After some internal debate, I decided to take the plunge with this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). My PFA membership gave me discounted ticket prices so I went hog wild and attended 21 screenings. The festival ran April 22 to May 6.
Nymph directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang; Thai with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Moscow; Korean with subtitles; (2009)
Littlerock; Japanese & English with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Empire of Silver starring Aaron Kwok; with Jennifer Tilly; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Cracks starring Eva Green; directed by Jordan Scott; (2009) - Official Website
Wake in Fright (aka Outback) starring Gard Bond and Donald Pleasence; (1971)
Domaine starring Béatrice Dalle; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Vengeance starring Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong & Simon Yam; directed by Johnny To; Cantonese, English & French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Winter's Bone directed by Debra Granik; (2009) - Official Website
Air Doll starring Bae Doo-na; directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda; Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Music Room directed by Satyajit Ray; Bengali with subtitles; (1958)
Julia starring Tilda Swinton; (2008) - Official Website
Senso starring Aida Valli & Farley Granger; directed by Luchino Visconti; Italian and German with subtitles; (1954)
I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton; Italian & Russian with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Bodyguards and Assassins starring Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Simon Yam; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Last Train Home; documentary; directed by Lixin Fan; Mandarin with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
14-18: The Noise and the Fury; documentary; (2009) - Official Website
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephin Merritt, et al.; (1916)
Northless; Spanish with subtitles; (2009)
Waiting for "Superman"; documentary; directed by Davis Guggenheim; (2010) - Official Website
Garbo the Spy; documentary; English and Spanish with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
A few tidbits before I highlight some of the films.
Cracks director Jordan Scott is the daughter of director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner).
Air Doll's Bae Doo-na starred in one of my favorite film's of the past few years - Linda Linda Linda (2005). She is Korean (she played the Korean exchange student in Linda) but her Japanese must be improving as her character speaks Japanese throughout Air Doll.
Air Doll's director is the Hirokazu Kore-eda whose Still Walking I enjoyed last year.
Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields provided the live music for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. He was accompanied by "Castro organist David Hegarty and frequent Merritt collaborator and author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemany Snicket)." It seemed like one or two women were also in the ensemble but I couldn't find a credit for them.
Julia was programmed by film critic Roger Ebert who received the Mel Novikoff Award. Ebert who has been stricken with cancer and has had a significant portion of his jaw removed. Ebert now speaks with the aid of a voice synthesizer (think Stephen Hawking). Ebert and his wife Chaz were on the Castro Theater stage as directors Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) and Terry Zwigoff ( Crumb) paid tribute.
The Golden Gate Award Winner in the category of Investigative Documentary Feature was Last Train Home.
The Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature went to Winter’s Bone.
Waiting for "Superman" was a late addition to the festival lineup so it doesn't appear in the printed program. The film's director Davis Guggenheim also directed An Inconvenient Truth.
My favorite film of the festival was Julia. Tilda Swinton gives a marvelous performance as Julia, a slutty alcoholic who latches onto a mentally unstable woman's plan to kidnap her son (who is in the custody of the boy's paternal grandfather). The woman wants to spirit the boy to Mexico (her homeland) but Julia double crosses the woman by keeping the boy and demanding a ranson. Poorly conceived and executed, Julia's plan quickly goes awry and she and the boy end up in Tijuana. Julia runs her mouth and drinks too much...again After unwittingly sleeping with one of the conspirators, the boy is snatched from Julia and the Mexican kidnappers demand a ranson and they mean business. The film is a showcase for Swinton who plays Julia as a woman who can't find bottom.
The documentary Last Train Home also kept me enthralled. Every spring, major cities in China convulse with the New Year exodus. Over 130 million peasants-turned-factory workers jam train stations in a desperate attempt to go home for this, their only holiday.
