Tuesday, July 2, 2013

2013 San Francisco International Film Festival (2 of 2)

As I mentioned, I enjoyed most of the films I saw at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).  Let me get the ones I didn't like out of the way.

Outrage Beyond was the sequel to Outrage which I saw at the 2011 SFIFF.  I was luke warm about the original but decided to give the sequel a try based on largely on Takeshi Kitano's reputation.  I think he was credited as Takeshi Kitano as director and Beat Takeshi for his role as an actor or vice versa.  Much like the first film, Outrage Beyond dragged at times.  Takeshi doesn't really cover much new ground in the sequel and he does so with less violent panache than the original.

Cold War is a big budget Hong Kong action/thriller with Aaron Kwok & Tony Leung Ka-fai in the lead roles as two high ranking cops with an eye on the Chief Superintendent job.  With a big cast and lots of twists and turns, I lost track and ultimately lost interest in the film.

Big Sur was the second Jack Kerouac film I had seen in as many months.  In March I saw On the Road.  On the Road was written when Kerouac was in his 20s.  Big Sur was written as Kerouac was closing in on 40.  The narrative structure of both films left me a little confused.  As I write this two months after seeing the film and with no notes of that particular film, I struggle to remember the film.  I do recall the scenes at the cabin the woods but overall the film did not leave a lasting impression on me..

Dom: A Russian Family was an interesting study about a family on the Russian steppes.  A little melodramtic, Dom was marred by a ridiculous ending involving a old man in a wheelchair.  The ending was so bad that it eclipsed anything good that came before it.

Chimeras was a documentary about two Chinese artists - one established and successful, the other trying to make a name for himself.  I never really got into the film; the subject matter, the pacing, the cultural differences were more than I could overcome.  I also saw the film towards the end of the festival so there was some cinematic fatigue on my part.

Byzantium was director Neil Jordan's return to the vampire genre (he directed Interview With the Vampire).  Nice performances by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as the mother-daughter duo but ultimately I found the plot to be ho-hum.

I guess The Mattei Affair should go here.  As I mentioned, the screening I attended was marred by subtitling issues.  I couldn't follow the plot which made it the most frustrating film experience of the festival.  I would very much like to see the film again (contingent on the subtitling working properly). There was one remarkable scene I can remember vividly.  A journalist interviews oil magnate Enrico Mattei as he travels around the world.  The interview is strung together as they change locales from offshore oil platforms to Arabian deserts, etc.  The effect was a bravura directorial and editing performance.


I am hard pressed to choose one film as my favorite of the 2013 SFIFF.

Penance is an addictive, five hour, Japanese film about a young girl whose unsolved murder affects her four childhood friends.  Originally, a five part miniseries, the film focuses on each of the four in their adulthood while the fifth hour focuses on the victim's mother and her attempts to find the killer.  The final hour was a bit of letdown but the four hours which preceded it were inspired melodrama.  The four girls have coped with the trauma in different ways.  One is sexually repressed, another uses self-discipline to mask her inner pain, the third girl has shut herself off from the world and the final girl is sexually aggressive (sleeping with her brother-in-law).  Sakura Ando (Sion Sono's Love Exposure) was especially memorable as the semi-reclusive young woman who discovers something unsettling about her older brother.  Yu Aoi, Eiko Koike & Chizuru Ikewaki also acquit themselves well in portraying the young women dealing with the emotional fallout of their childhood friend's murder.

The Daughter is a very powerful film about Inna (outstanding performance by Mariya Smolnikova), an adolescent coming of age in a small town in Russia.  She becomes friendly with a free-spirited girl (nice performance by Yana Osipova) who has just moved to town.  Tragedy strikes when the new girl is found murdered but the situation goes from bad to inconceivable when Inna's father is revealed to be a serial killer (and rapist?).  Adding to the complexity is that Inna has a crush on the town priest's son but the priest has taken Inna's father's confession but is bound by clergy-penitent confidentiality.  The film focuses more on Inna than her father or his crimes so we get the coming-of-age story through the perverse prism of being the daughter of a serial killer.

