from the films of Robert Guédiguian). Here he plays a gruff French architect who must travel to Swedish Lapland to identify the body of a dead son he has never met, picking up a young hitchhiker on route. Rendezvous in Kiruna won the prize for Best Film at the 2012 Cairo International Film Festival, and in her review for the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden appreciates how the movie escapes inherent road movie clichés and promises that "the story's quiet observations build into low-charge detonations that resonate for days afterward." The film's cinematographer, Pierre Novion, is expected to attend the FCN screening. Kiruna, by the way, is Sweden's northernmost city and the unofficial capital of Swedish Lapland.
The lone documentary in this year's FCN is House of Radio from Nicholas Philibert. It's the first film by the master French non-fiction filmmaker since Nénette, his fascinating 2010 study of a 40-year-old, zoo-imprisoned Parisian orangutan. This time Philibert takes on the massive entity that is Radio France, which is loosely the French version of NPR. The film is given an illusory 24-hours-in-the-life-of structure, although it was actually shot over the course of six months. Reviews for House of Radio have been generally positive – it premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival and had a brief NYC theatrical release back in September – with the main criticism being that unless you are already familiar with Radio France, the film is a bit daunting. There is no voiceover narration or on-screen information imparted, so unless you know what screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and author Umberto Eco look like, you won't realize they are among the radio's on-air interviewees until the end credits roll.
After Stranger by the Lake, the FCN film I'm most dying to see is Vic+Flo Saw a Bear from French-Canadian director Denis Côté. This is the first time a Quebecois film has been included in FCN's line-up and I hope it won't be the last. The SF Film Society did sponsor a Quebec Film Week back in 2008, but since then many important French-Canadian works have bypassed the Bay Area, including Côté's disturbing 2012 documentary about taxidermy and safari park animals, Bestiare (fortunately available for streaming on Netflix). Vic+Flo Saw a Bear tells the offbeat and ultimately harrowing story of a 61-year-old lesbian ex-con who retreats to the rural home of a paralyzed uncle, and is joined in short order by her former lover/ex-cellmate and her gay parole officer. The film premiered in Berlin, where it walked off with the prestigious Alfred Bauer Award, given each year to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." (Past recipients include Léos Carax, Tsai Ming-liang, Park Chan-wook, Fernando Eimbcke and last year's winner, Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Critics have been generous with praise, with Boyd van Hoeij calling it Côté's most accomplished work yet, and Screen Daily's Lee Marshall summing up the film's vibe thusly: "A rich, humane, surprising film, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear manages to mix the drollery of Wes Anderson, the genre swagger of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and the opaque narrative of a Bruno Dumont in one intriguing package."
Cross published at The Evening Class.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The 36th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) kicks off this Thursday and as usual, the parade of A-list actors and directors scheduled to walk its red carpet outshines all other Northern California flick fests combined. Cozying up to all that glamour isn't cheap, however, with "film only" tickets for most special events ranging from $40 to $60. I guess that's pocket change for many people around here these days – as of this writing, 95 programs and screenings are already at rush or close to it. What follows is a biased overview of this year's line-up, plus thoughts on seven films I previewed via DVD screener.
Once again MVFF has secured some of the top films from Cannes, including five from the main competition. For those unable to wait for its November 1 local theatrical release, there's Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, an explicit, 3-hour young-lesbians-in-love drama that won the Palme d'Or, plus an honorary Palme for its two lead actresses. What has overshadowed the film's success, however, is a controversy resulting from bitter public infighting between its director, actresses and writer of the original novel. I love Kechiche's films (though I didn't see his most recent, the generally dismissed Black Venus), so until I see Blue I'll be giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Cannes' 2013 Grand Prix went to the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and I'm sure MVFF tried their damndest to program it. Alas, we in the Bay Area must now wait for its December 20 theatrical release. The festival did happily secure this year's Jury Prize winner, Hirokazu Koreeda's wonderful Like Father, Like Son, as well as both films that received acting prizes. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) won Best Actress for her performance in The Past (opening locally December 27), Asghar Fahadi's much-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning A Separation. Cannes Best Actor winner Bruce Dern will be present on Opening Night, accompanied by co-star Will Forte. The two play an estranged father and son on a road trip in Alexander Payne's Nebraska (opening November 22). Also showing from Cannes' main competition is Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris, with the acclaimed African director scheduled to be on hand. Rounding out MVFF36's roster of Cannes winners is Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture, which copped the top award in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar.
