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.

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