I expected an epic documentary on par with Manufactured Landscapes about the largest human migration in the history of the planet. Instead, I found a smaller film that showed a family being torn apart by distance and absence. Parents Zhang Changhua and Chen Suqin leave their small farming village soon after their daughter Zhang Qin is born. They venture thousands of kilometers away to obtain a job in clothing factory sewing blue jeans. I would call it a sweat shop. Such is the economics of China that the Zhang forske everything for these jobs which are so much more lucrative than farming in a small village. The Zhang consider themselve self-sacrificing. They are choosing to separate themselves from their children so that they can send money home so that their children can go to university. Their eldest (Qin) is not so appreciative. Her earliest memories are of being raised by her grandparents and her limited interactions with her parents consists of a constant barrage of criticisms. Qin is getting sick of living in a small village and she's a rebellious teenager. Against her parents' wishes she quits high school and goes to work in the same province as her parents. Eventually, she has a violent confrontation with her father and becomes estranged from her parents. The film leaves unanswered the ultimate fate of the Zhang or even if they have since reconciled.
The backdrops for this family drama are two horrific journeys home for New Years. The journeys are horrific for the overcrowding and, in one case, extended train delay. I couldn't help but think that the Zhang family's problem is not that dissimilar to problems in the US related to absentee parents and juvenile delinquency.
Another documentary I enjoyed tremendously was Waiting for "Superman".
Waiting For "Superman" is a provocative and cogent examination of the crisis of public education in the United States told through multiple interlocking stories—from a handful of students and their families whose futures hang in the balance to the educators and reformers trying to find real and lasting solutions within a broken system.
Waiting For "Superman" is certainly "provocative and cogent" in my opinion. Director Davis Guggenheim takes square aim an teachers unions and the practice of granting tenure to public school teachers. It's been about a week since I saw the film & I can't recall what worked in terms of teaching children. I distinctly recall what doesn't work. Bad teachers are about 1/3 as effective as good teachers and if one could get rid of a small percent of the lowest performing teachers, one could achieve tremendous gains in education or at least test scores. However, teachers unions won't all bad teachers to be fired on the basis of student performance nor will it allo good teacher to be rewarded on that same basis.
In full disclosure, I've long thought teachers unions are antiethical to the best interests of educating children. Waiting For "Superman" shares this view which may be why I enjoyed it so much. It certainly doesn't hew to the political left's embrace of teachers unions. Guggenheim's paternal instinct doesn't allow him to send his child to public school. Would anyone send their children to a public school if they could afford to send them to a better private school?
The film follows multiple threads. It documents what is wrong with the public educational system and what is right or improving (Washington, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee gets a flattering portrait). Guggenheim follows a handful public school students as they search holy grail which in this case is winning a lottery to get into a high performing school. The climax of the film is an extended sequence cutting back & forth between lotteries are each student awaits the magic number. Sadly, all the profiled students were not chosen except (ironically) the Woodside girl from seemingly the most affluent family. I'm not hinting that the fix was in but rather that the child whose future was brightest got the biggest boost by being admitted to a high performing public school. The way the parents pinned all their hopes on the school lottery was depressing in itself. Then to lose the lottery felt like you were watching a child's entire life being decided before your eyes.
A large contingent from Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City was in the audience. I was most interested in the discussion until a man stood up and delivered a self-serving lecture before being chastised into asking his question. Have I ever mentioned that film festival audiences rarely ask a question. Usually they pontificate.
Northless was a film that Festival Programmer Rod Armstrong characterized as particularly timely given the (I believe he used the word) oppressive law recently passed in Arizona. Nothing like a film programmer interjecting his politics into the introduction. Putting aside one's thought about illegal immigration, Northless was less about the act and more about its impact on those left behind.
The film follows Andrés, a Mexican from the southern part of the country, as he repeatedly attempts to cross into the US from the Baja California area I believe. Not much time is spent on his attempts as the focus of the film is Andrés interactions with Ela and Cata. Ela is 40something woman who owns a small general store where Andrés gets a job and a cot to sleep on. Cata, a younger woman in her 20s, works for Ela as well. Ela quickly takes a liking to Andrés while Cata takes longer to warm up. Andrés learns that both Ela and Cata are married and their husbands crossed the border plans of joining them later. Years have passed and both women have given up hope of being reunited with their husbands; they've both been abandoned.