Two veteran auteurs being singled out for MVFF36 veneration are Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Music Box) and Jan Troell (The Emigrants, The New Land, Everlasting Moments). This could possibly be Costa-Gavras' first visit to the Bay Area since The Ax opened the SF International Film Festival in 2003. That film was never heard from again and the director's next release, 2009's Eden is West, has never played the Bay Area. The Costa-Gavras tribute will feature an on-stage interview with actor/activist Peter Coyote and a screening of his newest work Capital, an espionage thriller set in the financial world. Swedish director Troell was in the Bay Area as recently as July, when he accompanied The Last Sentence to the SF Jewish Film Festival. That same film will unspool at Mill Valley, along with A Close Scrutiny, a 40-minute doc portrait of Troell shot by his daughter Johanna during the making of The Last Sentence. Several recent shorts by Jan Troell will be included in that program.
One of the hottest tickets at MVFF36 will be the screening of 12 Years a Slave, with director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots) in an on-stage conversation. Other bona-fide celebrity guests this year include Geoffrey Rush, who stars in the co-Opening Night film The Book Thief, and Dakota Fanning, who'll be feted at a screening of Effie Gray (she appears in MVFF36 selection The Motel Life as well). Ben Stiller heads up this year's Closing Night festivities with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the first adaption of James Thurbers' classic short story to appear since the 1947 Danny Kaye classic and it's a film Stiller wrote, produced, directed and stars in. Jared Leto, actor and sometime rockstar, comes to town after a five-year filmmaking hiatus with his portrayal of a transsexual AIDS activist in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club. Last but not least, Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga will accompany the film At Middleton and Sean Penn will speak at screenings of the documentary The Human Experiment, for which he served as narrator.
Speaking of documentaries, non-fiction works are always a hefty part of the MVFF roster and this year over two dozen doc features appear its Valley of the Docs sidebar. In addition to your customary socio-political "issue" films, music-oriented documentaries are a recurring MVFF specialty. 2013's slate looks at a famed blues guitarist (Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield), American roots music label Arhoolie Records (This Ain't No Mouse Music) and a legendary bluegrass musician (The Tao of Bluegrass: A Portrait of Peter Rowan). I'm especially intrigued by The Invisible Lighthouse by directed by musician Thomas Dolby ("She Blinded Me With Science"), who will provide live accompaniment to the film along with musician/producer Don Was, film composer Mark Isham, local luminary Dan Hicks and others. Also of note in the fest's Doc Valley are bio-docs Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (a big hit at this year's Frameline LGBT festival) and the doc I'm most anticipating, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.
Three MVFF36 films have recently been named their respective nation's Oscar® submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Topping the list in terms of critical acclaim is Sebastián Lelio's Gloria from Chile, said to be an honest look at mid-life crisis which won a Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival for star Paulina Garcia. Next door neighbor Argentina has submitted The German Doctor (aka Wakolda), from director Lucía Puenzo (XXY, The Fish Child), an imaginary take on what happens when an Argentine family unknowingly befriends Josef Mengele. Unsurprisingly, Poland has submitted biopic Walesa, Man of Hope, from revered 87-year-old maestro Andrzej Wajda. Although it's not Italy's official Oscar® submission, The Best Offer from Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) did win five of the 12 Donatello Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Film and Director. The film stars Geoffrey Rush, who I imagine will hang around town long enough to appear at the film's first screening on Friday.
As mentioned in the intro, I had an advance look at seven MVFF36 titles on screener. My heartiest recommendation goes to Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son, an emotionally complex and life-affirming take on the timeworn narrative device of having babies of different economic classes switched at birth. It's a return to form for the acclaimed Japanese director of Still Walking, and follows the less substantive Air Doll and I Wish (although those films have their defenders). A less successful Japanese film about family is Yôji Yamada's Tokyo Family, a mostly uninspired and unnecessary updating of Yasujirô Ozu's 1953 classic Tokyo Story. Yamada, best known for the Tora-san series and more recently The Twilight Samurai trilogy, was an assistant director on the Ozu original. But here, directing his 81st film at age 82, he fails to create much that is fresh, apart from some minor plot/character deviations and clunky allusions to Fukushima and bullet trains. Despite bland casting and a plodding pace, there are still a number of very lovely moments contained in its 146 minutes, thanks to Yamada's artistry.
After Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris received so-so reviews at Cannes, I had my doubts the film would ever make it to these parts. So thank you, MVFF. While it lacks some of the urgency and power of previous works like Dry Season and A Screaming Man, I found it worth a look. Haroun is aided by a charismatic performance from newcomer Souleymane Démé, playing a handicapped dancer and jack-of-all-trades who gets in over his head attempting to earn money for his father's hospital bills. Grigris is one of five films found in the MVFF36 sidebar L'Afrique, La France et L'Ecran (Africa, France and the Screen), from which I previewed two additional selections. In Françoise Charpiat's Cheba, Rachida Brakni plays an Arab Parisian struggling between her family's cultural traditions and the pull of modern womanhood, the latter of which includes a career in finance, her own apartment and a hot French lover. Her life is haunted by the memory of a grandmother whose singing career disgraced the family. Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance is formed with a pot-smoking, bongo-playing single mom who lives next door (Isabelle Carré). While resoundingly commercial and more than a bit contrived, Cheba does have its charms, particularly as a paean to female friendship and a celebration of North African culture in France. Lastly, in Newton I. Aduaka's One Man's Show, the director of 2007's far superior African child soldier film Teza, employs a non-linear narrative to explore a French-African actor's battle with mortality, while sorting out his complicated relations with women. Amongst the notes I jotted down while watching this film are words like artsy, obtuse, precious, ponderous, contemplative, moody, somber and dreadful.
The two remaining films previewed both get high recommendations. Those who remember seeing Russian director Boris Khlebnikov's strong debut Koktebel when it screened at the 2004 SF International Film Festival won't want to miss his latest, A Long and Happy Life. In this compelling social drama, a naïve young Siberian collective farm owner battles local government bureaucracy and land developers in order to keep his workers employed. Then in Mia Endberg's extraordinary, semi-autobiographical experimental docu-drama Belleville Baby, the Swedish director employs a variety of aural and visual cues – recorded phone conversations, archival footage, blank film leader, stills, a variety of film stocks – to reflect back on an affair she once had with a French drug dealer turned ex-con, who has called her out of the blue wanting help in recounting his life story. I've never seen anything quite like it and think it could be the true discovery of MVFF36.
Monday, July 15, 2013
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) celebrates its 18th edition this year with a line-up more international in scope than ever before. Ten of its 14 feature films originate from outside Hollywood, with movies postmarked Russia, Japan, Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark, Bali and the UK. The festival, which is the largest and most prestigious silent fest outside of Pordenone, Italy opens this Thursday with Louise Brooks' last great film (Prix de Beauté) and closes on Sunday with Harold Lloyd's iconic Safety Last! In between there'll be such amazements as a tribute to animator Winsor McCay, a 150-minute reconstruction of G.W. Pabst's Garbo-starring The Joyless Street, a two-strip Technicolor Goona-goona epic from Gloria Swanson's ex-husband (Legong: Dance of the Virgins) and a long-thought extinct 1925 drama set at our own San Francisco Chronicle (The Last Edition). Other marquee-worthy names include stars Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies and Charley Chase, as well as directors Yasujiro Ozu, King Vidor, Allan Dwan, Victor Sjöström, Jacques Feyder and the ubiquitous Keaton and Chaplin, who are represented with a pair of shorts. As always, each presentation will be accomapanied by live music.
Here's a closer program-by-program peek at what SFSFF has in store this weekend at the glorious Castro Theare.
Thursday, July 18
7:00 PM Prix de Beauté (1930, France, dir. Augusto Genina, digital)
Proving that San Francisco can't get enough Louise Brooks, this year's festival opens with what is considered the iconic actress' last important film. She stars here as a conflicted, Parisian typist whose jealous husband can't handle the attention she receives after winning a Miss Europe beauty pageant. It was shot after the release of Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl and was the only film she'd make in France. Released in both silent and (entirely dubbed) sound versions, the fest screens the silent version recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, accompanied by pianist Stephen Horne. Knowing I couldn't attend opening night this year, I checked out the chatty, cacophonous sound version available on YouTube. What stood out was Brooks' soulfully luminous performance in a decidedly non-vampy role (but still decked out in Jean Patou couture), a fascinating gaze at Parisian street life of 1929 and a suspenseful, shocking proto-Noir final act. At the SFSFF's Opening Night Party at McRoskey Mattress Company, costumed revelers can compete in the festival's first-ever Mr. and Ms. Silent Film beauty pageant.
