Posts filed under ‘film festivals’

Save It For Later: 2021 SFFILM Festival

Sing Me A Lullaby, 2020

Before COVID-19 upended our lives I was a big-screen film snob. Living in San Francisco, with its year-round calendar of world-class film festivals as well as rep theaters such as the Pacific Film Archive, the Roxie, and the Castro, it was easy to consume a steady diet of a huge range of cinematic treats solely in movie theaters. All of that changed with the pandemic, and as we enter the second year of the age of coronavirus pretty much all film festivals have shifted online. The SFFILM Festival’s 2021 edition was no exception, and as usual it presented a broad spectrum of international programming. Though my time was very impacted I was able to catch several outstanding movies.

Quixotic, A Leave, 2021

I really enjoyed South Korean director Lee Ran-hee’s impressive debut feature, A Leave, which is a small slice of life about an out-of-work laborer who’s been suing his former employer for the past five years. While manning a protest station in Seoul with a few other diligent souls his daughters who are living apart from him in a Seoul exoburb have entered their teen years and grown up without him. When he returns home for a brief week he cleans the house, fixes the sink, does itinerant labor at a small furniture-making shop and gradually re-enters his family’s life. But his duty as a protestor calls him back to Seoul despite his older daughter’s pleas for him to abandon his quixotic cause. Gritty and realistic, this humanistic portrait shows the crushing weight of workers who live hand to mouth in a neoliberal economy. 

Delicate, Radiograph of A Family, 2021

Also outstanding was Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani’s personal documentary, Radiograph of A Family. Tracing her parents’ relationship starting in the 1960s from their meeting in Switzerland, when her father, who was educated in the West, met her mother, who was younger than her husband, more conservative and more religious. The film follows their lives together in both Europe and Iran, where her mother became a  teacher and an activist during the Islamic revolution. Using archival footage and photographs, home movies, and fictional and non-fictional dialog Khosrovani creates a delicate, fascinating portrait of a family caught up in great historical events. 

Observational, Cuban Dancer, 2020

Roberto Salinas’ unobtrusive observational documentary Cuban Dancer follows aspiring ballet dancer Alexis Valdes from age 15 from his home in Cuba to the US where he trains in Florida at a private dance academy. The film includes some failures and some successes as Alexis adjusts to his life in a very different environment from the nurturing world he left behind in Cuba, as he gradually learns English and makes friends in the US. This is the third documentary I’ve seen about Cuban performing artists  this year, the other two being the outstanding Los Hermanos/The Brothers and the somewhat more pedestrian but still enjoyable Soy Cubana. Cuban Dancer falls somewhere in between the two of them, as it lacks the cultural and political context of Los Hermanos but has a sturdier and more compelling narrative than Soy Cubana. Postscript: Alexis Valdes went on to attend the San Francisco Ballet School and is now an apprentice dancer in the company. 

Culture, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, 2021

The festival also included several mid-length films with running times between 30-50 minutes. Created as promotional material for his album of the same name, hip hop artist Topaz Jones’ essay film Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is structured around replicating the Black ABCs, the iconic flashcards created in the 1970s by a pair of Black educators in Chicago in an attempt to center African American culture. Jones’ film similarly focuses on the Black experience, blending archival footage, staged vignettes, and interviews with Black intellectuals.  Tiffany Hsiung’s mid-length documentary, Sing Me A Lullaby, follows her mother Ru Wen’s journey back to Taiwan to find her own mother who she hasn’t seen since she was five years old. This emotional doc captures the sense of loss and longing among exiles as it traces Ru Wen’s poignant story. 

Engaging, Skies of Lebanon, 2020

The last film I managed to see was Chloé Mazlo’s narrative feature, Skies of Lebanon. Charming and inventive, the film follows the lives of Joseph, a Lebanese rocket scientist and  Alice, a Swiss expat who moves to Lebanon in the 1950s to escape her oppressive family life. Joseph and Alice fall in love and marry, raising their daughter in 1960s Lebanon among a large and affectionate family.  Beginning in 1975, the long destruction of the Lebanese Civil War takes its toll and gradually most of Alice and Joseph’s extended family flees Beirut, including her beloved daughter Mona. Like Radiograph of A Family, this film looks at the effect of history’s upheavals on everyday individuals. Director Mazlo is a French Lebanese  animator and artist and Skies of Lebanon, her first feature film, uses claymation, subtle CGI, theatrical devices, magic realism, and surrealism, as well as some really beautiful, economical storytelling, to spin its engaging tale. 

