Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sporadic indeed

I've seen quite a bit since SFIFF, but the film I just saw this afternoon at the Castro inspired me to recommend it. Le Doulos This Jean Pierre-Melville gangster mystery, a precursor to his more well-known Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, is a delicious little bit of noir. The star, Jean-Paul Belmondo (always associated, for me, with Breathless), doesn't appear for the first ten or fifteen minutes, and when he does, his purpose is shadowy. It takes the unfolding of the narrative, involving jewel theft, backstabbing, and police informants (the title, we're told in a bit of text at the beginning, is slang among criminals for a snitch) for the true fit of the characters with each other to become clear. Besides the excellent plotting, Melville and his cinematographer make great use of shadowy locations to mask the men's faces: Belmondo is more recognizable by his trench coat than anything else. And several striking long takes, including a tracking shot that opens the movie and is echoed later, and a pair of scenes at police headquarters which follow the characters round and round the room, come through beautifully in this new print. Well worth seeing on the big screen, for sure. In short, highly recommended.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Filling in in the aftermath

A Few Days Later... An Iranian film about a woman who can't seem to act on any of the important matters of her life. In the end, the film doesn't help her decide, either, and just ends. Can't say I liked it, but it was well done. Daratt The best of my festival to this point, this film from Chad (whose title means "dry season") is about revenge and reconciliation in the wake of a civil war. A son sets off at the behest of his grandfather to avenge his father's death, but soon finds himself closer to the killer (who is now a baker, a noble profession in a land low on food) than he prepared for. Shot in the colors of the desert (yellow sands and white clothes), it's striking just to look at, but the emotional undercurrent throughout makes it all the more impressive. Nothing is easy in this story, but there is hope. Recommended. Pather Panchali A classic Satyajit Ray film, the first in his Apu trilogy, this appears in SFIFF because it appeared in the first SFIFF, 50 years ago, and won the award for best film. This is my first encounter with Ray, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I know it's a bit of nonsense, as Ray's cultural background is his own, but it reminded me of an Ozu film directed by Kurosawa. The drama is all within the family, as in Ozu, and there are long, quiet stretches, but when energy is called for, it arrives in a manner more dynamic than any of Ozu's work, most impressively in a climactic thunderstorm. And the many scenes of children running through the sun-dappled forest remind me of the style of Rashomon (though none of the content is similar). I must see more, I think, so as to let Ray stand on his own in my mind. Forever The best surprise of my festival, I had almost no idea what Forever was about, nor who its Dutch director, Heddy Honigmann, was. But the interview-followed-by-screening format of the "Persistence of Vision" Award, which last year went to Guy Maddin, was so enjoyable last time around that I figured it was worth my $7 (member pricing was very nice, as the regular price for all tickets was $12). And it was worthwhile. The film is a documentary shot almost entirely at the huge Paris cemetary Pere Chaise, final resting place for such luminaries as Jim Morrison, Frederic Chopin, and Marcel Proust. Its subjects are those who visit these graves, as well of those who visit the simpler graves of their loved ones, or, perhaps most touchingly, those who visit the not-so-famous celebreties (such as a certain French singer who made an album and then died too young in the 70s). I gleaned from the interview that Honigmann's specialty is a warmth for her subjects, and that certainly came through in Forever. This is not a story about eccentrics who have nothing better to do with their lives than sit around a cemetary: it's a story about passionate people who draw inspiration, comfort, and solace from the ceremony of visiting (and caring for) those who have passed away. When the Levees Broke: Acts II & III In distinct opposition to the Heddy Honigmann interview, the on-stage interview with Spike Lee was an unmitigated disaster. The journalist who had been hired to ask questions had nothing but praise for Spike. Most distressingly, he really didn't have any questions: "Don't you think you're the best filmmaker in America today?" "Isn't it interesting that you've never sold out?" "What's your favorite thing about how awesome you are?" Only questions from the audience managed to salvage the event, but even then, the director's answers weren't particularly enlightening. The showing of the middle two acts of his HBO documentary When the Levees Broke was a welcome respite from all the talk. Due to the scattershot construction of the film, it didn't really suffer much by skipping its initial and final acts, though I will have to take a look at them sometime. It's quite well done, my only complaint being that some of the more pundit-like interviews rubbed me the wrong way. Why not let those who were there tell their story themselves? I don't really care what Al Sharpton thinks about President Bush. But that's really quibbling. This is good (if hard to watch) stuff. Dans Paris Perhaps my favorite overall, this one was surprising not because I liked it (the 30-second clip shown at the member's preview represented its mood quite well) but because the program and the Guardian's review really hadn't captured the full set of influences. Mentioned over and over again in the promotional material was the French New Wave, and the care-free attitude of both the filmmaking and the characters does feel a lot like Truffaut. But what really binds this movie to me is J.D. Salinger. While The Royal Tenenbaums is often suggested to be a re-telling of the Glass family's story, I've always thought the resemblance was mostly on the surface. Yes, Tenenbaums is about a family of former child prodigies growing up in New York. But the feel of that film is all Wes Anderson. Dans Paris, by contrast, melds together the filmmaking style of the new wave with the feel of Salinger's stories, especially "Franny & Zooey" (which one of the characters is shown reading halfway through). The characters aren't the same, but the interactions are spot on: the older brother is staying with his father after seperating from his wife. He's depressed and won't leave his room, and insists, to his younger brother, that he'll only speak to their sister, who's been dead twelve years. This is but one example. It's really quite uncanny. Recommended, if that's your kind of thing. The Third Monday in October I went to this one on a whim, after missing out on rush tickets to Singapore Dreaming, but I'm glad to have caught it. In the tradition of Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, this is another documentary focused on adolescents trying to make their way to the top of a competition. In this case, the presidency of their middle schools. The subjects are diverse, as are their schools: a middle-class (mostly white) school in Marin county, a middle-class (mostly black) one in Atlanta, an inner-city San Francisco school, and a progressive Christian school in Austin. Each has its own popular kids (all three candidates in Atlanta are cheerleaders), its own rules for campaigns (no budget limits in Marin, three school-supplied posters in SF, and no posters at all in Austin where the emphasis is on the speech). Due to the socioeconomic diversity of not only the students but also the contexts in which they go to school, the film manages to be a much more effective social commentary than Spellbound, in which the kids were pulled out of their contexts (the one under-privileged girl in that film, from D.C., was quickly eliminated in the regionals, and was thus left out of the second half). Highly recommended, but it has yet to get distribution.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