As such, the women view the border less as the gateway to opportunity but a trap that swallows up decent and hardworking men including Andrés if he ever succeeds. Now this sounds like a serious film but director Rigoberto Perezcano uses a light touch and gentle humor to coax out a personal story about a doomed love triangle because Andrés' real desire is to get to the US.
Moscow is another personal film about the ephemeral nature of friendship set against the cruel world of class warfare and labor strife. Labor activist Jin-hee and corporate office worker Ye-won were best friends in Jr. High but Jin-hee's family's financial trouble forced a separation. Ye-won went on to university to study acting but has given up those dreams for a corporte job. Jin-hee became an activist who was in the middle of a hunger strike when the stress of the situation becomes too much. She finds Ye-won and they rekindle their friendship. All is well at first but as Jin-hee overstays her welcome at Ye-won's studio apartment, tensions arise. In particular, Jin-hee becomes more extroverted and obsessed with the landing the lead role in a production of Chekov's Three Sisters hence the title of the film. The two women have their denouement on a blizzard swept mountain side.
The characters weren't fully developed and I thought the entire labor activism thread could have been dropped but the movie certainly hit a bittersweet note.
Air Doll's eponymous character (Bae Doo-na) comes to life every morning when her owner leaves for work. The air doll is a sex doll and the owner is a self-deluded loser. The Air Doll comes to life and takes to the streets every morning. First in a sexy maid uniform but eventually she gets a job and buys her clothes. Bae Doo-na's never gets fleshed out (pun intended) but that's the plot device. The living incarnation of the air doll is a commentary on women in Japanese society and later she observes that there is a certain lonliness and inability to meaningfully interact between people. The disassociation the air doll feels is really not that different from the rest of society. However, a small cut can literally deflate her and eventually her owner buys a new and improved sex doll.
The film was rather bleak for its whimsical gimmick. Bae Doo-na is frequently topless or nude which was surprising for a well known actress. The film doesn't quite satisfy; not that it was intended to. It left me as empty as a deflated air doll which was likely the intention.
Littlerock is a small independent film with elements of Mumblecorp. The story invovles two Japanese siblings. Their grandfather left the US for Japan on the eve or WWII. The brother and sister are making a journey through California culminating in a trip to Manzanar. Along the way, their car breaks down in the town of Littlerock near Palmdale. They get involved with some locals, the dimmest of the bunch develops a crush the sister, Atsuko. Atsuko decides to stay in town while her brother heads up to San Francisco for a few days. The reason is that Atsuko has become attracted to one of the other locals. As she stays around town, she begins to observe and do things that she never thought about in Japan - drug dealing, racism, sex, etc.
Vengeance is a big budget Johnny To film that lets French 1960s rocker Johnny Hallyday use his weathered face to great effect. Hallyday plays a French assassin cum resturanteur who comes to Macao to fetch his critically wounded daughter. His daughter, her Chinese husband and their kids have been shot with only her surviving. Nearly comatose, she asks her father to take vengeance. He happens upon a hit team in his hotel and elists their help in finding the killers. They quickly determine it was a professional job. I won't continue with the plot because there are twist and turns and watching Hallyay, Simon Yam, et al. adhere to their perverted code of honor is most enjoyable. I will criticize the film in comparison to the films I saw PFA a couple years ago. Vengeance was not quite up to the level of Mad Detective or Triad Election.
Bodyguards and Assassins was a Chinese action film that boasted an all-star cast. The premise is a visit by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen to Hong Kong. The Empress Dowager has ordered Sun assassinated. Sun's main ally in HK has hired bodyguards and body double to run the gauntlet. While Sun has been secreted away, his body double is making his way along the street of HK in a pith helmet and palaquin while the bodyguards do their best to protect him. The plot was ridiculous and the setup took forever. They had to introduce each character and give them some backstory - the 7 foot former Shaolin monk reduced to selling Stinky Tofu on the street, the dirty cop whose ex-wife has kept his existence secret from their daughter, the teenage daughter of an acrobat or opera singer that must avenge his death, the rickshaw puller in love with a women with a club foot, etc. So much setup for a 30 minute guantlet run.
