Tuesday, April 17, 2018

SFIFF 61: Final Weekend

Those Who Are Fine

A delightful little gem of a movie, this unassuming Swiss feature takes bank fraud as its subject and uses it as the background for an examination of how the combination of automation and capitalism has taken over so much of modern life. People try to have conversations about art or film, but end up sidetracked by discussions of ad campaigns for cellphone service or, most absurdly (yet realistically), recitations of strings of numbers. The film manages the sparest (and most banal) dystopia I've yet seen on screen, while maintaining a sense of dark comedy throughout.

Eighth Grade

Comedian Bo Burnham's directorial debut (he also wrote the screenplay) centers on a 13-year-old girl in her final weeks of middle school, presenting a heartbreakingly faithful portrait of awkwardness, which manages to be simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Continuing the theme of this festival, it raises questions about the place that smartphones and social media have in our culture, and examines how they specifically affect children. Featuring pitch-perfect performances from the lead (Elsie Fisher), all the involved kids, and a standout supporting role from Josh Hamilton as the father, this film won the audience award at the festival, and deservedly so.

Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences

Not a film, but maybe part of one in the future, this TED-talk-styled parody by Cory McAbee (including songs) is hard to capture in words, but was a welcome left-turn from the rest of the festival.


An Icelandic black-and-white art-piece, this documentary-styled film featuring non-actors going about a series of strange daily tasks (all of them fictional) in an evocative post-apocalyptic landscape was a treat to behold. One of the programmers billed it as "the first science fiction documentary", and that's as good a description as I can muster.

Bisbee '17

My last documentary of the festival was also my favorite. The central story is a lost piece of American history: in 1917, copper miners (many of them immigrants) organized by the International Workers of the World (IWW) went on strike in Bisbee, Arizona. In response, the sheriff deputized hundreds of county residents (some of them closely related to the workers) and forcibly deported the strikers to New Mexico via rail cars. Described in the program as another hybrid doc, I wouldn't use that phrasing. Rather, it's a "normal" documentary that uses its recreations not just for illustrative purposes but reflects upon them to examine how the past retains a hold on the present. This is accomplished by casting locals for all of the roles in the recreations, and treating the filming of the recreations not as "realistic" pieces, but instead as performances by individuals. The result is unexpectedly powerful and emotional, as people take up opposing sides that echo not only the 100-year-old history, but the current political situation.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot

Gus Van Sant's latest, this biopic of cartoonist John Callahan (based on his autobiography) hit all the right inspirational notes (Callahan was an alcoholic and a quadriplegic), but didn't really connect with me. Joaquin Phoenix is fine as ever, but Jonah Hill steals the show as his AA sponsor.

Friday, April 13, 2018

SFIFF 61: Days Seven & Eight

The Cleaners

It's hard to imagine a more timely documentary viewing, coming the same week as Mark Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress. Named for the thousands of Filipinos who review social media posts, images, and videos, that story is only a jumping-off point for a broader examination of the challenges brought to modern society by the technology of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al. What should be allowed? Who should decide? Like the previous day's Purge This Land, this film raises more questions than it answers, though it comes in a much flashier package than that somber piece (stylistic quibbles are my only real complaints with it, e.g. a repeated visualization of tweets whose purpose is unclear).

I Was Born, But… (with Blonde Redhead)

This was my first experience of an Ozu silent film, and I was legitimately blown away. I'm not much of a silent film connoisseur, but this was perhaps the most I've enjoyed one. With spare use of intertitles, Ozu tells a rich story of power and class, through the lens of two young boys and their family. As for the live music attached to this screening, I'm a fan of the band, so I enjoyed it. But this was not an "original score"; it felt more like watching a silent film and putting on a mixtape of Blonde Redhead songs in the background.

Sorry To Bother You

The "centerpiece" film of the festival, this was the Bay Area premiere of an Oakland-made film from first-time director Boots Riley, and it was great to feel the energy at the Castro (there was a parallel event at Oakland's Grand Lake). The movie tells the story of a telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) who rises through the ranks with a dream of becoming a "power caller". It was quite a bit of fun, wrapping a social satire with appropriately contemporary touches, and featuring a bevy of fine supporting performances from Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer. What struck me most, though, was the theme of labor organizing at its center. So while the comedy didn't always have me rolling on the floor, I'm happy for a film with such explicit themes of collective action to be reaching a (hopefully) broad audience when it sees release in July.