Though I appreciate the ease of viewing that comes with streaming films at home on my laptop it’s still no substitute for watching movies in a theater with a crowd of like-minded cineastes. Still, until it’s safe for us all to go back to the cinema, I appreciate SFFILM’s thoughtful and varied programming. It’s a balm in a year of deprivation.

May 11, 2021 at 6:37 am Leave a comment

Talent Is An Asset: 2021 SXSW Online, part one: Film Festival

Wit, The Sparks Brothers, 2021, photo: Sparks

When the COVID-19 tsunami hit the U.S. back in March 2020 Austin’s SXSW film and music festival was one of its first casualties. The entire event was dependent on live performances and screenings and with the country going into lockdown there was no chance it could happen that year, so the whole shebang was cancelled outright. But subsequent film festivals began pivoting to fully online and this year SXSW was an entirely online event, including films, music, conference panels, and networking. Luckily for me, this format also gave me the chance to attend my first SXSW and I ingested a huge amount of content from the comfort of my own home. Because of the sheer volume of performances that I consumed Imma split my review into the film side and the music side, starting with the cinematic treats I watched. 

Brilliance, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, 2021

The festival included two documentaries about influential and innovative pop stars that have flown somewhat under the mainstream radar. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche looked at the life of the leader and vocalist of the legendary UK punk band X-Ray Spex. As a baby punk back in the 80s one of the best things about early punk and new wave was the presence of women of color such as Pearl E. Gates, Pauline Black from Selecter, and Poly Styrene. Poly was not only a punk icon but also a woman of color icon and it was great for me to have a Black woman role model who could belt it out with the best of them. The film traces Poly’s meteoric brilliance as the leader of X-Ray Spex at age 19, as well as her struggles with mental illness and her involvement with the Hare Krishna sect later in life. Told from the POV of her daughter Celeste Bell, who is credited as the film’s co-writer and co-director, the film interweaves her narration with a plethora of archival footage and photos. As a mixed-heritage child (or half-caste, the term that was in common usage at the time) raised by a single mother in 1960s Britain, Poly (nee Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) faced a fair amount of casual racism and ostracization. The film shows the range of Poly’s artistic endeavors outside of her singing career, including several passages from her journals (read by Ruth Negga), as well as her unique and idiosyncratic fashion sense which she developed in her teens and which she highlighted in her years as the face of X-Ray Spex. Celeste Bell’s somewhat mournful narration adds a gravitas to the film as she searches for the truth of her mother’s life and legacy. But throughout it all the story is driven by the power of Poly’s clarion voice and poetic vision. 

Off-kilter, The Sparks Brothers, 2021

The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Baby Driver) explores the iconic cult band Sparks, utilizing a ton of archival footage, interviews with the band’s many admirers including Bjork, Giorgio Morodor, Todd Rundgren, and many more, accompanied by Sparks’ excellent and eclectic pop music. Emulating the cheeky and off-kilter attitude of its subjects, the film follows Russell and Ron Mael, the two brothers who founded Sparks, from their childhood in Southern California through their long and winding musical career. The film captures the brothers’ sardonic style as seemingly British invasion cult darlings (belied by their SoCal roots) with their first hit in the UK, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, through their survival in the fickle world of rock music in the more than four decades since. I’ve always been a fan of Sparks and their unique and twisted pop stylings, led by Russell Mael’s dramatic and operatic high tenor and Ron Mael’s sophisticated keyboards and songwriting, so this movie was a fascinating look at their career trajectory. Always ahead of the pop music curve, the film demonstrates the Mael brothers’ influence on disco, new wave, EDM, synth pop and much more. It also shows how their highly visual and cinematic presentation, with the more traditionally rock styled Russell contrasting with Ron’s odd Hitler/Chaplin persona, made them a perfect fit for the MTV era, when they scored their new wave hits The Number One Song In Heaven and Beat The Clock. Throughout the film their wit and intelligence shine through.

Relentless, The United States vs. Reality Winner, 2021

Two other docs in the festival looked at politics and current events. The United States vs. Reality Winner is a procedural agitprop doc ala CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning film about Edward Snowden, another famous whistleblower. Snowden even makes an appearance in this film, as do several other commentators who contextualize Winner’s case. The film follows Winner’s mom as she tries to get a fair trial for her daughter who has had the book thrown at her for exposing Russia’s influence on the 2016 US presidential elections. As with CitizenFour and other films of its ilk, The United States vs. Reality Winner has a definite opinion and relentlessly pursues it.

