Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Rest, Two Weeks Late

The festival ended two weeks ago tonight, but I haven't finished my blogging duties for the year. Here are the rest of the feature films I saw at SFIFF 56.

Helsinki, Forever
Another documentary made nearly entirely of existing footage (though in this case with much narration added), this film was part of an afternoon honoring Finnish film historian, preservationist, educator, director, etc. Peter von Bagh. It's at once a history of Finnish film and an introduction to the city of Helsinki. Not a great movie, but a refreshingly unfamiliar slice-of-the-20th-century.

The Mattei Affair
The one archival presentation I attended this year, The Mattei Affair is a sort of mix between Citizen Kane and The Parallax View: a biography mixed with a paranoid thriller. Based on a true story, it follows Enrico Mattei, the head of the Italian state-owned oil company after WWII as he grows his power and tries to set Italy off on a different path than the rest of the West when it comes to dealing with oil-rich states. All of this is told in flash-back, as the film opens with Mattei dying in a plane crash, under mysterious circumstances. Highly recommended, a gem.

The Kill Team
This chilling documentary about US soldiers in Afghanistan who killed innocent citizens (for no better reason than to have killed someone while at war) looks at first to be straightforward, cinematically. Each of the soldiers involved has their standard "talking head" interview, while the family of the would-be whistleblower tries to get prove their son innocent in a military court.

Yet the soldier interviews, especially those of a particularly unrepentant individual, show how powerful the "talking head" format can be with a sufficiently captivating storyteller. Several directors at the festival (of both documentaries and fiction) talked about how important the human face is to film. It seems that the talking head-based documentary may be coming back in fashion. And maybe that's right.

The Strange Little Cat
This well-oiled machine of a film, about one day in the life of a German family, is shot almost entirely within an apartment. It's hard to describe the joys of this piece, but perhaps that's because I can't find much to compare it to. There's almost no story (it seems that the whole family, including grandma, some aunts and uncles, cousins) are coming to dinner. And the preparations for that nearly push the mother over the edge. But nothing explodes.

Hard to describe, but easy to like. And the music, adapted from a piece by a Bay Area native (who happened to be attending my screening), was lovely as well.

Il Futuro
Based on a novel by Chilean author Roberto BolaƱo (sadly, it's not been translated to English), the film follows a pair of teenage orphans as they try to find their way in the world. In Rome, more particularly, whose ruined ruins and derelict Cinecitta studios both point to past glories. Also pointing to past glories is Rutger Hauer, as a one-time film star who's first seen as a mark for a scheme by our protagonist and her brother, but who becomes the voice for the ruins of the city.

Before Midnight
The most recent in what some might call a Richard Linklater's trilogy, but which I suspect is only the third installment of an ongoing franchise, this film catches up with Jesse and Celine nine years after Before Sunset. It takes this one awhile to find its footing: too self-conscious for the first half hour (needing to add exposition about what's happened to our characters in the long time between encounters), the climax, a half hour argument in a hotel room, is pure gold. Painful, of course. But brilliant.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Weekend Two: Fiction

Youth, Me and You, They'll Come Back
Not only are the next set of films in my weekend wrap all fiction, but they are all coming-of-age films. Unusually for coming of age stories, though, only one (Youth) had sex as its major theme (and even then it has to share the stage with mortality).

Youth, directed by Justine Malle (daughter to director Louis Malle), hit the closest to home. The story centers on Juliette (a stand-in for the director) who spends most of her time attending college in Paris and living with her mother while her father's health deteriorates at his country estate, with a stepmother attending him.

Juliette's reaction to her father's decline is denial. She talks to her father as if everything were fine, suggesting the travel to India together. Meanwhile, she's trying to define herself as a sexual person: after being rebuffed by a guy in her class for her virginity, she does what she can to eliminate that as a barrier, picking up guys in bars. Malle tries to keep this threads tied together, as they clearly are for her personally, but they are really two separate stories (though that's clearly part of the point, too).

They'll Come Back, from Brazil, also features a female protagonist wandering out into the world. But this one is only 12 years old. Left on the side of the road by her family, she travels through a variety of episodes in socioeconomic classes she's not used to. The social awakening this inspires in her is, to my tastes, a little too easy: being among the service class, she realizes for the first time that the servants her family employs have their own lives. But the director referred to his film as a "fable", so like Youth, it's likely unfair of me to fault it for this directness.

The last of these is the most traditional: Bernardo Bertolucci's newest film, Me and You, features a 14-year-old male lead who decides he'd rather not go on the school field trip so instead hides out for a week in the storage closet in the basement of his mother's apartment building. The awakening here is provided by his junkie half sister, who he helps through her DTs and thus becomes a better personal. Forgettable, though I did appreciate the double shot of Bowie's 'Space Oddity' at the end, once with totally different Italian lyrics.