Friday, July 19
11:00 AM Amazing Tales from the Archives
Each year this free-admission SFSFF presentation takes an insider's look at the current state of silent film restoration. First up, Céline Ruivo, Director of Film Collections at the Cinémathèque Française will speak on that organization's restoration of films from the Paris Exposition of 1900. Then preservationist and SFSFF board president Rob Byrne will elaborate on the collaborative effort between SFSFF and the Cinémathèque in restoring director Alla Dwan's once-lost The Half Breed from 1916, starring Douglas Fairbanks (screening Saturday at noon).
2:00 PM The First Born (1928, UK, dir. Miles Mander, 35mm)
This melodrama reps the directorial debut of actor-writer-playwright-novelist Miles Mander and is based on his novel and play – with screenwriting assistance from Alma Reville, aka the future Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock. It stars Madeleine Carroll, an actress best known as the first of Hitch's icy blonde heroines (The 39 Steps), who would also enjoy a brief but lucrative Hollywood career (The Prisoner of Zenda). (One source I stumbled upon claims she was the world's highest paid actress in 1938). The First Born's plot revolves around a barren society matron who adopts her unmarried manicurist's newborn while her philandering husband (Mander) is off on an African adventure. Upon his return she claims the child is theirs, which of course leads to nothing good for all concerned. This film is known for its naturalistic acting and surprise ending, which I've spoiled for myself by reading the film's plot synopsis on Wikipedia. Stephen Horne accompanies this recently restored print from the BFI National Archive.
4:30 PM Tokyo Chorus (1931, Japan, dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 35mm)
Released one year before Ozu's I Was Born, But… (SFSFF 2011), this bittersweet portrait of the Great Depression in Japan centers on a how a family copes when its insurance salesman father is fired for protesting the dismissal of an older employee. The family's young daughter is played by Hideko Takamine, later known for her acclaimed work for Mikio Naruse. Accompanying the film – and making his SFSFF debut – is composer-conductor-keyboardist Günter Buchwald.
7:00 PM The Patsy (1928, USA, dir. King Vidor, 35mm)
Marion Davies starred in three silent comedies directed by King Vidor. Unlike paramour-svengali William Randolph Hearst, he saw her as a comedic rather than dramatic actress – having witnessed her wild antics at many a Hollywood party. Davies is often credited with inventing the "screwball" style of comedic acting, and here she portrays the put-upon daughter of a social-climbing family who's in love with her younger sister's beau. The Patsy represented a comeback for Grande Dowager-Battleaxe Marie Dressler, who plays Davies' contentious mother. (Hollywood legend has it that a suicidal Dressler was eating her Last Supper at a restaurant, when director Allan Dwan, acting on behalf of Vidor, offered her this role). This is the festival's only revival for 2013, having screened previously in 2008. Clark Wilson accompanied on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer that evening and I remember it being riotously funny. There can be no doubt that the fabulous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will do The Patsy justice as well.
9:30 PM The Golden Clown (1926, Denmark, dir. A.W. Sandberg, 35mm)
A.W. Sandberg directed 42 films between 1914 and 1937, and this melodrama remakes his own 1917 picture of the same title, albeit with a much larger production budget. It was the biggest commercial success of the 1920's for Nordisk Studio, which is still operational and now considered the oldest continually operating film studio in the world. The Golden Clown stars Gösta Ekman – last seen in the title role of Faust at the 2013 SFSFF Winter Event – as a rural circus clown who loses the love of his life after becoming the toast of Paris. Ekman was already a cocaine addict when shooting this film, and he would die from the drug in 1938. Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany this restoration from the Danish Film Institute.
Saturday, July 20
10:00 AM Winsor McCay: His Life and Art
Generally acknowledged as the first master of both the comic strip and animated cartoon, Winsor McCay created ten films between 1911 and 1921, four of which will be screened at this presentation (Little Nemo, 1913, How a Mosquito Operates, 1912, Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914, and The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1918). John Canemaker, author of the definitive 1987 book on McCay, will present the films along with images from his book. McCay's longest running comic strip was "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend," which was adapted into a 1906 film by Edwin S. Porter and was screened at the festival in 2011. Stephen Horne will be on hand to accompany. If ten o'clock on a Saturday morning is too early for you to be inside a movie theater, all four films in this presentation are available to watch on Winsor McCay's voluminous Wikipedia page.