Ambiguity, In The Same Breath, 2021

In contrast, Nanfu Wang’s documentary In The Same Breath, which looks at the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and in the US, is all about doubt and questioning and its lack of clear answers reflects the confusing times we’re still enmeshed in.Included in the film is some stunning security camera footage of the very earliest days of the pandemic in Wuhan that shows how quickly the virus spread and how unprepared health officials were in their initial response. The film beautifully expresses the ambiguity and uncertainty of the COVID-19 era while sounding a warning about the inherent untrustworthiness of governments both in China and the US.

Filipino AF, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, 2021

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Dante Basco’s directorial debut, is in some ways a spiritual successor to the iconic 2001 Asian American film The Debut. That movie, which starred Dante and also included appearances by his three brothers Dion, Derek, and Darion and sister Arianna, is much beloved in the Filipino American community for its lighthearted look at FilAm culture, traditions, and identity. The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is is similarly Filipino AF and it was interesting to watch more than 20 years after The Debut made its premiere. It’s set in Pittsburg, CA and loosely revolves around an upcoming wedding in a big-ass Filipino family. Many Bascos were involved in the making of this film, including the four Basco brothers in lead roles, with narration by Arianna. The film is a bit rough around the edges and never transcends its sitcom aesthetic, but all four brothers are talented performers and each does well in their respective vignettes. Their agile comic timing and ability to hold the screen makes me wonder why their careers didn’t take off after the success of The Debut, but as usual the answer is probably racism. A humorous side note: one of the characters is in a depressive funk which he deals with by composing atonal electronic music that sounds a bit like some of the stuff I heard at the SXSW music festival.

Empathy, Águilas, 2021

I also caught a couple excellent short films of the many that were included in the festival. Águilas, by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre, follows a group of volunteers who scour the Sonoran desert near the Arizona border looking for the remains of those who have died attempting to migrate on foot to the US. A short, intense look at those who carry out this grim duty, the film is suffused with empathy for the people who have lost their lives traveling from their home countries as well as those who search for their last remains.

Snapshot, Red Taxi, 2021

Red Taxi, by an anonymous director, utilizes interviews with cab drivers on both sides of the Hong Kong-Shenzen border that were shot during the massive 2019 Hong Kong protests. The short documentary provides an interesting contrast between the pragmatic hopefulness of the Hong Kong cabbies and their PRC counterparts, who for the most part don’t have much sympathy for people of Hong Kong who were speaking out against the government at the time. It’s an interesting snapshot of the times and shows the divide in opinion on either side of the border without judging or taking sides. It’s also telling that the director has chosen to be anonymous, reflecting fears of the oppressive new National Security Law in Hong Kong that effectively punishes residents for speaking out in any way against the Beijing regime.

Next up: Part two, in which I attempt to encapsulate the huge number of international performers I saw on the music side of this year’s SXSW.

April 12, 2021 at 6:25 am Leave a comment

If This Was A Movie: October Film Festival roundup

On trend, CAAMfest Forward Drive-In night

After all hell broke loose in the U.S. back in March one of the first film festival casualties of the COVID-19 crisis was South By Southwest (aka SXSW). Scheduled to open on March 16, it was impossible for the festival to pivot to online immediately and so the entire event was jettisoned. Other film festivals that had been scheduled in the chaotic couple months following were postponed or canceled outright, but those that were slotted a bit later in the year gradually began to pivot and now, as the pandemic enters its seventh month here in the U.S., most festivals are fully online. In addition, some of the previously postponed festivals are also launching programming, leading to an embarrassment of moviegoing riches. This month alone includes CAAMfest Forward, which just started on Oct. 14 and runs until Oct.18, the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is currently running until Oct. 18, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival, which runs Oct. 23-25.

Charming, Definition Please, 2020

CAAMfest Forward’s centerpiece presentation, Definition Please, directed by and starring Sujata Day (The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl; Insecure) is a charming and pleasant effort, with the film’s main strength being Sujata’s ability to keep the tone of the film light and consistent. The narrative swerves a bit, though, touching on mental illness, sibling relationships, and familial obligations, but it’s anchored by Sujata’s pitch-perfect, likeable performance. It’s also nice to see a film set outside of a major urban area that nonetheless has a majority Asian cast, which speaks to to the the changing demographics of the Asian American community.

Emotionality, Coming Home Again, 2020

Veteran director Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing; The Joy Luck Club) has recently gone from directing Hollywood blockbusters to more intimate, personal film projects and with his most recent film, Coming Home Again, he’s hit his stride. Based on a New Yorker essay by Korean American writer Chang Rae-Lee, the film follows a Korean American man who returns to his childhood home to care for his cancer-stricken mother. With gorgeous cinematography by Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) and a nicely calibrated performance by Justin Chon, the film has an understated emotionality that avoids veering into melodrama.