Populaire has a ridiculous premise but its late 1950s savoir-faire and winning performances by the leads carry the film.  Romain Duris is Louis, a successful small businessman who sponsors and trains his secretaries to compete in speed typewriting competitions.  His latest protégé is Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), a small town girl who dreams of escaping her father's general store and becoming a secretary.  After some initial bumpiness, Louis and Rose hit their stride - as coach and "athlete" as well as romantically.  "Delightful" is the word which most comes to mind in describing this comedy.  Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) is très chic as Louis' childhood sweetheart who ended marrying an American paratrooper she met on D-Day.  Mélanie Bernier is also memorable as the self-assured French speed typewriting champion cum crowd sensation.

Our Homeland is a fictional account of a strange but true period of North Korean history.  In the 1970s, North Korea was viewed as utopian by some diasporic Koreans living Japan.  Unstated in the film was that most of the Koreans were likely living in Japan due to forced labor during WWII.  Sonho (Arata Iura) is a North Korean repatriate.  Sent back to North Korea as a teenage boy, Sonho has returned to Japan to seek medical treatment for a brain tumor.  Reunited with his family during his stay, Sonho has been profoundly affected by his time in North Korea.  Sakura Ando (Penance) shines as Rie, Sonho's younger and free-spirited sister.  Although his medical condition is real, Sonho's primary (if not voluntary) mission is recruit spies from his former circle of friends and family.  Heartbreaking but filled with impressive performances, Our Homeland struck a chord with me.

Juvenile Offender is a South Korean film about the pernicious inter-generational effects of poverty and poor parenting.  Young Ju Seo is the eponymous teenager and Jung-hyun Lee is his mother whom he thought dead.  Both are beset with personal troubles and their reunion only adds to their problems.  Immature and unable to keep a job, the mother offer little in the way of stability which could benefit the young man.  Neither mother or son seem capable of helping themselves much less each other due to their economic circumstances and emotional immaturity.  Understandable and even forgivable in the boy, the mother is proof the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  Jung-hyun Lee is stupendous as the likable and vexing mother and Young Ju Seo holds his own as the troubled teen.  There was nothing exploitative in the film which the title may imply but the criticism of the two lead characters and Korean society in general was loud and clear.  I found the film to be very thought provoking.

Afternoon Delight appears to be a sex comedy but slowly morphs in a character study.  Kathryn Hahn is Rachel, a good-natured, upper middle class, Jewish mother.  Her life revolves around volunteer activities at her daughter's school.  Having sexual problems with her husband, Rachel is seeing a therapist (very funny supporting role by Jane Lynch) but ultimately decides to spice up her sex life by visiting a strip club with her husband, best friend Stephanie (Jessica St. Clair) and Stephanie's husband.  While having a lap dance with stripper McKenna (Juno Temple), Rachel becomes very uncomfortable.  I thought she had latent homosexual tendencies but in fact, McKenna has stirred sexual feelings in Rachel which will lead to very painful repressed memories.  Eventually, Rachel invites McKenna to live with her and her family...much to the dismay of her husband and Stephanie.  Thinking McKenna's job and lifestyle will reinvigorate her own libido, Rachel forms an unusually close relationship with the younger woman.  Ultimately, Rachel reveals being raped in college in a funny and painful drunken baby shower scene.  At the same time, Rachel's attitude towards McKenna has shifted to one of contempt.  Picking up on Rachel's change in attitude, McKenna reacts in a drunken, hypersexualized seduction of group of middle-aged men including Rachel & Stephanie's husbands.  Afternoon Delight takes a pretty dark turn about 75% of the way in which for me, elevated the film immeasurably.  Strong performances by the lead actors and an innovative variation of a familiar theme made this one of my favorites of the festival.

The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is a documentary about magician Ricky Jay.  My earliest memories of Ricky Jay are from Boogie Nights and an episode of The X-Files.  The X-Files was one of my favorite television series.  Anyway, Ricky Jay has been around a lot longer than the late 1990s.  The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay showed a clip of Jay on Dinah Shore's talk show.  That clip was so old that Steve Martin had dark hair in the clip.  In fact, Ricky Jay (real name Richard Jay Potash) was a child performer who made his first TV appearance at age five.  As much a raconteur as a magician, Jay is an appealing performer and clearly a master of his craft.  As the title of the film eludes to, much of the screen time is dedicated to magicians who befriended Jay in youth and taught him how to be a magician.  The film is definitely about the magician...not the magic but Jay is such an interesting character that I was riveted throughout.  At the end of the film, Jay recites a poem written for him by children's book author Shel Silverstein.  As delivered by Jay and written by Silverstein, the poem was worth the price of admission alone.


