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.