Streetwise, Takeout Girl, 2020

Takeout Girl (dir. Hisonni Johnson) is a bit like Starsky and Hutch episode updated to the 21st century but it’s engaging nonetheless. At first Hedy Wong, who also co-wrote the film, seems too pretty and has way too much eye makeup for the part she’s playing but as Tara, the titular takeout girl, she never wavers from her wary, streetwise persona. Ultimately the film is fun to watch in a cheesy, genre way, full of drug labs, junkies, and shiny, silver-plated pistolas. Although the motivation for the film’s climax is completely contrived, it allows the movie to end in a blaze of angsty glory.

Fun and kicky, Chosen Fam, 2020

CAAMfest Forward also includes the first several episodes of Natalie Tsui’s web series Chosen Fam, a fun and kicky look at a group of QTPOC hipsters in San Francisco. The show features engaging performances from its multi-culti cast and a smexy attitude that’s echoed by its bright, color-saturated art direction.

Sharky, Bulge Bracket, 2020

Bulge Bracket (dir. Christopher Au), another episodic drama in the festival, is full of finance-bro characters that slip into cliché, but Jessika Van as the new gal navigating the sharky waters of a high-powered investment bank and Feodor Chin as the company boss both turn in solid performances. It’s hard to care a lot about the motivations of the Wall Street characters, though, as they pretty much are greedy bastards who primarily live to make a lot of money.

Ruby, 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, 2020

CAAMfest Forward is also on trend as it includes two drive-in movie nights. The first, an Oct. 14 opening night program, included Lea Salonga In Concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a performance film starring the Filipino American Broadway diva, and 7,000 Miles: Homecoming, a documentary following Bay Area rapper Ruby Ibarra’s trip back to the Philippines for a short concert tour. The resurrection of the drive-in movie is one of the most pleasant unintended consequences of the COVID shelter-in-place era and this program, at the Fort Mason Flix Center, was a lot of fun. Fort Mason’s venue has been running for a few months now and the operation is smooth and easy to access, with clean indoor bathrooms, a small concessions stand (with popcorn!) and food trucks. And when my battery died from running the car radio during the double bill, Fort Mason staff immediately popped the hood on my vehicle and gave me a jump. The second drive-in movie night, on Oct. 15, will include screenings of two Hong Kong films directed by women, My Prince Edward (dir. Norris Wong Yee-Lam, 2019) and Ann Hui’s drama A Simple Life (2011), which cleaned up at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards when it was first released.

The Mill Valley Film Festival also has several drive-in movies on its schedule, next to the lagoon at the Marin Civic Center. The film that I saw, the Robert DeNiro/Tommy Lee Jones comedy, The Comeback Trail (2020, dir. George Gallo), was really dreadful, but the viewing experience itself was pleasant. MVFF had many helpful volunteers directing traffic (thought there was a bit of a traffic jam exiting after the screening) and their spotless portapotties are sanitized after every use. The next film I’m scheduled to see, the biodoc The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, will almost certainly be better than the DeNiro film.

Skillful, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, 2020

Also of note from MVFF is Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s lovely documentary, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, which looks at Afro-Cubano sibling musicians Ilmar and Aldo López-Gavilán. Virtuoso violinist Ilmar immigrated from Cuba to the U.S. decades before, while his younger brother Aldo a gifted pianist, remained in Cuba. The film follows the brothers as they attempt to record an album together despite political and geographic challenges. Los Hermanos effortlessly weaves together its images with its gorgeous score (composed by Aldo), using the soundtrack to drive and elevate the narrative. One of my favorite bits in the film mirrors Aldo and Ilmar’s struggles to find each other at their respective airports in Cuba and New York City, a small and humorous element that exemplifies Jarmel and Schneider’s skillful portrayal of the brothers’ relationship with each other. The movie also turns an affectionate lens on Cuba, depicting the island nation awash in vibrant pastel light.

Legendary, Road to Ladakh, 2003

Also upcoming on the Bay Area film cinemagoing docket is the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival. Free and fully online this year, the festival includes a tribute to the legendary actor Irffan Khan (The Lunchbox; Life of Pi) who recently passed away from cancer.

October 15, 2020 at 7:48 am 1 comment

Cold Dark World: Noir City 18 at the Castro Theater

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Passion and despair, Salon Mexico, 1949

Noir City, one of my favorite local film festivals, had its eighteenth iteration last month and this time around the programming focused on international noir films, with films from ten countries giving a sampling of crimes of passion and despair from around the world.

