Thursday, April 4, 2013

2013 San Francisco Independent Film Festival

The 2013 San Francisco Independent Film Festival was from February 7 to 21.  Although films screened at several locations including the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, the New Parkway in Oakland and other non-theater locations, I attended screenings exclusively at the Roxie (or Little Roxie).  I ended up seeing 17 films at the festival.

The Legend of Kaspar Hauser starring Vincent Gallo; directed by Davide Manuli; Italian & English with subtitles; (2012)
Berberian Sound Studio starring Toby Jones; directed by Peter Strickland; Italian & English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Facebook
Antiviral starring Caleb Landry Jones; with Malcolm McDowell; directed by Brandon Cronenberg; (2012) - Official Website
Sightseers starring Alice Lowe & Steve Oram; directed by Ben Wheatley; (2012) - Official Facebook
The Revisionaries; directed by Scott Thurman; documentary; (2012) - Official Website
Simon Killer starring Brady Corbet & Mati Diop; directed by Antonio Campos; French & English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp directed by Jorge Hinojosa; documentary; (2012)
I Declare War starring Gage Munroe, Michael Friend, Siam Yu & Mackenzie Munro; directed by Jason Lapeyre & Robert Wilson; (2012) - Official Website
The Last Elvis starring John McInerny; directed by Armando Bo; Spanish and English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Site
The International Sign for Choking starring Zach Weintraub & Sophia Takal; directed by Zach Weintraub; Spanish & English with subtitles; (2011) - Official Blog
Ghosts with Shit Jobs; directed by Chris McCawley, Jim Morrison, Jim Munroe & Tate Young; (2012) - Official Website
Sun Don't Shine starring Kentucker Audley & Kate Lyn Sheil; directed by Amy Seimetz; (2012)
Days of Grace starring Tenoch Huerta; directed by Everardo Valerio Gout; Spanish with subtitles; (2011)
Bound By Flesh; directed by Leslie Zemeckis; documentary; (2012)
Faceless; directed by Tristan Albrecht; Spanish & English with subtitles; (2012)
Funeral Kings starring Dylan Hartigan, Alex Maizus & Jordan Puzzo; with Kevin Corrigian; directed by Kevin McManus & Matthew McManus; (2012) - Official Website
Its's a Disaster starring Julia Stiles & David Cross; with America Ferrara; directed by Todd Berger; (2012) - Official Website

Two screenings I regret missing were Born Innocent (1974) and Toys Are Not For Children (1972). Those two films were part of a program promoting Kier-la Janisse's new book called House of Psychotic Women.  I've procrastinated so long that it seems like I timed this post but the Roxie is screening two more films featured in the book.  On April 11, the Roxie screens The Mafu Cage (1978) and The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976).  Although their website does say Ms. Janisse will be attendance, it does say her book "will be available for sale during the show!"


One of my favorite films from Indiefest, Simon Killer, is opening at the Landmark Theaters (Embarcadero I believe) on April 26.  Featuring outstanding performances from Brady Corbet & Mati Diop, the film is set Paris.  American grad student Simon is visiting a distant French relative as he takes a break from school and a failed relationship.  Left on his own in Paris, Simon appears to be a meek and sympathetic type.  He visits a strip club/brothel and begins a passionate relationship with Victoria (Mati Diop).  As the relationship progresses, we see that Simon is not what he initially appeared to be.  In fact, Simon is shown to be a pathological liar, extortionist, mentally unstable and possibly a murderer.

I also enjoyed Funeral Kings.  Reminiscent of Stand By Me, the film follows a group a of altar boys.  The title is in reference to the altar boys being excused from their parochial school to serve at funerals; they ditch class for the rest of the day.  The three main characters Andy (Dylan Hartigan), Charlie (Alex Maizus) and David (Jordan Puzzo) represent different types of people.  David is the good kid; most likely to be successful as an adult.  Charlie looks to be a petty criminal in the making.  Andy will likely turn out alright if he stays away from bad influences.  The film starts out with minor transgressions such as cursing in church and going through the buffet line multiple times at a Chinese restaurant.  By the end, drug dealers and a gun are involved.  The tone of the film shifted at some point but whether comedy or drama, I was entertained.  The boys got off easy in the end although there is a sense that their fates are already determined.