Domaine was a film light on plot more than compensated by the fabulous Béatrice Dalle. Undeniably sexy despite a middle aged spread, a Lauren Hutton gap between her front teeth and a passing resemblance to Sandra Bernhard, Dalle struts around the film in constant decline from happy drunk to sloppy drunk to ugly drunk...her nephew strangely at her side. For the first third of the film the nature of their relationship is left ambiguous. Eventually we realize the Dalle is an alcoholic that is drinking herself to death while her nephew is uncomfortable with his sexuality. They are locked in a co-dependency but as he matures physically and emotionally, the bonds between the two slowly and painfully dissolve.
Wake in Fright was billed as an Ozploitation or Australian exploitation film. As such I was expecting a certain kind of film. However, Wake in Fright was much different than what I was expecting.
Schoolteacher John Grant is stuck in a two building town in the Australian Outback (Tiboonda I think was the name). He is off to Sydney to meet his girlfriend for summer vacation. He takes the train to Bundanyabba (the 'Yabba), a larger town in the Outback where he can catch a flight to Sydney. Within half a day of his arrival he is hungover and broke; having lost all his money on a coinflip. Stuck without any money but always a boor around to buy him a beer, Grant falls in with a some real characters lead by a disgraced veterinarian (Donald Pleasence). At this point, the film turns into Deliverance in the Outback. They drink nonstop, they brawl with each other, they shoot kangaroos, they slit the throats of the wounded roos, they cut the testicles off the dead roos, etc. In one drunken episode, Pleasence and Grant have sex. I can't tell if it was consensual within the context both men being drunk or if Pleasence forced himself on Grant. It doesn't really matter. By that point in the film, we have witnessed Grant descent into the most execrable of circumstances and his burgeoning self-loathing. Even Grant's attempt to escape his environment fail and he resorts to suicide. Predictably he even fails at that.
Wake in Fright was less about exploiting stereotypes of backward Aussies than the downfall of a man at the cost of his self-respect and pride. Of course, if you were a Outback denizen or kangaroo lover, you probably took a different view.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a silent film which did not age well. Extended underwater scenes must have been spectacular in 1916 look patently absurd now. The plot was difficult to follow due to unnecessary scenes and plotlines. Captain Nemo and her daughter essentially wore blackface and traded on Indian and Wild (Wo)Man of Borneo stereotypes.
With that said, Stephin Merritt's live score did nothing to help matters. He provided a kitschy (but ultimately cloying) refrain at the beginning of each reel which were conveniently marked with title cards stating "Part 1," "Part 2," etc. Beyond that, he and his co-conspirators seemed to play the film as high camp with falsetto voices for the women, muffled voices for the men and music that poked fun at the film. In a nutshell, he hammed it up as opposed to respecting the film. To be honest, I found the film less than compelling so I can't fully criticize Merritt's approach but I was completely unaware of who Stephin Merritt was going into the screening. I certainly am not a fan of his after the screening. Woe to those whose first silent film screening was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
In addition to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, there were a number of films that fell short of my expectations.
Nymph was billed as thriller/horror/suspense film from noted Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang. I found it slow moving and unnecessarily contemplative. In fact, I fell asleep.
14-18: The Noise and the Fury was a faux documentary. The narrator's character was fictitious but the film used actual newsreel footage and photos from WWI. I had no trouble with this setup but the narrative was disjointed, the archive footage was colorized for no seemingly apparent reason and the narration tried too hard to achieve gravitas.
Senso was a restored Luchino Visconti film which was high melodrama depicting 1860's Italy. Having seen Il Gattopardo (1963), I'm beginning to wonder about Visconti. Farley Granger was speaking Italian and German; I'm not sure if he spoke either language or memorized his lines phonetically. I think the latter.
Granger's performance was just part of a larger "problem." I found the film cumbersome and could not empathize with Alida Valli's character. I was never fully convinced that her desire and obsession for Farley Granger would lead her character to do what she did. It was obvious that Granger was scamming her but she was oblivious. In real life, I've seen similar situations but I don't have much sympathy. Venturing into sexist stereotypes, I know there are women who would willingly ignore a man's significant faults in order to be with him; i.e. desperate women. Valli's Livia didn't strike me as desperate and certainly Granger's womanizing ways and pointed indifference would be enough to dissuade her from continuing the affair. However, in Visconti's film, Livia follows this path to the bitter end.