12:00 PM The Half-Breed (1916, USA, dir. Alan Dwan, 35mm)
The past two years have seen a bounty of Douglas Fairbanks films at SFSFF (Mr. Fix-It, The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad). For 2013's fest they've reached back to 1916, a year when the actor shot 11 movies. In this outing Fairbanks plays a half-Native American societal outcast who lives in a hollowed-out redwood tree and ultimately finds acceptance from a medicine show dancing girl. Shot in Northern California near Boulder Creek (Santa Cruz County), the film has a number of interesting names attached to it. Victor Fleming was the cinematographer and Anita Loos wrote the screenplay (adapting Bret Harte's short story "In the Carquinez Woods"). There's a scene in which a nearly-nude Fairbanks bathes in a river, which was reputedly put in the film by director Dwan only because Fairbank's then-wife, a cotton industrialist's daughter named Ann Beth Sully, hated the idea of her husband playing a "dirty, unwashed" half-breed. Thank you, Ms. Sully! As mentioned previously, The Half-Breed is a co-restoration between SFSFF and the Cinémathèque Française, the details of which will be discussed at this year's Amazing Tales from the Archives presentation. Günter Buchwald will accompany on the Castro's (reportedly ailing) Mighty Wurlitzer, the only time the instrument will be used at this year's festival.
2:15 PM Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935, Bali, dir. Henri de la Falaise, 35mm)
"Nudity Without Crudity" is how the adverts read when this Balinese docu-drama-cum-ethnographic travelogue opened in NYC in 1935. Tickets reportedly cost $5.00 or $84.20 adjusted for inflation. Financed by the director's wife, actress Constance Bennett (Henri de la Falaise was also the former Mr. Gloria Swanson), Legong applied Western plot contrivances to tell its tale of a Balinese dancer who pines for a musician, but he's got eyes for her sister. Butchered by censors for bare breasts and cock-fighting, the film played American grindhouses for decades under various lurid titles. Today it's recognized as an significant document of Bali's traditional dances, funeral rites and marketplace scenes of 80 years ago. It's also one of the very last silent films produced in Hollywood and a near-final example of the two-strip Technicolor process. Although Legong is making its SFSFF debut, the film was exhibited at the Castro for an entire weekend in the spring of 1999, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Those same musicians will be performing again at this year's SFSFF screening.
4:00 PM Gribiche (1926, France, dir. Jacques Feyder, 35mm)
In addition to being a classic French sauce, Gribiche is the title of this silent from the director of 1935's Carnival in Flanders, a classic I recently saw for the first time and wholeheartedly adored. Shot both in the studio and authentic Paris locations, the film tells the story of a poor boy who gets adopted by a rich American woman, but soon becomes bored and rebellious. Gribiche was made by the notable Films Albatros, a studio founded by Russian émigrés in France that produced important works by Marcel L'Herbier (L'Argent, SFSFF Winter Event 2011) and René Clair. Acclaimed art director Lazare Meerson created an entire 17th century Flemish village for Carnival in Flanders and his art deco sets for Gribiche are said to be no less spectacular. We'll be seeing a new restoration by the Cinémathèque Française, who will also receive this year's SFSFF Award at the screening. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies.
6:30 PM The House On Trubnaya Square (1928, USSR, dir. Boris Barnet, 35mm)
In this Russian comedy of manners from the director of The Girl with the Hat Box (SFSFF 2006), a young peasant woman and her duck travel to Moscow searching an uncle and a new life. What she finds is romance and political consciousness after securing a servant's job with a barber and his bossy, lay-about wife who live in a crowded tenement. The film is said to use charm and cinematic invention to poke fun at bourgeois urban Soviet society, housing shortages and labor unions. Stephen Horne provides the accompaniment.
8:30 PM The Joyless Street (1925, Germany, dir. G.W. Pabst, 35mm)
SFSFF's 2013 Centerpiece Film was the third directorial effort of G.W. Pabst, who would go on to make such important films as Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks and The 3 Penny Opera. Set in post-WWI Vienna during a time of extreme economic duress and wealth disparity, the film stars Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo as two women in dire straits, one of whom will turn to prostitution for survival. This was 19-year-old Garbo's second major role and her own personal favorite. She would depart for Hollywood later in the year. The Joyless Street, exhibited in the U.S. as The Street of Sorrow, served as a bridge between German Expressionism and a "new realism" style of European filmmaking. It is known to most film buffs via a butchered 61-minute version. The festival will be show a reconstruction by Stefan Drössler that runs nearly 2 1/2 times that length, with accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
Sunday, July 21
10:00 AM Kings of (Silent) Comedy (Digital)
If you've never seen charismatic French preservationist Serge Bromberg in action, you owe it to yourself to catch this program of four silent comedy shorts he's chosen for digital preservation. The titles include a Felix the Cat cartoon (Felix Goes West, 1924, dir. Otto Messmer), Charles Chaplin's The Immigrant (1917) and Buster Keaton's The Love Nest (1923). The one I'm most excited about, however, is Hal Roach Studio's Mighty Like a Moose (1926), directed by Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth, Going My Way) and starring Charley Chase, a silent comedian I know only by name and reputation. The film was selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2007, and it details the shenanigans which ensue when an equally homely husband and wife decide to have plastic surgery on the same day. Günter Buchwald will accompany the merriment. It's worth mentioning here that children under 10 are admitted free to all SFSFF screenings!