I Declare War features an all child cast.  The premise is that a group of boys play "war" in the woods near their neighborhood.  There are specific rules they established; the games is essentially capture the flag.  They use branches, toys and water balloons filled with dye as weapons.   The director sometimes shows the children with actual weapons firing live ammunition for some of the more intense moments.  It makes for disturbing imagery as we see children firing assault rifles and pistols at each other.   At it essence, the film explores the interpersonal relationships between the boys (and one girl).  Like Funeral Kings, the personalities of the kids are writ large.  One is a heartless leader who will sacrifice his friendship for the goal of winning the game, the girl uses her feminine charms without shame, another boy has feet of clay, etc.  The film ratchets up the tension quite nicely considering the audience knows these are boys playing a game.  I thought the film was very creative and well made for what was likely a small budget.

The final film I saw at IndieFest was Its's a Disaster.  I noticed it is available on Comcast/Xfinity On Demand.  The film is centered on four couples who meet for a Sunday brunch.  During the meal, a dirty bomb is set off a few miles away and they are ordered to shelter-in-place.  They duct tape and hunker down but as the lethality of their situation becomes apparent, they re-examine their lives and relationships.  It's pretty bleak stuff but Its's a Disaster is a comedy and very funny one at that.  The ensemble cast is uniformly good in their roles and although some situations are forced (one couple "swings") much of the humor is derived from the surreality of the apocalyptic afternoon.

The Last Elvis was a tremendous film which surprised me given the lead character was an Elvis impersonator played by an actor (John McInerny) who is an Elvis impersonator.  I probably like Elvis' songs more than most but that won't cut it for a feature film.  As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about.  Although McInerny's singing was spot on, it was his acting that was most impressive.  With a name like John McInerny, I wonder if he is fluent in Spanish.  His performance indicates he is although it would be truly incredible if he was phonetically reciting his lines.  McInerny plays Carlos Gutiérrez, a washing machine factory worker by day and Elvis impersonator by night.  He is more than an impersonator, he has nearly subsumed himself in his idolatry.  His marriage failed because of his obsession (he even named his daughter Lisa Marie).  He is about to go on tour but a car accident hospitalizes his ex-wife and Carlos must care for Lisa Marie.  This forces Carlos to reassess his life.  Let's just say, he chooses an unusual course of action which culminates at Graceland.

Sightseers was a dark comedy about murder and repressed passions.  The two leads Alice Lowe & Steve Oram make for an unlikely cinematic couple but they make an memorable impression in at inventive comedy directed by Ben Wheatley.


Bradley Smith, the producer of The International Sign for Choking, made an insightful comment after the screening of his film.  Paraphrasing his comments, he said "Mumblecore used to be about a bunch of over-educated  under-employed actors in New York talking about anything and everything...but its moved beyond that."   There were at least three films associated with mumblecore stalwarts on the Indiefest schedule - The International Sign for Choking, Sun Don't Shine and All the Light in the Sky (which I saw a few days after Indiefest ended at the Roxie's Joe Swanberg retrospective).  I enjoyed all three which is quite a revelation for me.  The Roxie is giving Sun Don't Shine a weeklong run starting May 17.

The International Sign for Choking is about a romance that never was.  The film's director, Zach Weintraub, is also the lead actor.  He plays opposite the prolific Sophia Takal.  In the past 18 months or so, I have seen six films which she has appeared in.  Filmed and set in Buenos Aires (although the location does not play a major role in the film), Weintraub and Takal are American expatriates who meet, are attracted and ultimately go their own way.  Weintraub's Josh is ostensibly in Argentina to scout film or commercial locations but his real purpose appears to be to track down an ex-girlfriend.  In the "boarding house" he resides is Anna (Takal), an American with whom he develops mutual attraction.  In one scene, he subtly ends the nascent relationship without nary a reaction from Anna.  That sounds like the worst of mumblecore but as Smith alluded to and Weintraub has executed, The International Sign for Choking has moved beyond mumblecore.

First, there are several instance where Weintraub uses a static camera shot to frame his scenes.  The effect is Ozu-esque given the über-elliptical plot.  Sometimes, the actors faces are partially (or completely) out of camera range.  There must have been a lot of planning to achieve these shots and block the scenes.  Many of the scenes have Takal and/or Weintraub sitting against flowery wallpaper communicating with each other non-verbally through their shared bedroom wall.  The visual composition of the film is deliberate and betrays any notion of haphazard film-making.  Contemplative and measured, The International Sign for Choking, is an impressive film from Weintraub.