I Am Love is a bit like Senso. Tilda Swinton is the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family. She doesn't seem dissatisfied but yet she embarks on a passionate affair with a friend of her son. Of course, the affair destroys her family but by that point in the film, I was left wondering when the film would be over. The love scenes were well photographed; I particularly liked the quick cuts to close-ups of the insects.
The Music Room also put me to sleep. The first portion of the film had a number of musical performances that acted like a lullaby. However, the uptempo finale was very rousing. I'd like to see The Music Room again but not after a large meal.
Empire of Silver and Garbo the Spy were middling efforts that aren't noteworthy. Perhaps, the wolfpack scene in Empire of Silver is noteworthy for its ridiculousness.
Cracks was the debut effort of director Jordan Scott. It's a period piece set in the 1930s at a remote, all-female English boarding school. The alluring if not unhinged Miss "G" (Eva Green) is an instructor at the school. She has created a diving team which really serves as her cult following. With the help of team captain Di Radfield (Juno Temple), Miss G revels in exerting her influence on the girls.
Then Fiamma Coronna, a wealthy Spanish girl (Maria Valverde), enrolls and is housed in the diving team's dorm. Fiamma upends Miss G's applecart. Miss G loves to recount tales of her global adventures but Fiamma recognizes them as fiction because she has read the same novels. This leads to a triangle between Miss G, Fiamma & Di. It's more of a struggle for control and survival than a love triangle although at the end Miss G does takes advantage of a drunken Fiamma.
The film is entertaining even if the motivation of the characters are obscure. I'm not sure what drives Miss G to do what she does. She is an alumni of the school and seemingly comes from an impoverished background. This seems to have instilled a tremendous drive to impose her will combined with a lack of self-esteem which borders on psychosis. Eva Green tears it up on screen with chic 1930's clothing, self-mutterings, raccoon eye shadow and a crisp English accent. Slightly ess flamboyant is June Temple as Di Radfield. Bitchy, insecure, yearning for Miss G's approval and Queen B among the diving team, Di is very threatened by Fiamma.
That leaves Maria Valverde with the least thankful role. Her Fiamma is an outsider who alternately does not want to be there but her acts of kindness can never fully gain admission to the clique. Self-confident at times but frightened that her father's infidelity and true reason for her presence at the school will be exposed. Valverde creates a certain melancholy aura around Fiamma without making the character morose.
Cracks was admirable first effort.
Winter's Bone provided the biggest surprise. I backed into Winter's Bone because I wanted to see a film before Air Doll. The timing and some extra Cinevoucher credits are wholly responsible for me choosing to see Winter's Bone.
17 year old Ree Doll (Jennifer Lawrence in a great performance) is the de facto head of her family. Her father is a meth cook frequently in jail or absent. Her mother is mentally ill and noncommunicative. Ree assumes a maternal role for her two younger siblings. One day, the sheriff knocks on the door looking for Ree's father. Ree hasn't seen him to which the sheriff informs her that the old man has pledged the house to post his bond. If he doesn't show up in court in a couple of days, the bondsman will take possession of the house and evict Ree and her family.
This sets Ree on journey to find her father. At every turn, she is warned to not press the matter but Ree can't back down. She needs her father to show up in court to avoid being evicted. Slowly, the audience realizes why Ree's father is absent and why the sheriff came looking for him. Ree's father was a police informant and was killed because of it. Ree's family, friends and acquaintances are all mixed up in the meth business. They don't trust the snitch's daughter and they afford to have the young woman poking around their affairs.
Ree doesn't grow much as a character during the film as you would expect of a teenager confronting these issues. Indeed, she's the only adult in her family when the film starts. However, she shows an endless amount of courage as she encounters some frightening characters and physical violence. That's the hook for the film. How does this girl keep moving forward considering all the obstacles put in her way?
I hope Winter's Bone gets a general theatrical release because it was one of my favorites from the festival.
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