Posts tagged ‘film festivals’

Love Is The Only Way (愛是唯一): Taiwan Showcase at Frameline 45

Fluidity, Unnamed

Frameline 45 is in full swing and this year’s festival marks a return to limited in-person screenings, along with a full slate of programs available to stream online.

This year’s program includes a segment focusing on films from Taiwan. The first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage, Taiwan is one of the most queer-friendly countries in the region, as evidenced by its large and popular Pride parade every year. 

Futuristic, As We Like It

Frameline 45 includes several features and shorts from the island country, including the gender-bending Shakespeare adaptation As We Like It (揭大歡喜), directed by Hung-i Chen and Muni Wei. Loosely based on As You Like It, The Bard’s iconic cross-dressing play,  the film takes place in a slightly futuristic Ximending, one of Taipei’s artsy hipster neighborhoods, which in the film is a no-internet, gender-free zone.  In a twist on the Shakespearean tradition of excluding women from performing on the stage, the entire cast is female. The players are cute and charming queer folks working on relationship issues and the film’s mood and tone are a sweet celebration of finding true love. 

Poignant, Dear Tenant

On a much more poignant tip is Dear Tenant (親愛的房客), directed by Cheng Yu-chieh (鄭有傑), which is a delicate and sensitive story of a man caring for his dead lover’s son and sick mother. When the mother passes away the legal complications of his unclear status act to prevent him from continuing to care for the son. The film is nicely wrought, with sensitive performances from the leads including Mo Tzu-yi (莫子儀), and  Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳), both of whom acting awards at the 57th Golden Horse Awards last year, as well as Runyin Bai as the 9-year-old You-Yu. Neither overly sentimental nor melodramatic, this dramatic narrative explores the gray areas of the law and biases against gay couples when the custody of a child is involved.

Smoldering, Undercurrent

The short film program Taiwan Shorts, which is streaming for free, includes four films that are very different from each other. Unnamed (未命名) directed by Gao Hong & Chang Chun-Yu looks at the fluidity of queer identity through a naming conceit, with fun performances from the two young leads. Taiwan Pride for the World (世界驕傲在台灣), directed by Larry Tung, documents Taipei’s 2020 Pride Parade which due to the COVID-19 pandemic was possibly the only one to take place in the world that year. At the time Taiwan had a very low incidence of coronavirus and LGBTQ+ organizers there decided to hold a parade in honor of those around the world who couldn’t. Since then Taiwan’s COVID-19 situation has reversed so it’s bittersweet to view this film from a June 2021 perspective.

Hidden (迷藏), directed by Kuo Hsuan-Chi, follows a young teenage boy as he struggles to navigate the waters of his sexuality while trying to avoid predatory online hookups and catfishers. Undercurrent (宵禁), directed by Weng Yu-Tong, is almost dialog-free, creating a moody, smexy atmosphere. The film follows the smoldering cigarettes and smoldering desires of two young men playing cat-and-mouse during martial law in Kaoshiung.

Each of these films gave me the Taiwan feelz, as they emphasize the specific culture, language, geography, and architecture of Taiwan. The films include shots of the distinctive tile-covered buildings, the humidity and fog, the green mountains, the scooter-covered streets, and the neighbors bringing garbage out to the garbage truck in pink plastic bags, which are details that all scream Taiwan. The films are a window into Taiwan’s singular vibe and delineate the many distinctive elements that make up the island nation. 


All films in the Taiwan showcase, which also includes Arvin Chen’s outstanding 2013 romcom Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,  will be streaming through June 27, 2021 on Frameline’s online platform.

June 23, 2021 at 9:24 pm Leave a comment

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

Lose Yourself: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 39

Seder Masochism, 2019

NOTE: this is my 200th post after more than ten years of blogging. At the time I started writing it back in 2008 I only wanted a place to fangirl over Francis Ng, but this blog has become much more than that in the decade plus since I started writing it. Since then I’ve won a major art writing award for the blog and several of the entries here have become full-blown scholarly essays and articles that have been published in academic journals and books. By constantly and consistently writing and posting here I’ve been able to hone my writing skills, develop my voice, and improve my chops in critical analysis. Who knew?