Just a notch below in enjoyment and esteem are the following films.

The Kings of Summer - quirky comedy about three teenage boys who runaway from home to live in the nearby woods.  A little uneven but highlighted with offbeat performances by Nick Offerman as the father of one of the boys and Moises Arias as the oddest of the three boys.

Thérèse - Audrey Tautou as I've never seen her before.  As the dissatisfied but wealthy housewife in 1920s France, Tautou as Thérèse seeks to escape her stultifying and intellectually unchallenging life.  What begins as an accident eventually becomes attempted murder by arsenic poisoning.

Pearblossom Hwy - I think this was a sequel to Littlerock which played at the 2010 SFIFF.  The director (Mike Ott) is the same for both films; the screenwriters (Ott and Atsuko Okatsuka) are the same; the lead actors (Okatsuka & Cory Zacharia) are the same; etc.  However, there are slight differences which makes me wonder.  Okatsuka & Zacharia who plays characters with the same first name as the actors, are friends in a small California town.  Along with Cory's older brother, they take a road trip to San Francisco to meet Cory's estranged father.  Atsuko is living with a Japanese family but pines to return to Japan to visit her grandmother.  For reasons unstated, her family does not want her to return to Japan.  Atsuko makes money on the side by prostitution; presumably to save money for her return to Japan.  Cory has an ambiguous sexuality (and ingratiating voice) as well unresolved issues with his "father."  Light on plot, long of character study, Pearblossom Hwy is less than fully satisfying but not without its moments.

Key of Life - a contrived but effective Japanese comedy about a loser actor and successful assassin who exchange identities when the actor takes advantage of the hitman's amnesia.  Too clever by a couple of plot twists, I still laughed quite a bit.

You're Next - a slasher film with a cast of notable independent film actors and directors (including Joe Swanberg).  With some dark comedy and metareferences, I'll call You're Next a postmodern Scream.  

Fill The Void - I chose this film strictly because it filled the time slot between Cold War and Our Homeland.  The story is about an orthodox Jewish rabbi's family who must cope with the death of their eldest daughter.  When the widower hints that he will remarry and move away with his daughter, his former mother-in-law conspires to have her youngest daughter marry him.  I'm not sure how realistic that is.  It kind of reminds of biblical stories of the younger brother marrying the elder brother's widow.  The film provided fascinating glimpse into this foreign world of orthodox Jews.  

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time features an incredible performance by Choi Min-sik, a mid-level, South Korean customs officer who uses his family connections and chutzpah to climb the ladder of organized crime.  The plot was a little confusing but I couldn't take my attention away from Choi.

Eight Deadly Shots - a Finnish television miniseries presented as 5+ hour program at the request of 2013 Mel Novikoff Award winner Peter von Bagh.  Alcoholism, moonshining, harsh conditions and small town attitudes create a deadly environment which results in the death of four policeman.  Director Mikko Niskanen also stars as the killer.  There is a memorable scene where Niskanen struggles for 15 minutes to get his horse unstuck from the snow.  The film proceeds at a measured pace but never bores.

Il Futuro - I'm not sure what to make of this film.  An orphaned teenage boy and his older sister come into the sphere of two bodybuilders/petty criminals in Rome.  They plot to rob a blind recluse, Rutger Hauer as a former sword-and-sandal movie star.  In order to gain his trust, the older sister (Manuela Martelli) prostitutes herself as she looks for the key to the locked room with his riches.  She didn't count on developing feelings for the older man.   The ending was abrupt as the criminal scheme is just dropped.  Nice performance by Martelli who calls Hauer's character "Maciste" ...a reference I am familiar with from attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Big Blue Lake - a Chinese actress returns to Hong Kong to visit her mother but discovers the older woman is beginning to suffer from dementia.  While dealing with her own stalled career and her mother's condition, the woman reconnects with friends from her youth and reconsiders her past and future.

Rosie - in this gentle comedy, a successful gay author returns home to care for his ailing mother whose ailment appears to be excessive alcohol consumption.  Dealing with his stubborn mother and a young one-night stand who won't go away are more difficult than he imagined.  

Memories Look at Me - blurring the lines between fiction and documentary; actress/director Song Fang "cast" her actual parents as her on-screen parents.  Similar to Big Blue Lake, Memories Look at Me deals with the inevitable aging of one's parents and by reflection, oneself.  Somber and honest, I was impressed by Memories Look at Me.

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