Jupiter's Moon

From Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, who made one of my all-time favorite SFIFF sleepers (Delta), this sci-fi/supernatural take on the Syrian refugee crisis, and Hungary's role in it, is visually stunning. Taking cues from the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity, The Revenant), it features several exhilarating long takes (or computer constructions which appear as such). But the plot at its center feels downright silly (and more than a little reminiscent of Children of Men), focusing not on the refugees but on a corrupt doctor who's lost his faith. At 129 minutes, it's also at least 20 minutes too long, with several redundant scenes whose appearance in the finished product feels likely to be related to how much they cost to put together, not on dramatic necessity. Yet for fans of Mundruczó's (or Lubezki's) work, it's worth seeing, especially on a big screen (this played at the Castro immediately after Sorry To Bother You, with maybe 50 people in attendance).

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

SFIFF 61: Day Six

Purge This Land

What starts as an historical travelogue of John Brown's life becomes a filmic essay by Lee Anne Schmitt about race in America. Powerful yet spare, it traces what the director referred to in the Q&A as a "continuum" of events, attitudes and experiences across the last 200 years. Told through a series of mostly-still shots, voiceover, and the occasional archival photograph or excerpt, it offers no answers, but raises plenty of questions. For those willing to adapt to its slow, careful, quiet style, it provides a timely catalyst for further thought and, just maybe, action.

Leave No Trace

The narrative followup to director Debra Granik's much-heralded Winter's Bone, this film also focuses on a teenage girl in (mostly) rural America. But this time the mood is, if not light, at least less harsh. A girl and her veteran father are living illegally in a park near Portland, Oregon, when they're discovered by social services, and we follow them as they try to adapt to the world, with mixed success. I wanted to love this, but too much of it failed to connect, despite a strong central performance from New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie. The story holds no sense of ambiguity, with a series of heavy-handed metaphors, images, and pronouncements. And the scenery, though shot on location in Oregon, felt too "bright" (for lack of a better word) and thus unfamiliar to my PNW self. I wished for the eye of another native: this would have made a great subject for Kelly Reichardt.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

SFIFF 61: Day Five

Three Identical Strangers

My favorite doc of the festival, by far, but one I don't want to say anything about, as it's best-experienced in the cinema. Triplets separated at birth are reunited by chance at age 19. Then things get interesting.

Cold Water

One of Olivier Assayas's earliest features, this recently-restored tale of a teenage girl from a troubled family and her boyfriend (a stand-in for the director) builds slowly to a tour-de-force party scene and a powerful conclusion. The style is almost as demonstrative as the dialogue: most of the movie is shot hand-held and tightly-framed, with few establishing shots, keeping the audience inside the heads of the teens, who thrash around in attempt to find meaning and peace. Only near the end, in the come-down from the party, does the camera pull back and get still, to show us, and the characters, how small they are in the world. I loved this; it's sort of an existentialist, non-comedic companion piece to Dazed and Confused (and was released the year after that film).

Monday, April 9, 2018

SFIFF 61: Weekend One


I went in hoping for an ethnographic documentary in the tradition of past festival favorite The Iron Ministry. But the intimacy of this film, with its singular attention to one man (Kabwita Kasongo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo) and one activity (manufacturing a load of charcoal and taking it to market 50km on his bicycle), gives the movie a conflicted identity. It seems to aim for a fully observational mood, with no interviews or recognition of the camera by the people onscreen. Yet being so close to the subject throughout an arduous journey makes it hard for the audience not to wonder why the director (a white Frenchman, unseen but keenly felt due to constant fluid camera movement) doesn't offer Kabwita a helping hand. I found the end result uncomfortable to watch, even if the film itself is compelling and well-crafted.

Some online research suggests that this may be a "hybrid" film, with the protagonist playing a fictionalized version of himself, and if that were so, it would make me feel better. I appreciate a "show, don't tell" style, but this is one place where just a little bit of context would have improved the experience greatly.

Claire's Camera

I still can't grok Hong Sang-soo.

Winter Brothers

The biggest disappointment of the festival so far, this did offer great visuals and atmosphere, as promised. But the story, about a miner whose moonshine starts to make his coworkers sick and who pines after his brother's sister, did not develop coherently. And the characters offered the audience nothing to hold on to.


A universal tale, out of Brazil, of the way children eagerly leave home, and how parents (especially mothers) cope. Fernando, a high school handball star, gets an offer to join a professional team in Germany; he has to leave in three weeks. Meanwhile, his mother Irene is about to finally get her high school diploma. What stands out most from this piece is the palpable sense of family-ness, especially between the four brothers (two young twins, an awkward 12-year-old, and Fernando) and between Fernando and his mother. On paper, this would be all-too-heartwarming for me, but the end result, with such a specific sense of place (a crumbling house, next door to a house yet-to-be-built) and feeling, won me over.

