Sunday, April 19, 2015

2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (Rump Sessions)

Several films which screened at last year's San Francisco International Film Festival received a limited release afterwards.

Palo Alto starring James Franco & Emma Roberts; directed by Gia Coppola; (2014) - Official Website
The Double starring  Jesse Eisenberg & Mia Wasikowska; directed by Richard Ayoade; (2013) - Official Website
Chinese Puzzle starring Romain Duris & Audrey Tautou; directed by Cédric Klapisch; French & English with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
We Are the Best! starring Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin & Liv LeMoyne; directed by Lukas Moodysson; Swedish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Obvious Child starring Jenny Slate & Jake Lacy; directed by Gillian Robespierre; (2013) - Official Website
Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson; directed by John Michael McDonagh; (2013) - Official Website
The Skeleton Twins starring Kristen Wiig & Bill Hader; directed by Craig Johnson; (2013) - Official Website

I saw all of these films at Landmark Theater locations.  I saw Palo Alto & The Skeleton Twins at the Guild in Menlo Park.  I saw The Double & Calvary at the Shattuck in Berkeley.  I saw Chinese Puzzle, We Are the Best! & Obvious Child at the Embarcadero Cinemas.

Before I forget, the Shattuck Cinemas are being threatened with closure due to a housing project being planned for the site.  If you oppose this, there is a petition you can sign and there is a Save the Shattuck Facebook page.


So much time has passed since I saw these films that I should be ashamed but I'll do my best to plumb the depths of my memory.  Fortunately, I have a few handwritten notes.

Palo Alto held standard teenage plotlines.  Set in an upscale high school, the teenagers drink & have sex; although one gets a DUI and another has sex with a teacher/coach.  Emma Roberts gives the standout performance as the confused and insecure teenager who careens from one boy to another to a grown man (James Franco).  Other than being Gia Coppola's (daughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia) debut feature, Palo Alto is indistinguishable from other reasonably well made films of this genre.

The Double is based on a Dostoyevsky novel.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James and his doppelgänger James Simon.  Simon James is largely ignored by society.  When James Simon starts working at Simon James' workplace, Simon feels his own marginalization growing.  James Simon is assertive, charming and the center of attention.  No one seems to notice the resemblance between the two men except themselves.  Darkly humorous and surreal, The Double portrays the duo as both separate individuals as well as two versions of the same person.  The film reminded me of Gogol's works of absurdist tragicomedy.

While reading the synopsis for Chinese Puzzle, I learned it was part of the Spanish Apartment trilogy.  Surprising myself, I recall reading the review of The Spanish Apartment (2002), a film set in Spain about college students from various countries.  The characters were representative of French perceptions of their respective national consciousnesses.  Chinese Puzzle revisits several of these characters including Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France & Kelly Reilly.  I have a strong sense that my viewing of Chinese Puzzle would have benefited if I had seen The Spanish Apartment or its follow-up Russian Dolls. A comedy, Chinese Puzzle has women from Romain Duris' past (as chronicled in The Spanish Apartment & Russian Dolls) converging on his new life in New York.  As Xavier, Duris has a full plate - he is publishing a highly autobiographical novel, he is in a sham marriage to get a US Green Card, he agrees to be a sperm donor for a lesbian friend and his ex-girlfriend shows up from France for a visit.  It's a rollicking good time but I often felt that I was missing context and backstory of their characters' interactions.

We Are the Best! is a Swedish film based on director Lukas Moodysson's wife's (Coco) comic strip. Set in the 1980s, the film follows three outcast teenage girls.  They do what any girl of that era would do in their situation, they form a punk rock band.  Their anthem (and only song) is Hate the Sport!  The rebellious Klara (Mira Grosin) and her only friend, the androgynous looking Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are the misfits of their school.  They decide to form a band mostly to spite their tormentors by taking away studio rehearsal time from them.  Neither can play or sing.  They decide to bring in a ringer, their classmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who is a guitar virtuoso (virtuosa?).  Despite being a sweet-natured film, We Are the Best! captures the punk rock ethos throughout and punctuates it with the band's debut performance where they get jeered off the stage.

 Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar & Mira Grosin (l-r) in We Are the Best!
Obvious Child exceeded my expectations.  Has anyone noticed that a lot of films are set in Brooklyn lately?  Anyway, Donna (Jenny Slate) is bookstore worker by day and stand-up comedienne by night.  She one of these types of comics that can make the pain of her life seem amusing; adroitly straddling the line pathos and comedy.  At the beginning of the film, her boyfriend breaks up with her because he is tired of their life being used as fodder for her skits.  She has a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) which results in her pregnancy.  From this unusual point that Obvious Child operates.  To turn up the awkwardness factor, Donna decides to get an abortion and date Max.  As you can imagine, the film turns on Slate's performance which is stupendous.  She conveys a ballsy persona for her stage act and everyday life which gets chipped away by circumstances; eventually revealing a vulnerable young woman.

Calvary features another great performance by Brendan Gleeson as Father James, an Irish Catholic priest who is having a bad week.  In the confessional booth, a parishioner promises to kill Father James in a  few days in response to being sexually abused by a priest.  The threat is made against Father James because the original abuser is already dead and it would be more tragic to kill a good man like Father James.  Father James is not your ordinary priest.  He was married and has a grown daughter before being ordained a Catholic priest.  His daughter (Kelly Reilly) has recently attempted suicide and their relationship is strained.  The townsfolk seem hostile towards Father James; his dog's throat ends up being cut.  The anonymous threatener's sexual abuse was likely not an isolated incident.  Father James tends to his flock as best he can as the days count down to the day his parishioner said he would kill him.  For good measure, Father James is a recovering alcoholic and the stress of the situation has put his sobriety to the test.  Gleeson portrays Father James as weary but dedicated priest coping with hostility that is directed towards him as the local representative of the Catholic church.  Somehow, Calvary expertly mixes in some humor within this premise.

The Skeleton Twins is about twin siblings Milo (Bill Hader) & Maggie (Kristen Wiig)...and no their last name is not Skeleton.  As the film begins, Maggie is about to attempt suicide by swallowing a handful of pills but is interrupted by a phone call informing her that Milo has been hospitalized following an unsuccessful suicide attempt of his own.  She flies out to LA where Milo is a failed actor to care for him.  She eventually convinces him to stay with her and her husband (Luke Wilson) in their upstate New York hometown during his convalescence.  I should probably note that Milo is gay and the true love of his life is Rich, his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell).  Maggie exposed their affair while they were in school and Rich lost his job.  He is now married, has a teenage son, runs a bookstore and is extremely surprised to see Milo.  Maggie and her husband are trying to have children but Maggie is sabotaging the effort by secretly taking birth control pills and having an affair with her scuba diving instructor.  Hader and Wiig were formerly Saturday Night Live performers and best known as comedians but bother deliver strong dramatic performances as the emotionally fragile siblings.  One scene with Joanna Gleason as their passive-aggressive New Age mother tells the story of the roots of the siblings' dysfunction and estrangement from each other.  Ultimately the film is about two people who are very uncomfortable with the lives they have made for themselves and are only able to share their discomfort with their womb-mate.  I thought The Skeleton Twins was a poignantly sad story with moments of levity interspersed.

We Are the Best!, Calvary, The Skeleton Twins and to slightly lesser extent Obvious Child were tremendous films that I recommend.

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