Sun Don't Shine is outright noir. Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) are young lovers on the run.  They're not quite on the run; they are actually trying to establish an alibi because they just killed Crystal's husband and dumped him in the bayou or swamps.  Leo's alibi involves spending time with an older woman.  Crystal is suspicious of the exact nature of their relationship.  The duo is doomed but not by the woman's duplicity and connivance but by her "weakness."  Sheil gives the best performance of the half dozen films I've seen her act.


I watched a trio of engaging documentaries.

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp was a biodoc of the world's most famous pimp.  Actually, I can only name two pimps - Iceberg Slim and Archbishop Don "Magic" Juan.  Filled with soundbites from rap stars and comics, Iceberg Slim recounts Robert Beck's life and his impact on popular culture.  Rappers and African American men have been influenced by Beck's books from the 1970s.  His first book, the autobiographical Pimp: The Story of My Life was intended as a cautionary tale but some have used as an instructional guide for pimping.  Having heard of this book for years, I decided to read it for myself after watching the film.  It is harrowing at times and definitely reminded me of Native Son.  As is often the case, I liked the book better than the film although Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp is not an adaption of Pimp: The Story of My Life.  The Big Roxie was close to sold out for the screening I attended.

Bound By Flesh is about Daisy and Violet Hilton, famous Siamese twins from stage and vaudeville in the 1920s.  They appeared in Tod Browning's Freaks (1931) and the infamous Chained for Life (1951).  It's hard to imagine an uninteresting film about Siamese twins but Bound By Flesh doesn't add much to the Hilton sisters' story - sham marriages for publicity, pregnancy, legal battles to get married, partying with the celebrities of the Jazz Age, vast wealth, exploitation, lost fortunes, etc.  The Hilton sisters had a tough life and the film didn't do much except give a recitation of their lives.

The Revisionaries could also be called the Texas Textbook Massacre.  It follows a few members of the Texas State Board of Education as they wrangle over textbook standards with respect to creationism (or intelligent design) vs. evolution.  It was fascinating to watch and frightening to contemplate.


The quality of films at this year's Indiefest  was quite high.  The following films were fair to middling but most of them had something interesting.

I was unfamiliar with Kaspar Hauser before seeing The Legend of Kaspar Hauser.  It would have been helpful to know the story beforehand although the Indiefest programmer (Kier-la Janisse, I believe) gave a brief summary of the life of Kaspar Hauser.  I'm not sure what to make of the film - there were UFOs, Kaspar Hauser was played by a woman & Vincent Gallo played one of his roles as if he was tweaking on meth.  Absurd?  Certainly.  Riveting?  Actually, my attention flagged at times.  Memorable?  Two months later, I can recall specific scenes, the soundtrack was amazing and  I can still remember the catchphrase from the film - Io sono Kaspar Hauser!

Berberian Sound Studio was billed as homage to 1970s Italian giallo and Brian De Palma films.  Toby James plays Gilderoy, a British sound mixer who goes to Italy to work on a horror film.  Gilderoy is the person who adds sound effects when someone is stabbed or burned alive.  He encounters crassness and oddness among his Italian hosts.  He seems to go off the deep edge...or is it really happening to him?  The film seemed to be searching for an ending and decided to leave the matter unsettled.  For about 45 minutes, the film firing on all cylinders before it coasted to an unsatisfying ending.

Days of Grace was a stylish film with three independent stories, featuring the same characters, set four years apart.  The televised World Cup soccer matches serve as markers for which timeline the audience is watching.  Set in Mexico City and focusing on the conflict between the cops and drug gangs, I had a difficult time keeping the timelines straight which seemed to be the intent of the director. There was a lot of violence and a Leonesque three way showdown at the end, the film was long on sizzle and short on steak.

Antiviral - a film directed by David  Cronenberg's son.  In the near future, celebrity worship is taken to such extremes that the latest fad is to be infected with the same virus as your favorite celebrity; i.e. isolate the bacteria from a celebrity, replicate it & sell it the public.  I just couldn't get into it.

Ghosts with Shit Jobs - a futuristic scifi where China and the US (or was it Canada?) have switched labor roles; cheap labor is in the US.  One of the characters had a job to go back in virtual reality to erase brand names.  The film bored me and I lost focus for long stretches.

Faceless - an unengaging documentary about undocumented workers at the World Trade Center on 9/11.  Interesting premise but much of the film was spent documenting the how and the why of illegal immigration into this country from Mexico.  I didn't learn much nor was I entertained.

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