Composed entirely of shots of stars, compiled from hundreds of films, this exceeded my already-high expectations. Like any compilation, one of the joys is identifying familiar scenes. Sometimes this is straightforward enough, but the similarity of the shots, and the refusal to show anything other than stars, makes it amusingly maddening at times. But as fun as it is, what really struck me was how this is actually a history of cinema: the clips are arranged in chronological order, beginning at the dawn of the medium and going straight through to the present. You can see tropes emerge and develop over the time, sometimes for technological reasons and sometimes just for storytelling purposes. As soon as it ended, I wanted to watch it again, but so far it seems to be a festival-only phenomenon, but I intend to closely follow the movie's website to find out when it'll be nearby. I recommend you do the same.

Bonus content
Guy Maddin: State of Cinema Address

Always something of a wildcard, this annual festival tradition fell to Guy Maddin this year (the programmer introducing Maddin jokingly noted that it was just an excuse to bring Maddin to San Francisco, since he doesn't have a new film this year). Clearly uncomfortable with the responsibility of talking about something as momentous as the "State of Cinema", Maddin nonetheless mostly succeeded in giving a fascinating lecture on the psychological vulnerability and openness inherent in authorship, and how that ties into the history and present of cinema, from Finnish melodrama to Ed Wood to Tarnation, and on into the YouTube era.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

SFIFF 61: Day Two


A perfectly serviceable documentary about Hal Ashby, which wins one over through the force of clips from his best movies (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Being There). The film focuses intently on the art, and on the process of making that art (long, marijuana-fueled sessions in the editing room), with only a glimpse here or there of biography. The 1980s output is mostly left out of the story, acting as a source of frustration leading up to Ashby's untimely death. The presentation is largely conventional, with many talking heads, but a few touches stand out, particularly the use of clips from his movies to illuminate passages from his letters. In the end, one is left with the intense desire to revisit these films again (hopefully on the big screen).

First Reformed

Writer-director Paul Schrader returns, yet again, to the themes of Taxi Driver in this stark tale of a priest searching for something, anything, to hold onto. Ethan Hawke, as the priest, is magnificent. And the formalism of the film is something to behold: shot in the nearly-square 4:3 format, the framing of every scene fits its subject perfectly, while leaving the audience on-edge. As a statement about the state of the world today, the film is not entirely successful. But considered on its own terms, it's a gripping and visceral treat.

Friday, April 6, 2018

SFIFF 61: Day One

The Rider

The Wrestler goes to the rodeo. Of the hybrid fiction/documentary films I've seen, this was the most successful as a doc, in the sense that it feels like a document of a people, place, etc. Set in the plains of South Dakota, it explores the trials of a young horse trainer and rodeo champion who's just injured his head in a riding accident. There are many things to enjoy here, cinematically and otherwise: beautiful twilight shots of the prairie, a taste of the hybrid native/white culture (it appears that the protagonist/subject is mixed-race, and his friends and surroundings are similarly varied). The scenes with horses stand out the most: you can feel the connection, and almost glimpse a sense of understanding.

The Price of Everything

This documentary on the state of the contemporary art market feels all-too-real, yet also manages to be enormously entertaining (easily beating out recent Cannes winner _The Square_ as a satire on modern art). Nearly all parts of the ecosystem are captured, including established, up-and-coming, and forgotten artists, as well as curators, critics, collectors, and perhaps most importantly, auctioneers. The access gained by the director (Nathaniel Kahn, of My Architect fame) is astonishing: it's hard for me to believe that Jeff Koons thought he'd come off positively in this film. While there's not much of a conclusion to be drawn, this fascinating/horrifying story left me with lots to ponder. And its screening location, at SFMOMA, felt as appropriate as could be.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

SFIFF 61 (aka, SFFILM Festival) Opening Night

This year's festival, which kicked off last night, seems to be having something of an identity crisis so far as its name is concerns, thus the strange title of this post. Nevertheless, the show goes on, as does this blog (apparently).

A Kid Like Jake

An adaptation of a stage play, this family drama on a contemporary topic probably played better on the stage than it does on the big screen. Claire Danes gives it her all in an attempt to capture the inner conflict of a "normal" mom (a white "progressive" lawyer who lives in Brooklyn) when forced to confront the gender-expansive play of her four-year-old son (he loves dressing up as a princess, playing with dolls, and is obsessed with The Little Mermaid).

But the screenplay, adapted by the playwright (Daniel Pearle), can't really pull off the complexity it's clearly aiming for. The surface plot, about New York private elementary school entrance criteria, is not compelling (at least to me). Yet the film offers its share of pleasures: Jim Parsons is great as the husband, a therapist whose off-kilter therapy sessions with Amy Landecker (also excellent) lighten the mood. And a dinner table conversation gone awry provides just the right amount of awkwardness, thanks to a cameo from Aasif Mandvi.