Weekend Two

The second weekend of the festival was a busy time: four movies each day. Rather than posting it as two chronologically-ordered four-film posts, I've grouped the films into three categories. First, I'll address documentary.

Inequality For All, Let the Fire Burn, Deceptive Practice
Two "social-issue" documentaries could hardly be further apart than Inequality For All, a sort of Inconvenient Truth for income inequality in the U.S. featuring Robert Reich in the Al Gore role, and Let the Fire Burn about the MOVE organization in Philadelphia centered on the 1985 bombing (by the police) of MOVE's home, which resulted in the deaths of 11 people and the destruction of more than 60 homes.

Reich properly locates himself as a centrist on the political spectrum, as Inequality's message is a realpolitik view of our consumer economy. He's not interested in getting rid of inequality, just the vast inequality that's come into play since the Reagan years. The middle class, Reich argues (aided by lots of animated graphics) simply needs to be given enough money/jobs to buy enough stuff to keep the economy growing. And, he argues, the rich would be even better if the middle class were given more. It's a win-win! While I have no problem with trying to lift up the middle class, the film's failure to address any political views or issues outside the center-left of American politics (besides the usual images of "anarchists" breaking windows in protests, and of Tea Partiers dressed up in silly hats) seems short-sighted. Not even the environment, which seems like a nice center-left thing to bring up, especially when discussing a growing consumer economy and showing shots of car manufacturing. This film will play well to its entrenched audience, but I don't think it's transformative.

Let the Fire Burn, by contrast, gets at the heart of more deeply structural issues in U.S. society. Assembled entirely from archival footage, and centered on a commission set up in the wake of the tragic fire, this film asks tough questions about race, power, freedom, and innocence. The MOVE organization is treated by the film just as some crazy folks, but is taken seriously. This doesn't mean they're treated as right: testimony from the only child to survive the fire reveals much that was questionable in their child-rearing, and (mostly black) neighbors' complaints about MOVE's antagonistic behavior seems valid. Yet the humanistic stance taken by the film towards these "anarcho-primitivists" stands far apart from the rote shots of protestors in Inequality. In the end, Let the Fire Burn has no answers for us. Maybe that's what really makes it more serious than Reich's lecture.

But I did not spend all my documentary-watching time on political matters. Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay takes the magician as a starting point for a discussion of, on the surface, the history of 20th-century slight-of-hand as seen first by a kid hanging out with his grandfather, then later as a working performer spending his off-hours with the greats. But at its heart the film could be about any life pursuit: how does one get to be good at something? Jay tells us that it's through contact with folks who already are good, and through practice. So it's touching to see him give faces, names, and stories to each of his mentors, most of whom are little-known outside the world of magic (unlike Jay himself, who besides his magic has become a recurring character actor in films).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Day Eight

Prince Avalanche
David Gordon Green's buddy movie starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch is mostly just what that sounds like. We find the pair repainting a strip of road after a wildfire has blazed through the area. Green revealed in the Q&A that he first set out to make the movie in this location (in Texas), and only later found the Icelandic film on which his script is based. And the location shooting is beautiful, pulled off by his usual cinematographer Tim Orr.

The non-visual part of the film is for the most part much less interesting: dudes are worried about women, yell at each other, get drunk, sing a song, feel better. Still, a few scenes, such as one featuring a real-life victim of the fire sifting through the remains of her home, or a few shots of children by the side of the road, remind us why Green was once so loved in the American indie circuit.

Rent a Family Inc.
This Danish documentary about a Japanese man who rents himself and his employees out as stand-in family members and friends to clients (such as those wanting to save face at their wedding) is awkwardly split between two stories, one about the business and one about the man's own family life (which is seriously troubled). Though the former seems to comment on the latter, I couldn't get away from my misgivings about the ethics of the documentarian. The man's family was unaware of his business and so was not given the real reason for them being part of a documentary, and though his wife now knows, the family has not even seen the film (he has, but did not want them to see it). The director, during the Q&A, put the onus of responsibility for these decisions on his subject. But I'd expect the guy with the camera to take a broader view of ethics than whatever his main subject thinks is right.

The rent-a-family business is surely a fascinating topic, but this treatment left me feeling dirty.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Day Seven

(No day six because I took a night off on Wednesday)

Frances Ha
I first became a big fan of Noah Baumbach after seeing his The Squid and the Whale, and since then have been disappointed by his cinematic output. Margot at the Wedding was unpleasantness apparently for its own sake, and while I liked Greenberg a good deal more it didn't rise to the level of apparently-effortless naturalism. Not that Squid was realistic, exactly, but it felt true.