1:00 PM The Outlaw and His Wife (1918, Sweden, dir. Victor Sjöström, 35mm)
Filmmaker and actor Victor Sjöström directed over 40 films in Sweden before emigrating to Hollywood in 1924, adapting the name Victor Seastrom. While SFSFF has shown several of his American films over the years (He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlett Letter, The Wind), I believe this is the first time they're screening one of his Swedish silents. (According to the festival archive, even his 1921 silent classic The Phantom Carriage has been M.I.A.). In this 1918 film based on a real 18th century Icelandic outlaw, an escaped convict (played by the director) takes up with a wealthy widow and the two escape to a life in the wilderness. Appropriately, musical accompaniment will be provided by Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble.
3:30 PM The Last Edition (1925, USA, dir. Emory Johnson, 35mm)
Actor and San Francisco native Emory Johnson appeared in over 70 films before turning his hand to directing in 1922. He would make 13 features, most of them stories about blue collar professions adapted from stories written by his mother, Emilie Johnson. In The Last Edition, veteran actor Ralph Lewis (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) plays a pressman for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a son that works for the D.A.'s office. When a gang of bootleggers frame the son on trumped-up bribery charges, the father literally tries to stop the presses, resulting in the printing plant blowing up. The film was shot in and around the Chronicle Building(s) – both the old one on Market Street and then brand new one at 5th and Mission – and the film's nifty website contains a Chronicle front-page article about the film's preview for newspapermen at the St. Francis Theatre on Market Street. Until two years ago the film was considered lost, then SFSFF's Rob Byrne discovered that the EYE Film Institute Netherlands possessed an original nitrate print. This screening will be the world premiere of the restoration. Stephen Horne accompanies.
6:00 PM The Weavers (1927, Germany, dir. Friedrich Zelnik, digital)
This Soviet-influenced historical drama centers on a 1844 uprising of Silesian cotton weavers, who were concerned about the impact of steam-powered looms upon their livelihood (the event took place roughly 30 years after the Luddite revolt in Britain). The film stars Paul Wegener (best known for his silent film Golem portrayals) as the heartless mill owner and the inter-title art by renowned caricaturist/Dadaist George Grosz is said to be one of its many highlights. Günter Buchwald will accompany. As an added attraction at this screening, Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra and Beth Custer of the Club Foot Orchestra will accompany a two-minute trailer for Dziga Vertov's The Eleventh Year, which was recently discovered in the Ukraine.
8:30 PM Safety Last! (1923, USA, dir. Sam Taylor, Fred Newmeyer, digital)
Is there a more iconic image from the silent film era than Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face high above a busy city street? Hard to believe it's taken SFSFF 18 years to get around to showing it, but I for one am thrilled to finally be seeing this classic in its entirety. Lloyd, of course, was the "third genius" of silent film comedy, though at the time his films were more commercially successful than either Chaplin's or Keaton's. Safety Last! was his final film with Hal Roach Productions before striking out on his own. Lloyd stars here as an ambitious small town boy who departs for the Big City, leaving his girlfriend (played by the actor's wife Mildred Davis) behind. He secures a lowly sales clerk job and through a combination of circumstances finds himself ascending a 12-storey department store façade with a new peril – pigeons, a mad dog, a mouse running up his pant leg – awaiting him at each floor. The film joined the National Film Registry in 1994 and while most film scholars don't consider it his best – that honor seems to go to either The Freshman or The Kid Brother – it is certainly his best known and most beloved. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany this Closing Night presentation.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
The world's oldest LGBT film festival celebrates its 37th anniversary this year, as Frameline's 2013 edition rolls out in San Francisco and Berkeley from June 20 to 30. Globally, the fest remains the largest event of its kind, with this year's record-setting 800 submissions being whittled down to a mere 82 features and 155 shorts representing 30 countries. At the festival press conference it was noted that 2013's line-up is top-heavy with romances and comedies, something not necessarily reflected in the seven narrative and four documentary features I previewed.