(link) Silly, pseudo-metaphysical "love" story about a cheating couple who flee Taipei for somewhere in South America. Poorly acted in four languages (none of which is French, oddly), this one probably isn't worth your time.

More live blogging from SFMOMA: Protagonist

Protagonist There's nothing like a good weave-it-all-together documentary. This more down-to-earth version of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (its subjects have distinctly normal properties, unlike Morris's film) doesn't achieve the same formal beauty as that, yet Protagonist has much more to say, I think, than that one did. Director Jessica Yu tries to tie together the stories of four men with the Greek tragedies of Euripides, yet this central theme is the only weak spot of the endeavor: the men's stories speak so strongly that the artifice seems unnecessary. These are stories of growing up with troubled father figures, and then going through much of early adult life under the shadow of those experiences: a German terrorist, whose policeman father beat him and spoke of how "Hitler was a good man"; a preacher from a deeply religious family whose confusion over homosexuality twisted back and forth over the years; a bank robber who points, again, to his father's childhood beatings of he and his brother as where this all started. And for comic relief, one story of how an adolescent's quest for kung-fu shaped his high school years. In this context, even the last story manages to take on significance. Highly recommended, if you can ignore the pretension of the connecting segments, narrated in Ancient Greek by Marina Sirtis (!).

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Live blogging from SFMOMA

Over a couple of happy-hour beers at my local cafe, I've completed another quick review. Hooray for sunny afternoon respites from the sun-starved world of a film festival. Colossal Youth Well well well, what to make of that? The programmer's introduction told us it would be difficult, and the trickle of walkouts throughout Colossal Youth's 155 minute running time attest to that. This is one of those times when I could really use talking to someone else about the film: I thought it was magnificent, and engrossing, and heart-breaking. And yet I'm still not entirely sure what it was about. Surely, it's about poverty, and the state's reaction to the same (the film follows characters in a Lisbon slum). It's also about family, or more particularly, father and mother-hood: how parents help their children, how children help their parents. And how they're connected, in good ways and bad. The use of non-professional actors is apparent, as much of the dialogue seems to be read off a page, yet this effect is often used to the advantage of the film (most poignantly as the main character, Ventura, repeats a letter to his son [or son-in-law?] over and over throughout). As for the filmic aspects, it's shot on digital, but manages to have a beautiful, if frightening, style: the 4:3 aspect ratio adds to the claustrophobia of the slum, yet as the characters move from a shanty town to bright white public housing, the effect only increases. Recommended, if you can take the length and the incomprehensibility. But don't say I didn't warn you.

SFIFF 2007 Begins: Slumming

This is the third blog upon which my film ramblings have been posted. Blogger has a broader audience than LJ, thus the choice of platform. I hope it works well enough for folks. Slumming My SFIFF kicked off on an agreeably off-beat note with this Austrian film, about a young, bored man named Sebastian who uses his copious free time (and inherited wealth) to experiment upon various members of Viennese society. His greatest pastime is internet dating: he meets 6 or 8 women a day, mainly in order to collect pictures taken from under the table. At other times, he and his roommate like to partake in what they call "slumming": visiting dive bars and Turkish dance clubs, and messing with the locals. But of course, Sebastian can't go on like this forever, and he soon pulls a prank that goes to far, while simultaneously meeting a woman who he actually seems to like (or, as he puts, it "love", though that seems a bit of a stretch). The closest comparison I can come up with is Ghost World (especially the movie adaption), and the more I think about it, the more it fits. The pranksters are older (college-age instead of high school), but the carelessness with which Sebastian carries off his pranks really harkens back to that. Of course, these are Austrian guys, not American girls, so the attitude is meaner and more juvenile. It's neither as funny nor as touching as Ghost World. And in its latter third, the movie begins to move towards some sort of metaphysical statement about the oneness of its three main characters (Sebastian, his lover, and the prank victim) that comes off as a reach. As the first film of this festival, though, it worked well for me: not too difficult, yet interesting enough to be worth my time. Not particularly recommended, but it's a fine time.