This year’s festival was festive as usual, with big crowds for most of the shows I went to,  including the usual noir denizens in their wingtips and peplum jackets—the venerable Castro Theater is the perfect venue for the midcentury-centric event. The international scope of the festival also meant that the live performances in between films included tango dancers and Mexican cantantes. Another highlight was the appearance of poster woman and Ms. Noir City 2020 Victoria Mature, a noted chanteuse who is also the daughter of actor Victor Mature. Closing night featured Victoria performing a song with custom lyrics dedicated to Noir City founder and host-with-the-most Eddie Mueller. Eddie contributed his trademark pleasant and affable enthusiasm and encyclopedic noir knowledge in his introductions to the films and his love for the genre was infectious.

The festival opened with a brand-new 35mm restoration (supported by Noir City’s parent organization, the Film Noir Foundation) of the Argentine film The Beast Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir, 1952), directed by Román Viñoly Barreto, a moody, gritty, and surreal journey about a man seeking revenge for the killer of his young son. The film is full of beautiful visuals that looked great in the restoration, including a motif of crashing waves that ultimately pays off in the final shot.

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Charismatic, Jean-Claude Belmondo,  Finger Man (Le Doulos), 1962

Saturday evening’s double-bill included Jean-Pierre Melville’s Finger Man (Le Doulos, 1962), a spare and existential crime joint, with an understated and charismatic turn by Jean-Claude Belmondo. A bit plotty, the film nonetheless captures Melville’s trademark world-weary ennui.

In contrast, the second half of the program, Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win (Melodie En Sous-Sol, 1963), is a fun and jazzy heist film starring Alain Delon as a tempermental manchild and Jean Gabin as his mentor in crime. The film kicks off with a snazzy credit sequence, and the finger-poppin’ Mancini-esque score together with Delon and Gabin’s charismatic turns makes for an engaging and enjoyable experience, concluding with some excellent tension in the climactic final scene.

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Feral, The Housemaid (Hanyo), 1960

Kim Ki-young’s classic South Korean film The Housemaid (Hanyo, 1960) is an expressionistic angsty ride featuring a feral housemaid wreaking havoc on a middle-class family. The film first reveals the titular character smoking forbidden cigarettes in a closet and things go downhill from there as she then beats a rat half to death with a kitchen utensil and makes creative use of a bottle of poison. The housemaid’s wilding is exemplified by the way she licks her lips whenever she sees the hot but powerless object of her desire, the family’s hapless father/husband who is unable to stop the destruction of his household. One of my favorite shots in the film occurs when the camera focuses on the husband as he writhes in deathly ecstasy on an upright piano while the housemaid clings to his thigh, an image that effectively encompasses the twisted symbiosis of their relationship.

Lee Man-Hee’s Black Hair (Geomeun Meori, 1964) is a more standard underworld film with a lot of moody lighting and camerawork and an outstanding performance by Moon Jeong-suk as a fallen woman trying to find dignity in her reduced lot in life. The film wanders a bit through a tortured love triangle but is held together by Moon’s sympathetic performance.

Zbynêk Brynych’s . . . And The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (… A Paty Jezdec Je Strach, 1965), Czechoslovakia’s contribution to the festival, is absurdist and slightly surreal, a cool, intellectual look at the Nazi occupation of Prague as a metaphor for the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia.

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Atmospheric, Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu), 1958

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana, 1964) and Toshio Masuda’s The Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu, 1958) from Japan comprised one of the strongest double bills in the festival. Pale Flower contains several Japanese crime film motifs including flower card games, yakuza in snazzy sport coats, a mysterious woman, and a fateful attraction. The Rusty Knife follows a former gangster as he struggles to escape the dark past that keeps creeping up on him. Moody and atmospheric, the film includes an angsty turn by the legendary Ishihara Yūjirō, as well a cocky performance by Kobayashi Akira as as his idiotic sidekick. The tale of a man whose hapless friend ultimately drags him down is classic noir.

From Mexico, Roberto Gavaldón Night Falls (La Noche Avanza, 1952) features one of the most reprehensible characters to grace the silver screen and his utter lack of redeeming qualities had me dying to see his comeuppance. SPOILER: he gets it, followed by a most satisfying coda.

Emilio Fernández’ Salon Mexico (1949) follows a Mildred Pierce-esque plot as Mercedes, a cabaratera (prostitute/bar girl) sacrifices her integrity to support her virginal sister. The film includes a great performance by Miguel Inclan as Mercedes’ devoted hangdog cop boyfriend who attempts to protect her from her sleazy loser pimp.