This year’s Jewish Film Festival has come and gone and I was fortunate enough to catch a few choice programs. The festival is one of the most highly attended in San Francisco, which is quite an accomplishment for a town that hosts a major film festival every month. But the Jewish consistently shows quality programs that demonstrate the breadth of what is considered a Jewish film. This is evident right up front with the festival’s trailer, which asks the question, What makes a film Jewish?

Fun, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, 2019

The festival opened with Fiddler : A Miracle of Miracles (dir. Max Lewkowicz), a fun and diverting if somewhat overstuffed film about the iconic Broadway musical. The film crams in a huge amount of information and covers a lot of territory, both figuratively and literally, as it touches on performances of Fiddler in places such as Japan and Thailand, as well as its origins on Broadway in New York City. Some of the elements are less successful than others, such as a very brief appearance by British Indian director Gurinder Chadha, who pops in and pops out in the blink of an eye. The film also spends a fair amount of time focusing on Jerome Robbins and his involvement with the original Broadway production of the musical but seems to quickly skim over the background of other creatives responsible for the play, including Jerry Bock and Joe Stein. Although overly encylopedic and ambitious and loaded with tons of performance footage spanning decades, the film is a nonetheless a charming celebration of a cultural icon that started the festival out on a very festive note indeed.

Obtuse, My Polish Honeymoon, 2019

My Polish Honeymoon (dir. Elise Otzenberger) is a less unsuccessful cinematic outing. Although the premise is interesting—a young Jewish Parisian couple returns to Poland in search of the traces of their families in the wake of the Holocaust—the film’s execution is lacking. The lead character, Anna, is unsympathetic and Judith Chemla fails to bring much warmth or complexity to her character. Arthur Igual, however, is engaging and funny as Anna’s husband Adam. Though it tries for emotional meaning the uneven pacing and somewhat obtuse narrative, with random supporting characters added at the last minute, ultimately makes the film fall flat.

Iconic, Seder Masochism, 2018

Seder Masochism, (dir. Nina Paley) is a kaleidoscopic animated feature that uses pop songs past and present to illustrate the story of Moses and the flight of the Jews from Egypt. Although I mostly was able to follow along I have to admit that my memory of the iconic story from way back in Sunday school is somewhat hazy. I remember the plagues, the Red Sea, the burning bush, and so forth, but I’m clearly not the target audience for this film. I really enjoyed Paley’s animation of an interview with her father that ostensibly is about Passover traditions which amusingly wanders into Paley’s failure to graduate from college and other diversions. Although many of the musical numbers were fun and engaging there was a certain sameness to some of them that diminished their impact. However, one of the later sequences that outlined religious wars from antiquity to modern day was absolutely brilliant.

Clever, Tel Aviv On Fire, 2019

The festival’s centerpiece, Tel Aviv On Fire (dir. Sameh Zoabi) is a clever and highly entertaining film that reframes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of a soap opera, the television genre that is popular around the world, from Mexican telenovelas to Korean dramas to Turkish serials. The film follows Salem (Kais Nashef), a novice screenwriter who through happenstance and lucky timing manages to become a writer on a popular Palestinian soap opera. The show is shot in Ramallah and Salem must pass through the checkpoint every morning and night to get to and from his home in East Jerusalem. Along the way he encounters an Israeli officer named Asi (Yaniv Biton) with strong opinions about the direction of everyone’s favorite Palestinian soap opera, the titular Tel Aviv On Fire, and the two end up inadvertently colloborating on the plot and outcome of the popular show. The film gently sends up soap opera tropes, as well their addictive appeal among audiences on both sides of the checkpoint, and Nashef and Biton display their excellent comic timing as the screenwriter and the soldier who bond over hummus and melodrama. The film deftly explores thorny issues facing Israel and Palestine with wit and humor, combining wry and winning performances with a clever script.