For queers of a certain age and temperament, the highlight of Frameline37 has got to be I Am Divine, the long-awaited documentary about the "cinematic terrorist" alter ego of one Harris Glenn Milstead from Baltimore. I fess up to being a rabid Divine fan. I know the films by heart and saw him act in the stage play "The Neon Woman." I also own a stack of Divine vinyl and watched him perform those same songs live at The Stone nightclub on Broadway not long before his death in 1988. I even read the book written by his mother. So when Kickstarter came calling, I couldn't refuse. I'm very pleased with the fruit of my (admittedly meager) investment, which shouldn't be a surprise given the participation of director Jeffrey Schwartz, a master at this kind of bio-doc (Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story and last year's Frameline opening-nighter, Vito). I Am Divine is lovingly assembled and succeeds whether you’re a newbie or diehard devotee, with ultra rare photos, archival clips and interviews with co-stars Tab Hunter, Ricki Lake and every still-breathing Dreamlander. Personal assistants, ex-girlfriends and boyfriends, mother Frances, Joshua Grannell aka Peaches Christ and of course, the ubiquitous-for-a-good-reason Mr. John Waters, all chime in as well. The festival's "hold-review" policy for this film prevents me from saying much more, but be advised that I Am Divine screens one-time only, at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, June 23. Tickets are still available.
It's only a short hop from Divine to Disco, the latter being the subject of Jamie Kastner's Canadian documentary, The Secret Disco Revolution. As an early and enthusiastic adherent in that revolution, I can vouch that the film gets it right – especially how the music began as joyful, 4/4 beat, Philly-based soul (The O-Jays, First Choice) being played in gay and black urban clubs in the early 1970's. Crucial early tracks like Barry White's "Love's Theme" and Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" get spotlighted, along with dance crazes like the Hustle and the Bump. I lost interest in the scene well before the release of "Saturday Night Fever" and Kastner's film recounts that period as well. As it spread to the straight, white mainstream, the music devolved into a thumping, narcissistic parody of itself, which lead to the racist/homophobic backlash of Disco Demolition Night. The Secret Disco Revolution pinpoints disco's death date as August 25, 1979, the day The Knack's "My Sharona" knocked Chic's "Good Times" off Billboard's Hot 100 top spot. Our guides through this slice of a music history are a rather silly Mod-Squad-ish trio of disco revolutionary "masterminds" and several "experts" whose pronouncements on the music's socio-politico import can be pretty eye-rolling ("We can see beneath Disco's carefully vapid veneer to its true aim – the mass liberation of gays, blacks and women from the clutches of a conservative, rock-dominated world.") Still, this doc does its job with lots of fun archival clips and interviews with the likes of Evelyn "Champagne" King, Vicki Sue Robinson, Thelma Houston and Harry Wayne "KC" Casey. Oddly enough, the film opens at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema on June 28, the day before its lone Frameline screening.
Each year Frameline has documentaries which remind us how dire life is for LGBT folk in many parts of the world. And it's getting worse. Just witness recent events in Russia, Nigeria and Georgia – films about which we'll no doubt see at Frameline38. I became aware of Jamaica's rampant homophobia back in 2009, when U.S. concerts by musician Buju Banton, including one in San Francisco, were cancelled due to pressure from LGBT activists. Micah Fink's tremendously affecting The Abominable Crime – the title derives from the island's colonial anti-gay law labeling homosexuality as "the abominable crime of buggery" – takes a personal look at the situation there via its two main subjects. Maurice Tomlinson is a gay Jamaican LGBT activist who is married to a Canadian minister, and Simone Edwards is a single mother who was shot several times and left for dead, just for being a lesbian. Following continued threats on her life and the denial of a U.S. visa, Edwards boarded a plane for Turkey (for which Jamaicans don't need visas) and sought asylum during a stopover in Amsterdam. The film keeps returning to film Edwards as she adapts to her new country and awaits reunification with the young daughter she left behind. Meanwhile, a persistently fearless Tomlinson, much to the consternation of his husband, continues the fight to repeal the island's anti-buggery law with the assistance of the British Lord who helped overturn anti-gay laws in Northern Ireland. The end credits reveal that anti-LGBT attacks in Jamaica have risen 400 percent since 2009. Another related doc worth checking out is Chris Belloni's I Am Gay and Muslim, in which a half dozen gay Moroccan men open up about living clandestine sexual lives and how they reconcile that sexuality with their religion. Director Belloni asks provocative, but respectful questions and receives some surprising answers from his uniformly educated, English-speaking subjects.