Ashes-and-Diamonds

Zbigniew Cybulski, Ashes and Diamonds (Popiel I Diamant), 1958

Andrzej Wajda’s classic Polish noir Ashes and Diamonds (Popiel I Diamant, 1958) follows an underground resistance fighter (Zbigniew Cybulski, aka the Polish James Dean) during one eventful day as he goes from a botched assassination to falling in love to meeting his fate at the end of the day. The film’s beautiful sound design and cinematography was heavenly to see on the big screen at the Castro and was a fitting end to Noir City 18. It was a pleasure to eat too much delicious Castro Theater popcorn and consume ten days worth of glorious noir from around the world, and I left the theater satiated and happy.

 

February 20, 2020 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Ride The Lightening: 2019 San Francisco Documentary Festival

Cassandro the Exotico!, 2019

Round two of my film festival travels from the past few months. Although it’s been running annually since 2001, for some reason I’ve never attended San Francisco Documentary Festival before, due in part to the general glut of film festivals of all stripes in San Francisco. DocFest, as it’s more popularly known, is one of several organized by the San Francisco IndieFest throughout the year—in addition to this and the original IndieFest the others being the horror-focused fest Another Hole In The Head and the SF Indie Shorts Festival.

Anti-slick, Cassandro the Exotico! 2019

Opening night film Cassandro the Exotico! (dir. Marie Losier) focused on the life and career of the openly gay lucha libre wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, better known by his ring name Cassandro, who was born and raised in El Paso. The film follows Cassandro as he considers winding down his career following nearly 40 years and many injuries after his start in the ring at age 15. The film frankly discusses Cassandro’s struggle with addiction, pain, and facing homophobia and he is a fascinating and engaging main character. Losier shot the film on 16mm and the movie’s rough, anti-slick aesthetic perfectly meshes with Cassandro’s gritty backstory. At times there is a visible hair in the gate, which at first is a distraction but then becomes part of the film’s mis en scene. After seeing way too many formulaic PBS-style docs at some of the film festivals I’ve been screening at it’s nice to see something with a looser, more original look and feel.

Moving, 17 Blocks, 2019

17 blocks (dir. Davy Rothbart) is verité-style doc following the Sanford-Durants, an African American family who live just seventeen blocks from the US Senate building in Washington DC. Rothbart beautifully structures more than 20 years of footage, shot in large part by the family itself, into a moving portrait of survival and strength. Although the film is powerful and effective and advocates for stronger gun control laws, it only lightly touches on some of the broader structural causes for the Sanford-Durant family’s problems including toxic masculinity, racism, and white supremacy. Despite the reference to the US Senate in the film’s title the film is oddly apolitical and the family’s problems exist in a bit of a vacuum. I would like to have seen a bit more context for the problems the family faces.

Meta, Framing DeLorean, 2019

Framing DeLorean (dirs. Don Argott and Sheena Joyce) is a slick and clever re-presentation of the case of automobile impresario John Delorean, with documentary interview footage interspersed with reenactments of key moments in Delorean’s career as played by Alec Baldwin and other actors. It’s sort of high-concept meta but it works, and the film has just the right amount of irreverence to propel the story.

Anarchic, Murder In The Front Row, 2019

Murder in the Front Row: The Bay Area Thrash Metal Story (dir. Adam Dubin) a bit rough around the edges but it’s full of the DIY energy of the 1980s East Bay thrash scene that spawned metal legends such as Metallica, Megadeth, Death Angel, Slayer, and Exodus, among others. The film’s structure wanders a bit and to the casual observer less familiar to the various personalities the interviewees may hard to keep track of as they move rapidly from band to band. The film also glosses over some of the darker elements of the story such as Dave Mustaine’s substance abuse problems as one of the factors for his dismissal from Metallica and the random property destruction recalled by many of the interviewees (which I understand is because rock and roll, but come on). The film never escapes being fannish and unlike the best music docs doesn’t go into some of the more sociological reasons for the popularity of the genre. But as a former Bay Area punk it was fun for me to watch since the thrash scene at the time ran in parallel circles to the hardcore scene that I inhabited, and the film captures a lot of the anarchic energy of the time.

Kicky, I Want My MTV, 2019

In contrast to the nihilistic feel of Murder In the Front Row, I Want My MTV (dirs. Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop) is a slick, fast-paced, fun and kicky doc that hits all the high points of the history of the groundbreaking cable channel, including hair metal, Michael Jackson, Madonna, race, misogyny, and even a touch of whiteness. The film explores a time when rock was still king, now more than 35 years ago, connecting the Monkees, Top of the Pops, and A Hard Day’s Night, although it doesn’t touch on earlier other antecedents like Hollywood musicals. Very professionally executed, the film moves from MTV’s humble and somewhat chaotic beginnings to its utter dominance in the late 80s, demonstrating how music videos at the time affected the commercial pop music industry, and concludes with youtube effectively ending MTV’s symbiotic relationship with the music videos it engendered. The film is pretty focused on black and white America, with only a tiny glimpse of Psy at the very end, and lacks contextualization, relying on personal anecdotes to tell its story. Not that the movie has to be a scholarly treatise but there’s been a ton of critical and cultural analysis has been done on MTV and its effects that the movie doesn’t really address. But it’s a fun ride nonetheless and the movie is loaded with crowd-pleasing archival clips.