This new film, while not even attempting to reach the same levels of emotion, succeeds in feeling right. I fear that my words are not doing a good job of explaining what's so good about Baumbach's best works, but I'll say this: Frances Ha's black-and-white, low budget, 20-somethings-in-New-York aesthetic is enough to carry the weight for a mostly-disconnected set of circumstances the title character finds herself in.

Computer Chess
I had planned on this evening being a double feature of mumblecore, given the filmographies of Gerwig (star and cowriter of the first film) and Bujalski (director of this one). His Mutual Appreciation was my introduction to the "genre". But neither film actually ended up fitting the mold very well. Computer Chess was by far the more divergent.

Set at an A.I. chess tournament in 1984, the first half of the movie seems to be a fond send-up of the culture of computing academia/industry, featuring professors, grad students, engineers, and hangers-on. As the movie develops, however, things start to get weird, and while I found the ride enough fun to stick with it the oddity of the second half (dreams, cats, a group of new age swingers sharing the hotel conference room with the nerds) hard to fit into the framework I'd built for the film. What are these spot-on characterizations of programmers doing in this plot?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Day Five

Big Sur
Based on the novel by Jack Kerouac, I went into this expecting a beautifully photographed story about an alcoholic writer and got exactly what I expected. But not much more, unfortunately. I'm not familiar with the novel, and I suspect that knowledge might help enjoyment of this piece a great deal (the preponderance of voiceovers suggests that the book may be largely internal monolog). The Big Sur shots do a good job of evoking that place's natural beauty, but the SF location shooting was occasionally distracting (in a bad way) for a local: shots of Great Highway along Ocean Beach used to stand in for the 101 in the valley were the most glaring.

I wish I could say more about the substance of the film, but as noted above I didn't find much there. Perhaps I should just read the book.

Pearblossom Highway
Another film featuring San Francisco location shooting, this low-budget work focuses on a troubled young man named Cory (also the name of the actor, whose real life story the character is based upon) living in the desert outside of L.A. His best friend is an unhappy Japanese emigre who moonlights as a prostitute at the local truck stop. When his big brother arrives after a stint in the Marines, Cory's wish to be more a part of a family is rekindled. Their mother is dead, and Cory never met his father, so the three of them set off Northwards to meet him.

Strangely, though this film has even less plot than Big Sur, I found myself more interested in the characters, and that allowed me to put up with the nearly nonexistent narrative and the stilted acting (which, judging by the director's evocation of Godard during the Q&A, was likely intentional). Also, if I'm to compare the two, I'd say that the SF locations (in the Mission and the Sunset) felt more "right".

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Day Four

Stories We Tell
Director/subject Sarah Polley's first foray into documentary filmmaking succeeds both as an engrossing narrative of a complicated family and as a rumination on the ethics and metaphysics of storytelling. It begins innocently enough as a remembrance of Polley's late mother among her father and siblings, but the story branches off from there to delve into the marriage, its troubles, and what the various players made of them.

There's quite a bit of trickery at play: not everything is what it seems, and certain juicy tidbits are withheld for dramatic effect, but this serves to heighten the meta-discussion of how we experience the past. My favorite of the festival so far.

Something in the Air
Olivier Assayas's newest film is something of a lark: revolutionary well-to-do high school students in 1971 France bum around, trying to decide if they really care more about liberation or getting laid. The politics end up taking a back seat, both in the narrative (which is a character-driven exercise in teenage angst) and for the characters themselves as they figure out what to do with themselves after summer vacation's over. Study painting in Afghanistan? Enroll in a dance program at Juilliard?

None of this is to say the film is wrong for stressing the personal over the political, especially at such an age. And it does raise good questions about what's changed, and what hasn't, between then and now. But the characters' ability to disconnect themselves from any material worries in the world they're nominally fighting to overthrow suggests that the movie is more cynical than its title may make it appear.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Day Three

The co-directors of this maritime documentary hail from Harvard's Sensory Ethnogoraphy Lab, and it's hard to think of a more fitting phrase to describe their work here. We are thrust directly into the action of a fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts, and it takes quite awhile to get our bearings. Which way is up? Is that a fish, or a man's arm? Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience is never given any more context than can be gleaned from watching, and listening, to what's been captured. No explanations are given, there is no narration. Most of the audible English comes from an unseen television late in the film.

This is literally "hard to watch". The cameras themselves are constantly in motion, some seemingly strung on a wire below the water. The effect of the experience can be overwhelming and bewildering. But it leaves the impression that the entire system, the boat, the fish, the birds, the men, and the sea, are all part of a single organism.