Moving on to Frameline37's narrative features, my favorite of those previewed would be Yen Tan's Pit Stop, a low-key yet emotionally complex drama about two gay men approaching middle age. Gabe (Bill Heck) is a building contractor who is still actively involved in the lives of his young daughter and ex-wife. Latino warehouseman Ernie (Marcus DeAnda) has just sent
his younger live-in boyfriend packing. These two wounded, and not to mention, ruggedly attractive men, move through life coping as best they can, and it's lovely when the film allows their paths to ultimately cross. Director Tan makes good on the promise exhibited in his second feature Ciao (Frameline32), with perfectly paced scenes, thoughtful camera placement and realistic dialogue (he co-wrote the screenplay). An added bonus is the refreshing blue collar Texas milieu in which the film takes place. The only other U.S. narrative I previewed was C.O.G., which represents the first time writer David Sedaris has permitted a film adaptation of his work. Glee's Jonathan Groff stars as the Sedaris stand-in, a priggish Yale grad who comes to rural Oregon seeking life experience and then tumbles into a series of gnarly misadventures. Despite assured direction from Kyle Patrick Alvarez and several engaging supporting performances, the film comes off curiously flat, suggesting that perhaps Sedaris' brand of humor works best on the written page.
Each year it's interesting to look through Frameline's World Cinema section and see where the majority of new LGBT films are coming from. Last year's edition featured an extraordinary number of works from the Muslim world and its diaspora, and two years before that we experienced a large presence from Latin America. After several years of underrepresentation, it appears that Asia is back in the game and colleague Tony An has done an excellent job of profiling Frameline37's Queer Asian Cinema selections. The only one I've personally seen is Jun Robles Lana's Bwakaw, a somewhat broad but nonetheless endearing film which was last year's foreign language Oscar® submission from the Philippines. Veteran superstar Eddie Garcia, who has a whopping 556 acting credits in his imdb profile, gives a memorable performance as a terminally cranky, gay retiree who softens when his pet dog Bwakaw develops a terminal illness.
French language films are normally a significant part of Frameline's line-up, but not this year. I can only guess at why French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan's (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats) acclaimed transsexual epic Laurence Anyways failed to make the cut, as well as Les Invisibles, the Cesar-winning documentary on French LGBT senior citizens from Sébastien Lifshitz (Come Undone, Going South, Frameline34). What we're left with is Belgian entry Beyond the Walls, a reasonably fun and sexy intergenerational/cross-cultural romance which becomes histrionic and ludicrous once the older partner goes to prison for drug smuggling. Moments of misconceived clunkiness also weigh down two otherwise fine European entries – Free Fall, a taut, well-acted drama about a pair of mutually attracted German police cadets, one of whom is married with a baby on the way, and In the Name Of, Frameline37's Centerpiece Film about a conflicted Polish priest who runs a facility for at-risk youth, which won the prestigious Teddy Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. And finally there's It's All So Quiet, an enigmatic, but lumbering Dutch film about a joyless, middle-aged farmer which boasts a riveting performance from stage actor Jeroen Willems, who died shortly after filming and to whom the movie is dedicated.
Elsewhere in the Frameline37 line-up are films I'm hoping to catch during the festival proper. I'm a sucker for biographical documentaries and don't want to miss profiles of writers Gore Vidal (Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia) and Paul Bowles (Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open), as well as Bay Area poet/filmmaker James Broughton (Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton). Other docs high on my list are Continental, about the NYC
bathhouse that launched Bette Midler's career; The New Black, which examines shifting attitudes of African Americans toward LGBT rights, and Born This Way, a look at the fight for LGBT acceptance in Cameroon, which will hopefully be as good as last year's audience award-winning, Uganda-focused Call Me Kuchu. Brazilian director Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Four Days in September) appears on the Frameline37 roster with Reaching for the Moon, dramatizing the 1950's romance between American poet Elizabeth Bishop and eminent Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. If I can summon sufficient stamina, I'd also love to experience Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass presentation of Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge, said to be the gayest of the Nightmare flicks, with a Peaches pre-show, costume contest and personal appearance by the film's star, self-professed male Scream Queen Mark Patton. Last but not least, I won't be missing Interior. Leather Bar, experimental filmmaker Travis Mathews and actor James Franco's meta-polemic re-imagining of the "missing" sex scenes from William Friedkin's 1980 film Cruising.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.