Glorious, Motherload, 2019

Motherload, Liz Canning’s affectionate tribute to the world of cargo bikes, delves into the appeal of bicycle-based transportation and how it could change the world. Canning effectively weaves her personal experiences of discovering the glories of bike transport into a broader story of the growth of bicycles as a means of combatting climate change and other environmental crises and while a tad utopic, the film should be very popular with the biking crowd.

July 1, 2019 at 7:40 am Leave a comment

Long Dark Road: 2019 Noir City film festival

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Party Time, Pickup On South Street, 1953

The 2019 edition of the Noir City film festival just finished another excellent run and there was a party atmosphere for the 10-day festival as the Castro Theater hosted full houses for almost every show. As usual Noir City had value-added features including live music in between some shows, screenings of rare clips and trailers, and informative and edifying introductions by Noir City founder Eddie Muller and other knowledgable film noir geeks/authors. The movies I attended were uniformly good, but a few stood out due to the significant combination of a great cast, a strong script, and excellent direction.

Some of the festival’s offerings fell a bit short on one of the three key elements above, making for less than satisfying results. For instance, legendary director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca; Mildred Pierce) helmed The Scarlet Hour (1956) with a sure hand, and the script is classic noir, about a femme fatale and her hapless sap of a boytoy who are involved in a jewel heist. But rookie actresss Carol Omhart isn’t quite up to scratch in the lead role and despite its other strong elements the film falters on her uneven performance. Conversely, The File On Thelma Jordan (1950) includes an excellent performance from Barbara Stanwyck and moody and evocative direction by Robert Siodmak but the script’s improbable plot twists diminish the film’s overall impact.

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Struggling, Nightfall, 1957

Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957) is a much more successful endeavor. Although not possessing the mournful beauty of his classic noir Out of the Past, Nightfall still showed Tourneur’s strong directorial touch. The film’s two thugs, played by Brian Keith and Rudy Bond, feel truly menacing and Aldo Ray as the protagonist on the run conveys a strong sense of a man struggling to keep his bearings in the shifting sands of noir-world danger. A very young Anne Bancroft is Ray’s love interest and her performance displays a strength and gravity beyond her years. The film has just the right touch of fatalistic peril and dread to keep the viewer engaged.

Pickup-on-South-Street-1953

Complex, Pickup On South Street, 1953

One of my favorite films of all time, Pickup On South Street (1953), was part of a trio of movies directed by Sam Fuller in this year’s festival, and it fully demonstrates a film firing on all cylinders, with acting, script, and directing all top-notch. Fuller’s kinetic directorial style and his intense, fast-paced script brilliantly complement Richard Widmark and Jean Peters’ performances as streetwise characters who are constantly maneuvering to survive. Thelma Ritter contributes a stellar performance as an aging stool pigeon, delivering a complex and emotional turn that forms the moral center of the movie.

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Sultry, The Crimson Kimono, 1957

The festival also screened Fuller’s 1957 film The Crimson Kimono, which is notable for including a Japanese American character, Joe Kojaku (played with sultry subtlety by the doe-eyed James Shigeta), in a romantic lead. The film also includes a sympathetic and mostly Orientalist-free representation of the Los Angeles JA community with Nisei characters who speak in unaccented English and who are human beings instead of exotic caricatures. The film falls a bit short, however, in its analysis of race relations as it suggests that Joe’s experiences with racist microaggressions are a figment of his imagination. SPOILER: He does get the girl, however, which for mid-1950s America was pretty revolutionary.