In the Fog
Set in Belarus during the Nazi occupation of World War II, this is a simple story told in a studied, methodical way. It touches on the sociology of collaboration, of the ties and breakdowns of family, and even of the possibility for strength, both of character and of body (there are several long takes in which one man carries another as they make their way through the forest). Altogether, it's an impressive work, and one much more accessible than its director's previous work that screened here, My Joy.

Hailed by the festival's programmers as a good companion piece to the above, and as a film featuring a strong female protagonist, I couldn't help but come away from this disappointed. The storytelling is straightforward (a prostitute has a kid, finds a father for him, and endures hardship), and though perhaps the extended middle sequence in Siberia is meant to transfer its tedium onto the audience, the experience is sub-optimal. As for the "strong female", her strength is displayed mostly by her willingness to bare her body. The framing device, in which the film is told as a flashback being explained to the protagonist's son, only serves to drag out the narrative without shedding light on the subject matter.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Day Two

Sofia's Last Ambulance
My first documentary of the festival, I was pleasantly surprised to find a lack of the usual talking head style in this film about an overworked ambulance crew in Bulgaria. The fly-on-the-dashboard approach is largely successful, and avoids Cops-style gawking by barely showing the patients at all (this seems likely to be a happy accident of avoiding legal entanglements). But this was overall a bit too minimal for me: we get only the faintest sense of the environment as the camera is usually looking back at the faces of one of three subjects, rather than out to the front window. So instead of talking heads we get often-silent heads. The fact that Sofia has so few ambulances does come through in the delays reported by dispatchers and patients, but the context for these facts on the ground is missing. Similar territory was treated with a more direct approach in one of my favorites SFIFF 55, The Waiting Room.

Much Ado About Nothing
For Joss Whedon fans only, I suspect, but a heck of a kick for those fans, this slapped-together adaptation pairs modern dress with the original dialogue. The comedy is broad but well done, and the production gets its fair share of meta-jokes in regarding such Shakespearean tropes as hiding behind a hedge. Nathan Fillion steals the show as a bungling policeman.

Day One

After Lucia
What could be taken as a ripped-from-the-headlines story of high school bullying in the age of the iPhone is really a rumination on grief, loss, and depression. A father and teenage daughter pair, recently having lost their wife/mother in a car crash, move across Mexico to start a new life. But they haven't yet begun to repair themselves from their trauma.

It's hard to watch: the treatment of the "bullying" (this seems too soft a word) is for the most part realistic and brutal. But the cinematic art on display is brilliant: the movie begins and ends with understated but emotionally devastating long takes. And the use of un- or half-furnished interior sets complements the mental state of the characters.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology
There's not much to say here. If you enjoyed The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, this is a worthy followup. Slavoj Žižek monologues for 2.5 hours about Catholicism, Stalinism, Nazism, and everything in between. The visuals are spiced up by placing our narrator on sets from such diverse films as A Clockwork Orange, The Sound of Music, and Jaws. There's not much cinematic critique on display here: most of the theorizing uses the movies as examples of particular ideologies or attitudes to ideology. But even non-Žižek fans should enjoy the commentary.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Opening Night

What Maisie Knew
The opening night film at this festival always seems to be something of a crowd-pleaser, and this year's entrant is no exception. While on the surface it seems a downbeat affair, centered as it is on a troubled relationship, the framing device (nearly everything is shot from the perspective of Maisie, the couple's six-year-old child) actually helps lighten the mood significantly. Seeing things through the eyes of a child, rather than making the whole thing more tragic, makes the already high unreality of the situations seem even less consequential. After all, Maisie carries on, no matter what. Onata Aprile's performance in the title role is excellent and naturalistic, but the filmmakers' reluctance to let anything bad happen, even when Julianne Moore's character leaves her daughter alone on a New York streetcorner, undermines the weight of the emotional questions involved. The fairytale obviousness of what happens to the two young, blond lovers caught in the middle of the custody dispute (as SOs of the leads) is similarly overdetermined and undercuts the story.

Still, Aprile's performance and the framing device are enough to keep the movie interesting, and Steve Coogan's performance as the father gives us the black humor that might have been a better mood throughout than the airy everything-will-be-ok feeling we get from watching Maisie navigate a bunch of silly grownups.


The San Francisco International Film Festival is back, and again I have a full series pass with an intent to see 30+ screenings. I'm logging each one on Twitter (@cineklein), but also hoping to put some capsule reviews up here.

This post is mostly just to test posting from my phone. Which sorta works.