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2019 at 3:55 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.

blast of silence

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

It Takes Two: 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival & San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival

Identity crisis, Key Of Life, 2013

Identity crisis, Key Of Life, 2013

Spring has sprung  and two film festivals are popping up this weekend here in the Bay, offering a bunch of Asian and Asian American films to pick from.

The 2013 edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off this week with a huge menu of movies from all over the planet. And the bienniel San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival offers a more select but equally outstanding bill of fare.

I previewed a couple films that are a good indicator of the range and quality of the offerings this year at the SFIFF. Kenji Uchida’s Key Of Life is a fun and quirky, somewhat absurd comedy that follows a suicidal actor and a hitman who switch lives after the hitman loses his memory and the actor impulsively takes on his identity. Veteran actor Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata) is outstanding as Kondo, the confounded hitman, playing both bewildered amnesiac and serious-as-a-heart-attack assassin with equal conviction. Also fun is Ryoko Hirosue as Kanae, a nerdy girl desperately seeking a man to marry before her terminally ill father dies. Masako Sakai plays Sakurai, the suicidal actor who’s the third of the trio of main characters, as a hopeless slacker, yet one who rises to the occasion when in dire circumstances. Director Uchida, who’s an alumnus of San Francisco State’s Cinema Department, keeps the story briskly moving along and brings a droll touch to the twisty plot, but it’s the small details that really make this movie stand out, such as Kondo gamely donning Sakurai’s slightly too small, very nerdy clothes.

A wholly enjoyable movie to watch, Key Of Life is full of plot switchbacks that keep you guessing throughout, and the resolution of the three main characters’ various dilemmas is sweet, satisfying, and very funny. The movie is all about second chances and making the most of opportunities once life swerves from its expected route, and it’s one of the most pleasurable filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a while.

Globalization and destruction, A River Changes Course, 2013

Globalization and destruction, A River Changes Course, 2013

A very different kind of movie is Kalyanee Mam’s A River Changes Course, which won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Mam’s film is quite beautiful and moving in its examination of the corrosive effects of global capitalism on a rural Cambodia family. In the encroachment of what the farmers call “the companies,” or the multinational corporations that are buying and developing the land, the movie details a vicious cycle of forests cut or burned down, rice failing to grow due to drought, villagers contracting intestinal diseases from contaminated water, and the overfishing of the river, leading to families splitting up and the disruption of traditional ways of life.

No one smiles in this movie. After the farmers fall into debt from taking out loans to buy seed, women are forced to take factory jobs in the city sewing baby clothes for US$60 a month, and sons have to leave home to work for “the Chinese” in distant cassava fields. The film makes an strong statement about the destruction of lives and environments in Cambodia—lamenting the deforestation of the land one woman says, “We are not afraid of wild animals any more, we are afraid of people cutting down the forest.” Yet the movie does so with a delicate touch, never becoming polemical or preachy. Director Mam instead allows the grim faces of the displaced farmers and the tiny gestures of everyday life to tell the tale, as young kids endlessly gut and cut the heads off of dozens of small fish, small girls tote infant sisters to and from the fields, and endless rows of women in red bandannas bend over iron gray sewing machines in a garment factory.

The film doesn’t over-romanticize the hardships of village life, but it points out the difference between the villagers working for themselves versus toiling for “the companies,” and as such is an indictment of the destructive human cost of global capitalism’s implacable march.

Adaptation, Norwegian Wood, 2010

Adaptation, Norwegian Wood, 2010

Also this weekend is the San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. A much more intimate affair than the SFIFF, the festival nonetheless includes outstanding work including Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of the popular Haruki Murakami novel, Tony Nguyen’s Enforcing The Silence, a documentary exploring the political rifts within the Vietnamese American community, and several short films including Viet Le’s “sexperimental music video” Love Bang!

San Francisco International Film Festival

April 25-May 9, 2013

various venues

tickets and schedule here

San Francisco Global Vietnamese Film Festival

April 26-28, 2013

Roxie Theater

3117 16th Street

San Francisco CA 94110

http://sfgvff.wordpress.com/

April 25, 2013 at 6:31 am Leave a comment


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