 

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Tense, Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959

 

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a tense crime thriller produced by and starring Harry Belafonte, also possesses the magic combination of script, cast, and direction. The film shows a darker side to Belafonte’s usual upbeat persona as he plays Johnny, a nightclub singer facing dire straits due to his gambling addiction. After loan shark enforcers threaten his family with harm Johnny teams up with a couple of other shady characters including Earl, a racist from Oklahoma played by Robert Ryan, and David (Ed Begley), a fallen-from-grace cop. They three attempt to pull off a risky bank heist but the meat of the story is the strong character development of both Johnny and Earl. Director Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sand Pebbles) delves into both characters’ personal lives to give weight and heft to what’s at stake for the two. As a result the film’s climax and conclusion are exceptionally tense and gripping. Also, unlike The Crimson Kimono, racism doesn’t get a pass in this film SPOILER and in fact Earl’s flagrant bigotry is a key culprit in the failure of the heist.  END SPOILER Bonus points for supporting roles from Shelly Winters as Earl’s long-suffering girlfriend and Gloria Grahame as the sexy neighbor upstairs, as well as for the excellent score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The festival concluded with a pair of hard-boiled films from 1961. Sam Fuller’s third installation in this year’s festival, Underworld USA, is a bleak little number full of vengeance, double-crosses, and grudges. Cliff Robertson snarls his way through the film as a safecracker out to get the thugs who killed his dad some twenty years prior. With almost no redeeming characters the film is an existential ode to the shady side of life, where the only motivations are revenge and survival.

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Twisted, Blast of Silence, 1961

The festival closed with the excellent and underappreciated Blast of Silence, a low-budget gem directed with a stylish and jaded eye by Allen Baron. Baron also stars as Frankie Bono, a creepy hitman who presages Travis Bickle in his angst-ridden interior monolog and his twisted, affectless approach to killing. The film follows Frankie as he plots his next hit and depicts his sad and stilted attempts to make meaningful human contact beyond his gruesome professional responsibilities. Bleak, hard-boiled, and grim, and set in the dead of winter between Christmas and New Year’s day, Blast of Silence is like an icy slap of cold air on a winter’s day.

 

February 6, 2019 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

I Would Die 4 U: Black Coal, Thin Ice at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Complicit, Black Coal, Thin Ice, 2014

Complicit, Black Coal, Thin Ice, 2014

Just got back into town and am diving into the thick of things at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, now running through May 7. I’m leaving town again on Sunday so I’m cramming as many screenings into the next five days as I can manage. Luckily there are plenty of great films to see. I’m hoping to make it to the Viggo Mortenson vehicle Jauja, by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso and featuring Viggo in a role that’s tailor-made for him as a Danish military engineer caught up in unrest in 19th-century Patagonia. Viggo he gets to acts in two of his native tongues, Danish and Spanish, and the film is a magical-realist version of the historical events it depicts.

Viggo Mortensen, polyglot, Jauja, 2014

Viggo Mortensen, polyglot, Jauja, 2014

Also on the docket is the 3-D version of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s child-abduction drama Dearest, and City of Gold, the documentary about Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles food critic and mensch Jonathan Gold. If I were in town next week I’d surely go see the South Korean thriller A Hard Day but I’m hopeful that it will make it to a theatrical release stateside sometime soon. SFIFF also plays host to Jenni Olsen’s newest feature-length experimental documentary/essay film The Royal Road, which looks at butch longing and unrequited love against the backdrop of El Camino Real, the historic king’s road that stretches nearly the length of California. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s independent feature Court also screens this week, taking a character-based, neo-realist look at the absurdities of the Mumbai judicial system and its surrounding social and cultural milieu, with results that are about as anti-Bollywood as you can get.

Mumbai legalities, Court, 2015

Mumbai legalities, Court, 2015

One of my favorite films from last year, director Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, has one more screening this week at the festival and it’s definitely a don’t-miss movie. From the very start, with shots of random body parts mixed in among train cars of coal shipping throughout the frozen northern regions of China, the film puts a distinctive spin on the classic noir structure. The film follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a less-than-scrupulous cop, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the mysterious disappearances and murders of various hapless men, all of whom eventually seem to be tied to a classic black-widow character, played by the amazing Taiwanese actress Guey Lun-Mei.

Bleakness, Black Coal, Thin Ice, 2014

Bleakness, Black Coal, Thin Ice, 2014

Looping back and forth in time and place, with bursts of intense and unexpected violence, the movie effortlessly transfers the noir genre to the China’s bleak and wintry industrial north, making great use of the icy landscape and the characters’ corresponding desperation and hopelessness. Both Liao and Guey won acting awards (at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards respectively) for their performances in this film and they embody the moral messiness and ambiguity of the best noir characters. As in all great noirs, everyone is complicit and no one is innocent, and the most innocuous situation, whether in a beauty parlor or at an ice skating rink, can suddenly change into a deadly trap.

So although I’m missing the big galas and parties at the beginning and end of the fest I’m still catching the meat of the event this week. As always the festival is a chance to see some of the best recent global cinema on the big screen.

58th San Francisco International Film Festival

through May 7, 2015

April 28, 2015 at 5:08 pm Leave a comment


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